20 Books of Summer – the Wrap-up

20 books of summer

All too quickly we’ve come to the end of 20 Books of Summer and I haven’t quite managed to read all of my chosen books. I did actually read more than twenty books over the summer but I veered away from the list when I felt the need to read a Heyer or vintage crime or some children’s books. I haven’t quite managed to review all that I’ve read from the list, I still have to review In a Dark Wood Wandering and The Berry Scene. I enjoyed most of the books, a few didn’t quite hit the spot but it was a good summer of reading over a time when we were still locked down and not allowed to travel far from home. I’m so glad that I’m a keen reader.

1. North from Rome by Helen MacInnes
2. The Road Home by Rose Tremain
3. My Friend Flora by Jane Duncan
4. Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome
5. The Citadel by A.J. Cronin
6. The House of Doctor Dee by Peter Ackroyd
7. The Runaway by Elizabeth Anna Hart
8. Madame Solario by Gladys Huntingdon
9. Autumn Quail by Naguib Mahfouz
10. Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean
11. An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott
12. The Berry Scene by Dornford Yates
13. The Flight of the Heron by D.K. Broster
14. Wolf Among Wolves by Hans Fallada
15. The Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S. Haasse
16. The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar
17. Call for the Dead by John le Carre
18. A Murder of Quality by John le Carre
19. The House in Norham Gardens by Penelope Lively
20. Snow by Orhan Pamuk

A Murder of Quality by John le Carre – 20 Books of Summer

A Murder of Quality cover

A Murder of Quality by John le Carre was first published in 1962 and it features George Smiley.

Miss Brimley is an old friend of George Smiley, she’s the editor of a magazine called Christian Voice which has a very small list of subscribers. One of them – Mrs Rode – has sent a letter to Miss Brimley which says she is sure her husband is going to kill her and that she has no one else that she can turn to for help. Miss Brimley passes the letter on to her old friend Smiley, asking him to investigate.

Stella Rode’s husband is a housemaster at a prestigious English public school called Carne, but by the time Smiley gets there the deed has been done. Carne School is the sort of place that Smiley is well used to, presumably having been to such an institution himself. It doesn’t take Smiley long to discover that there’s a lot of nastiness within the school with the schoolmasters and their wives being consumed by petty jealousies and snobbery.

The Rodes seemed to be a mismatched couple and Stella went out of her way to upset her husband, choosing to side with the local townspeople with whom she was very popular, rather than with the snooty schoolmasters and their wives. There are the usual ‘town versus gown’ tensions such as you get in places like St Andrews.

This was a very quick but enjoyable read. Apparently before John le Carre found fame as an author he had been a master at Eton and he was inspired by his experiences there when writing this book. Presumably there weren’t any actual murders at Eton, but I can imagine that there were plenty of character assassinations!

This was one of my 20 Books of Summer reads, the sixteenth. I think I might manage to read all twenty of them.

Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome – 20 Books of Summer

Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome was first published way back in 1933 but my copy dates from 1948 when according to the inscription ‘Dear Phil’ was given it by his Nannie for his 11th birthday.

The setting is the Lake District in winter where the Swallows and Amazons children are joined by Dorothea and her brother Dick, they’re staying with their mother’s old nurse over the school holidays. Very quickly they meet up with the Swallows and Amazons and they join forces to have lots of fun and adventures on the frozen lake. The snow and ice is just perfect for them as they’re pretending that they’re Arctic explorers, the local townspeople are Eskimos and when Uncle Jim’s/Captain Flint’s houseboat gets frozen in the ice it’s renamed the Fram, pretending that it’s the ship in Nansen’s Arctic expedition.

This is a lovely read with the children quickly becoming firm friends and discovering that they have a lot to learn from each other, they all have their own talents and are happy to share their strong points with the others. Dot and Dick are very good at ice skating but know nothing of semaphore or Morse code. Obviously the Swallows and Amazons children are good at sailing and that skill is transferable as toboggans are converted to sail across the ice on their runners.

There’s a lot to pack into this adventure and the school holidays are lengthened by over a month as Nancy succumbs to the mumps which means that the other children can’t go back to school in case they’re infectious. Everywhere has to be disinfected and even notes from Nancy have to be baked in a hot oven before they can be touched. Honestly, I can’t get away from infectious diseases!

This one was my 14th Book of Summer read. It was perfect cool reading over a few hot days.

20 books of summer

An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott 20 Books of Summer

An Old-Fashioned Girl cover

An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott was first published in 1870, but six chapters had been published in a magazine the previous year.

It’s the story of Polly who is the teenage daughter of a rural church minister and his wise and sensible wife, money in that family isn’t plentiful, so when Polly travels to Boston to visit her friend Fanny she finds herself in a situation she hasn’t been in before. Fanny’s family is a wealthy one, living in a grand house with servants. Material things are obviously very important to them, but when compared with Polly’s family and upbringing Polly can see that the money and easy life hasn’t made Fanny’s family happy. In particular Fanny’s mother is immature and lacking in any common-sense, her children are argumentative and spoiled spendthrifts. Fanny’s father sees Polly’s kindness and warmth as being a good influence on his family, but really he’s just a provider of money as far as they’re concerned. Fanny’s mother reminded me in some ways of Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, she shrieks and takes to her bed when she gets bad news and evidently only married her husband for his money.

This book covers several years, taking Polly and Fanny into their early 20s. Polly is determined to be independent, she’s working as a music teacher to help her brother get through college financially. Teaching small children turns out to be much more difficult than she thought it would be. There’s romance of course and it’s quite obvious how things will end up for Polly. She’s determined to marry someone that she loves rather than ‘an establishment’. I thought of Lizzie Bennet and Pemberley!

This was an enjoyable read, I know that if I had read this book when I was a youngster I would really have identified with Polly, and not being a wild consumerist or interested in designer labels, make-up and nail bars I still do identify with her really. I found this book to be a bit too preachy and just a wee bit too sentimental, but that was the fashion of the time. I don’t think there’s a sequel to it, which is a shame, I would have liked to read more about Polly as she aged.

Thanks for sending me this one Jennifer.

I read this one for 20 Books of Summer.

Wolf Among Wolves by Hans Fallada – 20 Books of Summer

Wolf Among Wolves cover

Wolf Among Wolves by Hans Fallada was first published in German in 1937. I didn’t like this one as much as other readers seemed to have. It might just have been the wrong book at the wrong time, but I felt it didn’t need to be so long (793 pages).

The book begins in Berlin in 1923 where the German economy is in freefall with inflation getting crazier every day, the German Mark is falling daily against the American Dollar, people in the city are starving as their wages are worth nothing by the time they get paid, and one dollar is worth millions of marks.

Wolfgang Pagel, a young ex-soldier who had been at the front is the spoiled son of a famous but now deceased artist. He’s estranged from his wealthy mother and is now living in a poor part of Berlin with Petra, his girlfriend. Wolf is a compulsive gambler and every night he goes to an illegal casino which is set up in someone’s front room in the more salubrious west of the city. Wolf is happy if he wins enough money to buy some food the next day and can pay the rent, sadly he often doesn’t have the money and then he has to pawn Petra’s clothes and she has to stay in bed. Of course he thinks he has a system and will win a fortune the next evening. A series of unfortunate incidents lead to Petra being jailed on what should have been their wedding day, but Wolf is so wrapped up in himself that he doesn’t get around to even visiting her never mind getting her out.

Bizzarely Wolf leaves the city and gets work on a farm, despite having no farming experience he’s working as a sort of manager in charge of the farm workers and foresters, but he really enjoys the hard work. It isn’t long before he realises that the peasants aren’t the honest toilers that he thought they were and are no better than the city dwellers had been. The owner of the farm is a power freak and miser who spends his time trying to ruin his son-in-law whom he has as a tenant on the farm. There are various relationships going on, none of them happy.

Then due to the political and economic situation some in the army organise a putsch which is a shambles and some on the farm are involved in it. This book does have a happy ending of sorts but I thought that Wolf’s character made a very unlikely about turn as soon as he got into the country, and I kept wondering what was happening to Petra throughout most of the book, and for me she was the most interesting character.

The publisher thought that this book might get them into trouble with the Nazis, but it didn’t. Fallada chose to stay in Germany during the Nazi era, that’s something which others who had left Germany, such as Thomas Mann disliked him for. But in 1935 Fallada had been imprisoned by the Gestapo and described as an ‘undesirable author’ – not for long though as they couldn’t find any anti-Nazi material in his home. I’m amazed they didn’t plant stuff! Apparently Goebbels was breathing down Fallada’s neck trying to get him to write an anti-semitic tract, that couldn’t have been comfortable.

This is the third book that I’ve read by Fallada, I much preferred his Alone in Berlin to this one, despite it having a depressing ending.

This was on of my 20 Books of Summer.

Autumn Quail by Naguib Mahfouz – 20 Books of Summer

I’m doing really well with my 20 Books of Summer list, I think I’m just about half-way through it.

 Autumn Quail cover

Autumn Quail by Naguib Mahfouz is a really quick read at just 167 pages. Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. Autumn Quail was written in 1962, but the book is set in 1952 when there was a revolution with Nasser overthrowing the Egyptian king.

Until then Isa a-Dabbagh had been a very successful civil servant, having been promoted very quickly and further than ever expected, particularly for someone who often floundered at work – I’m sure we all know the sort! It’s his politics that have led to this situation, he backed the right side, but of course – come the revolution his situation changed completely and he ends up being pensioned off with two years salary. But it wasn’t his salary that accounted for his gorgeous house and lifestyle, it was the many bribes that he had accepted over the years and he knows that he can expect no favours from the new regime. Isa quickly goes from being the arrogant official who is followed by an entourage of sycophants to a nobody – in no time flat. His fiancee isn’t interested in marrying him under the new circumstances.

Isa doesn’t take well to that and refuses to take a salaried job that his cousin offers him. He moves away from family and friends, from Cairo to Alexandria where he lives a lonely life until he takes up with a young woman, but ultimately Isa abandons her.

This novella has a very abrupt ending, intentionally obviously as Isa can’t make up his mind as to what he should do in the future. Should he look ahead into the new Egypt or just wallow in self-pity?

I liked this book, enjoyed the writing and felt that I learned quite a lot so I’ll definitely read more by this author in the future. Mahfouz spoke up for Salman Rushdie when a Fatwa was taken out against him. This culminated in Mahfouz being attacked, a man stabbed him in the neck and the injury more or less stopped his writing career as he couldn’t write for more than a few minutes a day.

The House of Doctor Dee by Peter Ackroyd – 20 Books of Summer

The House of Doctor Dee cover

The House of Doctor Dee by Peter Ackroyd was first published in 1993 and it has probably been in our house since around that date – on Jack’s shelves – but the title just jumped out at me a couple of weeks ago, probably because I had seen the name in the Maragret Irwin book I had been reading then. I decided to add it to my 20 Books of Summer list. I think this is number 6 for me that I’ve read from my list so far and it’s the first book that I’ve read by this author, but won’t be the last.

Matthew Palmer has inherited a house from his father, it’s in London’s Clerkenwell and nobody had known that it had been owned by the father. Matthew is intrigued as you would expect and even more so when he visits the house and realises that it’s actually very old. As Matthew is a historical researcher it’s right up his street. But the house has a strange atmosphere, especially in the cellar which must at one time have been the ground floor but has sunk over the last five or so centuries. Strangely Matthew’s friend Daniel seems to be familiar with the house already.

Looking through some of his father’s papers Matthew realises that his father was engaged in his own historical research, based on the writings of Doctor Dee who was a 16th century alchemist, mathematician, astronomer and astrologer, and some say was a sorcerer. He certainly managed to escape death when he was arrested by Mary Tudor’s henchmen and taken to the tower, accused of trying to murder the queen using sorcery.

The narrative flits between Matthew’s thoughts and problems and Doctor Dee’s thoughts, research and home life and there’s a sense of spooky creepiness permeating the contemporary Clerkenwell house. It’s a good and interesting read.

The blurb on the back from the Sunday Telegraph says:

‘He is such a master of mood, tension, angst, foreboding, frisson, but also of tenderness and exaltation, that one is drawn into his tale as by a magus.’

The cover is of a portrait of Doctor Dee which is apparently in the Ashmolean Museum, but the artist is unknown. Dee certainly looks the part though.

My Friend Flora by Jane Duncan – 20 Books of Summer

My Friend Flora cover

My Friend Flora by Jane Duncan was published in 1962, it’s part of a long series of ‘My Friend’ books. These are generally a light-hearted keek into another way of life, the setting is the Highlands of Scotland, a remote crofting community where all families have a nickname. Often it’s just the name of the farm where they live. Janet Sandison’s family are all named Reachfar as a surname. Reachfar being the name of where they live.

It begins in 1915 when Janet goes to the small local primary school and meets Flora Smith for the first time. Flora is a few years older than Janet and her bye-name as they call it is Bedamned because her father is always using that word, but it seems that the bye-name is more like a curse on the family as disaster after disaster befalls them. For that reason this book is different from the others in the series that I’ve read, admittedly I haven’t got my hands on many of them yet.

Janet is sorry for Flora, it seems like a life of selfless drudgery with no thanks from anyone, particularly her harsh and morose father, but Flora is happy with her lot and her situation shows that what seems appalling to one person is a source of love and even pride to another.

Towards the end of the book the action moves to the USA briefly, via a trip on a ship and aeroplane, something that would have seemed very exotic to most readers of the book.

This was an enjoyable read despite Flora being the sort of character that you wanted to give a good shake and also some uncomfortable scenes involving a dog being tormented. There is comeuppance which is always a good thing.

20 books of summer

The Flight of the Heron by D.K. Broster – 20 Books of Summer

 The Flight of the Heron cover

The Flight of the Heron by D.K. Broster was first published in 1925. It’s the first book in a Jacobite trilogy, the others being The Gleam in the North and The Dark Mile. Broster was an English woman who was inspired to write this trilogy after a five week long visit to friends in Scotland, she says that she consulted 80 reference books before embarking on writing the series. I can believe it. I’ll definitely be reading the other two. Broster served as a Red Cross nurse in a Franco-American hospital during World War 1.

The setting is 1745, the book begins just before the Jacobite rebellion. Ewen Cameron is a young Highland chieftain who has spent years in France as a boy being educated and avoiding the English as his father had been a Jacobite supporter. There’s a large Scottish community and that’s where he met Alison Grant whom he’s now engaged to.

With the arrival of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the gathering of the clans at Glenfinnan Alison is obviously worried about the outcome, but with Lochiel supporting the Prince despite the fact that he hasn’t brought the promised French help with him, Clan Cameron led by Ewen will be in the thick of any battles.

Ewen’s foster-father Angus has the ‘second sight’ although he’s blind and he warns Ewen that a heron plays some sort of part in his future, but he can’t say whether it is for good or bad.

Captain Keith Windham of the Royal Scots is one of the many British Army soldiers inhabiting the Highlands at the time. He’s a career soldier and isn’t happy about this posting, he wants to be in Antwerp instead of in the old and wet Highlands which as far as he is concerned is infested with wild rebels. His meeting with Ewen is a surprise to him as what looks like a wild man to him turns out to be an educated and honourable gentleman. Captain Windham has always been a bit of a loner, having decided that that was the best way of advancing his career but he finds that he is drawn to Ewen and throughout their subsequent meetings they avoid the chance to do each other damage as they should given that they are on opposite sides.

This is a great read and the writing gives a really authentic feel of the Scottish Highlands and also the Edinburgh of the time. I haven’t read the Diana Gabaldon books, I’ve been warned that they’re probably too racy for my liking, but I have watched Outlander – I just roll my eyes at the many sex scenes, but I suspect that she read this book before setting out on her long series of books set around the same time – on and off. There are a lot of similarities between the characters, and even the shocking possibility of a clan chief (gentleman) being whipped appears in this book, but obviously back in 1925 there could only be some hints about male sexuality.

I’m always interested in who a book is dedicated to, this one is dedicated to Violet Jacob, in homage. She was a Scottish writer who had a very grand upbringing as her father owned the House of Dun which you can see here if you’re interested. I’m presuming that it was at this house with Violet Jacob that Broster stayed for five weeks and was inspired by the surroundings to write these books.

This is the fifth book from my 20 Books of Summer list.

The Runaway by Elizabeth Anna Hart – 20 Books of Summer

 The Runaway cover

The Runaway by Elizabeth Anna Hart was first published in 1872 and then again in 1936 but my copy is a Persephone which was published in 2002.

Clarice is a 15 year old girl who is living with her father in quite a grand country house, but her mother is dead. She has a governess but lacks a friend of her own age. She’s a bit of a romantic, wishing she could have lived in the more exciting times of the past, in the times of the Charlses maybe.

Almost as soon as she says it a girl pops out of the hedge in front of her. Olga has run away from her school where she was badly treated according to her. There’s no doubt about it – Olga is a handful and I suspect her schoolteachers sighed with relief when she left it.

Clarice is enthralled by her new friend who is half Danish and half Scottish with a father in a Highland regiment (all very apt for Victorian times) and Clarice agrees to hide her in the house and feed her. Unfortunately Olga just can’t stop being naughty though and appears as a ghost in front of the governess and maid and Clarice realises that Olga is too much for her to cope with, she’ll have to track down Olga’s granny somehow as her parents are abroad – with the regiment.

I can see why this was chosen by Persephone, as it features a very unusual portrayal of a Victorian teenage girl, but I must admit that if this one had been the first Persephone book that I had read I would have thought more than twice about buying another one. It was mildly entertaining but wasn’t great. However the book is beautifully illustrated with lots of wood block prints by Gwen Raverat nee Darwin who was Charles Darwin’s granddaughter. You can see some of her work here.

I particularly liked the image below, but it’s nothing to do with this book.

Raverat