Book reviews – The Secrets She Keeps and Reflections of Yesterday plus The Silver Collection

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March 2015 To Be ReadTwo books which have a loose theme of romance today – one very much in its genre, the other pretty genre-defying, one told from the viewpoint of a woman, one from a man, both about family but with different ideas about what family actually means, one written and published a while ago and showing its age, one rather more modern. Oh, and an extra which is a little book of short stories, again in the romance genre and spanning a number of years. Confused? Read on, and hopefully all will become clear.

Helen Cross – “The Secrets She Keeps”

(8 September 2014 – bought at an author talk)

I went to a lovely presentation by Helen in September 2014 (more about that at the bottom of this review post), having only read her “Spilt Milk, Black Coffee” before but having met her a few times. I picked up this and “My Summer of Love” (to be read and reviewed soon) and read this one on the journey to and from Oxford last weekend, as it was just the right size to pop into my handbag. I was actually disappointed to be really sleepy on the trains, because I really could not put this down, except when I fell asleep!

It’s a cracking read as well as an interesting musing on celebrity, identity and family. John finds himself, somehow, applying for a job as nanny to a reclusive star, looking after her new baby and a somewhat disturbed six year old boy who isn’t clearly related to anyone in the household. At his interview, John falls hard for the mysterious and slightly grubby Hepsie – a wonderful character – a previous incumbent, and meets the deliciously silly but at the same time menacing Brian, stylist to the stars.

Ending up in a decaying farmhouse in a miserable village, the book is shot through with a gothic feel and deadpan, almost camp tone, which reminded me of Paul Magrs’ (non-magical) novels in a way that her other book didn’t. There are also shades of “Cold Comfort Farm” as mysterious static caravan-dwelling women in denim shorts circle ominously. Is John’s relationship with Hepsie real or in his head? Who did live in the house before? What does Misty Moore get up to in her private apartment at the top of the house? Is someone creeping into the house at night, or is it actually haunted, and why’s there a rabbit in that cupboard? What’s more, who and where are Mouse’s parents?

Narrated from a point a decade after the events being told, you become desperate to know what’s happened in the intervening years and craving for more – hints are dropped and John’s life is irrevocably changed by the events of the year he was 19. With spare elegance and masterly writing, the plot thickens, the fairytale world wraps around the characters, and even when “real” people intrude into their space, it’s to act as a kind of chorus. Some great set-pieces, and altogether superb and unputdownable.

Debbie Macomber – “Reflections of Yesterday”

(E-book, won February 2015)

Gentle romancy / stories of communities writer Debbie Macomber is reissuing some of her older books in e-book editions, and I managed to snaffle a copy of this one for Kindle.

Simon and Angie were childhood sweethearts, getting “married” at 17 so they could consummate their love. But she was from the wrong side of town, and something happened to do with a sum of money, what is obviously going to turn out to be some misunderstandings, and her and her father leaving town in a hurry. Twelve years on, she’s living away from their home town, running a floristry business, and he’s the boss of the bank, and Angie makes a return trip to the small town as she prepares to get engaged to her dull but dependable boyfriend and wants to draw a line under her old life. Of course, Simon and Angie meet up; of course sparks fly; and then they spend quite a large portion of the book zipping between their respective towns and battling with their families. Issues with Angie’s father are very clearly spelled out here and could probably have done with a bit of editing, I have to say. Will the course of maybe true love (but with whom?) run smooth? Will someone get married to someone else in the end?

It’s quite obviously an older book and curiously old-fashioned in the morals department – or maybe this is just more obvious than in later books. Angie does like to keep herself pure, and that seems a  bit grating in this modern world, although obviously there are readers who prefer that kind of aspect, it just makes things a bit unbelievable. There’s also a rather odd bit right at the end which I won’t spoil for readers but seems a little implausible.

Anyway, I’ve realised that the Macombers I prefer are the ones with an ensemble cast set in a community, where the romance is diluted by other friendships and relationships. But it was a pleasant read.

Carole Matthews – “The Silver Collection”

(E-book, December 2014)

This is a book of five short stories and a novel excerpt which was published to celebrate Matthews’ 25th book in 17 years. I have read a few of hers and they’re well written and engaging, and these stories are just the same. I wasn’t expecting introductions to each of them, which explain the background to her writing them and having them published, which make it a nice friendly read. The stories are varied and certainly not all happy endings and romance; the first one, her first ever, was interestingly dark, and the one set in Venice gave a nice surprise. Very enjoyable – and I picked it up as a free pre-order which was a thank you to members of her mailing list and Facebook page.


I’m currently reading quite a hard book about Snorri Sturluson (while I try to learn some more Icelandic – it’s not in Icelandic, I hasten to add, but is clotted and thick as an old saga translation) and an interesting one which is less prurient than I expected about the offspring of rock stars. So some varied reading for me this month but I am getting through them! What are you reading?

Book reviews – The Edwardians and To Let


March 2015 To Be ReadTwo books, one from last month and one from this – linked by the fact that although one’s about the upper class and one about the working upper middle or nouveau riche class, the former mentions the latter at one point, which I quite liked. They’re both good reads, too, and, incidentally, both ones that I’ve read along with my friend Ali! I’ve also got one acquisition, and that’s a tiny one so hardly counts. Are you having a good March of reading so far? I will admit to having read almost three other books but being behind on my reviewing at the moment (oops).

Vita Sackville-West – “The Edwardians”

(16 August 2014)

A Virago kindly sent to me by Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, this is effectively a novel about Vita, her family and her love for her home at Knole, which she lost as a result of inheritance laws (and yes, I know I bang on about “Death of the Author” and Reception Theory and all that, but this just screams autobiography at you if you know anything about Vita: we’re all allowed to drift away from our pet theory from time to time, aren’t we!).

The story is a portrait of Sebastian and Viola, twins who both have aspects of Vita (and also recall “The Heavenly Twins“), and their society mother at the very height of the Edwardian era, all country house weekends and reams of affairs which are kept from the masses by an elaborate scheme of facades and substanceless marriages. The outsider, Anquetil, very much not “one of us”, observes a house party with detached interest and has a profound effect on both twins, although it’s not clear quite how he’s affected them at first, as Sebastian turns down an opportunity and Viola starts up a correspondence. A middle-class woman of the working part of London life is drawn into Sebastian’s life but is seemingly the only person in the book with the courage to preserve her own moral code – it’s not quite clear who is being criticised, but there are some powerful scenes to this theme. She is the link to a Forsytean world of property, money and conservatism, which is mentioned as very much in opposition to the morally free upper class milieu.

Vita is pretty savage about high society and its hypocrisy, but also elegiac about a declining way of life on a country estate which is full of respect and honour between the upper class and the people. A good read which Vita rejected as being unrepresentative of her work (it was, however, a bestseller) with an introduction by Victoria Glendenning which rather amusingly urges people to go and visit Knole (more death of the Death of the Author there).

Ali happened to have this to read at around the same time, and her review is here. This book was published in 1930 so fills a year in my Reading A Century project.

John Galsworthy – “To Let”


The final book in the original (but now first of three) “Forsyte Saga” trilogy, and in this one we finally get to Fleur, who everyone seems to remember from the TV series, plus the bit where you really need a family tree at hand to work it all out, as the family feud carries on to affect the next generation. Young Jolyon’s son Jon and Soames’ daughter Fleur haven’t crossed paths, as the two branches of the family have pulled firmly away from each ther. Each is the apple of their parent’s eye, and efforts have been made not to let them know about the rift. But with a horrible inevitability (and there wouldn’t be much novel if they didn’t), they do meet at an exhibition, and there are more horribly predictable circumstances as they manage, in the new freedom of the 1920s, to arrange to meet up several times.

The wider family setting narrows a little in this volume – only Timothy is left from the older generation, and we are then confined, apart from some mentions, to Young Joylon’s older daughters, June and Holly, and Holly’s husband Soames’ nephew, who caused conniptions in the last volume, but they’re happily settled now. There’s plenty on how the Forsyte inheritance in terms of personality is getting weakened, while the inheritance in terms of money is building and strengthening, with Soames controlling it pretty well single-handed, although Timothy’s will does throw a slight spanner into the works. And some of the family, in going into farming, is returning interestingly to the roots of its founder. Family loyalties are strained and feelings run high, marriages are successful or not, and there’s s stressful process of finding out the truth. There’s an annoying Frenchman thrown into the mix which allows Galsworthy to be (slightly irritatingly) arch, and altogether it’s a successful ending to the first trilogy and whets the appetite for more.

Published in 1921, this also fills in a year in my Reading A Century project. I think I’m the first to get a review up, but will link to Ali, Bridget and Karen’s as they publish them.


Penguin 80 Gunnlaug's SagaWe had a lovely day out in Oxford yesterday with my Auntie Linda, Cousin Martin and Martin’s partner Rad. I was very restrained – in fact we didn’t really go near any bookshops, but did have a lovely time in the Natural History Museum, but we popped into Waterstone’s and I did pick up ONE of the new Penguin 80s (80 books at 80p each to celebrate 80 years of Penguin). I found out about these from Kaggsy’s tempting posts on the subject, and much as I’d like a complete set, I kept a lid on that tendency and treated myself to “The Icelandic one”.

I’m currently reading Helen Cross’ very good “The Secrets We Keep” which I almost couldn’t put down this morning, and have finished a good book on the Vikings and that Nick Hornby, about which I found little to say in my reading journal. More reviews soon!

Book Reviews – Edge of the Orison and The Spiral Staircase


March 2015 To Be ReadWell, a nice matching pair today, even though one of them (the Sinclair) was a February read and the other a March read. You can’t have everything, can you! I’ve still got one hanging around from February, too, but I’ve realised that Vita Sackville-West’s “The Edwardians” features some Forsyte-like characters, and don’t imagine for one moment that I haven’t plunged into the Forsyte for March already, so all will be well there. So, a theme of mental illness or distress this time (nice), with two very different books, once from a male, one from a female perspective, one from outside, one from inside the experience, one historical, one contemporary, one involving quite a lot of walking, the other quite a lot of nuns … OK, maybe they aren’t QUITE so similar after all …

Iain Sinclair – “Edge of the Orison”

(21 June 2014 from book sale stall in the village square)

I can’t have read any Sinclair for AGES as he doesn’t appear if you search this blog. I have read his M25 one, at very least, and his psychogeographical works are entertaining but quite dense (I’ve not read any of his novels; not quite my thing, I fear).

This one is a musing on John Clare, the Essex peasant poet who famously went mad and did some long walks, giving Sinclair a handy excuse for going on some long walks and musing on madness. So he walks in Clare’s footsteps with a variety of his friends who have featured in other books, and there’s also a rather sweetly prosaic and familiar-feeling search for his wife’s family history, too, with some lovely scenes of them delving into archives and consulting local history librarians, all mixed in with his standard poetic psychogeography.

As I know very little about Clare, it wasn’t as immediately gripping as his walk around the M25; but I did love the descriptions of his family life and the walks themselves, and it was fascinating to see more than one mention of Iris Murdoch, which is something to follow up on (I really can’t remember if he mentions her in his other books). His prose is dense as ever, but does come alive when he’s walking with his friends and wife, and it was a satisfying read, if not the easiest read on the shelf.

Karen Armstrong – “The Spiral Staircase”

(14 August 2014 from Linda via BookCrossing)

This one was also not the easiest of reads, but for different reasons. It’s the memoir of Armstrong’s time directly after leaving holy orders, with a brief description of the background of her time as a nun, and taking us up to the real launch of her career writing about comparative religion and the history of religion. Matthew has read one of her big books on the history of religion and I’d vaguely heard of her story, so I was interested enough to put this aside when it came to me in a box of BookCrossing books to sort through and release.

In the book, Armstrong starts to find herself and establish an identity outside of that of a nun, and she also gradually discovers that the fainting fits that she’s had since the nunnery were not, as the nuns and a series of psychiatrists try to make out, attention-seeking behaviour, but a progressively worsening form of epilepsy. Now, this is mentioned on the back of the book, which is fair enough, and I understand that not everything can (and I don’t want to get into the trigger warnings discussion here), but what is not mentioned is the equally major and important theme of eating disorders, related to both Armstrong and two of her friends, which I would have preferred to have a warning about, personally. I thought this might be one of those things that everybody knows, but apparently not. Anyway, consider yourselves warned – it’s not that graphic but is potentially triggering or (in my case) upsetting.

Anyway, it’s an interesting read in general, although the religious theory gets a bit intense towards the end, and I won’t be rushing out to pick up the first bit.

There was a mention of John Clare and a page of musings on Iris Murdoch, which rather amusingly tie the book to the Sinclair in a more useful way than I thought the theme of mental health struggles would.

Currently reading: I’m currently leafing through Nick Hornby’s “The Polysyllabic Spree” – unfortunately, I’m not that fond of Hornby as a writer (OK, I love “High Fidelity” but he leaves me a bit cold elsewhere) and I’m not massively into the books he reads as he keeps a reading diary for a magazine for a couple of years. The conceit of the board of editors referenced in the title is too twee and fanciful for me, but it’s a book about reading and about buying books, it’s not too laborious a read (although it has very small print, making it a smaller and thinner book than it would otherwise be), so I’m carrying on with it. The other current read is the third Forsyte Saga book, “To Let”, and I’m very much enjoying that! No more books in … so far … What are you reading at the moment?

Book reviews – Harold Nicolson and The Warden


February 2015 TBRTwo more “traditional” books this time, I think – in fact, I’m more likely to be found reading an older book than a modern one, I think. I do giggle when I note that any “modern” book I have was usually published 3-4 years ago – so it’s had time to come out in paperback and make its way to the charity shop bookshelves or be registered on BookCrossing. Anyway, a lovely biography and a lovely novel, with all the values you expect from an older book: good writing, good editing …

James Lees-Milne – “Harold Nicolson Vol. 1 1886-1929″

(Bought from the book sale in the village square, 21 June 2014)

I’ve got a bit of a “thing” about the Nicolson family and devour anything I see by and about them, although I noted when reading this one that I haven’t read any of Harold’s novels and I am patchy on my Vita Sackville-West oeuvre, too. It’s of course akin to the Mitford and Bloomsbury “things” that one can have – a group of people, different generations, books about and by to acquire, old and new. Anyway, I sprung upon this at a random book sale back in June last year (spending my bus fare money once I’d got safely back home from parkrun!), had been greatly looking forward to it, and was not disappointed.

It’s the first volume of a proper, old-fashioned biography, by which I don’t mean stuffy and straight-laced, but beautifully written and edited and with a healthy liking and respect for and understanding of its subject. Of course, there’s a lot about Vita, too, and her love affairs and their effect on Harold, and the development of their special marriage arrangement. Bloomsbury comes into it, too, but also lots of other figures – Sitwells (another “thing” of mine) and Gertrude Bell, for example.

It uses primary sources to good effect, quoting long passages from Vita and Harold’s extensive correspondence (when he was away on diplomatic duties, they would write at least once a day, receiving letters in batches), and writing in Harold’s voice to a large extent when using indirect quotation. This makes the book extremely intimate and very readable, more so than you would imagine from first opening the close-packed print of this 1980s paperback.

The book is illustrated with Harold’s sketches, which are charming, but I would have liked some photographs, and feel that’s a real lack. It’s also quite detailed on his works of fiction and non-fiction, which, as I mentioned, I’m not terribly familiar with, but the insight into the writing process is still interesting. A very good index rounds off a satisfying book which takes us to the end of Harold’s diplomatic career, told in lively and interesting fashion even when it’s going into the depths of discussions on treaties and ententes. I am desperate to get my hands on Volume 2 now!

Anthony Trollope – “The Warden”


Would you be shocked to find out that I’ve never actually read any Trollope up until now? I don’t know how that happened, to be honest. I think I had him associated with Thackeray, having read but disliked “Vanity Fair” in my 20s. I do tend to have an odd reading relationship with classic authors – take my progress with George Eliot, where I read “Middlemarch” over and over again but didn’t tackle any of her other books until I was given a copy of “Daniel Deronda” a year or so ago, and I’m now happily picking the others up when I see them to prolong the joy of discovering the rest of her books. Anyway, I hadn’t read any Trollope, and several bloggers who I know and follow and like and share interests with had been reading him, so I thought I’d go for it.

Well, again, I wasn’t disappointed. I thoroughly enjoyed “The Warden” and, while it was slightly odd to get to the end of a reasonably substantial book and find that you’re only 5% through the set, reading on Kindle has been absolutely fine, and has given a contrast with paper book reading of concurrent choices. I feel that Trollope falls into the Hardy arena with his small community life and rural chorus, and the Eliot arena with the web of connections and ties in a community, although perhaps, in this novel, on a slightly smaller, more concentrated scale.

He’s human and humane as a writer, with immense sympathy for even his most unlikeable characters. He’s also much funnier than I’d expected, with asides about whistling bishops and a hilarious rant about Dickens in a metacritical aside about an author who has started writing a novel about the situation he is writing about (he also zooms into the picture, taking us into people’s houses and mentioning his dealings with them, in a way that again echoes Eliot).

Trollope seems to use the premise of the book – that the Warden of a set of almshouses is found by a young, thrusting and radical doctor to be profiting unfairly from the charitable estate’s increased wealth, that doctor being the beloved of his daughter, and the bishop in whose gift the position lies being the father-in-law of the Warden’s other daughter (his son and her husband is the Archdeacon) – as an excuse to gather a set of people into one place and examine human nature and relationships. The Bishop and the Warden are firm, sentimental old friends, both afraid of the Archdeacon, and the women in the piece, while not here at the forefront, are their own firm people and rounded and likeable – I’m told that Trollope is good at women, and I look forward to meeting more in the next books.

So, a joy to read, and I’m going to have to eke these out a bit, or else I’ll be reading them all in one gulp – I do want to enjoy them properly so don’t want to race through them. How marvellous to find a new author to love and know that there are books and books and BOOKS of theirs to read! When did that last happen to you?

I’m currently reading another book from that batch of buys, Iain Sinclair’s “Edge of the Orison”, psychogeography in the footsteps of Essex poet John Clare and, because you can never be sure of what Sinclair’s going to come up with next, a rather silly novel set in Delhi which I’m not sure I’ll finish.

Book review – Professor Elemental and Nimue Brown – “Letters Between Gentlemen”

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Letters Between Gentlemen Professor Elemental and Nimue BrownBack in the dim and distant etc., when I lived and worked in London, lost in the mists of my first stint working for a library supplier, I would travel up from Moorgate to New Barnet with my colleague Paul. He was (and is) a lovely chap, maybe a touch eccentric around the edges, and on those train journeys, he would often be scribbling what I believe they call ‘rhymes’ (do they? I don’t know, I’m not in the least hip, let alone hip hop) on an A4 lined pad, sometimes practising them, too. He did ever such a good rap, composed on the spot, on my (first) leaving day and we kept in vague touch.

Several (many) years later, and Paul Alborough, the jolly chap on the train, had metamorphosed into Professor Elemental, beloved and well-known exponent of the ‘Chap Hop’ genre of music. He’d moved from office work to teaching and then on to a full-time music career, and in fact I have been interviewing him in the Saturday Business Chat strand on my professional website for a few years now, most recently a week or so ago. Having branched out into tea, t-shirts and comics, the sensible next move for the Professor Elemental brand would surely be a novel … and so it was to be.

Professor Elemental & Nimue Brown (ill. Tom Brown) – “Letters Between Gentlemen”

I was going to say that steampunk isn’t really my genre, but having read two books in the genre this month (the other being Paul Magrs’ “Mrs Danby and Company“, and yes, I have recommended the two Pauls to one another), I can’t really claim that any more. I would say that I don’t know the ins and outs of what a steampunk novel should be, but I gather from my small forays that it should feature a) wild and unpredictable inventions, b) said inventions being crafted from older materials such as brass and rivets rather than modern stuff, c) time settings in the Victorian/ Edwardian era, d) humour, e) memorable characters, f) a complex and highly amusing plot. If so, this one ticks all the boxes.

With the main characters the private investigator Algernon Spoon, a batty aristo, Horatio Plunkett, and his very amenable sister Maude and Professor Elemental, here a real inventor with a besuited ape side-kick and an unfortunate habit of blowing up and otherwise accidentally destroying his inventions, their users and innocent bystanders, you know that mayhem is likely to ensue. Throw in some badgermingos, a huge metal Professor, some curiously veiled sisters, a tangle of dodgy societies and an even tighter tangle of a plot, and you’re guaranteed laughs and silliness. There’s satire, too, at gender and class relations and learned societies, which gives the book more depth and prevents it from being merely silly (there is a fair bit of innuendo which is not for the very easily offended). On the offence point, yes, there is murder most horrid and the odd disappearing puppy, but it’s done very lightly and nothing upset your feeble reviewer, so is not likely to upset you.

The plot all comes together, there are some read-out-loud and laugh-out-loud moments, and the book itself is a very nice object – I was sent (thank you!) the hardback in a nice slip-case, and the book has a nice feel and some excellent illustrations.

This book will suit: Fans of Professor Elemental; fans of Paul Magrs; fans of Terry Pratchett; general readers looking for an entertaining read.

Disclaimer: I was sent this book for review by the Prof. I was not asked to link to the Professor Elemental website but have done so anyway.

Book reviews – Penguin Portrait and In Chancery


February 2015 TBRYes, we’re on to books completed in February now, so this horror of a picture of my TBR has to accompany all further posts this month. Eeps! I have taken another one to read from the extreme left of the front row and had a small shuffle-up, so all is not lost. Today I’m reviewing another book bought in April on our trip to the Lake District and the second volume of the “Forsyte Saga” …

Steve Hare (ed.) – “Penguin Portrait”

(Bought 17 April 2014 – Fireside Bookshop, Windermere)

This book is subtitled “Allen Lane and the Penguin Editors” and is a history of Penguin books and particularly the series and imprints that it engendered, with particular regard to the editors who worked on these books and series. The editor himself uses material drawn from the Penguin archives to look at the work of these editors and their series, pulling together internal memoranda, letters between Penguin staff members and John Lane and correspondence between authors and editors.

I particularly enjoyed the sections on Rieu, who edited the first Penguin Classics (which were all works in translation, even though we’re all used to those black-spined and red-topped editions of the Penguin Classics which featured Austen, Eliot, etc., aren’t we?) and Glover, who was taken on after he’d submitted lists of errors as a “mere” reader of Penguin books, and their passion for getting it right, and there were fascinating exchanges with the translators of the early Classics, as well as some on some inadvertently poisonous recipes in Alice B. Toklas’ cookery book (did you know she’d done one? I didn’t!).

The book is very detailed, especially on political machinations within Penguin and the fine points of some series. It perhaps suffered a little from my having fairly recently read “Penguin Special” and “So Much to Tell” – I might be a bit Penguined-out now! But it was a good and valued addition to my collection, and a signed copy, too, which is nice.

This book will suit readers interested in publishing, editing and Penguin; those with a robust ability to tolerate high levels of slightly dusty detail.

John Galsworthy – “In Chancery”

(Ebook, original copy owned since the 80s)

The second volume of the Forsyte Saga, taking place 12 years after the events of “The Man of Property”. The man in question, Soames Forsyte, has a new property in Reading, while his cousin, Young Jolyon, continues to live at Robin Hill, with his three children and their unfortunately ageing dog (sensitive readers watch out for the inevitable here, although it is well-signposted and not gratuitous). Robin Hill is of course the house Soames had built to please his faithless / depressed and trapped (delete as applicable) wife Irene. Irene herself now lives in London, more comfortable on an income provided by Old Jolyon, who became fond of her in his later years.

Now Soames has decided he wants to remarry (primarily to provide himself with an heir – a stark reminder of how different marriage arrangements are now, with said arrangements being made mainly with the young lady in question’s mother), and he must therefore consider the distasteful matter of divorce; this causes Young Jolyon, who looks after the administration of her legacy, to draw closer to Irene and try to protect her, especially as Soames becomes uncharacteristically (apart from where Irene is concerned) passionate about the whole affair and engages in some rather unfortunate encounters with her.

Meanwhile, Soames’ sister faces marital woes and the courts as well, as her dodgy husband proves true to the impression he gives as he enters a mid-life crisis, and their father becomes increasingly frail and querulous. Young Jolyon’s son gets off to a bad start with his second cousin, Soames’ nephew; although both are at Oxford, they revolve in very different circles and find themselves on the opposite sides of both political and personal disputes, showing the Forsytes’ propensity for feuds and fallings-out moving down to the next generation. The Boer War also starts to encroach on the safe and somewhat smug world of the Forsytes.

Cleverly done so that the reader isn’t confused, and fascinating as the cold lawyer must contend with hot passions and the burning embarassment of being on the other side of the life of the Courts. Being not quite a Forsyte turns out to be an advantage where Paris is concerned and there is deep and horrible irony when a company is engaged to follow someone and report back to someone else. The Forsyte ways and attitudes to property are seen to dilute as the generations march on. And someone rather important makes an appearance right at the end …

My previous reviews from 2007  (This does also include a review of “To Let”, the final book in this trilogy, so might contain spoilers). Bridget’s review, Ali’s review and Karen’s to come.

This book will suit people who’ve read the first novel – these aren’t really standalone books but as a series are most satisfying.


I’m currently reading a wonderful biography of Harold Nicolson by James Lees-Milne which is very entertaining and beautifully written. Once I’ve got a little distance from the Forsytes, it’ll be Trollope time! What are you reading at the moment?

Book reviews – “Joy and Josephine” and “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”


Jan 2015 To Be Read shelfI’ve left the January TBR up for these reviews of books read in that month, and so as not to scare the easily shocked among you with a re-post of the frightening February TBR … Anyway, at LAST I review “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”, alongside another interesting book which also discusses poverty, social injustice and social mobility. All sounding a bit dry? Well, one of these books was far more entertaining than the other, in my view, and it’s not the way around that you’d probably expect!

Monica Dickens – “Joy and Josephine”

(5 July 2014 – via BookCrossing)

When I picked this up from the BookCrossing stall at the Moseley Festival back in the summer, I was excited to find a Monica Dickens I hadn’t heard of before. I loved her autobiographical works (“One Pair of Hands”, etc.) but I do forget that her novels tend towards the grimmer end of the spectrum, and this is no exception. It pretty much opens with a fire at an orphanage that leaves one baby injured and one baby dead (but which one? – this is an important plot point, but it is still grim and a bit unexpected) and proceeds by way of poverty, genteel and otherwise, family discord, snobbery and reverse snobbery, gangs of unruly children, marital disharmony, the effects on families of having too many children, confused identities, a cat coming to an unpleasant end (watch out, fellow “don’t put animals in books just to kill them” readers) and squalid living places.

The central character – will we ever know whether she’s Joy or Josephine? – is ambitious but not particularly likeable, although she does have any pleasantness squashed out of her by her living situation growing up, which I think is the point, and there aren’t really any sympathetic characters in the book, which isn’t something that normally bothers me too much, but did make for a somewhat dreary read. The discussions, both implicit in the plot and explicit in the characters’ interactions, on nature versus nurture and people’s ability to transcend their genes and/or childhoods are interesting, although a little dated at times. The ending is reasonably satisfying if not conclusive (which is also fine) and lingers in the mind as a reminder of this rather strange book.

Robert Tressell – “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”

(Fireside Bookshop, Windermere, 16 April 2014 – this book has the distinction of being the first in which I wrote my married name on the flyleaf)

I have wanted to read this book for a long time, and I’m quite surprised that I hadn’t done so many years ago, having a penchant for the left-leaning type of politics and being interested in social history. Anyway, when I discovered that it was published in 1914 (although I think not in this unexpurgated form), which was a very poor year for book publishing but the first in my Reading a Century of Books project, I determined to pick up a copy as soon as I saw one (but not go out to seek one – them’s the rules). It wasn’t long before I spotted the nice new paperback edition in a lovely bookshop (which has unfortunately now packed up and moved to Littlehampton) and so it was that a socialist epic novel became the first literary purchase of my married life.

On to the book. I started off a bit confused, I must admit. I had got it into my head (how?) that the poor beleaguered workmen whose lives we follow over a couple of years form some kind of philanthropic society to help their fellow men. In fact, of course, that never happens, and their philanthropy actually lies in their giving their best years, strength and health to their masters and the capitalist system. But it didn’t disappoint me once I’d realised that.

It’s an uneven but powerful book. I understand that most editions have been cut, with this being the first (?) full one. I’m not sure what they would have cut, as the didactic sections, exemplars and speeches are woven together to make a whole. Characters do come and go in and out of focus (and a kitten is introduced which had me worried (see review above) but actually simply ceased to be mentioned part way through, which was a bit odd – I mention that to help anyone else who’s worried, as I couldn’t find anything on it except a note that it’s a Metaphor (well, yes)), and obviously events and set pieces are very much shaped to the purpose of the author. The interspersed scenes from the life of the corrupt Town Council were both reminiscent of that other great novel of town life, “South Riding” and horribly scathing and savage indictments of the people who seek to “run” their fellow citizens’ lives.

The detailed descriptions of work and family life should be required reading for those who seek to dismantle the National Health Service and the Welfare State as well as deregulating laws on working practices (the workers in this book have the original zero hours contracts), and for those who seek to maintain or reform the system. It was pretty horrific to read of soup kitchens and people pawning their good clothes to find money for food, and know that over 100 years later, this sort of situation is on the rise again in this country. There’s also a passage about the use (or not) of reasoning with people with fixed ideas and disordered minds which brings to mind the exhortation not to try to change the opinion of a stranger on the Internet – nothing changes, does it!

Although there are some grim scenes as well as set pieces and discussions which are didactic in purpose and nature, I didn’t find it a dry read, and there’s a humanity and care for his fellow humans on the part of the author and some of his characters that kept me reading, even though I will admit that the writing became a little turgid at times. The descriptions of socialist utopias were of course written before the great Communist experiments of the 20th century got underway, so read as a little over-idealistic at times, but still with good points to make, and so I forgive the occasional unevenness of the writing and plot.

I know a few people were planning to read this alongside me this year, so I hope you are able to comment with a link to your review, either now or when you’ve finished it, or let me know that you’re still planning to read it and will comment when you have. I’d love to hear what everyone else thought of it, as there has been a variety of responses among friends on social media already! I for one am glad I have finally read it.

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