The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain

This is a lovely little book: a bittersweet romantic comedy that captivated me from the very first page.

A young woman, Laure, arrives home late at night, after dinner with friends. As she arrives at her apartment block somebody tries to snatch her handbag. She resists, but she is shoved against the door frame and her bag slips from her grasp.

She can’t get through the security door without her keys; she can’t call anyone because she relied on the mobile phone in her bag to remember their numbers; and she can’t get anywhere or do anything without the cash or cards in the purse in her handbag.

It was fortunate that the manager of the hotel across the road saw her very real distress and offered her a room and a bed for the night. Everything could be sorted out in the morning. Except it wouldn’t be that simple.

23129712The next day a bookseller, Laurent, sees the bag sitting on top of a rubbish bin. He recognises that it is a very good bag, not the kind of bag that would be casually discarded, and so he picks it up to hand in at the police station. But he found it wouldn’t be that easy. He was too early and would have to wait for an hour, and then there would be forms to complete and questions to be answered. Laurent couldn’t wait; he had a shop to open and so he left, intending to do something about the bag later.

In the end he decided that he would examine the contents of the bag and see of he could find the owner himself. Of course the purse, the keys and the phone were gone but there were things that could be helpful; a keyring with a hieroglyph, a dry-cleaners ticket, and a novel, personally signed to ‘Laure’ by the author.

And he found a red notebook, that the owner had used to scribble all sorts of notes. He felt rather guilty, reading something so personal, but he hoped that he might find a stronger clue to the identity of the bag, and the more he read the more he realised he really wanted to now her.

Laurent’s efforts to find Laure had results; he found her home, he met her cat, but Laure wasn’t there.

There are more twists in the tale – some predictable and some not – before it reaches exactly the right ending.

This is a story that screams ‘FILM ME!’ I can see it, I really can.

The setting, a lightly romanticised Paris – including a lovely, lovely bookshop – is lovely.

I liked the people. The two leads were nicely balanced, and they were well supported by a jealous girlfriend, an opinionated teenage daughter, a helpful colleague …. It’s a very well balanced cast.

There are lovely details: literary references – that I must confess I didn’t know well enough to know how significant they were; Laure had an interesting occupation; and she had a lovely cat who had a small but significant part to play.

The story is a little contrived, of course it is, but it works well and it does come from the characters; their actions and their emotions.

It works beautifully, as the most charming of entertainments.

I was engaged, and I cared, from start to finish.

The Flowering Thorn by Margery Sharp

Oh, this is lovely.

Margery Sharp’s 1933 novel – her fourth – is light, bright and witty, and it’s thoughtful, emotional and profound too. Not many authors can do all those things, and I don’t think anyone but Margery Sharp could wrap them up in a book as engaging and readable as  ‘The Flowering Thorn.’

‘The Flowering Thorn’ tells the story of Lesley Frewn. She was a Londoner, and you could probably call her a bright young thing. She had private means – not enough to make her fabulously wealthy, but more than enough to give her a very nice lifestyle. She had a lovely flat, her wardrobe was full of the latest fashions; she loved, art, music and theatre and partying with her circle of friends and suitors.

But one day something went wrong.

“The image she sought there–so curiously, eagerly, as though for the first time–was tall, poised and precisely as slender as fashion required. Gown, gloves and single orchid were impeccably chosen, while the dark, smooth shingle, close as a silken scalp, set off a certain neat elegance of head and shoulders. A lady, one would say, of at least sufficient income, enjoying considerable taste, and not more than twenty-eight years old….Without the slightest warning, Lesley Frewen burst into tears.”

A man was to blame: the one suitor Lesley really, really wanted didn’t want her.

Now experience has taught me that one Margery Sharp heroines, a wonderfully diverse group of women, have in common is that they don’t waste time feeling sorry for themselves; they get up and carry on.

the-flowering-thorn-margery-sharp-001Lesley was no exception, and she was inclined to be bolshie.

That goes some way to explaining why she offered to adopt an unwanted infant who had been left on her aunt’s hand after the death of a servant, saving him from being sent to an orphanage.

The other part of the explanation was that she thought that the experience would proved her with a fabulous stock of anecdotes.

She had doubts, but she had been taken with the child and she didn’t want to lose face. So she told herself that in four years time he would be going to school and she could resume her old life.

Lesley quickly realised that her income would only stretch so far, and so she decided that she would move her household to a cottage in the country. It takes time for her and her little boy – Pat – to learn to live together. The relationship they form is more much elder sister left in charge and little brother than mother and child, but they make it work.

Margery Sharp handles this beautifully, with understanding but without the faintest hint of sentimentality.

Along the way Lesley learns to be a countrywoman, forming friendships with her neighbours, joining in village life, and eventually realising that she could dine very well on local produce and didn’t need to have meals sent down from Fortnum and Mason.

“All through the summer Lesley’s household consolidated itself. In now included besides Patrick, Mrs Sprigg, and Pincher; a fine ginger cat who was sometimes called Alice; and of its tiny universe – as variously inhabited, for all its size as the island in ‘The Tempest’ – Lesley herself was the natural and undisputed centre. Within it, whatever she said or did was of extreme importance: goddess-like in her meanest activities, she dispensed food, favour, justice and protection. She had scraps for a dog, milk for a cat, bread for a child, a wage for an old woman: she had a roof and a fire and a door to shut or open. She was beginning to be beloved, and she was already essential.”

The journey to that point wasn’t simple: there were ups and downs and lots of lovely details, characters and incidents.

Lesley became great friends with the vicar’s wife; she charmed her elderly, aristocratic landlord; she rose to the occasion magnificently when called upon in a crisis.

And yet the obvious resolution was far from inevitable. There would be visitors from London, and there would always be a part of Lesley that felt the pull of her old life.

She was aware that the country life had changed her, as the good country food had changed her waistline, and she really didn’t know when Patrick went away to take up the school place that Lesley had inveigled her godfather into providing.

It was lovely spending time with these characters and in this world. There were so many times when I smiled, when I felt a tug of emotion, as I read.

There would be a lovely twist before the ending.

And that’s all I’m going to say.

The whole book is lovely, it’s as fine an entertainment today as it must have been in 1933, and I a still hoping that someone somewhere will reissue Margery Sharp’s books ….

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.

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

Isn’t it lovely when you find a story that really strikes a chord?

This is the story of ten year-old Noel Bostock. He lived in Hampstead with his godmother Mattie; she had been a suffragette and she had firm and individual opinions, formed over the course of a life well lived. Noel was bright and he was bookish; he had little in common with children his own age, he didn’t understand them at all, and so he had few friends; but he was very happy with Mattie. They understood each other.

But when Mattie’s mind began to fail, when she began to lose her memory and to act oddly, Noel struggled to cope. He didn’t ask for help, because he knew that Mattie wouldn’t want that. Tragedy ensued.

This was the part of the story that struck a chord, because I have had to support and my own mother, who is on the same path that Mattie followed. Lissa Evans telling of this part of the story was pitch perfect and profoundly moving.

19546111Noel tried hold on to his home and his way of life, but the encroaching war, and there own wish to not be too involved, led his new guardians to send him as an evacuee, to the relative safety of nearby St Alban’s.

The sullen child, who had a limp and ears that stuck out terribly, had a long wait to be offered a home; but eventually he was taken in by the muddled, well meaning, and not entirely honest Vee Sedge.

Vee did her best to keep her family together. Her son worked nights and during the day often went away, offering no explanation at all; and her dependent mother, was an obsessive letter writer, writing to government ministers and public figures, determined to sort the war out and make the world a better place. The family was always in debt, it was a struggle to find the money to keep the rent collector at bay, and Vee was sure that she could keep an evacuee for less that the payment she would receive for his board and lodgings.

Vee had other plans for making money from the war, and she found that a bright, young boy could be a very useful ally; Noel instinctively helped Vee and he found himself enjoying his new role. The two of them became a team.

That was lovely to watch; two completely different characters, who don’t entirely understand each other but who realise they can help each other and instinctively do just that. It worked so well because those two characters were flawed and so very, very believable, and because Lissa Evans wrote of them with wit, with empathy and without a hint of sentimentality.

The depictions of London during wartime was very well done, and the story touched on interesting aspects of life in wartime, some of which I hadn’t thought about before. It was utterly engaging; I was there, I was involved, I cared.

I wasn’t at all surprised to find out that Donald’s absences had come about because, like his mother, he was scheming to make money from the war. His plans were much more dangerous than hers, and when Noel found himself out of his depth and in serious trouble it was Donald’s fault. Vee wanted to do the right thing, but she knew that there would be a price, and that scared her.

My heart was in my mouth. The danger was very real.

I was so sorry when the book was over.

It spoke so very well about the lengths people will go to survive; about our need for love and support; and about how people can take you by surprise.

It’s a wonderfully human story, balancing dark subjects and rich humour wonderfully well.

I loved it!

The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson-Burnett

There’s a lovely passage in Frances Hodgson-Burnett’s childhood memoir – ‘The One I Knew the Best of All’ – that recalls the joy of imagining what wondrous stories might be inside the books on the highest shelf that she couldn’t quite reach.

‘The Shuttle’ is exactly the right book for that child to have written when she became a grown up author. An author who understood the magic of the story; the very special kind of magic that captures children and makes them into life-long readers. This book has that magic in abundance, and I was utterly captivated, from the first page to the last.

The Shuttle

‘The Shuttle’ is set early in the twentieth century, at a time when wealthy American heiresses married into the British nobility. They gained titles and social standing, and their husbands gained the funds that they desperately needed to maintain their family estates.

Rosalie Vanderpoel, the sweet and naïve elder daughter of a New York millionaire, married Sir Nigel Anstruther, and she had no idea that all he wanted was her fortune. She soon learned that the man she had married was cruel, selfish and dissolute, but, because he was her husband, because she was already sailing across that Atlantic, away from her family and everything that she had ever known, there was nothing she could do.

Her younger sister, Betty, was still a child when Rosy married, and she saw Sir Nigel with the clear-sightedness of a child. She was suspicious of her new brother-in-law, and when Rosy failed to keep in touch with her family Betty feared the worst, and she began to make a plan. When she grew up she would go to England and rescue her sister.

When Betty arrives in England, ten years later, she finds her sister a pale shadow of her former self, abandoned with her young son in a crumbling mansion at the centre of a neglected estate while her husband fritters her family money on a life of debauchery.

There is a great deal that needs to be done to put things right, and Betty is the woman to do it. She has the same clear-sightedness that she had as a child, she has the understanding of business of what makes people tick that she learned at her father’s kmee, and she appreciates both American initiative and British tradition.

You have to love and admire Betty; she has intelligence, she has enthusiasm, she has empathy, and she is ready to spend money and to do whatever has to be done. She begins in the garden, with the gardener, and as the garden responds to love and care, so does the estate and the village around it.

The transformation of Rosy and of the estate that her young son with inherit is always at the centre of the story and it’s wonderful, rich in description, rich in understanding of humanity, but there is far more going on here.

An American typewriter salesman on a bicycling tour of Britain has a small but significant part to play.

The neighbouring estate over belongs to another impoverished nobleman, who loves his house and the country around it, but who doesn’t know how to save it and is far to proud to ask for help.

And back in America a proud and anxious father waited for news of his daughters.

Oh, this is a wonderful story, a big, old-fashioned book that makes it so easy to just read and read and read.

I loved the wonderful cast of characters: Rosy was lovely, and I really did feel for her; Betty was wonderful, the very best kind of heroine; their father was exactly the right kind of father; Mount Dunstan, from the neighbouring estate appeared weak but proved to be the best kind of hero; and Sir Nigel was a villain worthy of booing and hissing …..

It’s not subtle, but it is so lovely. Think of it as a story for a grown-up reader still on touch with their inner reading child ….

I loved that it was rooted in real history, and that the story explored the strengths and weaknesses of the British and American ways, and how they can work together for the greater good of both.

I loved that the author drew so very well on her own experiences, of life on both sides of the Atlantic and of marital abuse, and on her love of family, home and garden.

I loved the house and the garden that were described so beautifully and so lovingly that they came to life. I could see them, I really could.

And there’s a robin – if you’ve read ‘The Secret Garden’ you’ll appreciate that.

I loved that this was the story of the most wonderful heroine – and that the damsel in distress was rescued not by a knight in shining armour, but by her little sister!

I was a little disappointed that the end of the story lurched into melodrama, but in the end it was right. It was the ending that I had expected from quite early in the story, but the route there proved to be nicely unpredictable, and I loved every step of the journey.

Tryst by Elswyth Thane

I was intrigued by some lovely reviews of this ghostly romance from the thirties, I was thrilled to find that the library had a copy on reserve stock, and as soon as I read the opening words I was smitten:

“Sabrina had never picked a lock in her life, but it was done every day in books. She tiptoed along the carpeted upper passage and whisked around the corner to the second flight of stairs leading to the top floor of the house. Gripped tightly in one hand she carried her burglar tools- nail scissors with curved points, a button-hook, and some wire hairpins stolen from Aunt Effie’s dressing-table.”

The story of what had lead Sabrina to take such drastic action, and of what happened next, was lovely. If Mary Stewart and D E Stevenson had ever sat down together to write a ghost story it might have been rather like this.

Sabrina Archer was the loveliest of heroines; she was bright, she was bookish, and her sheltered upbringing had made her older is some ways and younger it others than her seventeen years. I found her so easy to love, so easy to understand, and why heart would rise and fall with hers as events unfolded.

TrystShe had moved with her self-absorbed father and conventional aunt to Nuns Farthing, a house they have rented in the English countryside. There was one locked room at the top of the stairs. The housekeeper explained that it was because the family member who usually occupied that room was away, abroad, and that the family hadn’t wanted to disturb his things. It was perfectly reasonable, there was more than enough house room without it, but for reasons she didn’t entirely understand Sabrina was irresistibly drawn to that one room. hence the nail scissors, the button-hook and the hair-pins.

When she gained access to the room, when she saw the desk, the armchairs, the bookshelves, the wonderful array of books on those shelves, Sabrina knew that she had been right to do what she did. Everything about the room felt like home; that feeling grew as she spent time there, and so did her interest in its absent occupant.

Hilary Shenstone was wounded  on assignment in India for the Home Office and then , as he was being flown back for medical treatment, his plane was shot down. Hilary’s final thoughts were of England, and especially of Nuns Farthing. His spirit found its back there, found strangers in the house, found a kindred spirit in his room.

It wouldn’t be fair to say much more about the story than that.

There were some lovely moments, some amusing, some heart-warming, some sad, as Hilary made his way home and as Sabrina curled up in an armchair to read from his bookshelves. And though the arc of the story had a feeling of inevitability it never felt predictable, and I was always held in the moment. I was involved. I cared.

The characters are simply drawn, the logic probably wouldn’t stand up to close inspection, and I can’t deny that the story is sentimental. But it works beautifully, if you take it for what it is: a simple, ghostly, old-fashioned romance.

The ending seemed a little melodramatic, but suddenly it became so very bittersweet.

Oh how I wish that I could shelve ‘Tryst’ alongside stories like ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’, ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ and ‘Still She Wished for Company’ – and not have to give it back to the library.

I know though that, even without a copy of the book on hand,  Sabrina and her story will be staying with me.

 

A Hundred Pieces of Me by Lucy Dillon

Lucy Dillon writes lovely books: she’s a wonderful storyteller with the lightest of touches, but her stories always have just enough serious underpinnings to stop them drifting off into the ether ….

‘A Hundred Pieces of Me’ is particularly lovely, and a little different to the books that came before.

18623990It’s Gina’s story. Her passage through life hadn’t been straightforward, but she knew that she’d been lucky; she’d survived breast cancer, she had a wonderful husband who had supported her, they had a lovely home, and they had a wonderful future in front of them.

And then he left her.

There were tears, there were recriminations, but ultimately Gina knew that she had to pick herself up and get on with the life that she knew was so precious.

She found a lovely new flat and she vowed to clear out all of the ‘things’ that she had acquired over the years and live a simpler life: she would keep just one hundred things that would help her to hang on to memories.

Picking out those one hundred things brought back so many emotions – happy and sad  – and there were so many things to remember, as Gina worked out what she must  hold on to and what she should let go.

It was fascinating to watch, and impossible not to think about what we keep, why we keep it, what it says about us ….

There was a new future to forge too: a new job meant that she had to work with the new owners of a wonderful house that was her own dream home, and, quite unintentionally, she came to share her new home with a dog.

Gina didn’t quite complete her list,  because it gave way to an even lovelier idea: a new friend gave Gina a polaroid camera, and he planted the idea that she might photograph one hundred things that would make new memories.

I rather missed the hundred things, but that shift provided the time and space that were needed for the story to come together. It was very clever, gradually revealing what had happened to Gina’s first love, why her relationship with her mother was so strained, and what consequences on her illness had, not just for her, but for her friends and family as well.

The story is so touching, so poignant; with happiness and sadness beautifully balanced,

I particularly loved Gina’s relationship with her best friend, Naomi, who supported her and who needed her in her life. I was so pleased when Gina and her mother finally came to talk about the things that really mattered, and to understand herself a little better. And the way that a dog inveigled its way first into Gina’s life and then into her heart, turning her into a dog-person, was utterly perfect.

‘A Hundred Pieces of me’ is a beautifully written story about letting go of the past, about not worrying about the future, and about loving life in the here and now.

I can’t deny that it was a little contrived, that one or two things fell into place a little too easily, but I can forgive that because all of the characters, all of the relationships ring true, and they caught – and inspired – so many emotions.

And because Gina learned and grew so much over the course of the story.

When the end came I didn’t want to let go: and it wasn’t really an end, but another turning point in Gina’s life.

So now all I can do is wish her well ….