The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard: the immersive Cazalet Chronicles begins….

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This novel is the first of the Cazalet Chronicles, so called because it revolves around the Cazalet family of three generations. It is a terrifically involving family saga, set in 1937 and 1938, when its looks like war is imminent. Calling it “The Situation”, the danger seems real as preparations are made to gather everyone. This is a book where many members of the family each gets a focus, so what is happening on the surface can sometimes see at variance with what various individuals are actually thinking. The most successful thing about this book is the way that each character is looked at from outside but with such understanding that their point of view is justified.

The family is ruled on one level by the Brig, or William, who is also the head of the family timber business. His wife, the Duchy, maintains a firm hand on the domestic front, but sometimes ignores what is happening in front of her, especially when regarding her daughter Rachel. Hugh and his wife Sybil misunderstand each other all the time, but love each other deeply. Edward, the second son, has married Villy who has given up much, but tries to find new distractions. The children have their various problems as they deal with growing up. No one in the family is in grievous need, but this novel reveals the perceptions and problems that beset every young person. The narrative is made of many small but interconnected events; like real life there are challenges and opportunities at every point, mainly from what feels like real people’s actions and reactions regarding other people.

It is difficult to describe the immersive nature of this book and how it brings the reader in. The knowledge that it is the first in the series of five books means that all things are to be worked out gradually, on an individual level, the family arrangements, and the real start of the war in September 1939. The skill that Howard shows in this book is being able to move the action forward while giving each character adequate time to develop and change, within the framework of their own reality. This sounds pretentious, but the simple truth is that it is a really good read, not always cheerful, but sometimes funny. I enjoyed rereading this book immensely and would recommend others to get involved in the Cazalet family and their reactions to a war that involved so many civilians.

One of the facebook groups I have joined is “Mrs Hurtle Reads a Book”, a curious title for a group that specializes in Reading challenges such as  A Century Of Books. While the idea of reading a hundred books may be a bit overwhelming, I also like to set myself smaller challenges. Last year I managed to read five Dorothy L Sayers books in the Folio set, as well as all twelve Poldark books (I know, I know, I need to get out more). This year my first challenge apart from two centuries in two years (not as bad as it sounds) is all five of the Cazalet novels. So the first one is down, only four to go…

Death in the Stars – A Kate Shackleton Mystery by Frances Brody. Murder and mystery onstage?

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A tenth book in the series, and a successful novel in its own right, this latest mystery for the private detective Kate Shackleton brings in some new ideas and some new challenges. One of the popular wave of women detectives in the interwar period depicted in long series, this is one of the more serious books which depend on careful sleuthing rather than amusing adventures. While being undoubtedly well written, this is a rather earnest series of novels which feature a war widow who has constructed a new life as a detective for hire. She also has an interesting background as she was adopted into the family of a well off senior policeman and was brought up in very comfortable circumstances, with impressive social links, but her birth family was far more humble. These issues have been worked through in earlier books in the series, as well as her acceptance that her husband has died in the First World War. She has a helpful housekeeper Mrs Sugden and an employee, Jim Sykes, who have gained experience in enquiries, but it is Kate that takes the lead in discovering the true situation.

This book is set in 1927, when an eclipse is promised and many people are eager to witness it. Kate is approached by Selina Fellini, a famous singer and music hall star, to accompany her and her fellow star Billy Moffatt to a boys’ school to witness the solar eclipse in the company of many experts. Kate is intrigued by the request, especially when the singer asks her to charter a plane, which is a fascinating idea in that even at this point it was possible to bypass road and rail traffic. Billy is discovered unconscious and Kate promises to accompany him to hospital. As murder mysteries go, this is a studied and realistic death, rather a poisoning or quick death as mostly preferred by the traditional detective writer. As other mysterious deaths emerge, the stage is literally set for confusion and danger, as no one is above suspicion. Some of the characters still bear the mental scars of the recent war, and the waning popularity of music hall acts in the face of films affects how ambitious the acts involved can be at this point. To a certain extent it is not so much solving the mystery as observing the characters and settings which Brody handles confidently and well.

This is to an extent a book for fans of the series, but enough background emerges that I believe it would work as a standalone novel. It is not as amusing as some books of this type, but it is an enjoyable book which maintains the reader’s interest and is backed by convincing research. Brody succeeds in creating a world which convinces and characters who sound realistic. This is quite a tense read at points, but owes more to the tradition of Golden Age mystery than modern thriller.

One of the things I like about writing this blog is that I can review whichever books I wish; not always scholarly, sometimes almost light, and certainly not always new!  This series of books seems to be a reliable best seller, and it is one that I have enjoyed over the years. I hope that you find new books and authors from this blog, as I try to include something for everyone.

I have not tried to choose my top ten books of 2017, but I do enjoy popping back to track down which books I have included. Happily I have read the book for the next book group already; “Everyone Brave is Forgiven” by Chris Cleave, and have posted about it here…-by-chris-cleave/ ‎  It is a really good read!


Parson’s Nine by Noel Streatfeild A most enjoyable book to read and savour

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This 1932 book tells the story of a family through the eyes of various people within that family over a period of about twenty years, before, during and after the First World War. This is no experimental novel of different narrators or points of view; it is a straight narration of a family where nine children grow up, face the challenges of life, endure the War and some loss, and where that leaves them in a new world. This is not a book of war or tragedy; although a family with so many young people in 1914 suffer, there is much more to this book. This is a book of humour and the small things that make up family life, of women who want more, who make gestures of independence and protest. It is not a melodramatic saga, but a book of what feels like real life, by a writer skilled in pushing each character to the limit and not beyond.

Catherine is married to David, a spiritually minded vicar who needs to occasionally be challenged on his touching but sometimes misguided assumptions about his family and their real feelings. When her first child is born, David brings Catherine a list of nine names from the biblical apocrypha, and unsurprisingly she is taken aback to think of having nine children, let alone in the exact order as specified. It comes to pass that “God blessed them with nine exactly” in the correct order and Catherine is determined that there will be no more. It is at Christmas that we first see the busy Vicarage full of children, each displaying the characteristics that will stay with them, as they comment on church life, death and Christmas presents. Catherine finds herself with a legacy which will allow her a holiday alone, then send the older sons to school and engage a governess for the girls. Miss Crosby is determined that each daughter will have the opportunity to develop her talents, even go to college. She also becomes so interested in women’s suffrage that she gets into trouble; another event that must be interpreted for David. Each of the children as they grow up shows their particular traits, as one loves gardening, another the family dog, and Esdras finds biblical quotes for all occasions. As war approaches assumptions are made about who will take part in which way, and the implications of those choices continue to affect who is left.

The subject matter of the novel is not miserable, or over dramatic. The style is gently amusing, allowing the reader to fill in the gaps and grasp the implications of the written record. It is a carefully written book, generous to the characters, full of tiny details which make it a convincing story. It feels like a book of its time, but beautifully written and controlled. I really enjoyed reading this book, appreciated its subtle wit, and found that it carried me along with its fascinating story. This is a book to be savoured and a pleasure to read, and I was really pleased to find it in my local library in its Greyladies edition.

I have been finishing off plenty of books over the last few days, so I ought to have something to post about!

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell – A place of Women?

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This book is one of the best social history documents concerning a small English town in the middle of the nineteenth century. In the reign of “Our Queen” – Victoria of course, the small town of Cranford (actually Knutsford in Cheshire) is dominated by women. The book actually points out that every household above a certain value is run by a woman, single or widowed, and there is a notable shortage of men beyond those strictly necessary in a Victorian town. The centre of the settlement is the household of the Misses Jenkyns, the two unmarried daughters of a previous Rector. Now in their fifties, and therefore seen as old (ouch!), Miss Deborah is seen as the arbiter of taste, custom and behaviour, the clever daughter with decided views on literature, dress and every kind of ritual which can occur throughout the year. The younger sister, Matilda or “Matty”, is a far gentler character; some might say, too gentle and undecided for her own good.  Various other women form their social circle, notably Miss Pole, incurable gossip and agitator of much activity, and Mrs Jamieson, slightly higher up the social scale and devoted to her dog, Carlo.

The women are not the poorest financially, but apart from the complicated social arrangements, they must all practise “elegant economy” as their income is strictly limited. This takes the form of balancing the use of candles, and entertainments using their finest crockery but tiny amounts of food. Calling or visiting friends is to be done at certain times, and length of each visit is strictly determined. All this life is described by Mary Smith, unnamed to begin with, but developing in time to become an actual character who takes a thoughtful hand in the fortunes of the Jenkyns household and participating in several situations. The community is fascinated by the arrival of Captain Brown and his two daughters, as some conventions are compromised and tragedy befalls some characters.

This is a well- loved novel written by a woman with skill and compassion. It is essentially an entertaining read, first serialised in Dickens’ publications, and only latterly collected into a book. In many ways it is not fictional, as Gaskell describes scenes from her own childhood and almost lists the small anecdotes of behaviour. As the novel develops, a plot of a kind emerges, as tragedy makes people behave slightly differently and entertain new possibilities. It remains an uplifting book despite losses to the community, as Gaskell shows the best in her characters. There is delightful fear as a long dark lane must be travelled, and a shortage of money addressed, yet there is still the cow who must wear memorable wraps, and a cat with a taste for fine lace. In many ways this is not an exciting read, and most interesting for those who like their humour subtle and their plots undramatic. It is not a long book, but it is strong on characterisation as Gaskell controls her cast of characters in a peaceful setting. It has much to say on the position of women with little or no education, the fear of outsiders and the myriad little disturbances of what some now call a multi thread drama. It is perhaps the antidote to the strong stories of Gaskell’s contemporaries and differs from her own other novels; it is really a loving tribute to her own upbringing in a small town, a successful evocation of times already past.

We looked at this book in our book group today, and some members mentioned how they had been asked to read it at school, and got incredibly bored with it as a result. Some of us had watched the BBC version of 2007, and got a little confused because of the inclusion of two other stories by  Gaskell. There was actually a fascinating discussion on the changes in life since the books setting, but also how social differences and economics still led to unfairness today. While some began by not really appreciating the book, it was agreed that it was an interesting read and was enjoyed by most of us.

Manderley Forever – The Life of Daphne du Maurier by Tatiana de Rosnay

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This book is essentially a biography of Daphne du Maurier, author of “Rebecca”, “Jamaica Inn” and “My Cousin Rachel”, among other novels and short stories. Whether deliberately or not, it reads very much like a novel, with a strong character around whom others revolve. The title is also significant: the locations in which Daphne lived are the sections of the novels, but the real obsession is Menabilly, the Cornish house and estate that Daphne rented for most of her life. This house has always been seen as the model for Manderley, the dominant location for the novel “Rebecca”, a strong force which almost amounts to a character in the tale of jealously and revenge. This book is far more prosaic; it tells the story of a woman for whom the drive to write frequently overcame all other concerns, and whose obsession with the Cornish coast dominated her life.

I am not sure if the fact that this book is translated from French contributes to the style of writing. The bulk of the narrative is written in the present tense, which could be annoying, and the writer attributes thoughts, feelings and compulsions to her subject that no one could ever know or witness. On the other hand, de Rosnay’s knowledge of France gives a solid foundation to the passages of this book where Daphne enjoys time in France, first as a schoolgirl, then frequently as a friend and guest of Frenande Yvon. Daphne is portrayed as a woman who is attracted to female friends throughout her life; their influence on her actions and writings run throughout this book. The author described how she “described her (Daphne) as if she was filming her”, describing her clothes, her walk, her mannerisms. This level of detail is of course possible because Daphne was filmed, photographed and reported on not only for her reputation as a best-selling author, but also as the wife of an important military figure and aide to the young Prince Philip.

This book depicts Daphne’s life from being favourite daughter of Gerald du Maurier, actor and writer, whose personality dominated not only his family’s lives but the social circle in which he moved. The suggestion is that he had many extra marital encounters, and his paternal relationships with his daughters became intense as they sought independence. Daphne’s marriage to “Tommy” Browning is troubled as their mutual love of sailing becomes insufficient to keep them together, as well his military career taking him abroad and endangering his life. It is only towards the end of his life that Daphne realises how other things and people have pushed him out of her thoughts.

The most significant reason for this book is to tell the story of the author of such novels as “Rebecca”. While it reveals how Daphne would shut herself away to write, and how she was inspired to particular novels and stories by life experiences, it fails to give detailed descriptions of how she actually wrote them except to point out that she became inspired and wrote in a creative rush. “Rebecca” is seen as her greatest bestseller yet the one that so dominated her output that she became tired of its dominance.

This is an honest book, almost novelistic in its narrative, and explains many of the elements of Daphne’s life. Though not an obviously academic book in terms of noting influences or other aspects of her writing, it is a well indexed biography which covers most subjects. I found it an easy to read book, despite my limited knowledge of her novels, and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in her writing.

I must admit to not having read any du Maurier except “Rebecca” and “The King’s General”, but that is because I’m a little cowardly when it comes to fiction and this book confirms that some of the short stories are a little scary! I’m sure some people are more well read than I!

High Rising by Angela Thirkell – a most enjoyable introduction to Barsetshire

This early Thirkell novel is notable for introducing some significant characters to the Barsetshire establishment that were going to reoccur throughout the chronicles, Laura and Tony Morland. Other characters such as George Knox reappear, such as Mr Middleton, notorious for their ceaseless talking and self promotion. This novel begins in the festive season, but the events continue well into the new year, so is certainly not limited to winter reading, despite the cover on the Virago Modern Classics edition. Other characters such as Anne Todd, Stoker and the quickly notorious Una Grey all play their part to make this one of the most memorable of Thirkell’s novels.
The novel opens with a school prize giving in which Tony and his friend, rejoicing in the nickname of Donk, threaten to create mayhem, until Laura, Tony’s long suffering mother, takes him home to their cottage. Her servant, Stoker, takes charge, while Laura reacquaints herself with local author and personality, George Knox. All is not well in the household, as he has acquired a new secretary, who is spectacularly efficient and seems to be scheming to marry her employer. Sybil, George’s daughter, is unhappy as she is becoming attached to Adrian, Laura’s frequently bewildered publisher. Anne Todd is Laura’s secretary, who is also caring for her elderly mother, gaining the admiration of the local Doctor. There is festive drinking, a car accident and proposals of marriage, as people enjoy parties, visits and London evenings out to see King Lear. Laura is self depreciating about her writing, but she actually succeeds in attracting the devoted following that Thirkell herself wanted and probably achieved. Underlying the adult happenings, Tony tries to develop a splendid railway and express his delight in accidents and dogs. He develops his characteristic personality and is even involved in one of the dramatic scenes at the end of the book when all is revealed.
This is overall one of the cheerful interwar books in which the events are happily worked out, people feel real and there is a satisfactory plot. The servants are happy in their work, manage their employers well, and are not disparaged. The difficulty that has been seen in this novel is the treatment and discussion of Una Grey, the secretary with designs on her boss. She is in a difficult situation as a single young woman who needed to support herself by working or find a husband, and it is perhaps a little cruel of Laura and others to refer to her as the Incubus because of her devotion to George. While there are women who need to work in the Barsetshire set as the chronicles proceed, especially during the war years, their work tends towards the voluntary and not many have to work to survive as Miss Grey must, and it seems unfair to criticise her. However, she does proceed to show some nasty characteristics, and maybe the reader’s sympathy is more drawn to Anne Todd, for her devotion to her mother and her lack of financial prospects. Altogether this is a most enjoyable book and a very good starting point for the Barsetshire novels.

Although this was one of the first Thirkell novel I read, the VMC edition makes it a joy to re read.Does anyone know if there are more reprints to come in the series, or is “Miss Bunting” the final effort?

Take Courage – Anne Bronte and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis. A stunning read.

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This is a remarkable book, which anyone who is interested in the Bronte family, especially Anne, would do well to read. Not a biography, not a set of notes on her two novels or poetry, but in the style of Ellis’ other book “How to be a Heroine”, a personal reaction to Anne’s work and life. This is a book of how a lot of Bronte fans and those who only have a knowledge of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights have ignored Anne and her writing; Ellis successfully argues that  ‘the other Bronte’ is more than worthy of attention, and indeed may have been the most radical of the sisters.

In some respects the theme of this book is regret. Regret that Anne was not more regarded during her lifetime, regret that her attempts to write in support of governess and women generally did not meet with more understanding, and the most obvious regret that this immensely talented writer died so young. Ten chapters that are engagingly written about eight people that Anne was close to, one about her first creation and the final, tenth chapter, movingly entitled “Anne, or how to take courage”. This book does not work its way through Anne’s life chronologically but looks at her influences and two great novels, “Agnes Grey” and “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall”. Each member of her family provides the basis of a reflection on Anne, even the opening chapter, Maria, the mother that she never really knew.  Here is the difficult Emily, whose single novel overturned so many preconceptions about women writers and Branwell, the ambitious but ultimately self – destroying brother.  The always tricky relationship with Charlotte is examined, as she seeks to gain publication of their novels. The many biographies of the Bronte sisters tend to downplay Anne’s writing compared with the other two women, and Ellis does her best, by examining every scrap of writing and surviving article of Anne’s, to argue that she was just as able a writer, and of great significance in literary terms. Ellis points out that as “Agnes Grey” was actually published slightly after “Jane Eyre”, critics thought that Anne’s novel was a pale copy of Charlotte’s, when it was in fact written before. Furthermore, it was Anne who had worked for years as a governess and had the experience to write a book detailing the life of a governess who finds love after many trials.

This book succeeds because Ellis spares no effort to show how radical Anne’s writing was in a time when women in marriage were open to abuse of every kind. Their money was legally taken from them, they had no legal rights to leave their husband or care for their own children. Helen Huntingdon is a stunning creation whose drunken, abusive and unfaithful husband drives her away so that she must become a stranger to all and hide herself and her son in Wildfell Hall. She is in fear of her husband who pursues her, but places her trust in another, Gilbert. This book is a vivid protest against the lot of women and the redemption of the individual. It is so ahead of its time that there are elements which still shock today, as Ellis recounts the BBC’s version and its impact.

If you are fascinated by the Brontes this is a superb read, as so much is challenged and set in context. It is deeply personal, as Ellis recounts her reaction to every scrap of information she uncovers, and every place that she can discover that was important to Anne. This is not a fan piece, and fervent admirers of Charlotte may be exasperated by some of Ellis’ assertions. It is a fascinating book, and it is recommended as immensely readable.

As you see, I have not gone down the route of picking out my favourite books of the year at this stage, but I have had a spate of finishing some great books in the last few weeks. Maybe it’s the fact I finished all my M.A. assessments in good time! As you have may have noticed, I have been getting a little help with my blog set up, especially my new logo featuring Selwyn the cat. Thanks Harry and Sarah!