Saturday 27 December 2008

American Wife

I have followed the career of the young American writer, Curtis Sittenfeld, ever since I read Prep a few years ago, so I was delighted when I received her new novel American Wife as a Christmas present and I didn't even drop any hints!

Prep is a contemporary version of the classic boarding school book. I thought it was highly original and extremely well-written although it may not be everybody's cup of tea.* I really liked her second book, The Man of My Dreams, too. I'll let you know how I get on with American Wife. It has over 500 pages so I may be a while ...

* Prep does have a couple of very descriptive sex scenes;-)

A Lost Lady

She stood beside his desk in her long sealskin coat and cap, a crimson scarf showing above the collar, a little brown veil with spots tied over her eyes. The veil did not in the least obscure those beautiful eyes, dark and full of light, set under a low white forehead and arching eyebrows. The frosty air had brought no colour to her cheeks - her skin had always the fragrant, crystalline whiteness of white lilacs.

This is the bewitching Marian Forrester in Willa Cather's 1923 novel A Lost Lady. Beautiful, vivacious and the perfect hostess she charms and seduces her way through life. A Lost Lady examines the passing of the old order, the great conquering men of the pioneer period are losing out to shrewd young men without respect for the landscape. It is only when her wealthy and honourable husband loses his money and his health that Marian Forrester begins to come undone ...

I read this in two or three sittings over the Christmas break (it helped that I didn't have to go to work!) Another excellent Willa Cather novel.

Saturday 20 December 2008

Once again to Zelda ...

... is the famously romantic dedication inside The Great Gatsby. The very nice reading blog Shelf Love recently posted about Gerald and Sarah Murphy who inspired the characters of Dick Diver and Nicole in Tender is the Night. This made me want to re-read some F. Scott Fitzgerald so I've replaced my battered old edition of Gatsby.

Finished Home by Marilynne Robinson. Arguably, Home is Gilead from a different point of view. It's dialogue driven and centres around the characters of John Boughton, his wayward son Jack and daughter, Glory. It's a beautifully written novel, but I have to say I much prefer Gilead.

Merry Christmas everyone and I hope you all manage to squeeze in some reading time over the festive season!

Sunday 14 December 2008

Cheap and Cheerful

The carnations that is. Hardbacks are rather more expensive. I went to Waterstone's to buy Home by Marilynne Robinson and it was £16.99 which I thought was rather a lot so I went to Borders and got it for £12.99. I think I'm going to have to cut back on my hardback consumption next year. I've been re-reading Gilead this week in preparation for Home which I'm hoping to start tonight when I've done the ironing and written my Christmas cards and sorted out school uniforms and sports bags! You know how it is.

Saturday 6 December 2008

My Antonia

Re-reading Marilynne Robinson's Gilead this week made me want to go back to Willa Cather's My Antonia. My Antonia is a stunning novel based on Cather's childhood memories of Red Cloud, Nebraska. Jim Burden is sent to live with his grandparents on their farm in Nebraska, a place where the long waving grass resembles the sea and trees are a rare and unfamiliar sight on the flat landscape. One of his childhood friends is Antonia Shimerda the young daughter of poverty-stricken Bohemian immigrants. Although Jim eventually moves to New York he never forgets his childhood friend and one day he goes back to look for her. Here's an extract:
As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.


Young sisters, Ruth and Lucille , are left on their grandmother's porch by their mother who then drives her car into a lake. This may or may not be suicide. After their grandmother's death, the girls are briefly cared for by two elderly spinsters until their mother's younger sister, Sylvie, inherits the house. Thirty-five year old Sylvie has been a transient or drifter and finds it hard to settle to domesticity although she is very fond of her nieces. Sylvie has the deeply entrenched habits of a drifter, she sleeps fully dressed with her shoes under the pillow, she pins a twenty-dollar bill to the inside of her coat and she is prone to wandering in the dark, 'borrowing' boats and rowing across the lake, laying on park benches and hitching rides on freight trains. Desperate to conform, Lucille eventually goes to live with her school-teacher so that she can be like other girls. Ruth, however, has the nature of a transient and she wants to stay with Sylvie.
Housekeeping is beautifully written with an absorbing story. For some reason the character of Sylvie reminded me of certain characters in Anne Tyler novels. Particularly Muriel the dog trainer in The Accidental Tourist. Sylvie teaches Ruth and Lucille what it is to be an individual. Here's an extract. Lucille and Ruth are looking up the word pinking-shears in an old dictionary and find it full of pressed flowers:

I opened to P. At that place there were five dried pansies - one yellow, one blue-black, one mahogany, one violet, one parchment. They were flat and still and dry - as rigid as butterfly wings, but much more fragile. At Q I found a sprig of Queen Anne's lace, which was smashed flat and looked very like dill. At R I found a variety of roses, red roses, which had warped the page on each side a little to their shape, and pink wild roses.

Sunday 30 November 2008

I wasn't going to buy any books this month ...

... but I happened to be in a bookstore yesterday and I spotted Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. I've wanted to read it since I read her wonderful novel Gilead last year and I'm in the mood for American writing at the moment. I'll let you know how I get on ...

Friday 28 November 2008

Daughter of Earth

Another vintage Virago from my local second-hand book store! Agnes Smedley's Daughter of Earth is the coming of age story of Marie Roberts, a girl of American Indian heritage who rises from extreme poverty to find a sense of self and purpose when she discovers socialism. It's also a semi-autobiographical account of the life of Agnes Smedley. It's certainly not a light read, but an absorbing account of poverty-stricken American families living and working on the land in the early part of the twentieth century. Reading this novel has made want to re-read Willa Cather and Louise Erdrich, powerful writers who examine the lives of those who live and work on the prairies and plains. Here's an extract from Daughter of Earth:
I recall a crazy-quilt my mother once had. She made it from the remnants of gay and beautiful cotton materials. She also made a quilt of solid blue. I would stand gazing at the blue quilt for a little time, but the crazy-quilt held me for hours. It was an adventure. I shall gather up these fragments of my life and make a crazy-quilt of them. Or a mosaic of interesting patterns - unity in diversity. This will be an adventure.

Monday 24 November 2008

Reading resolution

I've been meaning to read Anne of Green Gables for years and never quite got around to it. This edition has an introduction and front cover illustration by Lauren Child. I do like Child's contemporary illustrations for classic children's books.

So, my reading resolution for what's left of 2008 is to familiarise myself with the work of L M Montgomery.

Friday 14 November 2008

Olivia Manning

It's always good to discover a pristine Virago in a second-hand book store. I'm unfamiliar with the work of Olivia Manning although I know she wrote The Balkan Trilogy which became the BBC series The Fortunes of War.

The Wind Changes is set in the troubled Dublin of 1921. Elizabeth, a young artist has a sexual relationship with a cold-hearted English writer, Arion and then begins a relationship with the equally indifferent political activist, Sean. This girl doesn't learn! This is a thoughtful and reflective book and Manning's writing is beautifully descriptive of nature and the sea:
All the houses there faced the sea. It would have been funny to have lived in one that did not. It would have been like sitting with your back to the driver in a bus. In the winter the spray was flung over the roofs and flooded the back gardens. Her cousins used to roll their trousers up to their knees and bale the yard with buckets. The salt killed nearly all the plants. Only the aconite lived through the winter and in the spring its leaves would glitter with salt as thick as hoar frost.

Friday 7 November 2008

Carrie's War

Carrie's War by Nina Bawden is a poignant children's book which examines the impact of war and displacement on children. Although the subject is sombre, there is humour and warmth in the story. Eleven-year old Carrie and her younger brother, Nick are evacuated from London during the Second World War and sent to a small Welsh village where they meet the mysterious Hepzibah who may or may not be a white witch. Published in 1973, this is a coming-of-age story and Carrie is a particularly charismatic central character. I've been restricting myself to a chapter a night this week because I didn't want the story to end.

Tuesday 4 November 2008

Can Any Mother Help Me?

Another cover in a shade of pink which sets your teeth on edge ... the book is great, though!

In 1935 a depressed mother calling herself Ubique wrote to a women's magazine asking for help to overcome her loneliness. Other mothers responded with empathy and it was decided to produce a magazine which could be circulated among themselves. Thus began the Cooperative Correspondence Club or CCC. This magazine continued for decades as the women's friendship and mutual support endured through wartime, marriages and marriage failures, the birth of children and old age. Well-educated and intelligent, the women gave themselves nicknames which afforded anonymity when they discussed personal issues in the magazine. These names, A Priori, Accidia, Yonire, Ad Astra, Elektra etc are similar to the user names adopted by those who use internet discussion forums today.

I particularly enjoyed the cheery Roberta's lively account of giving birth to a much longed-for daughter, Amelia's tale of sleeping overnight on a London pavement in order to watch the Queen's coronation procession and Yonire's success at fighting off an over-amorous admirer with a high-heeled shoe. There is also a poignant account from Isis of her difficult marriage and passionate love for the family doctor, but my own favourite is Accidia, the Cambridge educated mother of five who longs for a good night's sleep.

Jenna Bailey has meticulously edited contributions from the magazines and I hope this talented author publishes more in this new genre of social history.

Monday 3 November 2008

Not my cup of tea

It took me a while to realise that Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey was a black comedy and it certainly had its amusing moments, but I didn't engage with any of the characters and if you're not rooting for a character it's difficult to care about the book.

I also thought that the motif of a bride who gets drunk on her wedding day has been done before (and better) in The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald.

Ah well, time to browse through the Persephone catalogue again - I knew I should have ordered the Katherine Mansfield Journal!

Friday 31 October 2008

Singled Out

Three-quarters of a million young men lost their lives in the First World War. This 'lost generation' meant that many women had to abandon their traditional expectations of marriage and motherhood as there were simply not enough men to go round. In Singled Out, Virginia Nicholson examines how the women of this generation responded to the crisis. Many lost fiances, beloved brothers, colleagues and friends. After coming to terms with their shock and grief these women magnificently rose to the challenge of life as a singleton (long before the phrase was coined by the fictional Bridget Jones) and found new direction and purpose.

For some, this meant a career. Gertrude Maclean established Universal Aunts in 1921, an organisation which provided ladies of 'irreproachable background' to act as nannies, personal shoppers or researchers. Nicholson describes how one Universal Aunt had to look after a mongoose for a week while its owner was abroad! Others, such as Elizabeth Goudge, took comfort from a devout Christian faith and a literary talent. Goudge went on to become a best-selling writer after the publication of Green Dolphin Country.

Singled Out is a highly original and interesting book.

Wednesday 29 October 2008

Half-term treats

In the midst of organising half-term treats for my daughters - a trip to the cinema to see High School Musical 3 and a Halloween sleepover - I haven't forgotten to organise my own. Yes, it's another Persephone! After much pondering and deliberating I ordered Julia Strachey's Cheerful Weather for the Wedding. It's quite a slender volume so I should finish it over the weekend. I'll let you know how I get on ...

Saturday 18 October 2008

Better late than never

I ordered the Persephone edition of Mariana by Monica Dickens through my local bookshop back in August. It arrived yesterday. Meantime, I'd requested it from the reserve store of the library, read it and written about it! Oh well, it's nice to have my own copy and the Persephone Classics edition contains an excellent introduction by Harriet Lane. Here's a nice extract from Mariana:
It was the smell of clean sheets that reminded Mary of what, when she was a child, she called the Charbury Smell. It was the first thing you noticed as you went in at the front door of Charbury; an indefinable pot-pourri of all the fragrant things in the house - roses, wood-smoke, polished floors, bread, and lavender-kept old linen.

Friday 17 October 2008

The Railway Children

I've been reading The Treasure Seekers and The Railway Children by E Nesbit because I'm studying for an MA in Children's Literature. The Railway Children is the story of Roberta, Phyllis and Peter who have to leave their big London house when their father is mysteriously taken away. The children go to live in the countryside with their mother and the discovery of the local railway line and station leads to new friendships and adventures.

I didn't read E Nesbit as a child and I don't have the affection for her books that I have for, say, Noel Streatfeild or Enid Blyton. At times, the sexism in The Railway Children is infuriating, but of course it was published in 1906 when the world was a different place. The character of twelve-year old Bobby (Roberta) is the most appealing aspect of The Railway Children for me and I loved the illustrations by C E Brock.

Tuesday 14 October 2008

More Meg Rosoff (and more asters!)

I've just re-read Meg Rosoff's first novel, How I Live Now. Daisy, a troubled fifteen year old from New York, spends an idyllic summer with her English cousins in their rambling old farmhouse with its pebbled courtyard, stables and raised square garden containing only white flowers and a stone angel with folded wings. However, England is descending into war, the cousins are evacuated and Daisy becomes responsible for the safety and well-being of her nine-year old cousin Piper. When the two girls have to live in the woods for a week surviving on nuts, berries, and accidentally eating mushrooms which make them hallucinate the story is utterly gripping.

This is no portrayal of a quaint England. It's tough, straight-talking and at times terrifying, but an exhilarating read and a beautiful novel.

Friday 10 October 2008

Meg Rosoff

These flowers are asters. I know that because the man on the market stall told me so when I asked for a pot of purple daisies. I must learn the proper names of flowers. Anyway, I've been enjoying them and the autumn sunshine today. I've also been reading Meg Rosoff's terrific coming of age novel What I Was. I don't read a great deal of contemporary fiction but I've liked Meg Rosoff's work ever since I read her first children's/teen book How I Live Now a couple of years ago. What I Was is set on the salty East Anglia coast, an area that I'm familiar with, and this has added to my pleasure in this book.

Friday 3 October 2008

Charlotte Bronte

I'm not the fastest reader in the world and the density of Victorian prose requires concentration so it has taken me a couple of weeks to read the enjoyable 600+ page novel Shirley by Charlotte Bronte. Shirley has two female heroines, Caroline Helstone, who is quiet, shy, graceful and hopelessly in love with the dour mill-owner, Robert Moore. Caroline is the epitome of demure womanhood, but a bit wet, so it's a relief when the heiress Shirley Keeldar makes her appearance half way through the novel. Shirley is something of a Calamity Jane, well-meaning, generous and fond of firing pistols, intercepting dog fights and adopting masculine expressions. Shirley becomes good friends with Caroline but she rather likes Robert, too ....

Of course, I now want to re-read Jane Eyre and Villette.

Wednesday 24 September 2008

Re-reading Jane

I'm afraid I'm not keen on sequels, prequels, re-imaginings or continuations of any Jane Austen novel by other authors. I'd rather re-read the originals. However many times I return to Pride and Prejudice there is always some new aspect to discover. I do like contemporary novels inspired by Jane Austen, though. Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club is a favourite and there is a great compilation of Austen facts at the end.

Sunday 21 September 2008

Sunday night reading

I do like Victorian novels so I was pleased when my reading group selected Shirley by Charlotte Bronte for October. I'm about fifty pages in and getting absorbed in the story. Industrial, political and male-dominated, this is a very different novel to Jane Eyre and Bronte makes that clear from the start:
Something real, cool, and solid, lies before you; something unromantic as Monday morning, when all who have work wake with the consciousness that they must rise and betake themselves thereto.

Talking of Monday morning, it's getting late now and I must betake myself to work tomorrow so I'll sign off and read a few more pages ...

Wednesday 17 September 2008

Mansfield Park

I'm slowly replacing my battered old Penguins with these handsome Everyman's Library editions of Jane Austen's novels. As well as the six novels there is also an edition of Sanditon and other Stories.

In my twenties, Pride and Prejudice was my favourite Austen. In my thirties it was Persuasion. Now I'm in my forties I'm getting very fond of Mansfield Park. I like the way Austen nails the social and financial status of her characters in the opening lines:

About thirty years ago, Miss Maria Ward of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet's lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income.
I'm fascinated by Lady Bertram. Indolent and selfish she sits on the sofa all day making useless carpet and fringe and allowing her sister, the loathsome Mrs Norris, to criticize and bully Fanny. A complex and rewarding read.

Wednesday 10 September 2008

More Noel Streatfeild

I know Noel Streatfeild fans dislike the fact that her books have been re-issued with new titles. I'm not keen either, but if it means more new readers discover this author then I can live with it. Dancing Shoes, originally published as Wintle's Wonders, is a very entertaining and enjoyable read. The story is about a pushy stage-school mother and her ghastly daughter, Dulcie. I was less keen on Tennis Shoes although it had its moments. It's about a tennis playing family. Nicky, the youngest daughter, is the only one who has true talent. She is also spoilt and unpleasant. A bit like Posy, the youngest one in Ballet Shoes who is also a little spoilt and unpleasant ... Tennis Shoes is a bit formulaic but I certainly want to read more Streatfeild.

Saturday 6 September 2008

Autumn reading

I'm still deeply engrossed in Antonia White novels but that doesn't mean I can't plan my autumn reading. I've bought a new copy of an old favourite, Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle which I always like to re-read at this time of year. My last copy fell victim to a cup of hot tea. I'm not very good at looking after books. Sometimes I spill sun-cream, coffee or (worse) blackcurrant fruit tea on them and sometimes the pages or covers get bent because I carry them around all the time in my bag. But at least that proves I read them, right? I also bought an eco-friendly book bag because it name checks Love in a Cold Climate on the back!

Monday 1 September 2008

Mitford love

This time last year I very much enjoyed reading The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters edited by Charlotte Mosley. Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford has been sitting on my bookshelf for a while. I've been saving it for my big September read. I'm a huge fan of Nancy Mitford and I've read Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love many, many times. In her book 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, Jane Smiley summarises her talent a lot better than I can:
Reading Nancy Mitford makes me believe that writing comic novels is one of the most purely humanitarian endeavors civilization has ever come up with.

Saturday 30 August 2008

More Elizabeth Taylor

A View of the Harbour focuses on the inhabitants of the unfashionable end of a small seaside town. Beth writes novels which absorb her to the extent that she fails to notice her husband's affair with her best friend Tory who lives next door. The beautiful Tory's main pre-occupation is her wardrobe and her immaculate hyacinth-scented house. Prudence is Beth's highly-strung teenage daughter who is obsessed with her Siamese cats. Mrs Bracey is a loud-mouthed busy-body who likes to bully her daughters and observe the goings-on in the town. Just when you think that there is a fundamental unpleasantness to most of the characters in this novel they present their human side. Tory sobs when she sends her young son off to boarding school. Beth's maternal nature asserts itself over her writing career and Mrs Bracey is wracked with pain and ill-health. My favourite character is Beth's five-year old daughter, the adorable Stevie, who loves to give home-made presents made from flowers, feathers and broken jewellery threaded with wool. An absorbing and enjoyable read.

Wednesday 27 August 2008

Antonia White

During my stay in the Isle of Wight I visited my favourite second hand book shop Ventnor Rare Books and picked up the first two volumes of the famous quartet of novels by Antonia White for the princely sum of £1.00 and £1.50! I began Frost in May last night and have been virtually unable to put it down since. The story of nine-year old Nanda's arrival and upbringing at a convent combines the best of the traditional boarding school story with the deeper resonance of faith and conflict. The second volume The Lost Traveller looks promising, too.

Wednesday 20 August 2008

Bank Holiday Weekend Reading

We're off to the Isle of Wight for the long weekend. I'm taking this old favourite in its fancy new cover. Of course, it's E M Delafield's Diary of a Provincial Lady. We're hoping for sunshine, shell-collecting and breezy walks along the beach. Looking at the weather forecast it may be rain, wind and storm. Unfortunately, Life is Like That.

Sunday 17 August 2008

Mariana by Monica Dickens

This novel begins after the outbreak of World War II. Mary is sitting listening to the radio when she hears that the ship her husband is on has hit a mine and sunk. While she waits anxiously for news she recalls her childhood days in Cornwall, her teenage years spent in pursuit of her handsome cousin Denys, her miserable time at drama college in London and her wild love affair in Paris. This is an absorbing coming of age story. Monica Dickens has a light, almost flippant comic touch and yet convincingly describes the angst of adolescence. The scenes where Mary accompanies her elusive cousin Denys to an Oxford ball are amusing yet painful.

If I have one teensy criticism of the novel it is that too many characters are introduced in the first chapters. I used to blame myself as a reader if I had to keep turning back pages to remember which character was which. I now think that the writer is responsible for clarity. However, I would recommend this very English novel as an enjoyable summer read.

Thursday 14 August 2008

Precious Bane

To conjure even for a moment, the wistfulness which is the past is like trying to gather in one's arms the hyacinthine colour of the distance.

So begins Mary Webb's 1924 novel, Precious Bane. The inventive and beautiful description of the distance as 'hyacinthine' made me immediately want to read this novel which is set in a rural community in Shropshire at the time of Waterloo. Prue Sarn lives with her ill-tempered father, ambitious brother and down-trodden mother who retains a 'married-all-oer' look'. Afflicted with a harelip, Prue knows she will never marry and is forced to spend her days working for her mercenary brother. Despite her gentle nature Prue is the subject of speculation that she must be a witch because of her appearance, but her natural intelligence asserts itself and she finds love, too. Precious Bane is a highly original novel and Mary Webb perfectly captures the vernacular.

But I tell ye not every troth ends in church, not every ring holds wedlock, not every bride-groom takes his vargin, and I dunna like the match!

Tuesday 12 August 2008

Someone at a Distance

Ellen is a cheerful housewife and loving mother who delights in her beautiful old manor house, Netherfold, with its rambling garden, cherry tree and stables. She is blissfully unaware that the young French woman her mother-in-law hires as a companion has her eye on her husband. The manoeuvres of the ambitious and opinionated Mademoiselle Louise Lanier with her magenta lips and matching nails would ring alarm bells with almost any woman but the selfless Ellen and, as a reader, you want to warn her to send the little tart packing!

I'm not going to give the story away, but a lesser novelist would have Ellen undergoing some kind of makeover in order to make her husband desire her again. Fortunately, Dorothy Whipple provides a far more subtle, poignant and perceptive portrayal of marriage and family life which is not without humour. A wonderful book which I couldn't put down.

Saturday 9 August 2008

Trying again with Elizabeth Taylor

I read In a Summer Season last year and quite liked it but it doesn't stand out in my memory. I found Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont very well-written but a little depressing. I enjoyed Angel very much but it's not a favourite novel which I'll want to read over and over again.

However, I'm not ready to give up on Elizabeth Taylor yet! I can't decide to whether to try Blaming or A View of the Harbour. Any suggestions?

Monday 4 August 2008

Two Persephone titles

I've just re-read The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett. This is one of my favourite Persephone titles. I particularly like Part 1 with its Mitford-esque humour and cast of eccentric characters. Part 2 is a little more melodramatic and certainly darker but keeps you guessing until the end.

I wanted a substantial novel to read for August so I've bought Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple, an author new to me. At over 400 pages, this should do nicely. I'm two chapters in and I like her writing very much.

Friday 1 August 2008

Ballet Shoes - not for everyone?

My daughters loved the BBC television adaption of Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes which was screened at Christmas. I bought them this new edition of the book but neither of them finished reading it. They liked the opening chapter where Gum keeps bringing home orphaned babies. They liked the rivalry between Pauline and Winifred at the auditions. They couldn't understand why Garnie and Nana had to keep making clothes for Pauline, Petrova and Posy. Why couldn't they just buy them from Primark?! They have now resumed reading Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson who seem to have cornered the market in fiction for pre-teen girls. Maybe we shouldn't impose our favourite childhood books on our children and expect them to enjoy them as much as we did, but I was kind of sad that they didn't finish Ballet Shoes.

Wednesday 30 July 2008


Noel Streatfeild's unique ability to understand and empathise with the feelings of children works well in this novel which examines the impact of war on a family. Originally published in 1957, Saplings is at times, almost unbearably sad, but demonstrates what a good writer Streatfeild was. Four siblings, Laurel, Tony, Kit and Tuesday are put under immense pressure by the outbreak of World War 2. Laurel, the eldest daughter is wrenched from the school she loves and forced to attend a school she instantly loathes. Her mother is unwilling to spend valuable ration coupons on a new brown school uniform for Laurel - although she manages to buy plenty of new dresses for herself - and makes her wear her old green uniform. Sensitive and vulnerable, in her conspicuous green uniform Laurel is bullied and nicknamed The Frog while her oblivious mother descends into alcoholism. Saplings is a perceptive examination of the real cost of war.

Thursday 24 July 2008

Party Shoes

Noel Streatfeild is perhaps best known for Ballet Shoes, the children's classic which doesn't actually feature much ballet! The popularity of Ballet Shoes has perhaps overshadowed the other books that Streatfeild wrote for children which, like the very best children's writing, can also be enjoyed by adults. Party Shoes was originally published in 1946 as Party Frock. The story begins with Selina, whose parents are held in a prisoner-of-war camp in Japan, receiving a parcel from her American godmother which contains a spectacular dress. Opportunities to wear the dress are limited as Selina's aunt dryly points out:

Selina, my pet, your godmother has the most inflated ideas about what is worn in English villages at the end of a long war.
Selina and her cousins plan an open air pageant simply to provide an opportunity for her to wear the dress. Staging a village pageant during WW2 with rationing in full force requires creativity and resourcefulness. Costumes are made from blackout curtains and dyed butter muslin with the help of the WI, scripts are handwritten and the local ballet school are persuaded to help out.

Tuesday 22 July 2008

This Real Night

It was warm as high summer, and bars of sunshine lay honey-coloured across the floor, the air above them shimmering with motes; and bees droned about a purple branch of viburnum in a vase on the mantlepiece.
Rebecca West's haunting novel This Real Night is actually the second volume of a trilogy but can be read and enjoyed without reading The Fountain Overflows which comes before. Set in Edwardian England, sisters Mary, Rose, Cordelia and their cousin Rosamund try to make sense of a world on the brink of war. Although the novel has an impending sense of doom, West has humour and a terrific eye for detail whether she is describing the fashions of the day or the flowers in her garden.

Monday 21 July 2008

More hot summer reading

Rumer Godden's classic novel The Greengage Summer is surely overdue for a huge popular revival. Frustrated by the spoilt behaviour of her children, Mrs Grey takes them to see the battlefields of France and learn a lesson in humility. When she falls ill abroad the five children spend the summer largely unsupervised in a rural French hotel, Les Oillets, which has an ancient orchard with seven alleys of greengage trees. Narrated by twelve-year old Cecil (short for Cicely) this is a perfect summer read for adults and teenagers.

Less well known but equally enjoyable is The Peacock Spring. Half-sisters Hal and Una Gwithiam are wrenched from the English boarding school they love and transplanted to India to live with their selfish diplomat selfish father. Una is prickly and bitter and takes an instant dislike to her new governess. Another coming of age story with a surprising end - but I'm not giving it away!

On a recent visit to the historic town of Rye on the south coast, I was surprised to discover that Rumer Godden had lived in the town and I picked up a volume of her autobiography in one of the local bookshops. Godden wrote for children, too. My girls have enjoyed The Dolls' House.

Sunday 20 July 2008

Hot summer reading

After reading Juliet Nicolson's absorbing account of Edwardian England in The Perfect Summer I was intrigued to learn from the introduction that she was inspired by L P Hartley's classic summer novel The Go-Between. I thought it might be difficult to find a copy, but this 1968 edition with its pretty cover was available in my local Oxfam shop. This is a wonderful coming of age story set in Norfolk at the turn of the century during an exceptionally hot English summer. Perhaps best to save this one for a weekend when you don't have a lot on as you will be hooked after reading its famous opening line:

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.