A Design for my Reading Life, an A to Z and some Good News

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.

* * * * * * *

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.

 

A Box of Books for 2020

I’ve been assembling boxes of books for quite a few years now, I thought this year it might fall by the wayside, but it didn’t.

I spent a long time in waiting rooms and on drips yesterday, and while I was sitting around I looked back over my reading last year and found that I could assemble my box.

Lately I’ve been reading undemanding books, but I have found a few gems among them and even more from the earlier part of the year.

I try to pick my favourites, the books that stay with me and the books that call me back; and I also try to pick a cross-section of what I’ve read, so that when I look at a box I know where I was in my life as a reader that year.

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!

* * * * * * *

‘The Forgotten Smile’ by Margaret Kennedy.

Like many of her novels, it tells the separate stories of a number of characters whose paths cross and it moves backwards and forwards in time. The real human drama and the lovely mix of pathos and humor makes this a particular favourite.

‘Niccolo Rising’ by Dorothy Dunnett

The first time I set out on a journey through a series of historical novels written by Dorothy Dunnett my hopes were high, because I had read so much good about it. I loved those books and so when I set out on this second series my hopes were even higher. This book was exactly the right mixture of the same and different, those high hopes were not disappointed, and when the time is right I will re-read and move forward with the rest of the series.

‘The Phoenix’ Nest’ by Elizabeth Jenkins

I picked this book up on the strength of the author’s name not knowing anything about the stort. I found myself in the theatre word of Elizabethan England and I found out that each and every character I had been reading about was a real historical figure. I wasn’t surprised, because I knew that Elizabeth Jenkins wrote non fiction about the period, but I was impressed with how real and alive she made her story.

‘Facing South’ by Winifred Peck 

In this story of a clerical family, Lady Peck managed her large and diverse cast of characters beautifully, she spun her story cleverly; and though this is a relatively short book she does a great deal to illuminate the lives, relationships and concerns of different family members, with insight and empathy; and to show the effects on a generation of living through two World Wars and great deal of social change.

* * * * * * *

‘A Thousand Ships’ by Natalie Haynes

I have had mixed feelings about the recent stream of re-tellings of ancient history, but this book really worked fot me. It re-told the story of the Trojan War in the voices of many women, reminding me of history I had been taught many years ago, drawing me right into their stories, and giving me new insights into what they experienced and what they might have thought.

‘Miss Plum and Miss Penny’ by Dorothy Evelyn Smith

It is lovely when you see than a book that you have seen praised, that you are sure that you will love, but that is impossible to find is being sent back into the world; and it is even lovelier when that book more than lives up to very high expectations. The telling of the story was lovely, it had both warmth and clarity, and it was clear that the story-teller had both the understanding of everything she wrote about and the wisdom to be unobtrusive, All of the elements worked together so well, to make a very good story that held me from the first page to the last.

‘The Moonflower Murders’ by Anthony Horowitz

I hadn’t expected a sequel to the ‘Magpie Murders’, a book I described as a’ wonderful pastiche of a golden age murder mystery, wrapped up in a contemporary mystery. Each one was a wonderfully engaging story and an intriguing puzzle; and the cleverness and originality of the connection between the two  made this book a joy to read.’ I couls say exactly the same about this sequel and I am hoping for – though not necessarily expecting – a third book.

‘A Snowfall of Silver’ by Laura Wood 

Laura Wood has a gift for spinning coming of age stories,  set in the not too distant past, laced with romance, aspirations and charm. This one tells the story of a girl from Cornwall who runs away to work in the theatre, it is the third one she has written, and the third one that I have loved.

* * * * * * *

‘Fanfare for Twin Trumpets’ by Margery Sharp 

Margery Sharp’s once elusive but about to be reissued second novel is another gem. It tells the story of a young, provincial school-teacher who uses a small inheritence to travel to London to become a writer. His adventures were a joy to read, quite different to her first novel, and a lovely first look at things she would do so very well in later books.

‘The Other Bennet Sister’ by Janice Hardlow 

I am very wary of Jane Austen sequels and re-workings, but I heard such good things about this book that I had to try it. The story of Mary Bennet was so engaging, it was a perfect remagining of a better life for an unloved character in a well-loved book, and I miss her and her sisters all over again now that the story is over.

‘Where the Light Gets In’ by Lucy Dillon 

This really was the right book at the right time. It is a story of love and loss, creativity and frindship, living and ageing, womem and dogs; a touch fanciful but written with real insight and understanding. It made my heart sing and it made me both laugh and cry.

A Winter Away by Elizabeth Fair

In this lovely perid piece, young Maud has made her escape from an overbearing stepmother and come to stay with her cousin Alice and Alice’s companion Miss Conway in the countryside. They have arranged a job for her as secretary to Mr Feniston, an eccentric and intimidating neighbour who seems to have driven his previous secretary to a nervous breakdown. The story of the new life that Maud builds was wonderfully aborbing, and I missed her and her world after her story was told.

* * * * * * *

Please forgive me if this is less articulate than it should be – my prognosis is good but the treatment I am going through is tough – and I simply wanted to write something to say goodbye to this difficult year.

Now tell me, what would you put in your box for 2020? What do you plan to read in 2021?

And please let me wish you the happiest  and healthiest of New Years!

An A to Z to pick up the threads

I have been elusive – if not downright absent – for quite some time.

The world is still stange and uncertain, I have been travelling on a bumpy road, and a very big bump knocked me for six.

It was a health bump.

My prognosis is very good but the next few months are going to be tough.

I really don’t want to dwell on that but felt that I should explain, and say please understand that I may not be out and about in this online world very much at all.

What I do want to do is share some of the lovely things in the world right now – with just a few not so lovely things for balance – in the form of an A to Z ….

A is for ANTOINE LAURAIN. I am waiting patiently in the library queue for a copy of ‘The Reader’s Room’ and I must praise my library for balancing the need for precautions with its duty to put books into the hand of readers.

F IS FOR FIFTEEN (NEARLY)

B is for BEWILDERING CARES by Winifred Peck. After loving one of her out-of-print titles, I think I am going to read this in-print novel next.

C is for CASTAWAYS. Desert Island Discs has had a particularly good run of episodes lately, with Bernadine Evaristo, Yusuf, Samantha Morton and Floella Benjamin.

D is for DEBORAH CROMBIE. I rarely read books by the same author back-to-back, but when I finished reading ‘To Dwell in Darkness’ I couldn’t resist picking up ‘Garden of Lamentations’ and it won’t be long until I pick up ‘A Bitter Feast’. Then I shall be completely up-to-date with the series for the first time.

G IS FOR GET GARTER

E is for ELORIE. This is my knitting in progress. I have knitted from the top down to the bottom of the yoke and I am feeling virtuous knitting yarn that has been waiting for the right project for a very long time.

F is for FIFTEEN (NEARLY). My lovely Briar will be celebrating her birthday next weekend.

G is for GET GARTER.. I knitted the beanie for the Man of the House and I would like to knit the beret for myself one day. I love the way the German short rows disappear into the garter stitch and the pattern you see on the crown with a varieagated yarn.

H is for HELENE SCHJERFBECK. When I caught sight of one of her paintings I couldn’t help thinking that it would have been a lovely cover painting for a green Virago Modern Classic.

H IS FOR HELENE SCHJERFBECK.

I is for I TRY NOT TO COMPLAIN TOO MUCH ABOUT VISITORS because a great many of them are lovely and I know that the local economy depends on them, but it seemed that this year a full season of the kind of visitors who forget that rules of the road and good manners apply here came in just a few short weeks and took over the town.

J is for JOHN HOWARD. A lovely addition to my life’s soundtrack – I have been listeing to the reissued albums from the seventies and his more recent material.

K is for THE KILLING. I always was a late adopter and I have reached episode 19 of 20. I am hooked but I am not sure that when I read the end and look back the psychology of some of the characters is quite right. I can’t see a way of resolving everything, but maybe ….

L IS FOR LUMINOUS ISLE

L is for LUMINOUS ISLE by Eliot Bliss. The writing is lovely, what she has to say is wonderful, but this book lacks the clarity her only other published novel ‘Saraband’.

M is for MATCHA TEA. I have never been a tea drinker but I have just given up caffeine and I thought I would try the single sachet that came from I -don’t know-where. I loved it!

N is for NICCOLÓ RISING. I have set off on my second series of books by Dorothy Dunnett and I am loving it.

O is for THE OTHER BENNET SISTER by Janice Hadlow. This is my next library book to read, because I have been waiting for it for a very long time, and because I know somebody else is waiting for it.

P is for PIRANESI by Susanna Clarke. I loved it bit I have no idea what to say about it.

Q is for QUEST ENSEMBLE – another recent addition to my life’s soundtrack

R IS FOR RHODODENDRON PIE

R is for RHODODENDRON PIE. I couldn’t be happier that this and other rare early Margery Sharp novels are to be reissued early next year.

S is for SECRET SANTA. This year’s LibraryThing Virago Secret Santa is open for business.

T is for TELL US OF BATTLES, KINGS AND ELEPHANTS by Matthias Énard. I had thought that my next journey to the Ottoman Empire would by in the company of Dorothy Dunnett, but no. This book has transported me there, in the company of Michelangelo.

U is for UPSTAIRS, We still have books in boxes but our shelves are being built and it shouldn’t be long now until they are installed.

V IS FOR VOYAGING OUT

V is for VOYAGING OUT: British Women Artists from Suffrage to the Sixties by Carolyn Trant. Darlene wrote about it, I asked my library to buy a copy, and they did!

W is for WALKING ON THE WALL. The promenade is still fenced off but work is nearly complete, so I hope it won’t be too long before Briar can walk on the wall again.

X is for EX LIBRIS: Confessions of a Common Reader by Ann Fadiman. We don’t often read the same books, but the Man of the House picked up my copy and he is very taken with it.

Y is for YOU CAN HELP YOURSELF. As our local charity shops don’t want books at the moment we have been putting out cast-offs in a box on the gate-post at the weekend when the weather was good. They were picked up at a steady rate and I think we will do it again next summer.

Z is for ZULEIKHA by Guzel Yakhina. This was an impluse purchase, and it looks very promising ….

Miss Plum and Miss Penny by Dorothy Evelyn Smith (1959)

It is lovely when you see than a book that you have seen praised, that you are sure that you will love, but that is impossible to find is being sent back into the world; and it is even lovelier when that book more than lives up to very high expectations.

This is the book that makes me say that, and it has been sent back into the world by the lovely Furrowed Middlebrow imprint of the Dean Street Press.

The story begins as Alison Penny wakes on her fortieth birthday in the family home that she inherited. She is unmarried and quite happy with her situation. She lives with Ada, an old family retainer who has become her housekeeper, friend and companion. Ada loves Alison dearly, she is very protective of her, and treats her as a beloved daughter, without ever forgetting that Alison is her employer. It is a state of affairs that the two women are very happy with.

Alison has never married and is quite happy with the way her life has turned out. She could have married, but her protective parents disapproved of George, and she accepted that they were right to stand in his way. He sent Alison a letter every year, timed to reach her on her birthday, and over the years they came from far and wide as George travelled far and wide and rarely stayed still.

There was no letter from George on Alison’s fortieth birthday. Ada was indignant but Alison decided that she should be philosophical: she would go out, to have lunch and to see a film.

Alison’s plan’s came to nothing, because she took a walk in the park. She saw a young woman who was clearly very upset, she turned away to allow her privacy and spare her embarrassment; but when she glanced back she saw that the young woman seemed intent on throwing herself into the duck pond and she knew she had to act. She decided that the local YWCA would be sure to care for her and get her back on her feet, but she found that they had no room and so she decided that all she could do was take her home and do that job herself.

The unfortunately named Miss Victoria Plum was wonderfully grateful.

I said you were either an angel or just plain crazy. Now I think you’re both. Maybe all angels are crazy. I wouldn’t know. I never met one before.

However, once she was installed in the bed in the spare room she showed no sign of reviving, shrinking back under the covers at the slightest hint that she might be able to make progress. Ada was cynical from the start, and as days passed by Alison began to think that she might be right.

Alison turned to her two dearest friends for advice. There was Stanley, who was a single man with a lovely home, where he had things exactly as he liked and was ministered to a marvellous housekeeper who understood him perfectly. And there was Hubert, the local vicar, whose life was not nearly so well ordered, and who struggled with his relationship with his teenage son. They listened, they expressed concern, but they didn’t quite understand the problem.

When Ada broke her ankle and Alison went down with a bad case of influenza, Miss Plum rallied. She cared for them both with a great deal of concern but rather a lack of competence.

Alison was grateful, but her anxiety about the young woman and the position she found herself in continued to grow.

Today was Miss Plum’s first day downstairs. How, then, had she been aware of the sofa bed in the breakfast room? How had she been able to lay hands with such unerring precision on teapot and tea caddy, milk, sugar and biscuits? How had she known where the spare hot-water bottles were kept?

Even when Ada and Alison had both recovered it seemed that their guest had become a fixture, and so many things happened to stop even a delicate question about her plans being asked. Miss Plum had been accepted into village life, Christmas was coming, and a quite unexpected visitor appeared ….

Miss Plum had sprung the tenderest trap of all – the trap of compassion – and they were all caught in it, helpless, bewildered.

There are many things that set this book above many of its peers.

The plot was beautifully constructed, and its mixing of cosiness with something that was rather darker was wonderfully effective.

I found it very easy to understand and emphasise with all of the characters, Alison most of all, especially when she knew that what she wanted was reasonable but she also knew that expressing or acting on her feelings would not be well received. All of the characters were real fallible human beings, who I knew must have had stories before this book began and would have stories after it ended.

The village felt just as real. It wasn’t a story-book village, it felt like a real village, that maybe my grandmother might have known somebody who lived there.

The telling of the story was lovely, it had both warmth and clarity, and it was clear that the story-teller had both the understanding of everything she wrote about and the wisdom to be unobtrusive,

All of the elements worked together so well, to make a very good story that held me from the first page to the last.

 

Blindfold by Patricia Wentworth (1935)

When life has you wanting a book that is diverting and not too demanding, one of Patricia Wentworth’s stand-alone stories might be the very thing.

This one was just that for me.

The story opens in London, when a woman and a man sit on the same bench very late at night.

Flossie had just taken a new job as a parlour maid. She found herself in a house of four women, the other three being the elderly employer she would never see, the nurse who protected her fiercely, and the book who never left the basement. When Flossie had handed over the old lady’s night-time drink and was on her way back downstairs, she looked into the drawing room. Where she had previously seen a large mirror in a gilt frame she saw just the frame, and she was sure that a human face was looking out from the dark space where the mirror once was. She was terrified and she fled, vowing to never set foot in the house again.

Miles was the secretary to a wealthy American, and he had come to London to look for his employer’s young niece. Her parents had died when she was an infant, nearly twenty years earlier and the family didn’t know what had become of the child. The child had been left a fortune by an elderly relation, and so it was decided that it was time she was found. Unfortunately Miles’ luggage was in Paris, his pocket-book was stolen, the friends who he hoped would put him up were away, and so he wasn’t at all sure what he should do for the night.

Eager to talk about, Flossie told ‘Mr Miles’ all about what had happened to her. He was incredulous, but he found that he couldn’t question her sincerity or her emotional state. They talked together for some time, and then Flossie went home to the aunt who had raised her and Miles set off to untangle his problems and begin his quest.

Neither expected to meet again, but they did; because, of course, the mystery of the missing heiress and the mystery of what happened at that house were closely linked.

A new parlour maid and Miles’s friends would also be drawn into the plot.

There is a great deal of plot, with many twists and along the way, and I was captivated from the first page to the last.

The book is a little over-full, but I really can’t think I would have left out.

There is a large and diverse cast of characters, and each one has a part to play and a story of their own. I would have been happy to spend  more time with many of them; and I would have loved to know just a little more about certain stories that played out in the past or the might play out after the story in this book was over.

Patricia Wentworth had the gift of bringing characters to life, of making her readers care, quickly and efficiently; and she knew exactly which details to share to illuminate them, their lives and their world.

In this book she went right across the class spectrum, without ever hitting a wrong note.

There is much intrigue, wonderful human drama and a good dash of romance before everything is resolved.

I was held in the moment, because there was always something to hold my interest, and that is the best way to read this book. I wouldn’t advise thinking too much about the overall structure, because that reveals many coincidences, much that is highly improbable, and a criminal plot that is downright silly.

This isn’t a book to challenge my favourite Patrician Wentworth stand-alones – the courtroom drama in Silence in Court and and the romantic suspense in Kingdom Lost – but it is a wonderful entertainment and it was definitely the right book at the right time.

The Museum of Broken Promises by Elizabeth Buchan (2019)

When I saw Elizabeth Buchan’s name on the programme of my local literary festival last summer, I recalled reading her books back in the day. It was before I moved home to Cornwall and I read most of them from the library, but I remember buying a copy of one of them for my mother and her enjoying it.

Those books were stories set in the recent past, and I stopped reading when the stories became more contemporary and more domestic.

When I read the programme I saw that there was a new novel that looked more akin to the novels I had read years ago, and that looked rather interesting, so I invested in a ticket to the event.

I was captivated by the extracts from the book that the author read, and what she said about the arc of her career was instructive. It echoed the arc of her life: and so the books had different settings and time periods when she had the freedom to travel and to research, but stayed in the present and in domestic settings when she did not.

I loved the settings and the recent times that she explored in this novel.

The story opens in Paris in the present day, with Laure, who is the curator of a small museum that she founded. The Museum of Broken Promises displays artefacts that speak of love, loss and betrayal. You might question the viability of such a museum, but the account of the exhibits themselves, and of how they were selected from the many submissions, was absolutely fascinating.

Little was known of Laure herself. She was happy living alone, she was reluctant to speak of herself, and she only really socialised when it was necessary for her museum. On those occasions she spoke so articulately that you could understand why The Museum of Broken Promises had succeeded and what made it so important.

It was natural though that potential investors and other friends were eager to know more about the woman who had created it. An eager young journalist wanted to write about the creation of the museum, Laure was persuaded to allow the girl to shadow her for a while, and she was taken aback at how much she had found out about her past

All that she had allowed to be seen was an anonymous exhibit in her museum: a framed ticket for a train from Czechoslovakia to Austria.

Laure first came to Paris in 1985, to work as an au pair. Not long after her arrival, her employers moved to Prague. The father of the family, who was a senior executive in a pharmaceutical company had been posted there. It was a time of unrest and change in what was still a communist city, and nothing in her experience had prepared her for what she would experience there.

She visited a marionette theatre with her two young charges. They were captivated by what happened there – (as was I – it was from this part of the story that I head the author read) – and it was there that Laure met a number of performers, and that she began to fell in love with Tomas, a musician and political activist.

The love affair that grew from that drew her into dissident circles, She would become aware that they were watched by shadowy figures, and that the. Her employers were concerned, and she came to realise that there were more reasons that a job in the pharmaceutical  industry for their move into the communist bloc.

Elizabeth Buchan wrote about young love quite beautifully, she told of Laure’s experiences with empathy and understanding, and the time and place were so well drawn. I could see that this novel was underpinned by reseach but that never intruded on the human story and it helped to make that story feel both distinctive and utterly real.

I understood how what happened to Laure in Prague shaped her, and how she became the woman who would create The Museum of Broken Promises.

The story moved quite naturally between the present and the past, and I found the writing in both time periods elegant, evocative and engaging.

There were some scenes set in Berlin not long after the wall fell, and I felt that they was less successful. I understood why they were necessary to the plot, I appreciated that they helped to illuminate the changes that happened in Europe between the two main time periods, but they were less engaging and less interesting than the scenes set earlier and later.

That was disappointing, but the book as a whole worked for me.

It held a distinctive story and it gave me much to think about.

Morning: a Collection

Night was nearly gone. All slept in the beautiful bright city of Osaka. The harsh cry of the sentinels, calling one to another on the ramparts, broke the silence, unruffled otherwise save for the distant murmur of the sea as it swept into the bay.

Above the great dark mass formed by the palace and gardens of the Shogun a star was fading slowly. Dawn trembled in the air, and the tree-tops were more plainly outlined against the sky, which grew bluer every moment. Soon a pale glimmer touched the highest branches, slipped between the boughs and their leaves, and filtered downward to the ground. Then, in the gardens of the Prince, alleys thick with brambles displayed their dim perspective; the grass resumed its emerald hue; a tuft of poppies renewed the splendor of its sumptuous flowers, and a snowy flight of steps was faintly visible through the mist, down a distant avenue.

At last, suddenly, the sky grew purple; arrows of light athwart the bushes made every drop of water on the leaves sparkle. A pheasant alighted heavily; a crane shook her white wings, and with a long cry flew slowly upwards; while the earth smoked like a caldron, and the birds loudly hailed the rising sun.

As soon as the divine luminary rose from the horizon, the sound of a gong was heard. It was struck with a monotonous rhythm of overpowering melancholy,—four heavy strokes, four light strokes; four heavy strokes, and so on. It was the salute to the coming day, and the call to morning prayers.

From ‘The Usurper’ by Judith Gautier

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‘Morning’ by Caspar David Friedrich

* * * * * * *

The days slipped past, bright ships, sailing out far beyond remembrance. It was morning, a very faint young morning, cold and chaste past belief. The sky was as flat as wax and as green as a leaf. The day had only just forgotten its last pursuing star and the birds’ July singing strained like tiny, creaking wheels in the stillness.

Easter sat up in bed, waking immediately and unregretfully. The alarm clock on the chair by Nanny’s bed could have told her that two hours must still go by before it was time to get up, but Easter could not quite read a clock and tell the time by it—an ignorance of which she felt ashamed and concealed with feverish duplicity.

But it was light. Easter sat upon the edge of her bed swinging her bare shanks. Why at this enchant-ing hour was everything forbidden ? Books, pictures, toys, walks abroad, everything that failed to dis-tract or amuse in its proper hour would entrance at this live forbidden moment.

Easter sighed. A waxy eye on the heap that was Nanny slumbering, and her foot reached down to the linoleum—colder than glass. A small shrill wind blew in at the open window, billowing the thin curtains, coming like a knife through the thick, shrunk placket band of Easter’s flannel nightdress and setting its long skirts to swirl about her legs. There is a time of life when we do not feel the cold, when adventure is high and purpose Dares to won fulfilment.

Good bed toys are difficult to find. A book, now, with satisfying detail of picture, pictures that told you lots and suggested more. Easter had such a book, it was large and heavy, bound in brown and gold, and within, enriched with the tales of “Bluebeard” and the “Sleeping Beauty” were illustrations of surpassing choiceness and exactitude. In one picture a macaw swung in a thin loop of gold, while Fatima and her girl friends sat gossiping and eating sweets (drawn and coloured so plain that one could count them where they lay in their dishes) and fruit, every seed of which was clearly to be seen. The very rings on their fingers, and the embroidery of their clothes was painted with unstinted labour.

It was the work of a moment only to scramble on to the heavy table from which she could, with a certain amount of effort, reach up to the top of the book-shelf.

From ‘Mad Puppetstown’ by Molly Keane

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‘Morning at Lamorna Cove, Cornwall’ by Samuel John ‘Lamorna’ Birch

* * * * * * *

The hands on the hall-clock pointed to half-past six in the morning. The house was a country residence in West Somersetshire, called Combe-Raven. The day was the fourth of March, and the year was eighteen hundred and forty-six.

No sounds but the steady ticking of the clock, and the lumpish snoring of a large dog stretched on a mat outside the dining-room door, disturbed the mysterious morning stillness of hall and staircase. Who were the sleepers hidden in the upper regions? Let the house reveal its own secrets; and, one by one, as they descend the stairs from their beds, let the sleepers disclose themselves.

As the clock pointed to a quarter to seven, the dog woke and shook himself. After waiting in vain for the footman, who was accustomed to let him out, the animal wandered restlessly from one closed door to another on the ground-floor; and, returning to his mat in great perplexity, appealed to the sleeping family with a long and melancholy howl.

Before the last notes of the dog’s remonstrance had died away, the oaken stairs in the higher regions of the house creaked under slowly-descending footsteps. In a minute more the first of the female servants made her appearance, with a dingy woolen shawl over her shoulders—for the March morning was bleak; and rheumatism and the cook were old acquaintances.

Receiving the dog’s first cordial advances with the worst possible grace, the cook slowly opened the hall door and let the animal out. It was a wild morning. Over a spacious lawn, and behind a black plantation of firs, the rising sun rent its way upward through piles of ragged gray cloud; heavy drops of rain fell few and far between; the March wind shuddered round the corners of the house, and the wet trees swayed wearily.

Seven o’clock struck; and the signs of domestic life began to show themselves in more rapid succession ….

From ‘No Name’ by Wilkie Collins

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Morning 1926 Dod Procter 1892-1972 Presented by the Daily Mail 1927 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N04270

‘Morning’ by Dod Procter

* * * * * * *

WHEN I woke, the sapphire sky
Through the panes was gazing;
Bright the wind was waving by
The chestnuts’ yellow blazing.

When I went abroad, the land
Proclaimed a new dominion,
The slow black lanes which ploughs had planned
Shone vital and virginian.

Where the last night’s seething rain
Lay in my neighbour’s hiring,
It glittered mist and fire amain,
Sun-desired, desiring.

Old hares limped from frond to frond,
With joy half-mastering terror,
And lonely trees blushed rose beyond
Like Venus in a mirror.

Oak-woods that heard the rill-like gush
Of western wind’s compassion
Let fall their leaves, and then fell hush
For new annunciation.

I who had drooped the last eve’s hours
To think the year forsaken
Saw all the air bloom with fine flowers,
And laughed to have been mistaken.

‘A Budding Morrow’ by Edmund Charles Blunden

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‘Morning by the Sea’ by Kurt Jackson

* * * * * * *

Mr Salteena was an elderly man of 42 and was fond of asking peaple to stay with him. He had quite a young girl staying with him of 17 named Ethel Monticue. Mr Salteena had dark short hair and mustache and wiskers which were very black and twisty. He was middle sized and he had very pale blue eyes. He had a pale brown suit but on Sundays he had a black one and he had a topper every day as he thorght it more becoming. Ethel Monticue had fair hair done on the top and blue eyes. She had a blue velvit frock which had grown rarther short in the sleeves. She had a black straw hat and kid gloves.

One morning Mr Salteena came down to brekfast and found Ethel had come down first which was strange. Is the tea made Ethel he said rubbing his hands. Yes said Ethel and such a quear shaped parcel has come for you Yes indeed it was a quear shape parcel it was a hat box tied down very tight and a letter stuffed between the string. Well well said Mr Salteena parcels do turn quear I will read the letter first and so saying he tore open the letter and this is what it said

My dear Alfred.
I want you to come for a stop with me so I have sent you a top hat wraped up in tishu paper inside the box. Will you wear it staying with me because it is very uncommon. Please bring one of your young ladies whichever is the prettiest in the face.
I remain Yours truely
Bernard Clark.

Well said Mr Salteena I shall take you to stay Ethel and fancy him sending me a top hat. Then Mr S. opened the box and there lay the most splendid top hat of a lovly rich tone rarther like grapes with a ribbon round compleat.

Well said Mr Salteena peevishly I dont know if I shall like it the bow of the ribbon is too flighty for my age. Then he sat down and eat the egg which Ethel had so kindly laid for him. After he had finished his meal he got down and began to write to Bernard Clark he ran up stairs on his fat legs and took out his blotter with a loud sniff and this is what he wrote.

My dear Bernard
Certinly I shall come and stay with you next Monday I will bring Ethel Monticue commonly called Miss M. She is very active and pretty. I do hope I shall enjoy myself with you. I am fond of digging in the garden and I am parshial to ladies if they are nice I suppose it is my nature. I am not quite a gentleman but you would hardly notice it but cant be helped anyhow. We will come by the 3-15.
Your old and valud friend

Alfred Salteena.

Perhaps my readers will be wondering why Bernard Clark had asked Mr Salteena to stay with him. He was a lonely man in a remote spot and he liked peaple and partys but he did not know many. What rot muttered Bernard Clark as he read Mr Salteenas letter. He was rarther a presumshious man.

From ‘The Young Visiters’ by Daisy Ashford

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‘A Morning in Paris’ by Nicholas Hely Hutchinson

* * * * * * *

One place she went to oftener than to any other. It was the long walk outside the gardens with the walls round them. There were bare flower-beds on either side of it and against the walls ivy grew thickly. There was one part of the wall where the creeping dark green leaves were more bushy than elsewhere. It seemed as if for a long time that part had been neglected. The rest of it had been clipped and made to look neat, but at this lower end of the walk it had not been trimmed at all.

A few days after she had talked to Ben Weatherstaff Mary stopped to notice this and wondered why it was so. She had just paused and was looking up at a long spray of ivy swinging in the wind when she saw a gleam of scarlet and heard a brilliant chirp, and there, on the top of the wall, perched Ben Weatherstaff’s robin redbreast, tilting forward to look at her with his small head on one side.

“Oh!” she cried out, “is it you—is it you?” And it did not seem at all queer to her that she spoke to him as if she was sure that he would understand and answer her.

He did answer. He twittered and chirped and hopped along the wall as if he were telling her all sorts of things. It seemed to Mistress Mary as if she understood him, too, though he was not speaking in words. It was as if he said:

“Good morning! Isn’t the wind nice? Isn’t the sun nice? Isn’t everything nice? Let us both chirp and hop and twitter. Come on! Come on!”

Mary began to laugh, and as he hopped and took little flights along the wall she ran after him. Poor little thin, sallow, ugly Mary—she actually looked almost pretty for a moment.

“I like you! I like you!” she cried out, pattering down the walk; and she chirped and tried to whistle, which last she did not know how to do in the least. But the robin seemed to be quite satisfied and chirped and whistled back at her. At last he spread his wings and made a darting flight to the top of a tree, where he perched and sang loudly.

That reminded Mary of the first time she had seen him. He had been swinging on a tree-top then and she had been standing in the orchard. Now she was on the other side of the orchard and standing in the path outside a wall—much lower down—and there was the same tree inside.

“It’s in the garden no one can go into,” she said to herself. “It’s the garden without a door. He lives in there. How I wish I could see what it is like!”

She ran up the walk to the green door she had entered the first morning. Then she ran down the path through the other door and then into the orchard, and when she stood and looked up there was the tree on the other side of the wall, and there was the robin just finishing his song and beginning to preen his feathers with his beak.

“It is the garden,” she said. “I am sure it is.”

From ‘The Secret Garden’ by Frances Hodgson-Burnett

* * * * * * *

The Morning Sun by Harold Knight

* * * * * * *

As the morning lengthened whole parties appeared over the sand-hills and came down on the beach to bathe. It was understood that at eleven o’clock the women and children of the summer colony had the sea to themselves. First the women undressed, pulled on their bathing dresses and covered their heads in hideous caps like sponge bags; then the children were unbuttoned. The beach was strewn with little heaps of clothes and shoes; the big summer hats, with stones on them to keep them from blowing away, looked like immense shells. It was strange that even the sea seemed to sound differently when all those leaping, laughing figures ran into the waves

From ‘At the Bay’ by Katherine Mansfield

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Facing South by Winifred Peck (1950)

The day that the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association comes to town is always a highlight of my bookish year. Some years I have a lovely time just admiring so many beautiful books in our town hall, and some years I find gems that I know I have to take home to read. Last year I brought home this book. I have books by the author that have been reissued by Persephone Books and by the Dean Street Press in my collection, I have yet to read any of them, but as I had never heard of this one, as I loved what I read about it on the cover, I didn’t want to risk letting it go and never seeing another copy.

The story begins beautifully, with a young newly married couple, Kay and Gilly Pallin, pausing for a picnic on their way to a family conference. They are looking down at an abbey set in a beautiful valley, and that abbey is the main reason for the family gathering.

Canon Pallin, Kay’s grandfather, had found the abbey in ruins when he was a very young priest, and restoring it became his life’s work. He considered it a great achievement, more than worthy of the time and money that he had poured into it; but his pursuit of his grand ambition had consequences for his family. Few of them understood and many of them were unhappy about what they had lost in consequence.

Kay had only met his Aunt Sophy, because his mother had been estranged from her family and her father had been angry at the paid her father had caused her. When she learned that both of his parents were dead his mother’s sister had written to him. he had liked her enormously, he had loved hearing about his mother’s childhood and the relations he had never met, and it was for Sophie’s sake that he had agreed to attend and to meet the surviving members of his mother’s family.

Gilly had only met Sophy, and so her husband explained the family history and connections to her before as they sat admiring the view.

Canon Pallin had high expectations of his children, he had a ‘difficult temper and a rather Old Testament disposition’ and so Kay’s mother wasn’t the only one of them to be cut off. Mark had upset his father by becoming a conscientious objector to the First World War, and becoming a successful campaigning journalist didn’t bring him back into favour. His father hoped that Steven would follow him into the church, but Steven chose a career in medicine, becoming a doctor and developing a successful private practice. Hilda also fell out with her father over her choice of husband, though Kay, who had met her, commented that she seemed to be the kind of woman who fell out with everybody.

Only Sophy hadn’t fallen out with her father; and she had returned to help and support him after her husband and her only child were both killed in an accident. When her father became frail he was moved to a nursing home and she remained in the family home with Mrs. Cribble, who was the housekeeper and cook and who became a very good friend.

Sophy had called the family together, because she had received a very generous offer for the house but the terms of her father’s will would make the sale difficult. He was near the end of his life, but not so near that the offer wouldn’t expire first. She was anxious about the descent of her siblings, various spouses and at least half a dozen of the next generation. Mrs. Cribble reassured her that they would cope, and when Kay and Gilly arrived they did the same. Kay stayed upstairs with his aunt and Gilly, who was always happiest in a kitchen, went downstairs to help Mrs. Cribble.

When the family arrived there were much to talk about, many different opinions and old grievances were aired, before different groups went out to see what they might do to resolve the situation.

Lady Peck managed her large and diverse cast of characters beautifully, she spun her story cleverly; and though this is a relatively short book she does a great deal to illuminate the lives, relationships and concerns of different family members, with insight and empathy; and to show the effects on a generation of living through two World Wars and great deal of social change.

It felt quite natural for Sophy to sit in the kitchen and chat with Mrs. Cribble, but her sister Hilda was horrified at the impropriety. My feelings chimed with Sophy’s but I understood why Hilda felt as she did, as she was unhappy and wanted to feel that she had some status in the world if nothing else.

The writing was intelligent, warm and engaging, it was rich with detail and the dialogue was particularly well done.

I loved that the story considered the effect on his family of the Canon’s rebuilding of the abbey rather than the rebuilding itself; and I appreciated that much more happened on the day that the family resolving the problem of the house and the will.

I loved Sophy, who was so lovely and reminded me a little of Trollope’s Mr. Harding.

I found so much to love in this book, I can’t list them all but I had to say that.

The resolution that was found at the end of the day was wonderful, casting new light on the character of Canon Pallin; and an epilogue set a few months later was a nice way to catch up my favourites – Gilly and Kay, Sophy and Mrs. Cribble – to see how their lives had changed and to hear news of others.

It won’t be long before I pick up another of Winifred Peck’s novels – and I couldn’t resist ordering another, that was likened to Trollope on the dust jacket of this one.