18 September 2016

Sandlands by Rosy Thornton

This sublime collection of short stories arrived at the most perfect of moments.  The house is a whirlwind of activity with the constant surveillance it takes to spare furniture from teeth marks, carpets from stains, and the almost daily public service announcements to neighbourhood children that young pups are not for winding up.  I put my hand up in solemn confession that the email connected with my blog has probably been checked a mere few times in the three months we've had Kip.  I couldn't be more pleased, and quite thankful, that Rosy Thornton's email was caught in time before disappearing amidst Goodreads announcements, comment notifications and the odd bit of spam.

There are so many things to say about this book.  Each time I sat down with my cup of tea and began another story was like stepping onto a country lane.  Fields and forest feature prominently as a backdrop to tales that range from mythical to biblical and downright spooky.  And at one delightful point I realized that these stories are joined by a thread of community.  On a few occasions characters are mentioned in more than one story, and regardless of the story, if villagers are popping over to the pub they'll be at The Ship Inn.  As you read you form an image of what the Suffolk landscape is like, learn how different generations view its past, and discover that sometimes no matter how modern a village has become, legend and superstition still hold a firm grip.

One of the most admirable aspects of a short story (in the hands of a good writer) is the ability to stir emotion in so short a time frame.  The first story The White Doe is eleven pages long but by the last page my t-shirt was pulled up to my chin and I was filled with dread.  By the fourth story The Watcher of Souls I had resorted to a horrible habit of using my t-shirt to wipe away tears.  Well who wants to put down a book to fetch a tissue at a moment like that?  Another story The Level Crossing is about a young woman who is pregnant and quite sure she's going to have to go it alone.  While out jogging she recalls the story of an ancestor who was killed by a train and wonders what the little girl might have seen or felt.  As the signal lights announce an approaching train, Isobel contemplates an immediate resolve to the stream of doubt regarding her ability to move forward as a single parent.  By the end of the story I was holding my breath in terror, afraid of what would happen next.

I read the stories in Sandlands in the order they fell and loved not knowing which era I would find myself in next.  Whether writing about brothers flying missions during World War II, contemporary bell ringers, or witches from the 1500s, Rosy Thornton's meticulous research delivers authenticity to her stories without weighing them down in detail.

The final story is called Mackerel.  I admit to thinking 'you're going to finish this fabulous book with a story about fish?'.  But as is so often the case, where you start out is rarely where you end up, and such was the case here.  I finished this story, and the book, welling up with tears...yes, again.  I don't want to give anything away but will share a sample of a paragraph from Mackerel so beautiful, and so typical of Rosy's way with words, that I read it several times...

    'This is a land of sand.  The earth hereabouts is nothing but; it's a wonder anything grows in it at all.  On the common it's a pale powder grey, soft as ash and lifted by the slightest breeze, but on the roads it's as golden yellow as any treasure island beach.  Every May or June it starts its creeping invasion, sending fingers across the tarmac from right and left.  Baked to dust by the sun, it shakes out from around the feet of the bracken and cow parsley, the campion and cuckooflowers which swell the verges.  You could almost fancy it the work of strange, secret tides which rise in the night to cover the fields and lanes, then slip away before daylight to leave new spits and sandbars like a signature on the landscape.  A land with the imprint of the sea.' 

Thank you, Rosy, for sending me a copy of Sandlands.  You are a talented writer, and while you really didn't need my humble opinion in promoting this wonderful collection, I am so very glad your book found its way to me.  Sneaking an hour to read, here and there, while Kip slept off his horseplay, was like escaping to a tranquil place - even if you did bring me to tears several times.

Blaxhall Church by David Gillingwater

11 September 2016

Recent Arrivals

Something old and something new.  Kip is spark out after a full morning at an antique market so I'll share a few titles while it's quiet.

The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard - My husband and I went to the cinema recently to see Anthropoid about a mission to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking member of Germany's Nazi Party.  Next to the parking area is A Different Drummer, a charming bookshop in a quaint older home in Burlington's downtown core.  With twenty minutes to spare we went in to choose two books to support this independent shop.  I honed in pretty quickly on my choice.  My friend, Rachel (Book Snob) is confident this author will appeal and there's really no doubt that she's right.

'In 1950s London, Antonia Fleming faces the prospect of a life lived alone.  Her children are now adults; her husband Conrad, a domineering and emotionally complex man, is a stranger.  As Antonia looks towards her future, the novel steadily moves backwards in time, tracing Antonia's relationship with Conrad to its beginning in the 1920s, through years of mistake and motherhood, dreams and war.'

Sandlands by Rosy Thornton - Rosy asked if I would like to receive a review copy of her latest book.  It's a collection of short stories and absolutely stunning so far.  But more on that later in the week...

After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry - After reading The Essex Serpent I placed an order for this title, Sarah's first book.  It's been earmarked as an October read...

'One hot summer's day, John Cole decides to leave his life behind.
He shuts up the bookshop no one ever comes to and drives out of London.  When his car breaks down on an isolated road, he goes looking for help and stumbles into the grounds of a grand but dilapidated house.
Its residents welcome him with open arms - but there's more to this strange community than meets the eye.  They all know John by name, they've prepared a room for him and claim to have been waiting for him all along.
Who are these people?  And what do they intend for John?'

Victorian Bloomsbury by Rosemary Ashton - This book was published in 2012 and on display at Hatchards Piccadilly while I was on holiday in London.  It was too large, not to mention expensive when factoring in exchange, to buy then and there but it's a book I've yearned for ever since.  The puppy meant I didn't get to Bloomsbury this summer so historic Bloomsbury came to me (any excuse, really).

'Drawing on a wealth of untapped archival resources, Rosemary Ashton brings to life the education, medical and social reformists who lived and worked in Victorian Bloomsbury and who led crusades for education, emancipation and health for all.
Ashton explores the secular impetus behind these reforms and the humanitarian and egalitarian character of nineteenth-century Bloomsbury.  Thackeray and Dickens jostle with less famous individuals like Henry Brougham and Mary Ward.  Embracing the high lift of the squares, the nonconformity of churches, the parades of shops, schools, hospitals and poor homes. this is a major contribution to the history of nineteenth-century London.'

Moments of Being by Virginia Woolf - After being thoroughly enamoured with Carlyle's House and Other Sketches there was nothing to think about when I found another book of essays at a second-hand shop.  With delightful contributions such as...22 Hyde Park Gate, Old Bloomsbury, and Am I a Snob? this is a collection for a quiet day without time constraints and at least two pots of tea.

Coronation St. at War by Daran Little - Watching Coronation Street after dinner from Monday to Friday is a must at our house.  When my husband and I were first married he could barely decipher what the actors were saying but he's every bit a fan now.  Digging through a box of books at a garage sale near in our neighbourhood I was so surprised to find a book that blends two interests of mine.  This book is something of a guilty pleasure but I couldn't resist.

'It is September 1939 and as war is declared the sixteen-year-old Elsie Tanner walks into Coronation Street.  Newly married, pregnant, optimistic about the future in her more affluent surroundings, she has little idea of the difficult times that lie ahead.'

The Tenth Man by Graham Greene - The ReUse Centre was a fascinating (but filthy) warehouse where treasures were usually waiting under a thick layer of dust, but sadly, it closed this month.  Their clearing out sale was five dollars for a crate of books, and you were even allowed to keep the crate.  I bought a stack of books for my elderly neighbour who doesn't venture very far these days, gave a copy of I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith to a friend at work, and chose a few for myself.  

'Graham Greene's The Tenth Man is one of his most startling and unexpected major novels.  Set in wartime occupied France, it is about a man who buys his life in a moment of fear.  It begins in the depths of a Gestapo prison, where thirty men have been taken hostage by the Germans.  Three of them must die, but it makes no difference to the Germans which three - the thirty must choose among themselves by ballot.'

Markham Thorpe by Giles Waterfield -  Finding out the author was Director of Dulwich Picture Gallery for sixteen years made my decision to bring this book home an easy one.  And really, anything remotely clever and having to do with a green baize door is bound to be entertaining.

'When Ellen Braithwaite , a young housemaid, enters service at the declining Markham Thorpe, she soon realises that the relationship between masters and servants is not quite as it should be - and that it is her cousin, the housekeeper Mrs Rundell, who is responsible.
A formidable woman with grand designs, Mrs Rundell is taking control of far more than just the running of the house.  Her masters appear powerless to stop her, her enemies are increasing and, most confusingly, she has plans for her young cousin too.
But can there really be any harm in trying to beat the disadvantages of birth and better yourself?  As Ellen and the inhabitants of Markham Thorpe will discover, that all depends on just how far you are willing to go.'

The Best of James Herriot - This oversize edition is chock full of stories, photos and sketches of James's life as a country vet.  Perfect for dipping in and out of this book will be pulled from its place on the shelf on wintery days when I need taking out of myself. The chapter called Memories of a Wartime Vet will be my first stop.

Diana Mosley by Jan Dalley - I own the letters and other writings of first-hand accounts by Diana's sisters but biographies usually fill in a few blanks here and there.  This book was published in 1999 so while the jacket notes that Diana is living in France, she died in 2003.

'Jan Dalley's careful and dedicated research - which included many interviews and conversations with the subject herself, now nearly ninety and living in France - enables her to tell Diana Mosley's story in fascinating, and sometimes grim, detail.  Growing enthusiasm for the Nazis spurred frequent visits to Germany and meetings with Hitler and other leaders (the Mosleys were actually married in Goebbels's house in 1936); there were struggles to raise money for Mosley's organization and, finally, after war was declared, years of internment in Holloway prison.  Yet at the same times there were friendships with people like Winston Churchill (whose affectionate nickname for her was 'Dinamite') and, after the war, a comfortable, if controversial, return to respectability.'

Finished in good time...Kip is awake and out for a walk.  Off to get these books back on the shelf before the quick pat, pat, pat of puppy paws comes marching down the hall!

5 September 2016

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

Virago reissued several of Elizabeth Taylor's novels in 2012 to mark the centenary of her birth.  I bought most of them.  The Sleeping Beauty, with an introduction by David Baddiel, was the novel I chose to save for last.  Partly because there's something delectable about a story waiting to be discovered...and, less poetically, it was the story that appealed least.  The first strike against it - the main character is named Vinny.  To have named this character Vincent would have been a redemption but Elizabeth Taylor knew exactly what she was doing.

Published in 1953, the story begins with Vinny arriving at Isabella's house in the seaside town of Seething.  Their friendship began while waiting in a queue to donate blood during the war.  Being the sort of man who thrives on being a saviour to women in their moment of need, Isabella was instantly enamoured by Vinny's attentive tucking in of her cot blanket.  Isabella's husband, a Member of Parliament, realized he was at school with his wife's recent acquaintance but the friendship was kept at a distance through Christmas cards.

Now recently bereaved, Isabella welcomes Vinny and his consoling manner.  Her son Laurence watches with disdain which doesn't go unnoticed.

'Laurence continued to be exclusive for the rest of the evening, so that his act of drawing the curtains became symbolic to Vinny, who seldom in his life had been up against just such an unrelaxed dislike in a person.  Other people, thinking: 'We cannot all take to one another.' would turn from or return the antagonism; but Vinny did not: he grieved.  It was his business to be loved - a mission created afresh with everyone he met - and he was always conscious of another's coldness.  Uneasily, he would be aware.  He could not work his magic.'

Elizabeth Taylor brilliantly constructs a relationship triangle with Isabella imagining that Vinny is there to sweep her off her feet while Vinny becomes entranced by a woman he sees walking along the beach in the evening.  The icing on the cake, so to speak, is that years ago, Vinny married a woman who told him she was carrying his child.  The marriage was kept a secret, even from Vinny's mother who is yet another brilliant example of character development.  Demanding the respect she feels due as matriarch of the family she once demanded her husband stand upon her arrival in a tent.  The image is a comic one in spite of the fact that Mrs Tumulty's way of gaining respect is tyrannical.  She's also a bit gauche.

'Isabella was quite aware of the curious glances people gave Mrs Tumulty, whose rusty black skirt trailed unevenly above lavender wool stockings.  Dust lay in the folds of her felt hat, which every year she remodelled for the Spring, adding a cockade, or cutting away pieces of the brim.  This year, she had stitched on a piece of glacĂ© black ribbon and a bunch of rag violets.'

Rippling out from the story's basic outline are characters drawn with Elizabeth Taylor's expert skills of detailed observation.  Isabella thrived on being married to a man of distinction but pulls at her foundation garments when no one is looking, plays the horses with her friend, beats cake batter while fag ash falls into the bowl, and mulls over the slimming aspect of stoles while eating meringues.  The daily, Mrs Dickens, polishes the silver while 'Her sad and colourless face was reflected in the spoons, first wide, then long...'.

The mysterious woman that Vinnie falls in love with is named Emily.  Emily lives with her sister Rose who is a martyr to just about everything.  Under somewhat hazy circumstances, Emily was in a car accident with her brother-in-law who was killed.  Emily's face is horribly disfigured despite plastic surgery.  Together, Rose and Emily eke out a living by taking in paying guests during the summer despite a stratospheric level of passive-aggression.

'Even as a girl she had had her splitting heads, allergies, indispositions and the perennial travel-sickness.  To retaliate, Emily herself had assumed an exaggerated robustness.  Because Rose finicked with her food, Emily ate everything - once, standing at a stall in the street, ate jellied eels, the skin as well - and had for a while kept as a pet a grass-snake, overcoming her revulsion as Rose could not.'

While there's much to amuse as this relationship roundabout plays out, I couldn't help feeling sorry for Isabella.  She has lost her husband in a tragedy, her son falls in love with someone she perceives to be unsuitable, she's humiliated by Vinnie, and her home is eventually put up for auction.  The ending isn't neatly tied up in a bow but there's little to signal a 'happily ever after' as evidenced by rotting fruit, discarded items, and knitting cast aside.

The Sleeping Beauty isn't my favourite novel by Elizabeth Taylor but there is much to enjoy in the writing.  I didn't especially care what happened to most of the characters in this story but the honesty in the situations was sincere.  I was left feeling as though the author had bared a bit of her soul in the telling and that's not a bad consolation prize.

The Young Menage by Harold Harvey (1932)