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Archive for November, 2015

Ten Days of ChristmasIt is rare that my reading aligns with the season but for once I have done it.  Ten Days of Christmas by G.B. Stern has been recently reprinted (as both an e-book and a paperback) and when the publisher offered me a chance to try it, I jumped.  My only previous encounters with G.B. Stern had been her writings (with Sheila Kaye-Smith) on Jane Austen and I had been looking forward to trying some of her fiction.  Here was an easy – and seasonally  appropriate – chance to do just that.

It is Christmas 1946 and the extended Maitland family, along with friends, is all gathered in the English countryside for their first real family Christmas since 1938.  They are determined to have a Glorious Christmas, complete with a play staged by the children, but there is no surer way to make people petty and argumentative than demanding perfection.  Squabbles among both the adults and children upset everyone and everything goes sadly off the rails.

Conceptually, that sounds quite appealing to me.  I love books about big families and it’s inevitable, especially when adult siblings and their spouses are brought together for any extended period, that little (or large) frictions will surface.  The key to a good book is in how the author handles them.  Dodie Smith did it brilliantly in Dear Octopus; G.B. Stern is not so brilliant.  In fact, she’s positively lacklustre.

After the plodding open pages, where Stern struggles ponderously to describe the tangled web of family and friends convening for the holidays, there is promising period where it seems as though she might be able to pull it all off.  This does not last but when she focuses her attentions on the children – their relationships, their anxieties, their very earnest devotion to putting on a good play – you have a glimpse of what a pleasant and even slightly witty book this could have been.  But then she switches to the adults and the surfeit of angst and fraught relationships tips over into the ridiculous – and the quality of Stern’s writing declines accordingly.

It’s hard to decide quite where the blame lies.  Is it the overly complicated family tree?  The lack of tension throughout (even in the scenes that are meant to be sickeningly tense)?  The hints at a romance that is neither convincing nor emotionally appealing?  The weak overall structure?  Is it that incredibly odd, disjointed ending, complete with a cheap death to serve as a catalyst for two other characters?  It is, of course, a combination of all of the above.

Needless to say, this was not a favourite though I did not give up hope until the very end.  It seemed so much like a book that could turn into the kind of story I love.  Indeed, it reminded me indistinctly of so many other books and writers but, in the end, this was not a comparison Stern benefited from.  Reminding me of Noel Streatfeild, Angela Thirkell, Dodie Smith, and (I dared hope) A.A. Milne only led to disappointment.  In its way, this book probably has more in common with the melodramas of Dorothy Whipple (but without Whipple’s genius for plotting) and the quiet angst and flat characters of Elizabeth Taylor (but without Taylor’s gift of observation or her sharp wit).

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Library Lust

photo credit: Simon Brown

photo credit: Simon Brown

A rare example of a room with sufficient shelf space.  And fabulous seating options.  I love it.

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Europe Trip: Malcesine

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After a wonderful week in Tuscany, I headed north to Lake Garda to spend three nights in Malcesine. How surreal to pass through so many places I’ve dreamed of visiting – Florence, Bologna, Verona – without stopping. The fates obviously did not want to make me feel bad so responded with pouring rain. Instead of envy, I just felt pity for the poor tourists arriving in Florence who had to venture out of the train station into the streets where rain was falling so hard it was bouncing a foot after hitting the ground.

After a week on my own, I was nice to meet up with my mother (who’d been in the Czech Republic and Germany while I was gallivanting in Tuscany).  It was still pouring rain when we arrived in Malcesine mid-afternoon, but that just gave us an excuse to settle in at a bar with a glass of Prosecco and catch up with each other.  And when the rain broke, we got to see just what a beautiful place we’d landed in.

Malcesine

The next day the weather was perfect so first thing in the morning we took the cable car up to the top of Monte Baldo. I’d been praying for good weather since we booked our stay in Malcesine but never allowed myself to hope we’d get such a perfect, almost cloudless day. We enjoyed a beautiful morning walking around, enjoying the views in every direction, and relaxing in the sun with our mid-morning coffees. My mother broke her ankle at the beginning of the summer so that ruled out any hiking this trip but I’d love to go back one day and explore the trails.  The dusting of snow on the top of the highest mountains made the views all the more beautiful.

Malcesine 3

From the cable car, we went directly to the castle, the town’s other main tourist attraction. The castle is more impressive from a distance but it did have one great charm: a wedding had just taken place and the lovely (Scottish) bride and groom were still having their photos taken on the castle grounds:

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The next day, we took a boat across the river to Limone, where it was market day. Limone wasn’t anything special but a boat ride is always enjoyable. It had picturesque areas but was so overwhelmingly, unrelentingly touristy that I couldn’t stomach it. It was a relief to grab the boat back to Malcesine.

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Mostly, we just enjoyed Malcesine. We walked along the lakeside promenade, ate leisurely lunches in sunny squares, and enjoyed practising our German (the majority of tourists here are German-speaking and the entire tourist industry is geared towards them – there is even a Tyrolean bakery). It was a wonderful break before heading into the bustle of crowded Venice.

Malcesine 2

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Babbacombe'sOn Friday afternoon, I returned home after work to that most delightful of things: a package of books.  A few weeks ago, I shamelessly begged Shirley at Greyladies to send me two of their Noel Streatfeild books and now here they were: It Pays to Be Good and, written under her penname of Susan Scarlett, Babbacombe’s.  Lacking any willpower whatsoever (reminder to self: spend rest of today studying), I curled up last night next to the fire and read Babbacombe’s start to finish.

The story begins as Beth Carson leaves school.  A well-respected and much admired Head Girl, she is now transitioning from the world of children into the world of adults.  She is, proudly but also nervously, about to start work at Babbacombe’s department store, where her father, George, has worked for more than thirty years.  George is delighted to share his work world with his much-beloved daughter and confident that she will do well as an assistant in the Gowns department.  Her mother, Janet, is glad of the contributions Beth will be able to make to the always-strapped family finances now that she is earning.  Beth’s four younger siblings are proud but also cheerfully indifferent towards their sister’s new career, more interested in their own lives (proving again that Scarlett/Streatfeild knew what she was doing when it came to writing children).

Into this happy family comes Dulcie, George’s seventeen year-old orphaned niece.  George and Janet take her in out of family feeling, however, it’s not long before they realise that Dulcie is a cheap, nasty piece of work.  With no interest in building a career at Babbacombe’s (why bother, she thinks, when she plans to marry young?), she takes a position as an elevator girl, enjoying the dashing uniform and the male admiration that comes with it.  At work she is merely lazy; at home, she needles, complains, and takes a particular dislike for Beth.  The two girls are similar in age but that is all they have in common.  When Dulcie discovers that David Babbacombe, the owner’s son, has taken an interest in Beth, her animosity only grows.

Beth is, essentially, an Anthony Trollope heroine.  She is, in the words of another Greyladies book featuring a Trollope-esque female (The Glenvarroch Gathering by Susan Pleydell), “very, very pretty and neat and you noticed how good her manners were, and yet she was comfortable and full of fun.”  She is honest, dependable, hard-working, devoted to her family, and, from the beginning of their relationship, deeply conscious of the social gulf that exists between her and David Babbacombe.  Indeed, like a true Trollope heroine Beth spends a significant amount of time halfheartedly pushing David away because she thinks he, despite his father’s humble origins, is too far above her touch.  David heartily disagrees and pursues her in a gentle way (assisted by his delightful dachshund – his most trusted confidante – and a friendly and romantic dentist ).  Dulcie does her best to get in the way (trying to attract David and create trouble for Beth) but generally fails: David is not divertible and Beth has confided to her parents all her romantic woes.  To Dulcie’s dismay, she discovers how difficult it is to create drama when everyone else is honest and straightforward.

I loved the warmth of the Carson family, the kindness of Mr. Babbacombe, the romance between Beth and David, and, yes, the awfulness of Dulcie.  It’s always so satisfying to have an odious character to loathe.  This was just the right sort of cosy, light book for this weekend.

Now back to studying.

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Library Lust

credit: The Country Castle Company

credit: The Country Castle Company

Something a little more traditional this week for lovers of dark, wood-paneled libraries.  Too much paneling for me personally but I adore the wing chairs and the sofa.  And a fireplace is always a desirable addition to any library.

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badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library. If you’d like to participate, just write up your post-feel free to steal the button-and link it using the Mr. Linky any time during the week. And of course check out what other participants are getting from their libraries.

Library Loot 1

The Mighty Dead by Adam Nicolson – It’s been too long since I dipped into the “Books about Books” section of my TBR list.  Everything I’ve heard about this has been glowing and Nicolson’s writing is always beautiful.

The Establishment and How They Get Away With It by Owen Jones – I’m in the mood for a little moral outrage and am confident Jones will deliver (he certainly did in Chavs).

An Accomplished Woman by Jude Morgan – a delightfully Heyer-esque romance.  I’ve read this countless times and it is always wonderful.

Library Loot 2

I cannot stop reading this mystery series set in 1950s Scotland.  Admittedly, I’m writing up an almost novel-length list of things that bother me about it (why aren’t the police allowed to solve any of the mysteries?  WHY?), but, in my way, I’m still enjoying it.

Beneath the Abbey Wall by A.D. Scott

North Sea Requiem by A.D. Scott

The Low Road by A.D. Scott

Library Loot 3

The Song Collector by Natasha Solomons – the newest book from the author of Mr Rosenblum Dreams in English and The Novel in the Viola.

Step Aside, Pops by Kate Beaton – a collection of Beaton’s awesome comics.

If You Go Away by Adele Parks – One of Sarra Manning’s “Best Books to Read This November”

What did you pick up this week?

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Library Lust

Ham Yard Hotel

Ham Yard Hotel

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Weekend Rant

The Bedroom at Auppegard, France, Girl Reading by Ethel Sands

The Bedroom at Auppegard, France, Girl Reading by Ethel Sands

I am having a bit of a “woe is me” weekend.  The stress of this ridiculously unlucky year has been catching up with me over the last month or two and my naturally cheery self is nowhere to be found.  This is very poor timing since I should be extra industrious this month, studying hard for my upcoming exam.  Except I barely have the mental capacity to write a grocery list, never mind cramming tax rules and investment theories into my overwhelmed little brain, after a full day at work.  This is my third exam of the year but by far the largest.  I keep telling myself I need to buckle down and work hard for just a few more weeks and then I can relax and take a few months off of studying before starting on the next set of courses.  This is very true and very sound advice.  I just need to act on it.

Saturday was not an impressive day in the life of Claire.  It started well enough but quickly went off the rails.  My computer died a quick and entirely unexpected death.  If you were ever hoping for a review of the Sylvia Townsend Warner letters I keep mentioning, I apologize.  My notes are lost forever.  Also, I have now spent 24 hours looking for my Microsoft Office installation CD and it is nowhere to be found.  A small thing – at least I have the internet up and working again – but enough to drive me batty in my current mood.  My favourite sweater bled in the wash.  I forgot to buy key ingredients for dinner but of course didn’t realise until I was halfway through cooking it.  My hairdresser worried that I might have a serious health issue because of a recent change she’s noticed in my hair.  This of course led to deeply distressing internet searches.  For a nice distraction, I thought I’d go see the new James Bond film at my local theatre.  I got there 40 minutes ahead of showtime and it was sold out.

Usually, I am up to this level of chaos.  I am resilient and cheerful.  I am generally considered to be charming and optimistic.  I take things in my stride and move forward.  Yesterday, I just wanted to hit something.  Very hard.  Or take up drinking.  Instead, I had a hot bath, finished reading A.D. Scott’s A Double Death on the Black Isle (not as good as the first book in the series – or was is that just my cross mood colouring my view of it?) and went to bed early.

Today, I tried to calm myself.  I did yard work.  I bought flowers for myself.  I went for a lovely walk in the woods.  I attended a concert of Mozart’s Requiem.  But I still feel frazzled and exhausted.  And tomorrow, another work week starts.

The Mozart concert today was held at a church and before the music started, there was a reading.  It was Ecclesiastes 3 – a passage even heathens like me are familiar with:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

This last year has been a trying season of my life and in the lives of those around me.  I keep telling myself things will get easier after X is done.  But we’ve been through five or six X events now and it’s not getting any easier.  It’s not getting worse, though.  There is that.  I am still hopeful that once I get through this exam at the end of the month, I’ll be able to relax properly for the first time since last November.  Fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, I keep reading more novels than I should.  Definitely more historical novels than I should in my current mood (damn you Mr. Trollope and Ms. Heyer for being so irresistible).  There is nothing so alluring to me right now as a heroine who only needs to worry about her family and her romantic life.  How simple that sounds!  How much easier than having to balance that with full-time work and further career ambitions!  If you know of any gentleman of means looking for a sensible, financially-savvy wife to serve as chatelaine of his profitable estate, please send him my way.  Immediately.

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Library Lust

Photo Credit: William Abranowicz

Photo Credit: William Abranowicz

The walls match the chair, people.  What kind of madness is this?  Actually, I think I’d quite like it if the rest of the furniture wasn’t quite so dark.

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Brighton

Years ago, when my wife and I were just dating, she took me on a day trip to the seaside at Brighton.  It was my first exposure to the British at play in a marine environment.  It was a fairly warm day – I remember the sun came out for whole moments at a time – and large numbers of people were in the sea.  They were shrieking with what I took to be pleasure, but now realise was agony.  Naively, I pulled off my T-shirt and sprinted into the water.  It was like running into liquid nitrogen.  It was the only time in my life in which I have moved like someone does when a piece of film is reversed.  I dived into the water and then straight back out again, backwards, and have never gone into an English sea since.

-Bill Bryson, The Road to Little Dribbling

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