Edna and Genevieve Escape from Curmudgeon Avenue by Samantha Henthorn – episodes from modern life


An interesting and episodic novel, this third volume of the Curmudgeon Avenue tales features the further adventures of characters established in the first two books. However, it can be read as a standalone novel with some enjoyment as the characters quickly emerge from the writing, and the setting becomes established early on. The style of this novel is of a series of events which span before the book begins and will continue afterwards.Shifting from France to Whitefield, near Manchester, England, this book is written from the unique point of view of a house, being a book of fast moving gossip type action, as romance of many types is explored with varying degrees of sympathy. It is an interesting book to be given the opportunity to read and review for a blog tour.


The book opens with the characters named in the title, Edna and Genevieve, enjoying life in a holiday gite in France. Discovering the delightful custom of buying fresh bread twice a day and actually living in the country with cheese and wine always available seems idyllic until a substantial storm floods the house, and they are effectively marooned with only gallons of wine for company. They have escaped from Curmudgeon Avenue, only to discover that France has its challenges as well.They are forced to move on, and their new hosts soon have doubts as to their lodgers suitability. Meanwhile, back in the Avenue, Ricky Ricketts is enjoying his visit to Mrs Ali’s shop, as they discover much mutual curiosity over the plans of Matteo Dubois, who has just moved into the Avenue after much confusion as to his identity. It emerges that he is apparently the adopted son of Genevieve, whose disappearance has been causing him difficulties. Meanwhile a memorable comedy couple, Harold and Edith, go about their odd and accident prone lives in their house next to Matteo’s, and when work begins in the house they are interested to know what is going on. More fascinating still is Edith’s son, Ricky’s, love life, as he seems to be linked to two separate women who are both showing signs of pregnancy. Many accidents and incidents ensue, such as stuck lifts, abandoned day trips and the contact with a much missed dog via skype. As the vaugeries of speed dating are explored and the  dangers of casual social media use exposed, the dynamic pace of this novel is well maintained.


This book has some difficulties with editing, but happily this does not significantly affect the flow of the book’s story. It is successful in terms of plot resolution and characters, and it succeeds in creating a certain confused drama out of the events of extreme daily life in the twenty first century. This is basically a good light read, with some unique ideas and interesting observations. Fans of television serials will relish the fast moving nature of this book, and it is ideal to pick up as it does not waste words. I hope that the characters go onto further adventures which result in such comedic results.    


We are still recovering from a concert featuring trains, stations and music played on a cinema organ in the church hall. Sixty five people turned up to witness us reading and singing (no solos for me!), refreshments on offer and £220 raised for the local air ambulance. A good evening for all I hope!      

Evita – The Life of Eva Peron by Jill Hedges – a non fiction biography of a woman of influence

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Evita  – The Life of Eva Peron by Jill Hedges.


A very different book for review, a non fiction biography of Eva Peron. The subject of the musical “Evita” which has been popular since its first performances in 1980, Eva Peron was a political and social force in Argentina in the late 1940s until her early death in 1952. Even after that time her image has been significant in Argentinian politics, not least because of her support for Juan Peron, who became President, then exiled, before returning as President once more in 1973. This book attempts to examine how a woman in a complex political situation dominated by men came to achieve a certain power and undoubted influence which still resonates today. A woman whose image is still recognisable in Argentina despite the terrible political upheavals and tragedies that have afflicted the country for many decades. A serious biography which has made every effort to consult and reference sources, this is a book from an established Latin American historian which attempts to provide the general reader with a readable account of a remarkable life.


The book opens with a description of Eva’s appearance at a rally attended by some two million people, mainly supporters, who were present to press her and the political leaders of the time to nominate her for the role of Vice President to her her husband, Juan Peron. A radical proposition in a country which had only recently given women a vote, it was seen as a step too far by many men nervous partly of Eva’s personal following, and even her husband was thought to be less than convinced politically. The question was largely moot, however, as Eva was seriously ill with cancer that would kill her within months, and she was to reject the people’s calls for her election to political office. The book goes onto look back at her life, how she had arrived at such a position that so many people demanded her elevation to ultimate political power. It details the many uncertainties of her early life as the child of a family managed and supported by a strong single mother whose relationship with Eva and her several siblings’ father was a matter of conjecture. The exact terms on which her mother supported her growing family, and Eva’s own arrival in the capital, Buenos Aires in 1935 “as a young, poor woman from the province with no contacts, no money and no training” is examined in a complex chapter which examines many sources. Her own autobiography of doubtful authority (as examined over several chapters, not least the penultimate account of her final illness) is referred to, as are the records of magazines, theatre companies and the fledgling dramatic radio stations which became popular as Eva sought influence and fame, via enough money to survive. There are also accounts of her liaisons with various men associated with different media ventures, perhaps suggestive of no more than innocent career building in a difficult society where women were denied many career options. Her relationship with the ambitious widower Juan Peron has been the subject of much speculation and debate; Hedges chooses to relate various accounts of their seeming genuine affection for each other from the beginning. Perhaps the most significant section of the book are the well attested descriptions of Eva’s minute involvement with the poorer citizens of the country, especially women, who approached her for help with many practical problems. Her somewhat manic workload and establishment of her Foundation provided such practical items as sewing machines, accommodation and real help on a piecemeal basis, only later transformed into buildings and solid organisations to help significant numbers of people. Her tour of Europe is also described, with reference to a letter that she is reputed to have sent her husband on the eve of her travels. The long term nature of her illness is well explained insofar as limited sources allow; there is still much guesswork into her attitude to her own mortality and work ethic.


The main question of this book remains central. Does it in any sense explain the phenomenon of Eva Peron, the mass adoration, the nationwide trauma of her death? It would seem that this is a brave attempt. It makes few assertions of an ambitious nature; it backs up so many points and highlights the potential bias of each significant source. While not dynamic and headline grabbing in its style, it is a readable book which organises a wealth of information well and focuses on a woman who chose to be deliberately obscure even in regard to her birth certificate, and probably largely dictated writings were intended as much for political propaganda as the wish to leave a definitive account of her life. This book is approachable for the non Spanish speaker and the non – political expert, while maintaining a scholarly style. As an account of an intriguing and significant life it is an excellent read, with sufficient bibliographical information to enable further study.


So this is a very different post or review for Northernreader! The life and legacy of Eva Peron is part of my conference paper as a module of my MA course, and this book is a significant source which has taken me some time to read, so I thought that it would be interesting to  review. Given its nature I imagine that I am going to referring to it a lot over the next couple of weeks. Wish me luck! (there are many easier to read novels and books to come!)

Baxter’s Requiem by Matthew Crow – a novel of loss, hope and love, with some delicious humour



An old love, a recent tragedy, and such wonderful characters that I would love to meet, this is a book that made me laugh and cry. Baxter’s determination, his mischief and back story is a tremendous achievement in a relatively short read. The other characters; the distraught Greg, the cheeky Ramila, the sensible Suzanne all combine to give an alternative lifestyle for Baxter, but his memories and the wonderful Winnie keep his determination going. Baxter is an unstoppable force, yet there is such tenderness and love within this book for the lost and also the new, such a determination to give a new life to a young man who has shut down. I really revelled in this book, with such a powerful message of life and purpose. I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book with its life affirming message.


The book opens in Melrose Gardens Retirement Home, with Baxter receiving bad news from a doctor, which he takes with what is his evidently usual philosophical reactions. He tells the nervous young doctor “You don’t always have to take it so seriously. Ask me something normal.Treat me like a human being.There’s a roomful of clues and conversational prompts”. When he returns to his house, his old friend, with Greg and Ramila, he realises that he must act swiftly to say farewell to the person that he had found love with so long ago. He has also realised that Greg has shut down from all his former bright promise, for reasons that only gradually emerge. As he lays his plans, he meets up with old friends and the one person who can remember his great love, who herself is a memorable and very funny character. As memories flood in, the humour and love of a time past become vividly realised. Meanwhile Greg’s raw pain emerges as he tries to cope with a life that has hurt him so badly, as he tries desperately to connect with his father. Baxter’s resilience and dry humour punctuates and motivates this book, yet it conceals deep loves and a deep sense of what must be done.


In short, this is a tremendous book and I found it a real treat to read. It is a tremendously funny book, yet the underlying pain of loss is always present. I really enjoyed the humour, the characters, and the plot which resolves so much. It covers the mess of the First World War, with its lack of direction for many soldiers and its sharply defined prejudices. It also protests against the current pressure to conform to expectations for the young at school and the old in institutions; it requires two amazing women to overturn the rules at school and and in a home, with great and lasting effect. While I was saddened by the waste of life as a result of prejudice, I was enthused by its message, that life can be wonderful and needs to grasped.  Hope, humour and love can overcome loss, which is the message of this novel. Just read this book, it is wonderful.


Today we braved April showers and hail storms to visit Charlecote Park, a National Trust property. It is an accessible house (hurray!) with a marvellous collection of paintings and furniture and an incredible family history. We saw deer and a rather good second – hand bookshop, and I got some inspiration for my dissertation. Now I just need some time to do it!


The Garden of Lost and Found by Harriet Evans – an immense of book of historical and contemporary fiction



A painting which captures so much, a house which is an escape and a challenge, a book of desperate situations; there is so much going on this novel that the reader must really concentrate but is greatly rewarded for the effort. Taking place in several times and in several places, it is held together by a painting of a garden and a house which is emblematic of so much for the characters. At least two casts of characters, at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century and the twenty first century, which look backward and forward, are linked by art and the concept of art. There is also tragedy, the importance of friendship, and the insidious effect of bullying whether physically or through the medium of the internet. There are characters which truly leap off the page, vivid descriptions of settings that they discover or rediscover, and the little incidents which fill a rich and complex text which cannot be hurried. A substantial book on many levels, I was so grateful to be given the opportunity to read and review this novel for the tour.


The book opens with an otherwise idyllic scene, a garden and a special house in June 1918, but immediately Lydia Dysart Horner realises that she could have perhaps acted earlier to try to save the immensely famous picture called “The Garden of Lost and Found”.  This immensely famous painting seemed to have had an almost mystical power on everyone who looked at it, revealing much about the glorious garden so lovingly described, but also focused on the figures of two children to be discovered in the foreground who seem to sum up enormous sentiment. Lydia or Liddy desperately realises that whatever compels her husband at this point is not simple; that he is suffering from the loss of people, of talent, of honour.


The scene shifts to the situation of a young woman, Juliet, in a London house, as she realise that her marriage to Matt is in trouble, her eldest daughter is suffering, and she is struggling to hold everything together.This particular day is significant as a sketch, the only remnant known of Horner’s famous painting, is to be auctioned by the company which she works for, and that she is a direct descendant of the painter. She is bitterly unhappy at work, where her misogynist boss is eager to get rid of her when she makes her feelings known about the sale and his attitude to her. A mysterious discovery gives her an alternative, as she suddenly realises that she can return to a house which dominated her otherwise unhappy childhood.


The slips between times are perhaps difficult to follow at times, but can be moving as we see the difficulties of life in Victorian times, when unutterably tragic situations mean that the very survival of women is uncertain, where children and young people are imperilled by attitudes, greed and lack of medical help. There is immense research behind this book, a great feeling for time and space, and a fantastic, almost visual eye for detail. This is a mature and complex novel which has so much weight in terms of handling complicated historical material, as well as contemporary pressures, especially on women, when they feel compelled to fight for the wellbeing of their children as well as themselves. This book has so much emotional weight to offer, but also the presence of hope as symbolised by a house and garden which has dominated the lives of generations. This is a book that is to be embarked on with readiness for discoveries, historical fiction at its best, and suspense tinged with sadness for those who lose much. A terrific read, recommended for so many reasons, and an experience not to be missed.    



We have been to see an extremely energetic production of Evita in a local theatre. With an incredible actor playing Eva Peron, marvellous dancing and amazing singing, this was certainly not to be missed in Long Eaton, Nottinghamshire. Having seen this in its original run in London many years ago, it remains a firm favourite, and also forms part of my proposed conference paper in June as I look at the legacy of Eva Peron. Wish me luck; it’s a huge subject.

Lies Behind the Ruin by Helen Matthews – a complex story of new beginnings and difficult relationships



Moving part of your life to Europe, especially in these confused times, is always a big decision. Emma in this novel moves to France as part of a traumatic situation, and she has no idea of the chief reason for doing so in her husband’s mind. A family story in which honesty and betrayal leads to a thriller ending is a strong comment on contemporary life, and an important insight into the lengths that some women will go to for love and obsession. Following a dream is difficult, following someone else’s dream is even more challenging. As the 2016 referendum result unsettles lives even further, this topical read is a fascinating into twenty-first century life. I was pleased to be asked to be take part in this blog tour, and read and review this strong novel.


Emma and Paul live in London with their daughter, Mollie and Owen, Emma’s son from a previous relationship. Emma has experienced poverty, and is desperate to avoid debt again. Unknown to her, Paul is having an affair with a work colleague  which has become more intense as the struggles to cope with the death of a worker for the company. His behaviour becomes unpredictable and erratic and he secretly buys a ruinous building in France with the intention of converting it into a family home. He elects to stay in England while Emma and Mollie live in a caravan in France, deceiving them over their extent of his indebtedness and relationship with Genevieve. Fortunately Emma accepts help from Henri in France, and has had the foresight to invest in the lease of a bar in a small village, and though it struggles to be profitable for a while, her hard work and friendliness begin to establish regular trade. When Emma and Mollie find a temporary home, they only need Paul to come and oversee the house conversion to ensure their wellbeing, but he is preceded by a mysterious woman called Eve. How will Emma cope with a situation in which all her certainties are overthrown, and there is real danger to those she loves?


This is a novel which packs many unexpected punches, as the less than idyllic life of expats in France is described and the pain of dysfunctional relationships explored. As Emma, Owen and Paul each narrate sections of the book from their own point of view, we see that the break up of the relationships are not easy. Matthews has an undoubted gift for bringing characters alive in all their complexity, confusion and sometimes pain. Life is complex for every character, and Matthews does well in constructing and maintaining each person, even the minor customers at the bar.  This book works on many levels, as a modern novel of relationships and a comment on the complexity of life in a different country. At times gripping and always well paced, this is a worthwhile read which attempts to explore the depths of betrayal within a relationship, and I recommend it as a strong contemporary novel.


Meanwhile back at the Vicarage we are beginning to recover from the excesses of Easter, and I even have chocolate left! Plans proceed apace for a railway concert featuring an organ on the stage of a church hall (!) and songs, poetry and extracts from stories of railway experiences (hopefully the more amusing ones…) Rumours of authentic buffet refreshments are circulating (I have offered to blow a hairdryer over sandwiches to get the correct texture)

The Ringmaster by Vanda Symon Murder investigation in New Zealand, with a Circus to discover

The Ringmaster by Vanda Symon


The South Island of New Zealand is the setting for this powerful murder mystery, featuring the actions, attitudes and realisations of Sam Shephard. After a book evidently narrating her investigations into troubles in a small town, she has now moved to Dunedin, a bigger city with a University and a larger police department. For unknown reasons to Sam, as a young female detective constable, she has earned the antipathy of the bullying DI Johns, who is continually criticising and sidelining her. As this is a first person narrator, we discover how much Sam resents this, and how much her friends both in the force and out of it try to help her endure it. Written with both a keen sense of the dramatic and a sharp sense of humour, this is a novel in which twenty first century policing and relationships are shown in depth. There are some genuinely thrilling moments, as Sam’s farming background demonstrates that she has a toughness denied to city dwellers. There is complexity but also some funny sessions as Sam deals with parental pressures, romance and her friendships with Maggie and her colleagues in the police force. A relatively short novel which packs a real punch, Sam is a real hero in every sense. I was very glad to be given the opportunity to read and review this book as part of a blog tour.


The book opens with the murder of a young Phd student as she evidently places her trust in her killer. When Sam is called to the discovered body, her time guarding the crime scene awakens her curiosity, so her clever dealing with a protest at the newly arrived circus becomes a lesser concern. However, despite her evident abilities and courage she finds herself having to pick up from recordings of interviews what is going on in the investigation, and suddenly she becomes the focus of attention herself as her involvement with the circus forces her into much publicised action.  Alongside her dramatic professional life there are the drawbacks of city life, of parking and coming across other police officers in awkward circumstances. Her friendship with Maggie is the source of much of the undoubted humour of this book, and contributes to Sam’s professional survival in the face of her openly bullying boss. Fortunately, Sam’s strong personality and temper makes sure that she sometimes gets the better of the powers that be, and at least this reader had to suppress a quiet cheer at the brilliant replies that she comes up with when provoked.


This was a fast paced book with plenty of action and a good dollop of mystery. I enjoyed the female led action, and the ending really lived up to the rest of the novel. This is not a heavy read, yet very satisfying on many levels. No knowledge of New Zealand is needed, as many of the elements of this book are universal. It features a strong mystery, together with a fascinating investigation ambushed by the personal obsessions by some of the police. There are interesting observations on circuses, families and relationships. I really enjoyed reading it, and recommend it it as more than a murder mystery; it is a substantial mystery and satisfying read.  


Easter Monday, and the weather is still really good in this part of Britain.I hope wherever you have spent it you have had some time to read some good books!

Blackpool’s Daughter by Maggie Mason – Wartime challenges and the strength of love

Blackpool’s Daughter by Maggie Mason


Evacuees in the Second World War often had a challenging time; Clara in this novel suffers more than most. Exiled from a pre invasion Guernsey, she at least escapes from the uncomfortable atmosphere on the island as her single mother, Julia, has fought valiantly to bring her up in the face of slights over her unmarried status. Neatly suggesting that Guernsey was a large village isolated from the mainland for the spread of gossip, the novel speedily carries the reader away from the island as Julia follows her daughter and it is only then that the action begins. This novel exposes the truth of losing people in the chaos of the homefront, when telephones were still relatively rare and the postal system affected by various factors ; that it was possible for people to lose touch with loved ones. While this book has several moments of terror and sudden loss, it also features great love and the sense of family that probably did overcome much in communities affected by war in so many ways. It shows how women had to endure separation from loved ones, new ways of life which were frequently hard, the reality of pregnancy without the presence of fathers and so many other dangers; this is not a book of bombing and blitz but of the harsh realities of life in supposedly safe areas. I really appreciated the truth of the characters in this novel, as they seek ways to live in challenging times. An effortlessly readable novel, it kept me reading into the small hours as I literally could not wait to discover what became of people I had been introduced to by this talented author. I was very glad to be given the opportunity to read and review this book as part of the tour.


Clara is only thirteen when she travels alone to England and safety from the imminent invasion. An overwhelmed system sees her sent to Blackpool and the cruelty over Miss Brandon who runs a shop. While she makes one or two friends who will help her to cope, she also learns quickly that it is difficult to know who to trust in a Blackpool where secret forces control daily life and rule by fear. Meanwhile thanks to the generosity of a older islander, Julia buys the last place on the final evacuation boat from the island, and rushes to London to reclaim her daughter. She is also reconciled with a friend, Rhoda, but the two women discover that their daughters have been sent from London to an unknown town. Julia and Rhoda enlist as land girls in order to travel north in the hope of tracking the girls, but country life brings its own temptations and terrors as a jealous wife seeks revenge. Meanwhile Clara becomes entrapped by a series of circumstances and must show enormous courage to survive and thrive.


This is a book with a complex plot in some ways, as human experience is rarely uncomplicated, and there are times when the drama edges towards the extreme. However, the undeniable strength of the characters always saves the narrative, and I relished the way that friends and minor characters helped save the day, even when all seemed lost. I liked the way that Daisy continued to help, and this book places great emphasis on the power of relationships forged in adversity. Read this book for the characters, the survival of love, and the hope of a better and fulfilled life which survives may challenges.   


We have just returned from seeing the film “Red Joan”, which was excellent. It featured some excellent shots of Cambridge, including a college tower that I once fell down when descending the stairs….Judi Dench was predictably very good, but we really enjoyed the flashbacks ( very substantial) to the 1940s which were beautifully acted and filmed. A really good film, and highly recommended. Now to find a copy of the book on which it is based, somewhere upstairs…

The Stars in the Night by Clare Rhoden – the reality of loss and survival in war and peace

The Stars in the Night by Clare Rhoden


This novel of Australia at various points in the twentieth century is a powerful comment on the First World War, and contains some of the most intense writing on life in battle that I have come across. It concerns the strength of relationships between men under fire, the terror of daily life in the trenches, the extreme emotions of loss in war and peace. It manages to be a book about men at war, and families seeking out peace. It is informative, as men are shown as willing to volunteer to fight on the other side of the world in the First World War. It relates something of the disaster of Gallipoli, the frustration of the fighting in France, and the reception of returning soldiers. I enjoyed the characters, was amazed at some of the settings, and appreciated the plot. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book for a blog tour.


The book opens in Australia in 1970, as Harry Fletcher seeks to come to terms with the loss of his wife while spending time with his granddaughter Kate. The people of the area know him as solid and reliable, but there are hints that there is much more to him. The novel then goes back to December 1914, when Harry reveals that he has volunteered to go across the world to fight, together with Eddie who his family have rescued from the street. They realise that this means saying goodbye to more than just their families, but also the young women that they have just met. Their first experience of war is varied but overwhelming, they also have other experiences which mark their swift growing into adulthood. The device of one of the men keeping a journal  adds to the sense of immediacy and adds to the texture of the novel. This is a book which creates characters and places them in settings that feel real, a genuine achievement by this writer. The plot reflects much about the time and the people, volunteering for war which turns out to be so tragic, and the fact that there were so many men that did not come home. I particularly enjoyed reading of the strong women who kept life going even in the face of loss and separation.


It would be curious to say that I enjoyed this book, but I felt that it flowed and achieved much in its moderately short length. As a family story, an insight into why men volunteered to fight in a war far away, and a testament to the friendship that can exist in times of trial, this book works brilliantly. Never overworked, the writing manages to convey what fighting in the trenches was actually like in deceptively simple terms, as well as the pain of loss of important people. Touching, effective and illuminating, this is a worthy addition to the number of books relating to the First World War, and gives a fascinating view of the muddy reality of war.


By the way, Happy Easter! Life in a Vicarage at this time is hardly peaceful or restful, but at least there is chocolate. A couple of weddings and a christening in addition to services makes for a busy Northernvicar!

Death has Deep Roots by Michael Gilbert – a British Library Crime Classic of the Second World War and beyond

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A British Library Crime Classic which is subtitled “A Second World War Mystery” is actually set after that conflict, as several of the characters are desperately looking back to find the truth behind a more recent murder.This is a dramatic novel which uses the device of a murder trial to frame and inform much of the action; a woman stands liable to the death penalty unless her legal team can find out what really occurred in this sealed unit mystery. As the correct legal niceties are exercised in the court as a result of Gilbert’s own considerable expertise and experience, a thriller plot unrolls as Nap, solicitor and inexperienced amateur detective hunts through France for the vital clues that will help to establish identities and motives. This is a murder which indeed has deep roots in an occupation and resistance which has spilt into the narrow streets of London several years later. In his typically informative introduction Martin Edwards not only establishes Gilbert’s unique knowledge of the forms and background to this excellent novel, but also the vital difference between a thriller and a murder mystery which he seems to combine so effortlessly. I was so pleased to be given the opportunity to read and review this excellent addition to the British Library set.


As the Central Criminal Court fills for the trial of Mademoiselle Victoria Lamartine, there is much eager anticipation of a spectacle. There is to be a surprise, however, as a different lawyer steps up for her defence. The judge agrees to move the case to the end of his list in order to allow a different emphasis to be given to the facts and a different plea to be entered, and thus eight days are granted for investigations into a matter which necessitates no little danger for those who undertake to find out more. As  firm of solicitors is instructed who are more used to steady questions of law than murder trials, a young lawyer meets with the young woman and begins to assemble the facts. The roots of the matter surround the activities of landowners, farmers and crucially resistance fighters in Occupied France. If it can be proved that Lamartine had motive for the killing of Major Eric Thoseby, the case against her seems likely to be proved.It is this aspect of the case that Nap must go and investigate, which proves to be no light matter as for some, the brutality of war is not just a memory. Happily he has some help, even if that seems very suspicious. Investigations into the death of Thoseby in a small London hotel seem safer, until a brutal bar room brawl leaves even the most experienced of investigators nursing wounds. Much hinges on the ability of a murderer to gain access to a hotel room which was seemingly under surveillance at all times. Also the wandering eye of a young man which may have fixed on several women could provide an alternative explanation for many events, if only he can be found as time ticks past.


This is a complex yet satisfactorily explained book which combines the tension of a thriller with the clever courtroom drama of a true master of the art. The actual murder which seems impossible for anyone else to have committed is relatively straightforward, but the background and explanations are complex. As famous lawyer Macrea pulls out all the stops to defend his client, I was intrigued as to how he could convince the jury to try to understand how a woman who had survived capture by the Gestapo was innocent of brutal and effective violence. It was good to read a novel in which women were active participants and not just hapless victims or extra witnesses,and all things considered this is a well balanced book. As part of an excellent series of  Michael Gilbert books this is an excellent book, and a satisfactory read on many levels.


Later today I am due in church to take part in a service which contains Faure’s Requiem. It is going to be a big sing! It will be especially powerful as I am told that Faure lived in Paris and therefore would have known Notre Dame well. Enjoy is probably the wrong word, but I am sure it will be a memorable event.

Casting Off by Elizabeth Jane Howard – the fourth volume of the Cazalet Chronicles

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Casting Off by Elizabeth Jane Howard


The fourth volume in a big series in every sense was at one point the place where it all seemed to finish. Happily, I am convinced that you can read it as a standalone book (though I would strongly suggest that you track down the first three) and Howard actually did write a fifth book later, which ties up lots of loose ends. This is the Cazalet Chronicles, the addictive, huge and intimate portrait of a family beginning in the late 1930s in the first volume. This novel begins with the family adjusting to a peacetime world in July 1945 when men are returning home from fighting, imprisonment and other challenging circumstances to find a country that has been continuing without them, as teenagers have grown into adults and discovered the joys and sorrows of love, and where big decisions have to be made. Even those who have lived at Home Place for the duration are thinking of moving on, finding new places to live and new pressures in a new world with few or no servants. The Cazalet family, though never actually rich, have been able to employ cooks, gardeners, nannies and maids, but now must learn to do without, in a world where food and drink are still rationed. New beginnings for some and the discovery of awkward truths for others means that this book, with its beautifully intimate views from characters both central and on the fringes is a fascinating and addictive read for all 626 pages.


The novel opens with a problem familiar for many decades; Miss Pearson, Hugh’s devoted secretary is having to leave to look after her mother. He then goes onto lunch with Rachel and Sid, whose unresolved relationship causes problems as the question of where to live in London is unresolved for each generation. Hugh’s loneliness is in contrast to those wishing for independence, particularly Edward who is striving to come to terms with the result of his long term affair. Rupert and Zoe are existing in parallel worlds of secrecy, not made easier by the arrival of Zoe’s mother. This is now a London life of small houses as so many have been destroyed or rendered uninhabitable, a condition beautifully evoked by Howard as she describes scratch meals made in inefficient kitchens by inexperienced cooks and desperate attempts to add decoration and even heat in a country afflicted by deepening shortages. Even the young and beautiful Louise’s unhappiness in her marriage and motherhood is becoming deeper, while the lonely Christopher has to make decisions. Clary and Polly both struggle unhappily with love and adult life for different reasons; but this is not a book of straightforward romantic problems of young adults as they come of age as each generation has its own difficulties and quiet joys.


If you are at all interested in mid twentieth century writing, this is a book which transcribes all the little difficulties and big challenges of life in such an honest way that finishing it truly feels like a farewell to family friends. As a first read there is so much to discover here, as a re read it again brings to life the characters in their realistic settings. Howard’s skill is in the complete honesty with which she describes every character’s thoughts and feelings. I truly enjoyed this reread, and am looking forward to rediscovering volume five as soon as possible.      


Last night a friend and I went to see a live streaming of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s  production of “As You Like It”, having already seen it live in Stratford. I saw new things and it seemed to flow better – whether that is because I knew what to expect or because the production has now been running for a couple of months rather than a few days when we originally saw it. Either way, do try to get to a cinema to see these live productions – they are shown around the world and are an excellent way to experience some great plays!