The Village by Marghanita Laski

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After having enjoyed Little Boy Lost last summer I knew I had to read another book by Marghanita Laski so I decided to buy myself The Village by the same author for Christmas. I think I expected something with the same tone and feel as Little Boy Lost, but this novel is quite different from that excellent novel. However, though the feel is not the same I enjoyed it for its view of a changing village in the years after WWII.

The novel revolves around the story of a secret romance between young Margaret Trevor, a girl who comes from an upper/middle class family and Roy Wilson, a veteran from a working class family. Their mothers worked together in a Red Cross Post during the war, but once the war is over there is no question of them socializing with each other ever again. This knowledge is unquestioned by Wendy Trevor, Margaret’s unsatisfied, bitter, highly critical mother. She sees Margaret as a failure because she’s shy, reserved and hasn’t done well in school like her younger sister has. Everyone in their social circle agrees that the only path for Margaret to take is that of wife and mother – and Margaret has no objection to this as it’s exactly the life she wants for herself. But of course they all see her with someone of their own class and not with someone like Roy Wilson.

Roy is kind, hard-working, ambitious and wants a family. He and Margaret quickly fall in love after meeting at a dance, but their romance is conducted very stealthily as Margaret knows that her parents would never consent to her marriage with someone from such a different background from herself.

This is all conducted against a background of an altered economic climate with the working class making money and the middle class living in genteel poverty. There’s also a definite sense that the middle class citizens in the village feel threatened by the new confidence the working class has gained since the war.

The young romance can’t stay hidden forever and there is an inevitable clash at the end of the novel – between the old and the new, the traditional and the modern, the young and the old. Laski skillfully uses the classic plot of star crossed lovers to play up all the ways that England was changing in the fifties. Her characters are perhaps not so complex, but they do powerfully portray the various factions in this new world.

The Village is a fascinating post-war novel yet I think Mollie Panter-Downes’s One Fine Day, which shares similar themes to The Village, is a superior post-war book – I’d recommend it highly if you’re interested in this time period.

Now I’ll move on to To Bed With Grand Music by Laski – another Christmas present to myself!

Margery Sharp Day 2016: Cluny Brown

clunySo sorry that this is a day late, but I had a very busy day yesterday and didn’t find the time to finish up my post – better late than never, I suppose!

I was so pleased when Jane from Beyond Eden Rock announced her second annual Margery Sharp Day. I really enjoyed reading Britannia Mews last year and had good intentions to read another of Sharp’s novels before 2015 ended. However, we all know how good intentions can fall by the wayside when it comes to reading. So, I was happy to have this opportunity to try Sharp again and fortunate to find a 1944 copy of Cluny Brown at Tumbleweed Books in Pueblo, Colorado.

Cluny Brown is set in 1938 and starts off in London. We first learn about the main character, Cluny Brown, from other’s opinions and views of her. Her Uncle Arn, with whom she lives, strikes up a conversation with an older woman in Kensington Gardens and tells this woman that Cluny ‘doesn’t know her place’. And that is the crux of Cluny’s problems – she thinks she can do things that young women of her station and skills wouldn’t normally do. It perplexes her uncle and frustrates other relations and after she makes an ill-advised decision regarding an older man and his bathroom her uncle and his sister-in-law steer her into service.

She lands in Devon at Friars Carmel, the home of Sir Henry, Lady Carmel and their son Andrew. Mostly resigned to her fate she settles in as a housemaid among the very gracious family, their Polish refugee house guest, Adam Belinksi, and the other household staff. She also meets a kind if dull chemist who gives her hope for a different life.

In the end, Cluny makes a decision that is wholly unexpected yet wholly and utterly perfect. She’s known all along that she doesn’t want the life most expected for women of her status and the reader doesn’t want that for her either. For Cluny is curious and energetic, unafraid and full of natural charm. She’s meant for more than the life of a housemaid.

Like Britannia Mews, Cluny Brown is a dream. I loved all of the characters so much that I didn’t want to leave them. Sharp creates real and delightful worlds with a slightly fairy tale quality that completely envelop the reader – I was enchanted.

Now to decide – wait for next year’s Margery Sharp Day to read another of her novels or jump straight in to one now?

#Emma200th: Volume 1

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This is the first post on my Emma thoughts for the readalong this month. Unfortunately, I read the first volume about two months ago and sadly have no vivid, charming comments that are floating to the surface of my aging brain right now. So, these will have to do:

  • Emma is a wonderful, entertaining, frustrating, amusing character. It’s hard to dislike her even when she is being so insufferably obtuse. Yet, when you step back from the humor and the sheer confidence she displays you realize that her actions, though cloaked in a tone of lightheartedness, really do have serious consequences that could ruin lives. Her sense of her own rightness borders on the dangerous.
  • How endearingly annoying is Miss Bates? We have many Miss Bates’s at the library – men and women (though mostly men these days) who spend their entire days in the library and take advantage of any slow times at the desk to bombard the staff with their thoughts, descriptions of their small daily outrages and pleasures and complaints about their health. I admit to feeling very Emma-like toward them some of the time and am very relieved when someone needing help approaches the desk and I can turn away. If I have time I do try to give them attention (except for the creepy ones…but that’s a different story) and these Miss Bates’s are always grateful, but they do try our patience.
  • Austen is really skillful at building up interest in and curiosity about Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, isn’t she? By the time they arrived in Highbury I was so dying to know if they were really as described by the various characters and by their letters.
  • The amount of walking the characters do is impressive! And it also seems that a lot important of thoughts and conversations are had by them while walking.
  • I love the scenes at Randalls on Christmas Eve. The snow worries of Mr. Woodhouse, the cheek of Mr. Elton, Emma’s confusion about his lack of concern about Harriet and then the scene in the carriage on the way home – fabulous.

This week I’ll immerse myself in volume two and very happily. After an unfortunate experience attempting to read Jonathan Franzen this weekend I need something that is more of my taste to brighten my days.

Are you reading Emma this month?

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

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In Crooked Heart we’re placed right in the middle of WWII-era London during the Blitz. Ten-year-old Noel is an orphan who’s been evacuated to the home of Vee Sedgwick, a woman who just can’t seem to get it together. She can’t hold down a job, makes enemies of her neighbors, and none of her money-making schemes yield results. When Noel enters her life she at first doesn’t see him as anything but a way to make ends meet (by using his ration card) and Noel sees her as something to be endured. Yet as the chaos of war upsets everything around them, even family ties and familiar surroundings, Vee and Noel create a bond that withstands the turmoil. This funny novel explores the dark side of the home front yet is ultimately heartfelt and endearing.

I loved this one! Thanks to Darlene for encouraging me to read it.

Anderby Wold by Winifred Holtby

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I’m counting this as my first book read for the All Virago/All August event even though I finished it on the last day of July. It is the reason, however, that I visited the Librarything Virago group (to see if anyone else had recently read it) and found out about AV/AA so I believe it’s earned its place on the list.

Set just before WWI, the novel opens with a party in honor of Mary Robson and her husband, John. It’s their ten year anniversary, but more importantly, they’ve just bought Anderby Wold, Mary’s family home. As the relatives interact with each other at the party, we get a sense of their personalities and relation to each other which sets the scene for the rest of the novel.

Mary is quite a bit younger than her husband John, who is also her second cousin. She married him out of necessity and accepts his passive nature and rather boring demeanor because he doesn’t interfere with her running their two farms. John’s sister Sarah thinks that Mary treats him badly but she’s about the only one in their small villages in Yorkshire who thinks badly of her. Mary’s revered by the community for being service-minded, fair and capable. Underneath her practical nature, however, lurks a romantic streak that leads her to daydream about a great passion and to stubbornly sentimentalize her land and possessions.

Everything in her world starts to shift when a union man comes to the village and urges the farm workers to lobby for better wages or to strike during the upcoming harvest. David Rossitur is energetic, ambitious and idealistic and though he hates everything Mary stands for they are both young and charming and Mary quickly falls in love. The combination of the difficulty of the demands of the workforce and her violent hidden feelings for David upset Mary’s world to a remarkable degree yet she’s determined to carry on in the traditional ways of the village until a shocking tragedy demands a change.

Holtby is a wonderful storyteller, balancing the story of political upheaval and the inner struggles of individual characters with a perfect touch. Her story weaves the villagers lives together in such a way that if one of them is affected by something, they’re all affected and this really illuminates the idea that we’re all connected whether we realize it or not. I also like the way she places Mary’s wrestle with her personal problems against the backdrop of labor organizing to really intensify the understanding of how much the world was changing during this period in history.

This is a fantastic novel and I’m so glad I finally read my first Holtby. I’m now looking forward to reading the other Holtby novels that I have in my collection.

Book Club: The Grand Sophy by Georgette Heyer

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My book club is continuing to take turns choosing our discussion titles each month. We’ve read some really varied things this year, including a lot more non-fiction than we’ve ever read (we have another non-fiction title up in August), a golden age mystery, a historical literary novel and a classic novel. So I wasn’t really surprised when one of the members chose a Regency romance for our July discussion. The member who chose it wanted to read it because it is her mom’s favorite book and she thought it would be fun to read it with the group. Her mom lives in Manchester, England and we wanted to Skype her in for the discussion, but she was understandably nervous about the reaction to her beloved novel (also it would have been 3:30 am in Manchester when we started our discussion).

As it turned out, she needn’t have worried because we all loved it! Heyer’s blend of humor, clever dialogue, a brisk moving plot, historical accuracy and, of course, romance, is an absolute delight. The Grand Sophy starts when Lady Ombersley is asked by her brother to take in his daughter Sophy who has lived abroad for much of her life. Lady Ombersley is hesitant as she, her husband and her children are all under the thumb of her eldest son Charles, who’s recently become heir to his uncle’s fortune. She doesn’t think that Charles will want the expense and hassle of trying to find a husband for Sophy, but reluctantly agrees to accept Sophy into her home anyway. Little does she know what she’s in for – Sophy turns out to be a very high-spirited manager who handily fixes the family’s problems and easily discerns what would be best for them better than they really know for themselves. She’s confident, doesn’t take offense and is lots of fun – a really memorable character.

I wasn’t sure how the discussion would go since The Grand Sophy isn’t deep literature, but we actually had a very lively conversation about what the novel says about womanliness, romance, motherhood, and manipulation. It was one of the best discussions that we’ve had this year.

Next up we’re reading Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott.

 

Disclaimer by Renée Knight

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One of my very favorite genres is the ‘suburban suspense’ or ‘domestic suspense’ novel. Books like The Girl on the Train, Gone Girl, etc. They can be extremely well done with vivid writing, well drawn characters and clever, tight plotting. Or they can be predictable, messy and dull. Thankfully, Disclaimer is in the former category. It is an excellent example of this particular brand of novel.

The story is told in alternating chapters first from the viewpoint of the revengeful stalker who is trying to ruin the life of an award-winning documentary filmmaker, and then from the filmmaker, Catherine’s, point of view. Twenty years previously the stalker’s son died and he’s convinced that Catherine was the cause. His late wife wrote a fictionalized version of the accident that killed their son and the stalker has found it, self-published it and made sure that Catherine, her husband and her son have seen it. Though it is fictionalized there’s enough truth in it for Catherine’s husband to realize that it is about her and their marriage and family is utterly devastated. As the novel progresses, the suspense increases and the stalker gets angrier – the stalker wants more than to ruin Catherine’s life – he wants to end it. But then the plot takes quite a turn, something I didn’t see coming at all – and it left me breathless and quietly horrified.

Disclaimer is not only an excellent suspense novel but a novel that makes you question your own assumptions about how well you really know people, even your own family. I think this is a stunning novel and if you are in the mood for a meditative page-turner this summer this is the book for you.

Mary Hocking Reading Week: A Particular Place

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This is the last day of Mary Hocking Reading Week (although by the time I post this I think it will be Monday in the UK and I officially missed the deadline) but I am just now getting my impressions about A Particular Place gathered and recorded. I finished the book sometime last week on vacation and haven’t really known what to say about it. And I still don’t feel like I can do it justice, but I am going to do my best to tell you what I think.

This short novel is set in a small town in the West Country and focuses on a small group of parishioners who are connected through their church participation. The vicar, Michael Hoath, is a very intense, serious and traditional man who is married to the cold and beautiful Valentine, an amateur actress. Everyone in the novel is in some kind of crisis, whether emotional or faith-related or family/marriage based. Michael doesn’t really think or know that he is until he falls in love with a rather flaky woman in the congregation and has to come to grips with his own inner turmoil in the midst of helping members of his parish through their various struggles.

So there really isn’t a plot – it’s more a collection of scenes wherein the characters examine themselves, their motives, their beliefs and try to connect with God or their families or their fellow parishioners. The description on the books says it’s a successor to Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor – I feel it’s probably much closer to Taylor as there is hardly any humor in the novel (which started to wear on me) yet I feel it’s unlike Taylor in that Hocking does show a smidge more compassion for her characters than Taylor does. The tone of this novel is hard to pin down. It is melancholy, woeful, at times hopeless, yet there is a transcendence that overshadows it all that makes it luminous.

Did I like it? I’m afraid to say I don’t think I really did, in the end. I admire it and like the writing and the style, but the tone is so dark and the characters so desolate that I couldn’t enjoy it. I think this is a case where I probably don’t understand this novel at all and am misreading everything about it. I am glad that I read it, though, and it won’t prevent me from trying another Mary Hocking novel.

They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple

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The past two weeks at work have been pretty stressful, with people on vacation, out sick or at meetings. The kids in our community are out of school next week and preparations for our summer reading program are in high gear, which also makes things slightly tense around the library. We’re all loaded down with tasks and have to cover the desk as well and it all gets to be a bit too much when lots of people are out. In order to relieve the stress every evening I turned to They Were Sisters, an excellent novel by an author I don’t think I’ve much appreciated up to this point.

Lucy, Vera and Charlotte grow up in a well-to-do-family with a lawyer father, in comfort and safety. Lucy is the nurturer (especially after their mother passes away), Vera is the beauty and Charlotte the gentle, fun-loving sister. When the sisters marry their lives take separate paths yet Lucy continues to look after her troubled sisters. High-spirited Vera marries a dull man and their unsuitability makes them both miserable. Charlotte has a harder life; her husband Geoffrey is emotionally and mentally abusive, a true sadist who enjoys making her unhappy and humiliating her and their children. Lucy, married to good William, watches her sisters’ lives fall apart with despair. As the years go on Vera and Charlotte fall further into troubles and Lucy endeavors to save both them (without much success) and their children.

Published in 1943 this novel was a bestseller and I can just imagine people reading it to escape their daily reality, much as I did. It is completely engrossing, filled with very colorful, well-drawn characters, lots of drama and lovely domestic details. It is also – and this was one of my main reasons for loving it so much – full of goodness. Lucy is a woman to be admired as she goes about her life trying to do good, be good and think good about others. She is now one of my all-time favorite characters from literature and one I aspire to be like and learn from.

Until now I’d never really loved a Whipple novel. I enjoyed Greenbanks and Someone at a Distance and liked The Priory, but I was missing the connection that I know others have felt to her writing. They Were Sisters is the book that’s put me in the Whipple fan club forever. Now it’s on to Because of the Lockwoods.

How do you feel about Dorothy Whipple? Fan or no?

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

 

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I consider Sarah Waters to be one of my favorite authors so of course I started reading The Paying Guests back when it was released last fall with much excitement. However, I didn’t finish it before I went to London and had to return it to the library before I left. While walking around Windsor after visiting the castle I saw a copy for sale in a bookshop and bought it with the idea of reading it on the plane home. Yet I didn’t finish it then either. Finally a few weeks ago I started it again and this time I was riveted. I couldn’t stop reading and finished the novel with that wonderful sense of satisfaction you feel after living in a truly wonderful story.

The book is set in London in 1922 when the aftermath of the war is still radiating through society. Frances Wray and her mother are left alone in a big, demanding house with little money and no servants. To make ends meet they take in ‘paying guests’, Len and Lily Barber, a young couple who come from a different world, a different class, a different social status.  Inevitable awkwardness and discomfort accompany their arrival to the Wray’s home, especially as Len is a bit slick and there is an odd undercurrent of bitterness in his relationship with Lily. As the weeks go by they all try to adjust to the strained situation and Waters brilliantly creates that feeling of unease for the reader that sits at the heart of all of her novels.

Frances and Lily are eventually drawn together – out of mutual loneliness and dissatisfaction – and their relationship takes a dramatic and erotic path that leads to murder. The plot then turns from a simmering love story to a tense police investigation and courtroom drama that only made the novel more interesting and complex. Waters is so good at examining the shifting state of relationships when they’re put under pressure and how her characters react to tragedy and anxiety felt so right to me.

I love the domestic details in this book – the descriptions of the cleaning, the meals, the everyday chores that bring the novel to life and transport us into the post-war society that was so rapidly evolving. These details ground the novel in reality when the characters and the plot take unfamiliar paths and helps to ratchet up the suspense and sense of terror that would plague anyone involved in a forbidden romance or a murder investigation.

I wasn’t disappointed with this latest novel by Sarah Waters and it seems to be the book that will earn her the huge readership that she deserves. She is really gaining a following here in the States – I’ve had conversations with two different patrons this week at my library about how they can’t believe they just discovered her writing. One of the patrons was sad to learn that Waters doesn’t crank the novels out and there was a five year gap between The Paying Guests and The Little Stranger. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another five years for her next novel.