A Box of Books for 2013

I have a love-hate relationship with year-end lists.

I have loved lists – writing them, reading them, studying and analysing them – since I was a child. And yet I find it difficult to sum up a year of reading in a list or two. I know that it’s for the best of reasons: I have learned that there are so many wonderful books out there, and so I have learned to read the books that call; the books I want to read, rather than the books I ought to read.

So I’m going to do what I did last year. I’m going to assemble a virtual box of books to capture all of the things that I’ve loved in this year’s reading. It might sound like a list, and maybe it is, but to me feels like I’ve pulled some great books from the shelves because those are the books I want to pull from the shelves right now. It’s not quite so definitive.

And here it is – in the order that I read them:

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Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household by Kate Hubbard

“What a wonderful idea: the story of the sixty something years when Queen Victoria reigned, told through the experiences of the men and women who served her. The experiences of high-ranking courtiers, who were close enough to see how the queen and her family lived, who were not overawed by the world they found themselves in, and who, of course, left letters and diaries to speak for them.”

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

“I must confess that, though I loved the recent film adaptation of The Painted Veil, I have been circling my copy of the book for a long, long time. Because for years Maugham lived in my box marked ‘A Great Author But Not For Me.’ Wrong, wrong, wrong!”

The Love-Charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel

“I was smitten with ‘The Love-Charm of Bombs’ from the very first time I read about it. The prospect of seeing London in the Second World War through the eyes of five remarkable writers – Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Rose Macaulay, Hilde Spiel and Henry Yorke (who wrote under the name Henry Green) – was simply irresistible.”

A Pixy in Petticoats by John Trevena

“Some people look at a hedgerow and see just that. A hedgerow. But others see more: a network of different plants, signs of the wildlife that live there, evidence of what the weather had been doing. John Trevena saw those things and he was able to bring that to life on the page, to pull his readers into his village and over the moors.”

The Pinecone by Jenny Uglow

“In 1869, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, staying with friends near Carlisle, reported in a letter to his mother that he had come across ‘some most remarkable architectural works by a former Miss Losh. She must have been really a great genius,’ he wrote, ‘and should be better known.’ She should.”

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Mariana by Monica Dickens

“Now it has to be said that Mary is not the most sympathetic of characters. She is often awkward, thoughtless, selfish even. But she was real, and for all her failing I did like her, I did want her to find her path in life, her place in the world. Sometimes fallible heroines are so much easier to love.”

Death of Lyndon Wilder and the Consequences Thereof by E.A. Dineley

“It’s a lovely period piece, full of lovely characters, pieces of history, references to beloved books, clever plotting, well-chosen details … and it’s utterly, utterly readable.”

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

“Barbara Pym constructed her story so cleverly and told it beautifully. There is wit, intelligence and insight, and such a very light touch and a natural charm. A simple story, but the details made it sing. It was so very believable. It offers a window to look clearly at a world that existed not so long ago, but that has changed now so completely.”

The Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter

“In ‘The Sea Change’, Joanna Rossiter spins her story around a mother and daughter, both caught up in life changing events – real, historical events – that are very different and yet have similar consequences. She does it so very well that I can scarcely believe it is her debut. But it is.”

The Young Clementina by D E Stevenson

“I was so sorry to have to say goodbye to Charlotte and her world, after being caught up in her life and her world from start to finish. That points to very clever writing and plotting. Charlotte’s world, the people in it, all of the things she lived through were painted richly and beautifully. Her story lived and breathed.”

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The View on the Way Down by Rebecca Wait

“That I felt so deeply for these three siblings, that I was so upset, is a measure of what Rebecca Wait has achieved in her debut novel. I never doubted that she really knew, that she really understood, and that her accounts of depression, of bereavement, of grief, were utterly, utterly credible.  And the simplicity and the clarity of her story and her writing allowed that understanding to shine.”

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson (re-read)

“Lady Rose was the only child and the heir, thanks to the good graces of Queen Victoria, of the Earl of Lochule. She was pretty, warm, bright,  and her open heart, her boundless curiosity, her love of life, charmed everyone she met. And she grew into a proud Scot and a true romantic, inspired by the writings of Walter Scott, the history of Mary Queen of Scots, and, most of all, her beloved home and lands.”

The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker

“Best of all, the story of the golem and the djinni spoke profoundly of humanity, of its strengths and weaknesses, and of what it is that makes us human.”

No More Than Human by Maura Laverty

“She set off for Madrid,  to become a ‘professora’ – a free-lance tutor and  chaperone. It was an independent lifestyle that suited Delia very well, but it wasn’t easy to establish herself when she was so young, and maybe her reputation would follow her. But Delia was determined, and soon she was setting her sights even higher …..

Lucy Carmichael by Margaret Kennedy

“There was no wedding: Lucy was jilted, and of course she was devastated. She knew she had to carry on, and she knew she had to get away. She hated watching people being tactful, knowing she was being talked about, seeing reminders everywhere. And so, when she saw on opening for  a drama teacher at an arts institute, she grabbed it with both hands.”

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The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns (re-read)

“Barbara Comyns tells all of this so well, at times painting pictures with every sentence, and balancing the commonplace and the highly improbable so well that I was completely captivated by a story that was somehow dark and colourful at exactly the same time.”

The Misbegotten by Katherine Webb

“I was captivated by ‘The Misbegotten’, a wonderfully readable, utterly compelling story, set early in the eighteenth century. It is story of dark secrets, terrible losses, devastating lies, of the lives that they affect, and of truths that may be brought to light at a very high price.”

Penmarric by Susan Howatch (re-read)

“The story is told in six volumes, by five different narrators: Mark Castellack, his wife, one of his illegitimate sons, and two of his legitimate sons who would, in their turn, be master of Penmarric. Sixty years pass – from the later years of Queen Victoria’s reign to the end of World War II full of every kind of family drama you could imagine. In the wrong hands it would be a mess, but Susan Howatch made it work.”

Nearest Thing to Crazy by Elizabeth Forbes

“It was all so horribly believable. And it was unsettling, seeing how easily a life could be knocked off course, a mind knocked off balance. The story built , slowly and steadily, never losing it’s grip, towards a very clever ending. An ending that I really didn’t see coming, but an ending that made perfect sense.”

Frost Hollow Hall by Emma Carroll

“Frost Hollow Hall is more than a ghost story; it’s a story that lives and breathes, and paint wonderful pictures, and it’s a story about love, family, loss, regret, and learning to let go, told beautifully, with both subtlety and charm.”

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The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman (re-read)

“The story begins with Richard as a small child and follows him through the course of his life, in exile when the House of Lancaster is in the ascendancy, and at court when the House of York rises. He becomes a formidable battlefield commander; he becomes a trusted lieutenant of the brother, Edward IV; he becomes the husband of Anne Neville, daughter of Warwick the Kingmaker, who he has loved since child; and eventually, of course, he comes king.”

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton (re-read)

“Now I find myself wanting to do what Alice did at the end of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I want to throw you in the air and say, “You’re just a fictional character!” But I can’t. Because you are so utterly real; not a heroine, not a villainess, but a vivid, three-dimensional human being, with strengths and weaknesses.”

The Goddess and the Thief by Essie Fox

“I loved the way that the story of Shiva and Pravati, and stories of her family, were woven into Alice’s own story. The contrast between India and England was very, very effective, and there were so many lovely things to notice along the way: bookish references, period details, real history – everything you could want.”

High Rising by Angela Thirkell

“It’s a simple story, but it plays out beautifully, because it is adorned with so many lovely dialogues, so many interesting incidents; and because everything works beautifully with the characters and their situations.”

Maidens’ Trip by Emma Smith

“It is a wonderful adventure for three young women  – Nanette, Emma and Charity – all from conventional, middle-class backgrounds, who have completed basic training and have been dropped into the very different world of the boating fraternity.”

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And that is very nearly the end of my reading year.

All that remains is to tell you about the very last book I read for my Century of Books, and to wind up that project …..

Sixes

It was Jo’s idea last year, and we’re doing it again this year.

Celebrate the first six months of the reading year by putting six books into each of six categories.

It’s not quite as easy as it looks. I tweaked the categories last year to suit my reading style, and I’ve tweaked them a little more this year to make sure that the right books got in.

Here they are!

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Six Books that tugged at my heartstrings

The Night Rainbow by Claire King
The Lonely by Paul Gallico
A Perfect Gentle Knight by Kit Pearson
The Blue Castle by Lucy Maud Montgomery
The Young Clementina by D E Stevenson
Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole

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Six books illuminated by wonderful voices from the twentieth century

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
The Fool Of The Family by Margaret Kennedy
A Pixy in Petticoats by John Trevena
Mariana by Monica Dickens
Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

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Six books that took me to another time and place

Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household by Kate Hubbard
This January Tale by Bryher
The Love-Charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel
In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreda
The Pinecone by Jenny Uglow
A Commonplace Killing by Siân Busby

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Six books that introduced me to interesting new authors

Death of Lyndon Wilder and the Consequences Thereof by E.A. Dineley
The First Book Of Calamity Leek by Paula Lichtarowicz
Telling the Bees by Peggy Hesketh
The Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter
Chaplin and Company by Mave Fellowes
The View on the Way Down by Rebecca Wait

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Six books I must mention that don’t fit nicely into any category

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty
Yew Hall by L.M. Boston
Orkney by Amy Sackville
A Five Year Sentence by Bernice Rubens
The Asylum by John Harwood
Perfect by Rachel Joyce

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Six Books I started in the first six months of the year and haven’t quite finished … yet …

The Palace of Curiosities by Rosie Garland
The House on the Cliff by Jon Godden
Elijah’s Mermaid by Essie Fox
The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton by Diane Atkinson
Warpaint by Alicia Foster
The Rich House by Stella Gibbons

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Do think about putting your own sixes – it’s a great way of perusing your reading, and I’d love to read more lists.

The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym

I love Barbara Pym – not as passionately as some, but I don’t think love is too strong a word. And yet, as Barbara Pym Reading Week approached her books were not calling me. It might be because the last of her books that I started – Less Than Angels – I didn’t get on with. It might be that my state of mind needed a different book. Or it might just be that I’m naturally contrary.

Pym Logo Blue

I thought I’d just let the week pass me by, but as I saw Pym posts popping up here there and everywhere, a certain book began to call me back. The Sweet Dove Died. It was the first Pym I read, five or six years ago. There was no particular reason for starting there, towards the end of her writing life, but I saw a copy in the library and the title intrigued me.

It comes from Keats…

“I HAD a dove and the sweet dove died;
And I have thought it died of grieving:
O, what could it grieve for? Its feet were tied,
With a silken thread of my own hand’s weaving;
Sweet little red feet! why should you die –
Why should you leave me, sweet bird! why?
You liv’d alone in the forest-tree,
Why, pretty thing! would you not live with me?
I kiss’d you oft and gave you white peas;
Why not live sweetly, as in the green trees?”

… and it’s rather apposite.

The story opens in a London auction house. Humphrey Boyce, who owns an antiques shop, and his nephew, James, who works with him, are both there. They rush to the aid of Miss Leonora Eyre, who has fainted, overcome by her success at her very first auction, and a love triangle begins.

Humphrey, a widower, sees himself taking Leonora to exhibitions, to dinner, to the theatre; becoming her boon companion. And Leonora is ore than happy for him to pay court, but her sights are set on James. She sees him as a young admirer who will look up to her, admire her, be charmed by her, be guided by her. And James was open to all of that. But …

James was a young man he wanted a girlfriend. He had Phoebe, who lived in the country, who he visited there. He didn’t treat her very well, and she was bright enough to know that but too smitten to admit it.

doveBut actually James might have preferred a boyfriend. He met an American, Ned, on his travels, and Ned came back to London with him.

None of this suited Leonora at all – she wanted to be the centre of attention! Phoebe put up a good fight, but Leonora saw her off. Ned though was more troublesome, because he saw what Leonora was, and because he wasn’t nearly as attached to James as James was to him.

The story plays out beautifully.

Leonora is a wonderful creation. She is a wealthy, elegant, and beautiful middle aged woman, who lives alone, with little to fill her time, save indulging her own pleasures. She dines out with men who are never encouraged to expect more from her than her company at dinner. Her female friends are few and far between, and she keeps them at arms length, expecting them to admire her while she takes no more than a token interest in their lives and concerns.

She is proud and aloof, but she is beginning to see signs that she is ageing. That worries her, and it makes her vulnerable.

Barabara Pym draws Leonora’s character so very well that, that even though I didn’t like her I began to feel for her.

I couldn’t feel the same way for Humphrey and James: the character of the former was too simply drawn and the character of the latter was a little unfocused.

I was rather more interested on the characters on the fringes of the story: Phoebe was a lovely girl, Leonora’s lady lodger, Humphrey’s long serving secretary. They were churchgoers, they would have enjoyed a jumble sale, they would have been at home in an earlier Barbara Pym novel. Most unlike the central characters!

The observation was wonderful, the consideration of serious themes was wonderful, but there was something not quite right.

The tone – it had the lightness, the wryness of early Pym – and in this rather different, rather darker, book that wasn’t always right.

I did enjoy my re-read, and knowing the story freed me up to notice things I hadn’t before, but this time around I appreciated the Sweet Dove Died a little more than I did last time, but I loved it a little less.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

I had such high hopes that I would love this book, and I did, so very much.

So many people had said that it was so good, that it was Barbara Pym’s best book, and when I realised that it was the story of a spinster, in her thirties in the fifties, my mind went spinning back.

Not to the fifties – I’m not that old – but to when my mother took me to church as a very small child. We always sat behind a row of elderly ladies, and I spent a long time looking at their backs and hats during dull sermons and lengthy intercessions. They always spoke to my mother – they had know her since she was a small girl coming to church with her own mother – and whenever something was going on, be it a coffee morning or a jumble sale, they were always there and they were always busy.

When I was a small girl I thought that they were ancient, but looking back I think most of them would have been in their sixties. Years layer my mother used to visit one of those ladies when she was housebound, and I remember my mother telling me that she was always so welcoming and so appreciative. Not long after she did her nephew appeared on our doorstep with two carved elephants. My mother had mentioned in passing that she remembered her parents having a similar pair, and she had made a note that nother was to have her elephants.

I’m rambling, but I’m going to come to the point now. Mildred Lathbury – the excellent woman who tells this story was so real, so utterly believable that I am quite prepared to believe that I might have been looking at her back and her hat back in the day.

Excellent Women

Mildred Lathbury was the daughter of a clergyman, and she had been brought up in a country vicarage, but when she found herself alone in the world she moved to a small flat near the Anglican church that she regularly attended. She was a stalwart of that church and had formed a close friendship with Winifred Mallory. She was the vicar’s sister and, as both sister and brother were ummarried, they lived together in the vicarage. It had been suggested that Mildred would be an excellent wife for Julian Mallory …

New arrivals heralded change.

First new neighbours moved into the flat below Mildred’s. Helena Napier, an anthropologist, arrived first, and Mildred was taken aback when Helena spoke to her freely and frankly, when she announced that she didn’t go to church, when she said that she didn’t believe in housework. Her husband, Rockingham had just come out of the navy and was on his way home from Italy. Mildred wasn’t sure if she liked Helena but she was intrigued by her, and by new possibilities.

And then the Mallory’s decided to let a room. Allegra Grey was a clergyman’s widow and she seemed to be the ideal person to share the vicarage. She wasn’t, and some worked that out more quickly than others. There was much speculation, and a good deal of gossiping

Mildred’s relationship with the Napiers was lovely to watch. She was flattered to be asked for help and advice, and she came to realise that marriage was far, far more complicated than she had realised. And that she was rather more involved than she really wanted to be. Events at the vicarage offered interesting parallels and contrasts. Church events provided a wonderful backdrop. And I haven’t even mentioned Everest Bone …

Barbara Pym constructed her story so cleverly and told it beautifully. There is wit, intelligence and insight, and such a very light touch and a natural charm. A simple story, but the details made it sing. It was so very believable.

It offers a window to look clearly at a world that existed not so long ago, but that has changed now so completely.

Mildred’s voice rang completely true, and I did like her. She was a genuinely nice woman, practical intelligent, and dependable. She didn’t think marriage was the answer to everything, she liked having her independence and her own space, but she did rather like the idea of being married, of having a companion in life.

And now I have just one more word – excellent!

Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym

In the middle of the 1930s, not long after she came down from Oxford, the young Barbara Pym wrote her first novel. She borrowed a title from Thomas Haynes Bayley.

Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove:
Something to love, oh, something to love!

Its significance wasn’t clear to me at first, but as I read understood.

And then Barbara Pym imagined how she and her sister might be, thirty years in the future. She creates that world, perfect in every detail, a future built on the world she knew that would never come because war changed everything.

Harriet and Belinda Bede lived together in a village in the English countryside. they living quietly, serving their church, knitting industriously, reading studiously, and making sure that they got the small details of life right. Questions of how one should dress, of what should be served at dinner, of how guests should be entertained.

Small things, but important things, that fill up lives.  Barbara Pym understood that and she painted the picture beautifully, taking it seriously but still able to smile at sillinesses.

Some Tame GazelleHarriet and Belinda were quite different, living overlapping rather than united lives. Harriet was plump and sociable, fussing over young curates, planning supper parties, and fending off marriage proposals from  neighbour Ricardo Bianco. Belinda was softer and meeker, more involved with her friends and neighbours, and quietly, wordlessly, loving the married archdeacon.

It was lovely just to watch their world, so beautifully observed, and to realise that the sisters Bede were not unhappy with their lives.

They were women of independent means who had lived, loved, and had chosen to remain independent.

Though, of course, it’s not quite that simple. There are lost dreams, faded hopes, loneliness …. and sometimes it is easier to love from a distance, to play a role, than to make a real commitment.

I was so happy just watching everyday life that I was a little disappointed when the main plot arrived and the focus shifted slightly.

The archdeacon’s wife was called away and first a visiting librarian and then a visiting bishop upset the balance of village life, with some very interesting consequences.

There were some wonderful moments, there was just a hint of contrivance, of a cast having been assembled.

Each sister received an unexpected marriage proposal, and each sister turned it down. They knew that those offers came not from love or desire, but from a wish to be looked after and supported.  And they preferred to support each other,  to live together, to continue the life they knew.

The right end to a wonderful debut. I can’t say it’s her finest work, but to do so much so well at such a young age is remarkable. And now I have great expectations of the other books I have lined up to read and re-read in Barbara Pym’s centenary year.

A Walk Around The Fiction Shelves

Last time I was in the library I realised that I hadn’t posted about library books for quite some time. And I had an idea. Instead of writing about the books I brought home I would write about the books that caught my eye, for many different reasons, but got left behind…

I was disappointed to see Isabel Ashdown’s first two novels – Glasshopper and Hurry Up and Wait – on the shelves. Two wonderful books that really should be out on loan.

I do wish that my library had a system in place for displaying reader recommendations. At the moment I just rearrange books so that ones I think need a little push are more prominent, but I’ve signed up for a new friends of the library group, so hopefully I’ll get the chance to do a little more.

I noticed a lovely hardback copy of The Children’s Book by A S Byatt. I have a copy of my own and it looked rather intimidating but recently I picked up Ragnarok, Byatt’s contribution to the Canongate Myths series, and it reminded me just how good her writing is.

I counted three titles by Willa Cather in Virago Modern Classics editions – Lucy Gayheart in a traditional green cover and O Pioneers and My Antonia in more recent editions. I love Willa Cather’s writing but its a long time since I read any of her books.

All of her novels are on my shelves and I’m hoping to re-read at least one of two for the Willa Cather Novel Reading Challenge at Wildmoo Books

I spotted two books that I’d borrowed and then had to return unread, because other people had them on order and I didn’t want to read them in a rush. One day I’ll read them:

The Songwriter by Beatrice Colin and The Spider Truces by Tom Connolly

Please tell me I’m not the only person who has to do this?!

I caught sight of Henrietta’s War by Joyce Dennys, and wondered why I haven’t read it yet. I have a copy of my own, it’s very short, and it looks terribly readable. Silly really!

I paused to peruse an Everyman Classics edition of The Wings of The Dove by Henry James. It was mentioned as a possibility for Venice in February, and now that I’ve look at it again the idea of a re-read really appeals. But it may be a book too many. I’ll see how things are – and if it’s still on the shelf – when February comes.

I’m always drawn to The Wilding by Maria McCann. A lovely historical novel and the hardback edition has a beautiful cover.

My hand automatically went out to A Month in The Country by Jocelyn Playfair. Because it was a dove-grey Persephone edition and I always hope that one day the library will have one of the Persephones I don’t own.

It hasn’t happened yet, but I can dream.

I noticed two more Virago Modern Classics with striking new covers – A Glass of Blessings and Excellent Women by Barbara Pym.

I love and miss the traditional green Virago covers, but I have to admit that new editions of books by Barbara Pym, Molly Keane and Elizabeth Taylor do seem to be very popular in the library. And that has to be a good thing, doesn’t it?

I saw Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese. I have read so much praise for this book and I will read it one day.

I spotted of the three books in Anne Zouroudi’s Greek Detective series – The Messenger of Athens, The Doctor of Thessaly and The Lady of Sorrows. Books one, three and four. Trouble is I’m after book two – The Taint of Midas.

Why does that always happen when I want to read a series in order? I see the earlier books that I’ve read, I see the later books that I’m not ready for, but I never seem to see the book I want!

And, finally, I saw Thérèze Raquin by Émile Zola. I meant to re-read it for this year’s RIP Challenge, but I wanted to read more books than I had time for and this one fell by the wayside. maybe next year.

So many books to ponder, for so many reasons.

Does anybody else do this too?

Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym

dove

“I HAD a dove and the sweet dove died;
And I have thought it died of grieving:
O, what could it grieve for? Its feet were tied,
With a silken thread of my own hand’s weaving;
Sweet little red feet! why should you die –
Why should you leave me, sweet bird! why?
You liv’d alone in the forest-tree,
Why, pretty thing! would you not live with me?
I kiss’d you oft and gave you white peas;
Why not live sweetly, as in the green trees?”

The title of Barbara Pym’s penultimate novel is taken from this poem by John Keats. She builds her story on its theme beautifully.

Leonora Eyre is the central character and she is a wonderful creation – a wealthy, elegant, and beautiful middle aged woman. She lives alone and is proud and aloof, with little to fill her time, save indulging her own pleasures.

She dines out with men who are never encouraged to expect more from her than her company at dinner. Her female friends are few and far between, and she keeps them at arms length, expecting them to admire her while she takes little interest in their lives and concerns.

It seems that Leonora has no understanding of basic human warmth and interactions.

Humphrey Boyce owns an antiques shop where he works with James, his nephew. The meet Leonora at an auction and while Humphrey sets his sights on Leonora, she has her sights on James.

James is receptive to Leonora’s overtures, but she cannot quite keep him in her thrall. She sees off his young woman friend but not the young man who captures his attention.

Barabara Pym draws Leonora’s character so well that, despite all of her failings, you begin to pity her. But Leonora will not be pitied and carries on her life the only way she knows how.

This is a dark but wonderful book. It is beautifully observed, restrained and unsensational, but at the same time gripping