10% Report: Reading the 20th Century

My 20th Century Reading Project continues to roll along. First there were ten, then there were twenty, and now there are thirty books.

The plan was to complete the century over two years, sixty in year one and forty in year two, as it gets more difficult as there are fewer spots to fill.

So I’m a little behind schedule but I’m not going to worry about it – I’m going to read what I want to read, keeping an eye on the years in need of books, and it will be done when it’s done.

I already have a few books that I wish could go on but their years were already taken. The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks got the spot for 1960 and so Scenes From Childhood by Sylvia Townsend Warner and Memoirs of an Armchair couldn’t go on.

And I’m only allowing one book per author – unless there is a long period between books and much to distinguish them – because I want to my final list to be as diverse as I can make it.

But enough rambling, here are the books:

1911 – The Limit by Ada Leverson

Just one conversation brought the couple and their world completely to life, and opened the door to a lovely comedy of manners, light as air but with just enough serious underpinnings to stop it floating off into the ether.

1930 – The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie

There are familiar elements: a clock, apparently knocked over and confirming the time of death; an unfinished letter, that may or may not have been tampered with; confessions that cannot possibly be true.  – but they are used well, throwing many questions into the air and creating a seemingly unsolvable puzzle..

1935 – White Ladies by Francis Brett Young

Bella was a wonderful character. She wasn’t always likeable, indeed she was often maddening, but I could see what made her the woman she became, and I never stopped loving her spirit and her determination.  And what a story!

1953 – Murder in Time by Elizabeth Ferrars

The police investigate. The guests talk about what has happened, they tell their stories – or in some cases have their stories drawn out of them. But it was difficult to know who was telling the truth, how the facts would fit together. As new facts emerged I changed my mind about what might have happened, about what was truth and what was lie. I had an idea, but I couldn’t make all the pieces fit

1959 – Mizmaze by Mary Fitt

Imagine, if you will, a country estate. A grand house with extensive grounds set on the English coast. A house named Mizmaze, because the main feature of those grounds is a maze. At the centre of the maze a man lay dead. He was the owner of the house, and his murderer had struck him down with one of his own croquet mallets.

1961 – The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart

Having Mary tell the story was a wise decision. I questioned her reliability, and I wondered what she might be holding back, but now that her story is done I can’t fault her narration. I understand the reasons for everything she said and did; and for everything that she didn’t say and didn’t do.I wonder if it’s significant that the author gave her leading lady her own name …

1962 – Coronation by Paul Gallico

The Clagg family arrived at St Pancras station early in the morning, on the Coronation Special from Sheffield. It was to be the day out of a lifetime because Will Clagg, factory foreman accepted the offer of a lifetime. Five seats in a window in Wellington Place, just off Hyde Park Corner. A wonderful view. A buffet lunch. Champagne. And the price reduced from £25 to £10 – Will’s cousin Bert, a London chauffeur had some excellent contacts.

1989 – Cocaine Blues by Kerry Greenwood

The juxtaposition of serious issues – birth control and drug addiction – and frivolity – a wonderful array of frocks and dalliances with young men – is rather strange. Most of the time I liked it, but I did have moments when I was heartily sick of wardrobe details and just wanted something to happen..

1990 – Closed at Dusk by Monica Dickens

I knew that Monica Dickens was a wonderful author. I knew that she had written a marvellous range of books, works of fictions and non fiction, stories for children and stories for adults. But I didn’t know that she had written crime fiction until I spotted a tatty copy of ‘Closed at Dusk’ in a charity shop bargain box.

1993 – Pillion Riders by Elisabeth Russell Taylor

A trip to Paris highlighted the differences between the pair: he wanted to whisk her around the city, to have her experience everything that Paris had to offer, while she wanted to walk, watch, listen, and slowly absorb the city’s character.

Crime Fiction Alphabet: I is for Ivy

“I might have been alone in a painted landscape. The sky was still and blue, and the high cauliflower clouds over the south seemed to hang without movement. Against their curded bases the fells curved and folded, blue foothills of the Pennines giving way to the misty green of pasture, where, small in the distance as hedge-parsley, trees showed in the folded valleys, symbols, perhaps, of houses and farms. But in all that windless, wide landscape, I could see no sign of man’s hand, except the lines – as old as the ridge-and-furrow of the pasture below me – as the dry stone walls, and the arrogant stride of the great wall which Hadrian had driven across Northumberland, nearly two thousand years ago.”


Mary Grey had only arrived in England, from Canada, a few days ago but she already felt at home, she was already a little in love with the English countryside.

But she found out that she wasn’t alone. A man approached her, convinced that she was his cousin Annabel, who had disappeared nine years ago. She assured him that she wasn’t. That he was mistaken.

The man was Connor Winslow, Con, and he was the manager of his great-uncle’s estate, Whitescar. He looked after the land and his half-sister, Lisa managed the house.  And Con had an extraordinary idea: Mary should impersonate Annabel.

Matthew Winslow was dying, and he refused to believe that his grand-daughter was dead. Annabel was still named as the heir to his estate and his fortune in his will. Con wanted Mary to pose as Annabel, to claim her inheritance. She would be paid a substantial amount of money from the estate and he would save the family home he loved.

The idea seemed ludicrous. And yet …

Mary went to Whitescar. But she soon that realised, for all that Con and Lisa had told her, there were things she didn’t know. Things they had chosen not to tell her. And things that they didn’t know.

Who was Annabel? Who was Mary?

Mary Stewart wraps up a mystery and an emotional family drama with some lovely gothic touches

Yes, the plot does sound unbelievable, but she makes it work.

She attends to the practical details. Only a few people need be deceived for a very short time, and Annabel has been away for a long time. You can change a great detail, forget a certain amount, between the ages of nineteen and twenty-eight, and Mary’s own life history can be used to account for Annabel’s ‘lost years’.

And she writes it beautifully. Descriptions of the house and the country are beautifully and naturally written, the characters and their conversations are utterly real, the motions rang true, and I found it very easy to be drawn in.

There were so many gentle plot twists, so many emotional changes, and my involvement with the story never faltered.

There were lovely details too. Annabel’s cousin, Julie, was the same age that Annabel when she disappeared.  Julie’s boyfriend, Donald, was an archaeologist involved with a project at a Roman fort in the area. And the plotters themselves note the similarity of their plan to Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar …

The romance that I expected in a Mary Stewart novel arrived a little late, and the grand finale was everything a finale should be.

Having Mary tell the story was a wise decision. I questioned her reliability, and I wondered what she might be holding back, but now that her story is done I can’t fault her narration. I understand the reasons for everything she said and did; and for everything that she didn’t say and didn’t do. 

I wonder if it’s significant that the author gave her leading lady her own name … ?

I had an idea how the plot would be resolved, and I got a lot of it but not everything.

A couple of small niggles: a few women characters a little too accepting of their situations, a few male characters a little undeveloped, and the unbelievability of the deception at the centre of the plot.

That leaves me incline to say that this is a book to read when you want to be entertained, but not when you want to be too analytical.

But, having said that, I can’t fault the logic. Now I look back I can see that there were clues. And I think that if I went back to the beginning and read The Ivy Tree all over again the logic would still hold up, and I would admire the cleverness of the construction.

I probably will one day, but I have a good number of Mary Stewart’s novels still unread to attend to first.

I’ve read ‘Rose Cottage’, ‘Thunder on the Right’ and this one, and if there are any of the others that you can particularly recommend I’d love to know.


The Crime Fiction Alphabet is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

“Each week, beginning Monday 21 May 2012, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

So next week, I is for … ?

Bookish Thoughts as the Year Ends

Try as I might I can’t distill a year of wonderful reading into lists.

But I can answer a few questions from The Perpetual Page Turner

Best Book of 2011

I have read some wonderful books this year, but if I have to single out just one, the book closest to my heart is The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey.

Worst Book of 2011

Oh dear. It has to be What They do in the Dark by Amanda Coe. It started beautifully, it had so much potential, but good ideas were ruined as things were taken much, much too far.

Most Disappointing Book of 2011

I have loved Susan Hill‘s crime novels in the past but I was disappointed in her most recent, The Betrayal of Trust. The plot and the characters came a very poor second to themes that the author clearly had strong feelings about but pushed much too hard for me.

Most Surprising (in a good way) Book of 2011

The idea of a novel in verse scared me, but Lettice Delmer by Susan Miles was a Persephone Book, it had appeared in a library sale, and so I gave it the benefit of the doubt. And I found a troubling story quite brilliantly told.

Book Recommended Most in 2011

I found Ten Days of Christmas by Gladys Bronwyn Stern in a bargain bin. It had no dust jacket, no synopsis, and so I did a few searches to try to find out more, but I couldn’t find anyone who had written about it. So I read, I wrote , and I’ve noticed a good few people have ordered copies and a couple more reviews have appeared. I really am thrilled.

Best Series You Discovered in 2011

I read and loved The Return of Captain John Emmett last year, and so I was eager to read Elizabeth Speller‘s second novel, The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton. I was surprised, and delighted to meet Lawrence Bartram again, to see his story progress, and to notice some very interesting hints about where his story might go next.

Favourite New Author in 2011

I’ve found a few new authors I want to keep tabs on, but if I’m going to pick out one I think it must be Rachel Hore. I read The Gathering Storm, I fell in love with her writing, and now I have an intriguing backlist to explore.

Most Hilarious Read in 2011

I am not a great lover of comic writing, but there’s something about Molly Keane, Time After Time was dark, sad, grotesque, and yet very, very funny.

Most Thrilling, Unputdownable Book of 2011

I was intrigued and confounded by True Things About Me by Deborah Kay Davies. I just couldn’t work out who this woman was, why she did the things she did.

Book Most Anticipated in 2011

Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple was surely the most eagerly waited reissue of 2011. And it more than lived up to some very high expectations.

Favourite Cover of a Book in 2011

Most Memorable Character in 2011

Oh, Miss Ranskill! I shall never forget you, and I shall never forget The Carpenter. Barbara Euphan Todd told your story so well in Miss Ranskill Comes Home.

Most Beautifully Written Book in 2011

That would be a book I’m still reading. Vanessa Gebbie’s novel, The Coward’s Tale, uses words – their meanings, their sounds, their rhythms – quite brilliantly. I even find myself reading with a Welsh accent …

Book That Had the Greatest Impact on You in 2011

I was intrigued from the first moment I saw No Surrender by Constance Maud. A suffragette novel! I realised how little I really knew, and this book has inspired me to find out more – The Virago Book of Suffragettes is now sitting on the bedside table.

Book You Can’t Believe You Waited until 2011 to Read

I can remember seeing Mary Stewart‘s books on the library shelves years ago, when I moved up from the junior to the adult library, but it wasn’t until this year that I read one. It was Thunder on the Right, and I loved it …

… a wonderful year of reading … and now it’s time to start another …


Thunder on the Right by Mary Stewart

Earlier this year, when Hodder reissued Mary Stewart’s novels in striking new covers, I remembered that I have always meant to try her books. My mother used to love them, and I can remember her bringing them home from the library back in the days when I was still borrowing from the junior shelves.

Now that I have read Thunder on the Right I can understand why all those books came

I met Jennifer, the twenty-two year old daughter of a distinguised Oxford Professor, at a hotel high in the Pyrenees. She had come to visit Gillian, her widowed cousin, who had written to her, quite unexpectedly, from a nearby convent.

Jennifer was unsettled when she met Stephen, a man she had known back in Oxford. They had been very close. But Stephen had been a student of her father, and the professor thought him an unsuitable match for his daughter and forced them apart.

And she is was disturbed, and distressed, when she visited the convent and wasis told that Gillian has died, and has been buried. That she left nothing, not a single word for her family. Jennifer knew that to be completely out of character. And she saw other signs that something was amiss, and that maybe, just maybe, the woman who died wasn’t Gillian.

Jennifer seeks Stephen’s help in uncovering the truth …

Thunder on the Right offered so much.

A heroine who was beautiful, charming, bright, and engaging. A hero who was heroic, but was also reassuringly mortal. A wonderfully drawn supporting cast. A richly evoked setting.

And, to hold all of those things together, a cleverly constructed plot, that mixed intrigue, action and romance to wonderful effect.

All of the elements came together perfectly. I was swept away, and I lived through every high and low, such an extraordinary range of emotions.

Thunder on the Right was a fine piece of storytelling, and a marvellous entertainment.

Some might find it a little old-fashioned, a little contrived even, but I didn’t mind any of that. I was caught up in the story, and I wanted to believe.

And now I could happily turn back to the beginning and live through the story all over again. I won’t, because so many other books are calling, but I will pick up another of Mary Stewart’s books very, very soon.

A Bad Case of Startitis

In the last couple of weeks I have picked up and started far too many books, and so this is a name and shame post.

I have rounded them up from different corners of the house, and I will finish at least two books for every one I start until the number in progress is more sensible.

Usually I aim for three: an upstairs book, a downstairs book and a travelling book.

The String of Pearls by Thomas Pesket Prest

I hadn’t meant to start this one yet, but I pulled it out of the bookcase for this year’s RIP Challenge and when I opened it to take a look I was hooked.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

This wasn’t on my RIP list, but when it appeared in the library I had to bring it home and I had to start reading right away. My problem is that it isn’t a daytime book, it’s too unsettling to read late at night, and so I have a very narrow reading window each evening.

Thunder on the Right by Mary Stewart

Now this one I have actually finished since I took the picture, and I am pleased to report that it was a wonderful entertainment.

A Sicilian Romance by Ann Radcliffe

This caught my eye in the library and when I came home I just had to pull my copy out.

The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

I’ve been reading this one on and off for months. Well it is a big book!

Far North by Marcel Theroux

I picked this up from my Clearing The Decks stacks a while back, and I read a good bit sitting in the park while Briar was on squirrel watch. I was distracted by another book, but I must get back to this one and see how it all ends.

The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean by David Almond

I was just getting to grips with the naive speech and phonetic spelling when this one disappeared under last Sunday’s papers. By the time it reemerged I was engrossed in something else.

What They do in the Dark by Amanda Coe

Now this is a strange one. Wonderful characterisation and wonderful writing, but it isn’t quite coming together. I must push on, because there is so much potential there.


Eight books in progress is just silly. So please tell me:

How many books do you have on the go at any one time?

And do you have a cure for startitis?!

What I did with a £20 book budget … and another £5 …

Since I started my career break I have had to rein in my book shopping and so, knowing a resolution to buy no books wouldn’t work, I promised myself that I would only buy exceptional bargains and used out of print books.

The exceptional bargains rule allowed me to buy three of the new Mary Stewart reissues in The Works last week.

My mother used to read a lot of Mary Stewart and I always suspected that I would like her too, but her books seemed to disappear for a very long time. I’m delighted to see these reissues, and very pleased to see that the library has bought copies of a few more of them. I have one on order already.

And the used out of print books rule allowed me to visit Bookmark, the last secondhand bookshop still trading in the town, when I was in Falmouth earlier in the week.

It is a lovely shop with a wonderful stock and well worth a visit if you are ever in that part of Cornwall.

I could have spent a fortune but I set myself a £20 budget. I spent it all, and though I regretfully left some lovely titles behind, I was happy to came home with some real gems.

I read Shadow of a Lady by Holly Roth last week for the letter R in my Crime Fiction alphabet last weekend, and I liked it more than enough to want to track down more of her books. I found two: The Content Assignment and The Sleeper.

Both plots look intriguing, and I am very impressed that one opens in the first person and the other in the third and that they both read beautifully.

I recognised the name Helen McCloy, as I already have one of her novels sitting unread in a bookcase. The title Two-Thirds of a Ghost intrigued me and the synopsis spoke of parlour-games at a publisher’s party. Sold!

John Dickson Carr is one of those authors I’ve been thinking I really must try for quite some time now. I didn’t recognise the title, The Demoniacs, but when I picked the book up I discovered that it was a historical mystery, set in London in 1757. The opening, on a post-chaise travelling from Southwark towards London Bridge, read beautifully and so I had to hang on to this one.

And then, moving from the crime fiction shelves to general fiction, there was Ivy Compton-Burnett. I have a few of her books sitting unread, but not A Family and a Fortune. And this was such a lovely numbered Penguin edition, in grey rather than the more usual orange for general fiction, and again the opening reads so well …

I spotted a row of five books by A A Milne, published by Meuthen & Co in the 1930s. Very pretty little hardback editions with an impression of the author’s signature on the front cover. I already have a couple of books by E H Young in the same format. I left The Red House Mystery behind – it’s a lovely book and I already have a very noce modern edition. I reluctantly left the volumes of journalism and Punch articles, as I know that the library has at least one of them in stock. But Mr Pim Passes By looked so perfect that I couldn’t possibly leave it behind.

Here’s the first paragraph:

“Tell me what a man has for breakfast, and I will tell you what he is like,” as George Marsden used to say, though whether it was his own, or whether he was quoting from that other great thinker, Podbury, I cannot tell you. But the observation would come out periodically; as, for instance, when Dinah had declined a second go of marmalade, or a weaker vessel among his guests had refused to let him help her to one of those nice kidneys …

Had I been restricted to one book, this would have been that one.

And finally there was something that I so rarely find these days: a Virago Modern Classic that I don’t already have in my collection. I hadn’t particularly looked for Hackenfeller’s Ape by Brigid Brophy because I wasn’t sure I wanted to read a book about apes and a scientist, but I remembered Verity writing about it positively and it was there in front of me …

And that was it – a book budget well spent!