Thursday, 28 July 2016

The Vicar's Wife by Katharine Swartz

I liked The Vicar's Wife a lot. It's the story of a woman moving from the US, where she has a busy life with a job she loves, to Goswell, West Cumbria, to live in old vicarage. Jane is reluctant to leave New York, but tells herself it is her British husband's "turn" to have the life he wants. Nevertheless, she privately resents the change, and makes little attempt to adapt to her new life. The only thing that piques her interest at all is the scrap of paper she finds while exploring the larder, a brief shopping list. She manages to identify the writer of the list tentatively as Alice James, wife of the vicar of Goswell in the 1930s, and thus, a former resident of Jane's new home.

At this point, Alice's story starts in parallel, and the two run side-by-side for the remainder of the book. In many ways, Alice is the real protagonist, although Jane is the one the reader is expected to identify with. But both are depicted with equal sympathy, as is the community of Goswell, clearly based on the author's own experience of living in West Cumbria (I've lived there too, and it's recognisable).

It may be purely coincidence that the title echoes that of one of Joanna Trollope's very successful "Aga sagas", though I doubt it, because this is very much in the Trollope tradition. Something Swartz shares with Trollope is the ability to create convincing child characters, and to engage your interest in them. The depiction of the gradual realisation of unhappiness is also very reminiscent of Trollope at her best. Even the cover could be Trollope, couldn't it?* I'm happy to say that it's not just bucolic, but appropriate to the story.

This is not the only time that Swartz has written about Goswell, I've discovered, and I shall be reading more of her books. Thoroughly recommended.

My copy was courtesy of NetGalley.

* Indeed, I have noticed since writing this that another of Swartz's books is called A Village Affair.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Some Short Catch-up Reviews

These are just two of the books I've read recently, in this case both from NetGalley. I'll be adding some more of these catch-up posts over the summer. Too many good books to ignore!

Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

Serafina is a most attractive heroine - despite growing up in isolation she's bright and bold and courageous, an excellent role model. Faced with the disappearance of a child on the Biltmore Estate where she lives, she overcomes her fears of the forest outside and learns much in the process. The Biltmore setting is splendid, I immediately wanted to know more about this iconic house and to explore its nooks and crannies further - I'd have loved this book if I'd read it as a child and am delighted to find there is already a sequel.

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

I felt that this was a novel of two parts. The first part seemed like a successor to the Tilling of E.F. Benson, with its authors, a protagonist who wants to be a writer, its local busybodies... Part two got much more serious, as war becomes ever more imminent and the young men start to sign up for the Front. Belgian refugees arrive and the horrors of war start to bite. It seemed to me that the transition was a little uncomfortable, though perhaps that's reasonable and possibly intentional on the part of the author, reflecting the kind of shock that people must have felt at the disintegration of their cosy lives - it certainly makes this a novel hard to classify. I wanted to read it for its Tilling setting, since I'm a big fan of Benson, but felt at the end that it could equally have been set anywhere else along the English south coast, without losing anything. I gave it four stars on Goodreads, but perhaps if it had been possible to do so, I've have gone for 3.5 instead.  I'd still recommend it though, with the reservations I've described.

Friday, 15 July 2016

In Which I Confirm My Eccentricity...

... or maybe just my poor time-keeping? Anyway, a combination of circumstances last year meant that my 2015 reading list was only kept systematically on Goodreads (the same has happened for 2016 - although I think I'd quite like to go back to the monthly list I used to keep here on the sidebar, for now I'm making do with an updating Goodreads widget of recent reading. I do like being able to keep track of reading year by year, though, and I've been meaning to do something about last year's for months now (well, six and a half months, actually). But until I can create a "proper" page (and if, indeed, I ever get round to it), here is a link to my 2015 booklist:

However, even though it's mid-July 2016 as I post this, I thought I would still pull out some absolute favourites from last year, because there were some real high points and I've enjoyed looking back across the year and seeing what discoveries and rediscoveries I was making.

First, non-fiction, and Ronald Blythe, an author who has become like an old friend since I rediscovered his writing; restful and thoughtful, he reminds me of a birdsong on an evening in early summer, or the gentle shushing of the waves breaking on the beach, and of the steady cycle of the year.

Many of his books are drawn from his "Word from Wormingford" column for the Church Times, but this memoir is about his youth, and his involvement with the early days of the Aldeburgh Festival, with Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears.

Regular readers will know that one of my major interests is fiction for children and young adults, and for that I've chosen The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge, winner of the Costa Book of the Year Award for 2015. It's a wonderful and complex work by an extremely talented author. I've loved everything she's written and she just gets better and better. It's about due for a re-read and when I do, I'll review it properly here.

Two new-to-me authors both fall into the same category of fantasy, but are very different. Mike Shevdon's Sixty-One Nails is urban fantasy, set in London. Inevitably it gets compared to Neverwhere, but its alternative London, the world of the Feyre, isn't much like Gaiman's London Below. Shevdon wrote an interesting piece about why he made the choices he did in writing it - thinking about it now, it's another I want to read again (how do I ever manage to read anything new when the familiar is so endlessly fascinating?). It's the first of four in the series, by the way.

In contrast, Jodi Taylor's Just One Damned Thing After Another has begun a new addiction and I am having to ration myself frantically to avoid simply walloping through all the Chronicles of St Mary's in one fell swoop. Because I absolutely adore them! Her writing, and I'm not just talking about the Chronicles here, offers the best kind of emotional roller-coaster, full of fun, laughter, tears and heartbreak (she does dreadul things to her characters, I don't know how she can live with herself sometimes!). This series has everything I could ever ask for: history, academic back-biting, time-travel... I'm happy to say that there are currently seven books and three - no, four! - short stories (the penultimate of these, Ships and Stings and Wedding Rings, made me snort with laughter on a train journey, most embarrassing). I also read The Nothing Girl and the follow-up Christmas short story, Little Donkey last year, and am now prepared to assert that Jodi Taylor Can Do No Wrong.

I've combined my choices for that hard-to-define category which for me is represented by authors like Thirkell and Pym (I re-read the glorious Crampton Hodnet during the year), and which mostly falls into the period 1910-60, though it might extend a bit on either side depending on how I'm feeling. My choices - for there are two - reflect my growing interest in Golden Age crime novels, helped along by the fact that there are so many excellent reprints these days, and one is always finding new authors to delight in (much, much more of that anon). For last year, though, I've gone back to two old favourites, Margery Allingham and Edmund Crispin.

I'm not sure I'd read either before - if I had, it was when I was very young. Cargo of Eagles is typical Allingham territory, with saltmarshes and skullduggery - sadly, she died before it was finished, so it doesn't add anything to the Campion enigma and really isn't a patch on her at her best. However, I'll read anything in which Campion so much as gets a toe in, so I'm including it here. The Crispin, on the other hand, is just pure, unadulterated joy - always supposing you like Crispin in the first place, as my husband lamentably doesn't. Fen is at his most fey here, rusticating in a Devon village to write his book, but actually taking any excuse he can not to work. It has a lot in common with another book I adore, Michael Innes's Appleby's End.

Finally, and because it made me very happy, and led to about three weeks of solid re-reading, I was delighted to find that Robin Hobb had returned to her characters Fitz and the Fool with a new trilogy  - will this be the final one? I fear so, because it is beginning to tie up the uncertainties and questions from all the other books, and to draw together all the characters. So far she has published parts 1 and 2, Fool's Assassin and Fool's Quest, with the final part due out in March 2017 (oh lord, so long to wait... and on a cliffhanger like you've never seen). Having read both, I went back and read the Tawny Man trilogy again, and I think it very likely that, when I get my hands on the last book, I will celebrate by reading the whole of the Realms of the Elderlings from start to finish - hmm, I can see a major project in the offing. I really don't need a new project.

Another fantastic Jackie Morris cover - love her work. When I saw the first of her Rain Wild covers I kept stroking it. I'd like to be able to go back and replace all my earlier editions with her covers. Sigh.

So, that's the round-up of 2015. My challenge was 125 books and I read 120 - there were probably a few non-fiction books that didn't get included, in fact, as I didn't read cover-to-cover, but I was doing quite a bit of research on English country houses, as my groaning bookshelves attest. I picked up a fantastic selection of books on the subject secondhand, which would have been a wonderful asset if I'd got a job in a stately home, instead of in a barracks!

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Island of Dreams by Dan Boothby

Isn't this a lovely cover...

I bought Island of Dreams almost the moment I spotted it - the cover caught my eye and I'd clicked "Buy" without even looking further. And before long people are going to be sick of me recommending it (grin). I stayed up much, much too late the night I read it.

At one point Dan tells someone he's just met, "You've got my job." Well, what I'd like to say to him is, "You wrote my book." Because, like him, I grew up reading Gavin Maxwell's books, not just Ring of Bright Water but the others as well, and my favourite is The Rocks Remain. And I read obsessively about his life for a long time and felt connected to him in ways I hadn't to other authors. I even have a slight edge on Boothby, being old enough to have actually met Gavin Maxwell (albeit fleetingly, and anyway he didn't notice girls) and, while I haven't been to Skye, or to Sandaig, I did spend time on the west coast of Scotland as a child, and loved it there. One day I'll go back...

I hope Dan will forgive me calling him by his first name, but his writing style is so immediate, so friendly, that I find it hard to think of him otherwise. He had a somewhat rackety childhood, and a convoluted extended family (I identify there, too), and describes himself on his website as having been "chronically peripatetic" before he moved to Scotland to live in Maxwell's last home, the lighthouse keeper's cottage on Eilean Ban (the "White Island" of John Lister-Kaye's biography of Maxwell). There he cared for the tiny island, conducted tours, and learned to know all its moods and foibles.

San's own story is interspersed with Maxwell's, as he tries to understand the author, and his enduring interest to readers and tourists. There's no hero worship, Dan may be an admirer, but he's awake to Maxwell's many faults, especially over finances, and to the damage he wrought on some of the people closest to him. Despite this, Maxwell's remarkable charisma comes through on every page. Some of his attitude to life appears to have infected Dan during his solitary sojourn too - while not on the scale of Maxwell's sometimes hair-raising exploits - even in my teens I was horrified by the sheer fecklessness of Harpoon at a Venture - I did feel that a little more heed could have been paid to the treachery of the waters around the island.

Eilean Ban's status has changed since Maxwell's day - no longer an island since a road bridge was built across to Skye, it's easily reached by all and sundry. You can even stay in the lighthouse keeper's cottages in the shadow of the bridge, with most mod cons, or visit it on a guided tour through the Brightwater Centre.

This is an engaging book if you're interested in Scotland, or the solitary life, or otters, or Gavin Maxwell. Dan Boothby has a delightfully easy style, and the book is very nicely presented, perfect present material. It was one of my clear favourites last year.

Common or Garden Crime

This is a sort of update post, since it's about a book I reviewed in February last year on Goodreads, and which I've just been re-reading. Here's what I had to say then:

I was attracted by the epithet "the Irish Angela Thirkell" but to be honest I didn't see much that was Thirkellish except the village setting. I did enjoy it though, it's an excellent, if short, example of the cosiest kind of crime - in fact, it reminds me much more of Hazel Holt's Sheila Malory books, though they, of course, are more recent. And I didn't warm to Lucy Bex as immediately as I did to Mrs Malory, although her interference in a murder investigation is very polite - you couldn't quite imagine her coming into conflict with the police in the way many amateur sleuths do. Any of Thirkell's characters in a similar position would have been much more high-handed!

There are four mysteries by Sheila Pim, I think, all centred around horticulture, which is a nice element for the gardeners amongst us. They were reissued by Rue Morgue, and it appears only to be possible to get them from the US, which is maddening, since I shall have to have them all (oh, the agonies of being completist!).

Two things of note: one is the WWII setting, which makes the books particularly interesting, as it's an insight into a place and period we don't often find. Although the Irish were neutral in the war, there is much talk of the young men going off to fight in England: "We're very Anglo", someone says elsewhere. The other is that the author makes clear that the reader has all the information required to solve the crime - no dirty tricks, à la Christie, here.

With a re-read, I've changed my mind about several things - firstly, it is much more Thirkellish than I originally thought - indeed, there are some gloriously Mrs T-type moments:
As generally happens with vague engagements that one makes out of civility, in the hope of not having to keep them, there was no getting out of the inquest, and it was held at a very inconvenient time. Miss FitzEustace telephoned that afternoon to say that it was to be in the schoolhouse next morning (this being the school holidays), and would Lucy meet her in the Main Street at ten to? Lucy had to go out leaving bedrooms undone behind her, and with dinner still on her mind. But she was not one to fail in a promise, and the two ladies arrived punctually together.
        The Schoolhouse, an old-fashioned building, with an ecclesiastical touch about  its doors and windows, seemed quite an appropriate place for such solemnities, though there were inconveniences about the seating accommodation. A chair and table for the Coroner were placed on the teacher's dais, and the Clerk had a larger table on the floor in front, but for everybody else there were only desk benches designed for under fourteens. Two rows of these were turned sideways for the jury.
        The two lades sat down modestly at the bottom of the class, and Lucy went on thinking about dinner, while exchanging occasional comments with Miss FitzEustace, who looked round her with curiosity.
I can just imagine Mrs T writing that, it shares all her ability to paint a vivid picture with a few deft strokes. I suppose, too, that, much of the similarity between the two authors comes from the quiet humour that underlies the writing (and occasionally breaks out into something sharper, though Pim is gentler with all her characters) - that "modestly" in the last paragraph conveys so much information about how the two women regard themselves in the unusual setting of the inquest. This event continues with some delightful detail about the awkwardness of the getting in and out of the desks (for younger readers, these desks were built as a unit with seat and table attached to each other, and they date from a time when under-fourteens were on the small side, being under-nourished).

The patterns of Clonmeen life will be familiar to all Thirkellites - the daily round of doing the beds while the maid does "the rough", arranging dinner, scratch lunches for the lady whose menfolk are all out during the day, dropping in to tea with the neighbours, or not, if you're being considerate about their rations, dressing for dinner... Lucy's nephew Ivor is in the RAF, but conveniently returns on leave to add his own thoughts to Lucy's musings on the murder investigation. I really liked Lucy on second reading, and her preoccupied brother, Linnaeus, and I'm rather sorry that all Pim's detective novels seem to be standalones, so I shan't meet them again.

With the apparent, and very sad, demise of the publisher, Rue Morgue Press, I can only hope that someone else will pick up these books - they deserve a British audience. Meanwhile, I hope the remaining three will make their way safely to me from the US, as I'm looking forward to them very much.