Reading Books: Past, Present & Future

I have to do this from time to time. I have to celebrate the books I’ve read, organise the books I’m reading, and think about what might come next.

Past present and future …

The past …..

R.I.P VIII ended at Halloween and, though I didn’t read many of the books I lined up at the start of the season, I was very pleased with the eight books I did read.

RIP8main1My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart
The Misbegotten by Katherine Webb
Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield
Treveryan by Angela Du Maurier
Frost Hollow Hall by Emma Carroll
The Unforgiving by Charlotte Cory
Hell! Said the Duchess by Michael Arlen
The Blackheath Séance Parlour by Alan Williams

I’ve nearly finished Burial Rites by Hannah Kent too, and I’ve made a start on Deborah Harkness’s Shadow of Night.

Two of my RIP books – Treveryan and The Unforgiving slotted into my Century of Books, and I passed the 80% mark in the middle of last month.

The present …..

I have a few books in progress.

I spotted a beautiful 30th anniversary edition of The Sunne in Splendor in the library a few weeks ago, and that made up my mind to re-read it for my Century of Books. I loved it years ago, I love it now, and I’m into the final act.

winters-night-jpgI was warmly recommended Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller to fill a difficult year – 1979 in my century of books – I was intrigued, I ordered a copy from the library, and then I discovered a readalong. Clearly I was meant to read this book, I started to read last night, and I am already smitten.

I’m re-reading Angel by Elizabeth Taylor too, in a lovely new hardback edition. It won’t fit into my century, but it was too lovely to resist and I have books that will fit lined up. Books like And Then You Came by Ann Bridge for 1948, A Little Love, A Little Learning by Nina Bawden for 1965, High Rising by Angela Thirkell for 1933 ….

I had a few books to choose from for 1933, but when I learned that Christmas at High Rising was on the was my mind was made up.

AusReading Month badge1901, on the other hand, was a tricky year. In the end I decided to re-read My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin, and again it seemed to be meant, because I discovered that this was Australian Reading Month.  A survey of my shelves found books by Eleanor Dark, Kathleen Susannah Pritchard and Henry Handel Richardson that I’d love to read. Or I could re-read Oscar and Lucinda or The Thorn Birds, either of which I could slot into my Century of Books ….

More books than I could hope to read, but it’s good to have choices!

The future …

I can’t think much beyond finishing my century at the moment. I’m clearing the decks as much as I can to get that done – no more book-buying and no more library reservations this year, because I need to focus on the books I have already.

But I bought The Luminaries and The Goldfinch, before the I put those restrictions in place, and they are going the first books of  my new project – of a year of reading the books that call me …


It was Jo’s idea – celebrate the first six months of the reading year by putting six books into each of six categories.

Not quite as easy as it looks. I’ve tweaked the categories to suit my reading style, and because I wanted to push disappointments to one site and simply celebrate some of the books many I have loved. And I’ve done it!


Six Books that took me on extraordinary journeys

The Harbour by Francesca Brill
A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to the Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh
The City of Beautiful Nonsense by E Temple Thurston
The House on Paradise Street by Sofka Zinovieff


Six books that took me by the hand and led me into the past

The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott
The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman
The Last Summer by Judith Kinghorn
The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon
Tom-All-Alone’s by Lynn Shepherd
The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallace


Six books from the past that drew me back there

The One I Knew the Best of All by Frances Hodgson-Burnett
A Burglary by Amy Dillwyn
The Frailty of Nature by Angela Du Maurier
Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins
The New Moon With the Old by Dodie Smith
As It Was & World Without End by Helen Thomas


Six books from authors I know will never let me down

The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks
The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie
Closed at Dusk by Monica Dickens
Monogram by G B Stern
Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor
In the Mountains by Elizabeth Von Arnim


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

Shelter by Frances Greenslade
Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon
When Nights Were Cold by Susanna Jones
Alys, Always by Harriet Lane
The Roundabout Man by Clare Morrall
Diving Belles by Lucy Wood


Six Books I started in the first six months of the year and was still caught up with in July

The Young Ardizzone by Edward Ardizzone
The Deamstress by Maria Dueñas
Greenery Street by Denis MacKail
Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale
The Warden by Anthony Trollope
White Ladies by Francis Brett Young


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 Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

In this, her sixth novel, Elizabeth Taylor took the bones of a fairy story and re-set it as a very human story, among other human stories, in an English seaside town.

Vinny, the hero, is visiting to offer help and support to an old friend, Isabella, who has been widowed. He does the job beautifully and Isabella, anxious about growing old on her own, fancies that she is beginning to fall in love with him.

Her son, Lawrence, on leave from the army, is less impressed.

And Vinny is falling in love with another. With a young woman he saw walking, alone, across the beach.

Emily lived at the town’s guest house with her widowed sister, Rose, and Rose’s disabled daughter. She’d had an independent life, but there had been a car accident. The physical injuries had healed but the mental scars had not. Maybe Vinny, in love for the first time, in his fifties, could be the man to rescue her …

Meanwhile, Isabella and her friend Evalie  invest in beauty treatments, trying to hold on to youth and hope. Laurence, to his mother’s displeasure, embarks on a romance with Betty a nursery maid staying with her employers at Rose’s guest house. And Rose frets about how she would manage, should her sister marry.

The relationship between Vinny and Emily advances nicely. But Vinny has a secret that he dare not tell.

Elizabeth Taylor, of course, paints all of those characters, all of those lives, quite beautifully. Always showing, but never telling. I saw insecurities, I saw snobbery. But I understood; these were real, fallible human beings. In a few places I had doubts, but in the end there was nothing that I couldn’t accept.

Those doubts lead me to say that this is not my favourite of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels. I’d like to explain more, but to do that properly I would have to give away more of the plot than feels right.

My other concern was the balance between the characters: one more household, one more plotline, would have made the community and this seaside town so much more real for me. But I think that maybe what I wanted wasn’t what the author intended.

Whatever the case, I have to say that this is still a lovely book: beautifully written and with much to say about the human condition.


I must mention that  Laura, who started this whole centenary celebration has a brand new copy of Elizabeth Taylor’s Complete Short Stories to give away in two days time. All of the stories already published by Virago and a few more that have been rediscovered.

And that those centenary celebrations continue in July with ‘Angel’, the book that made me fall in love with Elizabeth Taylor’s writing in the first place. Our host for the month is Alex, and she has some wonderful fun planned.

A Dog Blogs: A Little Break

Hello – it’s me, Briar!

Jane is switching the computer box off early tonight and she is coming to sit with me on the sofa. Because I have been a little bit poorly. It isn’t anything serious, I just ate something I shouldn’t have. us dogs just have to do that sometimes, it’s something inside us …  I had a little lecture, and now I am going to have some extra fuss and attention.

I shall let Jane read a book, and these pictures are a big clue about which one I think she will pick. She says it’s very good.


The first picture is me and the second picture is my computer box friend Orph.

Orph lives with a very nice lady called Cate. They live a long, long  way a long way away, the other side of the ocean. I’m a very good swimmer, but it’s a lot further than I could swim.

First Jane and Cate met on the computer box because they like lots of the same books and then I met Orph.

Aren’t computer boxes clever?

Works in Progress

I will never be a one book at a time girl. I need a book to hand for a variety of possible moods and for different concentration level. I need big books that I know I can get lost in and I need small books that will fit in my handbag ….

But it’s easy to go too far, to have a book too many. And I think I’m on the edge of that, and so I’m going to take stock.

Nine books …

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

I struggled with Trollope for a long time, but a couple of months ago I picked this one up and I began to finally understand why so many love him. But I put it to one side to finish a library book that someone else had reserved and didn’t pick it up again. I really must!

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

I very much like the look of The Innocents by Francesca Segal, but I thought I would reread the book that inspired it before I picked it up. It’s a long time since I read The age of Innocence, and I am pleased to report that I still love it and that it is a fascinating book to study even when you are familiar with the story, the characters, the milieu.

Greenery Street by Denis Mackail

I’d had a difficult day and my Virago and Persephone bookcases were calling me loudly. There is no better therapy. I’d read that this was lovely and it is, so I’m reading it slowly.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clark

I’ve been reading this one on and off for years, going back and forth, back and forth. Not because I’ve forgotten anything important, but because I love the journey and I love the details …

The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul

This is my handbag book of the moment. It’s a wonderful, distinctive piece of crime writing, and I plan to finish it in my lunch break tomorrow.

The Harbour by Francesca Brill

This arrived in the post yesterday, and it was one of those books that just made me start reading straight away. It’s a big, dramatic story of love and history, set in Hong Kong during World War II, and I have a feeling I’m going to whistle through – it’s compulsive reading!

The Young Ardizzone by Edward Ardizzone

This is a lovely childhood memoir, packed full of stories and drawings. It’s one of those books I could happily live in, but I must finish and give it back to the library.

The Seamstress by Maria Duenas

I am loving this: a big romantic epic set against the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. It got buried under knitting and newspaper on the coffee table for a while but I’ve pulled it out again because I do want to press on.

A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

(not pictured)

I picked this up for last month’s Elizabeth Taylor Centenary Readalong, and I could see straight away that it was a great book, but I just didn’t have the concentration to do it justice. I’m going to finish it before I move on to this month’s book, The Sleeping Beauty, to keep my chronology straight …

And I think that’s it. All good books, all books I want to finish, and I must finish at least two of them before I pick up anything new.

But nine works in progress is silly, and I haven’t even counted books for long term readalongs!

How many books do you read at a time? How do you keep track?

Please tell!

10% Report: Reading the 20th Century

My 20th Century Reading Project is rolling along nicely. First there were ten and now there are twenty books. There’s a book in every decade now, I have a couple more to write about, and I have many more in mind.

But I’m going to move away towards other things for a while.

At the moment I’m reading two wonderful books from years that have already been taken – Scenes of Childhood by Sylvia Townsend Warner and the Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton.

I’m lining up books for A Victorian Celebration.

But then there’s Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week and Rosamund Lehmann Reading Week to pull me back to the 20th Century.

I’m rambling, and so I’ll get back to business and  list those ten books:

1902 – The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett

It was all highly improbable, but the construction of the plot was very clever, and I can’t fault the logic at all. The style was simple and straightforward, the story was compelling, and so I turned the pages quickly. It felt to me like a children’s adventure story for grown-ups – not great literature, but a great entertainment.

1918 – Diary Without Dates by Enid Bagnold

It was brave to write what she did, while the war was still going on, and to take it to William Heinneman himself. He published Diary Without Dates in 1918, and Enid Bagnold was sacked for daring to write it. She saw out the war as an ambulance driver, and then she married and found success as a novelist. But this little book remains: one woman’s account of her war, written as she lived through it.

1920 – In The Mountains by Elizabeth von Arnim

The keeper of the journal, whose name I was never to learn, had come to a family home in the Swiss mountains to rest and to recover from – or at least come to terms with – her losses during The Great War. Exactly what – or who – she had lost, what she had suffered, was never quite put into words, but that she was grieving, that she was trying to come to terms with making a new start, was something I never doubted. I found that I understood.

1926 – As It Was by Helen Thomas

‘As It Was’ tells the story of their meeting, their courtship, their marriage, and the birth of the first child. It is an utterly real story, told by a woman who has both the understanding and the words to communicate that understanding. Lives lived long ago come alive on the pages: the beginning  of a love affair, the growth of a relationship, life’s trials and tribulations, the world they live in, the countryside they love …

1931 – Gwendra Cove & Other Cornish Sketches by C C Rogers (Lady Vyvyan)

I picked up the first volume of her memoirs a couple of years ago, and I was soon smitten. Because I saw straight away that Clara Coltman Rogers, later to become Lady Vyvyan, loved and understood Cornwall. And I saw it again in these wonderfully diverse little sketches. She gets everything right: the environments, the communities, the characters, the speech patterns …

1934 – Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

Her mother realised that Harriet’s suitor had been drawn to her wealth and the expectation of a significant inheritance from an aunt of her late husband. And she learned that Lewis Staunton was clever, that he could play on her daughter’s love of romance, that he could twist her mother’s concerns into something dark and sinister in her daughter’s mind. She tried, but she couldn’t save her daughter. My heart broke for her.

1946 – Palladian by Elizabeth Taylor

This is a story with echoes of other authors: Jane Austen in the heroine’s name, and in more besides; Charlotte Bronte in the heroine’s position; Ivy Compton-Burnett in some of the dialogue and relationships; Daphne Du Maurier in the presence, and untold story, of Marion’s wife; Molly Keane in the crumbling mansion; Thomas Hardy in some of the darker moments; and maybe even more that have passed me by when I was caught up … Not a satire, not a pastiche, but something rather different, and rather more interesting. Something I can’t quite explain.

1955 – The Tigress on the Hearth by Margery Sharp

Hugo, a young Devon lad, the kind of hero who could so easily have stepped from the pages of a Regency novel, found himself at the point of a sword. He had been on holiday with his uncle when he, quite inadvertently, breached Albanian etiquette, and it seemed that he would never see Devon again.

1963 – The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith

Globe House is a wonderful mixture of the traditional and the modern. The four young people had been brought up by their grandmother and they were a credit to her. As were Cook and Edith. They continued to live together happily after she died, with just few changes. The family still ate in the dining room and the staff in the kitchen, but the family went to the kitchen to make their own coffee so that all could be cleared away in time for the whole household to settle down together and watch the evening’s television.

1996 – Reality and Dreams by Muriel Spark

In her twentieth book, published in the nineties when she was in her eighties, Muriel Spark’s authorial voice spoke as strongly as it ever had. The clearsightedness and the oh so subtle wit are quite wonderful. She created a fine gallery of characters – not likeable characters but they were terribly readable – and gave them just enough plot to keep things interesting and to throw a wealth of ideas into the air.

Just Two Things …

The first is to say thank you to all of those who have offered sympathetic words and prayers to my mother and I. My mother is still very frail,but a stay in a nursing home has allowed her to receive treatment for one or two problems, and on Thursday she begins physiotherapy. We hope that will give her a little more strength and mobility so that she can come home to her beloved promenade.

The second is to say, rather belatedly, that KATE has won a copy of A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor, and that I am just about to send her an email to find out where to send her book.

And I should add that the celebrations of Elizabeth Taylor’s centenary are continuing. This month’s book is A Game of Hide and Seek, and this month’s host is Buried in Print

A Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor

“Afternoons seem unending on branch-line stations in England in summer time. The spiked shelter prints an unmoving shadow on the platform, geraniums blaze, whitewashed stones assault the eye. Such trains as come only add to the air of fantasy, to the idea of the scene being symbolic or encountered at one level while suggesting another even more alienating.”

Three women spend a week together in the country. They have done this for many years, but this year something has changed.

Liz has married and she has a baby son, but she is uncertain in the role of wife and mother. Camilla is a school secretary, and she is acutely aware that her frien’d life has changed while hers has not. Frances, their hostess, used to be Liz’s governess before she became an artist, and her increasing awareness of her mortality is beginning to influence her painting.

They all know that things have changed, but not one of them will admit it.

The plot is moved forward by the arrivals of three men.

Liz’s husband comes to reclaim her for just a little while. Frances meets an admirer of her work, a man she has corresponded with for many years, for the first time. And Camilla forms a relationship with a man she has doubts about, a man she met at the station when they were both witnesses to a tragedy.

The plot is light, but it is enough.

The joy of this book is in Elizabeth Taylor’s crystal clear drawing of her characters and their relationships, in the perectly realised world she creates for them in the country, and in the profound truths she illuminates.

Elizabeth Jane Howard, writing about another of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, expresses it so much better than I can:

“… this book displays the full spectrum of her talents – the economy with which she can present a character, the skill with which she build the environment and the daily lives of her people so that you feel you know exactly what they might be doing even when they are not on the scene, her delicious funniness which is born of her own unique blend of humanity and razor-sharp observation that enables her to be sardonic, devastating, witty and sly, but mysteriously without malice …”

This is a book that will draw you in, take possession of your heart and soul, and linger long after you turn the final page.

There is so much that could be said, but I don’t have the words.

Others have said much so very well: Nicola Beauman in ‘The Other Elizabeth Taylor,’ Susannah Clapp in the introduction to the first virago edition, Helen Dunmore in the introduction to the new Virago edition …

I just want to think and feel.

If you have read the book you will understand, and if you haven’t I have a brand new copy to give away. Just tell me what it is you love about Elizabeth Taylor, or what it is that draws you to her writing.

And remember that the celebrations for Elizabeth Taylor’s centenary  are ongoing here.

Speaking of Elizabeth Taylor …

… I was delighted to encounter her today, inside the new edition of New Books magazine.

The new book in question is The Complete Short Stories, to be published by Virago in June.

All of the stories that Virago has already published in different volumes, and a few more besides. Introduced by her daughter, Jo Kingham.

My magazine granted me a wonderful look at the mother through the daughter’s eyes:

“Writers are often asked about their method of working. My mother wrote by hand into cardboard covered exercise books as she was never one to master machinery happily. Later, when we had left home she sat at her desk, but as a child I remember her sitting in an armchair beside the fire, shoes kicked off and her feet tucked under her, ready at any time to put down her pen and attend to us. Sometimes we would tip the old sofa onto its back and perform somersaults into it while she worked beside us, using the notes she had scribbled onto the backs of envelopes or shopping lists …”

That leaves me all the more awed by wonderful qualities of her writing.

I am coming to the end of my re-read of A Wreath of Roses, the novel that reawakened my love of Elizabeth Taylor a few years ago, and I shall be writing about it and giving a copy away tomorrow.

Elizabeth Taylor and I

I can still remember where I first met Elizabeth Taylor.

I was in my very early twenties, I was in the library in South Harrow, and there she was. Dressed in a striking green uniform that I had learned to recognise as a sign of quality because it said ‘Virago Modern Classic!’

I discovered then that there were two Elizabeth Taylors: one a hugely famous actress and the other a rather less famous author.

An unlucky coincidence for the author, who began her career before the actress but found success later.

The book I had picked up was named ‘Angel.’ It looked quite wonderful, and when I read it I found that it was.

I picked up two more novels by Elizabeth Taylor on later visits to the library – ‘At Mrs Lippincote’s’ and ‘The Soul of Kindness.’ I’m afraid I found them rather dull and so I didn’t look out for any more of the author’s books.

And that was very nearly the end of the story.

But then I moved back to Cornwall. And, because I wanted to keep track of the books I had in storage, I opened a LibraryThing account and started recording what I owned.

As soon as I entered a few Virago Modern Classics I received an invitation to join the Virago Modern Classics group. It was lovely to find kindred spirits, and wonderful to realise that LibraryThing was going to be so much more than a place to catalogue my books.

In time I noticed that many of those kindred spirits held Elizabeth Taylor in high regard, and that Virago had published every single one of her dozen novels – an honour not accorded to many authors.

I began to wonder if, now that I was a little older, I might appreciate her writing more.

And then I noticed a little hardback edition of a title that seemed rather elusive in the library: ‘A Wreath of Roses.’

I brought it home, I read it,  I fell completely in love.

And I realised that I had been too young when I first picked her books up.  I hadn’t appreciated the subtlety and sophistication of her writing, the brilliance of her characterisation, the depth of her understanding of human relationships …

The majority of her books were definitely not the right thing for a busy young trainee accountant, squeezing books in between work and study. They were grown up books, in the very best sense.

And now it is Elizabeth Taylor’s centenary year and a year-long celebration is underway.

A novel a month, in chronological order, with discussions on LibraryThing and a different host blog each month.

This month’s book is ‘A Wreath of Roses’ and the discussion will be here.  Because this is the book that made me realise just how wonderful Elizabeth Taylor is.

I’ll be reading it again, and launching a discussion on Friday 20th April.

I’d love you to pick up a copy, if you have one, or to rush out to find one if you don’t – Virago reissued ‘A Wreath of Roses’ quite recently, and so copies shouldn’t be difficult to find.

But don’t worry if you don’t have a copy, or if you don’t have time to read. I am rather late issuing this invitation, and so on the Friday 20th April I shall also be giving away a lovely new copy of the book.

It is a book, and Elizabeth Taylor is an author, I can recommend unreservedly …