Tortoise by Candlelight by Nina Bawden – 20 Books of Summer

 Tortoise by Candlelight cover

Tortoise by Candlelight by Nina Bawden was first published in 1963 but my copy is a Virago reprint from 1989.

It’s the 1960s, Emmie Bean is 14 years old and she’s really in charge of her family which consists of her father, grandmother, older sister Alice and eight year old Oliver. Alice is determined to become a nurse and has to study, – when she’s not with her boyfriend, she seems happy to leave all the responibility to Emmie. Oliver has problems, he is happy to lie and steal and is very manipulative. Emmie is terrified that he’ll be caught stealing something, it’s just another of her many worries. The mother had been a well-known naturalist but she’s not around, in fact the children seem to think she is dead. As the father has a drink problem, he’s a journalist and claims he needs to go to pubs to get contacts, it’s Emmie who has to worry about providing school uniforms, life is tough and money very scarce. Then to make matters worse the grandmother’s age begins to tell on her. Emmie’s mother had encouraged her to start writing a diary/notebook and Emmie wonders if getting it published could be a way out of money problems.

Emmie has had to grow up fast but when new people arrive at a nearby house things change. Marjorie and Nick are a young married couple with no worries, Marjorie’s father is very wealthy and they’re financially secure, but are living a rather empty life with nothing to strive for. They become involved with the Bean family and Emmie is quite smitten by Nick. There’s a sadness to Nick and Marjorie and the Bean family seem to fill a void for a time.

This was an enjoyable read, but a difficult one to write about. I’ve read a few books by Nina Bawden, Carrie’s War is probably her best known book and I think I liked that one more than this one, but that may just have been because of my liking for a WW2 setting.

This book is one of my 20 Books of Summer.

bag and baggage by Judy Allen – 20 Books of Summer

 bag and baggage cover

bag and baggage by Judy Allen was first published in 1988, by The Women’s Press. It’s not a book that I bought, it was sent to me by mistake when I ordered another book from a bookseller – and they didn’t want me to send this one back. That was quite a few years ago now, and that’s why I added it to my 20 Books of Summer list.

Hilda is a pensioner who lives in a ground floor council flat. May, another pensioner lives opposite her, in a flat which is a mirror image of Hilda’s, but May’s flat is spotlessly clean, she’s completely obsessed with housework, whereas Hilda has just about given up. Whenever she tries to clean anything she just ends up making it even worse. Her flat is in a horrible state,she just can’t cope with it all. The kitchen is full of half used tins of cat food – I could almost smell it.

It’s not just her hygiene standards that have fallen though, Hilda has accumulated a pile of official looking brown envelopes, many of which she hasn’t even bothered to open. Her neighbour May does try to help Hilda but she just ends up becoming another problem as far as Hilda is concerned. She takes to staying in the park all day, then when her flat is stripped and padlocked by bailiffs the park becomes her home. She’s sleeping there with bags full of things that May had managed to rescue from her old flat, before the bailiffs struck. So, Hilda has become a bag lady, not that she recognises that fact. At times Hilda lives in a universe of her own making, where she is famous and being interviewed on TV, but in reality she’s taken to a geriatric ward which she seems quite happy about.

This is a well written book, but it’s not exactly an uplifting read, I’m sure it isn’t meant to be and I suppose the subject is an important one, people can suffer from mental illness for no particular reason, it isn’t always caused by a big trauma, and it can often lead to homelessness. There is some humour.

Judy Allen is better known as a children’s author, this is her second novel and her first December Flower was dramatised by Granada TV.

This was one of my 20 Books of Summer 2021.

White Boots by Noel Streatfeild – 20 Books of Summer 2021

 White Boots  cover

White Boots by Noel Streatfeild was first published in 1951. The Johnson family live in London, Harriet has been ill, her brothers think she looks like a big daddy-long-legs as she’s all hair and eyes and although she isn’t so ill now she still isn’t well enough to go to school, her legs feel like cotton wool. Her father George Johnson has a shop which is stocked by the produce that his elder brother sends to him for sale. George’s brother inherited the family estate, but he keeps all the best produce for himself, and sends George vegetables that are really poor quality and nobody wants to buy, and animals that have been shot or trapped and are long past being used for food. They’re really poverty stricken and can’t afford the good food that Harriet needs to get her strength back.

The doctor thinks that maybe taking up ice-skating will help to strengthen Harriet’s legs and at the ice rink she comes into contact with Lalla who also doesn’t go to school. She is taught at home by Miss Goldthorpe, a successful teacher who wants a change from teaching in schools, but most of Lalla’s time is spent at the ice rink. Her parents are dead and she’s being brought up by an aunt who is obsessed with turning Lalla into a champion ice skater – just like her father was. Lalla’s famous father died when she was a baby.

Harriet and Lalla strike up a friendship but it’s in jeapordy when Lalla’s tendency to be a ‘proper little madam’ almost ruins things.

This was a good read, with lots of common-sense and morality in the storyline. Lalla, having been brought up by her ambitious, snooty and self-important aunt needs some lessons in real life, which her old nanny does her best to instil in her.

The Johnson family, including Harriet’s three brothers and her mother also add a lot to the story. I wish I had read these books first when I was a youngster myself.

The Fascinating Hat by Isabel Cameron – 20 Books of Summer 2021

 The Fascinating Hat cover

The Fascinating Hat by the Scottish author Isabel Cameron was first published in 1941. The book begins with Jinty Campbell trimming a hat that she’s going to wear in a dramatic entertainment in the village hall the following week. She’s interrupted by the local minister who has a habit of just walking into people’s houses unannounced. With him is his nephew who is a doctor, he has come to stand in for the local doctor who is going on holiday. There’s quite a lot of snappy banter as the two young people seem to hit it off quickly, having a similar sense of humour.

The screeching of tyres in the street and a crash alert them to a taxi which has ended up on its side while swerving to avoid a child on the road. The young passenger has been knocked out, tended by Jinty who had been a VAD, and the new young doctor. But their patient has lost his memory and has no idea who he is.

Jinty is an apprentice at a firm of architects, planning to become an architect herself eventually. As far as she’s concerned it’s about time that houses were designed by women for women as men have no idea of how to design homes with women in mind, making a lot of unnecessary work for them. Cupboards too high up, the sink in a corner facing a wall, sometimes no sink at all, the dishes to be washed in a basin on the kitchen table, no cupboards for storage and unneccesary steps. Secretly her bosses have to admit that she has a point.

The architects had got a commission to build a wonderful large house locally, with no expense spared. Their client was abroad and wanted to come home apparently. As you can imagine Jinty is in her element.

This was an enjoyable read and I imagine that in 1941 it must have been very unusual to have a young woman with the ambition of becoming an architect, so that was quite a surprise to me. However the storyline took a weird turn when the patient’s memory was restored by an operation. I found the thought of that quite shuddersome as so many people in reality were damaged forever when doctor’s performed brain operations when probably what they needed was a good psychologist – or even a nice wee rest!

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.