10% Report: Reading the 20th Century

I’m officially more than halfway through my 20th Century Reading Project now!

First there were ten, then twenty, then thirty, then forty, then fifty, and now there are sixty books.

And the full list is here.

It’s taken me some time to get from fifty to sixty because so many new books have been calling me, but in the last few weeks something in my head had changed and I’ve been pulling books from my own shelves out to read. There are grey Persephone books, green Virago Modern Classics and a few old hardbacks on my bedside table, and I’ve checked dates and I definitely have a whole decade there.

I’m not going to name names – I did that last time and then changed direction completely – I’ll just say that I still plan to have my century done by the end of the year.

I have two books in progress – one from the sixties and one from the forties – and lost more in mind.

That’s the plan, but this is a 10% report, and so here are another ten books:

1900 – The Chase of the Ruby by Richard Marsh

We used to spend our Saturday mornings upstairs, watching high drama on the television. The names of the various serials escape me, but they were a natural progression from the Saturday cinema matinees that a slightly older generation will remember. There was action! There was drama! There was romance! There were plot twists aplenty, and a cliff-hanger at the end of every single episode. We were hooked, and I could imagine The Chase of the Ruby being dramatized and captivating us in just the same way.

1905 – The Woman in the Alcove by Anna Katherine Green

By the end of the evening Mrs Fairbrother was dead, stabbed through the heart, and her diamond was missing. Things looked bad for Mr Durand. He had been seen visiting the alcove, he ‘found’ the diamond, and he had a splash of blood on his shirt. He had an explanation for everything, but his story seemed unlikely. He was arrested. I might have told Miss Van Arsdale to forget him, to try to come to terms with having been used, but she was a determined and practical woman. And she was going to prove him innocent.

1912 – Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town by Stephen Leacock

The twelve sketches tell stories set in the fictional town of Mariposa. It might be based on one particular town, but it’s presented in such a way that it could be any number of towns, and there are many things that will strike a chord with anyone who has lived in a small town pretty much anywhere. It did with me.

1919 – Aleta Day by Francis Marion Benyon

Aleta Day was reared by parents who set out to “break her spirit” but she survived, and she tells the story of her childhood beautifully, and with an understanding of its consequences that is truly moving. She learned that appearances were everything, that she could be quietly subversive. And at school, when her friend Ned questioned the English version of history that they were taught, she learned to question everything. She grew up to be a journalist, a suffragist, a pacifist, an activist.

1937 – Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson

Lady Rose was the only child and the heir, thanks to the good graces of Queen Victoria, of the Earl of Lochule. She was pretty, warm, bright,  and her open heart, her boundless curiosity, her love of life, charmed everyone she met. And she grew into a proud Scot and a true romantic, inspired by the writings of Walter Scott, the history of Mary Queen of Scots, and, most of all, her beloved home and lands.

1938 – Love in Our Time by Norman Collins

Gerard loved Alice, but he was caught by surprise by how different his relationship with her was from his relationship with old girlfriends. One of those girlfriends was still around, living in a flat of her own seeing one of Gerard’s friends. He still enjoyed her company …

1947 – The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

Had Charles Dickens travelled forward in time, had Muriel Spark travelled back, had they met in wartime London, they might have collaborated on this book. They didn’t, but Patrick Hamilton was there, and when I picked up this book I quickly realised that he was a far more interesting author than I had expected.

1967 – My Wife Melissa by Francis Durbridge

Late in the evening he received a phone call. Melissa wanted him to come out, to meet some people who might be able to help him with his career. He arrived at a crime scene: a woman had been strangled. Guy recognised her coat. He thought he was going to identify his friend’s wife. But he wasn’t, he was identifying his own wife. Melissa was dead, and she had been dead when Guy said she had called him.

1992 – Great Meadow by Dirk Bogarde

Dirk Bogarde was undoubtedly blessed. His father was the art editor of the Sunday Times, his mother was a former actress, and the family was more than comfortably off. Their home was on the Sussex Downs, and the children seemed to live their lives out of doors, coming home only for practical necessities. That included meals and those were reported frequently, and always with loving detail.

1997 – The Baby-Snatcher by Ann Cleeves

The story began one evening, when Inspector Ramsay was at home and off duty. The quiet evening that he had planned was disturbed when a teenage girl, alone and clearly frightened, banged on his door. He hesitated, aware of the risks of having a distressed girl in his house with nobody else present, but he realised that he couldn’t turn her away. She told him that her mother was missing, and that her mother was so reliable, so involved with her family, that she knew something had to be wrong. And he was inclined to believe her because he had often seen them in the town, and he had never seen one without the other.

Sixes

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!

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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 Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

Had Charles Dickens travelled forward in time, had Muriel Spark travelled back, had they met in wartime London, they might have collaborated on this book.

“London, the crouching monster, like every other monster has to breathe, and breathe it does in its own obscure, malignant way. Its vital oxygen is composed of suburban working men and women of all kinds, who every morning are sucked up through an infinitely complicated respiratory apparatus of trains and termini into the mighty congested lungs, held there for a number of hours, and then, in the evening, exhaled violently through the same channels.”

They didn’t, but Patrick Hamilton was there, and when I picked up this book I quickly realised that he was a far more interesting author than I had expected.

The Slaves of SolitudeMiss Roach worked for a publisher in the heart of London, but she had been bombed out of her room in Kensington a year earlier. She found lodgings in a run down boarding house. An upstairs room with a feeble ceiling light, a slippery synthetic bedspread, curtains that wouldn’t quite meet, and no bedside light.

Such was genteel poverty for Miss Roach, and for the other middle aged women and men who were boarding at the redeployed Rosamund Tea Rooms in 1943.

The worst of the Blitz had past but they were still worn down by the effects of the war.

“The war was slowly, cleverly, month by month, week by week, emptying the shelves of the shops — sneaking cigarettes from the tobacconists, sweets from the confectioners, paper, pens and envelopes from the stationers, fittings from the hardware stores, beer from the public houses, and so on endlessly — while at the same time gradually removing crockery from the refreshment bars, railings from familiar places, means of transport from the streets, accommodation from the hotels, and sitting or even standing room on the trains.”

They were also worn down by Mr Thwaites. I could compare him to a villain by Charles Dickens, I could compare him to a grotesque by Molly Keane. He is an extraordinary character: a spoilt attention-seeking child who never grew up and who never seems to have been pulled up on his behaviour; a man who had travelled and decided that facism was the answer to the world’s problems; and a bully whose target was Miss Roach.

Mr Thwaites’ weapons are words, and he declaims, referring to himself in the third person and adopting an extraordinary mix of the arachaic, the anachronistic, and what he believes to be dialect, to glorious, glorious effect.

Miss Roach’s had a friend –  the German born, English raised Vicki Kugelman –
but she would find that her friend was duplicitous and self-serving, and that she would play up to Mr  Thwaites to torment Miss Roach even more.

There was verbal warfare in the Rosamund tearooms, warfare as fierce as anything happening in the world beyond.

It echoed the war outside, very, very effectively.

All of this sounds bleak, and yes it is, but it is made palatable by vivid prose, acute observation, and brilliant characterisation.  There’s a thread of dark humour, that I can’t quite pick out but I know that it must be there for this book to be as effective as it is.

And Miss Roach was a heroine worth holding on to, a quiet, intelligent decent woman. She hung on, holding her position under fire, while others crept around.

Something had to break …

I’d love to say more but I won’t  – actually I can’t – because it is the finest details that make this story sing.

It read beautifully, and  it played out perfectly.