The Innocent and the Guilty by Sylvia Townsend Warner

1327035This is a very slim volume, it holds just nine short stories, and it is a little gem. Because Sylvia Warner was so very good at short stories; a mistress of the art. She brought such imagination to stories set in a very real world; she crafted, she distilled, to produce perfect miniatures.

These stories – seven written for the New Yorker and two specially written for this book – are diverse, but they all spin around the theme of innocence and guilt. Not in such black and white terms of course; Sylvia Townsend Warner was much more subtle and much more clever than that.  She wrote with such lovely irony and understatement.

That worked so well for ‘Bruno’, the story of an elderly Scotsman with a very handsome younger companion. He thought that when they went home to his family estate his companion would play nicely, but that wasn’t in his nature.

“Where did Cousin Gilbert find you?”
“He picked me up on a beach.”
“Like a shell?”
“Like a beautiful shell. And sometimes he puts an ear against my ribs and listens to the noise of the sea.”

‘The Perfect Setting’ is a lovely social satire. The widow of a poet is sure that she has uncovered important documents that will enhance his reputation, but the three interested parties who visit her all have very different ideas.

There’s a short story that plays out like a scene from ‘Play for Today.’ ‘The Quality of Mercy’ has two roughly-hewn young men help home a young woman who had had far too much to drink. They are kind, she is grateful, but her family blame them for the state she is in and hurl abuse. It’s simple and its perfectly executed.

So is ‘The Truth in the Cup’. A middle-aged group of hotel guests in putting the world to rights while a storm rages. One man steps outside and finds himself in the eye of the storm, until he finds sanctuary in a phone box. His experience is so vividly captured that this conclusion feels entirely right:

“I’m Crichellow 626,” he said. “Can you hear me?”
The voice encouraged him to go ahead. After a pause, it offered him the alternatives of the Fire Brigade, the Police, the Ambulance Service. None of those seemed perfectly to apply. But it wouldn’t so to sound unappreciative.
“It’s hard to say. You see, the sea’s broken in.”

It’s a fragment – several of these stories are – but fragments that must have been broken away from a whole that was exquisite.

One story though is exceptional, and I think it is one of the finest short stories I have ever read.

‘But at the Stroke of Midnight’ moves from formality to wildness; from domesticity to freedom; from safety to danger. It’s beautifully observed and understood by its author. Some authors would have turns the material into a whole novel – and it could be ‘Lolly Willowes’, reimagained when the author was thinking about the world rather differently – but here it is the perfect miniature.

I can’t explain it – I shouldn’t try to explain it – what I should do is tell you to read it. Don’t look it up; go in cold and be dazzled as I was.

This volume is out of print I’m afraid, but Open Library has it, and I’m told that it’s in the volume of collected short stories that Virago has in print.

I struggle to write about short stories, but I do know that Sylvia Townsend wrote them very, very well.

Sixes

It was Jo’s idea a couple of years ago, and now it’s become an annual event – 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 I’ve read and the books I’ve discovered.

Here are my six sixes:

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Six books illuminated by wonderful voices from the twentieth century

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield
The English Air by D E Stevenson
The Castle on the Hill by Elizabeth Goodge
Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart
The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

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Six books from the present that took me to the past

The Visitors by Rebecca Maskell
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
An Appetite for Violets by Martine Bailey
Turning the Stones by Debra Daley
The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters by Michelle Lovric
Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray

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Six books from the past that pulled me back there

Wired Love by Ella Cheever Thayer
Esther Waters by George Moore
Griffith Gaunt by Charles Reade
Nine Pounds of Luggage by Maud Parrish
The Count of Monte Christo by Alexandre Dumas
Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

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Six books that introduced me to interesting new authors

Wake by Anna Hope
Still She Wished for Company by Margaret Irwin
The Lie of You: I Will Have What is Mine by Jane Lythell
Mr Perrin and Mr Traill by Hugh Walpole
My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff
None-Go-By by Mrs Alfred Sidgwick

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Six successful second meeting with authors

The Auction Sale by C H B Kitchin
The Twelfth Hour by Ada Leverson
A Hundred Pieces of Me by Lucy Dillon
Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell
Mrs Westerby Changes Course by Elizabeth Cadell
Her by Harriet Lane

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Six used books added to my shelves

The Heroes of Clone by Margaret Kennedy
The Serial Garden by Joan Aiken
Portrait of a Village by Francis Brett Young
The West End Front by Matthew Sweet
The Stag at Bay by Rachel Ferguson
Elizabeth’s Women by Tracy Boorman

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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.

10% Report: 100 Years of Books

100 Years of Books

I’m ten years into 100 Years of Books project and so I think it’s time to take stock.

I’d hoped to be at this point a little sooner, but I’ve had a busy couple of months and I’ve been a little distracted by The Count of Monte Cristo – I’m 33 hours in and I have 19 hours to go!

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.

Here are the first ten.

(It wasn’t planned but I’m pleased I’ve read five books from the 19th century and five books from the 20th century)

1854 – Ruth Hall by Fanny Fern

“It begins beautifully, with Ruth, our heroine, looking out at the night sky on the eve of her wedding. Her mother had died when she was very young and her father, a man who was both wealthy and parsimonious, had sent her away to boarding school. He would be glad to have his daughter off his hands. And she was happy, because she was in love and the future seemed full of promise.”

1863 – The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley

“Tom had to learn to live with the other water creatures. He had to learn not to tease, he had to learn to make friends, and he had to learn what to do when there was conflicts between his friends. I think that this was my favourite part of the story; everything was so nicely described, but not over described, and the characters of the creatures – some real and some fantastic – were drawn subtly and well.”

1879 – Wired Love by Ella Cheever Thayer

“She was trying to take down a message that was being sent far too quickly for her to transcribe, she was being interrupted by  a customer asking foolish questions, and then she upsets a bottle of ink all over herself. Of course she had to ask “C” – who was sending that message from another telegraph office – to stop and repeat quite a  few times. “C” lost patience with her , but when “N” stood up for herself and explained exactly what she was having to deal with  “C”  understood. The pair went on chatting over the wire – in Morse code – whenever things were quiet in their respective offices.”

1886 – A World of Girls by L T Meade

“My sympathies shifted as the story unfolded. It took in  practical jokes, midnight feasts, competition for honours, an adventure with gypsies, and though I had an idea how things would work out I was never sure quite how the story would get there, and I always wanted to keep reading.”

1894 – Esther Waters by George Moore

“Esther’s story began as she left her home and family to take up a new position, as a kitchen maid in a big house on a country estate. She was apprehensive, but her pride made her hold her head up, and her spirit made her stand up for herself when the cook suggested she get straight to work without changing her dress, which might have been shabby but it was the best that she had.”

1907 – The Twelfth Hour by Ada Leverson

“Ada Leverson wrote with such wit and such humour; she laughed at her characters, their foibles, their situations, and it was lovely because it was the laughter of a friend. I never doubted that she knew them well, that she understood them completely, and that she cared about what happened to them.”

1924 – Still She Wished for Company by Margaret Irwin

“Lucian recognised Juliana’s description of Jane; he knew that she was the intriguing woman she had seen, maybe in a dream, maybe in an altered state, maybe though some supernatural power. He realises that Juliana might be offering his only chance of seeing her again. And he is desperate to seize that chance …..”

1926 – Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

“As her nieces and nephews grew up Laura began to feel the gap in her life, and the country and its traditions began to call her back. All she could do though was fill the house with flowers. Until one magical day when the stars aligned, and Laura realised that she could have the life she wanted, a life of her own.”

1930 – The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield

“I loved the way the diary seemed to capture her thoughts almost as she thought them, almost as she might have reported events on her own head. And I loved that it was witty and funny in the friendliest of ways. I never doubted that the Provincial Lady understood, that she cared, and that she poked fun at herself just as much as she did at others. “

1949 – The Auction Sale by C. H. B. Kitchin

“Miss Alice Elton was attending the sale, because she had many happy memories of Ashleigh Place, just ou
Accept-Encoding: gzip, deflatem. She had been secretary to Mr Durrant, and she had become companion and dear friend to his wife. That part of her life was over, but she remembered it with such love. For the people for she knew, and for the timeless beauty of the house itself. She just wanted to see it again, to remember, and to bid on one of two lots that held particular memories.”

Next up – 1932!

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Laura Willowes was a much loved daughter, she grew up happily in the country, and she became the kind of countrywoman whose life moved with the rhythms of nature in the way that lives had for generations. But when her beloved father died she became a ‘spare woman’ and her life was taken over by her brothers and their wives.

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Such was the way of the world in the 1920s, when Sylvia Townsend Warner told her story.

“Caroline spoke affectionately, but her thoughts were elsewhere. They had already journeyed back to London to buy an eiderdown for the bed in the small spare-room. If the washstand were moved towards the door, would it be possible to fit in a writing-table between it and the fire-place? Perhaps a bureau would be better, because of the extra drawers? Yes, that was it. Lolly could bring the little walnut bureau with the false handles on one side and the top that jumped up when you touched the spring by the ink-well. It had belonged to Lolly’s mother, and Lolly had always used it, so Sibyl could not raise any objections. Sibyl had no claim to it whatever, really. She had only been married to James for two years, and if the bureau had marked the morning-room wall-paper, she could easily put something else in its place. A stand with ferns and potted plants would look very nice.”

The world was changing though, I knew it and there was something in the tone, in the rhythm of the words that told me too. There was a wonderful mixture of delicate observation, wry knowingness and love for the story being told; all of that made it feel very special.

Laura accepted her family’s decision, accepted it as the natural way of things, and settled into a new life. She was absorbed by her family, and even her name was changed to Lolly, because one of one of her young nieces cannot pronounce “Laura” and that was the name she came out with instead. Nobody thought to as Laura if she minded. She was a wonderful aunt, she was loved, but she wasn’t valued.

“Caroline resigned herself to spending the rest of her evenings with Laura beside her. The perpetual company of a sister-in-law was rather more than she had bargained for. Still, there she was, and Henry was right—they had been the proper people to make a home for Laura when her father died, and she was too old now to begin living by herself. It was not as if she had had any experience of life; she had passed from one guardianship to another: it was impossible to imagine Laura fending for herself. A kind of pity for the unused virgin beside her spread through Caroline’s thoughts. She did not attach an inordinate value to her wifehood and maternity; they were her duties, rather than her glories. But for all that she felt emotionally plumper than Laura. It was well to be loved, to be necessary to other people. But Laura too was loved, and Laura was necessary. Caroline did not know what the children would do without their Aunt Lolly.”

As her nieces and nephews grew up Laura began to feel the gap in her life, and the country and its traditions began to call her back. All she could do though was fill the house with flowers. Until one magical day when the stars aligned, and Laura realised that she could have the life she wanted, a life of her own.

Sylvia Townsend Warner had painted her gradual awakening to the call of the countryside beautifully, and she makes Laura’s final realisation quite glorious:

“Laura looked at the bottled fruits, the sliced pears in syrup, the glistening red plums, the greengages. She thought of the woman who had filled those jars and fastened on the bladders. Perhaps the greengrocer’s mother lived in the country. A solitary old woman picking fruit in a darkening orchard, rubbing her rough fingertips over the smooth-skinned plums, a lean wiry old woman, standing with upstretched arms among her fruit trees as though she were a tree herself, growing out of the long grass, with arms stretched up like branches. It grew darker and darker; still she worked on, methodically stripping the quivering taut boughs one after the other.”

 “As Laura stood waiting she felt a great longing. It weighed upon her like the load of ripened fruit upon a tree. She forgot the shop, the other customers, her own errand. She forgot the winter air outside, the people going by on the wet pavements. She forgot that she was in London, she forgot the whole of her London life. She seemed to be standing alone in a darkening orchard, her feet in the grass, her arms stretched up to the pattern of leaves and fruit, her fingers seeking the rounded ovals of the fruit among the pointed ovals of the leaves. The air about her was cool and moist. There was no sound, for the birds had left off singing and the owls had not yet begun to hoot. No sound, except sometimes the soft thud of a ripe plum falling into the grass, to lie there a compact shadow among shadows. The back of her neck ached a little with the strain of holding up her arms. Her fingers searched among the leaves.”

Laura knows then that she must answer the call of the country, and fate guides her to the village of Great Mop, in the heart of Buckinghamshire. He family are astonished, they protest, but she goes anyway.  And she finds happiness, she finds her place in the world, in the country.

It was lovely to watch her quiet, simple transformation.

But then the story changes.

When Laura’s family intrude on her new life, when the balance is upset, the mystical thing that had been calling her towards her destiny became rather more tangible. And, for me, it didn’t quite work. The spirit of the story, the direction of the story was right, but it felt heavy-handed. The best books that dabble with things that may be real or may be fantastical are so captivating that I don’t stop to think about what is going on, and which it is. This part of the story didn’t quite catch me, it wasn’t quite subtle enough and I couldn’t love it as I’d loved what came before.

I came unstuck near the end the first time I read ‘Lolly Willowes’ but not this time

I realised that I might be judging the book a little unfairly, because I’m comparing it with books that were written so much later, and with many of the books that I love the best of all.

I have to cherish a book that, three years before Virginia Woolf published ‘A Room of One’s Own’, said:

“One doesn’t become a witch to run around being harmful, or to run around being helpful either, a district visitor on a broom stick. It’s to escape all that, to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others, charitable refuse of their thoughts, so many ounces of stale bread a day ….”

And I found so much to love that it was easy to let go of small disappointments.

I loved the arc of the story, I loved the telling of the story, and I loved the spirit of the story.

Ten Authors Whose Books I Seek

I’ve spotted a few lists of ‘must buy’ authors today, inspired by a meme at  The
Broke and the Bookish
. Now I could come up with a few, of course I could, but the thing is, I know new books and mainstream reissues will go on being there, maybe not for ever but for long enough that I can pick them up when I’m ready.

My true ‘must buy’ books are out of print and hard to find titles by authors I have come to love, and books I know I must seize as soon as I see, because if I don’t the chance may never come again.

It seemed like the moment to pull out ten authors whose books I seek:

The Ten

Oriel Malet: I spotted a book called Marraine by Oriel Malet in the library and I recognised her name from the Persephone list. That book was a lovely memoir of her godmother, the actress Yvonne Arnaud. Once I read it I had to order Margery Fleming from Persephone, and it was even lovelier; a perfectly executed fictional biography of a bookish child. Her other books are out of print and difficult to find, but I found one and I was thrilled when my Virago Secret Santa sent me another, all the way across the Atlantic.

Margery Sharp: I read much praise for The Eye of Love in the Virago Modern Classics group on LibraryThing and so I picked up a copy. I loved it too – romance with a hint of satire and a hint of subversion. I was so disappointed that her other books were – and still are – out of print. But I’m slowly picking them up, used copies and library books, and I’m hoping for more.

Leo Walmsley: Looking back, it’s strange to think that when I picked up Love in the Sun in the library it wasn’t with the intention of reading the book. I remembered a local family called Walmsley and I was simply looking to see if there was a connection. But once I had the book in my hand I fell in love with the cover and with a warm introduction by Daphne Du Maurier. And I fell in love with the book, thinly veiled autobiography written with such honesty and understanding. The library fiction reserve provided copies of the three that follow chronologically from this one. The Walmsley Society has recently bought these books back in to print, and others too, but I was thrilled when I stumbled across lovely old editions of Phantom Lobster and The Sound of the Sea.

Angela Du Maurier: Talking of Daphne Du Maurier, did you know that her sister was a successful author too? I didn’t until I found two novels and one volume of autobiography that Truran Books have in print. It was the anecdote that gave the autobiography its title that made me love Angela – she was stopped by a woman she didn’t know who was convinced that she knew her. As she spoke Angela realised she had been mistaken for Daphne, and when she explained the woman said loudly to her companion, “It’s only the sister!” and stormed off. Angela treated the incident as a great joke, and though it wonderful that her sister was held in such regard. And she wrote of her family and her life with such love and enthusiasm that I had to look out for her other books. They’re out of print and its hard to find out much about them, but I liked the one I found in the library fiction reserve – The Frailty of Nature – and I’d love to find more.

Edith Olivier: I had no idea who Edith Olivier was when I picked up my copy of The Love-Child, but it was a green Virago Modern Classic and I have great faith in those. It is a wonderful tale of an imaginary friend, and I’m afraid I really can’t find the words to do it justice. The library gave me a two wonderful works of non fiction, and there are some diaries I plan to borrow one day, but I would love to find another novel. Sadly though, they seem as rare of hen’s teeth.

Elizabeth Goudge: My mother mentioned four authors she though I’d like when I first moved up to the adult library: Agatha Christie, Daphne Du Maurier, Mary Stewart and Elizabeth Goudge. I only picked up me first Elizabeth Goudge  – The Scent of Water – last year, and when I did I realised that she had been right about all four authors. It was simple story but it was so very well told, with both emotional and spiritual understanding. Her books all seem to be out of print, but I have tracked down copies of the Damerosehay novels that I have heard so much good about, and I found one or two others in a charity shop a while back.

Elizabeth Jenkins: I found The Tortoise and the Hare thanks to Virago. I found Harriet thanks to Persephone. I found A Silent Joy and her autobiography, The View from Downshire Hill in the library. I found used copies of Doctor Gully and The Phoenix’ Nest on my travels. I’ve been lucky I know, but I also know that Darlene and Anbolyn both found copies of Brightness and I so want to find one too. And, of course, there are others.

Sylvia Townsend Warner: I first met Sylvia Townsend Warner in a Virago anthology years ago. I forget which anthology and which story, but she stuck in my mind and a picked up Virago’s collection of her short stories. I loved it, and I still think there are few authors who hold a candle to her when it comes to short stories. One fortunate day I found six of her original collections of short stories and a couple of biographies in a second-hand bookshop. I’m looking out for the others, and for her letter and diaries too.

G B Stern: A couple of years ago I spotted a book called  The Ten Days of Christmas in a second-hand bookshop. I picked it up, because I recognised the name G B Stern as belonging to a Virago author and because I wanted to know why there were ten days of Christmas rather than the more traditional twelve. It looked lovely, and so I bought it. It was lovely, and when I picked up Monogram, a sort of memoir, I really warmed to the author. Since then I’ve picked up The Matriarch and A Deputy Was King in Virago editions and Debonair as an orange numbered Penguin, and I’d love to find more.

Francis Brett Young: Last year I spotted a book called White Ladies by Francis Brett Young in the very same second-hand bookshop. I knew the author’s name, because one of his books was in a list of titles readers had suggested to Persephone that Nicola Beauman included in a Persephone newsletter. It looked wonderful, but I couldn’t justify the price – it was a signed first edition. But when I arrived home I checked LibraryThing and I found that Ali and Liz both came from the same part of the country as Francis Brett Young and they loved his books. I found White Ladies in the library’s fiction reserve, and fell in love with rich prose, wonderful characters, and good old-fashioned storytelling. I’ve ordered a couple more books from the library, I’ve picked up a trio of old out of print titles, and I’m hoping to find more.

And that’s ten!

So now tell me, whose books are you hoping to find?

Scenes of Childhood by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Book shopping is lovely, of course it is, but when time or money is short browsing the library catalogue is an excellent alternative. And that is how I came to type in the name of Sylvia Townsend Warner one day, hoping that the library might have a title or two that I hadn’t come across.

I spotted ‘Scenes of Childhood.’ I knew nothing about the it, but I placed my order anyway.

The book that arrived had been published in 1981, but it held a collection of short, nostalgic pieces, written for the New Yorker between the 1930s and 1950s.

They lie somewhere between fact and fiction. My feeling is that all of the characters and incidents are real, but they have maybe been embellished just a little. In the way that you might slightly exaggerate or streamline a story to convey its fundamental truth to a listener.

The pieces – twenty-eight of them in total – vary from just a few paragraphs recalling a character or event to much longer pieces with a real tale to tell.

I was smitten from the very first – a wonderful childhood holiday escapade. ‘Wild Wales’ the title said, and it was right. A story so vivid, so well told, so memorable, that it just had to be true.

As I read on a picture began to emerge. A picture of a bright and observant girl, who was loved, secure and happy. A girl who grew up to love the world around her.

There are lovely doggy tales: a poodle’s response to a supposedly haunted house, and a chow fiercely guarding a church from its own vicar.

If I had to pick a favourite it might be the family scene painted in ‘Fried Eggs are Mediterranean.’

“When my father came back with a Bible, he inquired with controlled curiosity, ‘Nora, what are we going to try the fifty-first Psalm for?’

‘Boiling the next lot of eggs by. I remembered last night when I was thinking about it, that I had read in some old miscellany book or other that in the days before watches when people had only those worthless hourglasses to depend on, they used a psalm for boiling eggs – but I couldn’t remember which. Now I’ve remembered. It was the fifty-first, for I thought at the time, what a gloomy proceeding.

My father handed over the Bible, put the eggs in, and said ‘Go.’ My mother replied with, ‘Have mercy on me , O God according to Thy loving kindness …’ She was overhauling the seventh verse when there came a knock at the back door. Saying in a rapid parenthesis, ‘They’re all we have left, my mother went reading and after another knock the postman opened the door. Without comment he put down some parcels and went away, shutting the door unobtrusively. The eggs were the best we’s achieved, but even so they were a trifle overcooked.”

Or it might be the brilliantly observed account of ‘Stanley Sherwood’, an impeccable butler with a sinister smile, who would later reappear as a fireman.

“My mother’s butler was named Stanley Sherwood. He was a slender, sallow man. His expression was at once ravenous and demure; he had a profile as accurate as though it had been snipped out of a piece of paper; his tread was noiseless; he had a tendency to fold his hands. His memory was as accurate as his profile, he was punctual to the minute, he never forgot a duty or a commission; his closed were always brushed, his demeanour was always correct. he was like some baleful drug, which, once you have imbibed it, you cannot do without. My father referred to him as Ignatius Loyola.”

The observation, the wit, the charm are pitch perfect. Times and places are evoked beautifully.

One or two stories don’t quite hit the mark, but the majority do more than make up for that, with fine writing and storytelling that is utterly compelling.

The book has to go back to the library, but I shall remember it fondly, and hope that it isn’t too long before somebody else summons it from the fiction reserve.

And before it goes I shall finish by seconding Hilary Spurling’s cover quote:

“All in all, one can’t be too thankful  that Miss Townsend Warner has lived to discover the alchemist’s secret of transmuting the past and the possible, and even the impossible now and again, into pure gold.”

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 …