The Dreaming Suburb by R.F. Delderfield

The Dreaming Suburb cover

The Dreaming Suburb by R.F. Delderfield was first published in 1958 and it’s the first in Delderfield’s ‘Avenue’ books of which there are two.

The book’s first chapter takes place in Spring 1947, but in the next one we’re back in 1919, men are coming back form the trenches and discovering that all the promises they were given by the government meant nothing. Britain isn’t a place fit for heroes, it’s a place of unemployment and poverty for most ordinary people.

The story involves the inhabitants of Manor Park Avenue, it shelters a disparate collection of characters, one of the main ones being Jim Carver who came back from the war to discover that his wife had just died giving birth to her second set of twins. Jim throws himself into trade unionism and is involved in the General Strike.

The Dreaming Suburb leads us up to the beginning of World War 2 just 20 years after the end of the war to end all wars. Jim had been a pacifist after his experiences in the trenches, but he quickly changes his feelings when Hitler begins to rampage across Europe.

The author is a straightforward storyteller, there’s nothing fancy or poetic about his writing, but his characters are so well written, he was obviously a great observer of people. There are several families involved, all very different, and the children usually turn out to be very different from their parents. The strict Methodists have unknowingly brought up manipulative and dishonest children, with Elaine being the opposite of her frigid mother and determined to use her sexual appeal to get everything she wants in life. It was a real page-turner for me and I went straight on to the sequel The Avenue Goes to War. These books would make a great TV series. (Jack’s just told me they have been made for TV, back in 1978 as People Like Us.)

The setting of the suburb is twelve miles from London Stone, (something which I must admit I had never even heard of before) a place that would nowadays be very definitely seen as London itself, so far and wide has London crept.

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

The Hidden Life of Trees cover

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben is a fascinating read, an absolute must read for anyone interested in natural history/trees/gardening. The author has worked in Germany as a forester for decades and his observations are supplemented by lots of research from scientists around the world.

I must admit that I’ve always been squeamish when it comes to pruning and cutting back trees and plants as I’ve long thought that it can’t be a nice experience for these living entities, and it turns out that I was correct. But there’s a lot more going on than even I suspected. Apparently trees can communicate with each other via their roots, and they even support each other when any trees in the vicinity are in need of extra care. They can send extra nutrients via their roots to those in need, even to different species, they sound more generous spirited than many humans. It has been discovered that the ends of roots have tiny brain-like nodules, it sounds to me like there’s an awful lot about trees still to be discovered. When they are under attack from pests they can signal a warning to nearby trees and that makes them deploy a chemical that makes their leaves unpalatable to the pests.

He goes on to explain why trees planted by humans often end up struggling to survive, compared with the natural plantations that have developed over hundreds of years. Without the vital nutrients that build up in the soil naturally over the years it’s difficult for the trees to survive and grow as they should. Trees like to be in communities, most of them thrive in family groups and it seems they have personalities of their own just as people do. Some give up the ghost in adversity whilst others are more determined and fight off attacks.

It was a surprise to me that beech trees are thuggish, often planting themselves close to other species and then overtaking them in growth causing their eventual death by shading them out and grabbing most of the water. I think this might happen in Germany where the author is a forester and beech forests seem to be common. In Britain they are more commonly used as specimen trees I think, often not too close to other trees – unless they killed them all a hundred years or so ago!

Inevitably beasties, fungi and viruses are wreaking havoc on trees all over the world, in fact when you realise how many dangers there are for trees it seems quite amazing that any of them survive to a great age at all.

Trees scream apparently, which unnerves me, especially as the local council here seems to be determined to cut down any tree which isn’t in perfect condition, ignoring the fact that they often overcome their problems.

Surprise surprise – it seems that many of the processes carried out by the forestry/logging companies in forests do much more harm than good. But I was absolutely shocked when the author mentioned that even he might be causing harm as he visits multiple forests on a daily basis – without even changing his footwear between visits!!

I know that botanic gardens in the UK have thick disinfectant mats that visitors have to walk through before getting into the gardens, in an effort to keep viruses at bay. It might seem pointless when spores are just as likely to be wind blown or delivered via birds’ feathers, but you have to try to do anything you can to keep them out.

I know I first read about this one in the Guardian Review but I decided I had to read it after Stefanie at So Many Books had so enjoyed reading it, you can read her thoughts here.

I borrowed this book from the library, I’ve had to wait seven months to get it although I was only the third person to borrow it, so someone must have hung on to it for months. But what enraged me was that one of those previous readers had turned down the page corners – often every three pages or so, I reckon that over a third of the pages have been disfigured in this way, and not just a teeny fold, often with the corner being folded right into the inner edge of the book!

Honestly, I don’t believe in capital punishment – but if I ever discover who did that ….. they’re for it!

Soot by Andrew Martin

Soot cover

I decided to read Soot by Andrew Martin because Helen at She Reads Novels enjoyed it so much. You can read what she thought of it here. Helen’s review is much more detailed than my usual sketchy thoughts.

The setting is York 1799 and it’s a murder mystery. Matthew Harvey a well known silhouette artist has been found dead, he has been stabbed by the special scissors that he uses to cut the ‘shades’. It’s thought that the culprit must be one of his clients on that last day and the victim’s son employs Fletcher Rigge to investigate the murder. Rigge has been living in the debtors’ prison in York Castle since his father’s death, he had left nothing but debts after losing the family estate in a gambling session. Fletcher Rigge knows that he is likely to end up back in the prison if he can’t get to the bottom of the mystery

The story is told by various characters through diaries, letters and his investigations bring Rigge into contact with the theatre and bookshops in York and it’s all very atmospheric. The only slight gripe I have with the book is that there is no map of York. Although I know the city I don’t know it well enough to be able to follow Fletcher Rigge on his travels around it in my head. This is the first book I’ve read by Andrew Martin and I’ll definitely be trying some others.

Affairs at Hampden Ferrers by Brian Aldiss

Affairs at Hampden Ferrers cover

Affairs at Hampden Ferrers by Brian Aldiss has been enticing me to read it for ages, it had been at the top of a pile of Jack’s TBR books, and I got to it before he did. Brian Aldiss is mainly a science fiction writer, not my favourite genre, but I was charmed by the book cover, not always a good thing.

I think I would give this book three stars. At times it really reminded me of a sort of updated Barbara Pym. The setting is the same as many of her books, a village near Oxford, Hampden Ferrers and it’s about the lives of its inhabitants as you would expect. There are love affairs and just relationships, the stuff of any small settlement, but every now and again it gets very weird. Almost like a few of the inhabitants are on drugs, but in the case of the vicar, is he having a vision? – unlikely as he is seeing an angel in an old tee shirt. Not really my cup of tea. I still like the cover though.

Caught in the Revolution by Helen Rappaport

Caught in the Revolution cover

Caught in the Revolution – Petrograd 1917 by Helen Rappaport was published in 2016, is non-fiction accounts of what people witnessed in Petrograd in the run up to the Russian Revolution. This is a subject that I’ve been interested in since ‘doing’ it in second year at Secondary School, so I knew all about the political details but this book focuses on what was happening out in the streets, how events were affecting ordinary people.

It seems that Petrograd was full of foreigners so there were plenty of people writing of their experiences in a chaotic environment. At the beginning the Tsar is still in power and the people (particularly the women) are having to spend hours every day in queues just to get some basic foodstuffs – if they are lucky.

There seemed to be an awful lot of foreigners in Petrograd, including Arthur Ransome of Swallows and Amazons fame although this is before he wrote those books, he was a reporter for the Daily News and Observer. The writer Hugh Walpole was reporting on events for the British Foreign Office, there were lots of people writing diaries, so I found this book to be a really interesting read.

There were plenty of British and American manufacturers there such as a Singer sewing machine factory, Thorntons woollen mill and Coats of Paisley threads company. The revolutionaries encouraged the workers to demand exorbitant wages for a much shorter working week. Basically everybody gave up working and everywhere was filthy.

Sadly of course after the Bolsheviks took over things got even worse for the ordinary people and food was even more scarce than before. Although I’ve read a lot about this period I don’t think I had realised before what an evil swine Lenin was – but he was a clever one.

The Tsar doesn’t really feature much in the book, but as ever I just wanted to grab him and talk some sense into him, but better people than me tried, such as the British Ambassador Sir George Buchanan. I find it bizarre that considering Tsar Nicholas was so close to the British royal family, and his cousin King George V in particular – he just couldn’t contemplate changing the Russian Imperial system to something similar to the British.

Other well known people who were eye witnesses were Somerset Maugham and Emmeline Pankhurst. Maugham’s experiences formed the basis for his Ashenden collection of short stories which were published in 1928.

There were quite a lot of newspaper photographers in Petrograd at this time but there are frustratingly few photos surviving. There are some in this book but nothing of great interest, the book is a great read otherwise.

Guardian links

Here we are at another Saturday already, I can’t believe how quickly each week flies past nowadays, there’s another Guardian review section to read today, and I found quite a few interesting articles in last week’s that you might find worthwhile reading too.

If I find a novel features a house to such an extent that it becomes character then that’s usually a big plus for me. I love houses in books, art, crafts, bookcovers — whatever, I’m right there in that house, so I enjoyed this article about famous fictional houses, there are a lot more than Manderley. Do you have a favourite fictional dwelling? Or just a favourite house? Do tell!

I’ve never read anything by Louise Welsh but I read this article about her working day. I hadn’t realised that she lives in Glasgow, near our old stamping ground.

The American author Robin Hobb features in the interview, interesting although again I haven’t read anything by her.

There’s a good article on picture books and novels for tots to teenagers. Although I don’t have any small people in my life nowadays (well not in this country anyway) I’m still drawn to children’s books and sometimes I just have to buy them if the illustrations are particularly gorgeous.

Sarah Dunant’s article is amongst other things about how the historical research that she used for some of her books hadn’t been done 25 years ago. Mainly though she’s writing to promote a BBC Radio 4 podcast – When Greeks Flew Kites, and I believe that anybody in the world can listen to the radio programmes in general.

This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart

This Rough Magic cover

This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart was first published in 1964 and the setting is the Greek island of Corfu, where Lucy Waring, a young aspiring actress is invited to stay with her sister for the summer. Her acting career has come to a bit of a halt so it’s an ideal opportunity for her, especially when she discovers that her sister’s neighbour is a famous thespian Sir Julian Gale. His son Max is staying with him, in fact it seems that Sir Julian isn’t in the best of health.

It’s a wee bit of an English enclave on that part of the island, there’s also a photographer who is working on a book of photos of the island and its animals and a dolphin features fairly prominently. But there’s plenty of local colour and of course romance.

Corfu is apparently supposed to be the setting for Shakespeare’s The Tempest from which Stewart took the title for this and which is one that I’ve been intending to read for absolutely yonks now, and I really wish I had got around to it as there are so many quotes from it in the book. Mary Stewart was really well-read.

I enjoyed this one, there’s plenty of suspense although I don’t think it was quite as good as Nine Coaches Waiting.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge and 20 Books of Summer.

The Madonna of the Astrolabe by J.I.M. Stewart

The Madonna of the Astrolabe cover

The Madonna of the Astrolabe by J.I.M. Stewart ( aka Michael Innes) was first published in 1977 and it’s the fourth book in his A Staircase in Surrey quintet. The setting is an Oxford college, the fictional Surrey and the books follow the characters who had first met as students there. Some have never left there as they’ve stayed on and become dons.

The college tower which Duncan Patullo’s famous artist father had so admired that he decided it was the only college for his son to attend – is in a serious condition. It had been recently blasted clean, and it’s thought that that has contributed to the damage.

A large amount of money is needed to maintain the college tower and when a very old painting is discovered it seems that their problems are over – or are they?

Duncan Patullo’s nymphomaniac ex-wife has turned up in Oxford, in the past she’s been more than partial to men much younger than herself, so a male college is a dream location for her, but she’s a potential embarrassment for Duncan, particularly as she has hung on to his surname after he divorced her.

I’m really enjoying this journey back to 1970s academical Oxford. I just have one more book of this series to read and I’ll be sad when it comes to an end.

In case you don’t know Patullo is one of those more unusual Scottish surnames, at first glance people often think it’s Italian I think.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge and 20 Books of Summer 2017.

20 Books of Summer 2017 update

I’m doing quite well with my 20 Books of Summer 2017 list this year although I had meant to do a bit of a half-way roundup before now. I have veered slightly from the list for various reasons, but I’m still hopeful of finding my copy of Sir Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet before September. I did a fatal tidy up before some visitors arrived and now that book is lost in the stacks which is very annoying as before that I knew exactly where it was – on the floor!

1. London Match by Len Deighton
2. I Claudius by Robert Graves
3. Highland River by Neil M. Gunn
4. The Demon in the House by Angela Thirkell
5. The Dove of Venus by Olivia Manning
6. City of the Mind by Penelope Lively
7. The Progress of a Crime by Julian Symons
8. Antidote to Venom by Freeman Wills Crofts
9. This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart
10. Flowers for the Judge by Margery Allingham
11. Claudius the God by Robert Graves
12. Pied Piper by Nevil Shute
13. Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd
14. Katherine Wentworth by D.E. Stevenson
15. The Bertie Project by Alexander McCall Smith
16. A Memorial Service by J.I.M. Stewart
17. The Madonna of the Astrolabe by J.I.M. Stewart
18. Redgauntlet by Sir Walter Scott
19. High Rising by Angela Thirkell
20. Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell

A Memorial Service by J.I.M. Stewart

A Memorial Service cover

A Memorial Service is the third book in the A Staircase in Surrey quintet and it continues the story of Duncan Pattullo who is now middle-aged and a successful playwright, but he has been given a fellowship at his old Oxford college, Surrey. Now he is living on the ground floor of his old student college staircase, involved in the lives of the students. His old friend Tony Mumford’s son Ivo has the room above his and Ivo is trouble, especially as Tony is now a member of the British cabinet and doesn’t see why Ivo should have to pass exams and generally stick to the rules. To make matters worse Ivo’s outrageous grandfather Cedric may be able to stop a large amount of money being allocated to the college so it’ll be sensible to keep in his good books – but that’s easier said than done.

I enjoyed being back in Oxford and although J.I.M. Stewart obviously liked his readers to know that he himself was a fellow of a prestigious college, he enjoys using unusual words, in fact the previous owner of my copy of this book had written the words he had to look up in the back of the book, but usually it is quite obvious by the context what the word means. I looked up maieutic which means helping birth – especially of thoughts.

I enjoyed reading this article containing anecdotes about Stewart from The Oxford Times. Mind you at no point is it mentioned that Stewart/Innes was actually Scottish.

I read this one for the 20 Books of Summer 2017 and The Read Scotland 2017 Challenge.