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Posts Tagged ‘Bello books’

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Every now and then I read a review of a novel – where the reader admits to not having liked the book because they didn’t like the character(s). While I understand that readers need to be able to engage with characters on some level, I never feel I have to actually like them – I often find unlikeable characters fascinating. Nevertheless, I feel I should issue you with a warning – if you don’t engage with unlikeable characters – steer well clear of Narcissa.

In Stella Markham, Richmal Crompton has created a monstrous narcissist, hiding behind a constantly evolving role that she has perfected. There is a lot that is unsettling about this novel, Richmal Crompton has created a character who – though perhaps not very subtly drawn – is horrifying and just real enough to haunt the reader after the book is closed. I admit I could barely put it down.

We first meet Stella in 1887, when she is just a little girl. Seemingly, a perfect Victorian child, Stella was orphaned when she was quite tiny, and lives with her Aunt Fanny. Fanny adores Stella, is inordinately proud of her – desperate to save her from the desolate kind of childhood she herself endured. Most of Stella’s days, are spent alone with Fanny in her large, gracious home in Runeham, where Fanny strives to teach Stella herself. There comes a point when Fanny decides, somewhat reluctantly that Stella needs a governess, Fanny has been finding it harder to teach her – and so it is with some nervousness that she engages Miss Fairway. Miss Fairway is a sensible, experienced middle-aged woman, weary from a succession of dull posts, she is soon under the spell of this loveliest of children too. For a time, the household is perfectly happy, Miss Fairway is blissfully happy in her new post, dimly aware that little Stella is very good at diverting her governess away from the things she doesn’t enjoy learning – like division and historical dates. The summer slips along perfectly pleasantly– until, that is, things don’t go Stella’s way. There comes a day when suddenly, Miss Fairway finds her view of Stella utterly changed.

“She thought of Stella, so sweet and docile and affectionate and suddenly she realised that though she had believed herself supremely happy in this house, there was nothing she so much wanted as to get away from it, nothing she so much longed for as a rough, noisy, naughty, normal child….”

The few playmates who are occasionally invited worship Stella too. There is Hugh Carlswell – the son of Sir Miles and Lady Carlswell – already a young squire in the making, though one with the beginnings of a social conscience – he wants to do things differently from his father. Biddy is the vicar’s daughter, endlessly untidy, badly dressed and with a mop of red hair – Biddy is slavishly devoted to her beautiful little friend. Paul Sanders is the son of a school master – though his mother (seen by ‘society’ as impossible) means Fanny doesn’t really consider him a suitable friend – though she acknowledges he is a perfectly nice, well-spoken child. Paul adores Stella too, to him she is nothing short of perfection and Stella is kind to him accepting of his society. When Biddy’s cousin Doreen comes to stay, Biddy can’t wait to introduce her to Stella. But, Doreen isn’t so easily beguiled by Stella – and sees something in her that the others can’t.

“‘Isn’t she sweet?’ said Biddy enthusiastically as the two little girls walked back to the Vicarage. ‘Isn’t she just as sweet as I told you she was?
‘She’s terribly pretty’ said Doreen slowly.
‘I don’t mean only that.’ Said Biddy, ‘she’s so kind…wasn’t she lovely to Paul Sanders, just because he’s well – he’s quite a common boy and hadn’t been asked there?’
‘Y-yes,’ agreed Doreen judicially, ‘but she was – being her person.’
‘What on earth do you mean?’
‘I’m not quite sure, but she’s got a person – a lot of people have you know – and she – well, she does her person.’
‘Do you mean that you think she’s really different from what she seems?’ asked Biddy. Her small round face was pink with indignation at the idea.
Doreen was silent again. She considered the question thoughtfully, impersonally.
‘No… I daresay she’s the same as her person quite often, but she likes watching herself being it.’”

We follow Stella as she grows up into a beautiful young woman, caring for her ailing aunt – young men vying for her attentions. She marries, has two children, her life taking her away from Runeham. As the years pass, poor, gullible Biddy is astounded by the number of people who seem to be unkind to Stella, who don’t seem to appreciate her goodness, the sacrifices she has made for her family. Stella is obliged to move her family around from place to place – each move seems to make the family poorer – and in every place, there is someone who Stella doesn’t like. Everywhere, Stella plays her part, whatever role she has assigned herself she plays it to the full, sacrificing everyone she loves to her own vanity.

“I don’t think that people are people to her any longer. They’re just mirrors. If she can see the right picture of herself in them, she likes them. If she can’t, she dislikes them.”

Stella is a remarkable creation – and Crompton’s storytelling here is hugely compelling. Certainly, this novel is not as nostalgically cosy as Leadon Hill or The Old Man’s Birthday – which I read a couple of years ago – or as perfect as A Family Roundabout. Narcissa is altogether more unsettling, a page turner – where the reader has little hope of a happy ending.

richmal crompton

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checkmate2

My second read for Mary Hocking reading week was Checkmate first published in 1969. A novel with fascinating complex characters, mystery and a superb sense of place I was gripped by it immediately. Several of Mary Hocking’s later novels explore issues of mental illness – and in the portrayal of one particularly disturbing character in Checkmate – we see what can result from years of jealously, fear and disappointment.

“The wind raided the French windows. There was something imperious about it, as though someone was demanding entry and would not be long denied. Catherine sat very straight in the middle of the couch; her head was still as though held in a vice, but her eyes looked round the room, expecting something to happen, hoping to forestall it. She looked at the antimacassar on the back of the winged armchair; it was a fine example of tatting and had a swan as centrepiece. She had never examined it carefully before, although it was so familiar; the swan had an exceedingly long neck, she was not sure whether it had always been as long as that. She switched her gaze sharply to the mantelpiece. Sure enough, the heavy serpentine clock had moved nearer to the edge. The wind buffeted the windows in a surge of frustration. Catherine looked at the angel which swirled above the clock, the angel was blowing a trumpet the end of which had been broken off. She was not sure how long the trumpet had been broken. Grit fell in the hearth and a little soot puffed into the room. She clenched her hands; they should have had the chimney bricked up long ago. Then, behind her, something clattered down.”

Polwithian, Cornwall is the setting for this complex, romantic thriller – a village where strangers stand out a mile. Huddled along a muddy estuary, it is well off the tourist tack. The Jory family have been living on their farm – which stands apart from the rest of the village – for decades. A strange, reserved family – they keep themselves to themselves. Silas Jory isn’t a farmer however – he’s a solicitor’s clerk – and twenty years earlier he had shocked the community when he returned from the war with a Syrian wife.

“In 1948 Melita Jory ran away with a stranger and was not heard of again. Her mother-in-law went into mourning. Rhoda Penryn said that she did this because she liked black; it was certain she had never liked Melita.”

It is eighteen years since Melita went away; leaving her young daughter Anna behind, Anna a young woman now, still lives at the farm, which has no electricity – with her father, grandmother and Catherine, her father’s troubled cousin.
As the novel opens a stranger arrives in Polwithian – with questions about the Jory’s and Melita in particular. His presence serves to rake up old stories, unearthing secrets and rousing passions, jealousies and violence.

checkmateGabriel – the minister’s awkward son is friends with Anna Jory – they walk together while Gabriel tells her about the birds he sees. Gabriel; an unhappy young boy is not impressed with the stranger – his only welcome is to push him into the wall of the jetty, telling him sharply to leave. Gabriel Harkness will later watch jealously as Anna and the stranger begin to draw closer. Who is this man? Richard Oliver – at first he claims to be representing lawyers acting for Melita’s family.
As Richard begins to become a more familiar figure in the village, the locals start to ask questions about what happened to Melita. Did she go away with someone – or did she leave on her own? Rhoda finds it hard to believe that Melita would have left Anna – convinced she would have returned for her child had she been able. Rumour about Mr Harkness – the minister rise to the surface again – he’d been instructing Melita in Christianity at the time she disappeared. Is Richard’s interest in Anna entirely appropriate?

“The birds no longer had the scene to themselves. A girls was sitting on the rock that jutted furthest out; she sat with her legs curled under her body, contemplating the sea, as much in her element as the oystercatcher on the adjacent rock. She came often, probably every morning, he was sure of that; she was so much a part of the scene. He wondered how she had got there. While he was thinking about this he realised that he was in no doubt about her identity. How she had got there might be a mystery, but he was quite certain whence she had come. He found himself unexpectedly moved by this knowledge. She had been so completely overlooked: they had spoked of Silas, of old Mrs Jory and Catherine, reluctantly they had remembered Melita, nut no one had thought to mention Anna Jory.”

Memories of Melita haunt Silas – and Catherine’s behaviour becomes more and more erratic as Richard manages to manoeuvre his way into staying at the Jory farm – where everyone goes to bed at eight o’clock and the nights are very long and dark.

There is tension and mystery in this novel, it reminded me a little of Look stranger – another Mary Hocking novel which portrays a community living somewhat apart from the rest of society. The reader is not certain who to trust in this novel – relationships are complex – often uncomfortable. Mary Hocking reading week

Richard Oliver – the stranger – as often strangers do in literature – brings change to this quiet community. Eighteen years of memories and suspicions are brought to the surface, before the truths are finally revealed. There is both subtlety and tension in this novel which make it a really good page turner.

Mary hocking typing

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visitorstothecrescent

Welcome to Mary Hocking week. During the next week I hope some of us can celebrate the work of Mary Hocking who died too soon to see her work being made available again.

Mary Hocking reading weekI am fortunate to own – in a variety of old paperback and hardback editions – all but one of Mary Hocking’s novels. Most of them are ex-library editions, two are first editions, and two are signed. The only one I didn’t have (but will continue to search for) is Visitors to the Crescent. Therefore it was that one I immediately purchased for my kindle upon the release of the first twelve Mary Hocking books to the catalogue of Bello books print on demand and ebooks. ( I have since purchased a few others – in case I decide to read them on kindle instead – other people do this sort of thing too don’t they?).

I have come to realise that not all Mary Hocking novels can be neatly pigeon-holed – although having read a large number there are characteristics I recognise. I am glad about this – a new Mary Hocking is always something of a discovery, thankfully she was fairly prolific. (I still have eight Mary Hocking to look forward to – what will I do when they’ve all been read?).

Visitors to the Crescent is a psychological thriller, and spy story with a difference – though presented with all the deftness of excellent characterisation, that I have come to expect from Mary Hocking. One of the lovely things I always find with Mary Hocking’s writing is that the reader always knows exactly where they are – whether that be Wartime London, the Sussex countryside of the 1990’s or an Iron curtain country during the Cold War. Visitors to the Crescent takes place in a small area of London some years after the Second World War, (I assumed about a decade). Visitors to the Crescent was Mary Hocking’s second published novel – and it seems as if her first two novels and another novel published in 1967 have an espionage theme which many readers might not expect from Mary Hocking.

“It was on a rather tremulous spring evening in April that the visitors first appeared in Cedar Crescent. Park Road East was a hustle of late-night shoppers, stamping cabbage leaves and brown paper into grimy pavements, trailing sawdust from butchers’ shops. Impatient drivers thumped horns in protest at the sluggish progress to the main Holland Park Avenue. Outside the cluttered antique shop, a man was dismantling a fruit stall, watched by an expectant dog and a couple of small children who were waiting an opportunity to steal apples. Park Road East was stridently alive; it would not be surprised at anything that might happen to it.

But Cedar Crescent was a different matter altogether. Here, life had stopped a long time ago. The road tunnelled off Park Road East, dark, quiet, stretching dustily and unromantically into another century. In spite of its name, it was quite straight and there were no trees, only the squat electric lamps which were of a very old design and gave a dim yellow light which created a permanent impression of fog. The tall, terraced houses had lost even the memory of their dignity; flights of stone steps led to open doors revealing halls with flaking wallpaper and giving out an odour suggestive of damp and decay. Many of the windows were uncurtained”

On the corner of Cedar Crescent close to Holland Park Road, a small antique shop is burgled. The burglary brings a surprising amount of police attention to the owners of the shop, Edward Saneck and George Vickers. Two senior policemen arrive in the crescent asking questions about Saneck (a Polish refugee) and his partner, they quickly link the burglary to a late night hit and run accident not far away. Only, what are two senior policemen from Scotland Yard doing concerning themselves with two such routine incidents? Both Saneck and Vickers seem wary of the police interest in them and their business.”

In the flat above the antique shop two very different women, inevitably become drawn into events surrounding the burglary. Jessica Holt is a shy children’s author, still recovering from having nursed her dying father. Jessica is conducting a relationship with Saneck, a man who left his wife and child behind him in his flight from Europe. Troublesome Paddy – younger, irreverent, suspicious of authority rents a room from Jessica, she spends her time with a bunch of unpleasant characters – one of whom is George Vickers. Jessica’s relationship with Saneck is fragile, each them seem lonely in need of the other, although we see little real affection between them. The relationships between Hocking’s characters – in all her novels – are generally complex – here Paddy seems destined for self-destruction, while Jessica seems lost.

When Jessica decides to have a little snoop around the antique shop – she scares herself silly blundering around the shop in the dark, but before leaving she does witness George Vickers hidden in the back – and what she sees frightens her even more. Jessica is one of several characters who need to work out where their loyalties and responsibilities lie. Jessica’s solicitor brother – a cold fish if ever there was – is horrified at his sister’s involvement with a case being investigated by Scotland Yard – he thinks she should disappear on holiday until it’s all over.

“As she stood in the dark, shrouded hall she could hear the noise of the party. She had never realized before how alien these people were to her. Vickers and Ames, in particular, jarred on her nerves. They must carry on their grotesque charade without her. She went to the front door and opened it. The night air flicked her face. She sat down on the step, leant against the door-post, and closed her eyes. She could hear the sounds of the city very clearly: a late-night bus cruising leisurely and unhindered down Park Road East, the pneumatic barrage of a scooter, jazz music played very loud in a house somewhere at the back, the rumble of an underground train away in the Shepherd’s Bush direction, hidden laughter nearby followed by the soft scamper of feet and a gently scolding West Indian voice calling to a child to come in. She was aware, as she had not been aware for a very long time, of the sounds of London all around her. She wondered why she had ever thought the Crescent so peaceful.”

Although I don’t think this is Mary Hocking’s best novel – it is still very good, definitely worth reading and with a lot to recommend it and as well written as ever. What Mary Hocking does do particularly well in this novel is to evoke an atmosphere of threat, the fear and uncertainty is palpable. I also like how Hocking seems to acknowledge the grey areas that exist in life – people aren’t always just good or bad – even when they do bad things – life, and the motivations of all people are more complex than that.

Mary hocking typing

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PHJ1

Too Dear for my Possessing is the first book in Pamela Hansford Johnson’s Helena trilogy. Published in 1940 – the setting is Bruges, London and Paris in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

Helena – the character for whom this trilogy has been named, is naturally at the heart of this novel – but she isn’t the main character. Claud Pickering is the narrator of this novel (and I believe the two which follow it). As the novel opens he is thirteen, living happily in Bruges with his father and his mistress Helena who is around forty. Separated from his wife, who is still in England and unable to get a divorce, Claud’s father maintains the fiction that Helena is his housekeeper.

“In her middle forties, though, she was a stock for staring. I remember her striding among the stalls on market days, clattering off her meagre store of Flemish, her face dark and swollen under the burning bush of hair dyed yellow as broom. She was queer and handsome in her black way, her eyes black, bold and choleric, her lips blood-black, her chin rounded as a Roman emperor’s. A true dark Celt, Father called her, and he could never stop being surprised that in dyeing her black hair yellow she had made herself, not hideous, but barbaric and magnificent.”

brugesIn these early years Claude and Helena have a turbulent relationship – the two coming to blows on several occasions, Claud daring to defy her when his father is away from home. Claud’s life is a charmed one, although struggling with his French a little he enjoys going to school at the Lycée. He has a wonderful amount of freedom – running around with a couple of local boys, but Claud’s great and unparalleled joy is in his boat. Sailing his small boat along the narrow strip of river that runs through Bruges Claud knows extraordinary happiness.

Claud’s mother arrives in Knocke and Claud, sporting brand new long trousers is sent to meet her and spend a few days in the hotel with her. While in Knocke his mother introduces Claud to Daniel Archer – a much older man who she claims in just her friend, Daniel is accompanied by his daughter Cecil – a year younger than Claud. At twelve Cecil is already captivating, a delicate red head, with all the attributes of the actress she is destined to become. Claud and Cecil spend one day together while their parents go off together, they dance, they squabble and make it up again, planning to meet again before Claud goes home to Bruges, but Cecil succumbs to a cold and is confined to her hotel room. Although only having spent that one day together, Claud takes a vivid memory of Cecil back with him to Bruges, an image he conjures up when sailing alone in his boat. Cecil becomes a dream that Claud carries with him, the two come together just a few more times over the next ten years or so – Claud catches sight of her name on theatrical posters or in newspapers but it is some years before he sees Cecil again properly.

“For my generation, the 1920’s were years of glory, careless, comfortable, dancing years; to have been in one’s middle-class teens during the 1920’s is almost worth being mature in to-day’s crises. Almost. They were the years of recovery; of ukeleles, kissing parties, the Charleston, portable gramophones. Booth’s Dry Gin. They were the mother-years of slump; of the Yale Blues, ukeleles, portable gramophones and Booth’s Dry Gin. Helena likes the reminiscent programmes of the B.B.C., likes to hear The Wolf, The Moon Has Raised Her Lamp Above, Absent, Queen of My Heart. I like the B.B.C. reminiscences, too; I like Blue Skies, My Future Just Passed, Lady be Good, Ain’t Misbehavin’. These are my songs of sentiment, and Helena laughs at them. In return, I laugh at her Wolf, her Lamp, the Queen of her Heart.”

Circumstances take Claud to London, to the home of his mother’s brother from where he goes to public school at his uncle’s expense. Claud’s father has finally been able to marry Helena who much to the embarrassment of her stepson announces her unexpected pregnancy at the age of forty-four. In London, Claud misses Bruges and although very happy in his uncle’s home where they play frequent host to Uncle James’s cousin Maud with her illnesses, he comes to realise that he misses Helena too.

“I had forgotten the things I detested in her, her spite, her sudden savagery. Defiantly my mind resisted Uncle James’ tacit disapproval of her, Maud’s censure freely expressed on every visit. Helena had sung Annie Laurie, had sung it right there in the kitchen to make me laugh, and whenever I laughed with her, ephemeral sympathy sprang up between us. I had quite forgotten that immediately following this entertainment she had sent me upstairs to hear Father’s suggestion that I be sent to England. Sometimes I hungered for her as I hungered for rich foods certain to make me sick.”

Following her husband’s sudden death, Helena and her young daughter return to England, and Claud decides he will make his home with his step-mother and half-sister. There isn’t much money and Helena is forced to take a house much smaller than the one Claud has been used to. Now as Claud is getting older his relationship with Helena is far less combative, he adores his baby sister, and the family rub along together quite well. Cecil, a rising theatrical star remains elusive, but always unforgotten.

In time Claud, becomes a bank clerk and an art critic. Part of a vibrant artistic crowd Claud meets and marries Meg, but always in the background is the dream of Cecil – and Helena who has always known how Claud feels about Cecil – slyly dropping snippets of information about her whereabouts. Claud and Meg go to Paris – yet even here Claud cannot entirely free himself of the dream of Cecil or the domination of his fascinating step-mother.

“It is no use my pretending any longer that I was in love with Meg. What love I had vanished suddenly, like a trail of smoke on the horizon, vanished in a moment, but in a moment not significant. Yesterday I loved her, to-day I did not. I was fond of her because she was pretty and capable and kindly, but of desire I had not so much as would fill a second. She loved me without fire and was content that there should be none, wishing that love should be temperate in season and out, and that it should look upon no tempests.”

Too Dear for My Possessing is the story of a failed marriage and the destructiveness of a dream, moving from Bruges of the 1920’s to the Paris of the 1930’s it is also wonderfully evocative of a period. PHJ’s characters are wonderfully drawn, we can’t help but be fascianted by Helena and Cecil, concerned for Meg, and sometimes rather annoyed by Claud, I am very much looking forward to the next installment, although I am informed that each volume could also stand alone. Bless Bello for bringing these works back to us.

pamelahansfordjohnson

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pamelahansfordjohnsonA busy week with not very much time for blogging but I wanted to quickly to highlight an author who I am currently reading – a book I will have finished by the time this post is scheduled to appear. Although I know many of you will already be familiar with Pamela Hansford Johnson, some of you might not. With Bello books having made so many of her novels available again, I am surprised I have seen so few of her books being reviewed. The book I’m reading is Too Dear for My Possessing, (1940) the first book in PHJ’s famous Helena Trilogy – I am enjoying it so much I have acquired the next two books in the trilogy along with a couple of others. This is not the first PHJ I have read, but I seem to keep forgetting about her.

Pamela Hansford Johnson was a novelist, playwright, poet, literary and social critic. Upon her second marriage to author C P Snow she became one half a very famous literary duo – with whom she collaborated on several plays. In their later years, making themselves appear rather ridiculous to the British public, Baron and Lady Snow became fodder for the satirists at Private Eye. Pamela Hansford Johnson was a hugely prolific writer, producing twenty-seven novels as well as works of criticism, plays and poetry. As a young woman she knew Dylan Thomas, they were even briefly engaged.During her lifetime she was awarded several honorary degrees, held visiting academic positions at North American universities and in 1975 was awarded the CBE.

Weirdly, it was the divine Elizabeth Taylor who introduced me to PHJ. When I was first reading the biography of Elizabeth Taylor by Persephone books founder Nicola Beauman (I’ve read it twice) I discovered that PHJ was one of a little group of well-known literary figures who took against Elizabeth Taylor and said bad things about her books. There’s a famous photograph of the two women meeting at some literary event. It oozes polite, British dislike. I love Elizabeth Taylor so much I have been saving some of her short stories for years as I like having them to look forward to (yes I am that illogical). So I immediately decided I wouldn’t read PHJ – I probably wouldn’t like her that much anyway (I’m nothing if not loyal). At that time, PHJ novels (unlike Taylor’s) were out of print, so not reading them was easy. When Bello re-issued her books via their print on demand and ebook service I couldn’t help but be a bit intrigued. I decided to read one (The Impossible Marriage 1954) – I liked it – a lot. Elizabeth Taylor (novelist) and Pamela Hansford Johnson

Several months after reading that novel I was offered a review copy of a biography of Pamela Hansford Johnson by Wendy Pollard. A hugely fascinating book – it is a must for PHJ fans. In that book I learned a lot of PHJ that convinced me that although I wouldn’t have liked the woman very much, there were things I had to admire about her. I donated my lovely hardback copy of that book to my local library – as I thought it would probably be a book they might not have – and at the time Birmingham libraries were appealing for newly published books to be donated as they couldn’t afford to buy them (don’t get me started on that one).

For the record – I’m still on team Elizabeth Taylor – but I have to admit PHJ is definitely worth reading.

PHJ1 an avenue of stone a summer to decide

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2015-04-17_19.11.27

Many of you will remember that a few months ago I was able to share what for me was some very exciting news about Mary Hocking’s books and how me banging on about her had seemed to pay off. I know lots of people joined in with the last Mary Hocking reading week – and I certainly plan to do the reading week again. I have of course spoken before about how much I have come to love Mary Hocking’s novels, and how sad I was that they were out of print. I have been lucky enough to collect together twenty three of her twenty-four novels (still several I need to read) – many of them ex-library copies picked up very cheaply. However I know not everyone has found getting hold of these books easy – and so of course I was beyond delighted to hear that Bello were going to be making them available via their print on demand editions and ebooks.

The novels I sent on loan to Bello for scanning – have returned – and now they have I will be able to start reading them again. It’s always so hard to choose which next when one has a lot of books by one author to read.

Anyway the really exciting news is that the first twelve Mary Hocking novels will be available in just under a month – 25th February – and all the books are now showing on Amazon and can be pre-ordered. The second batch of twelve novels is due out in July. Bello has provided me with some lovely cover images to share with you.

Good DaughtersVisitors to the Crescent
I love these designs – I hope you do too. You’ll notice the books being released first have a black design against a blue background.

The first twelve novels available from the end of February are:

Good Daughters
Indifferent Heroes
Welcome Strangers
The Winter City
Visitors to the Crescent
The Sparrow
The Young Spaniard
Ask No Questions
A Time of War
Checkmate
The Hopeful Traveller
The Climbing Frame

The novels due out in July (and definitely worth waiting for) are:

Family Circle
Daniel Come to Judgement
The Bright Day
The Mind Has Mountains
Look, Stranger
He Who Plays the King
March House
An Irrelevant Woman
A Particular Place
Letters from Constance
The Very Dead of Winter
The Meeting Place

Their designs will feature a white pattern on a blue background.

Family Circle

Despite having nearly all Mary Hocking’s books (Visitors at the Crescent – the last one I have to find) – I will still be buying several of the ebooks – I like the idea of having some of my favourites on my kindle to carry with me wherever I am.

Let’s not beat around the bush – I really hope lots of you will be buying some too – whether you are new to Mary Hocking or another of her loyal fans (I know you’re out there). I love Bello for bringing lots of fantastic authors to new generations of readers. What pleases me the most is that people who have never heard of Mary Hocking – might stumble across her books when browsing the Bello catalogue and make the same discovery I made two and half years ago.

Earlier I mentioned another Mary Hocking reading week – I think it would be perfect to have another one the year her books are made available – but what I can’t decide on is when. I would really welcome your thoughts. The last two Mary Hocking weeks have been June – which I think I just plumped for at random. This year of course her books are being re-issued in February and July (February also the month M H died in 2014) and April would have been her birthday. So when would be best?

mary hocking

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old mans birthday

Having sent off all my Mary Hocking books to Bello books on loan – I was thrilled when they sent me three of their Richmal Crompton print on demand editions as a thank you. Such print covers they are a lovely addition to my bookshelves.

The Old Man’s Birthday first published in 1936 is set in familiar Crompton territory – a large family, an English village, secrets and scandals and the exploration of personality flaws. Unashamedly cosy reading it was perfect for the busy tiring time I have been having.

The entire story (apart from various flashbacks) takes place on one day. It is the day of old Matthew Rowston’s 95th birthday. Matthew is quite definitely something of a lovable old rogue, although he can be a curmudgeonly old so and so. Having to pit his ageing wits against the ridiculously high moral standards of his eldest daughter – who upon her widowhood moved back in with him – he is aided in all things by his valet, Gaston (almost as old as his master). His eldest daughter Catherine is a tartar, his spinster daughter Charlotte also living in his house, a fluttering, endlessly sentimental woman, neither she nor her sister are allowed into their father’s room without invitation, and Gaston is their sworn enemy.

“He lived mostly in this room, seldom appearing in the elaborately furnished drawing-room downstairs, over which Catherine and Charlotte presided. Here he would read, dream, smoke or play backgammon or poker with Gaston.

This last shocked Catherine more than anything.

‘Father dear.’ She said reproachfully, ‘there’s no need for you to play games with a servant. If you’d like a game of cards any time, we can ask the Vicar in and have a nice quiet game of whist.’

Matthew Rowston having reached his advanced age has a simply enormous family – most of who live in the nearby village. With his children in their sixties, his grandchildren are in their forties; his great-grandchildren are in their late teens and will soon be leaving school.

Who is the son or daughter of whom does become a little confusing – but the reader is able to soon sort that out – as Richmal Crompton is so good at exploring character – each individual family is fleshed out beautifully. Gradually as the novel progresses we learn their stories, see their faults and learn their secrets. In this extended family of Matthew Royston’s there are a lot of wounds which require healing.

“Daphne would often think of the old days and compare them wistfully, perplexedly, with these, but she shrank from thinking of the day – early in the summer holidays – that divided them, like a black abyss dividing a warm sunny landscape from a stretch of bleak desert. Even now she wasn’t quite sure what had happened.”

There’s Harold and his second wife Helen, Helen is already irritated by Harold who isn’t very exciting, Helen knows that she married Harold on the rebound, but has found herself unexpectedly becoming extremely fond of her stepdaughter Pen. Receiving a visit from her former fiancée throws Helen into a spin. Granddaughter Enid, daughter of Margaret, in her early forties, the driving force behind the village hockey team, is considering having an affair, feeling she has rather missed out on romance. Grandson Paul the local doctor and his second wife Lillian are in the midst of a furious row after Paul receives a letter from his ex-wife. Matthew’s elderly bookish bachelor son, is stuck in a rut of his own creating, while Pippa one of Matthew’s great-granddaughters is desperately unhappy – clever and eager to learn, yet destined to work alongside her dull father Arnold in his dull office.

birthday cakeIn honour of Matthew Royston’s birthday a big family dinner is being organised for that evening, naturally Catherine is attempting to keep a tight rein on proceedings. However despite Catherine’s horror Matthew has invited his grandson Stephen to the dinner. Stephen it seems is the only member of the family to not live in the village, he has been living away for a couple of years with a woman who is unable to divorce her violent husband now committed to a psychiatric hospital. None of that would cause anyone to raise an eyebrow now of course, but at this time, it is a mild scandal, the younger members of the family being far less shocked than Catherine and Charlotte who don’t think that Stephen and ‘that woman’ should be allowed to corrupt the younger members of the family.

“The old man was not watching Beatrice, but he was conscious in every nerve of the graceful motionless figure beside him. Serenity, that was it. It seemed to surround her like an atmosphere. She wasn’t the sort of woman to ask for pity or even sympathy, so probably only God and herself knew what she had gone through with the brute who was still officially her husband, and yet out of all the stress and turmoil of it she had brought this radiance of serenity, so that as she sat there, silent, remote, warmth and light seemed to steal from her over the old man’s soul. And that odd sweet excitement that he couldn’t understand still held him. His heart was beating unevenly. Beneath the horde of memories that jostled each other through his mind – innumerable adventures in love, war, business, politics – a more distant memory was stirring, a memory so elusive that, try as he might, he could not capture it.”

When Stephen and his partner Beatrice arrive, Matthew can’t help but be absolutely charmed by his new granddaughter-in-law – with her beautiful face, her strange pure white hair and her gentleness. She reminds him inexplicably (for they looked nothing like each other) of Hope, his first, great but brief lost love – and from time to time he starts to confuse them. To help break the ice, and to ensure there is no awkwardness at his dinner Matthew insists on taking Stephen and Beatrice around the village to introduce Beatrice to each member of the family. Catherine is outraged that her father should exert himself so recklessly, and it is easy to see where she gets her stubbornness as Matthew sets off shakily to intercept his grandson, Gaston following close behind.

Beatrice appears to lay a soothing balm over the wounds of the various members of this family. By the end of that day, lives have been changed, and hurts begun to heal.

This is an adorable, charming read, gently nostalgic and utterly compelling. I can’t wait to read the other two Richmal Crompton novels I have waiting. Thank you Bello for a delicious treat.

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