Flame – Coloured Taffeta by Rosemary Sutcliff

Flame-Coloured Taffeta cover

Flame – Coloured Taffeta by Rosemary Sutcliff is a Puffin book which was published in 1986. It was probably aimed at pre-teen children, but I intend to work my way through all of the author’s books – eventually.

The setting is the mid eighteenth century and the coastal south-west of England between Chichester and Selsey Bill. It was a time of on and off war with France and just five years after the failed attempt by Charles Edward Stewart to get the Jacobites back on the throne of Britain.

Damaris is a twelve year old girl who lives with her father and aunt on a coastal farm, an area which sees lots of smuggling activity, not that they call themselves smugglers, they’re known as Free Traders. Damaris is sure that she heard a gunshot during the night and she’s afraid that one of her local friends might have been shot, so she goes out searching her father’s farmland and discovers a young man, a stranger who has been shot in the leg.

She needs the help of her friend and neighbour Peter to get the wounded man draped across her horse and they take him to their hideout in a tumbledown cottage nearby. He’ll have to share the place with the wounded fox that they’re nursing back to health.

But have they done the right thing, is he a smuggler or is he perhaps a spy from France?

This is a very quick read with just 120 pages and it also has well detailed illustrations by Rachel Birkett.

I enjoyed this one, but then I do like stories featuring smugglers as many people do. I’m not sure if that’s a particularly British penchant/weakness or if it’s more universal. What do you think? Pirates are another weakness of course, maybe it’s just that ‘bad guys’ seem more interesting!

Post of Honour by R.F. Delderfield

Post of Honour cover

Whenever I finish reading a book I note it down in a notebook, it makes it nice and easy to keep track of what I’ve read over the years and I can quickly tot up how many I read by male/female authors, how many fiction and non-fiction books. A small pencilled Sc in the margin means I can see almost at a glance how many books by Scottish authors I’ve read that year. I do the same with the non fiction – nf. It would take a lot longer if I only had that information on my computer and had to scroll down all of my book posts.

Anyway, I see from my notebook that I finished reading Long Summer Day by R.F. Delderfield (the first in this trilogy) way back at the beginning of January and I really enjoyed it so I have no idea why it took me so long to get around to reading book two – Post of Honour, I possibly enjoyed this one even more.

At the beginning of the book it’s 1912 and the idyllic country setting of the Shallowford Valley in Dorset is still a rural backwater. Horses are still the mode of transport for the lucky few who have them and Squire Craddock, as the tenants call Paul, is still in love with the area although he’s now married to a different wife as Grace his first love decided that being a Suffragette was more important than being a farmer’s wife and mother. Claire his second wife had ‘set her cap’ at him from the minute she met him and before he married Grace and has triumphed at last.

World War 1 is just about to change everything forever though as so many of the tenants and even Paul himself eventually become involved in the conflict, many of them ending up in the mud and gore of Ypres. As the war comes to an end it transpires that as Paul is still a sleeping partner in the scrap metal company that had been his father’s – he has made a lot of money out of the war. Appalled at the thought of profiting from the deaths of so many people Paul decides to use the money to develop his land and properties to make life better for his tenants.

This makes it sound a dry read but it’s anything but that as there are so many quirky characters and of course their love lives and family relationships are all intertwined. I went straight on from finishing this book to starting the next one – The Green Gauntlet.

Post of Honour ends with the beginning of World War 2 and if you’re interested in the social history of the time then this book will be a great read for you.

The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico

The Snow Goose cover

I’ve read quite a lot of books by Paul Gallico and I have a feeling that I read The Snow Goose a few decades ago, but when I saw this lovely edition of the book for sale at an antiques fair for all of £3 I decided it had to come home with me. It was first published in 1941, not long after the Dunkirk evacuation.

It’s a very short tale, just 55 pages long but has some lovely illustrations by Peter Scott, the famous wildlife artist who was the son of Scott of the Antarctic. A lot of the illustrations are black and white woodblock prints but there are a few lovely coloured illustrations too.

The story is about a lonely man who lives in an old lighthouse on the Essex coast, he has always felt like an outsider, someone who doesn’t fit in to ‘normal’ society. His problem is that he’s deformed, with a hunchback and also has a disfigured hand. It seems that people are unnerved by his appearance. But the sea birds aren’t judgemental and he forms a bond with a damaged snow goose which is brought to him by Frith a young girl from the nearest village.

When Rhayader the man hears about the British army being stranded on the beaches around Dunkirk he decides to use his very small boat to sail over to France and manages to save a lot of lives by ferrying men on the beaches to the large ships standing off the beaches.

This is a lovely but sad story, it feels like a fairy tale or maybe more closely a parable, and I can imagine it must have been very moving for people reading it when it was first published.

How late it was, how late by James Kelman

How late it was how late cover

How late it was, how late by the Scottish author James Kelman was first published in 1994 and it won the Booker Prize that year. I must admit that I find that amazing as this book is mainly a stream of conciousness and it’s written in a broad west of Scotland dialect – no problem at all for me of course, but even so I almost gave up on this one fairly early on.

If you are bothered by ‘sweary’ words then this one definitely isn’t for you as most of the pages in this book contain the ‘f’ word and even that nuclear bomb of a ‘c’ word. Sometimes there are three ‘f’ words in the one sentence, but I have to say that that is very true to a certain type of character and fits the bill exactly for Sammy.

Sammy is having a terrible time, he had gone out to the pub for a few drinks but had ended up drinking so much that he had lost track of time and there were big blackouts in his memory. He has lost his wallet and his new leather shoes and is wearing someone else’s smelly old trainers – too small for him.

The drink has turned him into a violent nutcase and when he attacks policemen he inevitably ends up being brutally beaten by them , so badly that he loses his sight – not that they believe him about that. A lot of the book is how Sammy copes with this devastating situation. He doesn’t look for any sympathy which is just as well as he doesn’t get any. What worries him more than anything is the fact that his partner Helen is missing. He vaguely remembers that he had a row with her but can’t remember anything else.

It was only the fact that this one won the Booker Prize that encouraged me to keep reading this one and I’m sort of glad that I did because Sammy is a great character who takes all his difficulties with stoicism, but I really didn’t like the ending as it just stops and the reader is left still wondering what happened to Helen, will Sammy’s sight loss be temporary – what happens next? We’ll never know.

I vaguely remember when this book won the prize against all the odds. It stills seems strange that the judges chose a book written in broad Glaswegian.

The Growing Summer by Noel Streatfeild

The Growing Summer cover

The Growing Summer by Noel Streatfeild was first published in 1966 but my copy is a 1973 Puffin reprint and has illustrations by Edward Ardizonne. It was serialised for children’s TV in the 1970s.

If you’re a children’s author the first thing you have to do is get rid of the parents quickly because as we all know parents put a dampener on adventures. In no time flat the four children of the Gareth family are dispatched to Ireland to stay with their Great-Aunt Dymphna. Their father had gone to Australia for a year and had become seriously ill there so their mother went out to join him. Dymphna is a complete stranger to them but they have no other relatives to look after them and Dymphna feels it’s her duty to take them in.

They soon discover that she’s very odd, in fact the locals think she’s a bit of a witch. It’s just that Dymphna is really just a wee bit ‘away with the fairies’. She’s steeped in a certain type of children’s literature – Alice in Wonderland, Edward Lear, Kipling, G.K. Chesterton and such and enjoys quoting bits from them.

Dymphna’s house is a big ramshackle place full of broken furniture and ornaments, she loves nothing more than a sale of stuff that nobody else wants, but she thinks that by taking the children in she has done her bit, she expects them to look after themselves, wash their own clothes, buy and cook their food – and as their mother had done everything for them at home they were pretty clueless apart from being able to boil eggs. An unexpected visitor that they have to keep quiet about causes them even more problems.

I enjoyed this one and wish I had seen the TV serial of it which was made by London Weekend Television in 1968.

One of those strange coincidences that crop up amongst readers is that the poem below also featured in the Angela Brazil book (For the Sake of the School) that I read just before reading this one, and I had never come across it before.

Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a hunting,
For fear of little men.

by William Allingham

The Red Pony by John Steinbeck

The Red Pony cover

The Red Pony by John Steinbeck seems to have been published originally in book form in 1937, but the first four chapters – or short stories were published in magazines earlier in the 1930s. It’s a slim volume at just 120 pages and the last story is called Junius Maltby and features a man who is a bit of a dreamer, a reader and a philosopher which isn’t helpful if you own a farm and should be working in the fields.

Anyway, back to The Red Pony tales and these were not at all what I expected. The writing is lovely as you would expect and obviously Steinbeck knew horses well, but really the reality of living on a ranch could be brutal at times and he didn’t sugar coat the way of life, so this one isn’t for people who want to avoid what can be the harsh realities of working around livestock.

Old Hall, New Hall by Michael Innes

Old Hall, New Hall cover

Old Hall, New Hall by Michael Innes was first published by Gollancz in 1956 but my copy is a 1964 Penguin Crime paperback.

I’m one of those readers who prefers my vintage crime reading to be of the sort where a crime takes place almost immediately. I was to be severely disappointed by that aspect of the book as the author spent an awful lot of time ‘vamping til ready’ – as I call it. Despite that I did enjoy reading this book, I just think that it was wrongly marketed. Michael Innes also wrote under the name J.I.M. Stewart and those books tend to be the ones that are set at a university, in his day job he was a professor of English literature at various universities, ending up at Oxford.

Colin Clout is a young unemployed academic, desperate for work. When he goes back to his old college his luck seems to have turned immediately as he meets Olivia a fabulous looking girl, and then his old professor offers him a chance of the Shufflebotham Fellowship (there are a lot of odd names in this book).

The university is quite a new one and the buildings had belonged to a local landowner originally and some of the previous generations of the Jory family had been rather strange. They now live nearby and it’s thought that there might be some treasure buried somewhere around Old Hall’s grounds. It turns out that the gorgeous Olivia is distantly related to the Jorys and she thinks that her branch of the family have been done out of the treasure – if indeed it exists.

One character is mentioned briefly twice – a deceased dotty Aunt Elizabeth who had apparently been under the impression that she was a barouche landau carriage! She spent her time attracting the attention of gentlemen she judged to be likely to be skilled with reins. What a scream, I so wish she had had a higher profile in this book.

I kept waiting for a crime to occur – as it’s a Penguin Crime paperback, but it never did.

For the Sake of the School by Angela Brazil

for the sake of the school cover

For the Sake of the School by Angela Brazil was first published in 1915 but my copy was published during World War 2 as it has that Book Production Economy Standard logo at the front and although there’s no publication date it was a gift to Rose from Jean for Christmas 1943.

I didn’t read any of these books as a child, I was strictly an Enid Blyton Malory Towers/St Clare’s girl which were obviously written along very similar lines as far as morals and behaviour are concerned. Blyton probably just wrote updated versions of Brazil’s books. I suspect that Brazil was better though.

It begins at a railway station as most schooldays’ stories do (Harry Potter). The girls are on their way to The Woodlands which is in a very rural setting in Wales. The two women who own the school are keen on nature and wildlife and the girls are encouraged to get out into the great outdoors as often as possible. In fact they could be regarded as nature worshipers, such is their enthusiasm.

This year Ulyth (new name to me) is particularly excited because Rona the New Zealand pen-pal that she has been writing to for the last two years is arriving as a new boarder. Rona’s mother is dead and she has had a rather rough upbringing by her father who is a farmer in the wilds of New Zealand. Ulyth who has been looking forward so much to meeting Rona is rather shocked by her appearance and lack of manners. She’s keen to drop her pen-pal but is persuaded to take her on as a work in progress and try to make Rona conform more to what is expected of girls from The Woodlands School.

Trials and tribulations ensue, wrong conclusions are jumped to but as you would expect – all is well in the end. I did find the storyline of this book to be more than a bit obvious, but it was still enjoyable and I can imagine that if I read this as a ten year old I would have loved it. I think most if not all of Angela Brazil’s books are available free from Project Gutenberg.

It struck me a couple of times that Angela Brazil wrote as if she was Scottish, according to Wiki her mother was a McKinnel, so possibly they were originally from Scotland – or she had a Scottish nanny. In part of this book someone says that they “put something by in the dresser” – meaning they put something away in the dresser. Very Scottish.

The Kill by Emile Zola – Classics Club Spin no. 18

The Kill cover

The book that I got in the Classics Club Spin is The Kill by Emile Zola which was first published in 1872 and it’s the second book in his Rougon Macquart series. I think this is about the fifth book in that series that I’ve read and it is the one that I’ve liked least. However it’s one of his earliest books and he obviously improved with maturity.

The setting is Paris 1852 and Aristide Rougon has gone there having left his native Provence. He hopes to get help from his older brother and eventually he does get a job with his help, he’s a surveyor of roads. It isn’t really what he was looking for but he realises that the work gives him access to important city planning decisions and this means that he can take advantage by buying up tracts of land that he knows will be needed in the rebuilding of the new Paris. He’ll make lots of money when the land is bought from him by the city.

Aristide is a born wheeler dealer and when his wife dies he marries Renee a young woman from a wealthy family. She is already pregnant and needs a husband. Aristide can use her money for his business dealings, but although Renee is much younger than Aristide and is very pretty, he isn’t really interested in her, she’s just a business deal as far as he is concerned. They both have affairs and Renee eventually ends up having an affair with Aristide’s son by his first wife. She spends a fortune on her clothes and has to borrow to pay some money towards her debts. Meanwhile Aristide realises that he isn’t such a brilliant businessman as he thought he was.

The subject matter of massive greed, waste and infidelities didn’t appeal to me and the book is very overwritten. I like descriptions but there are far too many of them in this book – too many adjectives, too much purple prose.

They say that writers should always write about what they know but Emile Zola was writing about a society that he knew little about and he apparently got all of his information from the society pages of the Paris newspapers. Of course they described the dresses and jewellery that were worn at balls and Zola must have felt the need to do the same. I got to the stage where I was thinking – ‘please – no more satin, lace and bows!’

I’ll definitely be continuing with this series though.

The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight by Elizabeth von Arnim

The Princess Priscilla's Fortnight cover

The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight by Elizabeth von Arnim was first published in 1905 and my copy is a second impression of it and it was a 1905 Christmas present to Mary from Jim. I bet she enjoyed it just as much as I did. It is available free here from Project Gutenberg though.

Princess Priscilla is a middle daughter and is 21 years old. Both of her sisters are already married and Priscilla is expected to get married soon, to someone she doesn’t know. Unsurprisingly she’s not keen on the idea and decides to run away from her home in southern Europe, she wants to travel to England. Helped by Herr Fritzing her teacher and one of her maids they travel to England and end up settling in a small rural village in there. They’re going to live a very frugal life in two tiny adjoining cottages. Priscilla is happy but her maid is appalled and Herr Fritzing is soon at his wit’s end as he’s in charge of the money and he hadn’t been able to take as much with him as he would have liked.

Everything is so expensive, but Priscilla is determined to get to know the locals and become part of the community and she very quickly discovers that giving the villagers money makes her very popular. Of course she always has the best intentions but her actions don’t have the outcomes that she expects – the road to Hell being paved with the best intentions of course!

I don’t think that Elizabeth von Arnim was capable of writing a book that didn’t contain humour so although this one is a bit like a moral fairy tale it does have plenty of laughs in it too.

I read this one for The Classics Club Challenge.