There has been bookshopping ….

…. there often is, but it’s a long time since I’ve found so many interesting titles in the course of just a few days.

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On Saturday morning I spotted a ‘3 for £1’ sale at a charity shop in town. I’ve not had much luck with those sales lately, but of course I have to look, and this time my luck was in.


Nancy Milford‘s biography of Zelda Fitzgerald has been on my wishlist for ages, and so I pounced as soon as I spotted.

I was very taken with Sarah Moss‘s first novel – Cold Earth – and I’ve been wanting to read her second, and so when I spotted a copy of Night Waking I picked that up too.

And then I needed a third. There was nothing unmissable but I spotted a book by Victoria Holt that I didn’t know – The Silk Vendetta – I liked the look of it and so it became my number three.

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There is a lovely café-bookshop a couple of hundred yards from my mother’s nursing home, and I hadn’t visited it in the nine months I’ve been visiting her. That was because I had Briar with me, but I haven’t taken her since my mother was ill, and became so much more frail than she had been. I would if she asked, but she hasn’t …. and that meant I could look in the bookshop.

I found two lovely numbered Penguins.


I have loved Daphne Du Maurier‘s writing from a very young age; I read every book the library could offer and, later on, I built a collection of my own, but I never came across a copy of The Du Mauriers before. I knew that it was a history of the family in the 19th century, but I hadn’t realised that it was written as a novel. I was smitten from the first page …..

Tea With Mr Rochester by Frances Towers is already in my Persephone collection, and it is a lovely collection of stories. But it holds ten stories – four less than the original edition. I don’t know why, I don’t know whose decision it was, but I remember finding out and being horribly disappointed that I had left a Penguin copy behind in the Oxfam shop a few years ago.

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I took a couple of extra days off work after Monday’s bank holiday – one for a jaunt and one to catch up with things around the house – and today was the day for the jaunt!

We try to visit St Ives once a year, to look around the town, to visit the galleries, and to investigate some different bookshops.

I didn’t expect much from the first charity shop we visited. There was a very small selection of books, but I spotted the name of a favourite author


The Landlord’s Daughter and The Room Upstairs both date from the late sixties. The reviews seem to be very mixed, but I love Monica Dickens‘s writing and so, of course, I will give them the benefit of the doubt.

The Oxfam Shop has been a happy hunting ground in the past, and it was again today.


The Birds in the Trees by Nina Bawden fills a gap in my Virago Modern Classics collection. I loved her books for children – especially ‘Carrie’s War’ but I still haven’t read any of her adult novels. I really must.

Judasland by Jennifer Dawson also comes dressed in Virago green, but it was published as a new novel in 1991, not as a modern classic. I’ve read one of her books – The Upstairs People –  I love her style and I have a feeling  that this comedy, set in academia, could be rather special.

Summer in Baden-Baden is Leonard Tyspkin‘s homage to Dostoevsky and, because Russian novels are calling to me, because it’s a train book, I decided to pick it up.

And, best of all, I found a book by Francis Brett Young. I love his writing, and I love that Mr and Mrs Pennington is the story of the first year of a marriage in the 1920s.

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Now I just need to magic up some more shelf space ….

Lord of the Far Island by Victoria Holt

Lord of the Far IslandEllen Kellaway, was alone in the world when she was just five years-old. Her mother’s wealthy cousins took her in, and raised her alongside their own daughter, Esme. But they never let her forget that her every advantage was owed to the charity of others. And that while Esme was destined for a great marriage, she would have to go out into the world when she came of age, and earn her living as a governess.

Ellen didn’t like that at all. She appreciated what was being done for her, but she had no intention of being a governess. She knew that the world had far more to offer.

I loved Ellen from the start. She was bright, warm, caring and she had such a wonderful spirit. The perfect heroine to follow into a grand adventure.

I wasn’t quite sure what year we were in, but I’d hazard a guess at late Victorian or early Edwardian. Whenever it was, Victoria Holt painted her world – the escapades, the houses, the clothes, the parties – quite beautifully.

Ellen was saved from life as a governess when the son of a powerful London family asks for her hand in marriage. It cause consternation at home, because he had been seen as a likely prospect for Esme, but Esme dreamed of a simple, quieter life and she was happy for her cousin.

Only a third of the book was over though, and so I suspected this would not be Ellen’s happy ending. It wasn’t. A terrible tragedy, days before her wedding, left her alone in the world again.

This time her father’s family came to the rescue. Ellen discovered that her father wasn’t long dead, he had died just weeks ago, and he had appointed his cousin, Jago Kellaway.

Jago’s invitation to a family home she had never known, a castle on an island couldn’t have come at a better time. Ellen falls in love with the Far Island, and with its Lord.

But she is troubled, plagued by questions and doubts. Why will nobody tell her anything about her father? Why did her mother leave? Why does so much of her new world seem so familiar? Who was Silva, her half-sister who had been raised on the but was now missing, presumed dead? Is Ellen just accident prone or does somebody wish her harm?

It was a grand mystery, and Victoria Holt does Cornwall wonderfully well. The mediaeval castle, the island, the sea, the surrounding countryside all came to life, and I found it so easy to understand why Ellen fell head over heels in love with the place.

Sadly the plot and the structure were a little clunky. I knew that the main drama would happen in Cornwall, and the first act in London, even though I loved it, felt over-long and the second act in Cornwall felt a little rushed. And, though the logic of the plot worked it felt a little too improbable.

But that’s not to say I wasn’t swept away, by the story, by the mystery, and by the wonderful atmosphere.

I’m inclined to say that while Victoria Holt does a very nice line in engaging heroines, and in nice, thoughtful men, she has a less certain touch when it comes to brooding heroes and dastardly villains, who at times seem a little one dimensional.

If I sat down and thought about it I would have realised how the pieces of the puzzle must fit together. I didn’t, because I was engrossed. And, even if I had, I think there would have been enough surprises along the way.

Lord of The Far Island finished with high drama, and just a touch of romance.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was a fine entertainment for a cold, dark, winter night.

I didn’t mean to disappear…

… but once the initial euphoria of having a job again wore off I was beset by doubts.

Could I juggle everything. A full-time job, a dog, a mother in a nursing home, a life, a blog …

I retreated for a while, and I spent my evenings just reading and listening to music. New music, found via the lovely medium of artist radio on

And after a few days I realised that I had to do this. That I had to sing the praises of the lovely books I’m reading. As soon as I stopped thinking about what I would write the words and the ideas began to form in my head again, quite naturally.

I just need to find a little more self-belief, and maybe to think as little bit less.

Things may be a little quieter than they were, but I’m still here.

I have a plan for next week. And here it is, interspersed with some of the things I’ve been listening to.

Monday: A novel published last year, that spins around an early twentieth century icon to tell the tale of a very different woman who crossed her path. It was very nearly perfect …

Three sisters from Watford offered up the first new piece of music that caught my ear. It seemed very timely, and now it is lodged in my head …

Tuesday: An extraordinary work of non fiction: London at war brought to life through the the letters, diaries and fiction of five remarkable writers. I can’t find the word to explain how wonderful this is yet, but I will …

I was on the other side of the room when I heard a voice coming out of my computer, and I was smitten …

Wednesday: Briar returns, with another game of guessing the blogger from five of their books…

I thought this was going to be a little too folky for me, but I was charmed. And The Leisure Society sound rather like Belle and Sebastian in their more up-tempo moments, and that has to be a good thing …

Thursday: A first encounter with a familiar name from the early part of the twentieth century, that left me eager to read more of his work but uncertain about what I should read next …

I loved Natasha Khan’s first record, I was a little less taken with her second, and her third passed me by. Until I heard this …

Friday: A gothic romance from the seventies, set in Cornwall. The perfect book for a cold, damp, dark night like tonight. Unless I change my mind, and pick up another book, of course …

A Box of Books for 2012

I love reading bookish reviews of the year, but this year I have struggled to write one of my own.

A list – be it a top ten, a top twenty, a list by categories – felt too stark, too cut and dried. And I couldn’t find a questionnaire that worked for me.

But then, yesterday, inspiration struck.

I would assemble a virtual box of books that would speak for my year in books. They would be books that had offered something to my heart, my mind, or my soul, in what has been a difficult year.

And I would stick a virtual post-it note to each book, either my thoughts when I read it or a quotation that had picked up to remind me why that book was in my box.

I found that I had twenty-five books. I think that’s just about viable for a single box, as a few of them were little Penguin books and one of them was even littler than that. Though I wouldn’t want to have to carry it any great distance …

Before I show you what is in my box, there are people I really must thank – authors past and present, publishers, sellers of books both new and used, fellow readers – who have all done their bit to make the contents of my box so very lovely.

And now all I have left to say is – Here are the books!

Year end4

Diving Belles by Lucy Wood

Often the books you love are the most difficult to write about. How do you capture just what makes them so very, very magical? Diving Belles is one of those books.It hold twelve short stories. Contemporary stories that are somehow timeless. Because they are suffused with the spirit of Cornwall, the thing that I can’t capture in words that makes the place where I was born so very, very magical.

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

In 70 C.E., nine hundred Jews held out for months against armies of Romans on Masada, a mountain in the Judean desert. History records that only two women and five children survived the siege … An extraordinary story. And the foundation upon which Alice Hoffman has built an epic novel. An extraordinary novel.

The Last Summer by Judith Kinghorn

“I was almost seventeen when the spell of my childhood was broken. There was no sudden jolt, no immediate awakening and no alteration, as far as I’m aware, in the earth’s axis that day. But the vibration of change was upon us, and I sensed a shift; a realignment of my trajectory. It was the beginning of summer and, unbeknown to any of us then, the end of a belle époque.”

Monogram by Gladys Bronwyn Stern

“Mental collections can be as dearly prized as those we keep behind glass, like snuff-boxes, fans or china cats; or the collection of a man who assembled everything that happened to be the size of a fist. I have a mental collection of moments on the stage, moments of horror, irony, beauty or tension …”

Tom-All-Alone’s by Lynn Shepherd

I read such wonderful prose:  compelling storytelling mixed with vivid descriptions. The sights, the sounds, the smells assaulted my senses.  And I learned terrible things that I might rather have not known, but that I never for one moment doubted were true. Nothing is more frightening than the evil that men do. I heard wonderful echoes of more than one great Victorian novelist; and I saw knowledge, understanding, and great love for their works.

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The City of Beautiful Nonsense by E Temple Thurston

“You’ve got to see Venice. You’ve got to see a city of slender towers and white domes, sleeping in the water like a mass of water lilies. You’ve got to see dart water-ways, mysterious threads of shadow holding all those flowers of stome together. You’ve got to hear the silence in which the whispers of lovers of a thousand years ago, and in the cries of men, betrayed, all breathe and echo in every bush. these are the only noises in Venice – these and the plash of the gondolier’s oar or his call ‘Ohé!’ as he rounds a sudden corner. “

Alys Always by Harriet Lane

This is a story that brings a clever mixture of influences together beautifully. It could be Patricia Highsmith writing with Barbara Pym. Or Anita Brookner writing with Barbara Vine perhaps. But no, it’s Harriet Lane, and she has created something that is entirely her own. She writes with both elegance and clarity, she balances suspense with acute observation, and she understands her characters, their relationships, the worlds they move in absolutely perfectly.

Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins

I read ‘The View from Downshire Hill,’ Elizabeth Jenkins’ sadly out-of-print autobiography a few year ago and so I was familiar with the story of ‘Harriet’ before I was able to read the book. I knew exactly what would happen, but still I was captivated. Because Elizabeth Jenkins wrote so beautifully, and with such understanding of the characters she recreated, and of their psychology.

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon

The prose is sparse, the story is short, and yet it holds so much. Every character is simply but perfectly drawn, and each and every one is important. Just a few words of description, a few words of dialogue painted wonderful pictures of lives and relationships. And of a place and time.

The One I Knew the Best of All by Frances Hodgson-Burnett

“The Small Person used to look at them sometimes with hopeless, hungry eyes. It seemed so horribly wicked that there should be shelves of books – shelves full of them – which offered nothing to a starving creature. She was a starving creature in those days, with a positively wolfish appetite for books, though no one knew about it or understood the anguish of its gnawings. It must be plainly stated that her longings were not for “improving” books. The cultivation she gained in those days was gained quite unconsciously, through the workings of a sort of rabies with which she had been infected from birth. At three years old she had begun a life-long chase after the Story.”

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The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallace

A carriage pulled up outside. Mrs Anna Palmer, the young wife of an elderly clergyman arrived. She thought she had come to meet friends of her husband, but she was wrong. She had been very cleverly tricked, and she found herself incarcerated in Lake House, a private asylum for gentlewomen. First she was astonished and then she was outraged. But she was utterly trapped. By the power of a cruel husband, by the strictures of Victorian society, and by her own nature.

White Ladies by Francis Brett Young

“And then, of a sudden, the trees seem to fall back on either side, disclosing with the effect of a fanfare of trumpets breaking through a murmur of muted strings, above, an enormous expanse of blue sky, and below, a wide sward of turf, most piercingly green within the woods’ dense circlet. And in the midst of the green sward stood a house.”

Snake Ropes by Jess Richards

“I am reading reading reading, locked in the stories. I am a wicked daughter, a drunken witch, a terrible scientist, a king with a severed hand, a resentful angel, a statue of a golden prince, the roaring wind, an uninspired alchemist, a fantastic lover who has only one leg, a stage magician with glittery nails, a shivery queen with a box of Turkish sweets, a prostitute wearing poisoned lipstick, a piano player whose hands are too big, a raggedy grey rabbit, a murderer with metal teeth, a spy with an hourglass figure … I am eighteen years old and my real life is here locked inside these books.

Catherine Carter by Pamela Hansford Johnson

It is a love story, set in London’s theatre world in the latter days of Queen Victoria’s reign. And it is a tour de force, balancing the recreation of a world, a cast of utterly real characters, and a perfectly constructed plot quite beautifully.

Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt

“There are two courses open to a gentlewoman when she finds herself in penurious circumstances,” my Aunt Adelaide had said. “One is to marry, and the other is to find a post in keeping with her gentility.” As the train carried me through the wooded hills and past green meadows, I was taken this second course; partly, I suppose, because I had never had an opportunity of trying the former.”

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Shelter by Frances Greenslade

Forty years ago, two sisters were growing up, in a small town, set in the wild countryside of British Columbia. Maggie and Jenny Dillon lived in an unfinished cabin home with their quiet reliable father, Patrick, and their imaginative, free-spirited mother, Irene. A happy family. Maggie tells their story. And she tells it beautifully. Her voice rang true and she made me see her world, her sister, her father, her mother. I understood how the family relationships worked, I understood what was important to them. And I saw enough to understand one or two things that Maggie didn’t.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell

“All Hollingford felt as if there was a great deal to be done before Easter this year. There was Easter proper, which always required new clothing of some kind, for fear of certain consequences from little birds, who were supposed to resent the impiety of those who do not wear some new article of dress on Easter-day.’ And most ladies considered it wiser that the little birds should see the new article for themselves, and not have to take it upon trust, as they would have to do if it were merely a pocket-handkerchief, or a petticoat, or any article of under- clothing. So piety demanded a new bonnet, or a new gown; and was barely satisfied with an Easter pair of gloves. “

The Fortnight in September by R C Sherriff

They settled into their holiday routine. Mr Stevens secured a beach hut, and they would bathe, play ball on the sand, watch the world go by. They would visit familiar attractions too. And journey out into the surrounding countryside. There was time and space to think too. Mr Stevens worried about his position in the world. Dick wondered where he was going in life, what possibilities were open to him. Mary fell in love. And Mrs Stevens broke with convention to sit down with he landlady, to offer a sympathetic ear when she spoke of her concerns about the future. Lives were changing, and the world was changing.

Kind of Cruel by Sophie Hannah

Amber Hewerdine was losing sleep, and it really wasn’t surprising. Her best friend died in an arson attack, the arsonist had never been identified, and now Amber and her husband, Luke, were bringing up her friend’s two young daughters. An incident that happened at a family Christmas spent in a holiday cottage was still troubling her. Luke’s sister, her husband and their two young sons disappeared on Christmas day, not returning until the next morning when the refused to give any explanation of what had happened. And things got worse …

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

I’ve been terribly torn over the question of whether of not to re-read Wilkie Collins. You see, I fell completely in love with his major works when I was still at school, and I was scared that I might tarnish the memories, that his books might not be quite as good as great as I remembered. I’m thrilled to be able to say that my fears were unfounded. The Woman in White was better than I remembered. A brilliantly constructed and executed tale of mystery and suspense, written with real insight and understanding.

Year end1

Thérèse Racquin by Émile Zola

Thérèse was the daughter of a French sailor and a native woman. Her father her to took his sister, a haberdasher, to raise with her son. Camille, a bright but sickly child. It was expected that Thérèse and Camille would marry, and marry they did. Not because either one had feelings for the another, but because it didn’t occur to either of them to do anything else, or that life could offer anything more than they already knew. Zola painted a picture of dark and dull lives, and yet he held me. Somehow, I don’t know how, he planted the idea that something would happen, that it was imperative that I continued to turn the pages.

The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

The very, very best novels leave me struggling for words, quite unable to capture what it is that makes them so extraordinary. The Home-Maker is one of those novels. It was published in the 1920s, it is set in small town American, and yet it feels extraordinarily relevant. It is the story of the Knapp family – Evangeline, Lester and their children, Helen, Henry and Stephen. A family that was unhappy, because both parents were trapped in the roles that society dictated a mother and a father should play.

The Other Half of Me by Morgan McCarthy

As I read The Other Half of Me, Morgan McCarthy’s first novel, I heard echoes of many other stories. Stories of lives lived in grand country houses. Stories of troubled families harbouring dark secrets. Stories of privileged, but troubled, lives … and yet, through all of that, I heard a new and distinctive story.

The Heir by Vita Sackville-West

Blackboys was home, and its faded grandeur gave him beauty, comfort, and a place in the world, a point in history. He came to realise that slowly, as he walked through galleries full of family portraits, as he looked across beautiful gardens towards rolling hills, as he sat, peacefully in his  wood-pannelled library.

The Uninvited by Liz Jensen

“Mass hysterical outbreaks rarely have identifiable inceptions, but the date I recall most vividly is Sunday 16th September, when a young child in butterfly pyjamas slaughtered her grand-mother with a nail-gun to the neck. The attack took place in a family living room in a leafy Harrogate cul-de-sac, the kind where no-one drops litter, and where you can hear bird-song…”

And now tell me, what would you put in your box for 2012?

Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt

I wasn’t at all sure that Victoria Holt was my sort of author, but I had to give a gothic romance set in Cornwall the benefit of the doubt. And when I read the opening words I was so glad that I did.

“There are two courses open to a gentlewoman when she finds herself in penurious circumstances,” my Aunt Adelaide had said. “One is to marry, and the other is to find a post in keeping with her gentility.”

As the train carried me through the wooded hills and past green meadows, I was taken this second course; partly, I suppose, because I had never had an opportunity of trying the former.

Martha Leigh – known to her family and friends as Marty – was travelling on the same journey that I have made many times in real life and a few times in print too. She was travelling through Somerset, through Devon, and across Mr Brunel’s bridge into the Duchy of Cornwall.

I liked her. She was sensible, she was bright, she was curious and she was understanding; in just the right proportions. And she was to be a governess, to the young daughter of a wealthy widower. I thought that the position might suit her rather well, and indeed it did.

She quickly wins over the household staff, but it takes her a little longer to win the confidence of her young charge Alvaen. And no wonder, when she has lost her beloved mother,  when her father, Connan Tremellyn, was cold and remote, and when a number of governesses had come and gone

Marty could understand Alvaen. She could build a relationship with her. She could lay plans to help her win the approval of her father that she so desperately craved.

But she couldn’t understand Alvaen’s parents.

How could Alice, who it was clear had been happy and loved, leave her daughter and her husband and run away with an old lover? Maybe she hadn’t …

How could Connan neglect his daughter so? How could he take up with the younger wife of an elderly neighbour? Maybe he had a plan …

There are echoes of Daphne DuMaurier and Charlotte Bronte  here: a grand mansion on a Cornish cliff, haunted by its former mistress; a plain young woman set against a dark and brooding hero; hints family of family secrets …

Fortunately Victoria Holt had the ability to take those familiar ingredients and create something a little different. A well executed work of gothic suspense, where as soon as one question is answered another one appears, as soon as one crisis is averted another has to be faced, until one final drama resolves everything.

She brought that that house on the cliff, and the surrounding countryside to life with wonderful descriptive flourishes. I could see Marty and Alvaen in the schoolroom, I could see then watching a grand ball from above, I could see them on horseback out in the grounds …

And I could understand them. The governess who was happy in her role, but who struggled with her position in between the family and the household staff. The unhappy child who blossomed when she was shown real care. And all of the others; every character rang true.

There were some lovely touches, in the dialogue, in the descriptions, in well chosen details, and everything was held together by good old-fashioned storytelling.

I can see similarities between Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart; they were near contemporaries but Victoria Holt’s settings are earlier and she seems rather more gothic; from the start though, I thought that her heroine could have fitted into a Mary Stewart novel quite beautifully.

Sadly there were some weak spots. When the romance came to the fore it didn’t seem as natural as it had when it was mixed was the suspense. The ending seemed a little rushed, and I would have prefered a fuller conclusion in the final chapter to the epilogue that was offered instead.

None of that stopped me from loving Mistress of Mellyn, but it did remind me that the books that inspired it were far finer.

So I’d like to read them again before long, and I’ll give any of Victoria Holt’s other novels that cross my path a fair chance too.