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 Harbour by Francesca Brill

In 1949, when he was just sixteen years old, my father left school and joined the navy. His first posting was in Hong Kong, and though he traveled to many places after that, it was Hong Kong that made the lasting impression, that he often spoke about.

The Harbour opens in Hong Kong some years earlier, in 1940, and it brought the place my father loved completely to life, and reminded me of so many of the things that he is no longer here to say.

The heroine of this particular story is Stevie Streiber, a young American writer who writes society gossip for magazines, while desperately wanting to write seriously about important issues. She’s independent, determined and just a little headstrong, following her instincts without always thinking about the consequences, or seeing the wisdom of diplomacy.

Katherine Hepburn is her idol, and it shows, but I would venture that there’s a little bit of Scarlett O’Hara in there too. It took me a little while to love Stevie, but very soon I did: she’s so very alive, and a wonderfully vibrant, fallible, infuriating leading lady.

Europe was at war and conflict was brewing between China and its old adversary, Japan but Stevie was so caught up with what she was doing that she barely thought of what that meant. That put her on a collision course with British Intelligence Officer Major Harry Field: he saw a reckless, thoughtless woman and she saw a rigid controlling man. But there was also a strong, mutual attraction that neither could ignore. Even though neither was free.

Japan invaded Hong Kong on 8 December 1941, battle ensued, but the colony was forced to surrender just seventeen days later. The occupying forces were brutal, and the population suffered terribly.

A British intelligence officer and an American woman with an unconventional lifestyle were sure to draw attention. They did, they were separated and both saw terrible things, both struggled to get through. Even when the war ended the damage remained, the repercussion continued …

It was easy to turn the pages quickly, caught up with interesting, evolving characters; a time and place brought wonderfully to life;  a grand love story. But then the invasion came, and this became something more that a love story in a historical setting. This was a story that echoed a real war, real events, real lives, and I had to give it time and attention.

That time and attention were rewarded, because I saw so many details. Some things that I didn’t want to see, would rather not think about, but that I could not doubt would have happened.

A wonderful supporting cast allowed the author to say so much: Jishang, who travelled from China to Hong Kong with Stevie;  Lily, his young cousin; Chen, her idealistic, communist brother; Madame Kung, a wealthy socialite who takes an interest in the young American woman who comes to interview her; Takeda, Harry’s Japanese friend whose  true loyalties are uncertain; Declan, an Irish journalist who watches over Stevie …

They helped to build a wonderful picture of Hong Kong. First I saw the energy, the colour, the movement, the noise. Then I saw the terrible changes wrought by the occupying forces. And in the end I better understood why the place had such a hold on my father’s heart.

This is an epic tale of love, of war, and of a society.

It would make a wonderful film: I could see it all, and it surprised me not at all when I discovered that the author has written for the big screen.

I am even inspired to read a little more. Her acknowledgements include Emily Hahn, whose own story is reflected in this one, and I now have a copy of her memoir of this period, ‘China to Me’ to hand…

A Letter to a Lady Traveller from a Bygone Age

My Dear Miss Parrish,

I do hope that you will forgive this intrusion, but I came across your name recently, purely by chance, and I felt that I must write.

You will, I am sure, be pleased to here that one author has just published, and another is about to publish, a book inspired by the travels of ladies like yourself.

Francesca Brill has written ‘The Harbour,’ a novel set in Hong Kong during the Second World War. It is a wonderful, vibrant story (though you may consider it a little racy) and she gives credit to the works of a number of other authors, including Emily Hahn. And I have been reading about another novel that will be published very soon, ‘A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar’ by Suzanne Joinson. While reading I saw references to the names of two more lady travellers, names that I am quite sure will be familiar to you: Isabel Eberhart and Ella Maillart.

I was inspired to find out more about all three lady travellers, and so I pulled a book from the shelf that I knew would tell me a little more about them before I investigated their writings further.

It is a wonderful book and I found all three of those ladies, and many others who I am sure you will know. Kate O’Brien, Freya Stark, Isabella Bird, Beryl Markham, Margaret Fountaine …

And this is when I spotted your name, and I was curious to learn who you were.

I am so glad I looked, because the editors wrote about you so very well.

“In her memoir, Maud Parrish relates her life of madcap adventure with the breathless, excitable energy of one who cannot stand still. Parrish worked as a dance-hall girl in Dawson City, Yukon, and Nome, Alaska, and operated a gambling house in Peking at the turn of the century. With her ‘Nine Pounds of Luggage’ and a banjo, she claimed to have gone around the world sixteen times, up and down continents, and around and about exotic islands. Parrish died at the age of 98. ‘Nine Pounds of Luggage’ was her only book.”

What spirit you had, what a wonderful life, and what an extraordinary period of history you lived through!

I had to read on, to read a little of your story in your own words, and I am so glad I did. It was quite marvellous!

“So I ran away. I hurried more than if lions had chased me. Without telling him. Without telling my mother or father. There wasn’t any liberty in San Francisco for ordinary women. But I found some. No jobs for girls in offices like there are now. You got married, were an old maid, or went to hell. Take your pick.”

I knew that I had to seek out a copy. I checked with the library, but there was not one single copy to be found in the county. And so I looked to see if any book dealers had copies, but there were very few copies to be found, all priced at more than one hundred pounds. A sum far beyond my limited means!

I am terribly disappointed, but I do have the works of many pioneering ladies that were published over the years as Virago Travellers to enjoy. Some from my own shelves, two that I have been inspired to order, and a few more that I can reserve at the library.

But I should like to add your book to my collection. If there is anything you could do to persuade some enterprising publisher to bring it back into print I should be most grateful, and I am sure that there are many others who would love to read it too,

With the warmest regards,

Fleur Fisher

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!