Redemption by Alice May, the third book in “The House that Sat Down” trilogy – the end or a new beginning?

 

The house fell down in part one, the rebuilding of the house and the writer began in the second part, and in book three many strands come together. Alice May is a painter, yet the trauma of the family house falling down and the associated disasters meant that she had a long break from the creative outlet that she loved. In this volume she is painting and creating pictures with a will, but the problem of Mortimer the mortgage is causing difficulties. Having had to take out a huge mortgage in order to pay back the extra costs of the rebuild, Alice and Beloved Husband are working to earn sufficient money. Worse still, they will have to try to sell the house which is now in perfect order in its beautiful setting in order to pay back the money used to set it right. The pressure of this together with missing the two older daughters Chaos and Logic is telling on the author, and in at least one of the time sections she is persuaded to make changes in her life. Belonging to the local Women’s Institute leads her into strange performances, and she is also thrown into the company of brilliant women who offer challenges. Once more I am pleased to have had the opportunity to read and review one of these lively books.

 

As in the first two books the writer’s style is witty, charming and keeps moving through the minor incidents of contemporary life, such as waiting in the Post Office queue in embarrassing company. It is genuinely funny in so many respects, as the sons, still referred to as the Barbarians, have mock fights and battles at all times. The writer’s inner voice leads her into all sorts of trouble, and reflects the advice of her loved ones to try to exploit her creative talents. She is put under pressure to do a talk to a group found by her mother, and it is her preparation and fear of this challenge that pushes her narrative. She tries to get into an exercise class but is foiled by timetable confusions, with funny repercussions. Skelly the skeleton is still very much in evidence, and it is in the attempt to hide him from potential house purchasers that Alice starts more local rumours. She is suddenly seized by the urge to write her story down, and is compelled to spend many hours sat at an ancient laptop creating a manuscript. When it is finished her daughters put pressure on her to combine her offer to the group as writer, artist and speaker, and this is the background to the present set of books.

 

I have enjoyed these books; Alice May has a personal and enjoyable writing style which has made for a well paced trilogy with a lot of humour. It is very revealing of contemporary family life in a realistic way, where the children are not saintly but equally not not disturbed and causing real trouble.  The emergence of the author from her family is fascinating, showing a balance between the growth in independence of young people as they become adults, but also their familiar reliance on their parents and siblings for support. These three books are the story of a house, but really the story of a family which values each member and derives much humour, entertainment and support not only from a building, but also a family network that can withstand so much.        

Playing Jane Austen by Rosina Filippi – A British Library reprint of a 1895 book of plays from the novels

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The subtitle of this small book is “Parlour Plays for Drawing Room Performance”, but it is a  book that can be really enjoyed even if you have no drawing room or intention of putting on any plays. It is essentially a book of Austen’s greatest hits, or at least the best of the duologues from four of her novels. Originally in published 1895, this beautifully produced edition of the plays from the British Library includes lovely line drawings from Margaret Fletcher. The Preface highlights the true comedy that lies within Austen’s writings, and these seven little plays reveal the confrontations, conversations and proposals that are so memorable. While there are notes of costumes, these set the visual scene in revealing the type of character and style of dress required in a departure from Austen who spends little time describing even her most central characters. The scenery is minimal, which sometimes reflects a scene indoors which was originally set outdoors. There are little introductions to each play, and monologues which help set the scene. Given the relatively large number of ‘sequels’ available to the novels, especially Pride and Prejudice, this is an intriguing addition to the dozens of books written about Austen, and has the advantage of its original publication being so long ago. In a way it is an early adaptation of small sections of the novels written with a real understanding of the language and times. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to read and review this book.

 

The first play features a conversation between Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe from Northanger Abbey, which reveals much of Catherine’s innocence and Isabella’s manipulation. The scheming greed of the younger Mrs Dashwood when discussing how much should be given to the late Mr Dashwood’s widow and her daughters is recalled. This is such an excellent scene in every adaptation of Sense and Sensibility that it is right that this section is chosen. The three pieces from Emma is perhaps a bit excessive for one novel, but for many it is a favourite, and Mrs Elton is another wonderful character to play. The two pieces from Pride and Prejudice are the proposal from Mr Collins, with some deeply felt interruptions from Mrs Bennett, and the wonderfully awful confrontation between Lady Catherine de Burgh and Elizabeth Bennett. The latter is of course a highlight of any version of this novel, and I believe Lady Catherine is the inspiration for many a strident aristocratic lady (Maggie Smith or Lady Violet Crawley in Downton Abbey, anyone?). 

 

These seven little plays are wonderful repeats of favourite sections of four classic novels, known to so many from adaptations if not from actually reading the books. Reading these will inspire many to read or reread the full novels, if only because they will realise that the original books are so beautifully written beyond the versions that appear on our screens. At this time of year it is always worth getting ideas for presents, and this would make an ideal gift for anyone with an interest in Jane Austen, or just buy a copy to keep yourself. 

Restoration – the Second book of “The House that Sat Down” trilogy by Alice May – the story continues

 

The “Restoration” of a house seems to suggest that it would be a straightforward process, but this is a family house, and the author Alice May with her trademark humour, gentle angst and perceptive insights gives far more detail about what really happens. The author has introduced  the Barbarians (her children), the Beloved Husband and herself in the gently humourous “Accidental Damage”, being the first part of “The House That Sat Down” trilogy, and suggests that much of this second book depends on having read that account. Basically, the family house was partially of three hundred year old “cob” construction, and repeated storms have taken its toll on the walls meaning that two huge cracks had developed and rendered that part of the house too dangerous to enter, let alone live in. The family’s trials and tribulations go further than having to sleep in a tent however; the risk of a long term exclusion from the house means that the children may have to be sent away indefinitely. This book goes on from the low point to at least a partial solution as some of the walls are to be rebuilt, but even the start of the process seems fated as unexpected visitors to the house threaten to block the road. It describes the highs and lows of the process of rebuilding, and the challenges that it presents to the writer. A book of highs and lows, humour and hope, I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.

 

This book, like the first, runs in two time sequences. The present day is full of the changes familiar to many, the coming to terms with children growing up and leaving home for university. It can be a challenging time, and in this author thinks back to another difficult time as the builders eventually begin to demolish two walls of the house. This reveals far more than an empty space; the revelation of bedrooms quickly abandoned and possessions displayed subdues even the most boisterous of boys. The unexpected expenses of the project drops a bombshell on the family, and the narrator feels it particularly as she is concerned for the long term future of the family. There are still lighthearted moments, as Thor wields his hammer of destruction and Skelly is displayed, and an exercise class timetable confuses attempts to get fit. The decline of the author’s health and the development of her paintings make for a well balanced narrative.

 

This book is a worthy continuation of the first book, continuing the themes of family unity in the face of adversity and the basic problems of losing part of a house. The fact that it is a varied and nuanced story with great wit and charm makes it a very readable account. The pictures and paintings that the author describes punctuate the narration and give a  fascinating insight into her state of mind. This is a memorable series of books which have a gentle humour which carries the writing through into a rather special account of a family’s experience.     

Accidental Damage by Alice May – Book 1 of the House that Fell Down trilogy

 

“Accidental Damage” is the first book in a trilogy,”The House That Sat Down”, which is dominated by a life changing event; the partial collapse of a family home. The book is the story of a painter, a mother, a wife, whose comfortable existence is turned upside down when her house disintegrates before her eyes.The reason it does so is an important question which will thread throughout the book, as alongside the obvious disruption to the daily lives of the family, the author blames herself as she set up the house insurance which will dominate the narrative. There is a certain amount of family togetherness through adversity, and each personality becomes plain. The children are rather endearingly referred to as the Barbarians, realistically described as individuals who can act as a body on occasion. Her partner, referred to as “Beloved Husband”, is a supportive and engaged character whose personality is revealed throughout the book. As weather, logistics and many other issues cause the writer upset and dismay, this is an honest  account of life at its most basic where a comfortably set up family is suddenly in trouble, and the implications are disturbing. I was interested to have the opportunity to read and review this unusual and deeply felt book.

 

The book begins with the revelation that the author is a reasonable painter who has not actually kept up her art for several years. Each of her children is mentioned, partly via their reaction to their mother’s actions. They are known by nicknames; the oldest daughter is called Chaos, partly as a result of a sudden illness previous to the house collapse. The next oldest is Logic, dedicated cook and level headed. Quiet is a teenage boy known for eating huge amounts, which apparently they all do, and making meaningful pronouncements. Small is the youngest, a boy of great activity. 

 

Suddenly one day large cracks appear in the old part of the house, reputed to be over three hundred and fifty years old. The couple had been told that the central cottage part of the house was sturdy if distant from town. They had added to the accommodation but with careful and professional extensions, and they survive the apparently spontaneous catastrophe. The immediate need is for accommodation for the family of six, and as they live near to a holiday resort every room is booked solidly for the next few days. The kitchen, a bathroom and a dining space have survived, and they manage to rescue bedding and most of their belongings from the increasingly dangerous part of the house. A large tent is borrowed, but as the weather deteriorates and storms are frequent, the family face the possibility of being permanently separated. 

 

The battles with the elements and the logistics form the practical difficulties, more insidious is the despair as the insurance company will not provide the funds for a rebuild or even repairs. The discussions with the company are protracted and painful. The hopes dashed and fears for the future which accompany the cramped and uncomfortable conditions under which the family live contrast with the genuine affection they have for each other, and there are moments of gentle humour and insight. I enjoyed this book for its charm and wit, and greatly look forward to reading the other books in the series.       

How to be Perfect by Holly Wainwright – Online influence and real life for contemporary women

 

There are important things in contemporary life, including family, relationships and money. In this book all these things feature, but they are dominated by the social media profiles of three women and many more. Following on from “The Mummy Bloggers”, these women all have control of websites and groups which represent them to the world in certain ways. With understated humour and observations about the variety of lives lived by women today, this is a book with a clear view of the people behind the online personas. There are farcical elements of this book, as set pieces of unusual family life are well described, but there are also dark moments where dilemmas of freedom for teenagers and the use of children for lifestyle presentations are described. Interesting, unusual and fun, I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this very contemporary look at women’s lives.

 

It would seem that there was an infamous incident in which Elle was unmasked by Abi as an online fraud for making false claims about the health of her father and then husband, Adrian. In this book Abi is planning to marry Grace, and they live with six children on a farm. Adrian was married to Abi, and they share two girls, but he is living in a converted outbuilding as his two sons with Elle live on the farm after she abandoned them. Frances is a new mum with a mums’ Whatsapp group, but she is convinced that her demanding baby Denny is proof that she is a failure. Inspiration is at hand from Elle’s new exclusive website which encourages a lifestyle full of expensive and “essential” merchandise. Frances literally buys into the promises, and is desperate to go to Elle’s retreat centre on an idyllic farm. As Abi’s eldest daughter responds to Elle’s siren song, Frances begins to discover all is not as it seems at the ranch, and Elle begins to see just how tricky perfection can be with a past, much chasing around and wedding dresses, this book becomes a fascinating story of the reality behind the online stories.

 

I found that this book had much to recommend it. The discovery of the realities of parenthood, the possibilities of communal living, and the online hype of perfection at a price that is not only financial are all vividly presented. The comedy is also well constructed and executed, and this is a funny book. A little confusing at times, the amount of sympathy for Elle is limited by by her behaviour before this novel begins as well as her activities within this book. There are plenty of funny moments captured in this book, especially with the gang of children and the dialogue between characters. An enjoyable read, this is a very contemporary book about the power of online “influencers” to affect people’s real lives, and not always for the best. It is also a human story of the complicated ways that lives connect and overlap, and the pressures placed on teenagers by online images. I recommend this lively book as an enjoyable read and one that has much to say about contemporary life.   

The Love Detective – Next Level by Angela Dyson – Clarry P and positive female characters

 

This is the second novel to feature Clarry Pennhaligan working as a private detective; as it was the first book I had read from Angela Dyson I had read so  I can definitely say it works as a standalone novel. A contemporary view of London life and in particular the varied experiences of some women, with some dangerous moments, perilous situations and a dash of romance, Clarry gets to grips with her case as she investigates a young woman’s secrets. It also has large doses of humour and realism as Clarry realises and relates to the reader that she is hardly a glamorous detective, and her clothes choices are sometimes a little haphazard. I really enjoyed this fast paced, exciting and genuinely funny book, and was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.

 

Clarry is capable of getting herself into some complicated situations as she accepts the seemingly straightforward job of checking on the friendships of a difficult daughter, as the narrative switches from situation comedy moments to gentle thriller with pursuit across the more interesting parts of London. To add to the challenge her worthy assistant is a seventy year old friend whose lovelife is far more exciting than Clarry’s own, which is fortunate as Fran can call on the expertise of a variety of gentlemen who offer computer skills and driving a memorable vehicle on a search for the truth of some interesting people. 

 

The pace rarely lets up as Clarry tries to navigate the etiquette of escaping an anniversary party, deals with drunken rugby players, climbs ever higher in a mysterious building and investigates a group of unusual women. Some comic set pieces includes an outing in a hearse and a visit to a new age shop for notelets and information. As financial irregularities come to light, Clarry looks further into a group with interesting motivations, and finds out more family secrets. The tone turns a little darker as a midnight meeting exposes a threat which will become very real. Lots of interesting characters flit across the story as Clarry tries to follow the convoluted mystery that surrounds Vanessa. 

 

This is a well written and well paced novel which maintains interest throughout and includes so much. Clarry as the main character is an essentially interesting person as she navigates part time work and being an amateur detective, without any great trauma in her past life and a positive collection of friends. This essentially a light hearted read with genuinely funny dialogue, which handles the dark side of the investigation well. I liked the range of characters as older women are seen as capable, funny and attractive, while the main character is seen as having insecurities and doubts as she pursues the truth. An elderly couple who help with the detecting are realistically depicted, as is the landscape of a small bit of London which the author obviously knows well. For me this book achieves a good balance of humour, mild peril, gracious living and positive female characters who take the lead in a very readable novel. I shall definitely look out for more books by this author, and I recommend it as an unusual contemporary detective novel. 

Fell Murder by E.C.R. Lorac – A British Library wartime classic crime novel of farming life.

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A murder set in the rolling countryside of Lancashire during the last years of the Second World War. Farming, country life and long held grudges. A family at war in all senses, a contrast of detecting styles and wonderful descriptions of the actual work carried out on a wartime farm all go to make this a grounded and immensely readable book in the wonderful series of Classic Crime from the British Library.  As picked up by Martin Edwards in his informative and personal introduction, this book represents an author at “the height of her powers” depicting her beloved countryside and her deep knowledge of the actual work of farmers, especially at a time of necessary maximum production and regulation. The characters are brilliantly drawn in all their defining behaviour and inconsistencies as real people in an area of traditional lifestyles and knowledge of neighbours. Ranging from the stubborn patriarch whose physical capabilities reflect his domination of everyone in the household, through the loyal tenant and the embittered neighbour, this is a book of real observation and understanding of life in rural communities. Despite the struggles of the first detective to elucidate anything from the thoughtful speech of potential witnesses, this is a standout novel in an excellent series of reprinted gems from the golden age of detection in twentieth century Britain. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this excellent novel with its well plotted and paced story of danger and detection.

 

The book opens with the solid and reliable bailiff, John Staple, looking out over the land he has walked, farmed and cared for over his entire life. A man approaches him, and he comes to recognise Richard Garth, eldest son of his employer the indomitable Robert Garth. Richard is now a sailor who has been involved in a good deal of action following his departure from this area with a wife, Mary, now deceased. Exiled after a family row over his choice of partner, Richard remains bitter towards a comparatively wealthy father who cast him out, and he has no wish to see his family after a twenty five year estrangement. The family is mentioned by Staple as he points out that Marion Garth, the daughter of the house, is an excellent and hard working farmer in her own right, though her father still firmly holds the purse strings. Other members for the household include the determined Land Girl Elizabeth and the youngest son Malcolm, as well as the returned son Charles. When a murder occurs on the day of a shoot, the local police are overstretched by wartime regulation enforcement, and investigating officer Layng is blocked by the locals’ stubborn relative silence. It is only when Chief Inspector Macdonald arrives and immerses himself in the land and the farming community that the disturbing truth begins to emerge. 

 

I found this book to be a beautifully written portrait of the realities of farming life at a tense time.The pressure to derive the maximum harvest from the land is given in detail with the varied produce and jobs always to be done. The portrait of Marion is extremely well drawn, as she strives to assert herself against her father’s successful but overly careful rule. As the landscape is celebrated in loving detail, the characters within it are so well drawn with their local dialogue and habits that it reveals the authors extensive local knowledge. I genuinely enjoyed every part of this lyrical and beautifully written mystery, and hope that there are many more novels from this author to be made available.      

 

As I rush through my collection of British Library books , my problem comes with storage – while my shelves attract a lot of attention with the colours and generally great production, they are in danger of pushing everything else out of the 1930s  bookcase! When I finally sort them out, I can see a picture will be required… (and it is a lovely problem to have!)