photo credit: Rachael Smith (via The Guardian)

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading 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.

Brrr.  February is off to a chilly start but the skies are blue and, with sunshine now available, you can actually tell the days are getting longer!  It is so encouraging and with all of the snopdrops, crocuses, and camellias in blossom, spring feels very close now.  Except for the snow in the forecast but I’m doing my best to ignore that (may it chose to ignore us in return).  Still no changes to our restrictions here (we have had rules restricting socialising outside of your household group since early November) so still lots of time to read and lots of new books from the library:

Rest and Be Thankful by Helen MacInnes – a few years ago, Elisabeth made a list of her favourite “hidden gems“.  It contains several books I already love so I immediately added the others to my to-read this, with this title being the one I was most intrigued by.  Published in the late forties, it is the story of two friends who, after almost twenty years in Europe, decide to host aspiring writers at a ranch in Wyoming.

A Sound Mind by Paul Morley – When I wrote about Year of Wonder in January, Karen mentioned she had been reading this title, also about classical music, so I immediately tracked it down.

That Can Be Arranged by Huda Fahmy – I don’t follow Fahmy on social media but her wonderful comics about life as an American Muslim woman are reposted so often by friends that it can feel like I do.  In this graphic memoir, she shares how she met and married her husband.

Ghosting by Jennie Erdal – A memoir about life as a ghostwriter (which I’m only aware of thanks to its reissue by Slightly Foxed).

A Bookshop in Berlin by Françoise Frenkel – A memoir of a Jewish bookstore owner’s experiences during the Second World War.

Ex Libris by Michiko Kakutani – One hundred personal essays about books – who could resist?

She Wore Red Trainers by Na’ima B. Robert – I have a long list of titles to track down through inter-library loan and am slowly working my way through it.  There are a lot of new YA titles from Muslim authors these days but back in 2014 that seemed to be much rarer, which is how this caught my attention.  More than six years later, here we finally are.

La Seduction by Elaine Sciolino – I have been watching almost entirely French programing the last five or six weeks so, clearly, need that to now expand over into my reading.

Our Darkest Night by Jennifer Robson – I was so excited about this new release from Robson, a historical novel featuring the always reliable plot device of a marriage of convenience to save someone from the Nazis.  Who can resist this?  And set in Italy no less!  I read it as soon as I picked it up from the library but was deeply disappointed.  It’s not awful but it was sadly flat.

What did you pick up this week?

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I can think of no better way to start off February than by taking part in Karen and Lizzy’s Reading Independent Publishers Month.  Independent publishers should always be celebrated – and thankfully often are in our corner of the blogging world – and I’m looking forward to seeing what others choose this month.

To start off the month a little early, I settled down yesterday afternoon with A House in Flanders by Michael Jenkins from Slightly Foxed (now sadly marked as “permanent sold out” on their website).  In addition to their peerless literary quarterly, Slightly Foxed reissues wonderful memoirs in gorgeous small hardback editions.  They have superb taste and have introduced me to new favourites as well as providing me with beautiful editions of old ones.  To me, a Slightly Foxed title is always an indication of quality, both in the writing and in the production of the physical book.  I will doubtlessly return to celebrate them further this month and it felt only reasonable to start with them.

At the beginning of the summer of 1951, fourteen-year-old Michael was sent by his parents in England to spend several months with “the aunts in Flanders.”  Despite not being actual relations – or having been seen by his parents since they visited on their honeymoon in the 1930s – the aunts are delighted to welcome this young man into their rural chateau, where Michael is quickly infatuated by the close-knit family:

…as I passed through the brick gateway perched on the front seat of an ancient black Citroen beside Joseph, the gardener who doubled as chauffer, and saw behind the trees the long façade of the house, I believe I had some premonition that a new life was about to unfold.  And if after only a day the world I had left behind seemed already remote, within weeks I no longer knew which was reality, the coldness and austerity of my existence in post-war England, or the dense fabric of extended family by which I was embraced, and within whose lives I had become entwined.

Each chapter focuses on a different character, beginning and ending with the formidable Tante Yvonne.  Then in her eighties, Tante Yvonne had taken charge of her five siblings when their parents died of typhoid when she was a young woman of twenty.  More than sixty years later, she remained at the heart of the family and of the village, always able to provide order where needed and deft counsel to those in need.  She never married and the story behind that is how Michael comes to understand his family’s link to the aunts.

Throughout the summer, Michael learns much of life.  He sees how the family cares for the mentally disabled illegitimate son of a brother who died in the First World War, he passes messages between an unhappily married nephew and his kind lover, and he lives amidst the tensions of a house containing six adult women who have somehow – mostly – learned to live with one another.  For him, coming from a chilly home with parents who have drifted apart without choosing to seek happiness elsewhere, it is an irresistible world and one he can’t imagine wanting to leave.  But there are those who want to, like the beautiful young Madeleine, who lives with her mother and aunts and is engaged to a handsome neighbour but is nonetheless unsettled and longs for something more.

Michael lives closely with two generations and it is fascinating to see how different events have shaped their lives.  For Tante Yvonne and her siblings, the First World War was the defining event.  Brothers and lovers were killed and maimed and nothing was ever the same for them after that.  For those born after that war, like Madeleine and her brothers, it was the more recent German occupation.  The wounds of that conflict hadn’t fully healed for anyone – the entire village remembers who collaborated and who was in the Resistance, and German tourists are far from welcomed when they appear.

Jenkins wrote the book fifty years after that first summer, looking back on a time and place that had remained vivid in his memories – as the best moments of our youths tend to do.  He conjures up an idyllic summer where he found a whole world of complicated people to care about and family histories – his own included – to unravel.  When, come September, he must return to England, the reader can easily understand his reluctance to leave.

photo credit: Michael SInclair

I love this sweet dollhouse bookshelf.

Possession by A.S. Byatt is a work of absolute genius.

It’s been a chaotic work week for me with plenty of long days but even when I can only manage an hour of reading a day, it’s been a joy to slip back into Byatt’s 1990 Booker Prize winner novel of Victorian romance and modern-day academic sleuthing.

Byatt didn’t just write a novel.  She wrote poems and short stories and letters and diaries and biographies and academic analysis from multiple perspectives on all of it.  And yes, she also wrote a narrative that weaves it altogether.  The entirety is so cleverly conceived and brilliantly executed that it boggles the mind.

If you haven’t picked it up in a while (or ever?  What a treat you have in store in that case!), I urge you to do so now.  It’s a perfect book to immerse yourself in, offering multiple worlds, immense passion, and also, I had forgotten, quite a lot of humour around the academic rivalries.

badge-4Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Sharlene from Real Life Reading 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.

There was a superb episode of the podcast “You’re Booked” over the holidays with Ella Risbridger, in which they talked about the Out of the Hitler Time trilogy by Judith Kerr, consisting of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Bombs on Aunt Dainty, and A Small Person Far Away.  I read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit as a child but had no idea that Anna’s story continued in other books so have set out to read the series in sequence.

A strong showing for the interlibrary loan system this week with three intriguing titles:

Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge – I’ve been looking forward to reading this for years thanks to Rachel’s enthusiasm for it.  After such a long time without travel (and so much longer still ahead), books about people on vacation are the next best thing – especially as the setting here is the Dalmatian Coast, one of my favourite places.

Dashbury Park by Susan Tweedsmuir – Scott recently wrote about Susan Tweedsmuir’s Victorian novels and while I was familiar with Cousin Harriet (an excellent book), somehow the other two had passed me by.

The Youngest Lady-in-Waiting by Mara Kay – the sequel to Masha, which I read earlier this month.  I only became aware of these children’s books recently after reading Elaine’s very fond review at Shiny New Books.

Hafiz of Shiraz translated by Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs – Simon was talking about his desire and determination to be a person who likes poetry last week.  I’ve never had huge success with poetry but, like Simon, I keep trying to read it and find what I like.  I’ve read and watched a few things set in Iran this month so Hafiz was top of my mind when it came to poets and I picked up this slim volume of only 30 poems.

Love Thy Neighbor by Ayaz Virji – This caught my eye back in 2019 thanks to this NPR interview and my library has now acquired a copy.

The Family Tree by Sairish Hussain – Hugely praised and shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award last year, I’m about a third of the way through this novel about a British Muslim family and have mixed feelings.  The writing is good and the characters well-drawn but it feels unnecessarily long.  I’m going to persevere a while longer but this may be one I abandon.

In February (which is next week!), Karen and Lizzy are hosting Reading Independent Publishers Month.  I have plenty of things off my own shelves that I’m looking forward to reading but couldn’t resist picking up two titles I’ve long had on my TBR list from Eland Books: Two Middle-Aged Ladies in Andalusia by Penelope Chetwode and Journey into the Mind’s Eye by Lesley Blanch

A Deadly Divide by Ausma Zehanat Khan – The final book in the Khattak/Getty mystery series which began with The Unquiet Dead.  It’s rare that I read mysteries and rarer still that I race through them as quickly as I have with this excellent series.

What did you pick up this week?

photo credit: Tony Soluri

If there is one thing 2020 has taught us it is that we can only control so much – but what we do control has the power to make us happy and keep us calm in uncertain times.  It is in that spirit that I think everyone should track down a copy of Year of Wonder by Clemency Burton-Hill and embrace the power of music to comfort and delight you in 2021 and years to come.

First published in 2017, this wonderful book is a daily guide to classical music.  A broadcaster and musician (and actress and journalist and…many, many things), Burton-Hill put it together after years of making playlists for friends and hosting radio programmes, eager to help introduce others to the genre she loves and yet which seems so far removed from many people’s lives.  As she puts it in her introduction:

What I am determined to do…is to extend a hand to those who feel that the world of classical music is a party to which they haven’t been invited.  I want to open up this vast treasury of musical riches by suggesting a single piece to listen to every day of the year: by giving it some context, telling some stories about the people behind it, and reminding you that it was created by a real person – probably someone who shared many of the same concerns as you, who wished to express themselves and happened to do so through this particular sequence of musical notes.  It’s really important to remember that music does not exist in a vacuum: it requires listeners, audiences, witnesses in order to come alive; to be heard, to be felt.  And that’s you!

With one piece selected for each day of the year, Burton-Hill guides listeners through familiar classics, forgotten gems, and contemporary works.  It is an exciting collection and for every work of genius by Mozart or Bach (who rightly have multiple entries throughout the year), there is something I would never have found by someone I have never heard of.  Refreshingly, Burton-Hill includes pieces by more than 40 female composers.

Though the main goal of the book is to demystify the genre for those who might have viewed it as an elitist art form, the book is just as rewarding for those of us who have been attending classical concerts all our lives and listen to little else.  I grew up in a house where classical music – so cheap and easy to access in our modern world, thanks to radios, home audio systems, and now the internet – was always on and where trips to children’s programmes at the symphony started so early that I can’t remember my first concerts.  My mother was raised in a world where everyone went to operas and concert halls, travelling by tram and sitting in boxes alongside teachers and factory workers, so took it for granted that music was necessary for everyone.  She lulled her babies to sleep with Brahms and Mozart and we accordingly assumed it as part of our lives.  It wasn’t until we started spending time at friends’ houses that we realised this wasn’t the case for everyone – and frankly that still boggles my mind.  Clearly, what those friends (and their parents) needed was this book.

While some pairings of music and day are significant – many composers are featured on their birthdays and national independence days marked by compositions from proud sons/daughters – others are more whimsical.  In January she offers up “music that feels like a large glass of red wine” and later a piece to console listeners simply because it is mid-February and we all need a bit of consoling as we wait for spring.  The descriptions of pieces are engaging and informative, giving context to the pieces and their composers, and never more than one page long.

My only quibble – because I am the least technologically-inclined millennial in the world – is that the music itself is available only on streaming playlists (on iTunes and Spotify) and not in a mammoth CD collection.  I hate having my devices nearby when I read and would love to be able to put the music on easily while I read.  But recognize that I am a dinosaur and need to get with the times.  Or burn my own CDs…

credit: Kierszbaum Interieurs

I have no words for that lamp shade.  Who doesn’t want to bring the tiki bar into their music room/library?