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.

A Little Holiday Book Shopping

A week’s holiday at home always means a trip to visit bookshops in another town, and today it was Truro.

Our first port if call was Pydar Mews Books, which has been a wonderful hunting ground for me over the years.

Here’s what I brought home today.

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I already own Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, but I couldn’t resist adding a numbered Penguin to my shelves.

By Love Possessed by James Gould Cozzens was a random book I picked up because it was a numbered Penguin. It’s a story of small town America and there was a very warm endorsement from J B Priestley on the back cover.

And another numbered Penguin. Clochmerle by Gabriel Chevalier is, it seems, a much loved French comedy, and that was a good enough reason to pick it up.

Amberwell by D E Stevenson was an auto pick up!

The Happy Prisoner by Monica Dickens was a lovely find, as I left a copy behind in another bookshop a couple of years ago and regretWhite Ladiested it. I just love her writing.

I tracked down a particular edition of Jennie by Paul Gallico for a friend a few years ago – she had borrowed a copy, lost it, and wanted to track down another copy of the same edition but didn’t know her way around the internet- and I liked the look of it, so the next copy I saw I picked up. Today!

And another by Paul Gallico: Love Let Me Not Hunger came home because it was a very pretty hardback, and because it was set in a circus and that made me think of ‘The Love of Seven Dolls’ which is a wonderful book.

And finally there’s a copy of White Ladies by Francis Brett Young. I’ve read it, I loved it, and I really wanted a copy to keep. There’s a copy in my local  bookshop, but I couldn’t justify the price of a signed first edition. This slightly worn, slightly later edition I could.

All of those for the very reasonable price of £17.50!

I spent my change from a twenty pound note in the Oxfam shop.

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I’ve just begun reading ‘The Ascent of Woman’ by Melanie Phillips, which is a broad overview of the history of the suffrage movement and I had it on mind to track down a couple of books with a narrower focus. I’m still looking for ‘Rebel Girls’ by Jill Liddington, but I found The Pankhursts by Martin Pugh today.

And my fiancé was exceedingly pleased with a signed biography of a fighter pilot and an interesting volume of local history.

Nothing much on the other charity shop, but we did one or two other things, we bought my mother a nice new pair of slippers, and we had a very nice lunch at The Crab and Ale House.

And on the way back to the car I had a quick look in the library, because the literature collection in the county lives in Truro.

I could have picked up any number of books, but common sense prevailed and I just picked up one.

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The Collected Writings of Zelda Fitzgerald!

Her novel! Short stories! Articles! Letters!

I’m really hoping that nobody else orders this one so that I can hang on to it for a while.

And that was it today, but before I finish I must mention two books I found locally on Monday.

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The paperback edition of Gentleman Prefer Blondes was so pretty, it has the sequel – Gentleman Marry Brunettes starting from the other end, and an endorsement from Edith Wharton.

But it was Linda by John Coates that made my heart leap. ‘Patience’ wasn’t one of my favourite Persephone books, but this book is late, the dust jacket describes it as being more serious than his earlier books without being heavy- which might suit me better – and it’s set against a theatrical background.

It really has been a wonderful week for books!

I Found a Book Called Lonely

I found it on the back of another book. That’s one of the things I love about reading old editions, and books from certain small and specialist presses, they come with lists and sometimes details of other books to investigate. Numbered Penguins allow me to spot other books I might know or I might want to know that joined the Penguin list around the same time as, and carry numbers close to, the book in my hand. And it’s lovely to see the list of Persephone titles listed in the back of every dove-grey book growing over the years.

But I found the book called Lonely in a list of titles on the back of an old copy of Jon Godden’s The House by the Sea, a list of new books being published in 1947. There were titles and names I recognised and titles and names I did not. But the book called Lonely caught my eye. I couldn’t help wanting to pull it closer, particularly when I saw that it was written by Paul Gallico whose writing had such wonderful qualities that could make a story with such a title sing.

I found a copy in the library’s fiction reserve and I placed my order.

The LonelyLonely is the story of Jerry, who grew up on Long Island, a much loved only child. A young man with a happy and successful future, with his childhood sweetheart by his side, mapped out for him. But war sidelined those plans, and Jerry became a fighter pilot. He was based in England, so far from his home. He knew he was doing the right thing, but he felt very alone in such a very different world.

And he was at a loss to know what to do when it was time to go on furlough. Another pilot suggested that he should go to Scotland, and that he should take Patches, a WAAF who had leave at the same time. Jerry knew Patches, a bright and popular girl, and he was sure they could have a good time together. No strings attached. He didn’t know that Patches was in love with him and that was why she accepted with alacrity, and that she accepted that because Jerry had a girlfriend back home she would not express her feelings.

They had a wonderful, wonderful time, and they parted with a handshake, exactly as they had agreed. Patches returned to base, and Jerry seized the chance of a quick trip back home. And it was then that he had fallen in love with Patches, and that he hadn’t known what love was before.

But back home Jerry struggled, realising that his parents and a girl he still cared for had so much invested in the plans they had made for the future, and that they had no way of understanding how his experiences had changed him.

And, of course he had no idea how much Patches loved him, or if he would ever see her again.

Lonely is the story of Jerry’s coming of age. It is beautifully told, with every emotion and every nuance caught quite perfectly. What particularly struck me, was the change in the relationship between parents and child. I found myself understanding every word, every action, and with my heart in my mouth because I so wanted a happy ending, but I couldn’t quite see how it might come about.

I understood too that the book was called Lonely, because it is so very lonely when you are unable to express or to share such fundamental feelings. That understanding is threaded right through the story.

Lonely is a very short book, but it says so much, simply and clearly. It misses nothing, and touches on every aspect of every relationship. And it is a moving, and utterly believable love story, to inspire both smiles and tears, and to touch the deeper emotions that lie behind them.

I was swept along, completely wrapped up in the story, to an ending that was unexpected but exactly right.

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.

Coronation by Paul Gallico

In a perfect world I would have written about this book three weeks ago. But I didn’t know it existed then. I found out that day when an email landed in my inbox, and then I searched for a copy, placed an order, waited for it to arrive, and then I read.

But when would be the time to write?

Today! You see, I went to visit my mother, in her nursing home, this afternoon, and she and a few others were settled in the lounge, watching coverage of that day in 1952 on ITV3.

It was nearly over when I got there, but I saw much that I had watched three weeks ago. The same queen, the same carriage, the same crowds, the same balcony, the same flypast. It was wonderful!

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.

The family had to think about it. Even at those prices it was an expensive day out, and their annual holiday at the seaside would have to be cancelled to cover the cost.

Will wanted to go from the start. But Violet, his wife, was a little reluctant. She would miss her annual holiday from housework, but she saw a unique opportunity and she had always wanted to taste champagne.

Her children were thrilled at the prospect. Johnny was eleven and he was fascinated by the military and delighted by the prospect of all the parades. Gwendoline was seven, she loved the butterfly princess in her storybook and she decided that a real queen would be even more magical.

Of course they went. And they took Granny along for the trip.

Paul Gallico handled all of this beautifully. The characters were beautifully drawn and the storytelling was perfect. I thought: he was there, he understands, he remembers …

I also thought that offer was a little too good to be true. And it was. The family arrived at Wellington Place, they saw people going into houses clutching their tickets. Number 1, number 2 , number 3 … where was number 4? Number 4 was a vacant lot, the house pulled down after being bombed in the war. They were the victims of a horrible fraud, and they had nowhere to go.

Now I knew that Paul Gallico was a master of bittersweet endings – his ‘Mrs Harris Goes to Paris’ being a perfect example – but I really couldn’t see how he was going to sort this one out.

Wisely, he didn’t provide a miracle. The family found themselves, cold and wet, at the very back of the crowd of spectators on the street.

They had to find satisfaction in small things. Gwendoline did see the queen, when a thoughtful bystander helped her father to lift her above the heads of the crowd. Johnny met two military men, and he found a unique souvenir. Will was proud to see his name alongside the names of titled folk in the evening paper when the fraud was reported. Violet did taste champagne, when her husband dipped into the emergency budget so that the family could have a slap up meal on the train home. And Granny was pleased that she had kept up with the family all day, and saw it as a sign that she would be around to keep her family in order for a good long time.

It was a lovely story, well told, with exactly the right details picked out. A story with a positive message and a happy ending.

But I wasn’t quite convinced. Adults may be philosophical, happy to get through the day, but would children who had been promised so much, who were so excited about their special day, really be happy with so little? Would they not be just a little bit fractious on a long day standing around on London streets with little to see and little to do?

My inner adult liked Coronation, with just a few reservations.

My inner child had major doubts.

The Books of 2010

I hadn’t intended to write a favourite books post for the year end, because I’ve written so many posts with lists of books over the last few weeks that I thought it might be too much.

But I’ve read some wonderful books of the year posts over the last few days, and when I did put my own list together I realised that a few of my favourites hadn’t appeared in any of my other lists.

And so here, in no particular order, are my top ten books of the year.

Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran

“I find myself reminded of books I’d quite forgotten. Happily recalling others. noting a few that I don’t think I’ve read yet. I want to read and re-read every single one. And then I want to look again at what this book had to say – I’m definitely going to need a copy of my own!”

Rambles Beyond Railways by Wilkie Collins

” And I love my native Cornwall. So imagine my delight when I found a book by Wilkie Collins in the library’s Cornish room. Joy!

Rambles beyond Railways: Notes in Cornwall taken a-foot. A travelogue visiting so many places I know so well. Bliss!

And it gets better. The book I picked up was the original 1851 edition. And a bookplate at the front advises me that it was found, in tatters, in 1933, restored and then presented to the library. What a wonderful thing to do! And so I was holding the same edition that the author himself must have held. Wow!”

Martha in Paris and Martha, Eric and George by Margery Sharp

“Her story is strangely charming. And strangely charming is something that Margery Sharp does particularly well. This book, and indeed the whole of Martha’s story, is populated with wonderful human characters, who maybe didn’t behave and talk quite how I might have expected, and yet what they did and what they said was exactly right. I couldn’t help warming to them, understanding them, those ordinary, but somehow very special people.”

Love in the Sun and Paradise Creek by Leo Walmsley

“It is impossible not to care: the man and the woman are utterly real, and every detail rings true.

We make life complicated, when it could be so simple.

Love in the Sun is simply lovely.”

Flowers for Mrs Harris by Paul Gallico

“The storytelling is lovely. I read about Mrs Harris’s adventure in the same way that I read the books I loved as a child. I was completely captivated, living every moment, reacting to everything, wishing and hoping…”

Marjory Fleming by Oriel Malet

“Oriel Malet creates a child –  a bright child, but a child nonetheless – so beautifully, with such empathy, with such understanding that you really can see what she is seeing, feel what she is feeling.

The quality of the bigger picture is  just as high. Every detail that makes up a child’s life – people, places, events – in such lovely descriptive prose.”

Joanna Godden by Sheila Kaye Smith

“I have met many remarkable women between the covers of green Virago Modern Classics. And now that I have met Joanna Godden I have to say that she is one of the most remarkable of them all.”

Beside the Sea by Veronica Olmi

“It is a quite extrordinary piece of writing. I reacted to it physically and emotionally, and it made me look at the world differently.

Several days after I finished reading it is still in my head, and I am utterly lost for words.”

I wish you books that you love as much in the new year.

Love of Seven Dolls by Paul Gallico

A trip to Truro led to a most interesting turn for my Paris in July. I recalled a small bookshop in a side street, so of course I had to take a look. A secondhand bookshop with massed ranks of paperbacks lining the staircase and a good few yards of shelves of older hardback fiction upstairs is not to be missed.

There were so many books that I would have loved to provide a new home for but I was horribly restrained and came away with just the one. loudly as the others called, this one called that little bit louder. Love of Seven Dolls by Paul Gallico. The author, that title, the concept – completely irresistable!

The story opens on the banks of the Seine where a young girl, Mouche, is planning to throw herself in.

Why? The war left Mouche an orphan. She dreamed of the stage and so she worked and save until she could come to Paris. But she found that she had neither the talent nor the looks needed to succeed. She looked like the simple country girl she was. And so she found herself at the age of twenty-two with no money, no home, and no friends to help her.

Paul Gallico, as ever the consummate storyteller, sets the scene perfectly.

 “Hello there, you with the suitcase! Where are you going and what’s your hurry?”

“It’s cold at the bottom of the river, little one, and the eels and crayfish eat your flesh.”

“What’s the big tragedy? Your boyfriend give you the air? There’s plenty more fish in the sea.”

“Well? Cat got your tongue? Speak up when you’re spoken to.”

Who called Mouche back? At first all that she could see was an empty puppet booth with a sign announcing “Captaine Coq et sa Famille.” Then she saw a puppet. She would see seven, they all came out to see what was going on and to talk to Mouche.

First would be Carrot Top, careworn and caring manager of the show. Later there would be Dr Duclos, a pompous penguin. Mr Reynardo the scallywag fox, a loveable rogue…

It was magical and it was real. Seven puppet with characteristics so human that you could forget what they were.

Mouche was caught up. She had found friends, and she had found the warmth and magic of theatre of her dreams. such a contrast from the world she had wanted to escape minutes before. She quite forgot that there was a man behind the theatre working the puppets.

A crowd gathered to watch the interplay between girl and puppets. They were charmed, and so was I.

The girl joined the show.

But what of the puppeteer? The man who created such wonderful characters. He was an orphan like Mouche, but he was a troubled and unhappy man who would ill treat his new protegé and the young boy who worked for him?

How can you reconcile the character of the man and the characters of his creations?

How can Mouche reconcile her love for the seven puppets and her distaste for the man who brought them to life?

A wonderful story unfolds, and a resolution seems impossible, but then Paul Gallico brings the story to a conclusion that is unexpected but entirely right.

Along the way is joy, pain, and so many wonderful things are said about life, love, and the simple truths that are so important.

Love of Seven Dolls is both charming and utterly moving.

There is so much I more could say about this book, but I won’t ramble and I will add just three more words: read this book!

(And it would be lovely if someone would reissue it too…)