The First A to Z of the Year …

How are you coping, in this changed, strange and uncertain world?

We are all fine, but anxiety got the better of me for a while and I have struggled to read, write or interact.

I’m learning to live with the uncertainty, the restrictions and the changes; and finally finding a book that made me care about the character and want to know how their lives would unfold really helped.

One day very soon I will start talking about books again, but before that here is an A to Z to pick up the threads ….

A is for ALDERMAN. My most recent piece of knitting has a simple shape, elevated by a simple but effective stitch pattern.

B is for Business as Usual

B is for BUSINESS AS USUAL by Jane Oliver and Jane Stafford. It is lovely to finally have a copy to keep and to have given back the old library copy from the fiction reserve.

C is for CLARA AMEDROZ. She is the heroine of ‘Belton Park’ by Anthony Trollope, the first novel that really engaged me after a long spell of picking up books and putting them down again.

D is for DOROTHY DUNNETT. My copy of ‘Niccolò Rising’ is on by bedside table, waiting for exactly the right moment to start reading.

E is for THE EIGHTH LIFE by Nino Haratischvili. I checked my library catalogue but there was no sign of a copy in stock or on order, and so I decided that I had to buy a copy.

F is for FINALLY FINDING A USE FOR A SINGLE SKEIN – The pattern Waterlands uses two contrast colours but I am using one lovely varieagated skein and really like the effect.

F is for Finally Finding …

G is for GULL. The limping seagull who visited our garden last year and the year before is back again.

H is for HONNO CLASSICS – I was delighted to find a copy of ‘My Mother’s House’ by Lily Tobias on my last visit to the library before lock-down,

I is for I KNOW THAT WE ARE LUCKY to have a view of Mounts Bay and good lovely places to walk close to home, but the thing I miss more than anything else right now is being able to go further afield, to Red River, to Hayle Towans, to Madron Carn, to Chapel Carn Brea …

J is for JUST ONE LOOK – I’m just a couple of episodes in on ‘All 4’ and I am intrigued.

M is for Maeve Kerrigan

L is for LESLEY DUNCAN. I looked her up after seeing her on a BBC singer-songwriters programme and I was disappointed to find very little available online and silly prices being charged. I don’t know what prompted me to look again but I did and I found that two career-spanning compilations has been released.

M is for MAEVE KERRIGAN. Her new investigation, and other developments in Jane Casey’s new book, are making me so eager to keep turning the pages.

N is for NEWLYN – I listened to Dark, Salt, Clear: Life in a Cornish Fishing Town by Lamorna Ash on Radio 4 , and though I had some reservations by the time the book ended I was captivated – and I really want to read the book.

O is for OFFICE. I’m working full time from home, at the table in our Aga room.

N is for Newlyn

P is for PROMENADE. Resurfacing had to be suspended when lock-down began, the barricades are still up, but we noticed this morning that a small opening had been left so that we can at least go to the rail and look down at the sea. Thank you Cormac!

Q is for QUATUOR EBÉNÈ – a recent addition to my life’s soundtrack.

R is for RENEWALS. I haven’t read a single library book since the library closed and all of my loans were extended for three months.

S is for SCRABBLE. I have had an excellent run, I am currently leading 10-1, but there are still many matches to pay before our in-house tournament is concluded, on the Man of the House’s birthday in August.

V if for Vaughan

T is for TWO SCREENS. My adjustment to working at home has been easier than I thought it might be, but there are times when I look at my laptop and miss my usual two screen set up .

U is for UNPACKING. When I packed up a good number of my books so that our spare bedroom could be refurbished and bookshelves built I didn’t think it would be for very long, but it may be a good while know before the carpenter can begin work.

V is for VAUGHAN. It’s a pattern that I really want to knit but I have to think about colours first; because though I love the designer’s choice I know that it wouldn’t suit me,

W is for WHEN A PROJECT BECOMES A BURDEN. I took down 100 Years of Books project page for a while, because I began to feel that there was nothing I really wanted to read right now that would fill one of the vacant years, but once I had done that I felt much more relaxed about the whole thing and I read a wonderful book to fill the very first year.

Z is for ZZZZ

X is for (E)XHIBITION. Had you noticed that the Paris Museums have made a collection of more than 100,000 artworks freely available online?

Y is for THE YEARS. I read a sample of Annie Ernaux’s book and then I really couldn’t resist buying a copy.

Z is for ZZZZZZ. Briar had a lovely walk around the boating pond this morning, and now she is sound asleep.

The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas (1850)

‘Contempt for flowers is an offence against God. The lovelier the flower, the greater the offence in despising it. The tulip is the loveliest of all flowers. So whoever despised the tulip offends God immeasurably.’

In 1672, Cornelius and Johan de Witt, brothers and prominent citizens of Holland were charged with treason and sentenced to exile. Cornelius had been tortured in the hope that he would confess to plotting with the French king, but he said not a word. He was guilty but he was safe in the knowledge that the evidence was safely hidden. 

His silence did not save them. The authorities, and William of Orange in particular, wanted rid of the troublesome pair and so they manipulated the situation. The two brothers were lynched by an angry mob early on their journey to their place of exile.

The opening chapters of the story were a little more difficult to follow than I had expected, but I kept going because it was Dumas, because I understood that this was real history, because I knew there would be tulips, because I had read much that was positive about this book, and because I’d had in mind for my 100 Years of Books for quite some time.

I’m glad that I did.

The story moves to Cornelius van Baerle, a wealthy young man who lived quietly in the country and devoted his life to his tulips. He studied them, so that he could grow the very best flowers and develop new varieties. When the Haarlem Tulip Society offered a prize for the first black tulip presented to them, Cornelius set to work. Not for the prize, not for the glory, but for the chance to introduce such a flower into the world.

He didn’t know that his neighbour, Isaac Boxtel, had the same ambition; or that his motives were self-serving and that he was prepared to go to any lengths to win and to ensure that his neighbour did not. 

Cornelius van Baerle was the godson of Cornelius de Witt, but he had followed his father’s advice to steer clear of politics; and that may be why when his godfather asked him to be the custodian of a packet of letters he accepted readily and put it away safely. 

His neighbour didn’t know that, but he had seen the visitor and when he heard the news of the murders he denounced his rival to his authorities. The packet was discovered just where Cornelius had put it, and his protestations that he had no knowledge of the contents were greeted with disbelief.  He had just enough time to hide his three black tulip bulbs in his clothing before he was taken to the same prison where his godfather had been held.

Rosa, the beautiful and spirited daughter of Gryphus, his brutal jailor, came to love Cornelius. She feared that he loved tulips more than her, but she loved him more than enough to do everything she could to help him to grow his black tulip in secret. He did love her, but he knew that his future was uncertain and so he was unwilling to say or do anything that would confirm his feelings.

Neither of them knew that Boxtel was close at hand, plotting and scheming to capture the bulbs.

Cornelius knew that he might not live long enough to see his black tulip flower.

He thought of the beautiful tulips which he would see from heaven above, at Ceylon, or Bengal, or elsewhere, when he would be able to look with pity on this earth, where John and Cornelius de Witt had been murdered for having thought too much of politics, and where Cornelius van Baerle was about to be murdered for having thought too much of tulips.

The story that plays out is captivating,  it is  wonderfully readable, and this short novel holds a great deal more than most other books with similar proportions. Every character, every incident, every dialogue, has its purpose; and the plot, a lovely fiction spun around real history, is very well built by a very fine craftsman.

There are echoes of his other work, it is recognisably his work, but it is also quite distinctive.

There is a beautifully handled romance, there is wonderful suspense and intrigue, there is a nice dash of comedy, and there is a race to present the black tulip that leaves the outcome for all concerned in doubt to the very end.

The conclusion ties all of the plot strands together, and a little glimpse of what the future held was a lovely final touch.

A Walk around the Virago Art Gallery

I’ve always loved putting together collections of Virago cover art, and I thought it was time to put together another.

There really are so many lovely artworks to see.

The covers are lovely, but the paintings come alive when they are released from their green frames. I’ve learned that often images have had to be cropped, and that sometimes that have been re-coloured, or altered a little in some other way to fit that frame. That may be the best way to make a good cover for a book, but it shouldn’t be the only way we see the work of these artists.

There is not theme this time, I have simply chosen the artworks that caught my eye when I looked around the exhibits that haven’t been put on show yet.

I hope that you will enjoy looking at them.

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This is one of my favourite cover paintings

‘The Red Feather’ by Augustus John

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‘The True Heart’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner (#3)

Sukey is an orphan, in service, the lowest of the low. It is 1873, and in her first position as a servant-girl on a farm in the Essex Marshes, she meets Eric–gentle, simple, a ‘holy fool’. The lovers are parted by Eric’s rich mother, ashamed of her idiot son. But nothing can deter Sukey. Only Queen Victoria, she feels, can help, so she sets off to see her. Extraordinary things happen on this heroic journey, but Sukey’s simple love and courage carry her to final victory–reunion with her beloved Eric and love triumphant.

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I have found this artist’s work on one of the earliest and one of the latest green VMCs

‘Night & Day’ by Roland Penrose

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‘Blue Skies’ and ‘Jack and Jill’ by Helen Hodgman (#309)

Blue Skies – The Tasmanian sun flashes upon weather-boarded houses and a holiday-brochure beach. Early-morning hoovering gives way to empty afternoons when the clock always says three and women and children huddle together in steaming heaps by the sea. But this stagnation will be shattered – by incest, suicide and murder. ‘A born writer with a style and an elan which are all her own’ – Auberon Waugh.

Jack and Jill – While Douggie is away, his wife dies; his grief-slimed and hungry young daughter Jill gives a kookaburra laugh on his return four days later. Thereafter, they live hand-to-mouth amidst the dogs, dust and flies of the New South Wales outback. Then Jack arrives on their doorstep. Like the nursery rhyme, it is the start of no ordinary romance. ‘It’s ferociously funny to the end. Immensely stimulating, like a small dose of strychnine’. – The Times

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This painting really didn’t speak to me until I saw it without its green frame

‘Portrait of a Village Woman’ by George Clausen

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‘Daughter of Earth’ by Agnes Smedley (#72)

This lyrical autobiographical novel tells the story of Marie Rogers, born into harsh rural poverty in northern Missouri at the end of the last century. Hers is a family nurtured in poverty-her father a charming but shiftless itinerant worker, her mother undernourished and overworked. In a world where the choices for a woman are marriage or prostitution, Marie is fiercely determined to choose neither. Struggling to educate herself, haunted by the family she leaves behind, Marie’s restless nature cannot reconcile sexual desire with love and comradeship. Marriage ends in divorce, political involvement in imprisonment, a passionate love affair in betrayal. But through all this Marie finds herself-the past conquered, a new future ahead.

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This is the only one of the author’s novels I haven’t read

‘Spanish Landscape with Mountains’ by Dora Carrington

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‘Mandoa Mandoa’ by Winifred Holtby (#88)

Mandoa is a small African state: at its head a Virgin Princess, conceiving (immaculately) further princesses. The old traditions remain undisturbed until Mandoa’s Lord High Chamberlain, Safi Talal, visits Addis Ababa. There he discovers baths and cocktail shakers, motor cars and the cutlery from Sheffield, telephones and handkerchiefs. In short, he has seen an apocalyptic vision – a new heaven and a new earth.

Meanwhile in England it is 1931. Maurice Durrant, youngest director of Prince’s Tours Limited, has won North Donnington for the Conservatives. His socialist brother Bill is unemployed and their friend Jean Stanbury loses her job on “The Byeword”, a radical weekly paper. How all three, and others too, find themselves in Mandoa for the wedding of the Royal Princess to her Arch-archbishop is hilariously told in this wonderful satirical novel, first published in 1933.

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A book that has been reissued recently with a striking new cover

‘Harlem, 1934’ by Edward Burra

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‘The Street’ by Ann Petry (#200)

It is New York City, 1944. Leaving a broken marriage, Lutie Johnson and nine-yer-old Bub, move to a rundown tenement in 116th Street, where the heavy sour smell of garbage lingers in its dingy airless rooms. Determined to make a proper home for her son, she struggles to earn money, singing in a nightclub. But Lutie is Black, and ‘too good-looking to be decent’ and slowly she becomes trapped in a vicious network of corruption. This powerful story of the ghetto nightmare of Harlem, by an important exponent of the Richard Wright school of protest fiction, was first published in 1946.

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A bestseller from the 1920s

‘Ophelia’ by Annie Ovenden

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‘The Constant Nymph’ by Margaret Kennedy (#121)

Teresa is the daughter of a brilliant bohemian composer, Albert Sanger, who with his “Circus” of precocious children, slovenly mistress, and assorted hangers-on lives in a rambling chalet high in the Austrian Alps. Thin, childish, green-eyed, with an indomitably eccentric taste in clothes, Teresa is “unbalanced, untaught and fatally warm-hearted”. At fourteen she has already fallen in love with Lewis Dodd, a gifted composer like her father. Confidently she awaits maturity (and Lewis). But this longed-for destiny is shattered by her father’s sudden death: Lewis is drawn away by Tessa’s beautiful cousin Florence. However, neither his marriage nor Tessa’s exile to an English boarding school can break the spell the gods have placed on Lewis and his nymph. Tessa remains constant, her splendid heart all too ready for the rewards that love so inevitably brings.

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A very good match of author and image, I think

‘Disappointed Love’ by Frank Danby

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‘Gone to Earth’ by Mary Webb (#17)

Hazel Woodus is a creature of the wild. Daughter of a Welsh gypsy and a beekeeper, she is happiest living in her forest cottage in the remote Shropshire hills, where she is at one with the winds and the seasons, and protector and friend of the wild animals she loves. Like Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Hazel Woodus has a beauty and innocence hat is an irresistible magnet to men. Edward Marston, the gentle local minister, offers her human companionship and love. Jack Reddin, the local squire, awakens her to the deeper, more physical elements of human nature. Blinded by passion, both of these men fail to comprehend Hazel’s essence. Like any natural being, she cannot be harnessed; her dark fate unfolds relentlessly.

* * * * * * *

That’s the last painting in this little exhibition, but I have others in mind for another show.

Do let me know if you have any particular favourite cover paintings, or any suggestions for future exhibitions.

The Forgotten Smile by Margaret Kennedy (1961)

We have been having some long overdue building and decorating work done, and one of the consequence of that has been that I have had to pack a good number of my books away. While I was going through the difficult process of deciding which books I could part with for a few months, a book by Margaret Kennedy caught my eye, and I realised that I hadn’t read any of her work for a very long time.

That had been deliberate, because I only have two novels left and I hate the idea of running out, but once the idea of reading them had lodged in my head I couldn’t shake it our again; and the idea of visiting a Greek island while the weather raged outside was simply irresistible.

The Forgotten Smile is Margaret Kennedy’s penultimate novel, and it is mainly set on the island of Keritha, 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.

Doctor Challoner is an elderly academic, and he is in Greece and on his way to Keritha to collect an inheritance from his aunt and uncle. His grand-father’s second wife had been Greek, she and her two children had never really felt at home in England, and so when her husband died she took her children home. Freddie and Edith had lived there for all of their lives, happily and rather unconventionally. Though Doctor Challoner had no feelings about them and no interest in their home or their island, he was set on recovering certain family heirlooms.

While he is on his way, he encounters Selwyn Potter, a former student, who was academically brilliant, good-natured, but socially awkward. Doctor Challoner wasn’t overly pleased to see him, he didn’t think to ask what he was doing there or why he had become a school-teacher, but as he could not speak modern Greek he took him along to act as his interpreter.

The sky was dazzling and the sea was a very dark blue shot through with streaks of green and bronze like a peacock’s tail.  The distant islands, scattered about the horizon, were pale lilac and pink in the triumphant light.

When the two men reached their destination, Selwyn was surprised to be greeted by Kate Benson, whose children he had known at school and who he had always considered to be the best of mothers. She remembered him somewhat less fondly, as the clumsy young man who had broken her coffee table, but each would both discover that the other had an unexpected journey to reach that particular point in the world and in their life.

The two histories that unravel are both expected and unexpected.

Kate felt disregarded by her husband and underappreciated by her children. It might be true that she had not handled their transition from children to adults with lives and relationships of their own as well as she might, but even if that as the case they had judged he harshly and thoughtlessly. That was why she decided to do something that she had always wanted to do – she went on a cruise. It as not a great success but it took her to Keritha. She went for a walk while the rest of her fellow travellers sat on the beach, she met some old school-friends – Freddie and Edith Challoner; they invited her to stay – and she did. A visit home showed her that her absence had consequences that she had not foreseen, and that maybe that was no longer her place in the world.

Selwyn had thought that he had found his place in the world. He had never thought that he would but he did, and then he lost almost everything through no fault of his own.

He had been, she perceived, too happy for safety.No refuge was left to him in a world which had completely disintegrated.

These two stories of separation and loss, rediscovery and recovery, are set against a very different story.

Keritha was a tiny island, away from the tourist routes and largely untouched by the modern world. The old ways still prevailed,  it was pagan and it was primitive, and that gave it its own particular magic. Alfred and Edith appreciated that, Kate and Selwyn appreciated that, but Doctor Challoner would have none of it; because though he loved the classics he had no interest in anything at all beyond his chosen sphere. He considered the island backward and the islanders barbarous; he just wanted to collect his inheritance and leave, but on Keritha – and particularly for the heir of the man who had been dubbed ‘Lord Freddie’ the world just didn’t work like that!

In the early stages of the book my overriding thought was that I was reading another very good Margaret Kennedy novel. Her writing was elegant and evocative, she  was clear-sighted, she was psychologically acute, and she made these characters and their worlds – both Keritha and England –  live and breathe.

I was particularly taken with the two leads, Selwyn and Kate. I knew these people, not well because Margaret Kennedy is an author who shows rather than introduces her characters. I understood them and I empathised with them.

There is a little comedy here, among the more serious and complicated emotions, and though it isn’t something I usually associate with her work I have to say that she handled it very well.

As I turned more pages I my thinking shifted, because I was so very impressed by one thing : how cleverly she was gradually revealing different aspects of her characters and their lives. I didn’t think about how she might end this story, but when I reached the end I thought that it was exactly right. It was a final chapter for this book but not a final chapter in the lives that were illuminated in its pages, and I appreciated it was left open with just a little suggestion of what might happen next.

‘The Forgotten Smile’ is both recognisably Margaret Kennedy and distinctive in her body of work; and thought I cannot say that it is her very best work I can say that there are things her that she did as well – and maybe even better – than she had before.

Bel Lamington by D E Stevenson (1961)

When you want to escape into a book that is warm and engaging, as I did a little while ago, you could do well to turn to the work of D E Stevenson.

You need to choose carefully, because her books are rather variable, and think that I chose well when I chose this one. I warmed to the heroine from the first, and I appreciated that the book held many of the ingredients that D E Stevenson used regularly – and very well – mixed with more that enough other ingredients to make it distinctive.

This isn’t her best book; it isn’t a book that would stand up to very much scrutiny; but it is mid 20th century romantic fiction done rather well.

Bel was orphaned when she was just three years-old; when her mother and father died in car accident; but she had a happy childhood with an aunt who loved and cared for her. Sadly, her aunt died when Bel had only just finished growing up, and the small income that they lived on died with her. That meant that Bel had to start earning her own living, and so she trained as a secretary.

Her first job was as a typist in a London shipping firm, Copping, Wills and Brownlee, and she was quickly promoted to the position of secretary to junior partner, Ellis Brownlee.

She was promoted because she worked diligently, she watched everything that was going on and thought about it, and she took a genuine interest in what she was doing and the work of the company. Sadly – but maybe inevitably – that made her unpopular with other female staff members, who all seemed to be marking time until they didn’t have to earn their own living, or bitterly accepting that they had to work and doing as little as possible. Miss Goudge, who oversaw them all, would be a terrible thorn in Bel’s side, and she really had no idea how to deal with that.

The author had a good grasp of the dynamics of an office, there are characters and incidents that I know will ring a bell for anyone who has worked in an office, and I felt for Bel as she succeeded and as she struggled.

Away from work, Bel was lonely. She had come to London knowing no one at all, and she hadn’t found a way of making friends. She spent all her evenings and weekend in her small flat, and the tiny rooftop garden she has created outside her top floor window became her greatest passion.

A handsome young artist named Mark discovered Bel’s garden when he when he wad out on the roofs outside his own top floor studio-flat. Bel took the arrival of a strange man in her home rather more calmly than I would have, but I put that down to her background and her upbringing. He was charmed, they became friends, and that led to his painting of Bel’s portrait.

Mark invites her to parties, takes her on outings, and for a while it seems that Bel’s lonely life is over. But Mark’s interest waned as quickly as it had grown up,  and he moved on without a backward glance. Bel wasn’t quite heartbroken, but she was disappointed and unhappy at the prospect of returning to her solitary, lonely life.

Luckily she was persuaded to attend the unveiling of her portrait, and it was there that she bumped into an old school friend, and they quickly discovered that they were kindred spirits.

Louise was only child of a widowed doctor, she had no need to earn her own living, and she was every bit as happy to have Bel come and stay with her as Bel was to escape London and stay with her in the country. Her father was delighted with the friendship; not just because he thought that Bel would be a good influence on his warm-hearted but rather flightly child, but because he was a kind and thoughtful man who was pleased that he and his daughter would be able to help and a young woman who wasn’t having the easiest time of it.

The drawing of this friendship was lovely.

Louise was disappointed that Bel couldn’t join her and her father on their annual holiday in Scotland, but she understood that her friend couldn’t take time off while  Mr Brownlee has left on an extended overseas business trip; and so she was greatly surprised when her friend did come to join her.

Something had gone terribly wrong, and Bel had fled.

Scotland was a wonderful refuge, but would it offer Bel a new start or would travel south with Louise?

The Scottish scenes and characters were well done, but I found nothing that I hadn’t found in more than one of the author’s books before.

This book had a well drawn cast of characters, well evoked characters and situations, and a lovely heroine.

I enjoyed that set-up more than the rather predictable playing-out; but the ending was exactly right and I will probably pick up the sequel when I want to to escape into a book of the kind that D E Stevenson did particularly well.

Checkmate by Dorothy Dunnett (1975)

When I reached the end of this book, the sixth and final volume of the Lymond Chronicles, I was emotionally drained and somewhat bereft, I had a head full of thoughts but little idea of what to say. I’m not sure that I have much more idea now, but I am going to start writing and see what happens.

I was lost not just because I had reached the end of a series of books, but because the world of that series of books was so vividly realised and the drama that was playing out in that world was so captivating that I have no choice by the be pulled right in; and because the depth and detail was such that I knew I hadn’t seen and understood everything. I will go back one day; I have known that for a long time, and my return became more and more certain.

This sixth book opens not long after the fifth book closed.

Lymond is in France, having been propelled their not by his own wish but by the wishes of friends who knew that the course he planned himself – a return to Russia – would inevitably lead to the destruction of his life. He was still set on that course, but the French were well aware of his talents and his value to them, and so a choice was set before him.

He could stay for one year in the service of France, after which he would be granted that annulment of his ‘marriage of convenience’ that he had been seeking for some time; and if he chose to reject that offer, the French would see that the annulment would never be granted.

He chose to stay.

This opening led into a glorious cavalcade of dramatic scenes; from a spooky and unsettling spell in the chamber of the Dame de Doubtance; to the unveiling of a character in disguise that I was so happy to see again; to a chase that echoed another in ‘Queens’ Play’ and that told me how far the characters had come and their relationships had evolved ….

I could go on, but I don’t want to say to much to anyone who is still on their journey through this series of books or to anyone who is contemplating starting that journey.

The time and place for this final act was perfectly chosen, and worked so well for those individual scenes and for the story as a whole. The court was preparing for the marriage of their Dauphin to Mary Queen of Scots – who had appeared as an infant in the very first book if this series – and the military was fending off the English, who were understandably concerned about the strengthening alliance between their neighbours to the south and to the north.

There are still two main strands to this story; two continuing quests:

  • Phillipa Somerville was still working to uncover and untangle the history of the Crawford family, in the belief that truth and honesty were always the best thing. The evidence that she uncovered seemed contradictory, a rational explanation seemed elusive, and she would be led to a very dark place that might destroy and would certainly damage her….
  • Meanwhile, Francis Crawford, continued to try to loosen the ties that bound him to others, to find his own place in the world, and was quite prepared – and quite willing – to die in the attempt rather than compromise. He found though that he had to do everything that he could for the people who loved and had served him, and that maybe there might be a way that he could do the right thing without having to break those ties ….

The evolution of these two complex and engaging characters over the course of six books – her from a child into a capable and accomplished young woman; and him on a journey far to difficult to neatly summarise – has been an utter delight.

Every significant character left alive was dawn into this final story. I found that I gained new understanding of some of them, that I wished to have seen rather more of certain others, and that there were one or two who were compromised just a little to allow the story to play out as it had to.

I want to say about this last book the same thing that I said about the first –  I was captivated, I had to keep turning the pages, and it was lovely to be able to listen to someone so much cleverer than me, who was so articulate, who had so much to say about a subject that she loved, talking at very great length …

Her quality of writing; her world building; her depth of characterisation; her story telling; I found so much to love.

My favourite moments in this book were the most wonderful declaration and the realisation that I had been held in suspense to the very last page, suspecting but not really knowing how this grandest of stories would end.

I would love to know what happened next, I would love to read that stories that must have been happening before and after and to one side of the stories in these six books; but all I can do is go back and read then again, because I am quite sure that there are things that I have missed, I know that there are things I don’t quite understand, and I am certain that there is more to be revealed on a second reading.

Even if there wasn’t, I would want to step back into this world and live though this glorious telling of the life and times of Francis Crawford of Lymond and Sevigny again .

 

Not at Home by Doris Langley Moore (1948)

Have you every been in any of these situations?

  • You have been upset by something of yours being damaged or lost, and the person responsible makes you feel you are overreacting because it was ‘only a thing’?
  • It’s late, you really need to sleep, but people are making a noise and you know that if you say anything at all you will be cast as the dull person who is spoiling the party?
  • There is something you want to do that you know is fair and reasonable, but you are reluctant to act because you know that if you do it you will be made to feel that you were acting unfairly and selfishly?

Situations like that are  at the heart of this book, and they are brilliantly portrayed 

Late in the summer of 1945, Miss Elinor MacFarren was living alone in her family home. She was middle aged – on the cusp of elderly – and she was content with her life. She followed in a family tradition of writing about botany, and she was respected in that field; and had a fine collection of botanical prints and antiques. It was because her finances were just a little stretched that she decided that it would be a good idea to rent out part of the house.

Mrs Antonia Bankes presented herself as the perfect tenant. She expressed warm admiration for the house and for Miss MacFarren’s lovely things and promised to love and care for them as she did; she said that, as the wife of an American with the occupation forces in Europe, she would be bringing little with her; and she professed a love of quiet domestic pursuits and housework. 

It seemed too good to be true – and it was!

Miss MacFarren found her hall full of packing cases a day before Mrs Bankes was due to move in; the next day a merry band of ladies came to help Mrs Bankes move in, and took over the ‘shared’ spare room; not long after that, before Miss MacFarren began to spot damages ….

Nothing in the landlady’s experience had equipped her to deal with such a tenant!

Mrs Bankes presented herself as being quite helpless, she was utterly charming, and she made promises that rang with sincerity. 

Miss MacFarren was confounded and exasperated!

The story follows her as she first tries to cope with the situation, then she tries to take control of the situation and finally tries to evict her nightmare tenant. It sounds simple – and it is and it isn’t – because the story is so cleverly plotted, because actions often had unexpected consequences, and because she learned a lot and changed somewhat as the result of her experiences.

As her antique dealer friend, Harriet, who had introduced Mrs Bankes when she though her one of her best customer and later learned that she was one of her worst, said:

“If you used to have one fault one tiny fault, my dear, it was that you were becoming – no let me say you were in danger of becoming smug. This Bankes situation has been a great ordeal, but its done you all the good in the world. It’s humanized you. It’s broadened your mind. You’re a far more adaptable woman the you were this time last year.”

The story is filled out by a fine and diverse supporting cast, including Mrs Manders, the daily help, who was charmed into doing a great deal of work for Mrs Bankes, until she buckled under the load; Dr Wilmot, who Miss MacFarren had thought of as a rival in her field but who became a good friend and co-conspirator; Mr Bankes, who won over Miss MacFarren with his wry acknowledgement of his wife’s ‘weaknesses’ and his genuine interest in her field; and Miss Maxine Albert, a friend of Miss MacFarren’s nephew who she took time to warm too but who would become her most valuable co-conspirator. 

Doris Langley Moore  wrote very well, she told an engaging, distinctive and unpredictable tale, but I have to address one concern.

A fox terrier appeared in the story, and the dog came to an unhappy end. It was signposted and it wasn’t gratuitously described, my problem was that  hardly anyone cared and those that did care weren’t as upset as that should have been.

That fixed my opinions of certain characters more that they should have been fixed, and it made me feel the lack of an emotional side to the story.

But Miss MacFarren was an unexpectedly wonderful heroine, and I was with her every step of the way.

The Key by Patricia Wentworth (1945)

In a small English town, a man stands waiting for the lights to change so that he can cross the street and catch his train home. He spots a tea room and, though he knows he will miss his train, he is tired and thirsty and so he goes in search of refreshment.

As he steps through the doorway he is dazzled by a bright light. A man passes him and he is sure that he has seen a ghost from his past. He turns on his heel, all thoughts of tea forgotten, but the man – the ghost – is nowhere to be seen.

He walks to the station, catches a later train and makes his way home.

The man who he saw recognised him, and that would have dreadful consequences.

The opening scene of this eighth Miss Silver novel is a lovely, suspenseful piece of writing, quite unlike anything I have found in any of Patricia Wentworth’s books before.

Michael Harsh died that night.

The inquest concluded that he had died by his own hand. Because he had lost his daughter and his wife, and because his work on the development of a new explosive was complete. A gun was found by his side at the church organ that he often played, the church was locked, and a church key was found in Michael’s pocket.

Sir George Rendel of the War Office disagrees with the verdict, because he knew the man, because he knew how hard he had been working, and because he died the day before he was to hand over his results. He had a young man in his department who had relations living in the the same village, and so he sent him down to make discreet enquiries.

It was soon established that Michael Harsh had been murdered, and that his murderer probably lived in the village. DCI Lamb and DS Abbott were assigned to the investigation and they made a swift arrest. Friends and neighbours were certain that they had the wrong man, one of them was acquainted with Miss Silver, and so she was invited to make discreet enquiries while she was the house guest of an ‘old friend’ ….

The plot that follows is both intriguing and entertaining, and it has it is enhanced by an interesting cast of characters. This is a wonderfully human drama – the possibility of a locked room mystery is dismissed early on and the espionage angle is understated – and that is good thing because that is what Patricia Wentworth did particularly well, and I am not sure that she would have been as good at those other things.

It was lovely to see Miss Silver doing what she does best – talking to people quite naturally and drawing things out of them that they might not have thought were significant, or that they might not have wanted to mention to the police – and the village setting was a nice change. I was also glad to see that she, the police and the other investigators work very well together – for though she might use her position as an elderly lady to her advantage she was never less than professional. And, of course, she knew that giving the police all of the credit and keeping her name out of the papers was the best thing she could do for her future career.

There is a romance in every book and the one in this book was nicely done, but a more complex relationship between two older characters, brought to light by the investigation and beautifully handled by Miss Silver, was rather more interesting.

The war time setting is nicely evoked, the tone is exactly right, and all of the things that regular readers might expect to find are present and correct.

I couldn’t work out who the murderer was for much of the book, but I did settle on the right person well before the end. That wasn’t a problem, because I read the Miss Silver books to watch her at work and to watch the different stories play out, not just to solve the puzzle.

(Ideally, every mystery I read would have an intriguing puzzle and engaging characters, but of a story has to be tilted one way I would always want it tilted towards the characters.)

I found much to love in this book, but I did think that the setting up was stronger than the playing out, and Miss Silver was present at the denouement rather than being the driving force behind it.

That is why I have to say that this is a strong entry in the series – not the very best but more than good enough for me to be eager to start the next book.

 

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (1862)

There are probably very few people who have never read this very big book but believe that they have a good understanding of what it is all about; thanks to a hit musical; films, both with and without music; and a recent BBC television series, adapted by a rather famous screenwriter.

I was one of them, and I even gave my copy away, because it is such a very big book and because there were so many other books that I hadn’t read that I knew even less about.

The time came though when I began to wonder if I had done the right thing. I saw some wonderfully positive comments from a year-long read-along, and as I have read some other big classics that I thought I would never read over the last few years, I began to think that I really should tackle this one too, and that it would be a wonderful way to fill the 1862 hole in my 100 Years of Books Project.

I always meant that to make me read the big classics and the well-read authors I had always meant to read but hadn’t – yet. I’d had some major successes. I was so taken with ‘Anna Karenina’ that I had to read ‘War and Peace’ too, and this is the project that made me finally understand why so many people love Anthony Trollope …

That is why I invested in a new copy Les Misérables.  I worked my way through it, slowly and steadily; and I am very glad that I did. The adaptations did well at condensing a big book, but the big book itself is so much deeper and richer.

It explores real history through the intersecting lives of a wide-ranging cast of characters

There is a freed convict, Jean Valjean, who determines to reform after being saved by the Bishop of Digne, but who will be haunted by his past for the rest of his life; there is Javert, the policeman who is determined to see him rightfully punished according to the law; there is a woman Fantine, whose life has been hard and who will entrust the care of her illegitimate daughter, Cosette, to Jean Valjean; there is Marius, who falls in love with Cosette, and whose friends draw him into the uprising of 1832; there is an amoral and self-serving man named Thénardier, who betrayed Fantine’s trust and who was credited with saving the life of Marius’s father on the field of Waterloo, though he was in fact a scavenging thief who roused him as he looted what he thought was a corpse.

Hugo made these characters, and a great many others who pass through his story, live and breathe; and he wrote with beauty, with authority, with command of his subject, in a way that made me think of the finest of teachers.

It was clear that he loved the city of Paris, and that he understood the importance of home of having a place in the world.

So long as you go and come in your native land, you imagine that those streets are a matter of indifference to you; that those windows, those roofs, and those doors are nothing to you; that those walls are strangers to you; that those trees are merely the first encountered haphazard; that those houses, which you do not enter, are useless to you; that the pavement that you tread are merely stones. Later on, when you are no longer there, you perceive that the streets are dear to you; that you miss those roofs, those doors; and that those walls are necessary to you, those trees are well beloved by you; that you entered those houses which you never entered, every day, and that you have left a part of your heart, of your blood, of your soul, in those pavements.

Hugo had much to say about many things, but I think that this was the most important:

Is there not in every human soul, was there not in the soul of Jean Valjean in particular, a first spark, a divine element, incorruptible in this world, immortal in the other, which good can develop, fan, ignite, and make to glow with splendour, and which evil can never wholly extinguish?

The story is compelling, the writing is brilliant, the major themes are profound; and that made it easy for me to forgive lengthy digressions, extraordinary coincidences and the second generation of character being not quite as interesting as the first.

There is much joy to be found in details, and I have marked many and must share this one.

M. Mabeuf’s political opinion consisted in a passionate love for plants, and, above all, for books. Like all the rest of the world, he possessed the termination in ist, without which no one could exist at that time, but he was neither a Royalist, a Bonapartist, a Chartist, an Orleanist, nor an Anarchist; he was a bouquinist, a collector of old books. He did not understand how men could busy themselves with hating each other because of silly stuff like the charter, democracy, legitimacy, monarchy, the republic, etc., when there were in the world all sorts of mosses, grasses, and shrubs which they might be looking at, and heaps of folios, and even of 32mos, which they might turn over.

Much has been written about this book, by people more erudite and articulate than me, and so I will just add that I am very glad I invested in a second copy and that I wouldn’t rule out reading it again one day.