Was that really February?

It seems to have come and gone amazingly quickly!

Hereabouts it has been a damp, grey month, the council has been digging roads up here there and everywhere, and because they have taken our old railings down and haven’t started putting the new ones up we still can’t get to the promenade or the beach.

this one

The spring cleaning bug bit early this year; we’ve revamped one room and have plans for other parts of the house.

I read less that I have for a very long time. But I read some very, very good books, especially the first one and the last one:

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Maiden Voyage by Denton Welch
Set in Stone by Linda Newbery
Vanessa and her Sister by Priya Parmar
What Lies Within by Tom Vowler
Girl in the Dark: a Memoir by Anna Lyndsey

I’ve only written about Vanessa and her Sister, but my head is full of things I want to say about ‘Girl in the Dark’, and I’ll catch up with the others very soon.

The TBR Dare stuck for a second month, but I’m calling time on it now. It’s helped me to rationalise my library borrowing, it’s made me more aware of the books I have on my own shelves, but I’ve reached a point where I’m thinking too much about what I can and can’t read.

I’ve picked up and dropped far too many books this month, and I have eight books in progress which is just plain ridiculous.

There are a couple of specific points too.

I want to start re-reading Winston Graham’s Poldark books before the new BBC adaptation starts.


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And there’s a book in this month’s books shopping that I know I won’t be able to resist:

The local charity shops have served me well this month.

Charity Shops

Instead of a Letter by Diana Athill is an autobiography from 1963, and a very pretty little hardback.

I read about Something in Disguise by Kate Colquhoun in the paper and then I spotted it on the shelf, and though I wasn’t sure I’d read a book about a Victorian gardener, I decided that it was a sign. And that if I don’t read it the man of the house probably will.

Country Girl by Edna O’Brien was on the same shelf and quite irresistible.

Civil to Strangers by Barbara Pym is an upgrade; from a tatty old copy to a Virago Modern Classic.

And La Batarde by Violette Leduc is that rare and special thing, a Virago publication that I didn’t know I existed until I spotted it. Indeed I hadn’t even heard of the author, and she does see quite obscure, so here’s the synopsis:

“An obsessive and revealing self-portrait of a remarkable woman humiliated by the circumstances of her birth and by her physical appearance, La Batarde relates Violette Leduc’s long search for her own identity through a series of agonizing and passionate love affairs with both men and women. When first published, La Batarde earned Violette Leduc comparisons to Jean Genet for the frank depiction of her sexual escapades and immoral behavior. A confession that contains portraits of several famous French authors, Leduc’s brilliant writing style and attention to language transform this autobiography into a work of art.”

And then there was a little trip to the St Just Café Bookshop.

St Just

It was a plain little hardback but it was in lovely condition and so An Autobiography by Anthony Trollope had to come home.

There is No Armour by Howard Spring was a lovely addition to a growing collection of his work. I read some of his book from my parents shelves years ago, I read his lovely childhood memoir more recently, and I love the way he writes.

I pounced on a book by one of my most wanted authors: And Did He Stop and Speak to You? by G B Stern. It’s a collection of her essays about literary contemporaries, including Sheila Kaye-‘Smith, R C Sherriff, Pamela Frankau ….

But the book of the month was Trollope on the Net by Ellen Moody.; a book of essays inspired by an early internet discussion group, published by the Trollope Society in 1999.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if the email addresses that adorn the cover were real?

atrollope@gpo.penny.post.org.uk
harding@hiram.hospital.org
pfinn@loughshane.commons.gov.uk
omnium@gatherum.castle
mason@orley.farm.uk

I’ll settle though for meeting – and revisiting – them on the printed page.

I’ve balanced a wonderful month of bookish acquisitions with a good bit of shelf clearing. We dropped eight books of boos at a charity shop last weekend, I’ve found a new home for my mother’s complete collection of Inspector Morse videos, and three more bags of books and bric-a brac are ready to go.

That makes me feel much more positive about reading books and writing about books in March.

And I hope that Briar will get her promenade and her beach back.

Time will tell ….

The Duke’s Children by Anthony Trollope

Even though I knew what had happened between the end of the last Palliser novel and that start of this next – and final – novel in said series, and yet the opening sentence of ‘The Duke’s Children’ was heart-breaking.

“No one, probably, ever felt himself to be more alone in the world than our old friend the Duke of Omnium, when the Duchess died.”

The brightest star of the Palliser family had been extinguished, and I was so sorry that I would never meet Lady Glencora again, and that I would never see her with her children, upon whom the spotlight falls in this story.

I must give Trollope credit though, for the way he reported the death and its consequences. Their was no sentiment, only real emotion, and he explained exactly as a concerned friend should; showing concern speaking with restraint, and with understanding the greatest loss was to her family.

0140433449And while I wish that he hadn’t done it, I think I can understand why he did;  The Duke’s Children speaks about how the world changes, and about how one generation may have such different ideas, and  may or may not learn, from their parents or from their children..

Not long retired and weighed down by grief, the Duke found himself having to play a greater part in family life than he had before. He struggled, because there were things that Glencora had never told him, and because his three children …..

Well, children who had inherited the very different strengths of their mother and father might have changed the world, but these children seemed to have inherited quite a few of their weaknesses.

It was clear that Trollope’s sympathies lay mainly with their beleaguered father; and I have to say that, on the whole, mine did too.

  • Lord Silverbridge was his eldest child and the heir to his dukedom, and he was a constant worry to his father. He was sent down from Oxford for painting the Dean’s house red. He entangled himself with some dubious characters in the horsey set, and it took a great deal of money to disentangle him. He was elected to parliament, but, though the Pallisers had always been Whigs, he became a Tory. And then he fell in love with the grand-daughter of a dock-worker whose family had made money and risen up to the very top of American society.
  • Lady Mary was his only daughter. The Duke would learn that she was secretly to a friend of her elder brother;  a penniless aspiring MP who he considered most unsuitable. He struggled with the knowledge that the Duchess had sanctioned the match shortly before her death, and that the Duchess had been prohibited from marrying the man she loved and steered towards a more advantageous match with him.That was heartbreaking, and as Lady Mary proved herself to be as wilful as her mother and as intransigent as her father, it was hard to see how both could be happy.
  • Gerald, the youngest, was at university. He narrowly avoided being sent down, like his brother; and his penchant for cards and horses cost him rather more than his generous allowance.

They were all engaging, they all had such potential, and it was clear that they loved and respected their father, that they wanted him to be proud of them, but my goodness they had lessons to learn. That they couldn’t have everything as they wanted, that life would demand choices and compromises. That when they chose a course of action there would be consequences and they had to accept them.

In time the Duke realised that, for the sake of his children, he had to make some compromises. It was so lovely, after seeing Plantagenet Palliser as a husband and as a politician, to see him as a parent who loved his children and who tried to do his best for them, even though he couldn’t quite understand or like their new their new modern ways.

He couldn’t help admiring their spirit and determination,  and he saw much of his beloved Glencora in them.

There was little room for new characters outside the family circle to make an impression in this story, except for one. Lady Mabel Grex came from an old family, but it was a family in decline: her father and brother gambled away the family fortune, and so  all she had was her good name.  She needed to make a good marriage, and she could have made a good marriage, but her pride and her hauteur meant that both Frank Tregear, Lady Mary’s great love, and Lord Silverbridge slipped through her fingers. Of course she became embittered ……

It would seem that Trollope too accepted that the world was changing.

He brought the  Palliser saga to a fine conclusion, with two weddings and the Duke returning to public life.

I am so sorry that the story doesn’t continue, and that I have to part company with so many wonderful characters; but I am so glad that I now know why so many readers love Trollope, and that I still have a great many of his books ahead of me to read.

 

Vanessa and her Sister by Priya Parmar

I’m wary of novels written about real people whose lives are in living memory; because I think it’s too easy for the line between fact and fiction to be blurred. But I found so many reasons to pick up this book. It has such a lovely cover, it’s set in a milieu that I love, it’s a story of sisters, and it’s a story that places the lesser known of two celebrated sisters at the centre of the stage.

The two sisters are artist Vanessa Bell and writer Virginia Woolf, and this is Vanessa’s story. It’s written as a journal; a fictional journal inspired by her own correspondence and by the writings of many whose paths she crossed.

Vanessa and her Sister

The story begins in 1905. The mother of the Stephens family has been dead for some years, the father of the has died more recently, and their four children – Vanessa, Virginia, and their two brothers, Thoby and Adrian – have moved from the family home in Kensington tp a more bohemian shared home in Bloomsbury.

They are preparing for a party – a lovely nod to Mrs Dalloway – and as the book moves forwards there are so many thoughtful details lie that, details that will strike a chord for thoughtful, careful reader.

There will be many parties, and neighbours will gossip about the gatherings at which mixed groups of unchaperoned young people drink and talk about about art and literature until the early hours of the morning.

Some of their names, and the names of others who pass through this story will be familiar to many: Otteline Morrell, Maynard Keynes, Morgan (E M) Forster, Lytton Strachey ….

Vanessa loves her unconventional new life, but, maybe because she is the eldest of the four, she becomes the responsible adult. She manages the housekeeping, she does the household accounts, and she does whatever she can to smooth her sister’s mood swings. There are references to a severe breakdown in the recent past, and it is clear that Vanessa is carefully stage managing family life to try to make sure that nothing like that will happen again.

I could see much that was admirable in Vanessa’s actions, but I could also see cause for concern. Virginia became so  accustomed to having her own way, however selfish and unreasonable that way sometimes was. And she maybe came to believe that she would always be at the centre of Vanessa’s world.

That would become evident when Vanessa became a wife – to art critic Clive Bell – and then a mother.

Parmar follows the lives and the relationships of these three people with keen understanding and with wonderful subtlety. Vanessa’s has doubts about Clive’s courtship, but her resistance softens, and she finds such joy in marriage and in motherhood. Clive though feels ousted, first by his wife’s pregnancy and then by the arrival of his son.  Virginia’s desire to be the sole object of her sister’s attention is thwarted, and, though her behaviour may seem spoilt and selfish, it is clear that she is living of fear of being left alone, and of what her unstable mind might do.

Years later she would write: “My affair with Clive and Nessa turned more of a knife in me than anything else has ever done”.

The writing of Vanessa’s fictional journal is beautiful, and, though it tells a quiet story of lives being lived, there were moments when it caught real emotions so clearly, moments when words caught ideas so very well.

That record is set against telegrams and postcards between other members of her social circle. That is very effective. The correspondence between Lytton Strachey and his friend Leonard Woolf, who was working for the civil service in Ceylon, was a delight and I could have happily read a whole book of it.

Lytton was delighted when the friend who he thought would be the perfect match for his friend Virginia came home.

“I have grown so accustomed to singing for you, like a siren beached up on a friendless rock. Whatever will I do with my time, now that I no longer need to lure you home?”

And of course he was right!

Not all of the correspondence was so successful, and it was a little disappointing to only have a glimpse of many fascinating characters, and that the story came to a conclusion rather too quickly.

This book isn’t definitive, of course it isn’t, but I found the story of Vanessa’s emotional life, and of her progression towards a grown-up, independent future, wonderfully readable.

I particularly liked that it presented so many people usually presented with a label – ‘writer’, ‘artist’, ‘socialite’, ‘critic’ – simply as young people who loved art, who loved literature, who loved Cornwall; who had hopes, dreams, fears, ambitions …..

That, and its lightness of touch, say to me that this would be a lovely introduction for anyone who is a little scared of Virginia Woolf, or for anyone who is wondering who Vanessa Bell was.

For me though, it was a lovely re-introduction …..

Beginning Again with an A to Z

Days have been flying by lately.

Life has been busy. Work has been stressful. WordPress has been playing up.

I’ve found myself wanting to do things around the house – after work and dog- walking – rather than sit to read or write.

But now – I think – things are settling down again.

And, once again, I’m beginning again with an A to Z …..

Current Collage

A is for AN ANGEL IN THE CORNER by Monica Dickens. An excellent charity shop find by the man of the house.

B is for BERGERE DE FRANCE. I’d not read this particular knitting magazine before, but I spotted a new issue with lots of cable patterns and I knew it was time to try. I love that it came in two parts, one with photographs and one with patterns.

C is for COWS, We were surprised to see cows grazing on Madron Carn for the first time, but Briar was transfixed. She’d never seen animals that big quite so close before.

D is for DAVID COPPERFIELD. I’m trying to read a Dickens a year, and I think this might be this year’s book.

E is for ELLEN THORNEYCROFT FOWLER was the sister of Edith Henrietta Fowler, and now that I’ve read one I’d like to read the other.

F is for THE FLOWERING THORN. My next Margery Sharp read.

G is for GULVAL. Briar loved walking through the paths and the fields last weekend; and at the highest point of the walk there’s a lovely view across Mounts Bay.

H is for HI-FI. I’ve just passed my father’s beloved hi-fi on to a collector. I was sorry to let it go but we were never going to use it, it took up space and because he looked after it it was in lovely conditions. We even found the guarantee cards he’d filled in, back in 1979.

I is for I TOO HAVE LIVED IN ARCADIA by Marie Belloc Lowndes. It’s a memoir of the author’s mother, and I do hope it’s good, because I’ve spotted three volumes of her memoirs in the library.

J is for JESSICA CORNWELL. It’s not the sort of book I often read, but I do like the look of ‘The Serpent Papers.’

K is for KEEPING UP. I started recording the books I was reading and the books coming into the house in my Persephone Diary last month, and I’m not quite up to date but I do want to keep it up for the whole year.

L is for LADY ANNA. It’s this month’s Trollope, and I’m liking it very much.

M is for MARGARET KENNEDY. An old copy of Return I Dare Not! was ordered in December but it arrived in January, so I’m trying to save it until the TBR dare is done. Luckily I remembered that ‘Troy Chimneys’ had been waiting on the Virago bookshelf for quite some time.

N is for NATALIE PRASS. A lovely part of the current soundtrack to my life.

O is for ORIGINAL DENIM. I’ve not knitted with it before, but I love the deep shades of blue and I’m very taken with Hestia from the most recent Rowan magazine.

P is for PIPIT. A pair of rock pipits visit our garden regularly, eating from the feeder, picking up bits from the ground, and coming right up to the house to drink from Briar’s bucket by the front door.

Q is for QUESTIONS. I rarely win things but a few weeks ago I won a £50 book budget by answering survey questions.

R is for RAILINGS. The storm battered railings on our promenade our being replaced, and that’s lovely, but Briar is not at all happy that the promenade is completely fenced off and that she can’t get to her own beloved beach.

S is for STICKY LABELS. I know that charity shops have to label books, I know that gift aid is a very good thing, but I do wish they wouldn’t stick the kind of sticky labels that are impossible to remove bang in the middle of front covers.

T is for TBR DARE. It’s just past half-time and I’m still on track.

U is for THE UNFORGOTTEN by Patrice Chaplin. A very readable psychological thriller, with echoes of ‘Rebecca’, that had been sitting on a shelf for long time.

V is for VANESSA AND HER SISTER by Priya Parmar. A lovely book.

W is for WOLF HALL. I love the BBC adaptation and I’ll re-read the book one day soon. First time around I read it much too quicly, because I had to take it back to the library for the next person in the queue

X is for EXHIBITION – ‘Then and Now: An Enchanted Landscape – Photographic Excursions Through West Penwith’ is at Penlee House until the end of March

Y is for YOKED SWEATER. I’ve never knitted one, I’m planning to try some new things with my knitting this year, and I love William.!

Z is for ZZZZZ – it seems to be the sleepy season for border terriers!

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Back soon ….

The Lodger by Louisa Treger

I’ve been aware of Dorothy Richardson for a long, long time without ever reading her work.

When I was very young and Virago Modern Classics were a brand new idea I remember seeing the Pilgrimage, her thirteen novel series, collected in four thick volumes that had covers that were similar but not quite the same. They looked very important and rather frightening.

Years later, I looked at those four big books again and I learned how very significant Dorothy Richardson had been. That she published the first complete work of stream-of-consciousness fiction, and from that first novel a whole series of autobiographical novels grew, speaking profoundly of the female experience.

Virginia Woolf, who published her own first novel in 1915,  praised her for inventing “the psychological sentence of the feminine gender …..”

I meant to begin reading the novels, and the first volume of Pilgrimage was sitting on my bedside table when I went to hear Louisa Treger speak about Dorothy Richardson and about ‘The Lodger’, her first novel, inspired by Dorothy’s life and writing. She spoke with such erudition and such love that I was inspired. But I was also left with a dilemma. What should I read first? The thirteen novels she wrote or the one novel about her?

I settled on the one novel about her, hoping that it would inspire me to start the long journey through the thirteen. And I think it has.

20613562Dorothy’s affair with H.G. Wells is at the centre of the book and it is story of adultery and regret; told with understanding and horribly easy to believe. Bertie Wells, is married to an old friend  of Dorothy’s old school friends, but still she is drawn into a relationship with a man whose charms a more mature woman, a less vulnerable woman, would have found easy to resist.

She did feel remorse over her betrayal of a friend, but it was mixed with so many other feelings. She was grieving after her mother’s recent suicide, something she believed she could, she should have prevented. She was living in  London boarding house, she was working at  a dull job in a dentist’s surgery, but she knew that she could do more, be more..

I felt for her, I really did. Louisa Treger presented the life and the emptions, the hopes and the dreams and the fears of a real, complex, fallible woman quite beautifully.

She was  a woman who knew that she had to make a life for herself.  She began to write fiction – ironically, after being encourage to do so by her lover –  and she began a new relationship, discovered another aspect of her sexuality, with a new lodger at her boarding house. They were both feminists; one would be imprisoned as she fought for female suffrage, and one would struggle to find a pure form of writing of a woman’s consciousness:

‘She didn’t want to instruct her reader what to think and feel. . . . The inner world of her heroine — her maturing developing consciousness — would be all there was.’

That was when this book began to fly.

It had been a very well told story of  one woman’s life, written in traditional prose rather than stream of consciousness that woman wrote – a wise choice I think, because this is a biographical not an autobiographical novel –  but then it found a passion and a depth that had been just a little lacking in the story of the life and the affair

I had been very taken with woman and with the progress of her life, but when I read about the writing I was inspired.

And maybe that was right.

Because now I want to know more about Dorothy Richardson, and I know that the first of those four volumes is still on my bedside table ….

The Young Pretenders by Edith Henrietta Fowler

The Young Pretenders, a story for children that dates from 1985, is a lovely and intriguing book.

It’s intriguing because it works beautifully as a story for children, it sees the world from a child’s place in the world. And it does something else too. It speaks profoundly to the grown-up reader about how magical childhood is and how that magic can be bent out of shape by adults who fail to understand.

Babs and Teddy had been sent to live with their grandmother in the country while their parents – “Father-and-Mother-in-Inja.” – were overseas. Grandmother was elderly, Nurse was elderly, and so the two children were allowed to run and play just as they liked. They spent their days in the garden, under the watchful eye of Giles the gardener, and they played such wonderful games, full of imagination, casting themselves in a glorious array of roles.

Teddy was eldest but Babs was the leader – and the leading lady of the story – and they were both happy with that.

Their idyll ended when their grandmother died and it fell to an uncle and aunt they had never met to care for them.

yp1It doesn’t occur to the children to worry. They had always been safe, they had always been cared for, they had always been free to speak and behave openly and honestly. Why would they even think things might be different.

Aunt Eleanor is ill-suited to be in charge of Babs and Teddy. She doesn’t expect them to change her life, she expects them to be good and quiet, and to be a credit to her in front of visitors. The innocent but terribly tactless chatter of the children, who of course have never learned to dissemble, horrifies here and a governess is quickly procured to knock them into shape.

She was so disappointed that Babs was plain and sturdy; she had hoped for a pretty little girl to dress up and show off.

Uncle Charlie is more sympathetic; he is amused by the children and there are times when he enoys being amused by them. But he is inconsistent, there are times when he is distracted and cross, and the children don’t understand that.

It’s heart-breaking, watching two grown-ups – three when the governess arrives – getting things so terribly wrong. Thank goodness that the children had each other, that they were resilient, that in their innocence it didn’t occur to them that anyone could ever have anything other than good intentions, however inexplicable their actions might be.

I couldn’t help thinking how wonderful their lives might have been in the hands of the right grown-up; somebody with the wisdom to gently guide them, to tactfully explain things, to understand the magic of childish imagination and play.

While I was thinking that though I was royally entertained by adventures in the nursery, in the schoolroom, in the drawing room, and sometimes a little further afield. Babs makes so many social gaffes and she has so many brilliant lines.

Teddy learns to conform and to say the right thing, but Babs never does. She understood why she was a disappointment to her aunt, but she had the wisdom to know that she could never be anything else.

Edith Henrietta Fowler was always on the side of the children, and her painting of their lives, her understanding of the injustices they felt and their incomprehension of the ways of adults was perfect, and that must have made this book wonderfully entertaining for the children who read it a century or more ago.

Today I think it speaks more to the adult reader; though it would also work as a book to be read allowed and discussed with a child.

There’s a little too much baby talk, there’s a little preaching,  but I found that easy to forgive.

The original illustrations reproduced in the Persephone edition are just right, and the endpapers are particularly lovely.

The story ended when “Father-and-Mother-in-Inja” returned, and took their children back to their home in the country.

The future looked promising; and I did hope that the children’s promise was realised.

What do I have on the shelves for Reading Ireland Month?

picmonkey-collage-2

My first thought when I read about Reading Ireland Month was that it would would beautifully with the TBR Dare, because I know that there are Irish books to be read on the Virago bookcase and at various other places around the house.

There are more than I’ll read in March, but I do like to make a list and to have choices.

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The first name that came to mind was Molly Keane. I love her writing but there’s something about her books – a sharpness, a distinctiveness, I don’t know quite what to call it – that makes me inclined to space them out. I haven’t read one for a while though and I think it’s time. Maybe ‘Mad Puppetstown':

In the early 1900s Easter lives with her Aunt Brenda, her cousins Evelyn and Basil, and their Great-Aunt Dicksie in an imposing country house, Puppetstown, which casts a spell over their childhood. Here they spend carefree days taunting the peacocks in Aunt Dicksie’s garden, shooting snipe and woodcock, hunting, and playing with Patsy, the boot boy. But the house and its inhabitants are not immune to the “little, bitter, forgotten war in Ireland” and when it finally touches their lives all flee to England. All except Aunt Dicksie who refuses to surrender Puppetstown’s magic. She stays on with Patsy, living in a corner of the deserted house while in England the cousins are groomed for Society. But for two of them those wild, lost Puppetstown years cannot be forgotten ….

* * * * * * *

 Mary Lavin is best known for her short stories, but she also wrote novels and I have two in my Virago Collection. I most like the look of ‘The House on Clewe Street’

Theodore Coniffe, austere property owner in Castlerampart, looks forward to the birth of an heir when his third and youngest daughter, Lily marries. A son is born, but the father, Cornelius Galloway, is a spendthrift who dies young, leaving the child to the care of Lily and her sisters, Theresa and Sara. Their love for Gabriel is limited by religious propriety and his youth is both protected and restrained. At the age of twenty-one Gabriel runs away to Dublin with Onny, the kitchen maid. Here they tumble into bohemian life. But Gabriel is ill-suited to this makeshift freedom and finds the values of Clewe Street impossible to evade.

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I absolutely love Kate O’Brien‘s writing and I have read all of her books that were published by Virago, but I have one other sitting on a shelf on the next bookcase along. ‘Of Music and Silence’ looks lovely, I’ve been saving it, but I think its moment might have come.

It is the story of two penniless Irish girls who are sent to the Continent to become opera singers. Lovely, vulnerable, unaware, they are first flung into a regime of rigorous training and then released into the fantastic, exacting world of Italian opera in the 1880’s, with its dedicated striving, love, jealousy and passionate friendships.To Clare and Rose, student life and their fellow-students at the pension are as great a revelation after the green quiet of Ireland as the sun-drenched atmosphere of Rome, the picnics on the Campagna, moonlit suppers in trattorie above the sea.Thepension is followed by some of the world’s great opera stages as the girls sing their way upwards towards prima donna roles and fame. And alongside their development as singers the author traces compassionately their development as women, loving and desired, in this forcing house of emotions, where all are obsessed by song, and love is heightened by the spendour of music.

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I found Tana French on the same bookcase, on the next shelf down. I’ve read her first three novels, and I’ve been meaning to read her fourth – ‘Broken Harbour’ – for quite some time.

In the aftermath of a brutal attack that left a woman in intensive care and her husband and young children dead, brash cop Scorcher Kennedy and his rookie partner, Richie, struggle with perplexing clues and Scorcher’s haunting memories of a shattering incident from his childhood …

* * * * * * *.

The Collegians by Gerard Griffin is on the same shelf, and it’s on my Classics Club list.

A romantic melodrama set in rural Ireland in the early 19th century, this complex story of love, rivalry, secrecy, and betrayal, based on a real case of 1829, was one of the most successful thrillers of its day

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I’m a little wary of ‘There Were No Windows’ by Norah Hoult, which I know is waiting on the Persephone bookshelf, because it deals with ageing and dementia and the stage of life where my mother is now. But there’s a voice in my head saying that maybe that’s why I should read in now.

Set in London during the blackouts of the Blitz, this 1944 novel describes the last months of Claire Temple, a once-glamorous woman who is now losing her memory. Divided into three ‘acts’, beginning with Claire’s own experience of her dementia, the rest of the book is told through the characters who work for or visit her. As Claire struggles with her memory, the reader must reconstruct not only her life but her identity.

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‘The Wild Geese’ by Bridget Boland is another book I could pluck from the Virago shelves. It’s an epistolary novel – which is always a good thing – and it touches on an aspect of Irish history that I don’t know much about.

In eighteenth-century Ireland, Catholics are forced to practice their religion in secret, they cannot buy or improve their land, nor enter any profession or trade. In this climate a lively underground traffic develops between Ireland and Europe–young boys are smuggled to Catholic schools abroad and many eventually join the armies of foreign princes. If they return to their native land, these “Wild Geese” are in danger of their lives. Through the story of the Kinross family and their letters to one another, we learn of these desperate times: of Brendan’s struggle to maintain the Kinross estate; of the dangers Maurice faces as an outlaw in his own country, and of their sister Catherine and her love for Roderick O’Byrne, a soldier recruiting for Irish regiments in France.

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Maura Laverty is another author I discovered through Virago. I’ve read the two of her novels that Virago published, but I have another novel that hasn’t been reprinted that I found in a second-hand bookshop a year or two ago. ‘Alone We Embark’ is another book I’ve been saving. It’s a plain little hardback, I haven’t been able to find out much about it, but I loved the two books I’ve read more than enough to take this one on trust.

* * * * * * *

I’ve been reading to read Somerville & Ross for ages, and I have just one of their books in the house, somewhere upstairs – ‘In The Vine Country.’

The Irish pair tour Medoc country at the time of the vine harvest. During their stay they dance with the harvesters, drink freshly trodden wine, stay in a barn with dubious bedlinen and visit a grand chateau.

* * * * * * *

Also upstairs is a proof copy of ‘Black Lake’ by Johanna Lane. I started reading last year, but when the story went in a quite different direction to the one I expected I put it down again. I meant to pick it up again, and I really don’t know why I haven’t.

* * * * * * *

The last book I bought in December, before the TBR Dare began, was a newly reissued Victorian novel – ‘The Quest for Fame’ by Charlotte Riddell  – it’s waiting on my bedside table.

After the death of her mother and the loss of her family’s fortune, it falls to young Glen Westley to do what she can for herself and her ailing father. Determined to make her own way in the world, she moves from the West of Ireland to London and works tirelessly to succeed as a novelist, despite the limitations her sex and nationality represent. Having struggled so long for fame, it is at last thrust upon her – but fame always comes at a price.
* * * * * * *

There’s just one more book that I can think of, and it’s in the virtual TBR. I read Niall Williams’ early novels and I liked them, but I haven’t read anything of his for years. When I save ‘The History of Rain’ on the Man Booker long-list I thought it was time to try his work again.

Bedbound in her attic room beneath the falling rain, in the margin between this world and the next, Plain Ruth Swain is in search of her father. To find him, enfolded in the mystery of ancestors, Ruthie must first trace the jutting jaw lines, narrow faces and gleamy skin of the Swains from the restless Reverend Swain, her great-grandfather, to grandfather Abraham, to her father, Virgil – via pole-vaulting, leaping salmon, poetry and the three thousand, nine hundred and fifty eight books piled high beneath the two skylights in her room, beneath the rain.

* * * * * * *

That’s pretty much all I can find, and that’s probably the right number of books form me to have a choice and not waste good reading time dithering.

Are there any you would recommend – or any that you’re particularly curious about?

And who are your favourite Irish authors? What are your favourite Irish books?

Enchanter’s Nightshade by Ann Bridge

Many – maybe most – of Ann Bridges novel’s draw on her experiences of living overseas when when she was the wife of a diplomat, but ‘Enchanter’s Nightshade’ is a little different. It’s a period piece of Italian provincial society, set  in the early years of the twentieth century, years when the author was still a girl. I have to believe that she visited that world then, because she captures it – the place and the people – quite beautifully.

The story is of a family that has grown so big that it has become  a community, spending the summer months in the country. Days drift by as they exchange visits, go on picnics, and make trips to places of especial interest. The young are kept busy with lessons in the mornings before that are given their freedom in the afternoons and evenings. One family has a Swiss governess of many years standing who is wise and capable, and who has tactfully and effectively managed the household since the death of its mistress. Another family is awaiting the arrival of a new governess from England.

Enchanters NightshadeAlmina Prestwich was Oxford educated and, because her father’s death had left his family ill provided for, she was setting out on a career as a governess. Her home and her family, her packing and her concern that she properly prepared for her new life, and her parting with her mother and her younger sisters were so beautifully drawn.

Everything in this book is beautifully drawn; every character, every scene, every room, even the furnishings in those rooms are carefully described. That might make the story sound slow, and it is a little, but it felt right. I loved watching the older governess managing her household, and I loved watching the younger governess taking in every detail of her new world.

Ann Bridge wrote with assurance and with finesse Every detail was right, every element of the story was beautifully realised, and the tone was so right. I’d describe it as teacherly in the very best of ways; Ann Bridge had the knack of making things interesting, her love and understanding shone, and I loved that she was prepared to accept that, though tradition was a wonderful thing, the old ways weren’t always the best, and that new ideas were something that should always be taken on board.

She drew me in, and she made me care.

Had she not married a diplomat she might have been a wonderful governess!

She manages a large cast very well. There is Marietta, Miss Prestwich’s bright young charge who is delighted with her new governess. There is her mother, Suzy, who is charming and indolent. There is her cousin, Guilio, who is studious and sensitive, and his sister Elena who is clever and clear-sighted. There is her Aunt Nadia, who is struggling to cope with her husband’s philandering. There is her Uncle Rofreddo who is charming, well-intentioned, but terribly thoughtless. There are two elderly spinster great-aunts, the Contessas Roma and Aspasia …..

Rofreddo charms the new governess and Suzy, used to being the centre of attention, is put out. One thoughtless act will lead to a long chain of consequences. The story becomes a little melodramatic but it works, because the foundations were laid in the early chapters of the book, and because everything is driven by the characters and their relationships to each other.

The story speaks thoughtfully about marriage; considering what might be its basis – romance or arrangement – and what differing expectations husbands and wives may have.

There is a tragedy, and not everything can be put right.

Some things can though, and it is the three elderly ladies, the two Contessas and the family’s matriarch, the Vecchia Marchesa, on the eve of her hundredth birthday, who will do what needs to be done.

They are of their time and class, they do not expect their world to change, and yet, unlikely though it may seem, some of their attitudes will make a 21st century feminist cheer!

I’d love to explain more, but I can’t without setting out almost the entire plot.

That plot is wonderfully dramatic, its world is beautifully realised, its characters are so real and engaging; and all of that together makes this book a lovely period piece.

Don’t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy

When a copy of ‘Don’t Let Him Know’ appeared in my porch, quite unexpectedly, a few weeks ago, my first instinct was to put it to one side, thinking that it wasn’t my kind of book. Curiosity though made me look at the book and I realised that it might be my kind of book after all, and that there was more than enough that was universal and timeless about the story for me to be happy to step into settings and periods that I rarely visit.

This is the story of a family, about the things that go unsaid or unacknowledged, about conflicting wishes and expectations, and about the consequences of all of that.

Don't Let Him KnowIt opens in California, where Romola Mitra has lived quietly with her only son Amit, his American wife June and their young son Neel since her husband Avinash died a few years earlier. Romola didn’t feel ready for that life, so far from her home in India, but she knew that she was lucky and she really didn’t know what else she could do.

“Some days she wanted someone to say, ‘OK, you have followed the rules long enough. You are free now.’ But no one ever did.”

Amit found the last page of an old letter in his mother’s address book. He read words of love, and he took them to mean that Romola had loved and been loved by a man who was not her father. He encouraged her to look for that man, to find out what had happened to him.

He had no idea that those words had not been addressed to his mother. They had been addressed to his father, who had not had the courage to defy convention and stay in America with the man he loved; who had returned to Calcutta on the death of his father, to marry the girl his family had chosen, to follow the path set out for him as an only son.

The story moves pack into the past then, with each chapters telling the story of a significant moment that Romola or Avinash or Amit has never felt able to share. They weren’t an unhappy family, but they weren’t a happy family either;  they were a family who played their roles and lived from day to day without ever talking about so many things.

Sandip Roy writes lovely, lyrical, readable prose, his observation is acute, and his characters are wonderfully engaging. I believed in them, in their relationships, in their situations. There is humour, there is sadness, there are so many human emotions threaded through these stories. Some are stronger than others, but they all work.

The human story is always to the fore, but each tale has something to say about the conflicting forces that underpin lives: tradition versus modernity; duty versus desire; the old world versus the new world.

Now I have a head full of images: a broken Mickey Mouse watch, a film star’s funeral, jars of mango chutney hidden under a bed.

I also have memories of less tangible things: the strongest is of Amit’s dislocation when he returned from America after his father’s death, of his wish to do the best thing for his mother, and of his difficulty is balancing that with his wishes for his own life with his wife and child.

After that the story falls away a little, and the final act feels just a little contrived.

I have no context – I can’t think when I last read any contemporary Indian writing – but I do think that as a whole the book works very well.

It makes me realise that, although there are lots of wonderful books in my comfort zone, I should probably step out of it a little more often on future.

So that was January ….

…. the last week went missing, thanks to a horrible cough and cold,  a tricky few days when I went back to work, and a computer that started playing up horribly, and in the end had to have it’s factory settings restored.

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But still I’ve managed to read more this month than I have in a long time:

‘The Lodger’ by Louisa Treger
‘The Faithful Servant’s by Margery Sharp (re-read)
‘The Curiosity Cabinet’ by Catherine Czerkawska
‘Jill’ by Amy Dillwyn
‘The Crooked House’ by Christobel Kent
‘The Prime Minister’ by Anthony Trollope
‘Linnets and Valerians’ by Elizabeth Goudge
‘Weathering’ by Lucy Wood
‘Enchanter’s Nightshade’ by Ann Bridge
‘The Young Pretenders’ by Edith Henrietta Fowler
‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent
‘The Gipsy in the Parlour’ by Margery Sharp
‘Don’t Let Him Know’ by Sandip Roy
‘The Duke’s Children’ by Anthony Trollope

I have to give great credit to the TBR dare, for keeping me away from the library and making me realise how many great books have been waiting on my shelves for far too long.

To date I’ve knocked eight books off the physical TBR and six books off the virtual TBR.

My book of the month has to be ‘Weathering’ by Lucy Wood, and I’ve not read a book that I haven’t liked.

‘Linnets and Valerians’ and ‘The Young Pretenders were for the Classic Children’s Literature Event.

I came to the end of Trollope’s Palliser novels; after eight months months in their company I’ll miss them, but I want to try some of Trolloe’s other books and I still want to read ‘The Forsyte Saga’.

‘The Gipsy in the Parlour’ – set in Devon – was my first book for Reading England.

Margery Sharp Day, on the 25th was a joy, and I am still absolutely delighted that so many found and enjoyed a book.

Since then I’ve been dabbling, and all of these have been picked up and partly read:

‘Saraband’ by Eliot Bliss (the jury is out)
‘The Dead Duke, His Secret Wife And The Missing Corpse’ by Piu Marie Eatwell (just as good as it sounds)
‘Troy Chimneys’ by Margaret Kennedy (one of her best)
‘The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (half-way through, and I love it)
‘Lady Anna’ by Anthony Trollope (I was smitten from the first page)

I’ll pick them up again in February, which I want to be a simple, project free month of reading the books that call.

I’ve added a couple of books to a new ‘after the TBR Dare list on my library account.

And I’ve added a few judicious purchases to my personal library:

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‘Three Fevers’ by Leo Walmsley
‘Fire Over England’ by A E W Mason
‘Winds of the Day’ by Howard Spring
‘The Houses in Between’ by Howard Spring
‘All The Day Long’ by Howard Spring
‘The Jasmine Isle’ by Joanna Harystiani
‘Harlequin House’ by Margery Sharp
‘A Century of Creepy Stories’ edited by Hugh Walpole

They’re very much ‘library building purchases'; six on a day when I had an appointment in Truro and seized the chance to visit my favourite bookshop, one came from a local charity shop, and ‘Harlequin House’ arrived because I’ve been looking for an affordable copy for a long time and I finally found one.

I’ll have difficulty resisting that one until the dare is over, but I could read ‘All The Day Long’ because I had a tatty old copy and so the lovely, signed, hardback edition is an upgrade.

My old copy has gone to a charity shop, in one of seven bags we dropped off this afternoon.

I must declare one addition to the virtual TBR – ‘After The Storm’ by Jane Lythell – because I loved her first book, and because it was a ridiculously good bargain.

That was January.

A very good month for books and reading.

Now tell me, how was your month?

What do you have planned for next month?

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