The Wych Elm by Tana French (2019)

I have loved Tana French’s books for many different reasons.

The books that preceded this one have been compelling contemporary police procedurals, with a wonderfully real Irish settings. They have been  was a compelling character studies, written with real insight and understanding. They have been  perceptive state of the nation novels, speaking profoundly about a particular time and place …. and they have been linked, but not quite in the way series are usually linked.

Each book was centered around a member of the Dublin Murder Squad, who had usually appeared in an earlier book before becoming the protagonist of their own story. A story that would usually draw out their own story as well as the part they had to play in the investigation of a crime.

That was a wonderfully effective way to both link books and allow then to stand alone; but this book breaks the chain.

All of the familiar elements are there but the perspective is different. This time the character at the centre of the story has no connection to the police or law enforcement.

Toby is a good-looking young man, he is bright and charming, and he comes from a comfortably off and closely-knit middle-class family. His passage though life had been smooth, and he had just survived a crisis at work that would have felled most others, when woke up to find burglars in his flat and was violently attacked. He was left with physical and psychological damage.

His recovery was slow, and so he retired to the family home to convalesce. His uncle – who was terminally ill – had always lived there and other family members – his parents, his aunts and uncles, and his cousins – congregated there for lunch every Sunday and passed though often.

It was after Sunday lunch that the two young children of one of Toby’s cousins made a grisly discovery in the old wych elm at the bottom of the garden. That discovery led to a police investigation, and to the realisation that someone he knew had been murdered and that the evidence pointed to one or more of his family being involved.

Toby began to question his memories of his family, of his past and of his own nature. He tried to work out what happened but he feared what he might learn ….

I don’t want to say more than that about the plot, because I don’t want to spoil the story, and because it is difficult to pull things out and have them make sense on their own.

The  story moved slowly and inexorably, and the narrative voice was perfectly realised. I saw that Toby had strengths and weaknesses, and  I could understood what made him the person that he was. But I had to ask questions about how reliable he was, whether he really couldn’t remember or whether he had chosen to forget, and just how damaged he really was.

All of the characters around him, everything that happened, was utterly believable. The portrayal of someone who had to struggle for the first time in his life is so well done; and the drawing of a family living with a terminal illness is both acute and sensitive.

The writing is clear, lucid and intelligent, and the conversations were so very well done that I could hear the voices in my head.

It was strange not to come to know the detectives well, not to follow the case from their perspective, not to be able to link them to the Dublin Murder Squad. I understand why that wouldn’t have worked for this story, but I did miss the momentum and the depth that I have found in Tana French’s earlier books.

Following a case with a detective was more rewarding than following one man’s story.

I was always engaged but the story took a little too long to come together. When it did come together it was extraordinary. The crime story was intriguing, but the exploration of what happens when a charmed life is derailed and of coming to terms with the past and with new knowlege about that past is the greater story.

This is a very good book, and if the earlier books hadn’t set my expectations so high, if I didn’t have comprisons to draw, I would be able to focus on the many things done so very well in this book and think much less about my relatively small concerns.

I think that the change of perspective unsettled me’ and I think that I need to see where Tana French goes next to put this book into context ….

A Box of Books for 2018

Some people make year-end lists, but I prefer to pack a box of books as each year draws to a close. I have always loved lists – writing them, reading them, studying and analysing them – since I was a child; but I find it more interesting to  approach things a little differently.

I assemble a virtual box of books to remember my reading year. And I stick a virtual post-it note to each book, with my thoughts when I read it, to remind me why that book was in my box.

Some of them will be books that I can say quite objectively were the best books I read, but others are books that spoke to me for particular reasons, and books that do something that no other book in my array if boxes does.

This year’s box has a story set so close to home that I can believe I might have passed the characters in the street, a book by my favorite literary raconteur, a book that introduced me to a marvellous Victorian heroine who was both wonderfully modern and utterly of her time …

I surprised myself by leaving out certain favourite authors, because I know I have books I like as much – or maybe more – in earlier boxes.

I try to finish with a box that holds 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.

Books that I re-read aren’t there, because of course I know I will find them in the boxes of the years when I read them for the first time. And I only allow an author one book a year, because I have to draw a line somewhere.

I have a book in progress that I suspect should go in a box, but as I won’t finish it for a few days it will be a candidate for next year’s box and I can put the lid on this year’s box.

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 – here are the books!

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2018-12-30

Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope

‘There were so many wonderful moments, so many perfect details, that I really could feel that I was walking through a world that had a history that had begun long before I arrived and that would go on long after I left. Anthony Trollope made that world spin, he managed all of the characters and stories in that world wonderfully well. He seemed a little less chatty than usual; maybe because there was so much going on.’

Rough-Hewn by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

‘The  story of each life was told quite beautifully, with sensitivity, with intelligence, with empathy, and without one single drop of sentimentality. There is no plot as such, but I was captivated by the unfolding of each life. I noticed that they were told rather differently. Neale’s story was told in a straightforward way, always from his point of view; while Marise’s story was often told through the accounts of people around her. That reflected the different nature of the stories, and while I found Neale’s story easier to read I was more anxious to follow Marise’s story.’

Grania: The Story of an Island by Emily Lawless

‘The pictures of Island life that Emily Lawless draws are wonderfully vivid. She conveys the unforgiving nature of the landscape and the ongoing struggle for poverty that trapped so many of the islanders; she understands the beauty of the island, and the strong sense of identity felt by the islanders. She sees the joys and the sorrows of their lives. Her characterisations are rich and complex, and I can believe that this community existed and that these people lived and breathed.’

Green Dolphin Country by Elizabeth Goudge

‘That is just the beginning of a wonderfully rich tale of love and adventure in times and places where the world was undergoing great change. I had worried that it would be a tale of a great love lost, but of course in Elizabeth Goudge’s hands it was much more than that: it was a story that illustrated that the journey to grace so often begins by accepting that we may not be able to have what we want most and by finding strength to do what we must.’

The Cliff House by Amanda Jennings

‘An author who can set a book in a place close to home that I know very well and at a time when I could have been there, when I could have brushed shoulders with one of her characters, and hold me through the whole story without ever doubting that her characters lived and breathed, that the events she writes about happened, is an author I am very glad to have met. It takes more than authenticity to make a good book of course, and this book has much more than that. It has a wonderful understanding of character and relationships and it has an absorbing story where there is always something in the air; something like a great storm at sea moving closer and closer to the Cornish coast ….’

Thank Heaven Fasting by E M Delafield

‘Monica, her family, her friends, and her suitors were all trapped by ridiculous social conventions; and the range of characters and different experiences reinforced that point. Making herself attractive and appealing to men was the sole object of her life; because marriage was the only career opportunity for a woman of her class and anything other than that would constitute failure. Her failure meant that she remained in her mother’s care, she continued to be a child and she never learned to understand her own feelings or make decisions for herself. No woman ever needed to, because she would pass form her parent’s charge to her husband’s!’

Another Part of the Forest by G B Stern

‘G. B. Stern refers to a party she hosted for seventy literary figures, and I would love to know who they were. Maybe Somerset Maugham, as she was a guest at one of his house parties. Maybe H G Wells who was at the same house party and gave her a writing case for Christmas. Maybe Elizabeth Von Arnim. The author went on a picnic with her and imagined that she was a character in one of her books. Certainly Sheila Kaye-Smith, who was a close friend and co-author of two books about Jane Austen.’

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

‘I thought that this book might sink under the weight of its complexity but it didn’t; and I had a wonderful time caught in the moment with the narrator and his many hosts. I loved the different perspectives, and though I didn’t make a significant effort to see if all of the pieces of this gloriously complex puzzle fitted together I can say the things that I spotted did; and that said puzzle and its the myriad overlapping and intertwining story-lines can only have been the work of a brilliantly inventive mind.’

Poor Caroline by Winifred Holtby

‘Each chapter is devoted to the story of one of these characters. The story-telling is immaculate, and I couldn’t doubt for a moment that Winifred Holtby had considered every detail of the different people, lives and relationships. They were beautifully observed, they were gently satirised, and the different stories spoke about so many things: class, race, faith, prejudice, family, loss, philanthropy, ambition …. Each chapter was absorbing, and could have been the foundation of a different novel.’

A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood

‘Her story is very well told, by her in the first person. Her voice was lovely, the story flowed beautifully. It was simple, but it was profound, and the things that it had to say felt utterly right. The post-war generation is caught perfectly, the period detail was pitch perfect, and that made it so easy to be drawn onto Lou’s life. I found it was so easy to identify with her, I loved seeing that story though her eyes, and everything that she felt, everything that she said, everything that she did rang true.’

Diana Tempest by Mary Cholmondeley

‘One of this books greatest strengths is its youthful energy and fervour. There is passionate advocacy of a woman’s right to set the course of her own life; and a very clear light is shone on the unhappy consequences of marriages contracted for reasons other than real love. There is righteous anger at social injustice, at moral weakness, and most of all at men – and women – who stand in the way of what the author has the wisdom and foresight to advocate. I had an idea how the story would be resolved I really didn’t know how it would get there until it did.’

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

‘The story moves slowly and it rewards slow reading. The writing is gorgeous, there are so much many stories within the story to read and appreciate, and it is lovely spending time with all of the people who are part of those stories. Every detail was right, every note rang true, and the world of this book felt utterly, utterly real. It was a wrench to leave, and I can’t quite believe that I couldn’t go to the Swan Inn and listen to the descendants of the people I have been reading about telling tales of them, telling the tales of this book, telling tales of their own ….’

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Now tell me, what would you put in your box for 2018?

And what do you plan to read in 2019?

A Collection for Christmas

You do not go where the lark is high
But you find yourself under that part of the sky
Where he is singing

You do not look for the wind where it blows
Through the stems of the ivy woods over the snows
But you find yourself pressed against its breast
Where the cold storm is winging

You do not search where Christmas is keeping
Bright the flushed dreams of children sleeping
But you wander wherever the white bells are swinging

‘Over the Snows’ by Margiad Evans

* * * * * * *

Walter Crane’s Christmas Card (1888)

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Christmas Eve was the day we liked best. The morning was a frenzied rush for last rehearsals, last posing of cards, last buying of presents. My father came home early, laden with parcels. The tea table was resplendant  with bon-bons (crackers), sweets, and surprise cakes with icing on the top and threepenny-bits inside. The usual ‘bread and butter first’ rule was set aside and we talked  and laughed to our heart’s content.

Then followed the solemn ascent to the study for the play. The boys had bprrowed chair from the bedrooms, and placed them in two rows: the front (stalls) for mother, father, and any aunt, uncle, or vistor who happened to be there, and the back (pits) for the serants, who attended with much gigglement.

Personally I was thankful when this nerve strain was over, and we all crowded down into the breakfast-parlour. Here, earlier in the day, mother and I had arranged the presents – a little pile for each, and we all fell upon them with delight. We were never fussed with a Christmas tree or stockings or make-believe about Santa Claus. Perhaps we were too hard-headed. Perhaps mother considered that waking up in the small hours to llok at stockings was a bad beginning for an exciting day. As it was, we had a nice time before bed for peeping into our new books and gloating over all the fresh treasures.

From ‘A London Child of the 1870s’ by Molly Hughes

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‘My Ball of Twine’ By Jessie Willcox Smith

* * * * * * *

December 25th.—Last Christmas I was a bride, with a heart overflowing with present bliss, and full of ardent hopes for the future, though not unmingled with foreboding fears.  Now I am a wife: my bliss is sobered, but not destroyed; my hopes diminished, but not departed; my fears increased, but not yet thoroughly confirmed; and, thank heaven, I am a mother too.  God has sent me a soul to educate for heaven, and give me a new and calmer bliss, and stronger hopes to comfort me.

From ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ by Anne Bronte

 * * * * * * *

 * * * * * * *

Christmas morning broke on a beautiful white world. It had been a very mild December and people had looked forward to a green Christmas; but just enough snow fell softly in the night to transfigure Avonlea. Anne peeped out from her frosted gable window with delighted eyes. The firs in the Haunted Wood were all feathery and wonderful; the birches and wild cherry trees were outlined in pearl; the plowed fields were stretches of snowy dimples; and there was a crisp tang in the air that was glorious. Anne ran downstairs singing until her voice reechoed through Green Gables.

“Merry Christmas, Marilla! Merry Christmas, Matthew! Isn’t it a lovely Christmas? I’m so glad it’s white. Any other kind of Christmas doesn’t seem real, does it? I don’t like green Christmases. They’re not green—they’re just nasty faded browns and grays. What makes people call them green? Why—why—Matthew, is that for me? Oh, Matthew!”

Matthew had sheepishly unfolded the dress from its paper swathings and held it out with a deprecatory glance at Marilla, who feigned to be contemptuously filling the teapot, but nevertheless watched the scene out of the corner of her eye with a rather interested air.

Anne took the dress and looked at it in reverent silence. Oh, how pretty it was—a lovely soft brown gloria with all the gloss of silk; a skirt with dainty frills and shirrings; a waist elaborately pintucked in the most fashionable way, with a little ruffle of filmy lace at the neck. But the sleeves—they were the crowning glory! Long elbow cuffs, and above them two beautiful puffs divided by rows of shirring and bows of brown-silk ribbon.

“That’s a Christmas present for you, Anne,” said Matthew shyly. “Why—why—Anne, don’t you like it? Well now—well now.”

For Anne’s eyes had suddenly filled with tears.

“Like it! Oh, Matthew!” Anne laid the dress over a chair and clasped her hands. “Matthew, it’s perfectly exquisite. Oh, I can never thank you enough. Look at those sleeves! Oh, it seems to me this must be a happy dream.”

“Well, well, let us have breakfast,” interrupted Marilla. “I must say, Anne, I don’t think you needed the dress; but since Matthew has got it for you, see that you take good care of it. There’s a hair ribbon Mrs. Lynde left for you. It’s brown, to match the dress. Come now, sit in.”

“I don’t see how I’m going to eat breakfast,” said Anne rapturously. “Breakfast seems so commonplace at such an exciting moment. I’d rather feast my eyes on that dress. I’m so glad that puffed sleeves are still fashionable. It did seem to me that I’d never get over it if they went out before I had a dress with them. I’d never have felt quite satisfied, you see. It was lovely of Mrs. Lynde to give me the ribbon too. I feel that I ought to be a very good girl indeed. It’s at times like this I’m sorry I’m not a model little girl; and I always resolve that I will be in future. But somehow it’s hard to carry out your resolutions when irresistible temptations come. Still, I really will make an extra effort after this.”

From ‘Anne of Green Gables’  by L M Montgomery

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‘Christmas Day’ by Vladimir Akinshin

* * * * * * *

I have seen a court, and a dozen courts,
And no court have I seen as gracious
As the court I love for its chieftain’s sake,
Not weak is my praise, like Celligwen:
Heaven’s bounty on earth in Bachelldref,
Where there is a revel each Christmas,
A crowd of kinsmen, a lake of liquor,
Bright the honour of Meurig’s homeland,
Many a minstel and merry fiddler,
And much the mirth on a polished floor,
And a sound of strigs, a deluge of drinks,
And the constant cadence of singing,
And a red-hued lance of Cadwaladr’s line,
A blood-gushing blade, promise of meat,
And minstrels’ swaying, and children chirping,
And the bustle of boys bringing food,
The cup-bearer weary, kitchen sore-tried,
And three kinds of wine for the thirsty.
Three customs there are, a merry country,
At Daffyd’s hight court, blameless boldness:
Whoever you are, whatever you sing,
And whatever the thing you’re known for,
Come whenever you wish, take what you see,
And once come, stay as long as you like.

‘A Christmas Revel’ by Dafydd Bach ap Madoc Wladaidd (1340-1390)

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‘Noël’ by Loïs Mailou Jones

* * * * * * *

23:xii:1946

Dearest Alyse,

Usually one begins a thank-letter by some graceless comparison, by saying, I have never been given such a very scarlet muffler, or, This is the largest horse I have ever been sent for Christmas. But your matchbox is a nonpareil, for never in my life have I been given a matchbox. Stamps, yes, drawing-pins, yes, balls of string, yes, yes, menacingly too often; but never a matchbox. Now that it has happened I ask myself why it has never happened before. They are such charming things, neat as wrens, and what a deal of ingenuity and human artfulness has gone into their construction; for if they were like the ordinary box with a lid they would not be one half so convenient. This one though is especially neat, charming, and ingenious, and the tray slides in and out as though Chippendale had made it.

But what I like best of all about my matchbox is that it is an empty one. I have often thought how much I should enjoy being given an empty house in Norway, what pleasure it would be to walk into those bare wood-smelling chambers, walls, floor, ceiling, all wood, which is after all the natural shelter of man, or at any rate the most congenial. And when I opened your matchbox which is now my matchbox and saw that beautiful clean sweet-smelling empty rectangular expanse it was exactly as though my house in Norway had come true; with the added advantage of being just the right size to carry in my hand. I shut my imagination up in it instantly, and it is still sitting there, listening to the wind in the firwood outside. Sitting there in a couple of days time I shall hear the Lutheran bell calling me to go and sing Lutheran hymns while the pastor’s wife gazes abstractedly at her husband in a bower of evergreen while she wonders if she remembered to put pepper in the goose-stuffing; but I shan’t go, I shall be far too happy sitting in my house that Alyse gave me for Christmas.

Oh, I must tell you I have finished my book—begun in 1941 and a hundred times imperilled but finished at last. So I can give an undivided mind to enjoying my matchbox.

Sylvia Townsend Warner – From ‘More Letters of Note’

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‘Nativité’ by Georges de la Tour

* * * * * * *

Down by the shore, just above the Bay of Orde, we suddenly had an impulse to foresake the car, alk a little way off and lean over the gate. And for a moment I had a passionate hatred for motor cars that could let me neither hear nor smell, but only see. The air and the turf and the seaweed smelt sweet and aromatic, and we heard the waves break in a long thin sound as though as though a line of glass were being very gently, very regularly, shattered a quarter of a mile away. And curlews were twittering and curving nearby, or perhaps they were smaller frienlier birds; and a few sheep with black faces grazed near the quiet grey stone sheds and barns. And the wind fluttered and sighed in the sun.

“Next Christmas,” I said to Paul, when I had rather more than I could bear of imagining myself, next Christmas, somewhere quite different perhaps, longing to be back in Skye and leaning over the gate just above Orde Bay looking across in solitude towards Rhum, looking my first, looking my last, on all things lovely. “Next Christmas,” I repeated, buff and hearty, and leaving out “perhaps” because I feared Paul was going to throw an attack of scepticism. But he said, to my amazement: “Yes, we’ll come here again next Christmas,” so that for the sake of D.V. and touch wood and all the rest of superstition I had to add quickly: ” We may not be able to, of course. It would be safer to stop here till Christmas of 1939.”

And then slowly and relactantly we climbed into the car, and backed, and made motoring noises which startled the whaups, and drove away. Slowly and reluctantly.

From ‘Another Part of the Forest’ by G. B. Stern

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A Little Something for Rebecca West Day

I thought that it might be a mistake, putting a date so close to Christmas in the Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors.

She belonged there but I really don’t have the time or attention at his time of year to do justice to Rebecca West’s wonderful writing. I picked up three of her novels, and each time I read a little but I knew in my heart that it wasn’t the right moment for that book

That means that I don’t have a book to talk about today, but I can share the opening of the one I think I will be reading first.

* * * * * * * *

‘She never could understand machinery. So when the chauffeur tried to explain what was so seriously the matter with the automobile that it would take a whole two hours to repair, she cut him short and said, ‘Never mind, Harrowby. Accidents will happen, and anyway it’s much nicer than travelling by train.’ She noticed a look of real perturbation round his nice eyes, and was puzzled till a flash of comprehension came to her, and she hastily explained, ‘Oh, it’s all right about my being late. I’m not expecting—anyone.’ But she did wish Essington would not get so angry when she was late that the servants noticed. It wasn’t her dignity she was thinking of; she was too tired to think of that. But it dug away her defences. For if nobody else knew how he behaved, then when she woke in the middle of the night and felt like a trapped rat she could pretend that things weren’t so bad, she could say to herself, ‘I expect I imagine most of it. For he’s awfully fond of me, really. He can’t get on without me. Look how he always wants me to go away with him for his holidays. Yes, I’m silly, that’s what I am.’ But if other people knew about it she couldn’t fool herself, and had to go on feeling like a trapped rat.

She shivered, and said, ‘Well, I suppose I can’t go on sitting here if you’re going to do all that to her. I’ll go for a walk,’ and stepped out of the automobile. The garage yard was full of the clear light of May, and it was a pleasanter place than most of its kind, for it had evidently been an old livery-stable and its walks were of mellow red brick, patterned with streaks of moss and golden patches like freckles where time and sunshine had toasted away the surface. In the end wall was an archway barred by an iron gate, through which one could see a green country garden that was as much orchard as garden, with fruit trees standing in grass too long and strong for a lawn, and rows of rhubarb. It made her think of the orchards round Chiswick when she was a little girl. They had been so pretty; and she had had time to look at them, for then her days had been too empty as now they were too full. She was glad that this breakdown which gave her an hour to herself had happened in this little market town, where there were orchards.

‘Harrowby,’ she asked, ‘didn’t we pass a pretty place with water, just before we came into the town?’

‘Yes, Miss, a kind of big pond it was, with lily pools. A gentleman’s estate left to the district for a park, I should say it was. There were seats. About three quarters of a mile back, it was.’

‘Oh, dear! That’s too far. I’d have to walk a mile and a half in all. I suppose I won’t have time. And it was so pretty. It seems as if one never could do anything one wanted, doesn’t it?’ She felt like crying. Nowadays she was all to pieces.

‘But you said, Miss, that you hadn’t got to hurry. And I could run you back to town in an hour and a half from here. This is Packbury, you know. I should go if I were you, Miss. It’ll do you good.’

It was all right. There was really no reason at all why she should not go. It was simply that she was so unused to liberty, so seldom free from the leash that jerked her back to heel whenever she was doing anything she enjoyed, that she felt at a loss when she was on her own. She pulled herself together and said gaily, ‘All right. I’ll come back here. Don’t try to fetch me, for I’ll take a footpath if I can.’ She hadn’t been on a footpath for years. He tuned up his engine and took the car, calling over his shoulder, ‘Never known you have an hour to yourself before, Miss!’ She smiled and waved her hand, and turned towards the street. She meant to buy some fruit and chocolate, and eat it sitting by the pond.’

From ‘Sunflower’ by Rebecca West

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This the final date marked in the Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors.

I’m glad that I did it and I don’t rule out doing it again one day, with some of the same authors and some different ones. I will definitely go on celebrating authors on their birthday, but I want to do something different next year …..

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield (2018)

I fell in love with Diane Setterfield’s first book, I was disappointed by her second; but when I saw the title of this third novel I thought that everything would be alright and as soon as I started to read I was quite certain that it would.

Imagine curling up in a big armchair by a blazing fire on a wild and stormy night and listening to an story-teller who will have you hanging on every world and completely wrapped up in the story from beginning to end.

Reading this book was rather like that.

Back in the latter years of the 19th century there were many inns along the banks of the Thames and each one was renowned for something different, from music to gambling, from brawling to storytelling …

It was the Swan Inn at Radcot that was known for its storytelling. It had been run for generations by the Ockwell family and it was a place where grand stories, with a good sprinkling of folklore and magic, were told, talked over, and re-told.

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The grandest of all of the stories that would ever be told at the Swan Inn began on the night of the winter solstice. A badly injured stranger came through the door, carrying what all of those present believed to a large, bedraggled puppet.

They were wrong.

The man was carrying a lifeless young girl.

Rita Sunday, the local nurse and widwife, was called and she quickly established that the girl had no pulse and was not breathing and that there was nothing she could go for her. She was laid out in a cold outer room while Rita treated the man’s injuries. Later she went back to the girl, because she couldn’t understand how she had died, and she was astonished to small signs of life. The girl would live. Rita’s scientific interest is piqued, because she cannot comprehend how anyone who is so clearly dead can recover and live.

Nobody knows who the child is or where she came from, and she is unable to speak or tell to tell anyone anything about herself or her history.

She might be the child of a wealthy couple who had been kidnapped years earlier.

She might be the granddaughter of a gentleman farmer who knew that his estranged son had abandoned his wife and child.

She might be the sister of a poor young woman who had never given up hope that she would come back one day.

These are just some of the different characters whose stories – past and present – are wrapped around the story of the unknown child. The stories are rich and vividly told, the characters live and breathe, and it is so easy to be drawn in and to care deeply about what happens.

There are good and hard-working people who do their best to help their friends and neighbours; there are people whose hearts have broken but who know that they can do nothing but carry on; but there are also scoundrels and evil-doers who will take advantage of any situation for their own ends.

All life is here.

Rita and the man whose life she saved – a photographer named Henry Daunt – become close and they set out to solve the mystery at the heart of the story.

It is a story rich with the best kind of magic – magic rooted in nature and humanity

Stories are told of Quietly, one of a long line of a family of mute ferrymen, who travels between the worlds of the living and the dead. He will rescue river travellers in distress and will either deliver them safely to one side of the bank if it is not their time to pass, or to another destination if it is ….

The river is always there, flowing through the story and its lovely prose.

The story moves slowly and it rewards slow reading. The writing is gorgeous, there are so much many stories within the story to read and appreciate, and it is lovely spending time with all of the people who are part of those stories.

Every detail was right, every note rang true, and the world of this book felt utterly, utterly real.

Everything comes together beautifully and without a hint of contrivance.

It was a wrench to leave, and I can’t quite believe that I couldn’t go to the Swan Inn and listen to the descendants of the people I have been reading about telling tales of them, telling the tales of this book, telling tales of their own ….

I was spellbound from the first page to the last.

A Year in First Lines

The last month of the year is here, and so it’s time to play a particular game:

“Take the first line of each month’s post over the past year and see what it tells you about your blogging year.”

It’s an idea that started with The Indextrious Reader a few years ago and it really is an interesting way to look back at a year.

So here goes …

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(Artwork by George Lepape)

December

A BOOK FOR RUMER GODDEN DAY: THE BATTLE OF THE VILLA FIORITA (1963)

The opening scene is captivating.

November

HELBECK OF BANNISDALE BY MRS HUMPHREY WARD (1898)

Bannisdale was an old family home in the Lake District, a part of the world that the author knew well and brought to life with lovely and evocative prose.”

October

BROOK EVANS BY SUSAN GLASPELL (1928)

I was very taken with Susan Glaspell’s novel ‘Fidelity’ when I read it, a year or so ago, and because I knew that only that novel and one other were in print,  I thought that I should save that other for a little while, and enjoy the prospect of reading another work by a very fine author.

September

A BOOK FOR MARY STEWART DAY: THIS ROUGH MAGIC (1964)

Since I discovered what a wonderful writer Mary Stewart was – not so many years ago, though my mother had recommended her books many years earlier – I have come to love her writing and I have traveled to many wonderful places by book, in the company of a captivating band of heroines.

August

AN A TO Z TO PICK UP THE THREADS ….

…. because days have flown by at great speed and I have been distracted from the important business of reading and writing about books by professional demands, health niggles and the ongoing demands of living in an house in need of tender loving care.

July

A BOOK FOR ELIZABETH TAYLOR DAY: THE SOUL OF KINDNESS (1964)

I imagine that anyone who picks up this novel will know someone like Flora, the soul of kindness of the title.

June

A SEASONAL COLLECTION: JUNE

“What is one to say about June, the time of perfect young summer, the fulfillment of the promise of the earlier months, and with as yet no sign to remind one that its fresh young beauty will ever fade?”

From ‘Gardens for Small Country Houses’ by Gertrude Jekyll

May

GRANIA: THE STORY OF AN ISLAND BY EMILY LAWLESS (1892)

This tale of a girl who grows up on Inishmaan, the second largest of the three Arran Islands, evokes its heroine, her fellow islanders and the world that they live in quite beautifully.

April

BEAUTY’S HOUR BY OLIVIA SHAKESPEAR (1896)

History has it that Olivia Shakespear was the companion of better remembered men, but she was rather more than that.

March

NOT ALL STORIES ARE MINE TO TELL …

…. and so all I can say is that a few weeks ago life dealt me a blow that I thought I might never recover from.

February

A COLLECTION – OR SHOULD I SAY A PARLIAMENT – OF OWLS

“Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. ”

From ‘Titus Groan’ by Mervyn Peake

January

A BIRTHDAY BOOK OF UNDERAPPRECIATED LADY AUTHORS

A few years ago, when I noticed that the centenary of one of my very favourite underappreciated lady authors was approaching, I hit upon the idea of throwing a party on that day. I did, and it worked beautifully.

….

And that’s it!

I don’t know how it looks to you, but it has stirred memories for me.

Do have a go – it’s a lovely way to look back and I’d love to see your results.

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn (2018)

When this book first caught my eye I picked it up and but it down again, because I thought that the story it had to tell might pull me down at a time when I needed to be lifted up; but a warm recommendation and the news that the author would be appearing at my local literary festival sent me back to the bookshop to buy a copy.

It was a wonderful investment!

A story of people who had more than their fair share of trial, but who fought back by realising what was important in life and living their lives accordingly!

Raynor Winn’s husband was diagnosed with a terminal illness; the couple lost a court case and incurred massive debts that would swallow up everything they owned, because the evidence that they were not liable arrived to late to be admissible in court; and that was why baliffs were hammering on the door to complete the process of taking their farm and livelihood away.

They hid under the stairs, because they didn’t know what else they could do.

‘I was under the stairs when I decided to walk. In that moment, I hadn’t carefully considered walking 630 miles with a rucksack on my back, I hadn’t thought about how I could afford to do it, or that I’d be wild camping for nearly one hundred nights, or what I’d do afterwards. I hadn’t told my partner of thirty-two years that he was coming with me.’

It was mad but it was the only thing they could do to stop being dragged down by the ruin of their past lives, to not undermine friendships by having to accept help and be grateful, and to avoid being a burden and a worry to their two grown-up children.

The idea was sparked by the book ‘500 Mile Walkies’ by Mark Wallington. I haven’t read it but the Man of the House has and he loved it.

Their only income would be £48 per week, they were homeless anyway, so why not walk the south-west coast path?!

The couple harboured their meagre resources to buy a new lightweight tent, a couple of sleeping bags and new rucksacks; and to get themselves to their starting point – Minehead in Somerset.

The walking was gruelling – especially for Moth, who had been advised that the best thing he could do for his condition (corticobasal degeneration or CBD) was to take life slowly and steadily – but as long as they kept moving the couple could forget that they were homeless and be happy that they were doing something together.

They had no money for official campsites, so wild camping was the order of the day, and it wasn’t easy to find a suitable spot each night, or to get up, pack up and be out of the way before anyone could object to them being there in the morning. Their limited budget meant that their usual diet was noodles, tins of tuna, and sweets. It was tough – particularly when they saw visitors using amenities and eating pasties and ice creams – but they endured and they became healthier.

The walk would not be a miracle sure for Moth, but it slowy became clear that it was having a positive effect in his health.

‘The path had given us certainty, a sense of security that came with knowing that tomorrow and the next day and the next we would pack up the tent, put one foot in front of the other and walk.’

Along the way he and his wife saw the best and the worst of human nature. Many people when they heard that they were homeless, or when they saw that they looked shabby and were eating the most basic rations, shunned them, called them names and made unwarranted assumptions. But others were supportive and encouraging, offering food and drink, and offering sensible and useful advice.

All of that gave the author a very real concern for the plight of the homeless.

She wrote beautifully about her emotions, her experiences, and about the path that she and her husband for walking. Sometimes when I read books about the south-west I’m looking out for the places close to home that I know well but that didn’t happen with this book, because I was so caught up in the moment. Reading was rather like hearing an account from a friend who is open and honest, who has a wonderful way with words, and who knows exactly what details to tell, which anecdotes to share to make a good story.

When I heard her speak her voice was exactly as it had been in her book.

There is much that I could share, but I’m just going to say that you should read the book and find out those things that way.

There are highs and low, there are moments to make you smile and moments to make you sigh, in this wonderful true story of homelessness, love and endurance.

A Book for Rumer Godden Day: The Battle of the Villa Fiorita (1963)

The opening scene is captivating.

Two children are walking through an unfamiliar garden, and into an a house. Rumer Godden captured their points of view quite perfectly and he writing was gorgeous – she was so good at houses and gardens. The children see so much that it lovely and that is quite new to them, but as they move indoors it clear that they have a sense of purpose, and it also becomes clear that this story will not be a happy one.

‘The villa was on Lake Garda in northern Italy. ‘But it doesn’t matter where it was, said Hugh afterwards. It might have been anywhere; it was simply a place where two opposing forces were to meet, as two armies meet on foreign soil to fight a battle. ‘ The battle of the Villa Fiorita,’ Caddie called it afterwards and always with an ache of guilt.’

Hugh, aged fourteen, and his sister Caddie, aged eleven, have just arrived in Italy, after a long and difficult journey mainly by train from London. They ran away while their father was overseas for work and the housekeeper was distracted, with the express intention of reuniting their father and mother and rebuilding their family home.

Neither Darrell nor Fanny Clavering had been unhappy in their marriage, but when a film crew came to the village where they lived Fanny began to realise that her life was unfulfilling, that the role of wife and mother was trapping her, and that the world offered so many possibilities that she had never explored. She began an affair with the film’s director – Rob Collett – and the depth of attraction between them was such that they ran away together and her husband divorced her. The lovers settled at the Villa Fiorita, planning to get married once the dust had settled.

Darrell closed up the family home – because he knew that a country house required a wife to manage things – and moved to a modern flat in London with his children and the family’s housekeeper.

It was impossible not to sympathise with the children, who had been presented with their parents’ divorce as a fait accompli, who had been abandoned by their mother, and who had lost the home and the life they loved and been tipped into an unfamiliar new world. I had to be impressed at the way they laid their plans and made their way across Europe; Caddie even selling her beloved pony, Topaz, to provide the necessary capital.

Seeing her children again stirred feelings that Fanny had buried

‘I was going to roll it all up, roll it into a ball that I could keep hidden in my hand, or in my heart. It was to be only Rob, Rob and I, together for the rest of our lives. I had accepted that, then … and across every thought and plan and feeling came this new triumphant song: ‘They ran away. Hugh and Caddie ran away to me.’

Rob was more pragmatic, and insisted that they must be sent home; but when Hugh was struck down by food poisoning he didn’t have the heart to send Caddie – who was so like her mother back alone; and when Darrell suggested that the children stay for a few weeks, until he returned from his travel, the stage was set for a battle.

The introduction of Rob’s daughter, Pia, who had been brought up by her grandmother and was terribly spoilt, exacerbated the situation and unsettled that relationship between brother and sister.

The children were completely caught up in their mission to bring their mother home. They could not – or would not – see that she was so much happier in her new life with her love than she had ever been before; and they failed to see that some of their actions could have serious repercussions.

Rumer Godden moved seamlessly between past and present, between the childish and adult perspectives, balancing everything quite beautifully. She drew the children so well, understanding their world views, their stages in life, and the way they see and deal with the things life throws at them. She understood their parents, and the other adults in their world, just as well; and most importantly she knew that their were no heroes and no villains, just fallible human beings at different stages of life.

I thought of another novel that explored the consequences of divorce for adults and children thirty year before this one – ‘Together and Apart’ by Margaret Kennedy – and I was struck by how little had changed.

The story told in this book was compelling and utterly believable. There was – of necessity – a little more drama and less gradual pressure than real life, but it worked.

I’ve seen concerns expressed about the resolution of the story, but I saw signs of how it would be early in the story, and as the end drew near I realised that it was inevitable.

I’m still thinking about that, thinking about everything that happened, and wondering what happened next.

 

Queens’ Play by Dorothy Dunnett (1964)

This second book of the Lymond Saga opens in 1550, two years after the events described in ‘The Game of Kings’.

Mary of Guise, queen dowager and regent of Scotland is planning a journey to France; to visit her eight-year-old daughter Mary, Queen of Scots, who is being brought up at Henri II’s court as the affianced bride of the Dauphin. She knows that the fate of Scotland is tied up with the fate of its young queen, and her she has been given reason to believe that her child is in danger.

She is right to be concerned.

She knows that there are some very unscrupulous people in and around the French Court and that the English and the Irish in particular would seize any chance to break the alliance between France and Scotland. Queen Mary of England is struggling to contain the Protestant movement and keep her land as a strong Catholic power, and she knows that the alliance will make that more difficult to achieve. The Irish want to end of the English occupation of their country, they need France to help them and they are ready to use any means necessary ….

Francis Crawford of Lymond, newly restored to favour, is the man that the queen dowager wants to accompany her to France, and to uncover any plots against the little Queen. Her advisers counsel against that, they warn her that he would not agree, that he was not biddable, that he would too recognizable to the French; but she is quite certain that he is the best man for the job and she agrees to his terms – that he may carry out the job as he sees fit.

Given such a charge, most men would travel discreetly, live quietly, and observe the court from the sidelines; but that is not Lymond’s way. He sets about winning a place at the very centre of the court, hiding in plain sight,  and putting himself in a position influence people and events – and to reveal the machinations of all of the interested parties. It was intriguing to watch as  Lymond stepped into and between fraught political alliances and schemes, knowing that any one of them could pose a threat to Queen Mary’s life – and that the slightest misstep could herald the end of his own life.

I found the difference in scale and perspective interesting when I compared this book with ‘The Game of Kings.’ On one hand this book was concerned with greater matters – affairs of state and the future of countries rather than one man’s future –  but on the other hand it felt smaller and more enclosed, in the confines of the court rather than moving freely and at will.

That gave a different perspective on Lymond, a different view of his many accomplishments, his skill at managing people and situations, his resourcefulness and the resources he had to draw upon …. but because he was playing a role for most of this book I can’t say that I understand too much more at the end than I did at the beginning, or that I am at all sure where the performance ends and the person behind it begins.

That plot is complex, multi-stranded, and so cleverly constructed. I couldn’t say that I had a good grasp of what was going on, but I was captivated by wonderfully rich and detailed writing; by a wealth of scenes that had different tones and different tempos but were all quite perfectly painted; and the set pieces were dazzling. There’s a near disaster at sea, a stampede of elephants, a wrestling match and – best of all – a moonlit roof-top race that I could quite happily re-read and re-live time and time again.

The court of Henry II was so well evoked; and I loved the cinematic sweep as well as perfectly framed close-ups. There is such a wealth of detail that makes up the bigger picture, I’m sure that I missed things, that a second read will reveal more, but this book lived and breathed and I know that I have to read on, to find out what happens next and understand where this series of books is going.

I was unsettled at first by the loss of so many characters from the first book who I thought would be of continuing importance, and I am not sure that this book – caught up with one particular quest – moved things forward too much and that means that I have to say that I couldn’t love this book as much as I loved ‘The Game of Kings.’

I’m sure that it has a purpose – I think saw seeds being sown – I think I met characters who will move forward,  beyond this story- and it might be that I will appreciate it more when I see its place in the series as a whole.

And I think I need to stop writing and go back to reading ….