Book review – Angela Thirkell – “Peace Breaks Out” and 20 Books of Summer round-up

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And I’ve reached the end of my 20 Books of Summer project!

I bought this book in August 2020 when it was published, to complete my set of Thirkells up to the end of the Second World War.

And in general I’ve very much enjoyed doing my 20 books of summer. During the June-August period I’ve actually read 43 books, but I have got 20 books off my TBR, which is always the plan with this project. This year, I went a bit different and, instead of just picking the 20 oldest books on my TBR, selected two months of diverse reading then one of Viragoes and the like. This worked well, although I did give myself a lot of non-fiction to read in the first two months and ended up swapping out two of those books for Virago novels Don’t fear – I will get those read and reviewed soon! Click on the link to find links to all my reviews for 20 Books of Summer and thank you to Cathy at 746 Books for hosting as always!

How have you got on if you’re doing 10/15/20 Books of Summer/Winter?

Angela Thirkell – “Peace Breaks Out”

(20 August 2020)

It did not pay, the Admiral said, to ask people politely if you wanted anything done. The Adamses gave their orders and took it for granted that they would be obeyed; just as he, the Admiral, had done in his flagship. Why had the leadership passed from the Admiral and his like? (p. 179)

Even more than the last one, this book is full of tired people and bad cakes, powdered milk and restrictions and rumours. The old guard is being threatened even more by newcomers, never more than when the post-war election happens and two familiar characters are pitted against one another.

We start off with the book centring around Mr Scatcherd the artist with a capital A and his neighbours, the Hallidays, George and Sylvia being the young people of the house, both on leave from their wartime jobs. Soon, with much pleasure, we re-acquaint ourselves with Anne Fielding, who we met in the last book, and her introduction to Sylvia and then the glamorous (or bitchy, ageing and balding playboy) David Leslie and the charming Leslie family, Miss Bunting’s favourite pupil but souring a little as he ages. Martin Leslie and his sister are enjoying farming and many of the young women in the book are aiming for non-traditional careers, which is nice to see. Will Anne have her head turned or will her solid friendship with Robin Dale sustain her?

Even though a Very Bad Word appears in the book (though used positively, hm …) the value again lies in the portrayal of a tired and battered populace almost regretfully accepting the changes of peacetime, trying to keep certain family rituals going, finding cars and petrol to get to visit their friends, doing OK if they live in the country and grow vegetables. Certain almost feudal systems are still going, and there’s still a distinction between Barchester and The County, but incursions are coming, women are wearing trousers and, in a rather wonderful long passage, we see that housewives are very worn down indeed.

A good end to the series for me, although Thirkell kept writing books in the series, and I’m glad it finished off my 20 Books of Summer 2021.

This was Book 20 in my 20 Books of Summer project and Book 7 in AV/AA.

Book review – Angela Thirkell – “Miss Bunting”

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Ploughing on through my 20 Books of Summer project now, and getting through towards the end of the war in my Thirkells. Of course this then also comes under All Virago/All August territory so I feel like I’m doing terribly well! I’m part-way through “Peace Breaks Out” alongside my delicious pile of review books for Shiny New Books and am fairly sure I will finish my 20, read and reviewed and tidy, by the end of the month.

I received this book as part of my LibraryThing Virago Group Secret Santa group gift from Cate in 2018 and have been saving it since then to read it in the right order (my Pile of such books will be disappearing soon!).

How are you getting on if you’re doing 10/15/20 Books of Summer/Winter?

Angela Thirkell – “Miss Bunting”

(25 December 2018 – from Cate)

It did not pay, the Admiral said, to ask people politely if you wanted anything done. The Adamses gave their orders and took it for granted that they would be obeyed; just as he, the Admiral, had done in his flagship. Why had the leadership passed from the Admiral and his like? (p. 179)

This was quite an elegaic book in a way, the war is winding on, people are tired, the cakes are getting worse and everyone’s managing with too few servants. There’s also woven throughout this novel the clash between the old values of The County, the old guard, a sort of benevolent feudalism and definite care for the proprieties, and the new world of industry and commerce, represented by factory owner Sam Adam and his slightl-less-gauche-now daughter, Heather (we met them in the last book). Sam has the old guard on his board of directors but then has got onto the magistrate’s bench and pops up in the Archaeological Society and other local organisations, determined to work his way into The County but not sure of the niceties. I don’t think Thirkell is completely against his kind, though, as she shows Sam and Heather being softened by their encounters with her more favoured characters, and Sam does acts of genuine kindness.

The other main characters are Robin Dale, son of the elderly rector, invalided out of the war and running a boys’ school locally while his old boss at the big school wants him back, Jane Gresham, living with her father and her delightful if slightly Tony Morland-ish son, Frank, unclear as to whether her husband Francis, lost in the Far East, is alive or dead and not knowing how she feels about either, and Anne Fielding, recovering invalid, who is in the village to pick up her education with the renowned Miss Bunting, who has appeared here and there before, Bunny’s last project, and a satisfying one at that, before she lapses into happy retirement.

So there’s a sadness through the book – Robin’s lost a foot and feels lost himself, Jane doesn’t know how she feels but has a weight pressing on her constantly and Miss Bunting looks back at so many pupils in so many theatres of war, and her dream of laying down her life to protect theirs is incredibly poignant. There’s plenty of comedy and set-pieces from the side-characters and of course a Mixo-Lydian refugee for the author to sneer at (although this one holds her own and is accomplished and resilient) but that’s the over-riding feel of the book, with some gentle romance woven in.

There are the usual references back to Trollope and side-references keeping us up to date with characters from other books – I was sad to only have tiny glimpses of the Beltons from the last book, though. And although Mr Middleton and Mr Tebben’s one-upmanship in boringness at the Archaeological is a bit more tedious than it should be, a random mention of the former’s trip to Iceland and his “great walk over the country of Njal and Gunnar of Lithend” (p. 243) [there’s now a petrol station at Hliðarendi and I’ve had a slice of pizza there] was cheering.

This was Book 19 in my 20 Books of Summer project and Book 6 in AV/AA

Book review – Mark Atkinson – “Ducking Long Way”

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I read and enjoyed Atkinson’s first book, “Run Like Duck” back at the end of 2018 (notably the only running book I’ve read that’s had hair hints for women runners) and was very pleased when indie publisher Sandstone Press got in touch to offer me a copy of his new one. I was expecting down-to-earth, warm and funny stories and tips on running – this time on ultras* – and that’s what I got. And a commemorative buff (a tube scarf runners wear to keep the sweat off their face / to keep their hair out of their eyes / etc. (the stories I’ve heard!).

*An ultramarathon is a race of any distance over marathon distance (26.2 miles). They really start at 30-and-a-bit miles / 50k, which is the distance of the only ultra I’ve done – and I remain surprised at how I didn’t get addicted to doing more, like everyone else I know who’s done one!

Mark Atkinson – “Ducking Long Way”

(14 August 2021 – from the publisher)

Races are concerts, an ultra is a week-long music festival from which you’ll emerge with suspicious chafing, a new-found love of pineapple and a haunted look in your eyes from what you’ve seen. Still keen? (p. 4)

In his first book, Mark Atkinson helped us learn how to run, or told lovely relatable stories to those of us who could already but just like a running book. There were some ultras in the end section but here it’s pretty well all ultras, with the odd trail marathon thrown in. The main thing with ultras is that they’re pretty well all off-road, so you have to learn to cope with rocks, weird descents, stiles, gates, mud and water, as well as the distance. You walk up the hills and your pace can go from being an 8-minute-miler to a 20-minute-miler. Sometimes you are allowed to have crew supporting you, sometimes pacer buddies running alongside you. And if it’s a long one, some of it’s through the night. So as well as lots of what are effectively (but very fun) race reports, we get loads of tips and advice on preparing for and doing the races, how to deal with the no disposable cups policy many races now have, how your crew should operate, how to be a good pacer, etc., which makes it useful as well as entertaining.

The first race report is by “Eoin, Aged 33 1/3” because Mark’s has got lost in the mists of time and he wanted to have a clear picture in the book of what it’s like. Apart from Eoin, lots of other runners pop up regularly, club mates or people he repeatedly meets at different events, and so it captures well the camaraderie and sociable nature of these long runs (those of us at the back of the pack get that at marathons, too). Tips follow thick and fast – how to get the air out of your water bladder to stop everyone hating you for sloshing for 100 miles, how to accept you will never win these things (Mark turned into a decent mid-pack runner and gains positions through sheer bloody-mindedness but gives a useful alternative to those tales of unbeatable winners we also like to read), and what not to do when you see a race photographer:

my ambling climb with sausage roll in hand was caught by the race photographer from his sniper-like position on the hill. (p. 47)

I loved the list of thoughts of a marathon runner (about six) and the thoughts of an ultra runner (two pages) and there’s a lot of important information for friends and family and support crew here, too – particularly never trust the trackers people wear, which can fade in and out, which I wish I’d known in my first marathon (it did lead to a hurried shuffle for my husband as well as me when he suddenly realised I was nearer the finish than he’d thought). There’s also an important point made near the end, that the training for a runner not at the sharp end is fun – amble around, getting in the miles, eat as you go, have a fry-up for breakfast, etc., maybe more fun than training for a marathon.

There’s an interesting section on influencers, basically warning people to take Instagrammers with perfect honed looks and views with a pinch of salt, noting they’re often posting to get a free pair of shorts and including the startling but true sentence, “Ultimately runners are just squishy bags of fluids trying to get to the finish line while leaking as few of them as possible” (p. 242) which was going to be my call-out quote at the top of this review but I thought it might put people off. There are a few icky bits in the book, but there are going to be, aren’t there, in a book about ultras.

There’s also a timely and useful section on diversity, pointing out the lack of women and almost complete lack of people of colour in the ultra sport. Mark mentions the excellent Black Trail Runners (who have helped a couple of friends of mine get into and improve their trail running) and makes some good points which it is refreshing to see.

I think it’s primarily ultra runners that this book will appeal to – and anyone who has done one (me!) or no ultras but likes a running book. It’s funny and humane and will increase my propensity to loom at anyone in a shirt from one of Mark’s clubs and ask if they know him. And the last sentence sums up the book and its author:

So remember: Run fast. Run slow. But run happy. (p. 295)

Thank you to Sandstone Press for sending me a copy of the book (and a buff!) in return for an honest review. “Ducking Long Way” is published today!

Book review – Angela Thirkell – “The Headmistress”

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Well, I think I might just finish my 20 Books of Summer project now, as I’m onto my final trio of Angela Thirkells, getting me to peace at the end of the Second World War and the point Virago have (I think) reached in their reissue programme. I had actually read this one already a few years ago (happily, all the detail seems to have drifted out of my head) but wanted to get the full experience of reading them all in order. It of course also falls into All Virago/All August territory so I feel like I’m doing terribly well! And I’m already part-way through “Miss Bunting so fingers crossed I can get them all read AND reviewed by the end of the month …

Angela Thirkell – “The Headmistress”

(07 October 2017 – from Ali)

‘I think,’ said Mrs Perry’s sister-in law, ‘ you ought not to try any more of those London refugee people, Maud. You remember there was that woman who put us all in a book, though I must say i didn’t think the likenesses were very good.’ (p. 84)

Miss Sparling is a woman of middle years who has been lodging with the unwelcoming headmistress of Barsetshire school as she tries to run the evacuated Hosier’s School for young ladies in difficult circumstances. Then Harefield, a lovely country house, comes free, the Beltons who own it conveniently move into a house in the village and the school moves in. Although the daughter of the house, Elsa, feels the move very keenly, Miss Sparling is an attractive addition to the local social life, quite turning the heads of the vicar and the local academic, especially when they find out she’s both the granddaughter of a fellow scholar and a scholar in her own right.

The Beltons remain in village life, cared for and respected, their three children flitting back and forth from their war work and causing lots of drama, amusement and very poignant moments. The current leaseholder of their house becomes a friend and the war grinds on, we get news of other characters from other novels as we go along of course and as with all the war novels, this was originally published during the war, so there’s not a sense of victory brewing even if some events are mentioned. Details of wartime life, like how people got and gave each other provisions and queued for rations, are poignantly and carefully done.

There are plenty of funny little mentions of authors (as above) and references back to Trollope’s Barsetshire characters, which always makes me smile. Yes, there is mention of how a woman ought to have a beating (said by her mother to her husband) which always makes me wince, but that’s what you get with Thirkell, along with the casual racism about mid-Europeans and the snobbery. It’s always a balance but I think as long as you don’t think these things are actually acceptable, it’s OK to read these tranch of the books in particular for their portrayal of the wartime experience.

My previous review of this book is here.

This was Book 18 in my 20 Books of Summer project and Book 5 in AV/AA

Book review – Sara Nisha Adams – “The Reading List”

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Somewhat inevitably, with a lot of work on, my 20 Books of Summer list to finish and a lovely stack of review books in for Shiny, I’ve fallen a bit behind with my NetGalley reading. This was one that came out in July but I kept seeing people talking about it and wanted to get it read and reviewed.

I really enjoyed it, although it packed more of an emotional punch than I was perhaps expecting, and certainly had some strong (and important) themes around mental health that could be triggering to some.

Sara Nisha Adams – “The Reading List”

(14 May 2021)

‘Harishbhai’s son,’ Mukesh said, wondering if the boy had a name but appreciating Harishbhai’s clear and strong sense of branding. ‘Let’s go, over there, there are a few lonely souls who need a flyer.

It’s 2019 and Mukesh, who lost his wife two years ago, is just existing, really, a set of answerphone messages from his three bossy daughters and an interaction with the jolly grocer, Nikhil, who helps him with cooking tips, his only real human activity. He watches Blue Planet re-runs and fears he’s losing touch with his young granddaughter, who always had an understanding around books with her grandma. One day, he decides to make a trip to the local library to return his dear Naima’s last library book – he has read it (“The Time Traveller’s Wife”) and found it helped him through his grieving, but now he’s stuck.

At the library, he encounters disaffected library worker Aleisha, doing a summer job and bored silly. She’s rude to him, but comes to regret it. Can she use the library system to tempt him back, with a reservation for another book from this weird list she’s found on a scrap of paper? And Aleisha has got a lot on her plate, as she and her brother are caring for their single mum, who is going through a mental health crisis and has been for months. Nothing can reach her sometimes and they’re at their wits’ end.

Meanwhile, in alternate chapters, in 2017 we find all sorts of people finding the same book list popping up here and there, in a narrative which feels a bit confusing but does stitch together. The community of library workers is a lovely one, and their regulars, and Mukesh is pulled into this plus back into his original community in the Hindu temple (he moved to the UK from Kenya when his and Naima’s daughters were small). As a side point, I loved the positive portrayal of Mukesh and Naima’s arranged marriage and the space his parents gave her to take her time settling in when she moved in with them; so often we get the same narrative of pain and upset and overbearing in-laws and it’s nice to see a different side.

Friendships grow and flourish, helped by talking about the various books on the list. Mukesh even starts to bond with his granddaughter as he gets to grips with this reading lark after all these decades not bothering with books. But there’s trouble brewing: his friendship with one of Naima’s oldest friends gets noticed, and while Aleisha starts to feel able to talk about her mum with her new friends, her brother doesn’t seem to have that opportunity.

Appealing to fans of “The Lido” and other community-based books, with its nice multicultural cast, there’s an event at the library which pulls almost everyone together. It’s nicely structured and well-done, and there’s a fair bit of humour, but it’s also not all light and fluffy and certainly one event (which is quite cleverly foreshadowed but took me by surprise) is a big emotional punch and I wonder if it could have been rolled back just a little bit. Hard to talk about without disclosing the plot however. I will definitely look out for this author’s next books.

Thank you to HarperCollins for making this book available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review. “The Reading List” was published on 22 July.

Book review – Anne Tyler – “The Amateur Marriage”

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I read my second August Anne Tyler 2021 project books the weekend before this review was due, after almost catching myself out with “Back when we were Grownups“. This was the one I always thought I hadn’t liked so much and which saw the beginning of a perceived decline in her work, but I enjoyed it a lot more this time around. It’s the second of my QPD volumes, bought (or arrived) on 11 February 2004. I haven’t yet digitised my reading journal for that year, so I can’t tell when I read it, but it would have been a few months after that.

If you’re reading along with the project or just this one or whatever, please do share your thoughts in the comments at the bottom or add a link to your review on your blog or Goodreads, etc.. I’m adding links to these reviews plus all the reviews I am alerted to to the project page, so do pop there to see what other people have thought, too.

Anne Tyler – “The Amateur Marriage”

(11 February 2004, Quality Paperbacks Direct)

By nature, Pauline tumbled through life helter-skelter while Michael proceeded deliberately. By nature, Pauline felt entitled to spill anything that came into her head while Michael measured out every word. (p. 45)

I think this book is quite unusual in Tyler’s oeuvre in that there’s a sort of chorus of the Polish-American community in which Michael Anton and his mother run a general store – and this set of friends and neighbours is poignantly there right through this family saga, which takes us from Michael meeting Pauline as youngsters to old age. As was so common in the Second World War, a brief flare of attraction and the emotion of someone going off to war get mistaken for something that can be turned into a lasting love, and we have the usual Tyler pairing of one light and one heavy character, mismatched and rowing, never knowing if this is going to be the marriage-ending row or whether other couples have the same tribulations.

We see it from both sides, stodgy Michael, but he will always know how to keep the furnace going / passionate and headstrong Pauline who feels trapped by her family but has such a wonderful way with people. And then their daughter gets darker and darker and walks out and there’s all sorts of other Tyler stuff like a woebegone child and the good children vs the bad children, everyone ageing in the stops and starts we’d lost for a little bit, and always that chorus circling.

The scene is set from the very beginning – Pauline is nothing, not even Ukrainian and Michael gets somehow tricked into signing up, they have a rocky courtship when Michael is more careful of his mother than his girlfriend, and Pauline almost misses seeing him go away. Then we find out later she starts to lose interest then can’t bring herself to dump a wounded man. Perhaps not the best start, but Tyler is so good at laying out those tiny clues. We go through their life, their children, their aspirations for a new house, following the path of so many American couples, but with Michael always feeling that everyone else has got the hang of things and they’re the only amateurs left.

In an echo of the last book, someone reappears from the past, will there be some kind of circling back, some kind of resolution? If the last book was about surviving the death of your spouse, though, this one is about surviving a marriage that never really gets going properly.

Have you read this one? What did you think?

Book review – D.E. Stevenson – “Music in the Hills” and “Winter and Rough Weather”

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Steaming through my 20 Books of Summer project now, these are book 16 and 17 on the list, with just three Angela Thirkell novels to go (and although they look slender, they have densely packed print and are decent, satisfying novels). They also count for All Virago (and publishers doing similar things republishing women authors) / All August. As they’re the sequels to Stevenson’s “Vittoria Cottage“, but set in the same place with much the same characters, I thought I’d review them together.

My best friend Emma (of the readalongs fame) gave me these two for Christmas 2020, and they’re published by Dean Street Press from their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint. This just shows that sending out review copies engenders sales, by the way, both from hopefully people reading that first review and then from me putting these two on my wish list!

D. E. Stevenson – “Music in the Hills”

(25 December 2020 – from Emma)

Jock Johnstone was fortunate but his circumstances were not entirely due to luck, for although he had inherited good property he had improved it by his own efforts. (p. 1)

We open this fine novel, whose central tenet is basically the above: the value of hard work and making something of what you’ve been given, meeting Jock and Mamie Johnstone, who live at the Scottish lowlands farmhouse in Mureth and are preparing for their nephew, James to visit for a good, long stay. James has been in Malaya and needs a rest; he’s also interested in taking up farming, and as Jock and Mamie sadly have no children, he’ll fill a role in their lives as they teach him their ways. But first, Mamie gets to know their new shepherd, Dan, and gets a few surprises.

In an interesting contrast to a lot of books where we find a woman hesitating between different suitors, here it’s James, running away from London heartbreak, who attracts the attention of different young women. This is woven naturally into the portrait of the farm and its inhabitants and the town and its additional friends, and a bit of a mystery involving the new shepherd and some sheep missing from the farm. There’s worry about the new owner of the adjoining farm, fancy folk (no, he’s not Jewish, he’s “Assyrian” (slight cringe, but there we have it) who have bought it on a whim, stripped away the trees and done up the house in an unfitting modern style (more of them in the second book).

Mamie is a lovely character and obviously her author adores her – she’s simple but can be forthright when she wants to be – and she pretty well saves one character’s sanity by speaking out smartly to her social superior. I loved her, too. And she’s a great confidante when James’ lost love explains to her:

It’s different for a man. A man can do the thing he’s good at and be married too. A woman can’t. I explained that to James and he understood. He’s very understanding. You see, if I married James he would want all of me – it would be no good if he couldn’t – and I couldn’t give him all of me. (p. 185)

Shades of the last book there and Dorothy Whipple’s struggles to be a writer and a married woman! And in fact in the lovely little interview with Stevenson reproduced in the back of this book, she shares her own struggles:

Occasionally when my patience begins to wear thin I hang a notice upon the door, a notice which says ‘WRITING’ in large letters, but even this does not bring me absolute peace. (p. 217)

A lovely satisfying book, most of the plot brought together by the end but not all of it. For instance, Mamie’s slightly odd housekeeper Lizzie and her two unruly children are still there, husbandless and fatherless and seemingly not caring …

D. E. Stevenson – “Winter and Rough Weather”

(25 December 2020 – from Emma)

She was alone in the house. She had never been alone in a house before. No, never thought [she] looking back down the years. She had been alone in a flat […] but that had been different for there were people all around, moving about and breathing and there was the sound of people in the street. Here there was nobody, nobody moving or breathing or making a sound. The only sound was the sound of the wind … (p. 44)

In this installment (which has a map in the front: hooray), James has made his match, and comes back from honeymoon to settle down in the farm across the river from Mureth where we spent most of the time in the last book. This is a lovely house which has been done up and furnished with a fortuitous cook by Mamie, but it is terribly isolated, with an awful road down to the town and no way across the ford between the two farmsteads when the river rises. Will James’ new wife settle to these ways?

We spend more time with the doctor and his sister, both happily settled in the town and attractive, gentle characters (Nan has already acquitted herself well at horrible Nestor’s horrible party in the last book). Our heroine gets to know more characters than these, different ones from in the last book with some overlaps, and we do catch up with other residents’ stories, too. She takes a shine to Lizzie’s son and helps him grow into a talent he displays, and there’s a lot of great detail about how this is done, something I always love in a book.

When the winter comes and all the houses are snowed in, there’s drama and intrigue and some mysteries, which are happily solved in this lovely small community. Mamie is still beloved by the author, quiet and reticent as ever, hiding her knowledge of the Classics in general murmured comments.

A lovely pair of books to sink into, ones I will reread and which are perfect comfort and escape reading, with beautiful scenery and lovely characters. I’m so glad they’ve been republished and are now easily available!

These are Book 16 and 17 in my 20 Books of Summer project and Books 3 and 4 in AV/AA

Book review – Dorothy Whipple – “Random Commentary”

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I’m getting on nicely with my 20 Books of Summer now, with this charming little volume representing Book 15 and I’ll probably be on my second D.E. Stevenson by the time I publish this review. This counts for All Virago (and other publishers reclaiming lost women writers) as published by the lovely Persephone Books.

Ali of Heaven-Ali fame gave me this book for my birthday this year (I met up with her a bit late, or did she even have it sent to me? That’s lost in the mists of time already! I wonder if I bought it for her birthday or Christmas).

Dorothy Whipple – “Random Commentary”

(28 January 2021 – from Ali)

On Thursday I was a writer being interviewed by a publisher, a creature soaring to the seventh heaven. Today I am to be found doing fires, boiling a chicken and sweeping the front steps. But I am so happy I don’t care what I do. (p. 11)

As the Publisher’s Note that introduces this volume explains, the beloved author Dorothy Whipple (all of whose novels republished by Persephone I own – use the search function to find my reviews) compiled this book in 1965, picking out what she thought readers would like to know about her writing life. So we have notes about writing and publishing all the novels up to “They were Sisters” as well as one volume of memoir and on the reaction to these books, and dealings with her publishers, plus snippets on her short story writing and publication (goodness, she could bang out a short story in no time!) and then bits about her family, her life with her husband, their dogs and their beloved country cottage.

As the Publisher’s Note also makes clear, this is a facsimile edition, and what Whipple didn’t do was really divide it up at all or date her entries. So you kind of get a new day / topic per paragraph, with some notable dates like the first day of the year (but which year?) or the end of WW2, but otherwise feeling a bit jumbled and hard to find a place to stop for a bit. However, the text itself is charming and enlightening, really spelling out the realities of a woman writer’s life, when, as she mentions often, if there are hostessing or other house duties to be done, the notebook is closed and the novel in progress put aside:

If I were a man, i should be able to shut myself up in a study with never a thought but for writing, but as i am a woman anybody, anything, can interrupt me – without even a faint apology. (p. 120)

I loved the little details of where she got her ideas, characters and settings – she’s not averse to peering through an open curtain to see the inhabitants inside, for example, especially young married couples. There are other little details about her books which she adds with hindsight, for example when Cape turn down “High Wages”, she can add that the book went into ten editions and was still selling well 30 years later – delicious!

I also love the little glimpses of other beloved writers. Winifred Holtby reviews “They Knew Mr Knight” but seems not to have finished reading the serialisation in Good Housekeeping as she misses an important point. And she’s as thrilled as I was to find that, to find that E.M. Delafield (“so much admired by me” (p. 117)) mentions “The Priory” in her “The Provincial Lady in Wartime”. Finally, Noel Streatfeild rather confusingly invites her to visit a Home for Blitzed babies. She also meets and is friends with various male writers, but these were the details I cherished.

A writer’s diary is always a fun thing to read, and this is a lovely addition to the genre. And, naturally, it made me want to go back and re-read all the novels!

This is Book 15 in my 20 Books of Summer project and Book 2 in AV/AA

Book review – Maya Angelou – “Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas”

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I and my friend Ali plus our non-blogger friend Meg are working our way through Maya Angelou’s autobiographical books in a sort of mini-challenge that has no rules or time constraints – we just try to read the book at approximately the same time. We’ve just all finished this third volume and I think we all agreed it was an excellent, and fun, read. Ali’s review will come out soon and I’ll link to it when it does.

Maya Angelou – “Singin’ & Swingin’ & Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas”

(April 2021)

My life was an assemblage of strivings and my energies were directed toward acquiring more than the basic needs.” (p. 19)

Again we pick up where the last book ended. Maya is living in a rented room and working at two jobs; she finds a great local record shop and is busy picking up records, distrustful of the White owner who offers her credit but eventually accepting her – and a job at the shop. This is good news, as she can finally take her son out of childcare (which involves him boarding at someone else’s house again and only staying with her one night a week; this seems so harsh and sad, especially when she almost lost him before when the childminder moved house) and she enjoys her work.

But men get in the way again – as always, although she’s more resolute and even more independent by the end of this volume. She gets married to a man who seems loving but practises what we’d call today coercive control. She retains enough spirit that when he actively insults her and her son, she gets out and we cheer for her. But what to do now? Stripping in a local joint seems the only option – but she gets on the wrong side of the other girls when she’s honest about what’s in the “champagne cocktails” she’s supposed to get men to buy her, and thus attracts more attention. She is such an attractive and honest character that she can’t help making friends, and so through them she gets another and better job, singing and dancing in another bar but without being on the edges of prostitution. And from there, as well as gaining the name “Maya Angelou”, she manages to secure a role in the touring opera Porgy and Bess, and things start to get really fun.

For the latter part of the book, we’re touring Europe and North Africa with Maya and the company, all Black American singers and performers, with varying reactions as they visit places where almost no one’s seen a Black person before then end up in Africa, with Black and Brown faces all around them (but inequalities and racial tensions still). She has some great stories to tell and when she has to make more money, she has the attractive character and skills to do so in side-hustles to her main performance. Her description of her cast-mates and the transformation from tired and bickering people to bright and emotional performers is absorbing.

There are a couple of mis-steps – at one point, and she does seem to imply she redressed this later, Angelou admits that she was as distant from the idea of Palestinians being displaced by the formation of Israel as she was from the idea of native Americans being displaced by White settlers, and shortly afterwards she mentions that she doesn’t want to bring her son over to tour with them for fear of the gay men in the company having an influence over him – she does explain it’s not that she worries about them “molesting” him but him copying their gestures and way of being to win admiration. Not her finest moment, although as ever, well-explained.

There are some very interesting notes on race in this book, from Maya’s natural distrust of first her record-shop employer and then a White Southern man who accompanies her songs, to her reaction to being in Canada , which had been the dream destination for enslaved people escaping via the Underground Railway, the effect of which had carried through to her times, to Europeans’ preference for Black Americans over White Americans, even in countries like Italy which America had defeated in war only a decade previously, to the information I found newly in my recent reading, but was here all the time, that white Americans then and apparently now found it easier to accept Africans, Cubans and South Americans than the Black people who had shared their country for generations.

We end with Maya and her son, now Guy, both having moved away from the names they started the book with, in Hawaii on a performing job after she puts her foot down and insists he must be able to accompany her. I wonder where she’ll go next …

This is Book 14 in my 20 Books of Summer project and Book 1 in my All Virago (and other publishers doing a similar thing) / All August project.

Book review – Anne Tyler – “Back when we were Grownups”

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It’s time for my first August Anne Tyler 2021 project and I finished it yesterday – oops! Interesting fact, though: this must have been the book that I had just acquired when I claimed to my then friend, soon to be boyfriend, now husband Matthew that Tyler was, well I’m going to say ONE OF my favourite authorS, given the date inside the front cover. So I’m pleased that, while as usual remembering nothing of it, I absolutely loved this one. Oh and this is the first of my QPD Tylers, visible in the pile combining the frailty of a paperback with the size of a hardback …

If you’re reading along with the project or just this one or whatever, please do share your thoughts in the comments at the bottom or add a link to your review on your blog or Goodreads, etc.. I’m adding links to these reviews plus all the reviews I am alerted to to the project page, so do pop there to see what other people have thought, too.

Anne Tyler – “Back when we were Grownups”

(05 July 2001, Quality Paperbacks Direct)

She loved these children, every last one of them. They had added more to her life than she could have imagined. But sometimes it was very tiring to have to speak in her grandma voice. (p. 49)

We open with Rebecca at a picnic, wondering how she came to be who she is. Who she is now: a 53 year old larger woman, a mother, stepmother and grandmother, widow, carer and party-giving company owner with a penchant for flowery and embroidered clothes and a good relationship with her many tradesmen. But her life sort of split off when she met a man at the very party venue she now hosts, the bottom floor of one of those run-down terraced houses in Baltimore that most Tyler books are set in, chucked her high-school boyfriend, flunked out of university and joined his huge and ramshackle family.

The complicated Tyler family is in full flood in this one (three stepdaughters and a daughter, each with a partner of some sort and children, plus her late father-in-law’s 99 year old brother and her late husband’s younger brother and a family retainer who ends up being invited to as many parties as she helps clean up after). Because Rebecca, Beck to her family, has got into the habit of hosting parties for every family occasion, coming out with a rhyme for each, the backbone of a family who, as is often the case, take her for granted. Could she walk out of this life, she wonders, as the phone rings again? (No). Could she move back to her home town and her bickering mother and aunt? (But she knows no one there now). Can she find her way back to where her life path split? (Sort of, but does she want to?).

There’s no sloppy one here, just the organised one who keeps everything going. We get glimpses of the routines that held other Tyler characters together, from the man who dresses his son in tomorrow’s clothes for bed to the man who makes a batch of the same dinner every Sunday to feed himself through the week. But things are more nuanced now, and those are only glimpses (maybe she’s saying women don’t go like this as it does tend to be the men). Other Tyler standards are a weedy child of a new partner, a family house that’s subsumed an incomer.

In “Patchwork Planet” we noticed the book was dedicated to Tyler’s late husband and this novel is in part a meditation on grieving, with old uncle Poppy constantly reciting the verse he wrote for his wife’s funeral and Rebecca musing on her loss of Joe, only six years into their marriage. This is made more poignant by knowing the background, even though I don’t usually need to know the background.

Will Rebecca find herself and indeed reclaim her name (one family member does use it, we note)? Will Poppy make it to his 100th birthday? Will Rebecca trace that old boyfriend? But most importantly again, will she reclaim herself? A lovely novel, full of characters and colour, little moments of observation, and also very funny.

Have you read this one? What did you think?

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