At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor

At Mrs Lippincote's cover

At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor was first published in 1945 but my copy is a Virago reprint. This was her first novel, I’ve read almost all of her other novels and I think that this one is obviously not quite as polished as some of her later books. To begin with I wasn’t really too enthralled with this one because I didn’t really like any of the characters but I ended up really enjoying it.

The setting is World War 2 and Julia’s husband Roddy is in the RAF. He has been posted away from London and Julia and their son Oliver have gone with him. They’ve rented an old house and Roddy’s unmarried cousin Eleanor is also part of the household, she’s teaching in a local school.

To begin with Julia is portrayed as a rather annoying and quite rude woman. Eleanor has always been in love with Roddy, so she thinks that Julia is off-hand with her husband, and to be honest she isn’t going to win any ‘best wife’ contest. Worse than that though is Julia’s attitude to seven year old Oliver who hasn’t even started school yet, Julia’s terribly over-protective of him, and it does him no good.

By the time the reader gets towards the end of the book though everything falls into place, and what had seemed like peculiar behaviour on the part of some of the characters becomes completely understandable.

There’s a painful conversation between Julia and her husband who basically thinks that education is wasted on females – and you just know that this is something that Elizabeth Taylor had witnessed herself, indeed I even witnessed that attitude within my own family in the 1960s. How times have changed for the better!

The Virago copy of this book has an interesting article by Elizabeth Taylor which had first been published in the New York Herald Tribune in 1953. It’s a two and a half page snapshot of her life – from her birth in 1912. At the end of it she says: “I think I have no hobbies. In my spare time I like to look at pictures, to write letters to my friends, or just to reflect on the English climate – a subject which is endlessly fascinating and elusive, of which one is unconscious. I do not know where English literature – or the lovely English landscape – would be without this weather.”

Now I just have three of her novels still to read – The Wedding Group, Blaming and The Sleeping Beauty.

Dear Mrs Bird by A.J. Pearce

Dear Mrs Bird cover

Dear Mrs Bird by A.J. Pearce which has just been published has been recommended by various Goodreads friends and bloggers recently and given the World War 2 London in 1941 setting it seemed it would be right up my street – and it was.

Emmeline Lake has always fancied being a newspaper reporter, really she would love to be a war correspondent eventually. When she sees an advert for a job at a newspaper she thinks it’s a job made for her. She’s so excited about the prospect of becoming a journalist that she doesn’t pay much attention at the interview. She’s successful in getting the job but on her first day there she realises she has been an idiot as the job is actually for a typist, an office junior, and it’s not even at a newspaper. She’s working for Woman’s Friend which is a very old-fashioned publication, but even worse than that it seems to be ruled over by Mrs Bird who is an absolute harridan, a bully and a complete prude.

There’s a problems page with readers writing in to find solutions to the situations they’ve found themselves in, but Mrs Bird will have nothing to do with any UNPLEASANTNESS and Emmy’s time is mainly taken up with cutting up problem letters that Mrs Bird doesn’t even want to see never mind answer. Emmy feels that she should try to help these desperate women and gets herself into trouble over it.

Meanwhile her fiance Edmund is causing problems for her, and as the Luftwaffe cause mayhem in London Emmy and her friends at the Auxiliary Fire Service Station that she volunteers at part-time are having a tough time. But this book is certainly not all doom and gloom in fact it has plenty of humour.

World War 2 is just about my favourite setting and I read a lot of books that were written then, so I was a wee bit worried that this one might not have the correct wartime atmosphere but it is mainly successful although the author mentions the sound of machine guns during a bombing raid. There’s no mention of the ack-ack guns which would have been booming out constantly trying to shoot down the Luftwaffe, machine guns would be useless under those circumstances. Page 196 has some repetition with a paragraph being repeated with the second one having a bit more added on at the end and elsewhere there’s a spelling mistake – just mentioning!

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Rules of Civility cover

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles was first published back in 2011. I decided to request it from the library when I had so enjoyed his more recent book A Gentleman in Moscow. This one is very different from that book, but I ended up enjoying it almost as much, but not quite.

The story begins in 1966 when Katey Kontent and her partner Val are attending a photographic exhibition. Most of the photos in it date from the 1930s and Katey recognises one of the subjects of two of the photographs as Tinker Grey, a man she had known way back in the 30s. Katey and her friend Evey were both enamoured of him. He looks very different in each photo, in one he’s very svelte and wealthy looking in his cashmere coat and in the other he’s unshaven and wearing a threadbare coat, very much down on his luck.

Val is happy to see that Tinker has made good, but then they realise that it’s the other way around and Tinker has gone from cashmere to threadbare within a year. So begins Katey’s story of her earlier life in New York with her room-mate Evey.

The title comes from George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation and Tinker Grey is living his life adhering to this list as much as possible. At the end of the book there’s a list of all 110 of them. They’re just normal strictures of common sense or common decency – to me anyway.

I really like Amor Towles’s writing, his characters and his humour, so now I’ll have to track down Eve in Hollywood which he wrote in 2013. Have any of you read that one?

Stet by Diana Athill

 Stet cover

Stet by Diana Athill was first published in 2000. She decided to write this book when she realised that when she died all of her memories would be erased. I’m glad she decided to share them although she has gone on to live another 18 years since this one was published and has written more books.

This one is about how she became an editor and helped to found the publishing house Andre Deutsch. How they went about building up the business and the problems involved. It has to be said that for her the main problem seems to have been Andre Deutsch himself, and she does say that people have asked her over the years why she put up with being so badly treated by him. I suppose it was completely different times for women and she seems to have just felt very lucky to have a job that she enjoyed. However she was paid appallingly badly, considering that she was often hailed as the best editor in London. I suspect that she had a distaste of talking about money and pay rises.

She mentions that in the 1970s she was only being paid around £10,000 a year and she never got more than £15,000. I happened to be living and working close to London in the 1970s and I was earning over £10,000 as a very lowly ‘librarian’ in the NHS.

In part two of this book Athill has written individual chapters on some of her favourite Andre Deutsch writers. Mordecai Richler, Brain Moore, Jean Rhys, Alfred Chester, V.S. Naipaul and Molly Keene. She seems to have got very involved with them and their private lives. I’m not sure how normal this is for an editor. I suspect it’s only necessary when writers are quite chaotic, as they often are.

I’ve come to realise that I’m usually better off not knowing a lot about authors I like as they’re often a disappointment to me in their personal lives. Gosh that makes me sound so judgemental and po-faced – but Jean Rhys in particular was a nightmare! It is a strange thing that quite a lot of female authors seem to have abandoned their children to almost strangers. Muriel Spark did that too and I know that Enid Blyton was interested in all children except her own, allegedly.

Anyway Stet is an interesting read although again Athill mentions Angela Thirkell as a writer that she really disliked. She says in this one that Thirkell is just embarrassing. I suspect that possibly this is because Athill’s sense of humour is very different from Thirkell’s. Or maybe she knew her and disliked her as a terrific snob, which she undoubtedly was, and also no great shakes as a mother either I think.

Anyway, I’ve wandered as is often my wont. Stet is an interesting and enjoyable read.

Library Haul

I have been doing really well recently at concentrating on reading my own books but I’ve had a terrible relapse culminating in me borrowing five books – they were all absolutely necessary though! I did have ‘borrower’s remorse’ as soon as I took them home, but I got over it.

Haul of Library Books

I went into the library only to pick up one which I had reserved – Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. I wanted to read this one as I really loved his book A Gentleman in Moscow, this one is very different but still good.

Then the librarian told me that Dear Mrs Bird by A.J. Pearce was also waiting for me. I have no idea if I’ll like this one but several bloggers that I trust have enjoyed it and as the setting is London 1941 its sounds like it’ll be right up my street. I’m the first person to borrow this one too – always satisfying.

I’m working my way through Helen Dunmore’s books and Zennor in Darkness just about jumped off the shelf at me. The setting is Cornwall in spring 1917 where ships are being sunk by U-boats, strangers are treated with suspicion and newspapers are full of spy stories.

Stet An Editor’s Life by Diana Athill is one I’ve wanted to read for a while but hadn’t got around to requesting it. When I visited the library in St Andrews the other day it was sitting on the shelf, obviously waiting for me.

I borrowed A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny thinking that it was her latest book but I’ve just realised that it’s one that I’ve already read and it was first published in 2006 with a different title – Dead Cold. I’m so glad that I only borrowed the book and didn’t buy it. I hate it when publishers do that and I can see no reason for it other than they want to con readers into buying the same book twice! At least that means I’ll get back to reading my own books quicker, but I had been really looking forward to being in Three Pines again for a few days. Have you read any of these ones?

RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show

I’ve been enjoying watching the BBC’s coverage of RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show this week. If you haven’t managed to see any of it click the link if you want to see some lovely plants and gardens.

In my own garden this week I’ve not been doing an awful lot, just dead-heading really as it has been too hot here to do anything much more taxing – and I never thought I’d say that as I really thought that our summer weather had disappeared forever!

I’ve been spending a lot of time reading, so this week I decided to begin reading King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett. It’s 720 pages long with quite small print and I hate reading books over a long period of time so I planned to read around 100 pages a day, and I managed that although some days I could hardly put it down so read even more. With the World Cup football on TV and Jack watching three matches a day – a great read was the perfect distraction for me – and it was a great read. But more about that next week.

Bookish thoughts

Over the past few years some of the better known authors have been complaining about the paltry payments that most authors receive from publishers, and I had thought that with someone like Philip Pullman heading the campaign that something might actually happen. You can read the recent Guardian article about it here if you’re interested.

Evidently publishers paid no attention to authors’ complaints as things have got even worse. This is something I’ve known about for years as I do know quite a lot of authors and there are very few nowadays who can afford to be a full time author, it’s best viewed as a hobby for your spare time.

One of the problems is that publishers know how thrilled writers are to be actually published in the beginning and so they take advantage of them. Publishing is obviously a large and lucrative industry, but it must be just about the only one that treats their ‘golden eggs’ as if they are the last thing that has to be thought of. I find it particularly shocking that the person designing the book covers is usually paid just as much or more than the author gets, and we all know how bad the covers often are. The people at the top in publishing just seem to be incredibly greedy, I’m sure we’ve all noticed that even editors and proof-readers seem to be rarities now, so there must be hardly anyone actually on publishers’ payrolls.

Still the price of books just continues to rise, that’s just one of the reasons why I love secondhand bookshops as the books are so much more affordable, but apart from that you never know what treasures you might find, whereas an ordinary bookshop’s stock is usually very predictable.

I know that Persephone books have lots of fans, and I’m fond of them myself but I really don’t know how they can justify charging £14 for what is after all just a paperback in a shade of grey. Quite classy looking maybe – but overpriced.

Elsewhere in the Guardian I was pleased to see that a new book by Helen Dunmore has just been published. It’s a collection of short stories called Girl, Balancing. I still have a lot of Helen Dunmore’s books to catch up with, in fact I had only just ‘discovered’ her when it was announced that she was terminally ill. I’ll probably support a local library though and borrow it.

Having just read this post through I realise that I sound like a grumpy old curmudgeon – not that I’m worried about that!

Trooper to the Southern Cross by Angela Thirkell

Trooper to the Southern Cross cover

Trooper to the Southern Cross by Angela Thirkell was first published in 1934 but my copy is a Virago reprint. I can’t imagine why they chose the cover image for it which is apparently called Self Portrait by George W. Lambert. It belongs to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, but other than that being in Australia it is a poor choice for this book.

This one isn’t one of Thirkell’s Barsetshire books. It is I’m sure very autobiographical as Angela Thirkell did sail to Australia on a troopship with her second husband just after the end of World War 1. This is an account told by Major Bowen who is newly married and taking his young English wife back to Australia with him. He’s a doctor and had been in the thick of it in Egypt, Gallipoli and France, but now the Australian Imperial Army is sailing home.

There’s a lot of humour in this book although the voyage itself is a complete nightmare as the ordinary Australian soldiers (diggers) were well known for being undisciplined and out of control. ‘Borrowing’ was their way of life and everything that wasn’t screwed down was stolen and stolen again. There are also prisoners on board but they seem to be able to get out and about as they feel like it.

Hundreds of men women and children have been squashed into a ship which had originally been part of the German Navy but had been confiscated from them at the end of the war. Knowing this would happen the German sailors had spent their time disconnecting all the pipes and reconnecting them wrongly. Salt water was coming out of the cold water taps and there was no hot water, but steam came out of some pipes. The ship’s engineers were having a horrendous time trying to rectify it all, and the heat was terrible.

Meanwhile the diggers were spending their time gambling and fighting when they weren’t stealing things. According to the narrator the problems were caused by the large number of soldiers on ship who were of Irish descent, of course the Catholics and Orangemen were at daggers drawn and Major Bowen had the job of patching them all up again. He even had to resort to violence himself when he was attacked.

However the women on board were at no danger from the men who seemed to have a respect for them – even if some of them were real ‘wowsers’, and the most violent of men would meekly stand and take a bawling out from a woman if their child had been woken up by them. Many of the diggers were fathers and had missed their children, so sometimes the nursery was full of diggers taking a turn at dandling the babies.

I prefer the Barsetshire books but this was a hoot too, and very true to life I think as during World War 2 the Australian army was notorious for bad behaviour. After towns were wrecked by Aussie soldiers word would get about and ports refused to allow them to disembark – so I’ve been told.

My Mid Year Reading Round Up

I thought I would do a mid year reading round up because I tend not to do any monthly ones. By the end of June I had read 69 books although there are a couple of them that I haven’t blogged about yet. That’s a lot of books read in six months, and it just shows you what a terrible long winter we had, with snow and ice on the roads on and off for six or seven months. The best thing to do was to ‘coorie doon’ and read.

Forty three of the books I read were by female authors, so obviously that means that 26 were by male authors. If I’m recalling correctly last year I ended up having an even split between the sexes, but that was just a fluke.

So far I’ve only read 13 books by Scottish authors – I must do better and I plan to read some by Ali Smith and Louise Welsh by the end of the year so that tally should increase.

Shockingly only 8 of the books I’ve read have been non-fiction. Improvement required! I always read far less non-fiction but I hope to read more by the end of the year. I have some history books I’ve been meaning to get around to for ages.

I think only 14 of the authors involved are actually still alive. This is quite normal for me as I prefer reading older fiction. Peter Ackroyd, Bernard Cornwell, Elly Griffiths, Penelope Lively, Richard K. Massie, Louise Welsh, Len Deighton, Adam Riches, John Le Carre, Anne Fine, Caroline Young, Ann Martin, Daniel Smith, Amor Towles.

Surprisingly only 7 of the books are vintage crime, somehow it seemed like I had read a lot more than that.

Six of the books were aimed at children but have become classics over the years. As ever, good writing is entertaining no matter what age you are when you get around to reading it.

Only four of the books fit into my fairly strict idea of a ‘classic’ Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Lampedusa’s The Leopard, Trollope’s The American Senator and Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor.

I couldn’t possibly say which is my favourite read so far this year, but by far the worst was The Strongest Weapon by Notburga Tilt. I have a signed copy of it too!

If you’re interested in seeing all of the books I’ve read have a look at my Goodreads list here.

I hesitate to say it but we’ve been having wonderful weather for over a month now. The schools have just broken up for the summer holidays so I hope it hangs around longer so they can enjoy the unusual weather. It’s over 20 years since we’ve had a decent summer and we had begun to think that the weather had changed and good summers were a thing of the past. The down side of it though is the horrendous peat moorland fires that are raging over large parts of northern England. They must just about be praying for torrential rain there.

Gardening has taken over from reading although I’m still reading quite a lot due to the fact that Jack is glued to the TV watching just about every match in the World Cup – three a day, you wouldn’t think it would be possible – five minutes of football watching is enough for me – but each to their own.

Death Makes a Prophet by John Bude

Death Makes a Prophet cover

Death Makes a Prophet by John Bude is another British Library Crime Classics book and it was first published in 1947. It has an introduction by Martin Edwards. I loved this one which kept me guessing right to the end.

The setting is one of the new ‘garden city’ towns which were set up post World War 2. Welworth Garden City is obviously a bit of a mash up between Welwyn Garden City (I lived there briefly in the 1970s) and Letchworth, both of them in Hertfordshire – southern England.

Welworth has the reputation of being a forward-thinking town which attracted people who were maybe a bit different from most – vegetarians, socialists and in particular people who were followers of unusual new religions. The cult of The Children of Osiris is one of the most popular religions and has attracted several thousand followers with many of them settling in Welworth.

The religion was founded by Eustace K. Mildman who of course made himself the High Prophet of the sect and has thought up lots of odd rites for the followers to take part in, and he has obviously profited from it. The whole religion is being bankrolled by a wealthy woman and there are jealousies and resentments amongst the followers.

Things come to a head which means that Inspector Meredith has to be called in to do his stuff. This is a great read with entertaining humorous touches now and again.