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!


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

This January Tale by Bryher

Towards the end of last year I was very taken with a historical novel by an author who wrote under the name Bryher. ‘The Player’s Boy’ was a beautifully written, perfectly evoked, story of one young actor in Jacobean England. Even before I put the book down I knew that I would be seeking out more of Bryher’s work.

As I investigated I found mixed reactions to her memoirs, but much praise for her novels. The Cornish Library Service has quite a few in reserve stock, and when I saw ‘This January Tale’ it seemed only right to place my order so that I could read it at the right time of year.

I am so glad I did, because it really is a gem.

History records that in 1066 William, Duke of Normandy, defeated and killed Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings to become King of England, but it has less to say about what that meant to ordinary people. ‘This January Tale’ tells their story, tells what it was like to see a foreign army invade and drive across the land, what it was like to live in fear of losing what little they had, the only way of life they knew.

This January TaleEldred had been loyal to King Harold, and he had been a soldier in his army until injury forced him out. When that happened he returned to his home in Exeter, he established himself as a smith and he took a wife.

It wasn’t a love match for Elfreda. But she had been burned by love before, and she knew that Eldred was a good man who would look after her and her daughter. And that she could be a good wife to him, looking after his home and his comfort.

But Goda, her daughter was a problem. She wasn’t a bad child, but she missed her father and resented her step-father.

The people of Exeter watched, fearfully, as Norman forces spread across the country. They hoped that they wouldn’t push that far west, but they did. The city was besieged, and it didn’t take long for the walls to break. The followers of Harold and the Godwinsons fled into exile, sailing across treacherous winter seas, around the coast of Cornwall, maybe to Wales, or maybe to Ireland to rally support for their cause.

Eldred knew that he had to leave, that his family would be sure to suffer reprisals. Elfreda didn’t want to leave her home, her family but she was loyal to her husband and she didn’t want to be a burden to her kin. She offered Goda a choice, but Goda saw her friends leaving and she saw nothing for her in the only home she had ever known. She had no doubts.

The journey would be terrible, the future would be hard, and only one of those who left would see Exeter again.

It’s a simple story, but it’s quite beautifully executed.

The recreation of the England of 1066 is extraordinary: a land dominated by vast forests, a small population scattered in remote hamlets, living off the land and the sea. It’s so recognisable England, despite being an England of which only small traces remain. And the quietness and stillness make the drama all the more shocking.

The people and the communities are just as well painted; their hopes and fears utterly real and recognisable. And that is brought into sharp focus by so many moments that were so very recognisable – Eldred’s emotions when he was forced to change his way of life; Goda’s frustration when her mother misunderstands things that seem obvious to her; and Elfreda’s feelings when her daughter rushes home at the last moment for a little thing that she had forgotten. Those moments were small, natural, quite unforced, but they served as a reminder that though the world may change, generations may come and go, the people who lived in this country centuries before us were not so very different from us.

The prose is lovely, the story quietly compelling, the details plentiful and perfect.

And so this is a historical novel, a story of ordinary people, to believe in.

An Island, a Border Terrier, and a Historical Novelist

Following links through my library’s catalogue had led me to many interesting discoveries, but imagine my surprise when I found a novelist who shared a name with my dog!

Bryher, by David Levine

Bryher, by David Levine

My Briar was named after Bryher, one of the Scilly Isles – we changed the spelling to the English as the Cornish is often misspelt – and when, after my initial surprise, I did a little research, I discovered that author Annie Winifred Ellerman has taken the name of that same island as her pseudonym.

Bryher was a patron of the arts, a political activist, a journalist, a film-maker, a novelist, and, by all accounts, a difficult but fascinating woman. The book I had stumbled across was one of a series of reissued historical novels, selected by Rosemary Sutcliff.

I placed my order.

The Player’s Boy opened with words from a will.

Will of Augustine Phillips, May 4th 1605:

“I give to Samuell Gilborne my late apprentice the somme of xls and my mouse colloured velvet hose and a white taffity doublet a black taffity suite my purple cloake sworde and dagger And my base vyoll Item I give to James Sandes my apprentice the somme of xls and a citterne And a Bandore and a Lute to be paide and delivered unto him at th’ expirication of his terme of yeares in his Indenture of apprentishoode.”

Bryher span her story around those real bequests.

It begins with young actor, James Sandes, at the deathbed of his master.  His master was Augustine Phillips, one of the great actors of Elizabethan England, and he had seen potential in a young man who approached him after a performance, asking for another song.

The Player's BoyThe apprentice would grieve for the master who had taught him all that he knew about acting. And he would find another place, another master, but it would never be the same.

The world had changed, and it would go on changing.  The glory days of the theatre had faded and all but disappeared.

The apprentice’s love of the theatre faded too. He was fascinated by travellers’ tales. He was nostalgic for the country life he had left behind. But he just went on, drifting through life.

His story is short, and rather elusive, but it is quite beautifully done.

Her characters lived and breathed, and I could hear their voices in my head as they spoke of so very many things.

They spoke particularly of impending execution of Sir Walter Raleigh, ordered by King James to appease the Spanish. His decline spoke for the changes in England.

It is an England brought back to life by an author who so clearly knew and loved the period she wrote about, and who had the skill to use that knowledge to illuminate her story.

It’s one of those stories where little seems to happen, but much is said about life and the world.

Difficult to write about, but absorbing to read.

I’m left wondering, does anyone write this kind of historical novel any more?

There are many wonderful stories, full of drama, intrigue and incident, but I’m looking for something a little quieter. Thoughtful stories of lives lived in different ages …

And in the meantime I already have another of Bryher’s books on order …