Book review – Elizabeth Fair – “The Native Heath”


I am being strict on myself this year and only joining in reading challenges I can fulfil from my own To Be Read shelves. Fortunately, when Kaggsy and Simon launched their new year-week challenge, the 1954 Club, I was able to take part, as I had an unread Elizabeth Fair novel languishing on my Kindle (the lovely people at Dean Street Press kindly sent me her whole oeuvre in ebook format from their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint rather a while ago; I have read most of the others).

Elizabeth Fair – “The Native Heath”

(21 February 2017 – from the publisher)

“Dear Goatstock! It’s our native heath.”

“It isn’t exactly a heath,” said the literal Dora. “It’s just a little village.”

But Julia was too enthralled to mind.

This is one of those delicious change of lifestyle / new house / new village books which I always seem to enjoy and which were seemingly a mainstay of mid-century, middlebrow novels. In this one, we meet Julia, widowed six or so months ago and living in a rented flat, just as she has inherited a house in the village of Goatstock – she was left it by an uncle, although it’s not certain exactly why she was chosen, as she has various other cousins. In fact, she invites Dora, always seen as the “poor relation” and as having had a “hard life”, to go and live with her – not to share the house as such (this is dwelt upon) but as a sort of companion/housekeeper. She also brings Nanny, who she now claims was her old nurse, although really she was a sort of housemaid; Nanny has very firm ideas on the rights and wrongs of things and becomes more difficult. We can add Robert, Julia’s late husband’s nephew, into the mix to give a younger person, and off they trot to do up the house and settle in.

There’s another cousin or two around, too, and Julia has various schemes to improve people’s lots, being one of those women people seem to confide in, and then Harriet and Marian, Harriet the orphaned niece of the rather wonderful village eccentric and Marian who is engaged to a missionary no one seems to like, even though she’s perfectly happy. When Harriet spies Robert, she starts machinating to get him and Marian together, and to avoid the irritations of the boy next door. The cast is complete by a selfish vicar, his exhausted sister and the woman who may or may not be trying to push her way into the vicarage and other locals such as Mrs Prentice and Mrs Minnis, who both seem to look down on the other, and the plot by a sub-plot about the threat of a New Town being built around them, which allows for meetings and discussions among the villagers.

It’s a very funny book, with social mishaps, buttonholings and set-pieces galore; it’s hard to know what Fair thinks of her creation, Julia, as she does seem to be mocking her (she becomes quite monstrous at times) but then she might be given a happy ending. Similarly, Dora is mocked by Julia but only for being different – she has given up on feminine fripperies and is quite happy with that, but gets on well with people, and Julia comes to a fairly upsetting (for her) conclusion about her cousin. So it’s a curious book with more to think about than it might at first appear.

Thank you to Dean Street Press for sending me this book in return for an honest review and sorry it took so long to generate said review!

This book fills in a year in my Century of Books, which I have been trying to fill for almost a decade, while being determined not to buy anything myself just because it fits …

Book review – Rumer Godden – “Black Narcissus”


Rather fortuitously, Ali passed me a copy of this book recently, just as the LibraryThing Virago Group we’re both in was planning a year of themed reading, with Teachers or Nuns as the first theme. So I picked up this novel about nuns with its fantastically gothic cover (and somewhat gothic events) and it was a good read, as Godden reliably is, with some reservations around language and terms (as you’d probably expect in a book set in India by a British author, published in 1939. I thought this was the only challenge this fits in with, and it’s a slightly odd contrast with all the Nordic stuff I’ve been reading recently, but astoundingly, it fills in one of the remaining years in my Century of Reading!

Rumer Godden – “Black Narcissus”

(05 December 2021 – from Ali)

A group of nuns from a fictional order with its Mother Convent in Surrey travel north into the very edges of Darjeeling to set up a convent, school and clinic in a disused “palace” half-way up a hill, looking over the Himalayas to Kanchenjunga. Their only help is The General, a man living in the shadow of the memory of his more exciting father and, more practically, Mr Dean, said to have “gone native” (more on terminology later) and able to get things done either himself or with the help of the local people. A group of English nuns, between the wars, stuck on their own in a slightly peculiar ex “house of the women” where concubines used to live, thrown on their own resources with one reasonably fit and healthy man going in and out (I don’t want to subscribe to stereotypes about nuns, but if you put a man in a nunnery, he’s going to be a Chekhov’s Gun of a man, isn’t he?) and with one among them who is likely to be trouble, and is from the start – throw in a creepy Ayah who is used to having the place to herself and mourning her dead mistress, the flamboyant son of the General who only wants to learn, and a ripe and luscious local girl, and a sort of amorphous mob of public opinion and you’re asking for something melodramatic to happen.

We see things through some people’s eyes more than others, and Sister Clodagh, the Sister Superior in charge, gets to show us her reason for becoming a nun, having flashbacks of memories of a lost love that she thought she’d tamped down. The local town acts as a sort of chorus, sardonic Mr Dean as a warning and recording angel, and the mysterious holy man who lives above the convent a sort of immovable figure, showing that everything will go on as it has been before when the nuns are inevitably thrown off the mountain. The psychological stresses within and between the central characters are subtly done and draw us on through the narrative as things wind up to their conclusion – whatever that might be.

It’s an entertaining novel and well done – but of course there are colonial attitudes to get through (although to be sort of fair on Godden, she praises her characters when they start to see the “natives” as individual humans). There are comical and naive locals, superstitions that the nuns try to stamp out, and while they’re seen as being inflexible and not seeking to understand, but to impose their standards on the village, and that this is not a good thing, there is also some really regrettable language that causes the modern reader to wince. An interesting period piece that needs to be read with an understanding of the context and the change in how we would interact with these Indigenous populations now.

Book review – Ada Leverson – “The Little Ottleys” (“Love’s Shadow”, “Tenterhooks” and “Love at Second Sight”)


I bought my copy of “The Little Ottleys”, a set of charming books published between 1908 and 1916, in December 2018 after I’d bought Ali at Heaven-Ali a copy for her LibraryThing Virago Group not-so-secret Santa that year and decided I had to have a copy too.  She saw it on my TBR photo some time earlier this year and asked if I fancied reading it together. Especially as we’re onl 3.5 miles apart but could be a world apart at the moment, that felt like a lovely idea, so we’ve been doing just that over the last few weeks. We both read “Love’s Shadow” at a similar point in 2017 and she didn’t need to re-read it; however, I did, as it was the first book I read after I’d had an operation in that year, and the general anaesthetic must have wiped it from my mind as I had not a clue or recollection about it! So I read all three and she skimmed the first one and read the other two and it was lovely to think of her reading away at the same edition of the same book.

Ada Leverson – “Love’s Shadow”

(28 December 2018)

The pretty and delightful Edith Ottley suffers her pretty awful bore of a husband, Bruce (he is amusing, but his chief characteristic is described as being envy, which is not an attractive way to be). He is a hypochondriac who constantly misinterprets what she says and countermands his own instructions, and lacks a sense of humour, but there is amusement in how she manages him. Epigrams like Oscar Wilde’s litter the text – and that would probably be because Leverson was a friend of Wilde’s, and she has the same line in exquisite comedy. Hyacinth and her companion, the peculiar, mackintosh-clad Anne Yeo are the stars of the plot here; Anne is, like Ann Perronet in Murdoch’s “An Unofficial Rose” the backbone of the household: “It was like talking to a chair” could be said of either of them. There’s a complicated plot involving romantic swaps and marital misunderstandings, along with that great stalwart, the putting-on of a play.

Ada Leverson – “Tenterhooks”

We’ve lost Hyacinth and there’s not even a mention of her and her family, but gained Edith’s rather marvellous confidant, Vincy. But we also meet the handsome, kind and rich (if a bit entitled) Aylmer Ross, who falls in love with Edith. I was a bit shocked, as I’d expected to run along with the marital conflict but not have an actual threat to the marriage. But when Bruce turns out to have a couple of understandings and entanglements with young ladies, Edith flights bravely for her marriage and looks set to sacrifice her own feelings. The children, Archie and Dilly, provide comic relief, but it’s a darker book than the first because of the real peril the marriage faces.

Like Vince in “Does it Show” by Paul Magrs, Edith likes to have plain walls and not too much fussy decoration about the place. Another one for Bookish Beck!

Ada Leverson – “Love at Second Sight”

Published in 1916 (and thus doing that rare thing of filling in a year in my Century of Reading which yes, I am still adding to, sloooowwwwwllly), the war looms over this one as you’d expect. Bruce is shown up for the coward he is, on top of all his other faults, and the peculiar Madam Frabelle inexplicably comes to stay. Where is Vincy when you need him to sort things out when Aylmer Ross is also back – from France and wounded. Will Edith respond to his constancy in this new time of war? Well, “It doesn’t seem to matter now so much” (p. 492) gives us a clue. There’s humour to the last, when Bruce is more concerned about the state of his inkstand than the state of his marriage. We’re willing Edith to get happiness and fulfilment in her life after managing Bruce so beautifully for so long.

A lovely escapist series which you could plunge into, forgetting what was going on elsewhere. Ali has been reading them, too, and here’s her review.

Tomorrow I will share a lovely book I’ve read to review for Shiny New Books and two incomings I couldn’t somehow resist clicking on. Then I’ll be reviewing “Howl’s Moving Castle” on Thursday – how are people getting on with that?

Book reviews – Mollie Panter-Downes – “One Fine Day” and Zora Neale Hurston – “Their Eyes were Watching God” (Virago Books) #20BooksOfSummer #amreading #books #Virago


A double review today or I’m never going to get caught up, basically! However, they do go well together. For a start, they’re both published by Virago. I was given both by the same person for Christmas (thank you, Belva!). They are both part of – get this – my #20BooksofSummer challenge (books 15 and 17) and my All Virago / All August reading month AND my Reading a Century project (covering 1947 and 1937). That brings me up to 68 books covered in my Reading a Century project – no more coming up in my TBR so I might have to start doing some judicious book-picking soon. And they both evoke a very intense sense of time and place, which gives them a link that otherwise a book about the black experience in 1930s Florida and a village in post-WW2 England might not have. Both also have sudden amazing lyrical passages but a real sense of what being in that situation would actually be like.

Mollie Panter-Downes – “One Fine Day”

(25 December 2016, from Belva in my Virago Group Not so Secret Santa)

Set on one day in 1946, this perfect short novel examines what it feels like when war and danger are over and people have to settle down into a peacetime life that is both familiar and horribly new. Like many Virago and Persephone heroines, Laura has had to get used to mucking in and doing for herself when her servants went into war service; now husband Stephen is back, his job in London a mystery but his anger at the state of his once-perfect garden palpable. Daughter Victoria is alternately clingy and coolly observing and has her own complicated life at school and with friends.

There is some absolutely beautiful lyrical descriptive writing, often describing the landscape but also often, in the manner of poetic writing, inserting a clever reminder of death and destruction woven through it, so we find “sandbags pouring out sudden guts” which are contrasted with the timelessness and relative unconcern of the countryside itself.

The book reminded me of “Mrs Dalloway” – yes, the writing was just this side of that good – with Laura considering an impending visit from her mother and ruminating on her house and its demands and us inhabiting her head, so the subject-matter and the style are reminiscent. Meanwhile, social commentary comes in with the fact that the manor house is being vacated for a boys’ school, the old guard moving cheerfully to smaller quarters.

Will Laura dare to carve out a few moments to live her own life? A trip to the local gypsy’s camp to retriever her naughty dog (there is also a very neat and disdainful cat) gives her an opportunity which might also give a jolt to their carefully polite family world.

This was Book 15 in my 20BooksOfSummer project and completed 1947 in Reading A Century.

Zora Neale Hurston – “Their Eyes were Watching God”

(25 December 2016, from Belva in my Virago Group Not so Secret Santa)

An amazing and absorbing novel: don’t be put off by the dialect as it’s a very good story and a wonderful portrait of a particular place at a particular time. The dialect is fairly internally consistent, so you get the hang of it quite quickly, and there are sections of narrative which are smoother reads. Oh, but it’s worth it anyway, so worth it.

Must of the novel is set in Eatonville, Florida’s first incorporated black town, and this provides a fascinating portrait of the birth of a town, as Janie, the central character, and her husband arrive just as it’s being set up and he takes charge … as he always takes charge.

We follow Janie from girl to woman, age 16 to 40, through a series of husbands, the first two of whom crush her spirit and the third of whom, however unsuitable he seems, lets her spirit fly. We know from her return – watched and commented on by the chorus of the town’s gossips, head held high – that something has gone wrong in her life, but the book then takes us chronologically through her life to that point, with Janie’s history stretching right back to the time of slavery, through her grandmother’s stories, and also giving her the genetic heritage that leads to some fascinating discussions with other women about race and wealth. This, more than her relationships – or this and her sexual and self-awakening – will be what looks like a story of a woman progressing through marriages an important text for black American writers and feminists.

Janie is a fabulous, rounded and flawed character and the narrative moves briskly through her outer life while at the same time building her inner life. Some parts near the end might seem a little melodramatic but are still believable – it will take me a long time to forget the vivid description of the storm and flood and there are also some strikingly lyrical passages of nature description which seem to echo Janie’s sexual awakening.

I loved this and highly recommend it.

This was Book 17 in my 20BooksOfSummer project and completed 1937 in Reading A Century.

I have read Scott Jurek’s “Eat and Run” which was Book 16 in 20BooksOfSummer, in case you were wondering where that had got to, and am now reading Amber Reeves’ “A Lady and Her Husband”, a Persephone, which is excellent so far. This lady has no work to do today and is about to dive back into it!


Book review – Diana Wynne Jones – Dark Lord of Derkholm #amreading #books


TBR shelf March 2017The fantasy writer I will always read, Diana Wynne Jones’ books are consistently well-written, funny but not stupidly so, gender-balanced and unputdownable. She’s the author who I always push at people (recommend to people?) who have liked Harry Potter – her Chrestomanci series has a similar Boy Wizard idea but is just as good, if not better. The reason this one isn’t in the photo above is that I took it to Iceland to read on the plane home, but didn’t get very far due to spending most of the flight asleep. I did, however, push aside my Friday Housecleaning to sit on my bottom and finish the last 100 pages.

Diana Wynne Jones – “Dark Lord of Derkholm”

(19 November 2016 – from Luci)

I acquired this one from my London book-buying trip in November – the lovely Luci always brings along a big bag of books and this one immediately appealed.

The somewhat slimy Mr Chesney has been running Pilgrim Parties from the next-door universe for 40 years. His sinister accountant minions and sets of instruction booklets lay out the experiences his tourists are to have – and as these involve the usual fantasy novel tropes of setting out as a brave band of explorers, encountering wizards and dwarves, being ambushes, having battles with mythical creatures and slaying a Dark Lord, Wynne Jones can have great fun with how it all works behind the scenes.

The mild-mannered wizard Derk is chosen to be this year’s Dark Lord, with not many expectations of doing a good job. he’s not a great wizard and certainly no good at raising demons, being more interested in creating new and peculiar creatures, including some mistakes (the carnivorous sheep are certainly a mistake and the winged horses create perhaps rather too much interest). He’s even got a family of offspring made up of a mix of people and griffins (and one of the female griffins is a whizz at technology and inventing, which is lovely).

This standalone novel is full of excellent characters, set pieces and Easter Eggs – who can resist an author who names two of her (male) dwarves Galadriel and Dworkin?

This one fills in the latest gap in my Century of Books, 1998.

I’ve just finished “The Year of No Clutter”, which is handy, because I’m taking part in a Blog Tour for it tomorrow! Watch this space for the chance to enter a competition to win a copy (run by the publisher, not me) and a link to more info on a decluttering programme (but only if you’re interested; I get nothing out of you clicking or not clicking). I’m also enjoying E. Nesbit’s “The Lark” very much indeed.

Book reviews – Walking Home and Under the Glacier and MORE confessions #books #amreading #bookconfessions


oct-2016-tbrWell I’ve got two books from the North today (one further North than the other), both with trademark deadpan humour and surreal juxtapositions, but one eminently readable and the other Very Confusing. And then, to bookend October, which started of course with my mega-book-buying in Cornwall, we have a little pile of lovelies picked up in Buxton last weekend.

Simon Armitage – “Walking Home”

(25 December 2015, from Sian)

I absolutely loved this account of his walk down the Pennine Way (the ‘wrong way’) from Scotland to his home village. I went to a reading by Armitage centred on this book years ago at the  Birmingham Book Festival with Sian, and, helped by persuading Matthew to have a dip into the audiobook, I heard the whole book in his distinctive voice.

It’s funny and wry and self-deprecating, of course. It looks upon the surreal and provides a photograph, more often than not. It’s lovely on birds, which was a super surprise and a really great punctuation throughout the book. It lets you into secrets about the Pennine Way, like the attitudes of the people whose land it crosses and the efforts of its instigators to help walkers navigate the odd motorway.

The book is full of lovely little details, like, the waitress who “‘ducks’ beneath the poem as she passes in front of me with a Cumberland sausage,” because of course Armitage is also performing for money given into a sock at a variety of venues down the spine of his journey, recording the money and stray objects he receives and relying on the kindness of strangers to transport his suitcase.

It’s a walk through memories as well, of his family in particular, and those parts are very affecting, as he muses on being someone who’s never moved more than a few miles from where he was born (is this a common thing nowadays, I wonder?). He makes new friends and meets up with old ones, filling in descriptions with a wonderful poet’s shorthand. Excellent book.

Halldor Laxness – “Under the Glacier”

(25 December 2015, from Jane in the US for my Librarything Virago Group Not So Secret Santa)

I want to say first that I loved the other Laxness I’ve read so far, Independent People, and this was on my wishlist.

I was just lost. I did not understand this book at all. Fleeting scenes of a young man investigating a priest gone a bit wrong, random cakes, a mysterious package on a glacier, a disappearing wife … it was just like I was actually reading it in my poor Icelandic (although I’m sure the translation was good). Susan Sontag either understood it enough to write an introduction I couldn’t work out or was pretending. Lost, I was: lost. And I’m sure it was entirely my fault.

I’m wondering what Sian or Karen, both keener than me on weird European fiction, would make of it.

This was written in 1968 and so I’m adding it to the Century of Books, but will swap it out if I read another from that year!


OK, rather hastily onto those book purchases now … I picked all of these up in the Brierlow Bar Bookshop just outside Buxton, having gone up there to meet my friend Laura (we cover each other’s editing work but luckily no one needed one of us!). It’s a great remainder book shop with a good stock that apparently changes regularly. We then went round all the charity shops, which had lots of good books that I already had and compelled Laura to buy!

Jenny Colgan – “Class” – bought purely and simply because it’s set in a girls’ school in Cornwall – I couldn’t even work out which bit of Cornwall on a quick flick. I was glad I got this as looking at the TBR shelf, it’s rather low on fiction (11 to 25 non-fic now on the main shelf).

Muhammad Yunus – “Banker to the Poor” – he’s the chap who invented microfinance on a big scale – the precursor to all the Kivas and similar, and won a Nobel Prize for it. Hopefully some good and uplifting reading to cheer and provide solace in these dark days of seeming selfishness and entitlement.

Carol Watts – “Writers and their Work: Dorothy Richardson” – a real find, it discusses “Pilgrimage” in some detail, yet is small enough to post around all the “Pilgrimage” readers who would like to read it next year and find out what the series was all about. What a random and excellent find!

Ronald Rice – “My Bookstore” – an America book with delicious untrimmed edges which interviews lots of American writers (Jill McCorkle!) about their favourite places to read and buy books. Looks altogether delightful.

Russell Taylor – “The Looniness of the Long-Distance Runner” – I’m a sucker for running books and this is about a man who signed up for the New York City Marathon then had a year to get fit. It looks funny but is hopefully not TOO silly, and a good inspiration I’m sure.

That’s not many really, is it, and you’ll see tomorrow that the TBR really isn’t that bad still. Hooray!

I’ve also finished Anne Tyler’s “A Spool of Blue Thread”, read on the train journeys to and from Buxton (when I wasn’t reminiscing about Birmingham nightclubs of the 1990s with a bloke I ran for the Stockport-Buxton train with). A bittersweet read in itself, made more bittersweet by it being her LAST book (and I’ve read every one of the others), and will be reviewed in the wrong month as there’s no room for it in October.

Have you read any of these? Have you read a book you couldn’t understand recently??

Book reviews – Mrs ‘Arris Goes to Paris and Prodigal Summer #books #amreading



Two more holiday reads here – I can’t quite believe I only read four books while we were in Cornwall, but then I did mine two more for quotations to finish my Iris Murdoch research (first draft done) so that took up some reading time. Oh, and I chatted on the train on the way down, which took away some reading time, too. Never mind, these two were great reads, and I had a lovely holiday still.

Paul Gallico – “Mrs ‘Arris Goes to Paris”

(25 January 2016 via BookCrossing)

A charming tale, reminiscent perhaps of the famous Persephone, “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”, focusing on a charlady who comes into some money and saves up the rest, determined to have a Dior dress, having seen one in one of her clients’ houses (her London clients are just one part of this book that are beautifully drawn in just a few lines).

It’s a fairy-tale, of course, with Mrs Harris’ simple charm winning people over and bringing people together all over the place. You could see the dialect-filled dialogue she’s given as condescending, but she’s clearly an attractive and charming lady who the author loves, so that can be overlooked, in my opinion. It’s incredibly sweet – some might find it too much so, but there are elements of peril and some sad bits, too. The portraits of London and Paris are charming and it’s a lovely escapist read.

The only downside to this book was that it was in a bizarre 1980s edition with hugely anachronistic illustrations which paid no heed to the post-war feel of the book and were really odd. It was originally published in 1957, which means that it fills in one of the years in my Century of Reading! And, because it was a BookCrossing book, I left it in our holiday cottage!

Barbara Kingsolver – “Prodigal Summer”

(25 December 2002 (I wonder who from!))

A re-read of this excellent novel, set in the Appalachian Mountains, because Matthew, having read and loved “Flight Behaviour” with me found that the audio book for this one was also narrated by the author. I read it first back in 2003, I expect, so it will be in my paper journals but was before I started an online book journal.

Linked to “Flight Behaviour” by its themes of nature, renewal, the peace of solitude, family, community and science being used for good, we follow a summer (and a bit more) in the lives of a set of interesting characters. There’s independent Deanna, who used to live in Egg Fork and had a conventional life but now lives alone in the forest, with her dream job maintaining and researching the forest and its wildlife. Her search for the coyotes she believes are spreading into the region is interrupted by the arrival of a possibly more powerful predator. Lusa, product of blended civilisations and trying to fit into what she sees as a very traditional mountain family, must use all her wiles to survive and has some big decisions to make. Elderly neighbours are feuding over organic farming methods and the Bible, with comic relief but real passion.

Everyone – and indeed everything – is connected, and nothing truly disappears, even if it’s thrown away. From the throbbing fecundity of springtime nature (and there is a fair bit of throbbing fecundity in this book, one episode of which confused me!) to slowly warming human relationships and slowly dawning realisations, it’s beautifully drawn and observed and highly engaging. Recommended.

I’m currently reading the lovely “Chatterton Square” for the 1947 Club, although I fear I won’t get it read and reviewed by the end of the week as I’ve suddenly had all my work projects come in to roost. I’m also working my way through Woolf’s “The Common Reader” for #Woolfalong – that’s not a chore at all, and I keep muttering “Just one more essay”, so beautifully are they put together.

Book reviews – The Lighthearted Quest and Moon Country #20booksofsummer #books


TBR July 2016Oh dear, one book left over from July and, even more horrifically, one book that I read in May, mentioned reading in May in another review, and NEVER REVIEWED! Not in my paper reading journal, not on here. I was only alerted to this fact when I was telling someone about my Reading a Century of Books project, was scanning down the list, noticed the title, thought “I’m sure I’ve read this”, looked for the review to link to it, and there was no review. So a little scrapheap for you here, and two books that are totally unrelated apart from the fact that they’re both set in different countries from the UK.

Anne Bridge – “The Lighthearted Quest”

(11 September 2015 from the lovely Jane at Beyond Eden Rock)

I met up with Jane when we were on holiday; we’d sent each other photos of books we had going spare, and I profited greatly from her passing me the Julia Strachey volume and this one. It’s a lovely elderly hardback with the dust cover just hanging on, and that does add to the reading enjoyment, doesn’t it.

This was a lovely, light (in the main) and fun novel which i have since found out is only the first in a series of eight Julia Probyn novels which I will now have to look out for! The estimable and pretty unflappable Julia (who still manages to be a very attractive and sympathetic character) takes on the task of finding her cousin Colin, who’s needed to take over the family estate in Scotland. Using her dumb-blonde exterior as a disguise, and making full and unashamed use of her many admirers and contacts, she’s soon skipping around Morocco with an assortment of bankers, bar owners, whiskery Belgian archaeologists and elderly ladies with mysterious nephews.

The threads of the story all come together beautifully: some you can guess, some people more accustomed to mysteries would have guessed before me, and some probably can’t be guessed, although it all works out logically. There are some charming characters, too. The only slight issue is there’s a LOT about the socio-political issues of French colonialism, which is interesting given the 1950s time of writing, which is perhaps a little heavy and over-emphasised (however, there is a frighteningly prescient comment about “elites [using] nationalist sentiments to use Islam as a lever to rouse the ignorant multitudes and try to create an independent African Moslem Empire”).

On balance, a charming book, well written and amusing, and I would read more in the series.

This was Book 12 in my #20BooksofSummer project.

Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell – “Moon Country” (May read)

(14 April 2015)

I bought this book second hand online after having been alerted to its existence by Karen from Kaggsysbookishramblings, who seems to be a prime enabler at the moment (to be far, she’s only really compelled me to buy two books in over a year …). It follows Auden and MacNieces’s seminal “Letters from Iceland” (which I re-read in August 2012) with these two poets making their own way around the country, like their predecessors, including reportage, poetry, funny Icelandic soubriquets and playscripts in the work they produce. A lot of the Reykjavik and other western areas were familiar to me after having visited the country twice myself (trips 3 and 4 are currently being planned), and it was more jolly and readable than the earlier work.

This book covered 1996 in my Century of Reading project.

There we go, all neat and tidy now. I’ve since read book 13 in #2obooks (“Being Freddie” by Andrew Flintoff) and am making good progress with the Kynaston which might just be book 14. I’m half-way through the month’s Dorothy Richardson volume, and a half-loving it, half frustrated by it; I’ve also read a book about running marathons slowly. How are you all doing?

Book reviews – Harold Nicolson’s Diaries and Letters 1930-39 and All in One Basket


Mar 2016 TBRTwo books by what one might term poshos today, really. But what poshos – lovely Harold Nicolson and lovely Deborah Devonshire. So not the braying old-Etonians who are trying to destroy our society, but two people who cared about the warp and weft of (especially) countryside society and community and thought carefully about books, gardens and other people. Oh, and they were both bought (an old book and a new, in Oxfam and The Works) on a lovely trip to Macclesfield with friends back in March 2015. Note how I’m less than a year out of date now, too!

Harold Nicolson – “Diaries and Letters 1930-39”

(Bought 28 March 2015, Macclesfield Oxfam)

As a long-term fan of the entire Nicolson family, this was a wonderful find (I found volumes 1 and 3 and have recently supplanted them with volume 2) and excellent, entertaining reading. It’s beautifully edited by his son, Nigel, to the extent of having the running headers change on each page to describe what’s going on on that very page – not something you find now, I think. There’s a very good biographical summary, skilled interpolations to explain the background or activities described, and great footnotes explaining who people are, too.

Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West’s love and mutual respect shine through the book, which also includes some of her letters, for context: their only real falling-out is when she refuses to play the candidate’s wife when he’s standing in the General Election. It’s lovely to see their purchase of the Shiant Isles, about which their grandson Adam has written so beautifully (see my review of his “Sea Room“) as well as Harold and Nigel’s mutual love of the classics, which has also followed down the generations (I haven’t read Adam Nicolson’s book on Homer yet, but I will do). That’s what’s lovely when you’ve read biographies, novels, letters, diaries, etc., etc., surrounding a family and its generations, seeing patterns and places – dear Sissinghurst, of course, too, bought in this book and starting to develop – and people all moving along through the century.

Harold is witty and entertaining but serious and perceptive where he needs to be; we have an insider’s view of the Abdication Crisis and he’s fascinated by the House of Commons when he eventually gets there. Nigel is not hagiographical, being clear, for example, about Harold’s view that “true civilisation existed nowhere outside the inner circles of certain West European capital cities,” but it wouldn’t do to agree with everything that people you like think and say, and there is very much to like here. I’m already reading volume 2!

This book would suit: Anyone interested in 20th century history and politics, or houses and gardens, or the Bloomsburys and Nicolsons.

This book fills in a year in my Century of Re-Reading (although the 60s are quite sparse at the moment, so I’m not sure which volume will be the final one to be included!).

Deborah Devonshire – “All in One Basket”

(28 March 2015 – The Works, Macclesfield)

This jolly book by the youngest Mitford Sister draws together in one volume “Counting my Chickens” and “Home to Roost” with some additional essays and the original introductions by guest writers (including Alan Bennett). It’s a lovely collection of diary entries, short pieces, longer pieces (for example on the Kennedys), book reviews and fragments of memoir. Many of the pieces were written in her later years: she was obviously a doughty female who didn’t suffer fools gladly, and this shines through in her no-nonsense but often shriekingly funny prose.

Her love of place is evident, and her descriptions of Derbyshire lovely. Some of her pieces on modern language and ways are a little self-conscious, and I don’t agree with some of her more conservative views, but I loved the pieces on the experience of living in a stately home that’s run as a business, and the pieces about family (how did I not realise she was Emma Tennant’s mother?). All in all, it was a lovely, fresh and readable collection.

I was reading these two books at the same time, so it was lovely to come across a couple of mentions of Vita Sackville-West, her gardens and her gardening writing – I love it when that happens.

This book would suit: People looking for an easy, countryside-based read; fans of the Mitford Sisters.


So now it’s on to some heavy reviewing – I have the fascinating looking “The Prose Factory” on the go to review for Shiny New Books, and the republisher, Open Road Media, has kindly offered me two Margery Sharp novels to review through Netgalley (they’ve asked me to release those reviews near to the publication date, so watch out next month). I’ve had a look at the next Dorothy Richardson and it’s a biggie, so I’m hoping I will get some good solid reading time in during the next week or so! I am marshalling at a cross-country running event tomorrow – maybe there will be big gaps between competitors … (only joking).

Book reviews – Crossriggs (Virago) and Tales of the Chalet School (Jan and Feb reads)


Feb 2016 TBRTwo sets of rather contrasting books today – and also two from last month and two from this. The Elinor M. Brent-Dyers are as you would expect rather conventional underneath the madcap heroines and female resourcefulness; the Findlater is remarkable for its freedom of emotion and its steadfast heroine. All to be enjoyed for different reasons, of course!

Jane and Mary Findlater – “Crossriggs”

(22 January 2015 – from fellow LibraryThing Virago Group member ccookie)

A wonderful 1908 novel by the prolific (but as yet unread by me) Scottish sisters and in a lovely Virago green edition that came to me kind of by accident when a fellow Virago Group member sent a copy to me to give to a friend, who had managed to acquire one from somewhere else. I’m so glad it came to me and that I’ve read it – and I know at least one other book blogger chum is planning to read it, too.

It’s set in a small Scottish town an hour by train and a huge distance in the residents’ heads from Edinburgh, this novel is reminiscent of both Trollope (with its small group of families of varying economic statuses) and Jane Austen (quite purposefully, with its pair of sisters, silly ladies, a few good families making up society and pivotal quote from “Emma”). We meet the rather wonderful Alex, daughter of an impractical dreamer and sister of a woman with no imagination, who returns from Canada, widowed and poor, with her children at the start of the book. The seemingly imperturbable Robert Maitland, his withdrawn wife and his spiky aunt, the young radical Van Cassilis, returned to live with his grumpy, blind grandfather after the death of his father, contrasted with the silly, jangling and no longer young Bessie Reid make up the town’s society.

There are undercurrents and things we are not told but gradually have revealed to us over the course of the novel through looks, almost touches, blushes and memories; there are unspoken and unsuitable loves, spoken and suitable loves, sudden romances, tragedy and comedy. All of these aspects, mixed with lovely descriptions of the countryside and rare excursions to the big city, where anyone can be encountered on the train and triumph can turn to humiliation and vice versa, are precipitated by those returning to or coming to Crossriggs for the first time, to be assimilated or spat out and rejected.

Alex is a delicious character, fully rounded, spiteful and too quick to speak her mind – the introduction claims that her authors love her too much, and perhaps they do, but she’s drawn so beautifully. Her views on marriage, preferring no marriage and dreams to settling, are refreshing, and she’s a character I will remember.

This book will suit: Lovers of Austen, Trollope and the Viragoes and Persephones about the Modern Woman, for here she is, cooped up in a small town, unable to spread her wings far, as her sisters do in other books.

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer – “The School at the Chalet”, “Jo of the Chalet School” and “The Princess of the Chalet School”

(18 May 2015 – charity shop)

I will admit to taking this substantial volume off the shelf in order to get some more space going on the TBR …

I can’t understand how I’ve never read these before, and they provided a rather odd contrast with the Dorothy Richardson novels I read in December and January, also set in schools and written at almost the same time.

“The School at the Chalet” covers the idea for and setting up of the Chalet School in the Austrian mountains, and there is of course the usual stuff that happens in school stories, so in both this one  and “Jo of the Chalet School” we have people cheeking the prefects, noble friendships, getting stuck on mountains, coming home with dangerous temperatures and being kept in bed, etc. It’s all very gendered and pretty conservative behind the resourceful women teachers and capable girls and schoolgirls sorting matters out between themselves, with at least one occasion in each book where a man is needed to sort things out. But they are fresh and lively, with realistic characters and nice families of the Austrian schoolgirls, even though they were a bit unremitting in terms of exciting events rather than character development (I have to remember who they were written for, though!).

“The Princess of the Chalet School” was a bit disappointing, although it does cover Jo’s development as a writer, deals in a tongue in cheek way with other school stories, and examines how to deal with a thoroughly unpleasant character. The storyline of a princess from a made-up country joining the school was a bit silly, and the explanation of the Evil Uncle rather un-PC, and the side story of Madge the headmistress getting married and thus having to give up running the school, although Of Its Time etc., was a bit annoying. It also seemed to have jumped forward in time, missing out some people leaving. Enough Chalet School for me, I think, although I did enjoy these.

This book will suit: fans of 1920s school stories.

“Jo of the Chalet School” fills in 1926 in my Century of Reading.

In other news …

The lovely magazine full of tempting book reviews, Shiny New Books 8 is out and I have a review in the non-fiction section (although it’s a version of one that’s already appeared here, but zhuzed up a bit). I’m going to be reviewing D. J. Taylor’s “The Prose Factory” for the next edition, which I’m really excited about, especially because Iris Murdoch appears in the index a few times.

In other acquisition news, the eagle-eyed among you might have spotted that I have Harold Nicolson’s Letters and Diaries Vols 1 and 3, but not Vol 2, covering 1939-45 – as those are coming up on the TBR now (and will be my dinner table read once Our Ken is done), I did the decent thing and ordered a copy.

In Our Ken [Livingstone] news, well, the book has only gone and got FASCINATING about half-way through! He’s an MP now, and Tony Blair has just come into power and it’s great, read-out-loud bits and everything. So I’m glad I persisted.

And finally …

I was chatting with the lovely author Paul Magrs on Facebook, mentioning that I read his first novel, “Marked for Life” first 20 years ago, and the fact that he’s one of the three authors I’ve ever written to. Who were the others? Erica Jong and Iris Murdoch. What a triumvirate (I wrote to Paul when I found he’d mentioned BookCrossing in his lovely and highly recommended novel “Exchange”. I wrote to the others aged 16 for tips on Being A Writer).

Have you ever written to an author?

PS. I’ve just remembered I’ve also written to Adam Nicolson. So that’s four.

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