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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

After slacking off a bit with my non-fiction reading earlier in the year, May saw me stepping up my game (also receiving a number of much-anticipated library holds – truly the deciding factor when it comes to what I read) with seven non-fiction titles.  But it was still balanced by many, many rom-coms.  

The No-Show by Beth O’Leary (2022) – Three women are stood up by Joseph Carter on Valentine’s Day: Siobhan, who enjoys their hotel hook-ups when she’s visiting from Dublin; Jane, who Jospeh had promised to partner as a fake date for an event she dreaded; and Miranda, his girlfriend.  None gets a straight answer as to why she was stood up and so their doubts begin to grow.

O’Leary treads a line here between slick and smart and I’m still not entirely sure which I think she pulls off but it’s fundamentally a fun book, even if Joseph remains a (necessarily) distant figure throughout and therefore not an ideal romantic hero.

Free by Lea Ypi (2021) – a wonderful memoir about growing up in Albania in the dying years of communism and in the desperate 1990s.  Ypi provides an interesting glimpse into a country I know little about and her memories of helped me understand all the modern stereotypes I’ve absorbed – of gangsters trafficking people across the Adriatic and illegal workers in Italy – and how they came to be.  A good country to leave, sadly.

The Authority Gap by Mary Ann Sieghart (2021) – the subtitle for Sieghart’s entertaining and enraging book is “Why Women Are Still Taken Less Serious Than Men, and What We Can Do About It”, but it’s hard to get excited about the (very practical) actions she outlines when you realise just how many of them there are.  I suspect there won’t be many surprises here for most women, especially those in the corporate world, but it’s helpful to have the facts.  A book you’ll want to make every man in your office read (but will they take it seriously?).

One More Croissant for the Road by Felicity Cloake (2019) – Reread.  A joyous foodie memoir about Cloake’s bicycle journey through France to explore regional specialties.

Goblin Hill by Essie Summers (1977) – After Faith’s parents die, she discovers she was adopted with only just enough time to reconnect with her dying birth mother.  Now knowing the identify of her birth father, she looks for a job near his New Zealand farm until she can work up the courage to present herself.  She starts work as a family historian only to discover that the women who have hired her are her great-aunts.  Soon she is caught up in the family (especially with Gareth Morgan, her stepbrother) while waiting for her father to return from his travels.  There are many silly secrets and the overall effect is classic Summers but far from her best.

The Wedding Crasher by Abigail Mann (2022) – an enjoyably slow-moving romcom about a woman who finds herself swept up into the wedding chaos of her university housemate years after last seeing him.  It’s a bizarrely complicated set up but Mann makes it work with fundamentally relatable characters.  This is her third novel and I’ve enjoyed all of them.

Twelve Days in May by Niamh Hargan (2022) – jumping from one novel about two university friends contemplating what-might-have-been, I fell straight into another.  I guess we know what people were musing about during Covid lockdowns.

Twelve years after meeting in Bordeaux, Lizzy and Ciaran reconnect at the Cannes film festival where his film is debuting and she is working for the Scottish Film Board.  With allegations of plagiarism against Ciaran, his PR team pulls her in to the media whirlwind to attest to the originality of the film, based on their Erasmus experience.  But the film – and being together – brings back memories of their intense friendship all those years before and its abrupt ending.  Soon Lizzy is wondering how well she really remembers what happened and if there is a chance to start again.  Thoroughly enjoyable.

Under One Roof by Ali Hazelwood (2022) – Hazelwood has a trio of linked novellas that have come out before her second novel is released in August.  They’ve been released first as audiobooks and I did listen to the other two but this was the only one I read.  About three friends in STEM fields, I honestly found all the characters very annoying and the romances frustrating, though this one – about two unwilling housemates who eventually fall in love – was…the least frustrating?  Faint praise, indeed.

The Temporary European by Cameron Hewitt (2022) – For North American travellers, Rick Steves is a dependable and practical travel guru, inspiring others with his passion for European travel.  Cameron Hewitt is his right-hand man and equally excited about sharing his love of Europe.  I’ve loved reading his blog posts over the years, especially since his main area of focus is Central and Eastern Europe, so it’s no surprise I loved this collection of travel essays.  Like Rick, Cameron is funny, generally optimistic, and candid about his likes and dislikes.

Book Lovers by Emily Henry (2022) – when literary agent Nora’s sister insists they take a holiday together to a small town in North Carolina, Nora can’t refuse.  Ever since their single-parent mother died twelve years before (and even before that), Nora has felt responsible for Libby’s happiness.  Seeing how harried Libby is now – pregnant and with two young daughters already – Nora goes along with the plan.  She’s less willing to go along with Libby’s romance-novel-esque list of things to do while there (ride a horse, go skinny dipping, date a local).  But when Nora finds a familiar face in the small town – Charlie, an editor she’s crossed paths with in New York – things begin to look up.

Henry is very, very, very good at romcoms and this may be her best so far.  Nora is the anti-Hallmark heroine.  She feels cast as the evil urban ice queen, whose boyfriends go on business trips to quirky small towns and find love with peppy girls trying to save their family companies.  When she finds herself in a small town…that does not change.  And I loved that.  Nora gets to be who she is throughout – a successful, competent, in-control woman.  And she gets a successful, competent, in-control love interest who doesn’t need to challenge or change her, just be there for her to rely on and let her feel comfortable enough to relax a little.  Truly, the dream.

We Don’t Know Ourselves by Fintan O’Toole (2022) – a superb blend of history and memoir in which journalist O’Toole looks at the changes in modern Ireland over the course of his life, from his birth in 1958 to the present day.  Reviewed here.

Borders by Thomas King (2021) – a graphic novel adaptation of an old short story by King about a boy and his mother trying to cross the Canada-US border.  When his mother is unwilling to identify her nationality as anything other than Blackfoot (whose lands straddle the border), the boy and his mother find themselves stuck in a no man’s land at the border crossing.

The Meet Cute Method by Portia MacIntosh (2022) – Still enjoying my discovery of MacIntosh’s romcoms.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler (2016) – Reread of Tyler’s retelling of The Taming of the Shrew.

After the Romanovs by Helen Rappaport (2022) – another fascinating history from the always reliable Rappaport about the Russians who found their way to Paris both during the early years of the 20th Century and after the revolution.  Reviewed here.

A White Bird Flying by Bess Streeter Aldrich (1931) – excellent sequel to A Lantern in Her Hand from the perspective of Abby Deal’s granddaughter Laura.  Laura is determined to fulfil the gentile aspirations her grandmother never achieved but, ultimately, like Abby she finds herself tempted by love and the promise of friendship and a family.  Aldrich poignantly tracks the decline of the first generation of pioneers and reflects on how quickly the country has changed, that the grandchildren of those early settlers now take going to college for granted and have the whole world at their feet.

New Zealand Inheritance by Essie Summers (1957) – this was Summers’ first book and she certainly began as she meant to go on.  Roberta returns to her grandfather’s Otago farm in her mid-twenties, after travelling the world with her artistic parents and nursing them through their final years.  Now she is looking for roots and feels drawn back to Heatherleigh, where she spent one idyllic summer as a child.  When she arrives, it seems as though her grandfather’s one-time shepherd and now neighbour, Muir Buchanan, is paying her attentions with an eye to her inheritance.  Roberta, fighting her attraction, decides to lead him on a merry dance.

Roberta is the worst kind of heroine: a sensible person doing absolutely bonkers things to serve the plot.  And Muir is uselessly uncommunicative and struggling a bit with the chip on his shoulder.  Backed up by some absurdly melodramatic stories for secondary characters, it’s all a bit much.

How We Met by Huma Qureshi (2021) – a short, gentle memoir about Qureshi’s experiences growing up in a family and culture that shaped her approach to finding a romantic partner – and how she eventually chose a different path and a very different sort of husband.

Holding Her Breath by Eimear Ryan (2022) – I loved the writing in this story of a young woman starting a new life at university in Dublin, growing away from the swimming that defined her teen years and delving into her family’s past and the suicide of her famous poet grandfather. But…there are too many buts to count.  The plot and characterization are bog standard and I’m sure I’ll forget everything within a month or two.

See You Yesterday by Rachel Lynn Solomon (2022) – Extremely good YA novel about two university freshmen who find themselves stuck – à la Groundhog Day – reliving the same day over and over.  When they realise it’s happening to them both, they band together and start trying to break out of the loop and move forward with their lives.  As days turn to weeks, they have time to get to know one another, go a little loopy, work through some issues, and, very sweetly, fall in love.  It’s all delightful, funny, and poignant, and the characters, both dealing with baggage they don’t particularly want to confront, are highly relatable (if a little too emotionally evolved for eighteen year olds).

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On the basis that done is better than perfect, I thought I’d share some short thoughts on books I read last month.

2022 has been an exhausting year so far, particularly with the war in Ukraine stirring up lots of difficult emotions among Czech family and friends who remembered what it was like when their country was invaded by Russians (with far less deadly results but two further decades of repression).  Between that and the usual work chaos and the first significant easing here of Covid restrictions and ongoing health tests to rule out scary things (result: scary things have been ruled out), it’s all been a bit much and I’ve found myself reaching for lighter and lighter comfort reads.  Thank goodness for books.

Donut Fall in Love by Jackie Lau (2021) – I kicked April off by finishing this cute Asian rom-com set in Toronto about an actor (Ryan – the default name for handsome Canadian actors as the characters joke) who, preparing to compete on a celebrity baking show, solicits local baker Lindsay into giving him some lessons.  Both have lost parents – Ryan very recently – and I loved how much their relationships with their families were part of the story.

Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting by Clare Pooley (2022 – alternate title The People on Platform Five) – this was an ARC from NetGalley and kept me happily occupied during my flight from Vancouver to Palm Springs at the start of the month (my first plane ride in more than two years!).  I love Pooley’s debut novel, The Authenticity Project, and have read it multiple times since Covid hit so was delighted to find this to be another wonderfully warm story about community and connection.

Here she looks at what happens a group of commuters, startled after an incident on their train one morning, dare to actually speak to one another (Londoners, are you cringing at the thought?).  At the heart of the group is stylish, flamboyant, and unapologetic Iona, who soon sets the example that draws sweet Emmie, helpful Sanjay, bullied Martha, and burnt-out Piers together.  Following them as they help one another and end up changing their own lives over the course of several months made me long for the end of work-from-home and the chance of making lucky, life-changing connections of my own over the morning commute.

This is being released at the end of this month in the UK and early June in North America.

Girl, Unframed by Deb Caletti (2020) – Caletti was recommended in Nancy Pearl’s Book Crush (focused on children’s and YA books) and I’m still making up my mind about her.  This thriller-like novel follows sixteen-year-old Sydney as she leaves her Pacific Northwest boarding school to spend the summer with her actress mother in San Francisco in a mansion by China Beach.  The house is shared with her mother’s new boyfriend, Jake, who, like all men, is suddenly paying Sydney far too much attention that she doesn’t know how to respond to.  There is a body at the end (hence me calling this a thriller) but the focus is on Sydney trying to make sense of how her now adult body is perceived and how she feels about that.  The emotions and confusion ring true but it all feels a bit after-school-special-like.

52 Ways to Walk by Annabel Streets (2022) – such a fun book to dip in and out of!  Streets proposes 52 different inspirations for walkers – one to try each week.  Whether that is walking backwards, at altitude, in the dark, in the rain, while singing, or while staying silent, Streets is full of interesting ideas and, more importantly, all the reasons why its beneficial to give each option a try.  I loved this and am certain other walkers would be equally fascinated.  Annabel Streets also publishes as Annabel Abbs and her recent memoir/group biography Windswept: Walking the Paths of Trailblazing Women is high on my wishlist.

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus (2022) – an amusing, sweet novel set in the 1960s about a female chemist turned unconventional television cooking show host and unlikely empowerment icon.

French Braid by Anne Tyler (2022) – I always forget how much I like Anne Tyler until I read one of her books again.  This wonderful short novel follows the members of the Garrett family from the 1950s – when April, Lily, and David are children on a family vacation – until the summer of 2020 when they are grandparents dealing with Covid lockdowns.  Tyler pops us in and out of the lives of them, their parents (Robin and Mercy), and their own children.  The result is a novel that feels composed of wonderfully rich short stories, full of incredibly relatable family dynamics and miscommunications.

I especially loved this passage:

What nobody understood about David, with the possible exception of [his wife] Greta, was that he had suffered a very serious loss in his life.  Two losses, in fact.  Two very dear children: Emily and Nicholas.  It was true that these days there happened to be two very dear grown-ups who were also named Emily and Nicholas, but they weren’t the same people.  It was just as if those children had died.  He’d been in mourning ever since.

Again, Rachel by Marian Keyes (2022) – Rachel Walsh is back!  (As are all the other Walshes, which made me remember how much I dislike most of them.)  Rachel’s Holiday is Keyes’ most iconic book and we meet up with Rachel twenty plus years after.  She is now a counsellor at the same addition clinic where she was treated, having moved home to Ireland from New York after splitting from her husband, Luke.  But Luke’s mother has just died and he is home, bringing up questions of why their marriage fell apart and forcing Rachel to face up to what happened.  The genius of Rachel’s Holiday was the revelation of Rachel as an unreliable narrator so to find her unreliable again is not entirely a shock.  Keyes handles it cannily but the overall impact was good, not great.

A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson (1997) – I am alarmed to realise that this is the Ibbotson novel I have reread the most over the last few years, though I consider it the weakest of her adult books (see earlier review).  But like all of her books it is such satisfying escapism and there is something about the setting – an eccentric boarding school in a pink schloss on the sunny shore of a Carinthian lake, surrounded by fragrant flowers and staffed by an earnest but largely incompetent group of dreamers – that I find irresistible.  Our Czech hero Marek remains absurd – handsome and good at everything – but I don’t care.  It’s still a delight.

Which Way is Home? by Maria Kiely (2020) – speaking of Czechs (and when am I not, really?), I was terribly intrigued when Constance mentioned this children’s novel in her March reading round up as it follows a family fleeing Czechoslovakia in 1948 (inspired by the author’s mother’s experiences).  My mother left in 1968 but several family members were part of the exodus in 1948 so I was interested to see how Kiely handled it.  The result was disappointing and showed no storytelling skill at all – we hear exactly what Anna, our young heroine, feels without ever seeing her feel it.  It’s the cardinal sin: too much telling and no showing.  The use of punctuation is also confusing inconsistent.  Czech words are used with proper accents but names are presented without the needed accents – very annoying.

Wild Child by Patrick Barkham (2020) – an interesting and deeply personal look at how children relate to and need nature in their lives, blending research with observations of Barkham’s own three children and his experiences volunteering at a local forest school.

Madame de Pompadour by Nancy Mitford (1954) – something I actually managed to review!

Bachelors Galore by Essie Summer (1958) – those who caught this in my “Library Loot” post were deeply entertained by the title – and who wouldn’t be?  Our heroine Marty is emigrating from England to New Zealand when she clashes with Philip Griffiths, who misunderstood a joke he overheard her making and is convinced she is coming out to find one of the fabled rich bachelor farmers the papers are full of.  As per usual with Summers, there’s needless misdirection and silliness but also an enterprising, hardworking heroine and a happy ending.  I especially loved the section where a number of the characters go on holiday to the Marlborough Sounds as this area is on high on my to-visit list when I eventually make it to New Zealand and Summers is so good at beautiful descriptions of the country.

Dedicated by Pete Davis (2021) – a soundly supported plea for people to commit themselves – to people, places and causes – rather than indulge in endless browsing, both to better their own lives and society as a whole.  Definitely a case of preaching to the choir but it’s stayed in my mind as I’ve been reading and watching programs since and thinking about the years people have dedicated to pursuing things they are passionate about (especially true watching the documentary “Navalny” recently on CNN).

Will They, Won’t They? by Portia MacIntosh (2021) – two rom-coms in one month featuring famous actors!  In this case, our heroine is an actress returning home to Yorkshire after her character is killed off on a Game of Thrones-esque show.  She’s soon drawn into family and community life and finds herself headlining the local Christmas panto.  This was on Jo Walton’s March reading list and just as fun as she promised.

To Bring You Joy by Essie Summers (1985) – Monique is gifted a significant amount of money by a dear aunt with the only condition being that Monique use it in a way that will “bring you joy”.  Rather than set out on world travels, she leaves Christchurch for the Banks Peninsula (also high on my to-see list!) to help two old ladies turn their home into a museum of the peninsula’s early French settlers.  After working in antiques for almost a decade, Monique is knowledgeable – and driven by the private knowledge that her dear grandfather was the beloved younger brother of these ladies who ran away after a fight with their father and eventually started a new life in Australia.

There is – of course – a love interest (Eduoard – because everyone in this book has French heritage and if you have French heritage you MUST have a French name.  No exceptions allowed) and too many silly secrets.  The silliness rating was higher than usual here, making it one of my less successful encounters with Summers.

The Blue Bedroom and Other Stories by Rosamunde Pilcher (1985) – I’ve had only unsuccessful experiences with Pilcher’s novels (I consistently want to throw them against walls.  Or perhaps out to sea) but recently picked up A Place Like Home, a collection of her short stories, and was surprised how much I enjoyed them.  That encouraged me to track down this earlier collection, which, ultimately, felt frothier and less memorable but still pleasant.

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The 1954 club has arrived!  It was a year full of fantastic children’s historical novels – The Eagle of the NinthKnight Crusader! – but I’m kicking the week off with a slightly more obscure choice: Banner in the Sky by James Ramsey Ullman, an adventure tale inspired by the first ascent of the Matterhorn.

Set in 1865 in the fictional town of Kurtal (aka Zermatt), we meet our hero, sixteen-year-old Rudi Matt, as a disgruntled dishwasher at the town’s best hotel.  Slight and cherubic, Rudi is nothing like the bulk of the town’s hearty men, who make their livings as guides for mountain-climbing tourists.  He is, his mother and uncle have decided, to be a hotelier and to train in Zurich after getting experience at home.  They want him far away from the dangerous mountains that have taken too many men from their town, his own father included.

But Rudi is a mountaineer in his heart, and escapes the kitchen to climb whenever he can.  He may never have known his father, the great Josef Matt who died on an expedition to summit the Citadel (aka the Matterhorn), the last great unconquered peak in Switzerland, but he inherited his spirit.

With a disconcerting comfort in bending the truth (a welcome and clever element that saves the Rudi from being too saccharine), Rudi finds himself slowly gaining the support of some in the climbing community – the intrepid Englishman, Captain Winter, and Teo Zurbriggen, a now crippled climber who was part of his father’s final expedition.  Rudi shares Captain Winter’s dream of conquering the Citadel and dedicates himself to being capable of the climb.  In the end, he is one of four men who attempt the ascent.

After an exhausting climb and close to the summit, a fellow climber is injured through sheer hubris.  Rudi, desperate for the glory of being the first man to ever reach the peak and eager to complete his father’s last journey, is torn.  Does he fulfill what he sees as his destiny and summit the peak, or does he follow the code of the mountain guides and care for his incapacitated climbing partner?  His own father knew what it meant to belong to the mountains – and died there not from an accident, but of exposure when he stayed with an injured client and was caught in a storm while waiting for help.

The 1950s was a golden era for children’s adventure tales and Ullman exemplifies the best of the tradition, writing suspenseful scenes along with solid character development.  The book is full of climbing action and it is wonderfully vivid and tense, carrying the reader along with Rudi through his painful and dangerous exploits.  As someone who hates heights, climbing is my idea of torture and I mean it as a compliment to Ullman’s skill that certain scenes made me queasy.  What an idiotic pastime – but what good material for an adventure tale.

With conflict like this, you can see why Disney adapted this shortly after it’s publication.  It’s a perfect blend of adventure tale and morality tale, with sublime scenery to cap it all off.  It was released in 1959 as Third Man on the Mountain with James MacArthur looking cherubic but decidedly more robust than Rudi is described (MacArthur played a Swiss teen again for Disney in Swiss Family Robinson in 1960).

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When I was in high school, there were three women who dominated conversations of Canadian Literature: Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and Carol Shields.  I happily read Atwood and dipped in and out of Munro’s short stories but the only thing I’d read by Shields was her slim biography of Jane Austen.  It wasn’t until the start of this year that I properly made her acquaintance when I picked up The Republic of Love by Carol Shields.

This tender and leisurely-told tale was the perfect book to start the year with.  It is spring in Winnipeg when we meet thrice-divorced Tom Avery, a radio host who is days away from turning forty, and thirty-five-year-old folklorist Fay McLeod, who is splitting up with the boyfriend she’s spent the last several year living with (just as she did the one before, and the one before that).  It takes until the half-way point of the book for the two to meet, by which point we’ve witnessed several months in each of their lives.  We’ve seen their kindness, their insecurity, their love for their families, and their longing for more love in their own lives.  They are lovely people and, like their interested friends, colleagues, and family members, you want desperately for them to both find happiness and you know they can find it with one another.

As you follow their lives and see the web of connections amongst their friends and families that could bring them together, you wait.  And then the meeting happens and it is magic, the kind of magic we all wish could happen to us and which seems mundane from the outside but life changing when it happens to you.  And Shields’ genius is that she makes it feel possible.

But a key part of Shields’ brilliance and what gives the novel its immense warmth is that Tom and Fay exist within their families and communities.  And when the power of their new love causes someone in that circle to rethink their own relationship, there are ripples that upend Fay’s world and leave her questioning everything she knows of love and commitment.

I loved every word of this.  Shields captures normal life so well that when love arrives, it feels both extraordinary and entirely natural.  It changes Tom and Fay’s lives but does not disrupt or dominate them – love settles in at the heart of things, creating a warm glow that casts from them out to those around them.  And those people around them are the key to what makes this book work so well.  The secondary characters are rich and important to Tom and Fay.  Their parents, their exes, their godparents and godchildren are all parts of their lives and therefore parts of the story.  Their fears, their reversals, their kindnesses and crises all matter.  It is a close knit and entirely recognizable world and that is all too rare to find in fiction.

For once, I’m happy that I waited to read something.  I think I would have enjoyed this if I’d read it as a teen but reading it now, as a thirty-five-year-old single woman reading about a thirty-five-year-old single woman, was perfect.  Fay’s fears and hopes are ones that I may have absorbed without reflection as a younger reader but now they resonate as familiar echoes of my own thoughts.

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It takes very little for a book to entertain me on a lazy Sunday afternoon.  All I ask for is a bit of romantic intrigue, a dash of humour, and ideally a Scottish setting.  Susan Settles Down by Molly Clavering fit the bill perfectly.

When Susan Parsons moves with her brother Oliver to Scotland, she’s not quite certain what awaits her.  The drunken cook is not an ideal introduction to her new home but, after years of following Oliver abroad during his naval postings while earning her own living writing, she is intrigued to try quiet country life in the home her brother has just inherited. 

Even more intrigued are all of the Parson siblings’ new neighbours, from the kindly vicar’s family to the dreadfully gossipy Pringle sisters to the neighbouring farmer.  Because what would the fun of a village novel be without villages to be upset/romanced/amused by the new arrivals?

The title gives the impression that Susan needs settling down but she is in fact very settled in herself when we meet her.  She has the poise of maturity but retains the ability to laugh at herself, a combination that endears her quickly to others.  Oliver, on the other hand, I find singularly unappealing.  He is still angry about the injury that has caused him to leave the navy and left him with a limp, and can lash out at those around him.  His sense of humour tends towards the juvenile and slightly nasty, with a penchant for baiting and embarrassing others.

There’s no plot to speak of – as it should be for a book of this sort – just a nice meandering flow as Susan and Oliver become more enmeshed in country life.  Oliver, mentored by neighbour Jed Armstrong, finds an interest in farming to help him move on from the dashing career he’s lost while Susan finds plenty to occupy and amuse herself – though she would be more amused if Jed would not bait her so often to lose her temper. 

By the end, both Oliver the lothario and Susan the spinster have found suitable spouses to help them settle even further into the community.  All is well and ends just as you predicted it would early in the book – exactly right for a Sunday afternoon read.  I loved Susan and enjoyed Clavering’s sense of humour (not to be confused with Oliver’s awful one), and look forward to rereading this in years to come. 

More recently, I picked up the sequel, Touch Not the Nettle, eager to be reunited with Susan.  A few years have passed since the end of the last book (this was published in 1939, while Susan Settles Down came out in 1936) and the married couples are all as happy as we left them.  Susan (now in her mid-thirties?  I’m struggling to remember ages from the first book but I feel like this was mentioned, though she is referred to by another character as a “young woman” here) wishes silently for a child, admiring her growing nephew, but thankfully this is not a book about that.  Instead, the central character is a visiting cousin by marriage, Amanda Cochrane.

Amanda’s aviator husband has gone missing and is presumed dead.  Amanda, tired of her husband’s philandering and spendthrift ways, had been planning to divorce him so her feelings about her uncertain widowhood are complicated to say the least.  Exhausted after living with her dramatic, superficial mother, she has retreated to Scotland for some much-needed rest and no hostess could be more considerate than Susan.

Without charm to conceal the lack of plot, I found this heavy going.  I still appreciate Clavering’s sense of humour but Amanda is a trickier character than Susan was, with heavy burdens she cannot free herself of.  Amanda is given a love interest in her new surroundings and he is awful.  Women can explain away a lot of bad behaviour to uncover the eligible man beneath but this takes it to a ridiculous level.  He is rude, vicious, and almost always drunk.  There are reasons (obviously) but it’s hard to ever see how he could seem appealing (his house is nice, maybe that’s it?).

The story gets exceeding dramatic, with madness, murder, and more deaths.  The characters from the first book are all happily distanced from this – continuing on in their cosily domestic worlds, exactly as I want them to – but I wish I had been too.  The sprightliness and good humour that I loved from the first book is gone and I have no desire to return again to Amanda’s dramatic life.

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When Dean Street Press reprinted eight of Molly Clavering’s books earlier this year, I was so overwhelmed with excitement that I barely knew where to start.   My only experience with Clavering had been Near Neighbours, reissued by Greyladies a few years ago, and I’d enjoyed it enough to want more.  Overwhelmed by choice, I chose Dear Hugo for my reintroduction to Clavering.  When, after all, have I ever been able to resist an epistolary novel?

Published in 1955, the story begins a few years earlier, in June 1951 when Sara Monteith moves to a village in the Scottish borders.  Sara’s fiancé, Ivo, had come from Ravenskirk and even years after his death in the war she remains faithful to his memory, though she is reticent for her new neighbours to know about that relationship.  It is to Ivo’s brother Hugo in Africa that Sara writes, with frank assessments of her new neighbours, humorous glimpses of her life – particularly enlivened after taking on the guardianship of a young cousin – and the occasional moments of grief for the man she has lost.

The correspondence between Hugo and Sara feels extremely well-established by the time we enter it as she is entirely frank in her letters to him.  Her frustrations with her new neighbours are clearly voiced and delightfully entertaining.  As in any village novel, Ravenskirk is peopled by a distinctive group of personalities, though Atty, Sara’s young ward, does tend to dominate the letters when he is home from school.  I thoroughly enjoyed Sara’s reports on Atty’s doings and sayings and her adjustment – as a single woman of around forty – to life with a lively boy underfoot.  Comparing notes with a neighbour and marvelling over Atty’s permanent dirtiness, she receives helpful (and timeless) motherly advice:

‘I don’t want to disillusion you, but they don’t really wash when they lock themselves into the bathroom for ages.  I think they fall into a kind of mystic trance or something, and running water helps them.  It’s the only way once can explain it.’

If Clavering had kept the focus on domestic doings, I could have left the book entirely happy and unconflicted.  But…she doesn’t.  Of course there needs to be an element of romance and there are in fact several men who appear as likely mates.  But romance is so entirely besides the point that they serve as frustrating red herrings rather than enjoyable plot points.

It is the conclusion to one of these romantic intrigues that Sara addresses in her last letter to Hugo and that left me frustrated rather than delighted by the book.  After being remarkably light-handed in her dealings with neighbours, Sara suddenly decides it is up to her to arrange the lives of her friends and tell them what is best for them, despite what they may think and want.  After only two years of village life, she has gone from amused observer to spinster busybody and it feels wrong for this charming character to act in such an awkward way.  Personally, I am all for arranging the lives of others but the circumstances here feel forced – as though Clavering wanted an ending that would surprise the readers more than she wanted to leave them satisfied.  In the end, she doesn’t achieve either effect – a poor end to an otherwise enjoyable book.

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When I find myself in times of trouble, my remedy is slightly different than The Beatles’.  I inevitably reach for a book and, more often than not when things are too dark or stressful or scary, that book is the delightful Little G by E.M. Channon.  In the not-quite seven years I have owned a copy, I have read it at least five times and – no surprise – it was one of the first books I read during the lockdown of spring 2020.  It is no less comforting this spring, with the dual motivation of reading it for the 1936 Club and to provide comfort amidst the dire Covid third wave we are experiencing here.

John Furnival is a pre-maturely stuffy, antisocial Cambridge mathematician who is ordered by his doctor on a long country stay to recover his health, which, his doctor chides him, has suffered due to:

Too much to eat: too much port and too much tea: too much work for your head, and not enough for your body.

Because the world of 1930s academia is forgiving of the need to do work – especially by dons with private incomes – Furnival is soon installed in a cottage in the village of Challingley.  The village, from the doctor’s perspective, is ideal.  It’s hilly enough to force Furnival to discomfort on his walks, quiet but full of sociable neighbours, and the cottage offers a large garden to rest or putter in.  Furnival is less convinced, disgusted by his new neighbours’ obsessions with their gardens, tennis parties, and, most horrifyingly of all, the pretty young widow at the center of the village’s social life.  But he is firmly drawn into the social whirl and realises – slowly and to his horror – what an unattractive foil he serves against this healthy, vigorous set.  Surely he – once a champion rower and tennis player – isn’t the sweaty old man set next to the village’s quick vicar or dashing doctor?  And at only thirty-seven!

While adult society may terrify or bore him in equal measure, Furnival finds himself much more at home with the cottage’s cat – the only creature he was immediately delighted to encounter in his new surroundings – and his next-door neighbours, three children living with their terrifying Aunt Agatha.  Rather to his surprise, the children are pleasant companions and it isn’t long before the three are slipping from their yard to his, eager for his stories and spoiling.  Furnival, for the first time in years, is giving thought and attention to something other than his equations (though his versions of children’s stories are very physics-focused).  But there is yet another resident next door, the children’s aunt Grace, who is that most terrifying of things – a young woman.  Thankfully she is not so terrifying as most of her species, being rather small and quiet, but also very capable and quick-witted and rather pretty…

Over the course of his time in the village, Furnival is forced out of his almost monastic mindset and learns once again how to be human.  He relearns how to care for others and to take care of himself and questions his long-held and unquestioned visions of a solitary, scholarly future.

This sounds very sweet, which it is, but Channon is a clever, funny writer and it’s that spark of humour that makes this book so memorable.  She is more than happy to skewer Furnival, but always affectionately, and the neighbours who most concern him (the female ones) aren’t nearly as one dimensional as his initial imaginings of them.  That’s not to stay this is a novel of great characterization and depth – it decidedly is not – but it’s far better than the sentimental drivel it could have been in another writer’s hands and I love it desperately.  The only sad thing about it is how difficult it is now to find copies.  It was reissued by Greyladies Books in 2012 but it’s almost impossible to find second-hand copies.  I’m not surprised – I certainly wouldn’t give mine up!    

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The only mistake I made in reading Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford this year was that I did it too early: this would have been the perfect book to soothe and comfort during the stressful early months of the pandemic but it was just as delightful when read in the calmness of January.

Published in 1933 (and reissued this spring by Handheld Press), Business as Usual tells with dashing epistolary style and comic illustrations the story of Hilary Fane.  Hilary, a young woman of twenty-seven with a history degree from Oxford and previous work experience as both a teacher and librarian, is trying to fill the time before she marries her fiancé Basil, a young doctor.  Anticipating at least a year before the wedding and, having been made redundant from her last job, Hilary is looking for a way to occupy herself.  As she explains to Basil:

…I know I couldn’t wait for you if I were idle, sitting about and trying to fill the gap between one lovely experience and another with those dreary little sociabilities that you despise as much as I do.  I wish I had the kind of talents that you’d really like to have about the house, my lamb.  It would all be so much simpler if my bent were music or if I could write.  But it isn’t any use, Basil, I haven’t any talents; even my drawings always got me into trouble.  I’ve just got undecorative ability and too much energy to be happy without a job.

And so she sets off, leaving her parents’ comfortable Scottish home for exceedingly humble lodgings in London and a job in a department store (a thinly veiled Selfridges).  She eventually finds herself working in the store’s library (I would never complain about going shopping if department stores still had these!) and the story follows her throughout the year as she advances at work, makes friends, and discovers the simple pleasures of her new life:

Oh, Basil, there are compensations!  It’s worth sleep-walking from nine to six all the week just to wake up on Saturday with half a day and a night and another day after that unquestionably one’s own.  I came out of Everyman’s and watched all the other people with hockey sticks and skates and suit-cases tearing for buses.  But I strolled, feeling marvellous.  Rather as if I’d kicked off a tightish pair of shoes.

Hilary is a wonderful character, full of energy and warmth and attractively straightforward in discussing anything on her mind.  Basil, we can tell from Hilary’s side of the correspondence, doesn’t share these traits:

I can fail and start again.  And with you to believe in my work, I could.

Only, now and then, I feel you don’t.  Do try to.  I mean, think of me as a creature, not just as a possible wife who will persist in doing things that tend to disqualify her.  I love you frightfully; but I want your companionship and tolerance and understanding even more than other things.  I wonder if you see?

Basil, the reader decides long before Hilary, must go.  Luckily, there is a very suitable replacement close at hand.

I love stories about work – I find hearing about people’s working hours and salaries and how they manage to live on said salaries endlessly fascinating – and I adore epistolary novels so the combination of the two was always going to be something that interested me.  But this book manages to be far more than interesting.  The reader cannot help but adore Hilary, who is endlessly curious, admirably efficient, and inspiringly intrepid.  It is a book to laugh over and to read for comfort and inspiration when you are feeling daunted by the world.  It is, frankly, quite perfect, which is why I am picking it up again as the book to see out 2020 with. It’s never too soon to reread great books.

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Whenever Simon and Karen host one of their reading weeks, there are a few authors who bibliographies I immediately check.  It’s hard to find a year that didn’t have a book published by Angela Thirkell, Agatha Christie or Georgette Heyer and in fact for 1956, the focus of this week’s reading, all three had new books out.  Spoiled for choice (though Thirkell’s talents were waning by then), I happily picked up Sprig Muslin by Georgette Heyer, looking forward to rereading the humorous story written at the height of Heyer’s powers.

We meet our hero, Sir Gareth Ludlow, on a visit to his sister’s home.  Adored and idolized by his nieces and nephews, we understand immediately the character of “Uncle Gary” but his sister, being an elder sister, also clues us into the key challenges of Sir Gareth’s life: he is thirty-five years old, unmarried, and, with their younger brother now dead, must think of an heir.  Having never fallen in love since the death of his vivacious fiancée seven years before, despite the many young women that have been thrown his way, the family is starting to despair.  But Sir Gareth has his own plan as to whom he wants to marry and is in fact just off to propose to Lady Hester Theale, an old friend and confirmed spinster of twenty-nine living quietly under her family’s thumb.

He sets off from London but soon crosses paths with Amanda “Smith”, a very determined sixteen-year-old runaway.  Amanda, loathe to reveal her identity, is happy to share the details of her situation and of her plan: an orphan living with her grandfather, she is in love with a military officer and determined to marry him.  She has run away from home in order to force her grandfather’s hand but, having run out of money, is trying to convince the innkeeper to hire her when Sir Gareth stumbles across her.  He takes it as a matter of course that the young lady must be rescued from herself but Amanda views Sir Gareth’s involvement less kindly:

‘I believe,’ said Amanda, after another seething pause, ‘that kidnappers are sent to prison, or even transported!  You would not like that, I daresay!’

‘No, indeed.’

‘Well!  I am just warning you!’ she said.

‘Thank you!  I am very much obliged to you.’

‘And if you,’ declared Amanda, bethinking herself of the groom, and twisting round to address him, ‘had one grain of manliness you would not permit your master to carry me off.’

Trotton, a deeply interested audience, was unprepared for this attack, and nearly lost his balance.  Much discomposed, he could only stammer an unintelligible answer, and glance imploringly at Sir Gareth’s back-view.

‘Oh, you mustn’t blame Trotton!’ said Sir Gareth. ‘Consider how difficult is his position!  He is obliged to obey my orders, you see.’

‘He is not obliged to assist you in kidnapping people!’ she retorted.

‘I engaged him on the strict understanding,’ said Sir Gareth firmly, ‘that that would form an important part of his duties.’

‘I w-wish you would not be so absurd!’ said Amanda, struggling to suppress a giggle.

Being a Heyer hero, Sir Gareth has no sinister intentions.  He abducts Amanda from the inn but takes her to Lady Hester.  Having already obtained her father’s permission to propose, the entire household is scandalised that Sir Gareth would bring such a young, pretty girl – clearly a mistress – along with him.  But his faith in Lady Hester is well-placed and Amanda is soon confiding in her – and also lecturing her about Lady Hester’s meek ways with her overbearing family:

‘I wonder you should not tell people who scold you to go about their business.’

‘I am afraid I have not enough courage,’ said Hester ruefully.

‘Like my aunt,’ nodded Amanda.  ‘She has no courage, either, and she lets Grandpapa bully her, which puts me out of all patience, because one can always get one’s own way, if you one has resolution.’

‘Can one?’ said Hester doubtfully.

‘Yes, though sometimes, I own, one is forced to take desperate measures.  And it is of no use to tease oneself about propriety,’ she added, with a touch of defiance, ‘because it seems to me that if you never do anything that is not quite proper and decorous you will have the wretchedest life, without any adventures, or romance, or anything!’

‘It is very true, alas!’ Hester smiled at her again. ‘But not for you, I think.’

‘No, because I have a great deal of resolution.’

But while Lady Hester trusts that there is no relationship between Sir Gareth and Amanda when they arrive, she also is certain that one will develop.  Amanda’s brightness and energy remind her too much of her long-dead friend who Sir Gareth once loved and so she rebuffs Sir Gareth’s proposal, despite being clearly, painfully already in love with him.  Heyer’s genius is in making the reader like Amanda but never share Lady Hester’s fears.

Unsurprisingly, Amanda has soon run away againand the rest of the novel takes place on the road.  The greatest danger to Amanda’s innocence comes from Lady Hester’s uncle, a middle-aged roué whom Amanda convinces to aid in her escape.  But Amanda, innocent though she is, is far from stupid and gives him the slip, setting off to disturb the lives of yet more people with Sir Gareth in hot pursuit.  When Amanda’s most ambitious plan goes awry, Sir Gareth is shot and becomes gravely ill.

Heyer loved a sickbed scene and this is no exception.  It allows her to show Amanda’s best qualities – her quick thinking and decisiveness – and also to allow Lady Hester, when summoned to Sir Gareth’s side by Amanda, to finally rebel against her family.  It also allows Heyer to amuse herself and the reader as Amanda and Hildebrand, a young aspiring playwright who had the misfortune to cross Amanda’s path and be roped into her schemes, squabble their way through Sir Gareth’s recovery, concocting ever more confusing relationships to one another to lend some propriety to their current circumstances.

Heyer revisited this plot – eligible bachelor crossing paths with beautiful runaway – many times but this may be my favourite version of it.  Amanda is her best and most well-rounded runaway and the humour is perfectly sustained throughout.  It had been years since I last reread it but I’m so happy I picked it up for the 1956 Club.

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It is no great hardship to spend a summer in Vancouver but by the start of this month I was desperate for a change of scene.  Usually, I’d be heading off to hike in the Alps at this time of year but (with only minimal sobbing over the lack of European escapes in my future) instead I went to the beautiful Okanagan region of BC.  It’s famous for sunshine, hot summers, beautiful lakes, and wineries.  My brother moved there a few years ago with his family so it also has the added draw of an adorable niece and nephew to visit.

I was there for ten days, which was a welcome break from work after an intense summer.  My days were wonderfully undemanding, fitting in a hike each morning, a swim in the lake each afternoon, plenty of socially-distanced family visits in my brother’s backyard, home-cooked dinners with the amazing local produce, and LOTS of reading.  The smoke from the horrible American forest fires only drifted up during our last couple of days so for the most part I was able to sit on the deck of the house we were staying at and alternately read and gaze out at the beautiful lake view.

Here’s what kept me distracted in between swims:

Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes – It’s been years since I reread any of the Walsh family books from Keyes but this one is just as good as I remembered it.  Keyes is always funny but that doesn’t stop her from addressing dark topics, in this case drug addiction.  Rachel knows she doesn’t have a drug problem but her family is insistent about checking her into a treatment centre, dragging her back to Ireland from New York city after she ends up in hospital there.  There’s not much left for her in New York anyways, just a job she’s lost interest in, a best friend who does nothing anymore but criticize her, and a boyfriend who has just broken up with her.  In treatment she has the voyeuristic pleasure of hearing the stories of other patients, knowing that she’s an outsider in this world.  But of course she isn’t and her journey to realising what has happened to her life and how she’s impacted the people around her is so cleverly done.

Cutting Back by Leslie Buck – In the late 90s, Buck was running a successful pruning company in California when she decided to take a sabbatical and spend several months training with pruners in Kyoto.  It was clearly an interesting experience but Buck’s writing doesn’t particularly do it justice.

The Wish List by Sophia Money-Coutts – Absolute fluff, as is mandated for all heavy reading holidays.

Where the Hornbeam Grows by Beth Lynch – This was such a disappointment to me.  I’d heard about it on the Slightly Foxed podcast last year and was certain that the story of a woman moving to Switzerland and making a garden to help her feel at home would be just right for me.  Now, I can’t think of a single expat memoir where someone has had a positive experience moving to Switzerland but usually the main criticism is that it’s a boring place to live.  Lynch finds SO many more things to criticize and seems to find the entry country rather sinister in its determination to make her feel excluded.  Her combined naivety (as far as I can tell she didn’t bother to learn anything about the country before moving there) and sense of victimhood drove me absolutely mad.  I kept hoping this would get better, but it didn’t.  Even her enthusiastic plant descriptions (of which there are not enough) weren’t enough to redeem this for me.

Hamnet and Judith by Maggie O’Farrell – Unsurprisingly, this was truly excellent and is deserving of all the praise that is being heaped upon it.  I was initially resistant, thinking myself uninterested in anything about Shakespeare but O’Farrell handles him very cleverly.  He is such a minor character that he is never even named.  It is his wife’s story and it is her grief over their only son Hamnet’s death that dominates.  We see little of Shakespeare’s own reaction – but, knowing his plays, we already know how he dealt with it.  Darlene did a much better and thorough job of articulating her thoughts so I’d recommend reading her review.

A Rogue of One’s Own by Evie Dunmore – Back to the fluffy reading.  This is the second in Dunmore’s “A League of Extraordinary Women” series of historical romance novels focused on a group of suffragists and I thought it a great improvement over the first book.

Cleopatra’s Sister by Penelope Lively – I read this for the first time back in 2016 and remembered it fondly but not, as it turned out, accurately (which is very suitable for a Lively book).  I remembered it as the story of Howard and Lucy, who meet when their plane is diverted to an African country where a coup has just occurred.  Held hostage by the new government, they find themselves – quickly, quietly, amazingly – falling in love.  And it is that story, but that only begins halfway through the book.

The first half is the story of their lives and all the quirks of fate that happened to them and others for them to eventually find themselves together in such extraordinary circumstances.  I loved it all the better for not having remembered it in detail.  Lively is always wont to muse on time and history, mischance and happenstance, and I love to watch her do it.

Once Upon an Eid edited by S.K. Ali and Aisha Saeed – a wonderfully varied collection of children’s stories about celebrating Eid.  I especially loved the stories about a refugee camp in Greece, a boy in Toronto learning to live up to his name, and a girl who, having always been defined by her identity as the only Muslim at her school, adjusts to not being an “only” when a new student arrives.

September by Rosamunde Pilcher – every vacation should feature a good family saga.  It was so satisfying to sink into Pilcher’s comfortable, genteel world and her idyllic rural Scottish setting.  She can be a very skilled writer and is especially good at slowly revealing characters’ stories, avoiding the temptation to overshare when they are introduced.  But…in the end, the female characters were so ornamental and inconsequential that it set my teeth on edge.  The only exceptions were those who were made sexless either by age or by their husband’s impotence.  They managed to be the most interesting characters, which shows what Pilcher was capable of.  But the younger women are constantly being described through the eyes of men and appraised based primarily on their appearances.  Which makes a kind of sense since they have nothing else to offer – none of them are educated or employed, even the girls in their late teens and early twenties.  The huge age gaps between couples are barely mentioned, only contributing to the feeling of separation between the genders.  For a book set in 1988, this all seems bizarre and part of a world that was already lost.  Despite the material attractions, it’s not a world I’d want to live in.

Indians on Vacation by Thomas King –  If I can’t travel abroad this year, at least I can read about those who can.  Bird and Mimi are visiting Europe to trace the postcards sent more than a hundred years before by Mimi’s uncle.  Bird and Mimi have their own identities to juggle – American-born Bird is half Cherokee and half Greek while Mimi is Canadian but introduces herself as Blackfoot, a distinction Bird reminds her that no one in Europe understands – but the most important distinction is Bird’s pessimism versus Mimi’s eternal optimism.  Bird, burnt out after years as a journalist, has fallen into a lethargy and is plagued by endless physical ailments.  He is not happy to be in Europe and reminds Mimi of this constantly:

I’m not sure why we travel.

The default response is that we travel in order to see new places, to meet new peoples, to broaden our understanding of the world.

Whereas I tend to see travel as punishment for those of us who can afford such mistakes.

I loved this far more than I expected to, finding it funny (Bird’s snarky asides and one liners are excellent) and poignant.  And the fact that the bulk of the book is set in Prague, my favourite and most familiar European city, didn’t hurt.

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