When my road through life came to a major health bump and I realised that I couldn’t go on writing here, maybe for a while and maybe for ever, that changed me as a reader.
At first I avoided books that I would really want to share with others. That worked for a while, but in time I realised that I wasn’t reading my best books and that it was time that I did.
And so, from the first day of this year, I resolved to focus on my own books and a few carefully chosen library books, and to read the books I most wanted to read and re-read.
I started with Dorothy Whipple, and my resolution is working beautifully.
I wished that I had the time and energy to write about many of the books that I’ve read this year, but I knew that I didn’t.
Four and a bit months into the year I am doing the next best thing. I am celebrating some of those lovely books – and some other things – in an A to Z.
A is for AMBERWELL by D E Stevenson. I was so taken with this Scottish family saga that I did something that I never, ever do – I picked up the sequel as soon as I finished this book.
B is for BRIOCHE STITCH. I haven’t felt like doing the kind of knitting where I have to watch carefully and keep checking the instruction, and so I have been knitting scarves with easily memorised stitch patterns, to give me something that I could pick up when the mood struck. It occured to me that a scarf would be a good way to finally learn brioche stitch, and I have finally done it.
C is for COMING HOME by Rosamunde Pilcher. I bought this for my mother when it was published. She loved it, I borrowed it as soon as I could and I loved it too. Now I have inherited me mother’s copy and I decided that a re-read was overdue. It was wonderful and I flew through the book, having a lovely time spotting local places with changed names, and was sorry when it was over. It’s the kind of story I can easily believe happened nearby some years ago and, though the ending was all that an ending should be, I do wish I could know what happened next,
D is for DARK, SALT, CLEAR by Lamorna Ash. This outsider’s account of the fishing community of Newlyn, my father’s home town, is a book that I can warmly recommend. It isn’t quite perfect – it gives the impression that there isn’t more to the town than fishing and it understandably steers clear of some of the local politics – but the insight, the spirit and the writing are wonderful.
E is for ELISABETH INGLIS-JONES. Her book ‘Crumbling Pageant’ was reissued by Honno a few years ago, it spent a long time on my wish-list, until the end of last year when my lovely Virago Secret Santa sent me a copy. It was as good as I had hoped, the story of a woman’s blind devotion to a once grand house and its consequences, and I warmly recommend it to anyone who likes long Victorian and Edwardian novels.
F is for THE FOOLISH GENTLEWOMAN. Now that nearly all of her books are back out in the world I had hoped to revive Margery Sharp day on her 25th January birthday. It wasn’t to be, but I did read this book, I found much to love, and I think that it would be a good first book for anyone who hasn’t read any of her work yet.
G is for GATEPOST. Although the town is quieter than it usually is in May and fewer people walk on our side of the road now that the promenade has reopened, we reintroduced the box of free books on the gatepost over the Bank Holiday weekend. For a few hours all of the books stayed in their box but after that a steady stream of disappearances began.
H is for HOUSE OF TRELAWNEY. I really enjoyed Hannah Rothschild’s first novel, but I wasn’t sure that this second novel, set in a crumbling Cornish castle and the City of London would be as good. I picked it up thinking ‘read or ditch’ and found myself loving it. It was brash, it was unbelievable, but clever plotting, clear characterisation and great storytelling really made it work.
I is for INTERFACE. Please add me to the long list of people who are unhappy with the way that WordPress hid away the classic editor and tried to impose the block editor. I can see that blocks might suit some people but they don’t suit me and I am very relieved that I was able to recover the classic editor.
J is for THE JEWEL. I have admired earlier novels by Catherine Czerkawska, and so I picked up this book about Jean Armour, the wife of Robert Burns, curious to know more about her. It was an engaging and beautifully written novel, clearly well underpinned by research, and it felt truly biographical.
K is for KNITTING. When the Man of the House said he could do with another lightweight hat I put my brioche Stitch scarf aside to knit him one. I adapted the pattern to suit his personal preferences and to make the crown more interesting, that gave me a design idea for another hat, and that is what I am knitting now.
L is for LIGHT A PENNY CANDLE by Maeve Binchy. Many years ago, when I received my first university grant cheque, I had a little spending spree in W H Smith. I bought ‘High Land, Hard Rain’ by Aztec Camera, ‘Songs to Remember’ by Scritti Politti and this book. The music is still familiar but I had forgotten much about the book, remembering only that it was a story of friendship and family and I liked it more than enough to want to keep it. My re-read told me that what I remembered was correct, that it was wonderfully engaging, that it was grittier and less cosy than I recalled, and that I had been wise to hang on to my copy for all these years.
M is for A MAN ABOUT THE HOUSE. There is a bookcase to the left of the door of our library room (formerly the back bedroom) that faces inwards, and so the books there don’t catch the eye as much as others. I took a careful look at it a while ago, thought that I hadn’t read anything by Francis Brett Young for ages, and so I picked up ‘A Man About the House’. It tells the story of two sisters left in straitened circumstances who unexpectedly inherit a house in Italy, and it comes complete with a remarkable butler. The author is wonderfully reliable when it comes to storytelling, houses and characters, and my only disappointment was this book was that there were times when the psychology went adrift so that the plot could sail on.
N is for THE NEW HOUSE by Lettice Cooper. That this book has been published by Virago and Persephone is a sign of its quality, and I found much to love and much to admire. It tells the story of a family forced by changing times to move to a smaller home, and the characters, the relationships and the background are so very well done that it speaks both engagingly and profoundly.
O is for OUTSIDE. The combination of the virus and my treatment meant that I was very wary of going out, but I made a point of walking in places where I knew I could keep my distance every day to help my physical and mental health. It has helped, I have noticed and appreciated things I might have taken for granted before, and I have taken photographs of many of them.
P is for PERSEPHONE BOOKS I hadn’t been into the town centre for more than a year, but when the Man of the House told me that there were Persephone books in the window of a new antique shop not very far into town I knew that the time had come. There was a lovely array of books and I came home with three Persephones, one Virago Modern Classic, three numbered Penguins and one Nonsuch Classic.
Q is for THE STRANGLED QUEEN by Maurice Druon. This is the second of a series of seven books set in 14th century France. The first book was wide-ranging, straightforwardly written and very readable; and so, as the library has the whole series in stock, I placed my order and the Man of the House picked this one up on his last visit to our local library’s click and collect.
R is for ROSEMARY HAWLEY JARAMAN. I read ‘Crown in Candlelight’, a novel spun around the story of Katherine of Valois, and considering French, English and Welsh history. It was both evocative and engaging, it covered a period I haven’t encountered often in fiction, and I am looking forward to reading her other books.
S is for SOUNDS. I am listening to – and loving – Piano Flow with Lianne La Havas on BBC Sounds.
T is for THE TELLING by Jo Baker. This book had been sitting on a shelf for ages before I finally decided its time had come. It tells the story of a troubled woman who has come to clear the house where her late mother intended to live and the story of another woman who lived in that house many years earlier and was drawn into the chartist cause. The writing was lovely, the movement and the links between the two periods were very well handled; I loved the history I hadn’t encountered in a novel before and was only disappointed by some lack of clarity in the contemporary story.
U is for ALISON UTTLEY. I loved her book ‘A Traveller in Time’ as a child and on re-reading I found that I still loved it as an adult. It is the story of a sensitive child staying with relations in the country who finds herself drawn back into their house’s past, where she will meet the perpetrators of the Babington plot. The time travel feels quite natural, the descriptive prose is richly evocative, and the story is both engaging and haunting.
V is for VIOLA DACE – one of a wonderful cast of characters that made Barbara Pym’s ‘No Fond Return of Love’ a joy to read.
W is for WARTIME. ‘The House Opposite’ by Barbara Noble is one of the best – and maybe the very best – fictional recreations of wartime London that I have read. It tells the stories of a young woman and a boy who will soon be an adult. In time, while they fire-watch together, they form a friendship. Lives go on, even when the world is at war, and the author portrays those lives being lived with such clarity and immediacy.
X is for (E)XHIBITION. I am delighted that the Penlee House Gallery will be opening with an exhibition titled ‘Laura Knight: A Celebration’ and I have already booked our timeslot.
Y is for YOUNG ANNE. This is Dorothy Whipple’s first novel, said to be in part autobiographical, and it follows Anne from childhood into young womanhood. The writing feels wonderfully natural, there were times when I wanted to encourage Anne forwards and there were times when I wanted to pull her back, and that made me realise that while the book was completely of its time everything was so right and so real that it felt relevant and alive for the present day.
Z is for ZZZZZZZZ ……… well it is getting late.
This is getting rather long but I must just mention two five-star books that I couldn’t fit into the alphabet – ‘The Snow-Queen’ by Stella Gibbons and ‘Small Pleasures’ by Clare Chambers.
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And so to the good news.
I seem to be finding my way around that health bump in the road. That journey isn’t over yet but I think that the worst if it is behind me, and that I can find my way back to a level path.
I am still here.