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I have not done well with the reading challenges lately – there are loads in November. However, after wrestling for some time with a rather heavy book that made my poor hands hurt, I decided I would get some of the novellas on my tbr knocked off and thereby join in with Novellas in November. Going for three translated works because I hadn’t read anything in translation since #Witmonth. 

All three are wonderful novellas in their way, nuanced, spare and atmospheric. The thing that so often makes a novella great is that understated economy of language, beautiful writing and the ability to pull the reader in instantly. These novellas all have those qualities.  

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray – Dominique Barbéris (2019) translated from the French by John Cullen. 

As so often happens, it was a review written by Jacqui of Jacquiwine’s Journal that put this delicate little novella on my radar. I bought it when spending gift vouchers earlier this year.  

This extraordinarily atmospheric novella takes place on a Sunday in that period between the end of summer and the start of autumn. Our unnamed narrator travels from her home in the centre of Paris to visit her sister in Ville-d’Avray, a quiet suburb. The sister is Claire Marie she lives in a comfortable home with her doctor husband and daughter. This is somewhere where the pace of life is slower, there’s a sense of stillness and quiet – the two sisters sit in the garden as the light of the afternoon begins to fade, Claire Marie’s daughter has been playing the piano, the smell of newly cut grass drifts over the fence.  

In flashback we glimpse the sisters as young girls, highly imaginative and romantic influenced greatly by Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester. As the sisters spend the afternoon talking and reminiscing, Claire Marie begins to tell her sister about a rather strange encounter she had with a man several years earlier, when her daughter was still quite young. She met the man while covering for the receptionist at her husband’s surgery, a man named Marc Hermann who we immediately sense is a little mysterious. He says he is Hungarian, but we get to know little else about him.  

Claire Marie’s narrative takes us and her sister back to that time, a time that had never been spoken about before. Not much happens between Claire Marie and Marc, they meet up from time to time, go for walks in the forest or local parks. Something has clearly drawn these two together that is unexplained, and feels slightly dangerous, there is an edge to Marc or perhaps to the risk the Claire Maire is taking in having this time away from her normal life. There is a sense that she wants to pull away from him but can’t quite.  

A lazy Sunday afternoon of a novella, atmospheric and hugely readable. A smart little edition published by Daunt books I highly recommend it.  

Twelve Nights by Urs Faes (2018) translated from the German by Jamie Lee Searle. 

I feel as if there isn’t a lot I can say about this novella – it certainly hasn’t much in the way of plot, and it is the shortest of these three that I picked to read this month. It is the one I bought most recently too, originally thinking I might read it over Christmas – but decided November was close enough after all.  

It’s a beautifully evocative piece however set in the period between Christmas and twelfth night.  

As the novella opens, we meet Manfred, who is walking through the snow towards the village where he grew up and where he hasn’t been back to for forty years. The landscape is both familiar and strange after all this time – and Manfred recalls his mother’s traditions at this time of year, a period wrapped up in superstition and folklore.  

“The ill fate their mother had feared, and hoped to prevent with all her precautions, did occur. But it wasn’t the work of demons. They had conjured it up, he and Sebastian: the fraternal feud in Hullert. Or had it even been a war? No wind chime could prevent it. No sprig of mistletoe, no St John’s wort; motherwort and sweet seneca were powerless, as was the Yule log smouldering in the yard.” 

Manfred had grown up with his brother Sebastian, but a bitter family feud erupted when Sebastian inherited the family farm. Manfred had considered his brother inferior to the role and when the woman he loved also chose to marry Sebastian Manfred cut all ties with his brother and left. Manfred’s furious act of revenge, before leaving still haunts him, an act he regrets still.  

Now seeking some kind of redemption before it is too late, Manfred is returning to where he grew up, not even knowing if his brother will see him.  

I still think this would make a lovely little Christmas read, one to be devoured in an afternoon by the fire. This little hardback edition from Harvill Secker is beautiful too.  

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (1978) translated from the Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt. 

Read on my kindle – I have had Territory of Light tbr for ages – I keep meaning to read it for #Witmonth and forgetting I have it. I absolutely loved this and will read more by this author.  

Light is a recurring theme in this novella, and the author uses it to brilliant effect. Sunlight streams through windows, or is dappled in the park, there are fireworks, shining flood water, the altered light of an apartment where the windows have suddenly been covered by blue mesh.  

The novel is told in twelve standalone fragments telling the story of an unnamed woman’s first year parenting her daughter alone after separating from her husband. She moves herself and her daughter – who turns three during the course of the story – into a fourth-floor apartment that is filled with light.  

“But once you got the door open, the apartment was filled with light at any hour of the day. The kitchen and dining area immediately inside had a red floor, which made the aura all the brighter. Entering from the dimness of the stairwell, you practically had to squint. ‘Ooh, it’s warm! It’s pretty!’ My daughter, who was about to turn three, gave a shout the first time she was bathed in the room’s light. ‘Isn’t it cosy? The sun’s great, isn’t it?’ She ran around the dining-kitchen as she answered with a touch of pride, ‘Yes! Didn’t you know that, Mommy?’” 

Here she must come to terms with the end of her marriage, face the future and parent a lively young child alone. The child is portrayed delightfully, and realistically, the mother doesn’t always make the best choices, and her daughter unsettled or disappointed can fly into rages. Negotiating work, childcare and limited contact with her estranged husband, take their toll and this lonely young mother looks for entertainments elsewhere, often finding being alone with her child challenging and frustrating.  

There is a lovely, dream like quality to this narrative which I really enjoyed, the whole story suffused with light and colour like the apartment where most of it is set making for another wonderfully atmospheric read.  

Sorry for the long post, but I wanted to write about all three of these before the end of the month – just made it. 😉  

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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.  

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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.  

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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. 

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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.  

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Things have continued to be pretty difficult here – and that’s an understatement. I am not expecting things to improve hugely in the next couple of weeks, so all I can do is battle on. All this has affected my blogging, not just because my hands are often too painful for typing, but because I have just completely lost my mojo. Today I wanted to get something pulled together in a bid to say hello to you all – so I thought a post about some of the books I have read might be in order. I have at least been able to read, though perhaps not as much as I would have liked. Only now I feel quite overwhelmed at the number of books I still have to write about (eight) so although several of these books I had really wanted to review in full, I think I shall have to compromise with mini reviews instead. 

Whatever reading I have been doing I have really enjoyed because I have stuck to going with my mood and not putting myself under pressure to read more than I have been able to cope with. It’s helped me appreciate just being able to sit and read even if it is just for a short time.  

If you follow me on Twitter, you might have seen me talking about the joy of kindle – my Rheumatoid Arthritis affects my hands and shoulders as well as my knees. So often holding a book is really difficult, kindles are easier (though not entirely without issue). It has allowed me to read when I have been in a lot of pain, and that is a comfort.  

Transcendent Kingdom – Yaa Gyasi (2020) – the author’s second novel though the first of them I have read. I thought it was absolutely outstanding, I shall definitely read more by Yaa Gyasi.  

It’s the story of an American-Ghanaian family and their life in Alabama. Gifty is doing a PhD in neuroscience, studying reward seeking behaviour in mice, determined to find an answer to the suffering she sees in people around her. Gifty’s mother is hugely depressed, suicidal and living in the bed in Gifty’s apartment. Gifty’s father had left the family when she was young, returning to Ghana, while her brother Nana had become a high school sports star but following an injury became addicted to painkillers and later heroin. The heroin finally killed him, and his death killed something in their mother. 

Despite having a life rooted in science, Gifty finds herself drawn to the memory of the faith she had had as a child. She wrestles with the evangelical church in which she was raised.  

This is a stunning, intelligent novel about family life, grief, addiction, science and faith. I hadn’t known to expect the vivisection stuff – it took me aback a bit and made me wince – but it’s not too gratuitous.  

An Elderly Lady is Up to no Good (2018) & An Elderly Lady Must Not be Crossed (2020) – Helen Tursten translated from Swedish by Marlaine Delargy. Read for #Witmonth two collections of quirky short stories about an elderly lady who has an interesting way of sorting out people who cause her difficulties. I didn’t read these back-to-back, but the second book was definitely calling to me after finishing the first, so they were read close together.  

Maud is 88 years old, though certainly not feeble (but she can act it when necessary). She lives alone in the large Gothenburg apartment, where she had grown up with her parents and older, disabled sister. She lives a contented life, now that she is retired from teaching, travelling widely – there aren’t many places in the world she hasn’t visited.  

Every now and then though, someone comes along intent on causing problems, or taking advantage. They are no match for Maud, as she is not averse to a little murder, where it’s necessary.  

These stories are laugh out loud at times, the second volume telling a couple of tales from Maud’s past.  

Things do get a little sticky for Maud when the police call to investigate a death in her apartment building, but Maud is sure she can evade suspicion, she is just a little old lady after all.  

Green For Danger – Christianna Brand (1944) – It was Jacqui’s recent enthusiasm for this that made me pull this from the shelf, a rare non kindle read. I wasn’t disappointed an absolutely enthralling wartime mystery, and it really kept me guessing.  

Set in a military hospital during wartime, this is an intriguingly plotted mystery with a smallish circle of suspects. A patient dies under anaesthetic and then later a nurse who was present on that occasion is murdered. Inspector Cockrill (a detective Brand wrote several novels about) is brought in to investigate – sure initially that the first death is nothing more than an unexplained tragedy. With the murder of the nurse and an attempt being made on another, Inspector Cockrill has quite a puzzle on his hands, and all his suspects are the nurses and doctors who were attendant when the patient died so unexpectedly.  

A thoroughly enjoyable Golden Age type mystery – with the kind of setting I find particularly pleasing.  

Elena Knows – Claudia Piñeiro (2007) translated by Frances Riddle – another excellent read for #WITmonth. Published by Charco Press who produce a range of literature from contemporary Latin American authors. Beautifully written, heartfelt and poignant I really loved this.  

Elena’s daughter Rita had been found dead in the bell tower of the church. The official investigation ruled it suicide and was quickly closed. Elena doesn’t believe that can possibly be true – but she is the only person who believes this. Elena is battling Parkinson’s she relies on medication to be able to leave the house.  

Elena sets out on a difficult journey across the city, to call in an old debt. Going in search of a woman she met only once many years earlier. Someone who will help her get at the truth.  

Slowly this enthralling narrative reveals hidden truths about the characters and shows painfully the reality of being at the mercy of an illness, needing care and contemplating greater deterioration.  

So that’s all for now, more soon, I hope.  

I have just downloaded the first Cazelet chronicle by Elizabeth Jane Howard to my kindle, only about 80 pages in, but I am wondering why it took me so long.  

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Finally, a book review! Sorry for the slight hiatus – it has been about ten days since I last posted, and I don’t think I have ever had a gap that big before. I haven’t been well at all – and I’m still not great but improving slightly at least. A massive RA flare and a chest infection has pretty much laid me flat – and I have been sleeping like it’s going out of fashion. I have been reading, a bit, not as much as I would like, but that has been the story all this year – my reading rate has dipped horrendously, so all I can do is try to enjoy what I do read.  

Reviewing ever so slightly out of order now, as I have read three books this month that I want to review for Women in Translation month in August, if I can get my blogging mojo back.  

Enbury Heath was one of the books I bought during one of my book voucher spending splurges. Stella Gibbons was certainly prolific, I feel as if there will always be more of her books, I haven’t read than I have.  

This is a rather bittersweet novel; apparently semi-autobiographical, it was inspired by the time the author spent living on Hamstead Heath in a little cottage with her two brothers. The siblings here though are called Sophia, Harry and Francis Garden. They have just lost their father and are not even a little bit sorry about it. Hartley Garden we are told right at the beginning had been a good doctor but a bad man. He drank, made their mother (also now dead) very unhappy and had affairs with the governesses. Despite being young and unmarried Sophie has already been living away from home in a rented room and working for a news agency. Harry has gone into the theatre and happily leads a somewhat rackety life at only twenty, while Francis at sixteen is still at school, though planning to leave at any minute.  

As the novel opens the siblings must get on with all the business of a death in the family, there is a funeral to be endured. Spending time with suffocating relatives who they can hardly stand to be around, and speculation about the will before the will reading a week later brings all the relatives back together again.  

“So many things bewildered Uncle Preston, who suffered from a permanent sense of grievance because events and persons would not fit into the frame through which he looked at life.” 

Hartley Garden’s doctor’s practice will have to be sold, that will bring in some money, though not much as patients are dwindling – whoever gets the money they won’t be rich.  

With the help of her friend Celia, Sophia comes up with a plan for the three Garden siblings to rent a tiny cottage on her beloved Enbury Heath. Sophia loves being close to nature and considers this to be the most perfect place to live. The suffocating relatives are not entirely supportive but grudgingly allow that they may as well make the best of it. The cottage is tiny, with a small sitting room, two bedrooms, a kitchen and downstairs bathroom, no garden. It has however, we are told great charm, and the three siblings happily settle in, looking forward to a period of happiness and peace.  

“In spite of her many responsibilities at this time, Sophia was happy. 
Her situation did not include many of the things which make most human beings happy, for she was poor, she was not in love and had no one in love with her, she was not pretty nor admired, she was usually exhausted from overwork and felt vaguely ill from the pressure of her own nervous energies, lingering grief for her mother, and from the deeply rooted misery which had struck into her nature during her childhood.” 

Peace and happiness are not destined to last forever unfortunately. Things start well, the three siblings love their little home are terribly proud of it, happy to show it off to friends. There are even a couple of lovely doggie visitors.  Francis has now left school and got himself a job, and Harry’s latest play seems to be doing alright too. Sophia is happy bustling around trying to make a lovely little home for the three of them. There are plenty of domestic difficulties, including getting coal delivered when there is someone home. A daily woman is employed – who reports back to Sophia any little slight, and a poor old woman comes each week to clean the step for a few coins and a cup of tea, but who always manages to make the step dirtier than it was before. Friends drop in, Harry brings back people from the theatre, and soon life in the cottage is rather different to the cosy home life that Sophia had envisaged.  

Small divisions open up, Harry and Francis don’t want to be managed by their older sister, they are enjoying this new life they have found. A life of girls, beer and parties. Harry is spending too much money, Sophia thinks. They accuse Sophia of being like the suffocating relatives (all of whom are superbly drawn by Gibbons). Life for the wealthy Argentinean friends who have taken up the Gardens seems to be one long party, and while Sophia wants her brothers to be happy, she begins to see they aren’t really that compatible as house mates.  

This is a novel about the loss of a dream, of that cold reality coming in. However, it is also a novel about the bonds of family and that period when you are just starting out full of ideas and optimism. Gibbons also acknowledges that shared pain of these siblings, the pain of loss and an unhappy childhood. Each of them has come out of that experience rather differently and now they need to find a way to live with that – even if that isn’t in the same house.  

A thoroughly enjoyable Stella Gibbons novel, with a few ‘of its time moments’ – but nonetheless a great read.  

 

   

 

 

 

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Storm Jameson is probably not an author who is as well-known these days as she once was. This was the third book by her that I have read, I say book, because this isn’t a novel, it is three novellas. The themes throughout are broadly similar, each story is about a woman and their relationships with men, and other women. As the title suggests Women Against Men. Curiously though there are no obvious battles between the sexes here, but Jameson explores the love women have for men, and how that love can be used as a weapon as often against themselves as against anyone else. All three stories were published in the 1930s, two stories in 1932 and 1933, but the first story in this collection, not published until 1937 didn’t appear alongside the other two until this VMC edition came out in 1982.  

The first novella is Delicate Monster at around 85 pages it is the shortest of the three too (the subsequent two novellas each around a hundred pages). Through the eyes of her childhood friend Fanny, we are introduced to the beautiful Victoria Form. The two become friends as children despite an inequality in their mothers’ backgrounds. Fanny is a quieter, more awkward child, Victoria is more extravagant in her emotions, she is one never to suffer from awkwardness. She becomes a beautiful, promiscuous woman, who believes women should throw off the Victorian conventions of their parents, and love where they want to. Her promiscuity is totally selfish, she attracts men without trying and enjoys it, her favourite thing is to ensnare men and betray women. Both Fanny and Victoria become writers, though of very different types; Fanny writing more seriously, literary novels that sell in small numbers, Victoria churning out popular bodice rippers. She is of course hugely successful. Victoria thinks nothing of betraying her old friend Fanny with her husband, causing a rift between the two for several years. 

“Laughter of this kind is as strong an acid as thought itself. It dissolves everything – even, finally, its impulse. Once begun, the process cannot be stopped. I would look at Charles lying asleep, his face buried in the pillow, with untidy hair and softened features, and feel a stab of anguish at the thought that Victoria had seen him in the same attitude.” 

However, it seems these two women are more friends than enemies after all and soon back in one another’s orbits, with Victoria’s daughter seeking out the company of Fanny rather than her mother of whom she desperately disapproves.  

The Single Heart concerns Emily Lambton the daughter of Sir John owner of a shipping line. We first meet her when she is just a girl of about twelve, when she accompanies her parents on a trial trip of one of her father’s new ships. On board Emily meets the captain’s son, Evan is two years older than her and at first distant and unfriendly. Emily becomes smitten by the older boy – who is of course not of the same class, and after leaving the ship never forgets him. A few years later they meet again, Evan is now a junior clerk in the shipping company, and Emily is embarrassed when her snobbish brother snubs him very obviously and very rudely. Emily makes a brilliant society marriage to her brother’s friend the young Lord Holt, but fate throws Evan in her way, an angry young man, a socialist clerk with some ambition, who she becomes determined to help get on. Of course, things don’t end there, Emily begins an affair with Evan, and it’s a love that is destined to consume her entire life.  

A Day off was my favourite of the three novellas – all of which are excellent. In this one Storm Jameson gives us an incredible portrait of an unnamed middle-aged woman. She is one of the women who have lived off men all their lives – the man of the moment providing the money she needs to live, in return for a very unequal, unsatisfying relationship. She associates with other women of a similar type – fearful of the day when the man in question stops coming to see her, and very aware of age creeping up on her. Now she lives in a shabby bedsitter, waiting for a letter from George, from whom she hasn’t heard in a couple of weeks, afraid that perhaps this is it – and wondering what she will do.  

“She slumped against the end of the bed, trying to think. Thursday. If George came on Saturday as usual, or sent the usual – if he failed – A curious blankness succeeded this thought. She groped with her hands in the sheet, feeling the bed end cold and slippery against her knees. No use thinking. She let herself down carefully and drew a stocking over her foot. Grit, from the carpet, stuck to it. Fastening her corset she drew the suspenders tight and stood to see the effect. She felt better now that she was held up, Safer.”  

She takes a day off – goes out, rather than sit waiting for the letter that she is certain won’t come. She takes the train to Richmond, goes to the park, has lunch by herself. Throughout the day she looks back on her life, one that started in the north of England, where as a teenager she had gone out in the cold, pitch dark mornings to work at the mill. She went to London with a man, a decision which seemed to set the course of the rest of her life. As the day progresses, we see the mean, embittered side to this woman, who life has certainly never been kind to – but who in her turn shows no sympathy or kindness to others. By the time she leaves Richmond to return home, much of the sympathy the reader may have had for her has dispersed. It’s a simply brilliant character study.  

All in all, this is an excellent collection of three novellas – showing yet again, that Storm Jameson is a writer who deserves to be better known – though I suspect (prove me wrong world) will never be one of those writers from the past to enjoy the kind of renaissance that writers like Rose Macaulay have deservedly had.  

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Elif Shafak is an author who has been publishing for years, who I was aware of, even went to an author event where she was speaking – but who I didn’t get around to reading until the end of 2020. I first read The Bastard of Istanbul which I was hugely impressed by and a few months later I read 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World. That novel became one of my favourite reads of last year, the kind of book I still find myself thinking about and have recommended to people lots of times. So, of course I was looking forward to The Island of Missing Trees and delighted when my friend Meg passed her beautiful hardback copy on to me. It didn’t disappoint, I loved it – although it perhaps didn’t quite reach the dizzying heights of absolute perfection that 10 Minutes…. was for me, it didn’t fall far short. 

The book is dedicated:  

“To immigrants and exiles everywhere, the uprooted, the re-rooted, the rootless,  

and to the trees we left behind, rooted in our memories.” 

Divided into three time periods – the late 2010s the early 2000s and 1974 – The Island of Missing Trees tells a story of belonging and identity, a poignant story of love and trauma. It is beautifully written, compelling and thought provoking.  

The novel opens with sixteen-year-old Ada, in her Year 11 history class at her secondary school in north London, shortly before the Christmas holidays begin. Her mother died about a year before and she is struggling – she finds herself standing up in class and screaming, just screaming while everyone around her looks on bemused and disturbed. The video of her screaming goes viral – well of course it does.  

Ada’s father Kostas is a middle-aged botanist a Greek Cypriot who first left the island of his birth during the turmoil that divided it in two. On the day of Ada’s screaming, he is burying his beloved fig tree in the garden – to protect it from the English winter. The fig tree is important, in fact the fig tree narrates parts of the story, becoming a character in itself, and one the reader can’t help but love too. The fig tree that Kostas tends so faithfully is a cutting from a tree that grew in Cyprus, it had grown through the cavity in the roof of a tavern – witness to everything that occurred there.  

In 1974 on the beautiful island of Cyprus two teenagers fell in love. They were from opposite sides of that divided island; Kostas a Christian is Greek, and Defne is Turkish and Muslim. None of that matters to them, they only want to be together but that isn’t very easy at all, there are eyes everywhere.

“Love is the bold affirmation of hope. You don’t embrace hope when death and destruction are in command. You don’t put on your best dress and tuck a flower in your hair when you are surrounded by ruins and shards. You don’t lose your heart at a time when hearts are supposed to remain sealed, especially for those who are not of your religion, not of your language, not of your blood. You don’t fall in love in Cyprus in the summer of 1974. Not here, not now. And yet there they were, the two of them.” 

The two young lovers take to meeting at a tavern where the owners will help keep their secret, a place where they can be private and out of the sight of unwelcome eyes. The tavern is run by Yusuf and Yiorgos, two men living outside the conventions of the times too. The tavern is known for the fig tree growing through the centre of it. The story of Kostas, Defne and all of Cyprus is rooted in that place and the people who met there.  

“Because in real life, unlike in history books, stories come to us not in their entirety but in bits and pieces, broken segments and partial echoes, a full sentence here, a fragment there, a clue hidden in between. in life, unlike in books, we have to weave our stories out of threads as fine as the gossamer veins that run through a butterfly’s wings.”  

When violence and unrest erupt on the island between Greeks and Turks Kostas is forced by his family to go to England where he has an uncle who can give him a start there. He has to leave Defne behind, not knowing when or if he will see her again. She is devastated by his desertion and refuses to write back to him. It is a silence that will last decades. Many years later, Kostas returns to Cyprus for the first time since he left in 1974 – he knows that Defne never married, neither did he. So, although officially he is there to seek out certain plant species, he is really looking for much more than that. Ada is the result of their reconciliation and late marriage. However, the years have taken their toll. The years of trauma, the realities for those who stayed in Cyprus are ever present, the losses that were suffered, the people who went missing and have never been found. Defne is one of those who still searches. Her work has been to reunite people with the bodies of their dead – she carries all of this with her to her new life in England. It is something she will never rid herself of. 

In the late 2010s Ada only knows the outline of her parents’ story. When her father tells her that her mother’s sister Meryem is coming to visit she is unimpressed. She can’t forgive Meryem for never having visited before – not even for her mother’s funeral. Meryem arrives with a bagful of colourful clothes she hasn’t yet found the confidence to wear, and bit by bit she gains her niece’s trust while cooking up a storm of Turkish dishes in the kitchen.  

I really must read more by Elif Shafak – this was another beautiful read.  

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One of the things I still like about Facebook (and FB continues to be problematic in many ways) is the myriad groups that exist there. Groups which I continue to use much more than my own news feed. It was through one of the bookish groups that I am a member of that I ‘met’ Betsy Hanson – in fact through a mutual appreciation for Barbara Pym, on a group I first started for Barbara Pym’s centenary. Fast forward several years and Betsy has written and self-published her own novel – Always Gardenia, and very kindly sent me this attractive hardback edition for review.

Always Gardenia is an engaging novel centred around an American university, the University of the Northwest. Here Gardenia Pitkin gets a new job as an administrative assistant in the English department. Gardenia is fifty-six, two years earlier her beloved husband Torre died, and she has had a difficult time adjusting to life as a widow, she is struggling financially but not letting on to anyone, and is lonely. Her son Hans, at twenty four is already married with a baby son, Milo, Milo is the great joy in Gardenia’s life. Her friend Sylvie is nearby, but Sylvie still has her husband and has no idea how Gardenia feels.

At the university Gardenia’s boss is the Chaucer specialist Arnold Wiggins, a slightly eccentric, middle aged man a few years younger than Gardenia, as devoted to his pet dachshund as Gardenia is to her own. He is a kindly, gentle man, with a sparky, elderly mother he sees frequently, who hasn’t quite given up hope that her son will settle down one day.

“He could be from central casting for English professors, Gardenia thought, with his baggy khakis and rumpled curly hair and soft-soled oxfords. Even the dachshund, trotting along tetherless and veering from the path with his nose to the ground, was an appropriately eccentric accessory.”

Bonded by their love of dachshunds Arnold and Gardenia become good friends, enjoying working together. Into the department comes Dr Laurel DuBarr a new adjunct English professor. Laurel is ambitious, successfully published, while Arnold’s book remains languishing on the desks of publishers that haven’t got back to him yet. Laurel is looking for tenure, so she doesn’t have to continue going from academic institution to academic institution. Arnold becomes infatuated with Laurel almost as soon as she arrives, enormously impressed by her, and wanting to impress her equally.

“Oh please don’t fall for her, Gardenia wanted to whisper to Arnold. She’s hanging out with you because she wants you to put in a good word about the tenure-track job. Yes, she’s got those long legs and that blonde hair and all those publications, but you deserve someone better.

Or maybe you’re better off on your own, so you don’t have to worry about the person you care about sleeping around – like Princess Margaret’s dachshund.

Or my son’s wife.”

Out of the blue, while having a coffee one day, Gardenia meets Lex Ohashi who seems very interested in seeing Gardenia again, and talks about the two of them going dancing. Gardenia doesn’t really know if she is ready for that, but she does love to dance. She still feels she wants to talk about Torre, but it seems as if no one around her will let her, as if she needs protecting from the name of her dead husband.

Meanwhile Gardenia is very concerned about her son’s marriage. Hans has had to give up his music studies, passionate though he was about music, in order to support his wife as she continues to study, and take care of their son. He now works part time at a health food shop. Gardenia is also convinced that her daughter-in-law Caitlin is playing away – Gardenia is asked to babysit a lot, which she loves, but suddenly at the last minute Caitlin has to stay over at her friend’s house. Is Caitlin selfishly making use of her mother in law’s love of Milo? When out for the evening one day, Gardenia sees Caitlin with another man, and they don’t look like study partners. Gardenia has no idea what to do – should she tell Hans what she suspects, and what she saw – or let it work itself out? Will Hans want to hear what she has to say? and then the fall out could affect her access to her beloved grandson.

Gardenia has lots of things to weigh up, including whether she really wants to entertain the idea of a relationship with Lex, charming though he seems. Then there is her growing friendship with Arnold, and his feelings for Laurel – not to mention the pressures that are being put on him from his boss, and the suggestion that his Chaucer classes may just not be attracting enough students to make it viable.

Gardenia is a very sympathetic character, and particularly pleasing to have her reading Pym’s Excellent Women during the course of the book. Her grief is well portrayed, that sense that everyone else moves on far quicker than she is able to, that sense of missing someone very badly, and wanting still to say their name is really poignant. There are some lovely reflections on friendship, and the complex relationships between mothers and their adult sons.

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