10% Report: Reading The 20th Century

I’m ten years into my century, and so I think it’s time to take stock.

The first ten years were always going to be the easiest, with the risk of picking up a book and finding it dated from a year already covered at it’s lowest.

But that isn’t to say there haven’t been clashes: I ordered Scenes of Childhood by Sylvia Townsend Warner and Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon from the library only to find that they were both published in 1981.

And there have been a few other occasions when I’ve found a book, gone to add it to my spreadsheet, and found that there was another book already in the space I had intended it to fill.

My first ten books are tilted towards the end of the century. I knew I’d have most difficulty with the later years, and so whenever I’ve seen an oldish book on the library shelves or around the house I’ve picked it up.

The eighties and nineties are shaping up well, but the decade I’m really struggling with is the seventies. Suggestions would be most welcome!

But I’m rambling, so here are the books:

1910 – The City of Beautiful Nonsense by E Temple Thurston

“The City of Beautiful Nonsense is a wonderful love story. It is terribly sentimental, and rather old fashioned but, if you can accept those things with an open heart, it can take you on a wonderful emotional journey.”

 1929 – The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey

“An audacious murder, in the middle of a queue of people, all pressing forward, eager to see the final performance of popular musical. The investigation fell to Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard. A detective without the gimmicks, or idiosyncracies of many of his contemporaries, but with a great deal of intelligence and charm, I soon suspected that his creator was a little in love with him … quite understandably …”

1936 – Monogram by Gladys Bronwyn Stern

“I found that what I had was not a coventional autobiography. That, given a free hand by her publishers, the author had decided to do something a little different. She explains, with both erudition and charm, that, while a conventional biography that plots a straight line through a line can be a wonderful thing, it is sometimes more interesting to do something else. To set down three stakes, to run a rope around then to make a triangle, and then to see what is to be found inside that triangle. And that’s just what she does.”

1960 – The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks

“I was engrossed by Jane’s story. She was real, and I understood her, I cared about what might happen to her, and so it was wonderful to watch her coping with everything that life through at her, with new and old relationships, with her advancing pregnancy.”

 1969 – The Play Room by Olivia Manning

“It looked very promising: a coming of age story set in an English seaside town in the swinging sixties. Laura was fifteen, and she dreamed of leaving home for the bright lights of London. She wanted to leave her dull, lower middle class family behind. Her strict mother, her unassuming father, her irksome younger brother.”

1981 – Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon

“‘Still Missing’ was a difficult book to read. It had to be. It was right that I felt terribly unsettled, and it was right that I was forced to consider my own feelings about what was happening. I could do that because the characters, their stories, their relationships, were all perfectly drawn. There were moments when things happened that didn’t feel right. But they were right; answers can’t always be neat and tidy, and politically correct.”

 1983 – The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

“I have read The Woman in Black before, but it was so long ago that I have forgotten the details, save that it was very good and extremely unsettling. And so a re-read, before seeing the film, seemed to be in order. It  is a ghost story built on classic lines: with an isolated house, a bleak landscape, wild weather, ghostly figures, inexplicable events.”

1984 – Mother Love by Domini Taylor

“But maybe Helena wasn’t as fragile as she seemed. Maybe she was disturbed. Maybe she would do anything to serve her own interests … A single, horrible revelation demonstrated that Helena was very dangerous and very clever. I saw that, but nobody else did.”

1994 – Pippa Passes by Rumer Godden

“Pippa Fane was seventeen years old, and the youngest and newest member of the Company of the Midlands Cities Ballet. And she was travelling abroad on tour for the first time. The first engagement of the tour was in Venice. Pippa was captivated. By the city, by the people, by the food … everything! “

1999 – Buried in Cornwall by Janie Bolitho

“Janie Bolitho captured my hometown, as it was back in 1999, absolutely perfectly. And she  created an engaging heroine, who I could quite happily believe is still living just a little further around the bay. Rose is a youngish widow who is gradually picking up the strands of a new life. She has good friends, she earns a living as a photographer, and she has taken up painting – always her first love but not the easiest way to earn a living – again.”

And now I must ponder the lovely book from 1963 that I am going to write about next, and carry on with the intriguing novel from 1946 that I have nearly finished , and …

The Play Room by Olivia Manning

Last week, when I needed a literary pick-me-up, I turned to my Virago bookcase and I pulled out a little book by Olivia Manning with this lovely cover image.

Daisy Fairy by Peter Blake (1981)

It looked very promising: a coming of age story set in an English seaside town in the swinging sixties.

Laura was fifteen, and she dreamed of leaving home for the bright lights of London. She wanted to leave her dull, lower middle class family behind. Her strict mother, her unassuming father, her irksome younger brother.

But that was in the future. What she wanted right now was to be friends with Vicky Logan. She was lovely, the cherished daughter of liberal, well to do parents, and she had once shown Laura a small kindness that Laura had never forgotten.

It felt a little predictable, a little stereotypical, but the two girls offered an interesting study in contrasts.

Vicky had every advantage, but she lacked a certain spark and had no interest in the world outside her hometown; Laura had fewer advantages, but she was bright and she was ready to fly.

So who really had most advantages?

Laura’s mother accepted an invitation for her children to spend the Easter holidays with an old acquaintance on the Isle of Wight. It had been one of those invitations made out of politeness with no expectation of it ever being accepted. And so Laura and her brother, Tom, found themselves with bed and board, but otherwise left to their own devices.

On one fateful day Laura and Tom stumbled into a private estate. They didn’t mean to trespass, but the incoming tide had caught them unawares. The strange ‘Mrs Toplady’ invites them into ‘her’ home and shows them the play room, full of naked, anatomically correct adult dolls, twisted into suggestive poses. Laura and Tom run.

It was strange, and nicely under-explained, but it didn’t quite work.

Because it came out of nowhere, and because there were no consequences.

But it gave Laura a wonderful story that would draw her into Vicky’s circle.

Vicky, much more sophisticated than Laura, understands more about the play room than Laura, and she is intrigued.

Laura falls into the role of best friend when Vicky’s friend Gilda is away on an extended family holiday. The pair go to parish dances, and then to more grown up dances with workers from the local factory.

Laura is captivated by the atmosphere and the music, and Vicky is captivated by a rough factory worker. She is out of her depth, as manipulated as one of the dolls in the play room, and the summer will not end happily.

The story was compelling, there were some nice moments, but I am afraid that this book just did not work.

So much of the dialogue, so many of the things that happened, just didn’t quite ring true.

And I was left wondering what Patricia Highsmith or Barbara Vine would have made of ‘Mrs Toplady’; there was, I think, the potential for a more interesting story in this material.

Olivia Manning is the author of  many wonderful novels, and I am disappointed to have to say that ‘The Play Room’ is not one of them.

The Doves of Venus by Olivia Manning


Virago Modern Classic #149

Ellie Parsons, the heroine of The Doves of Venus, captivates from the very first page. Early in the 1950s she is at the point in life where everything seems possible and she is walking, maybe dancing, home across London.

She has left her home and her conventional mother and sister for a bedsit in Chelsea.

She has a job in the art world – painting “antique” furniture.

And, best of all, she has Quentin, her middle-aged lover.

It is soon clear, though not to the besotted Ellie, that Quentin is not such a wonderful catch. He has a history of short term relationships with young girls and, while he is charmed by Ellie, he certainly isn’t going to get too involved with a penniless girl living in a bedsit.

Quentin’s life is complicated by the return of Petta, his estranged wife. She has fallen out with her new lover and has attempted suicide. Now she has decided she wants to settle back into her own life and though Quentin does not want her back he cannot quite let her go.

Eventually though, and without making the break absolute, Quentin does disappear from Ellie’s life. She slowly comes to terms with his loss and, with the resilience of youth and an undiminished faith in life’s possibilities she moves on. Ellie makes new friends, and she discovers new worlds and new possibilities. And maybe, just maybe, she will eventually find her place in the world.

The Doves of Venus is pack full of themes and ideas, about youth, about ageing, about how to life, and much much more. Yes, it is busy, but it is a joy to read.

London, in all of its colours, is brought to life on the page, and the world, caught between the conventions of life before the war and new and exciting possibilities, is wonderfully evoked.

Olivia Manning writes beautifully, and with great understanding of the inner life of all of her diverse cast of characters.

And, best of all, there is Ellie. She matures before your eyes without ever losing her vitality and charm.

It was lovely to meet her.

Teaser Tuesdays / It’s Tuesday, where are you ?


Just quote a couple of spoiler-free sentences the book you’re reading to tempt other readers.

Here is mine:-

“When Saturday came she felt suddenly intoxicated. At midday she pirouetted across the studio floor.”

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by MizB


Hello, I’m Ellie. I grew up in Eastsea by the sea but now I’m in London. I have a bedsit in Chelsea, a job in a studio painting antique furniture, and, best of all, I have Quentin. I’ve never been so happy before in my life!”

It’s Tuesday, where are you? is hosted by raidergirl3.

This all comes courtesy of The Doves of Venus by Olivia Manning

Library Loot

More wonderful library books this week:


Olivia Manning: a Life by Neville Baybrooke and June Braybrooke

“Olivia Manning was a superb writer – extravagantly funny and deeply serious at the same time – but her talent was not fully recognised in her lifetime. This beautifully written biography puts the record straight. Born in 1908 in Portsmouth into a naval family, she seized independence at the first opportunity, making a penurious life for herself in London as a furniture painter at Peter Jones, before signing up as a wartime ambulance driver – although she had never learned to drive. Her personality was as idiosyncratic her novels. Her husband, Reggie Smith, was equally a ‘character’ – a BBC producer, self-proclaimed communist and life-long philanderer. Both indulged in affairs, but their unusual marriage was sustained by his lifelong support for his wife’s gifts. After their adventurous war (Reggie was then in the British Council – and probably a spy) they became the centre of London literary life, numbering among their close friends Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, Stevie Smith, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Anthony Burgess and Laurence Durrell. Olivia Manning died in 1980 in their house on the Isle of Wight; a cat lover, she left most of her money to the Wood Green Animal sanctuary. “

I’m plannining on reading Olivia Manning’s The Doves of Venus for a challenge soon, so when I saw this book in the library I picked it up to see if it had anything to say about that book. It proved fascinating and I discovered that June Braybrooke wrote inder the name Isoble English. I am reading her novel Every Eye now, and so I have a literary triangle of sorts!


An Incomplete Revenge by Jacqueline Winspear

“1931. Maisie Dobbs’ new case takes her investigation into the pastoral beauty of the Kent Weald where acts of arson, theft and vandelism around the village of Heronsdene have gone suspiciously unreported for more than a decade. With the country in the grip of economic malaise, Maisie is relieved to accept an assignment from an old friend who wants her to uncover the truth behind these crimes, before he can buy part of the magnificent Sandermere estate at the heart of the village.

It’s hop-picking time and Londoners, including Maisie’s assistant Billy Beale, wanting to escape the Smoke for the summer, set up camp in nearby fields. Gypsies, too, have arrived to work the land. Maisie discovers the villagers are bitterly prejudiced against outsiders and, even more troubling, seem possessed by the legacy of a war-time Zepplin raid.

She has less than a month to find out why no one has been brought to justice and why secrecy shrouds the village. She must draw on all of her finely honed skills of detection to solve one of her most intriguing cases.”

It’s lovely to find this on the shelves before I’d thought to check if it was in stock at my branch. I’m intrigued that the cover style is quite different from Jacqueline Winspear’s last book. Does it signal a change in direction or just a change in marketing strategy I wonder?


The Secret Life of Aphra Behn by Janet Todd

“Aphra Behn (1640-1689), poet, playwright, novelist, traveller and spy, was the first woman to earn her living as a writer. This biography uses recently-discovered documents in England and the Netherlands to unmask this elusive author whose works include “The Rover”, “The Fair Jilt”, “Love Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister”, and “The Forc’d Marriage”. Returning to England after the Great Fire from Antwerp, where she is believed to have spied for Charles II, Behn became a witty and versatile contemporary of Dryden, Rochester and Wycherley. As well as recounting Behn’s story and analysing her works, Janet Todd illuminates the political and social background of the period: the court intrigue, the theatre and its protagonists, and London life before and after the Restoration. Behn was also involved with the Popish Plot and the Monmouth Rebellion, the Stuart kings, Nell Gwyn, the Duchess of Mazarine and many others.”

Doesn’t that sound amazing?! I acquired a lovely green Virago Modern Classics edition of Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister last year and I wanted to learn a little more about its author and her times before I started reading. This is a fairly hefty tome but it looks very readable.


UFO in Her Eyes by Xiaolu Guo

“Silver Hill Village, 2012. On the twentieth day of the seventh moon Kwok Yun is making her way across the rice fields on her Flying Pigeon bicycle. Her world is upturned when she sights a UFThing – a spinning plate in the sky – and helps the Westerner in distress whom she discovers in the shadow of the alien craft. It’s not long before the village is crawling with men from the National Security and Intelligence Agency armed with pointed questions. And when the Westerner that Kwok Yun saved repays her kindness with a large dollar cheque she becomes a local celebrity, albeit under constant surveillance. As UFO Hotels spring up, and the local villagers go out of business, Xiaolu Guo’s startling parable of change imagines an uneasy future for rural China and its relations not only with Beijing but the wider world beyond. “

I have yet to read A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, and I’ve read mixed reports, but I spotted this on the new book shelf and it seemed worth a try.


What did you find in the library this week?

See more Library Loot here.