Tuesday, 11 November 2008

October's book round up

October's books were:
  • By the Pricking of my Thumbs by Agatha Christie
  • Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery
  • Stranger at Green Knowe by L.M. Boston
  • Growing Up by Angela Thirkell
  • Tamsin by Peter S. Beagle
  • No Cure for Death by Hazel Holt
  • Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott
  • Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham - re-read
  • Dragons in the Waters by Madeleine l'Engle
  • Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton
  • Look to the Lady by Margery Allingham - re-read
  • Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome
  • Great Northern? by Arthur Ransome
  • Panther Soup by John Gimlette
  • Summer Lightning by P.G. Wodehouse
Better late than never, I am finally getting to October's book summary. A certain repetitive strain here, I feel, you'll notice that you've seen most of the authors' names in previous lists. I'll concentrate on those who are new here.

First, Panther Soup by John Gimlette. Not having this to hand, I can't say a great deal about it. I
gave it to my stepfather, with some trepidation, for his birthday and, as soon as he finished it, he insisted I take it to read. Rather soon afterwards, he insisted I give it back, as he wanted to re-read it, so I am afraid I raced through much more quickly than it deserved, because it is full of fascination. It tells how Gimlette retraced the route of the American invasion force that landed off Marseille in 1945, at times in company with one of the veterans, Putnam Flint. Gimlette is a travel writer with a real feel for writing history, and Panther Soup is full of digressions into the pasts of France and Germany, and surprisingly full of humour. I chose it as a birthday gift because we had both read and enjoyed Gimlette's earlier book, Theatre of Fish, in which he traced the journey of a forebear to Newfoundland (although I am unlikely to forgive him for what his ancestor did to his dogs). Harrowing and funny by turns, Panther Soup ought to be required reading for anyone who didn't live through the War. The reason for my anxiety about my choice of gift, of course, is that my stepfather did, and he had a far greater acquaintance with the mud through which Putnam Flint slogged in 1945 than I can even begin to imagine – I know he found it painful, but was glad nonetheless that the story was so well-told.

From Gimlette, and in need of some light relief, I turned immediately to Arthur Ransome, and to two of his later books which I had never read. Both these volumes, with the distinctive covers I always associate with this series, were rescued from my stepbrother's shelves after his death, and had belonged to him since childhood, so they are doubly precious. I particularly love the maps as endpapers. Winter Holiday is set in the Lake District, an area I know well as we lived on its margins for some years (my husband's socialist leanings wouldn't allow us to live in the Lakes – and we probably couldn't have afforded it – but we were permitted to live in hideously depressed West Cumberland where the coal mines had all closed, and half of his pupils didn't have indoor bathrooms, but we could get to the Lakes in half an hour). It tells how Dick and Dorothea, on holiday in the Lakes, meet the Swallows and Amazons and join them in the expedition to discover the North Pole. They almost don't have time to make it, because it simply won't snow, but then Nancy comes down with mumps and they are all quarantined and can't return to school. The children commandeer the absent Captain Flint's houseboat (to his indignation when he returns unexpectedly), where they make snowshoes and bearskin coats for the expedition. It's all jolly good fun, and genuinely gripping when Dick and Dorothea start out for the Pole too soon.

Great Northern? too, appealed to me more than the earlier Swallows and Amazons stories, with its setting amongst the Scottish Islands, perhaps the most beautiful part of the British Isles. Keen birdwatcher, Dick, is longing to see either of the indigenous divers (red- and black-throated) during their sailing holiday, so he is both disbelieving and immensely excited when he believes he has seen a great northern diver, not listed as a British breeding bird, apparently sitting on a clutch of eggs. Dick wants to photograph the bird, so that it will be included in the breeding records, but he has inadvertently given away its location to an egg collector. The children and Uncle Jim must act quickly if they are to save the bird. One of my most precious memories is waking to the sound of a nearby red-throated diver – I've never seen the great northern, alas. I recommend both books to anyone who hasn't read them.

I'd read several reviews of Ghostwalk, by Rebecca Stott, and looked forward to it. I have to admit to being a bit disappointed, I didn't think the plot really stood up, and I got pretty irritated with the main characters. One to get out of the library, I think. Finally, since I'm restricting myself to authors I haven't written about before, Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton. This is a gem. Beautifully written, it tells the intertwined stories of two families, both wealthy, both headed by women. The two matriarchs are convincingly portrayed – the moment when Helen tells Mrs Fowler that she will no longer call her "mother" because that name must henceforth be reserved for her mother-in-law is exquisitely cringe-making. Mrs Fowler – the meek Milly to her family, but Millicent in her innermost, and somewhat more acerbic, thoughts, is a type of woman becoming familiar to me from several novels dating from around the same period, and it is Millicent's small struggle for survival that makes this such a good book. Mrs Willoughby, meanwhile, is recognisable from an earlier generation of authors, the rigid and unbending woman whose rule is benign only if not crossed. All the events take place firmly within the domestic sphere, but the reader is entirely caught up with these small lives; not all the characters are likeable, but they are what is more important, believable, and I found myself anxious to see whether Peter will escape from the dreadful Belle, or Cynthia from becoming yet another put-upon maiden aunt. Published by Persephone Books, with exquisite endpapers, Family Roundabout is certain
ly one to buy.


  1. Hi Geranium Cat!

    I am now working my way through your blog, after reading your comments on mine!

    Winter Holiday is far and away my favorite Ransome.

  2. Hi Charlotte, thanks for visiting! I realise that I didn't actually say that Winter Holiday is my favourite: waiting for the lake to freeze over, the long climax with the expedition to the North Pole, even the way the children meet, is all so atmospheric.

  3. Peter the Flautist25 November 2008 at 21:56

    Winter Holiday and Pigeon Post are my favourites, but I also quite like Peter Duck (just finished reading it to my son)

    Dark Puss

  4. Dark Puss, I haven't read Peter Duck, but it's on the list of books I must get round to. I got rather put off Ransome as a child when I got very stuck on Missee Lee - I'd only read some of the earlier books at that time, and just stopped altogether. I'm enjoying the process of rediscovery, but I may eschew the China Seas.