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Archive for December, 2012

I always have fun making this list but, for the first time, it was easy as well as fun.  There was no struggling over what belong in each spot and no angst-ridden hours spent juggling the merits of one book over another in deciding which deserved to make the list.  These are, without a doubt, the ten best books I read in 2012.  They have stuck in my mind since I read them and I cannot go a day without recommending at least one of them to friends, family members, other bloggers or people I randomly meet on the street (like the woman I met at the coffeeshop on Friday.  Such are the dangers of engaging me in conversation).  Without further ado, here are ten best books I read in 2012:

Best Books of 2012 - Part 1

10. The Home-Maker (1924) – Dorothy Canfield Fisher
This is, quite rightly, one of the best-loved Persephone titles among readers.  It is a wonderfully thoughtful book about gender roles, societal pressure, and personal fulfillment and treats all of its characters – adult or child – with respect for the everyday struggles they face.

9. Two-Part Invention (1988) – Madeleine L’Engle
This book was heartbreaking, beautiful, and, above all, surprising.  It is a portrait of L’Engle’s forty year marriage written during her husband’s final illness but it is also a reflection on her faith and what religion meant in her life.  It is a highly emotional and intelligent book and I cried more tears over this than anything else I read this year.

8. The Siren Years (1974) – Charles Ritchie
No matter how many times I read this (and I have lost count at this point), it remains the best wartime diary I have ever come across.   Ritchie’s diplomatic and social connections in London exposed him to an extraordinary variety of people, from political leaders and petty bureaucrats to authors and exiled royalty.  The joy of Ritchie’s diaries comes from the meld of political details and domestic ones.  I find it just as interesting to hear about how the Canadian High Commission handled refugee claims as I do to discover what Ritchie saw on his walk through London each day on the way to work or what he talked about at lunch with Nancy Mitford.     Best Books of 2012 - Part 2

7. Leningrad (2011) – Anna Reid
I still get chills thinking about this book, which looks at what happened to those trapped in Leningrad while it was under siege during the Second World War.  It is uncomfortable and upsetting to read but so very well done.

6. The Headmistress (1944) – Angela Thirkell
Possibly the most perfectly-formed of Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels, The Headmistress focuses on the experiences of the Belton family during the Second World War.  Mrs Belton, the middle-aged mother of three, is one of Thirkell’s best heroines.  Her struggles to understand her adult children and to live with her constant fear for her sons broke my heart.

5. The Laskett (2003) – Roy Strong
A gardening tome that even non-gardeners would love, this book describes the evolution of Strong’s garden at his country home, The Laskett.  Though there are plenty of details about the garden’s layout and plant choices, what makes this book special are the stories Strong shares about the friends and experiences that influenced the garden’s formation.  This is a garden that clearly reflects both Strong and his wife’s personalities and experiences and it is a book that acts as a tribute to their delightfully unique lives.  Best Books of 2012 - Part 3

4. Good Evening, Mrs Craven (1999) – Mollie Panter-Downes
A wonderfully varied collection of short stories about life in England during the Second World War.  Panter-Downes’ domestic focus exactly suits my tastes as does her interest in the quiet disappointments and muted struggles faced by her characters.  There is nothing sensational about the events in these stories, making them both relatable and, to me, touching.

3. It’s Too Late Now (1939) –  A.A. Milne
2012 was the year of Milne and as much as I loved his plays, his pieces for Punch, his passionate plea for pacifism, and his light verse, it was his autobiography that gave me the most pleasure.  Looking back on the first fifty-odd years of his life, Milne joyously recalls the happy days of his childhood and, later, his determined pursuit of a writing career.  It has nothing in common with gossipy tell-alls and that is part of what I loved about it.  It is a fun book to read and I suspect Milne had even more fun writing it.

2. Fräulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther (1907) – Elizabeth von Arnim
It has been a long time since I’ve fallen as hard for a fictional character as I did for Fräulein Rose-Marie Schmidt.  These letters, written to her erstwhile suitor Roger Anstruther, reveal a woman who is both romantic and practical, youthful and mature.  She is clever and funny and resilient and I want to be her almost as much as I want to befriend her. the-element-of-lavishness

1. The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell  (2001) – edited by Michael Steinman
I read this in January and, honestly, no other book I read this year came even close to eclipsing it in my affections.  I had never read anything by either Warner or Maxwell before and knew very little about either of them but that made no difference.  Through their letters, I got to know both of them intimately and to witness the wonderful warmth and depth of their friendship as it evolved over the decades.  While both were extraordinary writers, it is Warner’s letters I remember the best now, almost a year after I read them.  She wrote beautifully about the domestic details of her life and the letters written between the death of her partner Valentine and her own death are as good a record of aging and loss as I have ever read.

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A Century of Books

When Simon first introduced the idea of his A Century of Books reading project in September 2011, I was impressed.  It seemed quite ambitious, this idea of reading one book published in each year of the 20th Century, and very tempting.  I resisted signing up immediately but the project proved irresistible.  I joined in and I am so glad that I did because it made for an extraordinary year of reading.

You can find the full list of what I read on my A Century of Books page but I thought it would be fun to mention a few things I’ve learned while doing this project:

Not all years are created equal – One hundred books is not a particularly large number for me (I’m currently reading my 233rd book of the year) but the adventure was in working within the parameters of the challenge.  Some years are ridiculously easy to find books for (at times, it seemed that every book I wanted to read had been published in 1912, 1925, or 1947) while others are excruciatingly difficult (I spent months searching for something I wanted to read from 1900 and 1969).

Plan, plan, plan for failure  – The pressure to read a book, whether you enjoy it or not, that fills in one of your “missing” years is intense.  But just because that book was published in a convenient year does not mean it is worth reading.  I kept an ongoing list of books published in all the years I had not yet completed so that I had multiple options to choose from.  If I started a book and was not enjoying it, I always had a second or third option to consider switching to.  There is no point in reading 100 books that you don’t enjoy.

Get to know your favourite authors really well – Angela Thirkell, Elizabeth von Arnim, Georgette Heyer, D.E. Stevenson and, of course, A.A. Milne were my best friends this year.  Between those five authors, I filled in 41 years of the century and, if I had wanted to, could have filled in at least ten more.

Use the buddy system – I know that a number of people have been working through A Century of Books at their own pace but, for me, the greatest motivation I had was knowing that Simon was also reading all the books in one year.  Every time he posted a new review I was reminded of how far I had fallen behind in my own reviews or my own reading and I rushed to catch up.  I really wanted to do this is one year and, thanks to Simon’s example and encouragement along the way, I did.

Prepare to be surprised – I knew I was going to have fun reading the books from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s – and I did – but the greatest thing about the project was finding delight in unexpected places.  The 1910s turned out to be possibly my favourite decade of all and the 1970s surprised me with some of my most thought-provoking reads of the year.  I was also shocked by how much I struggled to find books I wanted to read from the 1950s and 1960s.

Now that A Century of Books is done, I have to admit that I am looking forward to being able to read without checking the publication date of every book I pick up!  It did restrict my reading choices, particularly towards the end of the year, and though it was interesting to work within that kind of structure I am ready to be free of it.  I want to wallow in 18th and 19th Century authors, read 20 books all published in the same year of the 20th Century if I want to, and crack open all of the 21st Century biographies and memoirs I have waiting on my shelves.  And, maybe, after a year of reading like that I will be ready to do A Century of Books again in 2014.  I have already started on a booklist so I will be well-prepared if I do!

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Library Lust

credit: Country Life

credit: Country Life

While reading Roy Strong’s A Country Life earlier this week, I stumbled across a number of photos of Strong’s home, The Laskett, in the Country Life picture library.  This is the Studio, where Strong’s wife used to work and where, since her death, he as worked, and it certainly looks like a unique room.  My own workspace is sadly lacking in decorative columns.

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Sylvester Georgette HeyerRereading Sylvester by Georgette Heyer this week has made me so happy.  There are a number of reasons why I pick the books I do: to learn something, to be challenged, to be distracted, etc.  But reading Sylvester reminded me of my favourite reason of all: to feel a delicious sense of joy bubbling up inside me, from the very first page to the very last.

Sylvester, or The Wicked Uncle (first published in 1957) is, I think, one of the best novels Heyer wrote.  I rank it only slightly behind A Civil Contract and The Grand Sophy in my affections and there is every possibility that it will surpass both of those in coming years as I seem to love it more each time I read it.  And I reread it as often as I can.

Sylvester, Duke of Salford, is an arrogant young man, very conscious of doing his duty but completely unconscious of how he speaks down to those who annoy him.  He can be charming in company and has excellent, extremely polite manners but there is no warmth in his dealings with anyone outside his family.  His invalid mother, seeing how emotionally inaccessible her eldest son has become since the death of his twin, is perturbed but hardly knows how to raise the topic with Sylvester.  Sylvester, for his part, refuses to acknowledge that there is a problem.  He knows his behaviour to be perfectly correct for a man of his station:

Sylvester, who did not arrive at parties very late, refuse to stand up for country-dances, take his bored leave within half an hour of his arrival, leave invitations unanswered, stare unrecognizingly at one of his tenants, or fail to exchange a few words with every one of his guests on Public Days at Chance, was not very likely to believe a charge of arrogance…

When Sylvester comes to his mother to tell her he is planning to marry, she is momentarily thrilled, thinking that he has finally fallen in love.  Alas! Sylvester has merely realised that it is his duty to marry and would like her opinion on which young lady of their acquaintance he should pick.  He is a man who, having never been in love, believes like Charlotte Lucas that “happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance” and it is far better to find someone suitable than loveable:

‘Seriously, Mama, although I have seen some love-matches that have prospered, I have seen a great many that most certainly have not!  Oh! no doubt some husbands and wives of my acquaintance would stare to hear me say I thought them anything but happy!  Perhaps they enjoy jealousies, tantrums, quarrels, and stupid misunderstandings: I should not!  The well-bred woman who marries me because she has a fancy to be a duchess will suit me very well, and will probably fill her position admirably.’

Refusing the shortlist he had prepared, the dowager duchess recalls that during his childhood she had hoped for a moment that he might marry the daughter of her dearest friend once they were both grown.  Amused by this, Sylvester determines to go and meet this Phoebe Marlow and discover if they will suit.

When Phoebe, who had met and promptly been forgotten by Sylvester during her season in London, hears that he is coming to visit with the intention of making her an offer (a scheme her thoughtless stepmother reveals to her), she is appalled.  Not only does she not credit the idea that he could want her for a wife – at nineteen, she is clever and excellent with horses but has no beauty or accomplishments – but she also knows that her opinion on the matter will be of no importance.  Easily intimidated by her stepmother, Phoebe knows that if Sylvester makes her an offer she will be forced to accept.  So, after his arrival, she does the only thing she can think of: with the help of her lifelong friend Tom Orde she runs away from home, heading to her grandmother in London.  Of course, all does not go to plan.

For starters, Sylvester had realised soon after arriving that the silent, sulking young woman would be no wife for him.  As soon as the family learns of Phoebe’s disappearance – believing at first that she and Tom have eloped – he makes his excuses and is thankful to get away.  But the weather is awful and he finds himself forced to stop at an inn, which already has two other occupants: Phoebe and Tom Orde, who were forced to stop after their vehicle upset, breaking Tom’s leg and, to Phoebe’s greater concern, injuring one of the horses.

Forced to get to know one another under these unconventional circumstances, Sylvester and Phoebe discover that though they might have no interest in marrying one another, friendship is a definite possibility.  Impatient with Sylvester’s imperious moods, both Phoebe and the delightful Tom give their highborn friend the set downs he so desperately needs whenever he attempts to look down his nose at anyone or acts without considering the impact his actions may have on others, disarming Sylvester who had, until then, thought he knew himself very well.  But he is not too proud to accept their criticism, though he cheerily returns the favour.  A firm and surprisingly intimate friendship develops between them all on this equal footing and when Phoebe at last departs after the roads are cleared, she is running away from her stepmother only and not Sylvester, whom she looks forward to seeing again in London.

In London, their friendship surprises Sylvester’s friends and family, who have never seen him take this level of interest in a young woman.  The two, though they dare not admit it, are falling in love and all seems to be going well until the secret Phoebe has been keeping from him is finally revealed: having passed an uneventful first season the year before, Phoebe made the most of the hours she spent observing the Ton and has since written a lurid gothic romance featuring thinly disguised society folk as characters.  And Sylvester, cast as the wicked Count Ugolino, is her villain.  The casting had more to do with the extravagant slant of his eyebrows than any character flaws but due to an unfortunate coincidence the key plot elements of The Lost Heir are mirrored in Sylvester’s role as guardian to his young nephew.  The book is immediately popular and it is not long before Sylvester’s sister-in-law, Lady Ianthe Rayne, is convinced that the book was written as a warning to her to remove her son from Sylvester’s reach.  In refuting this, Phoebe unwittingly reveals herself as the author and, of course, Sylvester finds out, putting an end to the progress of their relationship.

From there, the book becomes a delicious satire of the gothic novel, with Tom and Phoebe reluctantly dragged along – almost kidnapped, really – when Lady Ianthe attempts, with her very foolish new husband, to spirit her son away to France without Sylvester’s permission.  Horrified that her book could have inspired such madness, Phoebe finds herself taking care of Edward, Sylvester’s rambunctious six-year old nephew, since Lady Ianthe is first too ill to do so herself and then simply too ill-at-ease with her son, who had always been cared for by nurses.  Lady Ianthe and Sir Nugent are comic rather than heroic and when a livid Sylvester arrives on the scene he is greeted by anyone of sense as the saviour rather than the villain of the piece.   All are returned safely to England but it takes a while longer for Sylvester and Phoebe to reconcile, though when they do it is perfectly written.  This may not be my absolutely favourite Heyer (yet) but the final scene between Sylvester and Phoebe (aided by his mother) is my favourite romantic climax in any of her novels.  I feel so nervous every time I read it, even knowing what is about to happen.  That is how invested I am in their relationship, that is how well Heyer evokes the tension and anxiety both characters are feeling before their confrontation, knowing that they love one another but uncertain of how to move forward together.

There are so many things to love about this novel.  It is wonderfully plotted, moving along at the perfect speed with no odd diversions or unnecessary meanderings.  It makes excellent use of Heyer’s extensive knowledge of the Regency era and Regency slang without those historical details becoming cumbersome.  It has a wonderful relationship between the hero and heroine that allows both to grow over the course of the novel and to confront how little they know of themselves.  It is funny and smart and never, never dull.  But mostly, it has truly magnificent supporting characters: the silly, stylish and well-matched Lady Ianthe and Sir Nugent; Phoebe’s demanding grandmother (who is also Sylvester’s godmother); Sylvester’s suffering but stoic mother; Sylvester’s rebellious nephew; and, most of all, Tom Orde, Phoebe’s lifelong friend and surrogate brother, who is full of good sense and is frustrated to no end by the unnecessary agonies Phoebe and Sylvester put themselves through.  Tom is perfection.  He is far to solid himself to ever be the hero of a Heyer novel but he is a perfect sidekick and I like to imagine he got the perfect ending he deserved, with a dependable, good-natured wife to give him many dependable, good-natured children and to support him when he became squire after his father’s death (at, one hopes, an advanced age since Mr Orde was also an excellent man).  Since Phoebe and Sylvester’s happiness is assured, Tom is the only one left to worry about.

It is a wonderful novel and it was a very happy way to end A Century of Books.  Yes, this is book #100 and I am so pleased that I saved it for last.  It was a fantastic reading project and it deserved to end on a high note.  I’ll talk more about the project as a whole on the weekend but for now I am just going to savour the fact that I am done.

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Country LifeI have just finished reading A Country Life by Roy Strong, an enjoyable collection of magazine columns Strong wrote about his life at The Laskett.  Covering all manner of topics – the adventures of his absurdly named cats (the Reverent Wenceslas Muff, the Lady Torte de Shell, William Larking Esq, and Herzog Friedrich von Sans Souci), descriptions of alfresco dinner parties, observations of developments in the garden, and musings on the futures of ill-attended country churches – these short pieces capture country life in all seasons and are illustrated with beautiful drawings by the author’s wife, Julia Trevelyan Oman.

To be conscious of happiness in life is rare,” Strong says in one of the pieces but, more than most, he seems able to not only recognize moments of happiness but also to capture and appreciate them.  It is this sense of contentment that makes this book so enjoyable.  His enjoyment of simple things – visits with friends, charity lectures, even the daily act of writing in his diary – is wonderful to behold.

Many of his observations are only a few sentences long, but that makes them no less precious.  I loved this description of how the seclusion of country life in winter gave him a better understanding of Austen’s novels:

I have been in the country virtually the whole time since Christmas – a long stretch without the wicked city.  January and February are pretty awful months, ones in which the weather enhances the sense of enclosure and isolation, which not even papers, television or radio quite eradicate.

Suddenly, I am acutely aware of a kinship with the England of Jane Austen, in which the fashionable chatter of the metropolis percolates only fitfully with the backdrop of a war on the mainland of Europe, while civilized life in the country still goes on. Plus ça change…

Perhaps because it is winter here, I enjoyed that section of the book the most, with its talk of Christmas decorations, marmalade-making, and hyacinth bulbs.  Best of all were Strong’s musings on “A Country Library”:

The classification of a private library ought to reflect the structure of the owner’s mind, and that inevitably changes over the years.  In addition, the best of systems in the end breaks down in the face of bequests and gifts of books; when there is no more room to jam anything in, little heaps start spring up.

Once reshelving starts, there is no going back.  It has to be accompanied by the iron will to discard several thousand books in order to re-establish any order.  My wife cannot bear parting with anything, and I find that on seeing this massive evacuation, she has hastily constructed makeshift shelves of bricks and old planks in the garden room, to take in the throw-outs which ranged from books in Russian, which I cannot read, to a set of the Waverley novels.

I was still short of space, so we studied a guest bedroom, which had already sacrificed a bay to take in the sections on contemporary biography and Cecil Beaton, in order to build yet another bookcase.  I never mind sleeping in a room jammed with books, and one hopes one’s guests will feel the same.

Self-sufficiency, in terms of civilized life and information, remain the essence of any library in the country, however small.  No one can afford to be without a run of the great classics, the odd volume on the peerage, or a handful on local topography, architecture and history.

Except for four months spent in East Sussex, I have never lived in the country nor do I ever expect to.  But there is something irresistible about the idea of it and Strong’s pieces capture the romantic, gentle country life we city folk dream of, with a warm Aga in the kitchen, a large garden to be worked on and enjoyed, rooms full of books, and plenty of witty, intelligent friends to be welcomed for visits.

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Christmas Books 2012

Last Christmas, my family showered me with Angela Thirkell books.  This year, they turned to the always reliable Persephone Books (correctly understanding that, with 90% of my wish list devoted to Persephone titles, I might be interested in increasing my collection) and the results were incredibly generous.  In total, I have seven new Persephone books:

Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll

Patience by John Coates

High Wages by Dorothy Whipple

Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan

Fidelity by Susan Glaspell

The New House by Lettice Cooper

Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson

Of these, I am probably most excited to read The New House but, unsurprisingly, they are all very appealing.  I was lucky enough to be given some other books as well, including Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure by Artemis Cooper, which sounds wonderful.

Christmas cake

Christmas cookies

Though I am obviously excited about my presents, the best part of Christmas (Eve, in our case) is getting to sit around the living room with the rest of the family, enjoying each other’s company and some truly excellent baked goods.  Whenever I read those newspaper advice columns about people dreading the holidays and time spent with relatives, I am thankful for my own friendly family.  It is truly a delight to spend five or six hours together.

Since Christmas morning is a non-event in our house, my mother and I sat down today and watched episodes two through six of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice miniseries (we watched episode one a few days ago).  Curled up by the fire and with the rain coming down outside, it was the perfect way to spend the morning, our sighs over Darcy and Elizabeth interrupted only by breaks for tea, oranges, and Christmas cookies.

P&P 1995Now, I’m hoping to spend an hour or two finishing Sylvester before we must prepare to head off to Christmas dinner with my brother’s girlfriend’s family.  Our families get on very well and it is always fun to see them.  It should be the perfect end to a wonderful day!

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It is Christmas Eve and, though no stocking are hung by the chimney with care, all the presents are waiting under the tree to be unwrapped tonight, the potato salad is ready for our traditional Czech Christmas dinner, and I will be spending this peaceful day with nothing to do but read Sylvester by Georgette Heyer, my last book for A Century of Books and one of my favourite novels.  But this is not the only Georgette Heyer I’ve read this year and it is high time I mentioned the few I’ve reread over the past couple of months.  I am loving reading Heyer now at Christmas but there is really no season she is not suited for.

FredericaAlmost ten years ago, when I first just discovering Heyer, Frederica (published in 1965) was probably the third or fourth of her books that I picked up.  I have never forgotten how much I loved it on that first reading.  I had enjoyed the first few books but they were nowhere near as energetic or amusing as this.

The premise of the story is quite the romance novel cliché: after the death of her parents, Frederica has been managing her siblings and doing an excellent job of it.  Determined to see her beautiful sister Charis make a dazzling match, she takes her to London to track down the Marquis of Alverstoke, a distant cousin, hoping that he and his wife will sponsor Charis for the season.  There is no wife but, impressed by Charis’ beauty and Frederica’s single-mindedness, Alverstoke arranges for both girls to be brought out alongside one of his nieces.  At twenty-four, Frederica believes herself well-past the marrying age but no one else seems to agree.  As he spends more and more time with Frederica and her inquisitive younger brothers, Alverstoke begins to lose the blasé attitude that had so irritated his elder sisters and is infected by the Merrivile’s energy and optimism.  He and Frederica form a wonderful friendship and it does not take long for that friendship to ripen into love.

The first time I read this, I fell in love Frederica and the rest of the Merriville family and could easily understand how Alverstoke, finding himself entangled with them, could feel both overwhelmed by and attracted to their energy and intelligence – especially Frederica’s.  I particularly love the family focus here: Alverstoke’s elder sisters and their families are a daily (though not always welcome) part of his life and the Merrivilles – primarily Frederica, her beautiful sister Charis, and their two youngest brothers, Jessamy and Felix – are almost never apart.  Far too often in romance novels (though rarely in Heyer’s), the hero and heroine’s families are absent or only there to hinder them.  Here, we see how both Frederica and Alverstoke interact with their families on a daily basis, both supporting and, at times, annoying them.  Alverstoke’s sisters despair of what they see as his selfish disinterest in his nieces and nephews and Frederica’s siblings can find their confident sister a bit overbearing at times.  Our hero and heroine are wonderful characters but not, we are reminded by their relatives, perfect.

My favourite Heyer books are ones like this, where the characters are firm friends before there is any talk of love.  You see how they joke together, how they handle difficult situations (here, a disastrous balloon ride that injures one of Frederica’s brothers), and how happy they are in one another’s company.  When characters like this end the book in one another’s arms, there is never any doubt that their marriage will be a happy one.

Charity girlCharity Girl (published in 1970), which I read almost immediately after Frederica, is nowhere near as good but, like all of Heyer’s romances, is still great fun.  It is another friends-to-lovers story but the friendship here is longstanding.  Viscount Desford and Henrietta Silverdale have been friends since childhood and now, both in their late twenties, have spent years resisting their parents’ urgings that they marry.  Both insist – far too loudly – that they are not in love.  Desford may take delight in maligning Hetta’s other suitors but obviously that is only because he is such a good friend.

When Desford meets Cherry Steane, a ‘charity girl’ living at the mercy her demanding aunt and unpleasant cousins, he is upset by her circumstances but essentially disinterested.  However, when he meets her on the road the next day, running away from her relatives, he helps her.  With a pretty young girl on his hands, Desford hardly knows what to do so while he attempts to track down Cherry’s miserly grandfather he leaves the girl with the always dependable Hetta.  Hetta, willing as always to come to Desford’s aid, doesn’t quite know what to make of the relationship between her oldest friend and her new guest.  Could he have finally fallen in love?

Charity Girl has a bit too much in common with Sprig Muslin, published fourteen years earlier, which also features a romantic pairing of two old friends  prompted along after the hero assumes responsibility for a young runaway.  Sprig Muslin is much the better book but Charity Girl is fun too; though the supporting cast isn’t as delightful as in Heyer’s best books, Desford and Hetta are both excellent.  The quality of Heyer’s books did lag towards the end but the essentials were still there.

Lady of QualitySpeaking of lagging quality, Lady of Quality was Heyer’s last book (published in 1972) and is alarmingly similar to Black Sheep, which was published only six years before.  The story of Annis Wychwood and her involvement with a runaway heiress and her gruff guardian, Lady of Quality takes place in Bath and, for me, that was the best thing about the book.  Heyer’s books are always wonderfully full of detail, doing full justice to her extensive research about the Regency era,  and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Annis’ and Lucilla’s excursions into society, knowing how accurately Heyer was describing the activities available to young women in Bath.  As for the characters themselves, they are fine but the plot is ridiculously weak.  The ending is very slow in coming, prolonged by a pointlessly detailed spread of ‘flu through all the members of Annis’ household.  Heyer included many sickbed scenes in her novels – including excellent, pivotal ones in The Grand Sophy and Frederica –  but this is far from her best.  Rather than feeling exciting and fresh, the entire book felt lazy.  It has its moments but, on the whole, Lady of Quality is easily forgotten; I like to reread it every now and then but certainly not with the same frequency as I reread my favourites.

Now, back to reading Sylvester!  As fun as Frederica is (and it is clearly my favourite of these three), it does not come close to matching the joyful hilarity of Sylvester.  I rank A Civil Contract and The Grand Sophy as my top two favourite Heyer novels but Sylvester comes a close third.

Merry Christmas, everyone.  May you find many books under the tree and, more importantly, may you enjoy the time spent over the next few days in the company of your loved ones.

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The House on the CliffMaeve Binchy helped me through day one of this silly and inconveniently-timed cold I seem to have contracted but by the end of day two I was ready for something even less challenging and so I curled up Friday night with The House on the Cliff by D.E. Stevenson.  Everything about this book is simple – the writing, the plot, the characters – which makes it the perfect thing to read when your brain is feeling a bit fuzzy.  Though published in 1966, there are very few details in the story to date the book and it feels like something both written and set much earlier.

Elfrida Jane Thistlewood is twenty-one years old and working as an actress in London when she spots a mysterious advertisement in a newspaper, placed there by a law firm looking to make contact with her mother.  Elfrida gets in touch to let them know that her mother has recently died only to discover that her grandmother, who was estranged from her daughter after her youthful elopement, has died and left the family home, Mountain Cliff, to (in the absence of her mother) Elfrida.  It is extraordinary news and Elfrida, whose mother spent much of her final illness dreaming of her childhood home, cannot wait to see Mountain Cliff for herself.  When she does visit, she falls in love with it.  Despite having no money of her own to maintain it, she decides to keep Mountain Cliff, leave the stage (which she was not particularly attached to), and go and live there permanently.

As befits a light romance, everything goes relatively smoothly for Elfrida.  All of her neighbours love her and she loves them, finding the community of kind, sensible people she had longed for amid the flashy insincerity of her theatre friends in London.  Mountain Cliff’s invaluable housekeeper and handyman not only stay on after learning that Elfrida won’t be able to pay them but even invest some of their own money into building up the farm and maintaining the lands that come with the house.  There is a sinister cousin – a shifty character from Montreal – but his brief appearance does not do much to establish him as a real threat.  The only tension here – and it is never very tense – is over which of her admirers Elfrida will pick.  Will it be the matinee-idol she used to act with in London, the kind and well-off neighbour she befriended so easily, or the boyishly energetic junior partner at the law firm which has been handling her affairs?  It is clear from his first introduction which man will emerge victorious but, as always with Stevenson, it is fun to see the story unravel, especially since so little of the story is actually focused on romance.  Instead, mostly we see how Elfrida adjusts to her life in the country, falling in love with her new home by the sea.

The nice characters are nice, the nasty characters quite nasty, and nothing particularly unexpected happens in the entire book but it is just that which makes it delightful.  There is nothing wrong with reading about nice things happening to nice people.  There was not a lot here that particularly stood out for me – I doubt I will remember many of the details a month from now – but it was a pleasant story to immerse myself in for a few hours on a rainy night.  And it did remind me of one of the great attractions of Stevenson: she understands that there is no romantic fantasy as satisfying as one that revolves around real estate.  Books that feature several men vying for the attention of the heroine are fine; books that add in the unexpected inheritance of a fantastic house and the joy of establishing it as your home are much, much better.

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Library Lust

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This is the level of Christmas decoration I like.  A bit of greenery on the mantle, a wreath at the window, and a vase of fresh flowers – enough to remind you of the season but not enough to overwhelm this beautifully calm room with its inviting wall of books.  Merry Christmas, everyone.

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Firefly SummerI woke up Thursday morning only to be greeted by an unexpected head cold and a winter wonderland outside.  Neither of these things pleased me, head colds and snow both being messy and uncomfortable.  Thank goodness I was in the middle of reading Firefly Summer by Maeve Binchy, since these are the kinds of circumstances for which her books are best suited.

Published in 1987, Firefly Summer follows the residents of the small village of Mountfern over several years during the 1960s.  Patrick O’Neill, a rich American with family roots in Mountfern, arrives with plans to buy the old estate that has been in ruins since the 1920s and build in its place a huge hotel.  After years of seeing their children and sibling emigrate overseas, the promise of jobs and of more customers for existing business thanks to the tourist trade causes all sorts of excitement in the village.  Even people like the Ryan family, who run the pub closest to the estate and stand to lose business when the hotel opens, can’t help but be excited about the changes, though they are concerned for their own future.  But the consequences of Patrick O’Neill’s hotel project turn out to be far more devastating than anyone could have dreamed and the lives of many of those in the once sleepy town where nothing ever changed are upset forever.

This isn’t Maeve Binchy’s finest book but it is still a great read and it was perfect for my cold-fuzzed brain.  While the O’Neills and the Ryans are the focus of the story – both the adults and their closely-entwined teenage children – the other villagers and a few outside characters are also wonderfully described and fleshed out, no matter how minor their role, from the tramp who merely passes through to the hairdresser who moonlights as a prostitute.  Binchy does a particularly excellent job with Patrick O’Neill.  So proud of his Irish heritage, he is determined to make his home in Mountfern though it is obvious to everyone there that he quintessentially American.  The combination of awe and contempt that greets him is perfectly done, with some villagers impressed by his confidence and wealth while others resent it heartily.  He is a good man, though not an easy one to get along with, and as he faces problem after problem, with both the project and his difficult son, it is impossible not to warm to him.

It is this balance of attractive and unattractive qualities in her characters that makes Binchy’s book so interesting to me.  Very rarely does she have anyone who is entirely perfect or entirely evil – the main weakness of this book is the almost cartoon-like villainy of Patrick’s son Kerry.   Usually, characters are a complex meld of good and bad traits.  Kate Ryan, whose husband runs one of the village’s pubs, is bright and warm and clever but can also be short-tempered and shrewish with the soft-spoken husband she adores.  Rachel Fine is a thoughtful, generous, sympathetic divorcee from New York but she is also O’Neill’s mistress and has been part of his life since before his wife’s death.  Binchy does not pass judgements on her characters and we get to see all the sides of them.

Firefly Summer may not be the best example of Binchy’s powers – it is far too long and the ending felt rushed and overly dramatic – but it is still an enjoyable book and a great example of her excellent characterization.  She also manages to deal with real tragedies in a very truthful way, marking their significance and impact on the characters without exaggerating the consequences in a melodramatic manner.   This is light fiction, certainly, but of the best and most intelligent kind.

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