Back to the Classics Challenge 2019


I’ve decided to participate in Karen @Books and Chocolate’s Back to the Classics Challenge 2019, it seems like a good idea as it’ll be a way of concentrating on unread books that I already have in the house. There are twelve categories – see below – and I intend to read one from each category, just for a wee bit of fun – I know, it takes all sorts! See my reading choices below the categories.


1. 19th Century Classic. Any classic book originally published between 1800 and 1899.
1. Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi

2. 20th Century Classic. Any classic book originally published between 1900 and 1969. All books in this category must have been published at least 50 years ago. The only exceptions are books that were published posthumously but were written at least 50 years ago.
2. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin

3. Classic by a Woman Author.
3. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

4. Classic in Translation. Any classic originally written in a novel other than your native language. You may read the book in your native language, or its original language (or a third language for all you polyglots!) Modern translations are acceptable, as long as the book was originally published at least 50 years ago. Books in translation are acceptable in all other categories as well.
4. The Earth by Emile Zola

5. Classic Comic Novel. Any comedy, satire, or humorous work. Humor is very subjective, so if you think Crime and Punishment is hilarious, go ahead and use it, but if it’s a work that’s traditionally not considered humorous, please tell us why in your post. Some classic comic novels: Cold Comfort Farm; Three Men in a Boat; Lucky Jim; and the works of P. G. Wodehouse.
5. An Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer

6. Classic Tragic Novel. Tragedies traditionally have a sad ending, but just like the comedies, this is up for the reader to interpret. Examples include The Grapes of Wrath, House of Mirth, and Madame Bovary.
6. The Trial by Franz Kafka

7. Very Long Classic. Any classic single work 500 pages or longer, not including introductions or end notes. Omnibus editions of multiple works do not count. Since page counts can vary depending on the edition, average the page count of various editions to determine the length.
7. Is He Popinjoy? by Anthony Trollope

8. Classic Novella. Any work of narrative fiction shorter than 250 pages.
8. The Awakening by Kate Chopin

9. Classic From the Americas (includes the Caribbean). Includes classic set in either North or South America or the Caribbean, or by an author originally from one of those countries. Examples include Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (United States); Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (Jamaica); or One Hundred Years of Solitude (Columbia/South America).
9. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

10. Classic From Africa, Asia, or Oceania (includes Australia). Any classic set in one of those continentss or islands, or by an author from these regions. Examples include Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt); The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki (Japan); On the Beach by Nevile Shute (Australia); Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (Nigeria).
10. Pied Piper by Nevil Shute

11. Classic From a Place You’ve Lived. Read locally! Any classic set in a city, county, state or country in which you’ve lived, or by a local author. Choices for me include Giant by Edna Ferber (Texas); Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser (Chicago); and Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann (Germany).
11. Waverley by Walter Scott

12. Classic Play. Any play written or performed at least 50 years ago. Plays are eligible for this category only.
12. The Tempest by William Shakespeare

Have you read any of these ones? It isn’t too late to join in with this challenge – go on, I dare you!

The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen

The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen is the author’s first book, but it certainly doesn’t read like a first effort. It was first published in 1927 but my edition is from 1950. I really enjoyed this one although not a lot happens, it’s all about the relationships between the various hotel guests.

The setting is a hotel on the Italian Riviera which is frequented by well off English people. It isn’t long after the end of World War 1 so there are far more females around than males in society in general. Friends fall out, one young woman has a rather intense relationship with an older woman. An unmarried vicar arrives and upsets some guests as he inadvertently uses their bathroom, he’s never forgiven but he’s completely oblivious to it. It’s the funniest episode in the book. Some people are completely delusional, would be horrified to know what others think of them. People are ‘dropped’. Those who should know better fall in and out of love at the drop of a hat. There’s nothing at all earth shattering, but it is entertaining.

Elizabeth Bowen wrote far more books than I had realised, you can see her output here.

I do enjoy a hotel setting, I suppose because it gives the writer scope for gathering together odd characters who are out of their usual milieu, and everyone is a bit different from usual when they’re on holiday. I seem to have read a lot of books with hotel settings over the years so I might devote a blogpost to them – sometime.

Mary Poppins Comes Back by P.L. Travers

Mary Poppins Comes Back cover

Mary Poppins Comes Back by P.L. Travers was first published in 1935 but my copy is a 1997 paperback. For years I thought there was only the one Mary Poppins book, but this one is the second of four. It’s illustrated by Mary Shepard.

Nothing seems to have gone right within the Banks household for ages, probably not since Mary Poppins left them in fact. The boot boy has polished Mr Banks’s bowler hat with boot polish and to make matters even worse Mr Banks has just had a letter from his old nanny. She’s coming to stay with them and he’s horrified by that idea. Lots of children’s nannies have come and gone since Mary Poppins left but nobody but Mary can cope with them. There are five children in the family so it is quite a handful, especially as they Miss Mary Poppins so much.

Mrs Banks is being driven mad by them all and she tells Jane and Michael to take the twins to the park in their perambulator. Michael takes his kite to fly and when it flies so high in the sky that they can’t see it the Park Keeper helps to haul on its string. But it isn’t their green and yellow kite which appears, it’s something navy blue and as it hurtles towards them they realise that it’s Mary Poppins – she has come back just as suddenly as she had left.

Mary Poppins is of course completely different from the Disney version, she leads the children into all sorts of adventures, they meet strange people and Mary Poppins isn’t at all sweet or even caring, but they have great fun.

Apparently P.L. Travers was so upset by the Disney film version of her first book that she stipulated in her will that no other films were to be made after her death.

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

The Driver's Seat cover

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark was first published in 1970 and I borrowed this copy from the library. All of Spark’s books were reprinted last year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of her birth. This is a very quick read – as are most of her books, just a novella of 90 pages.

Like many of Muriel Spark’s books this is a strange read with really no likeable characters and particularly not the main character Lise. She had been working in an accountancy firm for years and she has decided that it’s time she had a wonderful holiday abroad. The book begins with Lise in a shop trying on a dress to wear on holiday. She ends up buying a dress and summer coat both of which have very distinctive patterns and clashing psychedelic colours. She looks a fright in them but it’s obvious from the beginning that everything that Lise does is calculated to get the attention of as many people as possible.

She gets into odd conversations with complete strangers, obviously determined to be noticed and remembered by everyone she meets. She’s looking for a particular man but she doesn’t know what he’ll look like although she thinks he might be on the plane.

This is a rather dark read but it does have flashes of comedy with one elderly lady saying:

“I never trust the airlines from those countries where the pilots believe in the afterlife”. I can see the reasoning behind that!

I can’t say that I really enjoyed this book as the storyline is so obvious, it’s supposed to be obvious, the reader knows what Lise is up to, well, I say that maybe it isn’t so obvious to everyone but if you’ve had a Scottish upbringing as Muriel Spark had, then you know all about predestination and that very Scottish phrase – what’s for you will not go by you (your destiny will not pass you by.) It’s part of the Scottish psyche, just ask R.L.Stevenson.

Joan’s Best Chum by Angela Brazil

Joan's Best Chum cover

Joan’s Best Chum by Angela Brazil was first published way back in 1926 although my copy has that Book Production War Economy Standard logo on it.

The main characters in this book have all been more or less abandoned by the adults in their lives, albeit not by choice as Joan’s parents are dead and Ursula her older sister has taken on the job of bringing Joan and Rex their brother up, supposedly aided by Uncle Robert who is a local solicitor and turns out to be of no help at all. Ursula realises that if she wants to train as a secretary she will have to ask Ursula to stay at her school as a boarder, rather than a day girl as she is now. Rex has just begun to train in Uncle Robert’s firm of solicitors.

When Mollie ends up joining Allandale School as a boarder too she becomes firm friends with Joan, they have lots in common. Mollie’s mother is dead and her father seems only interested in visiting casinos abroad so he might as well be dead for all the interest he takes in Mollie.

This book is about young women who fight to maintain their dignity and independence in very difficult circumstances which are made worse by the actions of a duplicitous man. It’s interesting because it isn’t all set in the school environment and is a bit of an advert for the YWCA and the YMCA which I was surprised to learn had first been set up way back in 1855 in London for the women and 1844 for men.

I’ve only read a few of Angela Brazil’s books but it seems that she was keen to show lots of aspects of life outside what would be the rather rarefied atmosphere of many boarding schools.

Library books

I had to go to the library today to pick up a book that I had requested called The Love-charm of Bombs Restless Lives in the Second World War. I know that I scooted over to the Fife libraries catalogue after reading about it on someone’s blog – but of course I can’t remember which blog.

I had truly intended staying away from libraries so that I wouldn’t be tempted by the books because it’s absolutely fatal to the ever growing piles of unread books of my own. Inevitably I also borrowed The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark and A Time of Love and Tartan (a 44 Scotland Street novel) by Alexander McCall Smith. Well those ones will count towards my personal reading Scotland challenge.

Have you read any of these ones?

On a more personal note – I’m going to get my hair cut tomorrow! Who knows what I will end up looking like? Past experiences have made me quite hair salon phobic but anything must be an improvement surely as at the moment I feel like Dill the dog from The Herbs and if you want to know what he looked like have a wee keek here. Minus the black nose of course.

Company Parade by Storm Jameson

Company Parade cover

Company Parade by Storm Jameson was first published in 1934 but my copy is a Virago reprint from 1982.

The setting is mainly London 1919 where Hervey Russell a young ambitious author has gone to further her career. Her novel is due to be published soon but she takes a job in an advertising agency to keep body and soul together. Life is tough as she is married with a feckless husband called Penn who is in the RAF. He has had a very cushy war unlike most and doesn’t want to give up his safe life in uniform. He spends all of his wages on himself despite the fact that he and Hervey have a small son. Penn isn’t interested in either of them. Hervey has farmed their son out and left him with a woman who lives in Yorkshire, near Hervey’s mother, she’s torn by that decision but knows that she has to be in London.

Hervey’s grandmother is fabulously wealthy but a silly family rift means that Hervey has no relationship with her granny. This book is peopled by awkward characters, many of whom have been damaged physically and mentally by World War 1. I think this book, which is the first in a series was probably simmering away in the author’s mind since the end of that war.

The book was slow to get going for me but I ended up really enjoying it so I’ll be reading the rest of the series to see what happens next. Storm Jameson was so observant on human character and relationships. However it was her comments on politics and the likelihood of another war being the result of the armistice terms that seemed so prescient to me. I wonder if people really did think like that at the time, she obviously had an eye on what was going on in Germany in the 1930s. She was politically active on the left and was a friend of Vera Brittain, they had both lost brothers in the war. This book seems to be very autobiographical.

The Virago cover is a detail from ‘Room in New York’ by Edward Hopper.

My 2018 reading review

In 2018 I read 128 books according to my notebook however I seem to remember that my Goodreads Challenge tallied up to 131 at least, but that challenge thingy seems to have disappeared, along with the previous years so I can’t check it. Seventy-five by female authors

Female authors
– 76
Male authors – 52

I read fourteen books originally aimed at children, but if you had asked me I would have said I had read a lot more than that. There weren’t any duds in the children’s fiction, but that’s to be expected as they were all classics really, or had been Carnegie medal winners.

Only twenty-four books were written by Scottish authors – I must do better in 2019. I intend to catch up with Ian Rankin’s Rebus series this year so that should bump up my tally.

Only fourteen books were non-fiction. I think that’s pitiful but I’m putting that down to all the Brexit chaos not being conducive to reading anything that you have to put much thought into. I’ve definitely been finding solace in light reading recently.

I think my favourite non-fiction was The Oaken Heart by Margery Allingham, her account of life in rural Essex during World War 2. I really liked the Diana Athill books that I read too.

Casting my eyes down the pages I must admit that some of the titles don’t mean a lot to me. No doubt if I read the blurb or even my own scanty thoughts on it then it would come back to me. Others are still very vivid in my mind.

I’d like to read more books by new to me author Amor Towles as I really enjoyed his A Gentleman in Moscow. I also read Rose Tremain for the first time and I’d like to read more by her.

I’ll definitely read anything by Andrew Taylor that I can get my hands on.

The classic book that disappointed me most was The Leopard by Tomasi de Lampedusa. I didn’t hate it but it just wasn’t as good as I expected it to be.

The series that I enjoyed most was the R.F. Delderfield trilogy A Horseman Riding By. I hope to read more by him soon.

The saddest book was The Red Pony by John Steinbeck.

Penelope Lively is becoming one of my favourite authors.

I loved King Hereafter by Dorothy Dunnett. The only things holding me back from reading her Niccolo series is the heftiness of them and the fact that you have to really concentrate on them.

I’m going to continue reading D.E. Stevenson’s books. I think they’ll be perfect for the chaos to come in this Brexit year.

My 2019 reading didn’t begin well, my own fault for being seduced by a library book that I knew nothing about. This year I definitely intend to concentrate mainly on my own books, the unread piles are just getting out of hand despite me being much pickier about what I buy nowadays. New bookcases are desperately required!

Sedition by Katharine Grant

Sedition cover

Sedition by Katharine Grant was published by Virago in 2014 and I was drawn to borrow it from the library just because of the title – Sedition – and the fact that it was set in 1794, an important date sedition wise and the year that one of my ancestors was transported for 14 years as he was found guilty of sedition. He was one of the founder members of the Society of Friends of the People who had the temerity to ask for the vote for universal franchise and the abolition of slavery.

Imagine my disappointment when this book turned out to just mention sedition in a couple of sentences. The book should really have been at least subtitled – teenage exploitation sex romp. Why Virago decided to publish it is a mystery to me. I have to say that it’s well enough written, it’s just the premise that I found so ludicrous.

Some wealthy men and their wives are desperate to marry their daughters off, preferably to the aristocracy. They plan to show off their daughters in a concert and so they hire a piano and tutor to train them up for the entertainment. However, the owner and maker of the piano didn’t want to hire that particular piano out to them and he decides to ruin the girls by paying the tutor to deflower them all.

One by one the four girls all end up having sex with him – in what they are told is the ‘French’ way, so they won’t get pregnant. Meanwhile the piano maker’s daughter and another young girl engage in lesbian fumblings.

If ever a book was written with an eye on sales I’d say this one was, but to me it was an eye-rolling waste of my time. No doubt it appeals to some people though. I started reading this one in 2018 but finished it in 2019, I just hope that the rest of my reading year is better than the beginning.

Home Fires Burning – Georgina Lee – edited by Gavin Roynon

Home Fires Burning cover

Home Fires Burning
The Great War Diaries of Georgina Lee edited by Gavin Roynon turned out to be a good and enlightening read.

Georgina Lee was a fairly well-connected upper middle class married lady and at the beginning of World War 1 she had a nine month old son called Harry. She decided to write her wartime diary- addressing it to Harry. The book is split up into eleven sections with section 1 beginning on July 30th 1914 and section 11 ends on November 11th 1919.

To begin with I was quite disappointed with this book as the diary entries are very war news heavy and I had expected it to be more about what was going on in her life domestically. I imagine that it might be a bit much for people who aren’t terribly interested in the beginnings and progress of WW1, eventually though Georgina Lee did bring more of her own family’s and neighbours’ experiences into her writing. I ended up really liking her, she had had a priviliged life, she had spent a lot of her life living in France as her father was a successful artist who had settled in France, so she spoke French like a native which was very helpful as she was able to communicate with the Belgian refugees that she ended up working with. She was no snob though and worried about the children of people who weren’t as lucky as her.

With several men in her family at the front as well as many friends she was getting first-hand accounts of what was going on there, and passed them on to her son via her diary, presuming that one day he would be interested in the developments. I learned a lot from this book, I had always thought that to begin with men had clamoured to join the army but it seems that things slowed up very quickly and campaigns to get men to join up weren’t very successful. Georgina Lee’s family had an estate in Wales and no Welshmen would join up as they didn’t see why they should fight for England. Not one came forward when her husband gave a speech asking for volunteers. They also had a house in Scotland near Blair Atholl.

Later on she mentions that an American girl who had gone over to France to nurse had said that wealthy French ladies never lifted a finger to help with nursing or even the making of bandages. A friend had taken in some Belgian refugees which included a 25 year old man who had no intention of fighting for his country, which must have been very galling.

The book has quite a few photos, maps, cartoons, newspaper excerpts, all interesting but more than anything I was surprised by just how often the population was menaced by Zeppelins. At the beginning of the book there’s a map showing all the locations of German air raids over London with hundreds of bombs being dropped with 800 civilians being killed in London in 1917-18 and 1,500 injured. Food was pitifully scarce and the government told people to eat more slowly so they wouldn’t need so much food!

The author is scathing about the government – at one point complaining of the £4,000 that the 21 members of the cabinet were getting annually – for being totally incompetent. Plus ca change!

As I got towards the end of this book I was wondering what had become of young Harry who was by that time 5 years old, so I was very pleased to see that Georgina Lee’s granddaughter (who used to discuss the diaries with her granny) had written a biographical note telling what had happened to Georgina and her family after the war. Georgina was 96 when she died.