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August 2016




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Apr. 27th, 2016


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Reviews Published

2016 NetGalley Challenge

Aug. 23rd, 2016

Girl Guide Stories

Girlsown Interlude

I was nudged into (re)reading these books by various mentions of them elsewhere. I began with Kitty Barne’s She shall have Music, first published in 1938 and illustrated by Ruth Jervis. I’d read it as a child and this is what I remembered: a girl wants to play the piano but can only practise on an old piano in a church hall; a woman called Rosalba offers to give her proper lessons; she’s entered for a music festival and the judge awards her no marks because of the terrible style she’s copied from Rosalba.

I loved it when I borrowed it from the library all those years ago but time has not been kind to this book. From the start, it seemed so like a Noel Streatfeild story (they were related by marriage and discussed their work). Much as I love Ballet Shoes and always will, I’m not an admirer of Streatfeild’s style. The Forrests are a typical ‘poor’ family. Mother has to bring up four children alone (no mention of Pa). They sell their home in Ireland with its contents and move to a rented house in Bristol. Naturally, faithful Biddy leaves her beloved Ireland to come with them and do all the work. It’s a mystery what mother does, apart from a little mending. What she does not do is notice that her youngest daughter, Karen, is extremely musical. It’s left to Biddy and the charwoman at the parish hall to arrange for her to practise what she learns once a week with nice Aunt Anne. They can afford the rent of a large house in the country for the summer holidays but not piano lessons for a gifted child. Karen’s future is entirely arranged for her by the kindness of strangers and her own determination. I find it hard to believe any mother could be so apparently indifferent to what her child gets up to. Even her brother and sisters are more supportive. There is some good stuff about music in the book, but not enough.
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Aug. 20th, 2016


The Little Visitor

Aug. 15th, 2016

Piano playing


Trio is a gentle, elegiac meditation on grief, carved into the bleak, rugged moorland of Northumberland … A book to be read carefully and savoured.’ (Clare Morrall)

Cornflower said she hadn’t ‘read a work of fiction as good as this for quite some time.’ and wrote a review of it which I can’t better. Mrs Miniver’s Daughter was awake all night reading it. Now I’ll join in and say, Read this book! I started it one evening and finished it the next, although I was enjoying it so much I didn’t want it to end. It’s beautifully written and draws the reader in from the start. The descriptions of landscape, weather and wildlife are as good as you'd find in a book dedicated to the subject, yet here it’s just background. I loved the school scenes, almost William Mayne-like in their believability. Above all, I loved the musical theme, including the hymns sung at school, which were strangely touching. If any of the pieces played by the eponymous trio are unfamiliar, you want to hear them now, so as to understand the powerful effect they have on the characters. Music is central to the characters’ lives and as we learn later, love of it is handed down through generations.

I suppose this book would be classed as ‘middlebrow’. Huh. So-called literary authors could learn a lot about the craft of writing from reading this wonderful book. Now I have to seek out everything else Sue Gee has written.
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Aug. 9th, 2016


Looking ahead: The Champagne Queen, Petra Durst-Benning

This is the second book in the Century trilogy. I’ve read book one and reviewed it here. In While the World is Still Asleep, we followed the fortunes of three girls in Berlin. Jo, Clara and Isabelle discovered the new freedom which cycling brought them. That was Jo’s book; this is Isabelle’s.

Isabelle has eloped with handsome, dashing Leon and now lives with his parents in the Palatinate. She’s cut all ties with home and finds herself bored and lonely. It’s lucky she’s still so in love with Leon or life would be grim indeed. Then Leon inherits a champagne-producing estate and they move to France, full of hope for a new and better life. Unfortunately, the estate is run down, there’s no money and a scheming woman is out to undermine the Feiningers and buy the land from them. Worse still, Leon is selfish and seems keener on winning cycle races than on settling down to be a vigneron. As so often in Petra Durst-Benning’s stories, the woman has to do the work. It’s a long, hard road, full of unseen disasters but eventually Isabelle makes herself the Champagne Queen.

These sagas about women in the late nineteenth century are made interesting by the descriptions of the landscapes of different parts of Europe and the detail about how people earn their living. The Glassblower Trilogy is full of fascinating information about glass blowing in Germany. In book one of the Century Trilogy we learn about the cycling revolution. This book about champagne is very beguiling. It’s easy to fall in love with the country, the people and with champagne. I felt like opening a bottle! Petra Durst-Benning’s books are heavily research based but the information provided is not intrusive, just part of the story. My only disappointment with the books is that there’s no humour in them. Those poor women and what they put up with! Book three will be about Clara and I’ll be reading it.

This book was translated by Edwin Miles. It’s an AmazonCrossing book and will be out on 20th September. I read it courtesy of NetGalley.

Aug. 3rd, 2016


Coming soon: The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼, Hendrik Groen

‘a cultural phenomenon in his native Netherlands and now he and his famously anonymous creator are conquering the globe.’ The full title is Attempts to Make Something of Life. The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼.

Hendrik Groen aims to ‘give the world an uncensored exposé, a year in the life of the inmates of a care home in North Amsterdam.’ I started laughing on page two and kept chuckling for a while. Then the humour began to be a little too black for someone who is getting old and I started finding it depressing. This is totally the wrong attitude! Hendrik is brave and kind and funny and he tries so hard not to give in and become a moaner like many of his fellow residents. ‘Yesterday I took a walk to the florist’s to buy some potted bulbs. So that I can tell myself a week from now, when the hyacinths start to bloom, that I’ve made it to another spring.’ That’s very Dutch. I loved the rebellious Old-But-Not–Dead-Club which Hendrik forms with a few carefully selected friends. They plan outings so that they always have something to look forward to and are united in their efforts to undermine the home’s director and her petty rules. It’s interesting to find that care of the elderly is as much of a problem and sometimes a scandal in the Netherlands as it is here. Somehow one thought it would be better. ‘Three old biddies in one room, no privacy to speak of, no personal belongings. Stark comfort in the year 2013, in one of the richest countries in the world.’ The infirmities of his friends are hard for Hendrik to deal with but the OBNDC forms an excellent support group.
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Aug. 1st, 2016


A treat for August: more E R Punshon

Good news from the nice people at Dean Street Press: ten more books by E R Punshon are being reissued this month. They kindly sent me There’s a Reason for Everything to read. This is the 21st Bobby Owen book and he is now a Deputy Chief Constable. Bobby is not the type to sit behind a desk issuing orders and when there’s a local murder, he takes an active role in the investigation. The book was first published in 1945 and has a wartime background, so Bobby is contending with the problems caused by a lack of manpower and petrol. Even the Deputy Chief Constable has to ride a bike.

The story begins when two psychical researchers are investigating a vast, deserted mansion called Nonpareil, which is supposedly haunted. It was also the repository of a vast collection of artworks, mostly worthless. But there’s a possibility that the house once contained a previously unknown painting by Vermeer. If it exists, can it be genuine? This is a treasure people are prepared to kill for, and they do. Bobby has his hands full chasing up everyone with a connection to Nonpareil and following red herrings. But are they? He doesn’t like coincidences and sure enough, all the mysterious events in the area turn out to be connected. In his introduction Curtis Brown suggests Punshon may have got the idea about forged art from the true story of the Dutch forger Han van Meegeren. The Bobby Owen books are well worth reprinting; they have tricky plots and plenty of interesting characters. I enjoyed this one very much.

Jul. 30th, 2016


July Books

The Secrets of Wishtide A Laetitia Rodd Mystery , Kate Saunders
Sandlands , Rosy Thornton
The Fire Child , S K Tremayne
Wonderboy , Nicole Burstein
The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼, Hendrik Groen, review soon
Molesworth omnibus, Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle
War Brides , Helen Bryan
The Villa in Italy , Elizabeth Edmondson
Queen Lucia, E F Benson
Miss Mapp, E F Benson
There’s a Reason for Everything, E R Punshon, review soon
Currently reading: The Champagne Queen, Petra Durst-Benning
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Jul. 23rd, 2016

Rose Blight

Heatwave Reading and other matters

I don’t like humid heatwaves so what better excuse to stay cool and read? I found Helen Bryan’s War Brides on my Kindle; I think it was the free book of the month some time. (It’s still £1.00 for the Kindle until 31st July.) For some reason I was expecting this to be one of those formulaic books about women in wartime, cynically designed to appeal to a certain readership. How wrong can you be! I was totally engrossed by it and read it in a day. The story begins with several old ladies returning to the quiet English village they lived in during the war for a reunion coinciding with the fifty year commemorations of VE day.

Alice has lived in the village all her life. The daughter of the late vicar, she now teaches and looks after a querulous, hypochondriac mother. She is bitter about being jilted by her handsome naval officer neighbour. American Evangeline whom he married in such a hurry now also lives in the village, making for ill feeling. Tanni is a Jewish refugee waiting for her family to escape from Austria and join her. Elsie is a teenager evacuated from the East End to be a housemaid. Most interesting is Frances, who has been leading a wild life in London and is dispatched by her important father to live out of temptation's way in the country.

An unlikely friendship develops between the women, who support each other. We learn their back stories and what happened as the war continued. Plus, there is a traitor in their midst, a Nazi sympathizer (rather like the film Went the Day Well?). When the reunion takes place, at the end of the book, secrets are revealed, mysteries solved and a rather satisfactory revenge taken. Helen Bryan (who is American) says she wrote this book as a tribute to the women of Britain who put up with so much during the war.

I’d been saving The Villa in Italy (also published as Villa Dante) for a bad time, knowing that no book by Elizabeth Edmondson would ever let me down. Right time, right book. It’s like a twist on The Enchanted April. In this case the troubled people who assemble at the Villa Dante one April in the 1950s have not chosen their destination but have been summoned, through lawyers, by the will of a woman none of them has heard of. Each has a different problem; although they had no previous connection, they soon become a loyal little group. The beautiful villa, its once beautiful gardens and the warm sea soothe them into feeling they’re on holiday. The will, though, designed for them as a puzzle, makes them face up to things they’d rather forget. The working out of the mystery and the surprising conclusion make for an absorbing read.
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Jul. 18th, 2016


Wonderboy, Nicole Burstein

‘A funny and frank superhero story set in the world of Othergirl.
Joseph ‘Wilco’ Wilkes is one of life’s losers – he’s picked on, pushed around, and bullied by the rugby boys at the posh private school he attends on a scholarship. But his life is about to change: Wilco learns he can move things with his mind. Will this be his chance to play the hero, get the girl and finally stand up for himself? Or are things just going to come crashing down around his head? Becoming a proper hero will be quite the leap of faith...’

Poor Wilco has his nickname because he ‘will comply’, i.e. will do people’s homework for them and almost anything else for a quiet life. He has one friend and many enemies amongst the ‘rugger boys’, who despise everyone. The book gets off to a good start when Wilco first senses that he may have special powers. It’s pretty weird to find that by concentrating on an object you can move it at will. He hopes that this will change his life, help his hardworking mum (who can barely afford his school uniform) and perhaps even turn him into a Vigil. These Vigils are people with superpowers who are believed to help the government, save lives and generally whiz about to do good. Alas for Wilco. Nothing is that simple and using his powers leads to nothing but trouble.

I found the book went off the boil for a while until Wilco accidentally manages to do something really useful (and unlikely). There’s no dramatic improvement in his life at Gatford House (which sounds a horrible school) but the future looks more hopeful. I didn’t find Wilco a well realised character and couldn’t help thinking of Molesworth (whom one believes in totally) and the way he copes with ‘swots, bulies, cissies, milksops, greedy guts and oiks’. It’s a sad truth that bullying is rife in schools (and in the workplace) and that victims will not develop superpowers in order to cope with it.

So I’m underwhelmed by Wonderboy. It’s not quite fantasy yet not helpful about coping with what life throws at you when you happen to be a weedy teenager. I’m at a loss to know why this book is described as ‘frank’. Frank about what? The fact that quite young boys and girls fancy each other? That’s news. I’d have enjoyed this book more if I were a ten year old boy, I think.

Wonderboy is out early next month and I read it courtesy of NetGalley.

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