22 March 2021

Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins

It was the level of enthusiasm from both presenter and guest on a podcast that sent me straight to my library's website.   A copy of Magpie Lane was on order.  This isn't a genre I usually read but we were off to a good start with its setting of Oxford, despite meeting the main character in a police station interview room.

They are waiting for an answer.  What do they want me to say?  Perhaps they think I am a stalker, targeting the president of an Oxford College on his early morning jog.  I have an urge to laugh which is inappropriate.  There is nothing funny about this, nothing whatsoever.  Felicity is missing.  The whole country is looking for her.

Dee has spent more than half of her life working as a nanny for visiting professors at the university.  Short term commitments work best as there's less chance of a family getting too close.  Dee prefers her relationships at a distance.  As the story develops, snippets of her backstory reveal episodes of sadness in her family life back in Scotland; one in particular clings with a relentless hold.

A serendipitous meeting with Nick Law, the new College Master, results in Dee agreeing to meet his family.  It's more a case of being polite than keen.  Nick and Mariah are desperate to find someone with experience to look after Felicity, an eight year old with selective mutism.  Also, Mariah is expecting a baby, has an intense schedule as a wallpaper restorer in London, and supporting Nick through endless social events.  The family's new residence swirls with chaos, renovations and high expectation.  At the top of the house, Felicity's bedroom is a refuge....a refuge with an eerie priest hole cut into the wall hundreds of years ago.  Dee is intrigued by the little girl, sensing Felicity could benefit from a constant in her day. 

An interesting man called Linklater is hired by Nick to write up the history of their new home.  Taking on research assignments and leading guided tours of Oxford provide an income while Linklater works on his thesis.  Decades of archival material  reveal some things about the house that are both fascinating and sinister.  Being somewhat socially inept, Linklater thinks nothing of sharing a few dark details with Dee about the project within earshot of Felicity.  Dee is horrified but then she notices a look of interest on Felicity's face.  A strange way to make some progress but Dee is thankful for the flicker of trust. 

This is a book best read with minimal prior knowledge so I will leave the plot there.  When I finished Magpie Lane my husband picked it up, read 114 pages in one sitting and couldn't wait to get back to it after dinner.  The story is brilliantly paced and has an ending so gripping that I read it three times.  Find a copy before the film comes out because I would be shocked if someone hasn't bought the rights already.

15 March 2021

The Green Leaves of Summer by Oriel Malet

The clocks sprang forward yesterday and Spring bulbs have started to pop up around the garden.  The queen wasp that has been overwintering (a new phenomenon at our house) in a pot of ivy in the kitchen, appeared on the patio door the other day.  I hope she was trying to say she's ready to start another season of populating a paper castle because I set her free.  It's very cold today but hopefully she will find a crack in a warm brick somewhere.

An unexpected parcel showed up in the mailbox a couple of weeks ago.  It was a 1951 copy of Malet's charming story of young teens forging their path, an unscrupulous couple, a poltergeist, an Austrian refugee, a fabulously aristocratic Aunt, and a confirmed bachelor.  Not a combination that, on paper, would have normally drawn me in but I trust Rachel's taste in books and I was in need of a gear shift.

The first thing Henrietta heard when she awoke each morning was the faint, far-off chime of the dining-room clock; it was the day's first sound.  Now that the house was no longer private and detached, but contained so many different people, separated and yet pressed down upon each other like a pile of sandwiches, there were many more noises to be heard in it.

Henrietta, known as Tatty, is thirteen years-old.  Orphaned at a young age she lives with her Aunt Ida who is more grandly titled in society as Lady Charrington.  When the household servants left their positions for war duties Lady Charrington decided it made perfect sense to convert her Cavendish Place residence into flats.  In this clever way her tenants clean their own rooms as well as provide income.  Tatty's sister Joan and husband Terrence live on the main floor. 

Tatty wrote in her diary the first day she saw him: "Men NOT to marry.  My brother-in-law...."

Henry Crumbull lives in the attic room.  He writes books on psychic investigation, is in his mid-forties, quite tall and very personable.  When the doorbell rings Henry can lean out of the window just far enough to see who it is, but shies away if he catches the eye of the housekeeper across the road as she flicks her dust cloth. 

A storyline that I absolutely loved follows Serena, a young woman who has been taking acting and dance lessons for most of her life.  One day the President of the Academy takes Serena aside for a sincere conversation about her hopes for the future.  In the nicest way possible, Serena is told that perhaps she would be better suited for a career in writing.  Taking the advice to heart, Serena finds a position transcribing the journals of a young soldier killed in battle.  Colonel Barratt and his wife have been left devastated by the loss of their son but bond with Serena as she brings Oliver's innermost thoughts to life.  Oliver's fellow soldier Robin was initially in possession of the journals but had to work through physical and psychological challenges before facing Oliver's family.

And then there is Pippitt Archer, an adorable waif, housed by Monty and Lulu.  To say they look after her would be a gross overstatement.  Pippitt performs (songs about rainbows feature a fair bit) in seaside town Variety shows while Monty pockets the fee.  Threats of the orphanage are levied whenever Pippitt questions money that is owed to her, but not to worry, she has plans for her own exit strategy.  I loved her feisty nature and fearless presence in the company of adults.  Sweet little Pippitt's path to a better life would never play out in reality the way it does in this book, but it was so satisfying to see her get the better of Monty.

I could quadruple this post with the other storylines in this book featuring colourful characters with hilarious names such as Madame Heckla von Hinckelr├╝nke and Gertie Goulasha, the idol of Russia.  Also, as Rachel pointed out in her card, this book is filled with 1940s detail such as the hamper of food for two runaways....sardines, tinned steak and jellied eel.  Never to be found in a similarly plotted story from 2021, let me tell you.  

Told over the course of a summer, the title comes from a sentiment expressed by Tatty...Summer isn't over until the first leaf falls.  This is the first book I've read by Oriel Malet and she has completely won me over because of her extraordinary character development.  Some of the characters are drawn quite comically but the humour was so welcome, especially after a year of pandemic.  But Malet also writes beautiful prose such as in her description of a property in London....

Inside the high brick wall was a garden, with a little fountain splashing gently in its grey stone bowl in the middle of the lawn.  It had the dim, mysterious feel of all London gardens, shut in by houses rising up above it like rocky crags, and was filled with lilacs and syringa bushes, and one magnolia holding up its waxed white cups for admiration.

Oriel Malet would have been in her late twenties when The Green Leaves of Summer was published.  An impressive accomplishment, I must say. 

Thanks so much, Rachel!  Your time, the postage and especially your thoughtfulness are greatly appreciated!

Vase of Flowers II by Prudence Heward
(1946)