A blast from the past…do you remember this?

Another book that I finished while lurking in London was The Camomile Lawn by Mary Wesley.

Younger readers may never have heard of this, but Wesley was an author first published when past the first flush of youth, but who carried on producing very readable novels for years. Some of them were rather racy, and this one is no exception. They have been showing the excellent adaptation on Yesterday, but I think that the Channel 4 iplayer thingie  will still have it.

The tv series was the first role for Toby Stephens, and other well known British actors.Worth watching for that alone, but it is also an excellent series.

The novel is set in the summer of 1939. Oliver has been injured in the Spanish Civil War, but returns to his Uncle Richard’s Cornish house with his cousins. There they join forces with the younger Sophy and the Rector’s twin sons to complete the “Terror Run” along the cliffs. But a greater terror approaches as the War is declared. Aunt Helena becomes involved with a refugee violinist, Richard with his wife, and at least two generations are swept along in a wartime of air raids, rationing, and convoluted relationships. Much of the novel is commentary from decades later as a funeral draws many together.

This is such a readable novel that it makes a good change from some of the more literary and heavy books that I have recently struggled with. The characters are well drawn and the connections are interesting. The period details are accurate, as is the sense of loss and danger as well as the petty jealousies and attractions. The plot is complex, and some angles do not hold together, but this is not a deeply researched and academic book. Some elements feel a little rushed, and it could have been a longer book, but it is enjoyable and sufficiently human to draw most readers in. It probably fits into the “guilty pleasure” category, but it is none the worse for that. Anyone with a passing interest in wartime Britain and the emotions that erupted within it would find this a worthwhile read. It is a good book, written by someone for whom it wasn’t history but knew what it was to live in exciting, dangerous times.

Heartstone and book groups and a bit of a gap…

Yes, I know that I haven’t posted a blog for a while. This is not the beginning of the end…just that I went to London for a big service at St. Paul’s. And got stuck when no trains went further North than York. Still, respect to the train company – they sent me to a hotel, so not all was lost.

It did mean that I had more reading time, though. So I have nearly finished South Riding

(Cue photo of David Morrissey) among other books.

Another book that I’ve finished is Heartstone by C.J. Sansom.

Following his other four books in the Shardlake series, this novel deals with the lawyer’s legal activities during the last part of Henry VIII’s reign. He has been asked to investigate a tricky case of Wardship, where two children’s guardianship has led to two deaths. Shardlake also involves himself in the problems of a woman imprisoned in London’s notorious Bedlam. The collected effect of all this sleuthing is extreme danger from more than one source and at least one “how will he get out of that” moment. The subtitle of this book is “Shardlake Goes to War”, and the setting in a Portsmouth where an army is being moved against a threat of naval invasion by the French is very intensely drawn. The fighting force is seen as a group of individuals rather than a faceless group of men, and the characterisation of many minor characters is detailed and often moving.

Without giving away too much of a plot, this is a very detailed and absorbing book. The characters are fascinating and varied, the clues to the mysteries are present, so the novel does follow the murder writers’ rules. It is a book to be taken in large chunks, rather than individual chapters. That is not to say that it so confusing that the plot is lost between times, but that  it is so involving that it is a shame to take so long reading it that its impact is diluted. I really enjoyed this book; it is a treat to read a series that has spawned so many imitations. It is also generous with and to its female characters; queens and Princesses are drawn on in an insightful way.  I still haven’t managed Sansom’s Winter in Madrid but will try and find my copy now.

I actually went to the book group that was looking at Birds of a Feather which I re read recently. Overall I think the reaction was positive; my brief skim of the reviews showed that it was aimed at the American market which did explain some of the  descriptions of the English way of life in the 1930s. One person did point out that some of the journeys between Kent and London are too short. We also discussed one or two of the crucial plot points, the historical settings and the dependence on psychic detection. I think that nearly everyone was keen to read more in Windspear’s series of Masie Dobbs detective novels.  It was a good discussion; while everyone enjoyed reading the book it was not one of those groups where everyone just agreed to like it. And it was revealed which was the most popular book that we looked at last year: Enigma by Robert Harris. A coffee meeting is planned to discuss our best books soon; watch this space…

Book Quiz Answers

Here are the answers to the Book Round in a quiz organised by Son One. The quiz raised over £300 for the British Heart Foundation, Mending Broken Hearts Appeal. It also had seventy people trying to answer ten rounds of questions, all put on a screen via the wonders of powerpoint. We were all really impressed that there were movies, music, photos as well as all the questions written out onscreen. It certainly kept the evening moving!

Anyway, answers

Book quiz answers

  1. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
  2. Sebastian Faulkes
  3. Dorothy L Sayers
  4. Nancy Mitford
  5. Beryl Bainbridge
  6. Cranford
  7. Ann Cleeves
  8. Winifred Houltby
  9. Mark Haddon
  10. Virginia Woolf

Well done bibliomouse who managed every question except the local crime writer, Ann Cleeves. Readers of this blog will know that Ann came to the local library and told us all about the tv series “Vera”. At the Quiz I also had pictures for every question, which gave an additional clue. So if you got it right without, well done!



Bluestockings – a book of educating Women

Ever practice the gentle art of avoidance? I have several things that I ought to be doing, mainly writing my piece for my Creative Writing group, but I am feeling singularly uninspired. Never mind, here’s a post about a book which I enjoyed reading, despite the fact that it’s historical non fiction. It is really readable as well as tackling a big subject in an interesting way. Bluestockings by Jane Robinson is subtitled The Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education.

As you can guess from the title, this book deals with the first women who sought, and managed, a degree level education is this country. Not that it was all called degree level; there is a lot here about the different certificates and pass levels that women first earned before they were allowed to formally graduate.

The book begins with the informal group of curious women (and some men) who got together to discuss intellectual matters. Gradually various houses and hostels were set up to allow women to attend lectures and even tutorials in various localities, notably Oxford and Cambridge. This book is not limited to those two cities, however, as some developments were actually led by London, Durham, Sheffield and Manchester. Cambridge didn’t even allow women to formally graduate until 1948.  Whoops! My old college, Selwyn, let women study there from 1976, but managed to muck up the formalities so that they had to get a retrospective Act of Parliament in the late 1980s to confirm all their degrees. Of course, the fact that all colleges in Cambridge now admit women isn’t covered in this book, as it really stops in the 1940s.

The great strength of this book is its anecdotal emphasis. There are hundreds of stories of cocoa parties, financial and other sacrifices made in order to learn, the realities of community life, the problems of those who struggled to learn and develop in the university system. There are accounts of the sympathetic and the unsympathetic men who forwarded and restricted the progress of women, the inconsistencies of women in encouraging and sometimes discouraging progress, and the limited choices open to even educated women in the early part of the twentieth century.

I found this book a good, informative read in many ways. I think anyone who is interested in the situation of women in the first half of the twentieth century will find this a good book with many careful references and accounts of what really happened.

A Book Quiz -by my own fair hand

Tonight I was in charge of the Books round in Son One’s Zebra Fish Quiz, raising money for the British Heart Foundation Mending Broken Hearts Appeal. No prizes I’m afraid, but by popular demand here it is. Answers on Tuesday.

Books Round

1.In which book is Miss Haversham ‘s revenge described?


2. Which author recently presented  a programme about literary Heroes, Lovers, Snobs and Villians?



3.Who created Lord Peter Wimsey?


4.Which famous sister was in Pursuit of Love, and found Love in a cold Climate?

5. Which famous author is having her own posthumous Booker Prize?


6.Which BBC drama series was partly based on “Mr Harrison’s Confessions” by Elizabeth Gaskell?


7.Which local author’s books about Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope are soon to be dramatised on tv?


8. She wrote South Riding. Who was she?


9.Who wrote about a Curious Incident that happened at Night?


10.She wanted a Room of her Own to write about Orlando and Mrs. Dalloway? Who was she?


No pictures, but it makes it more challenging!

Small Island, and a good book group

One of my book groups met in my sitting room last night. It was a bit of a tight squeeze, but we all fitted in (just) to discuss Small Island by Andrea Levy.

I think it was generally agreed that we enjoyed this book, and found it a really worthwhile read. It deals with the fate of (mainly) four characters, two, Hortense and Gilbert,  from Jamaica and Queenie and Bernard, from Britain. Set during and just after World War Two, it deals with the prejudice shown to immigrants despite their engagement in the War and their work in the less glamorous jobs in London. There is also the snobbery of class and different views of race shown by Americans, other Jamaicans, and among the British.  The plot suffers from one massive coincidence but apart from that develops between Jamaica and Britain through Blitz, neighbourhood tensions and finally a huge sacrifice.

The real strength of this book is its characters. Each chapter is narrated by one of the four characters in their own dialect or speech, and reveal the differences and attitudes as well as the varied experience of war, and to a certain extent, love. The missing character is Michael, whose influence is felt in both countries. Gilbert’s struggles and humour reveal his perception and nobility,Hortense shows her disappointments and misunderstandings, Bernard his shortcomings and fears. The most cleverly written is  Queenie, kind and perceptive, accepting yet active to do good, willing to risk condemnation to help others. But she is no saint, not a perfect person, but a pragmatist who sees what must be done.

This is a realistic book which does not shy away from difficult or even shocking details. It obviously has certain autobiographical elements as far as Levy’s own family is concerned, and has the ring of truth . I think that thousands of free copies were given away a few years ago so it would not be hard to lay hands on a copy if you haven’t read it.

One thing I was surprised by was how few of us admitted to have seen the tv version. Am I really ( nearly ) the only person who watches tv dramatisations? Do I need to get out more? Well, here’s a picture of one of the stars… for Daughter if no one else…

Half of the Human Race – a great read!

Before muttering about World Book Night and associated subjects, I’m determined to write about Half of the Human Race by Anthony Quinn.

This is an exceptionally well written, fascinating, even inspiring book that I would recommend it widely. It does take as its subjects cricket, the World War One and the fight to train in medicine, and was inspired by the fight for votes for women. The most moving element of the book is the sheer humanity of both the main and other characters as they face the challenges of war, marriage, illness and pure loneliness. It is the sort of book that is difficult to read in one sitting, as the writing is so intense. There is the despair of war in the latter part of the book, when the futility of orders given by generals and the sheer loss which results is almost painfully revealed. The last part of the book is an amazing achievement in terms of conveying the horror of the battlefield and the fight to save life and limb fought by women as nurses (and less commonly, doctors). The romantic theme is not overplayed, but love in many guises is presented, both fulfilled and frustrated. This is in many ways a sad book, but it is also a book about the hope of individuals, when even a sister who has made a practical, if not a loving marriage fights back.

The title and main inspiration for the book is the fight for women’s equality. Having looked at the contemporary magazine Votes for Women in the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, Manchester (thanks, LC) I got a flavour of the tremendous risk that these women were taking in fighting for the vote and more. It was not possible to ‘have it all’; not all men would accept women who risked their liberty to protest against injustice, and marriage was not an option if all energy had to be devoted to fighting for a career that had long been male preserves. The ending is realistic and rewarding, but there is a sense of loss. I really enjoyed this book and did not want to finish it, but there were equally times when I had to put it down because it was so real. It is like a feminist version of Birdsong, but so much more. I have noticed a lot of reviews and fuss about this book, and it is all deserved. It is not just a war book, not just a book of votes for women. It is a book for anyone who is at all interested in the period and the roles of women and men. And it is just a very, very good read.

Giving away books…but some are off limits!

After writing about the excitement of a night of tv about books to come on Saturday, the blindingly obvious thing that I didn’t really mention was the idea of giving away a million books for World Book Night. I applied really early to become a book giver, thanks to a post by http://www.dovegreyreader.co.uk/ first alerting me to the idea. I was duly accepted to give away Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.

It’s a wonderful book, with so many plot twist and turns as well as an excellent set of characters. I really enjoyed it when I read it years ago, probably the best of the Victorian -novel -written -in -modern -day genre. (although The Crimson Petal and the White was very impressive).  It is one of the few books that actually startled me by a plot twist while drawing my interest and sympathy to the characters. More about this book to come.  I am intending to give my set of books away to the groups I belong to and some individuals who seem very interested (Daughter, flatmate and friends) rather than complete strangers, but they will go with instructions to be given away further to people who will enjoy them as well.

Despite what Husband may think, I do give away or lend out books. Maybe because the piles of books around the house don’t seem to shrink. In fact, sometimes the house feels a bit like a library. There have been times when I have asked for books back, which may explain why I try to remember where they have gone! It’s usually because I have been told to read a book for a group, and begrudge buying another copy. My Daughter is usually the recipient, so I know where to start asking.  She even got  Persephone book the other day because I found it in Oxfam and thought that it needed a good home.

Daughter doesn’t get to borrow any of my main set of Persephone books as they are quite literally a matched set.  Son Two suggested that I mention my collection occasionally and I’ve been reminded how much I enjoyed No.9, Few Eggs and No Oranges: The Diaries of Vere Hodgson 1940-45.

This is probably the biggest of the Persephone classics, being the wartime of diaries of a woman working for a charity in London.  It is the current book on the Persephone Forum and is quite an unusual book among all the novels. It is a faithful, honest and detailed record of what it was really like, and unlike many books of wartime diaries, some which I have mentioned here, the length and depth really demonstrate the character of the writer as well as just the events. It is a fascinating contrast to the Nella Last diaries that I have posted about, if only because they have not been edited by a stranger but merely sorted out for publication by Hodgson herself. They are so realistic, describing things like the mind numbing exhaustion of dozens of nights when sleep was disturbed. If you are a fan of wartime diaries, or Persephone books, or just an accurate record of an exciting period of history, it represents a very worthwhile investment. My Daughter will have to buy her own!

Books on TV -“A Whole Evening”

If you have watched any BBC tv recently, you will have seen the trailer for World Book Night “A Whole Night of Books”. Well hooray for that, but let’s not get too excited when we think about how many nights of reality tv, sport, sport and well, sport we have to put up with for the rest of the year. I think that the last big night of book related programming was the Big Read in 2003. So, I suppose we should be grateful…

I have watched and enjoyed “My Life in Books” over the past week or so. I must admit that I wondered about Anne Robinson doing it; she apparently is not a great reader. But somehow the programmes have worked. PD James and Richard Bacon was very watchable, and Sister Wendy more than held her own. Sue Perkins was very watchable and funny; she would make an excellent host if they ever repeated the idea.  While they are still on iplayer they are worth watching, if only for the weird and wonderful books shown.

The other programme that is book related and has been loudly trumpeted is “Faukes on Fiction” presented by the author Sebastian Faulks. I watched each programme and have read the book.

The book is in the same format as the tv programmes, looking at Heroes, Lovers, Snobs and Villains, being 7 characters from 7 novels in each section. I was interested that I had read most of the books, even the “Mount Everest” that is Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. I was a bit confused though, why he chose the headings that he did. Heroes and villains perhaps, but snobs? Some of the novels themselves were a bit unusual as not really being representative, and equally not outstanding. The emphasis on Money in the first episode was rather off putting as I really did not believe in his argument that it showed the death of the hero, and yet not the arrival of a fully formed anti hero. There are so many white male writers here, and the merest nod in the direction of an Austen, a Bronte, so far, so predictable. I have read all of the Raj Quartet, but really I’m not sure that it merited inclusion in this selection. I suppose the other thing that I found annoying was the prospect of Faukes striding around tropical beaches, New York (or wherever) and India discussing the books. I enjoyed the mainly BBC clips and could follow what he was saying about Robinson Crusoe without him being on a beach. I realise that these programmes and the book are the result of a lot of work, but they were disappointing. Again iPlayer is still showing the entire series; what do you think?