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

 Death in Bordeaux 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

Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean – 20 Books of Summer

Peter Pan in Scarlet cover

Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean is the official sequel to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan which was commissioned by Great Ormond Street Hospital. Barrie gave all the royalties for Peter Pan to the famous children’s hospital. There was a competition to see who would get the contract to write the sequel and McCaughrean won it, I feel that this might have something to do with the several one star so-called reviews of the book on Goodreads have possibly been posted by some who had hoped to win the chance to write the sequel. I cannot think of any other reason for them, and the posts just show up the reviewers as being ignorant. I doubt if they have ever read the actual original Peter Pan book and possibly have been no closer to it than the Disney animation and so have no notion of how well McCaughrean captured Barrie’s writing style.

As a bit of a J.M.Barrie fan I feel sure that he would have been absolutely thrilled with this sequel, the author has a fabulous imagination so it’s a very witty and entertaining read and beautifully written. The detractors obviously have no idea of the history behind Peter Pan, how Barrie based the Darling children on the Llewelyn Davies boys that he had befriended along with their parents. Michael was killed in the First World War and so he is missing from the cast in this book, and even that was well dealt with, but that horrified the one star ‘reviewers’.

All over parts of London ‘old boys’ who had been in Neverland are having vivid dreams about the place. They are adults now and have responsible careers and frequent a London club, one is even a judge. But Neverland is calling them and Mrs Wendy encourages them, so the old boys agree that on Saturday, 5th of June they’ll go to Neverland, it’s pencilled into their diaries, they just have to find some fairy dust so they can fly again. The Old Boys set off for Kensington Gardens with butterfly nets, intent on catching some fairies.

Of course they do get back to Neverland and Peter Pan, and so begins an adventure to rival Barrie’s. I don’t want to say too much about the story but it involves pirates, a strange ravelling wool man, thousands of fairies who have taken sides in a pointless war – are you red or are you blue?

This book is smart and witty and it was lovely to re-visit Neverland again and the old characters.

I hate to think that it might be dodged by future readers because of some ignorant reviews online. One reviewer was so incensed because of the way the First Nation people are referred to in the book. Such words as papoose, squaw and Red-Indian are used in this book. SO WHAT! When I read that nonsense I was fizzing mad. If people are so upset by the use of words that have now been deemed to be outdated then I would be more impressed if they actually did something to help the plight of the First Nation people who are in dire straits today, and in need of being treated like human beings instead of people being ‘upset’ by the use of anachronistic words in 2020 when a book is set in the 1920s-30s. Of course the use of the words is totally in keeping with the times that this book was set in. There are so many people trawling the net looking for reasons to pull someone apart and just showing themselves up as idiots.

I was lucky enough to be able to buy a signed edition of Peter Pan in Scarlet. This was the third book from my 20 Books of Summer list.

One by one, the individual flecks of colour separated and floated down, like rose petals at the end of summer. They brushed the upturned faces; settled on their shoulders. More and more fell: a light snow of flaking colour. Like snow it mesmerized them – a dizzying downward whirl of prettiness. Instead of spray from the waterfall they could feel only the soft touch of a thousand thousand fragments of loveliness. It piled up in their hair; it filled their ears and pockets; it tugged on their clothing. Tugged?

‘Fairies!’ cried Tootles delightedly. ‘Thousands of fairies!’

Sorry this was a bit of a rant. But….

This was book 3 from my 20 Books of Summer list

The House in Norham Gardens by Penelope Lively – 20 Books of Summer

The House in Norham Gardens cover

This is my second book from my 20 Books of Summer list.

The House in Norham Gardens by Penelope Lively was first published in 1974. The setting is Oxford, a large rambling house at number 40 Norham Gardens, where 14 year old Clare Mayfield lives with her two elderly aunts. The 19 rooms in the house are stuffed with artefacts, nothing has ever been thrown away and the attic even has trunks full of her great grandparents’ clothes. Clare’s parents are dead and she has more or less become the carer for her aunts who are becoming quite frail. In the past the aunts had taken a lead in Oxford academic society and they have high hopes for Clare’s future which seem well-founded as Clare is a good scholar. However when Clare finds a strangely painted tribal shield in the attic it somehow preys on her mind. It must have belonged to her great-grandfather who had been a famous anthropologist. A combination of the shield and the money worries of running the household on a shoestring culminate in her schoolwork going to pot.

The aunts had previously agreed to having a lodger to help pay the bills and Maureen adds quite a bit of humour to the book. But more money is required and a young student of anthropology from Uganda moves in to the house too. John Sempebwa becomes a good friend as Clare shows him around Oxford and they visit museums, one of which exhibits tribal art.

This is a really good read and considering it was written 46 years ago it was way ahead of the times as it deals with British colonialism and the plundering of often sacred objects from other countries and cultures, something that academics are now arguing about and often unwilling to give up.

This book is set in winter and if I had realised that I would probably have saved it to read in winter, near Christmas maybe. It seems that Oxford suffers freezing cold and snowy winters. Poor Clare was often battling against snow and ice while on her bike. It helped cool me down during our recent mini heatwave.

North from Rome by Helen MacInnes – 20 Books of Summer

North From Rome cover

North from Rome by the Scottish author Helen MacInnes is the first book that I’ve read from my 20 Books of Summer list. It was first published in 1958.

Bill Lammiter is a young and successful American playwright who has recently been dumped by his fiancee. She works at the American embassy in Rome and Bill is feeling bruised as Eleanor has quickly replaced him with an Italian man with a title. The story begins with Bill looking out from his balcony, admiring Rome in the dark and imagining the Roman soldiers who must have walked there in the past. His attention is taken by a young woman’s scream, she is being manhandled and is almost abducted and bundled into a car. When the man realises he has been spotted the woman manages to get away and so begins Bill’s unwanted adventure.

He had been hoping to be able to speak to Eleanor outside the embassy at some point, but when he does see her she is sitting at a table near his in a restaurant, alongside her Italian prince and his mother, then Rosana, the young woman that Bill had been able to help the previous evening joins them.

It’s all very strange, and becomes stranger. It seems that Eleanor’s new man is not what he appears to be. This is a really enjoyable thriller and I especially liked the Italian settings as the action moved from Rome to Perugia, MacInnes paints the landscape and gives a real flavour of Italy, no actual travelling required.