Christmas reads

Throughout the year I’ve been collecting Christmas and winter themed books, with a view to reading them throughout December, in an attempt to get myself into a festive mood. Last year was fairly dismal, my own fault as I didn’t even bother to put up a tree.

Christmas/Winter Themed  Books

1. A Christmas Card by Paul Theroux

2. The Christmas Egg by Mary Kelly

3. Christmas Term at Vernley by Margaret Biggs

4. Murder in the Falling Snow – classic crime short stories (D. Sayers, G. Mitchell, R.A.Freeman, J. Symons, G.K. Chesterton. A.C Doyle, E. Wallace and others.)

5. A Country Christmas by Miss Read

6. Excitement at the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent Dyer

Probable re-reads are:

7. Christmas at High Rising by Angela Thirkell

8. A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas

I was lucky enough to be sent a copy of Stories for Winter and nights by the fire, for review. It’s a new one from the British Library Women Writers series.

Northbridge Rectory by Angela Thirkell – 20 Books of Summer 2022

Northbridge Rectory by Angela Thirkell was first published in 1941, and it has quite a different feel from the previous Barchester books. It’s the second year of the war so the town of Northbridge has changed a lot, with an influx of evacuees and soldiers, but most of the story revolves around the rector’s wife, Mrs Villars. Her husband had been a headmaster prior to becoming a rector/minister/vicar. With her previous role as headmaster’s wife Mrs Villars is well used to dealing with young people and their parents. She’s very good at holding her tongue, but Mrs Spender, the wife of a major who has been transferred to the area is a nightmare of a woman with no manners or tact, and she never listens to anyone else. She embarrasses her poor husband constantly, but apparently he adores her!

This is a lovely read which mirrors what must have been going on in all of the towns and villages of Britain, such as groups of people getting together to have a rota to parachute spot from the top of the church tower. The building of a bomb shelter with a scrap metal dump right next to it, with all the junk that the binmen refused to take away at last finding a home. (As it happens all the scrap metal that people gathered for the war effort was completely useless and all ended up in scrap yards eventually.)

There are so many great characters, I particularly enjoyed the fact that the two nieces of Mrs Turner are always referred to as Betty and ‘the other niece’. There’s are many mentions of ‘the other niece’ I just find it hilarious that an author should choose not to name a character properly.

The Mixo-Lydian refugees have arrived and are making themselves unpopular, bullying people into buying their poorly executed needlework, and generally looking down on the locals who are all participating in the war effort in some way.

The whole thing feels very true to the times, mind you, from the cover of my paperback copy of this book you could be forgiven for thinking that the setting is an Edwardian shooting weekend on someone’s estate. I suspect that the publishers – Carroll and Graf of New York – got a wee bit confused and thought it was akin to Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire, instead of a few generations later!

Cheerfulness Breaks In by Angela Thirkell – 20 Books of Summer 2022

Cheerfulness Breaks In by Angela Thirkell was first published in 1940.

The Birketts are overjoyed to be getting rid of their daughter Rose as she’s getting married to Fairweather who is in the navy and is immediately sent abroad with Rose. Rose had tried the patience of everyone she came into contact with, she got engaged at the drop of a hat, and un-engaged just as fast – and caused mayhem amongst males in general but particularly with the teachers at the school her father headed. Fairweather though has her measure it seems and is able to curb the worst aspects of her behaviour. But the Birketts feel somewhat sorry for Fairweather having their daughter as his wife, especially as he’s an ‘Old Boy’ a former boarder at the school.

Soon World War 2 begins so it’s a time of upheaval for the inhabitants of Barsetshire with child evacuees being boarded out with local families, it’s a culture shock for all concerned. An entire school and its masters is transferred from London, they include socialists and even a conscientious objector!

For the very middle-class people of Barsetshire it’s all a bit much, but they have lots to be getting on with including having to deal with disdainful refugees who are not in the least bit grateful for the safe harbour they have found after having to flee the Nazis.

I really loved being in Barsetshire again, there’s a lot of silliness, humour and snobbery, but it’s all such fun! I read this one for 20 Books of Summer 2022.

Before Lunch by Angela Thirkell

Before Lunch by Angela Thirkell was first published in 1939 and it’s the eighth book in her Barsetshire series.

Mr Middleton is slightly annoyed because Mrs Stoner who is his brother’s widow is going to be spending the summer months in the White House which has been lying empty, the garden adjoins his own and it seems a bit close for comfort to him. It’s really Mrs Stoner’s adult step-children that he’s not too keen on, particularly the boy Denis who always seems to be ill.

But that’s the least of his worries as there’s a rumour that a local plot of land called Pooker’s Piece is going to be built on. It’s owned by a man who is a ‘Loyd George Lord’ which means that he bought his title from that Prime Minister and is no gentleman. Everyone in the neighbourhood is up in arms about it and Mr Middleton along with Lord Bond set up a meeting, which is a great way of meeting up with people elsewhere in the county.

There’s romance of course but not quite as expected, and as ever there are bits and pieces in the book which are very reminiscent of classics. Thirkell admitted doing that, maybe we could call it her homage to them.

Anyway, there’s a lot of fun in this one with the servants more or less ruling the roost and generally being more snooty than ‘their betters’ as often happened, but the butler meets his match!

The next book in the series is Cheerfulness Breaks In and that one is on my 20 Books of Summer list so I’ll be reading it soonish.

The Brandons by Angela Thirkell

The Brandons by Angela Thirkell was first published in 1939 and this was a re-read for me which is something that I don’t do all that often, well I have so many unread books to get to, but as I read this Barsetshire series out of order originally I’ve always intended to re-read them all again in the correct order. I must say that it was a real treat to be back in Barsetshire, absolute comfort reading which was just what I needed.

The Brandon family consists of Mrs Lavinia Brandon, her daughter Delia and son Francis. Mrs Brandon was widowed early on in her marriage and she seems to have found her situation to be a comfortable one, she has a lovely home and no money worries, she writes popular books. Her long dead husband is used to express what she claims would be his disapproval now and again. She’s regarded as a bit of a silly fool and admits to that but in reality she’s often surprisingly astute.

Mrs Brandon’s very elderly and wealthy Aunt Sissie has been on her last legs for years but now she’s bedridden and is concerned with her will. She’s threatening to leave everything to Francis, but another relative has appeared on the scene. Cousin Hilary Grant is unknown to the Brandons but when they all meet they get on well and as neither Francis or Hilary wish to inherit ‘Nightmare Abbey’ Aunt Sissie’s will holds not a lot of interest for them. They all feel sorry for Miss Morris though, she has had the job of looking after Aunt Sissie and it obviously isn’t an easy task.

As you would expect from a Thirkell book there’s a lot of silly chat and snobbery and I find that amusing but not everybody appreciates that sort of thing. The editor and author Diana Athill seems to have really despised Thirkell’s books – and the sort of women who read them, but maybe she just didn’t have much of a sense of humour!

Pomfret Towers by Angela Thirkell – The Classics Club

A Second Angela Thirkell Omnibus cover

Pomfret Towers by Angela Thirkell is a re-read for me as when I first read these books I didn’t read them in order, I just read them as I managed to obtain copies, so I decided to read them in the correct order at last.

Most of the book revolves around a weekend at Pomfret Towers. Lady Pomfret spends a lot of time in Italy, but she has come home for a wee while, and Lord Pomfret wants her to meet some of the young people that she hasn’t seen for years – including Alice Barton. Alice has a reputation for having delicate health so she has led a very sheltered life, hasn’t been to school and consequently is very shy and awkward, her parents worry about her. Alice is terrified of the approaching weekend, worried about having to tip servants and such, and her brother Guy is a typical brother – and is no help whatsoever! But most of the other guests are so kind and the upshot is that when Alice returns home at the end of the weekend her parents can see that the whole experience has brought Alice out and she’s already more socially confident.

The guests aren’t all young people though as the dreadful authoress Mrs Rivers (some sort of cousin) has invited herself and her ghastly son Julian to stay, and it transpires that they intend to stay at Pomfret Towers for six months as she has had an offer on her own home for six months rental ‘which is so good it would be wicked not to accept it.’ She’s a horror of a woman but Thirkell manages to get everyone feeling sorry for her, albeit briefly.

This was a really enjoyable read, but it isn’t one of my favourites. Pomfret Towers was first published in 1938 and I don’t think that Thirkell really got into her stride until wartime as that gave her so much more scope and she obviously enjoyed having rants at the government and the various new types of people she could write about in the shape of refugees and evacuees. She could be a terrible snob, but funny with it.

My copy of the book is in an omnibus edition which includes August Folly and Summer Half and I was surprised to discover that towards the end of the book the pages jump from 490 to 495. The pages haven’t been ripped out, they were never included it seems, but it is so annoying as there are only 503 pages in the edition so it’s obviously just when loose threads are being tied up, including a marriage proposal! The first time I read this book I must have read a paperback that I used to have, but I gave it away when I bought this omnibus edition!

Anyway, this book is in my new Classics Club list – so – one down and 49 to go!

Classics Club Spin # 23 – Summer Half by Angela Thirkell

Angela Thirkell omnibus

I feel it’s a bit of a cheat putting Angela Thirkell’s Summer Half on my Classics Club list as it doesn’t really fit in with my idea of a classic but I’m trying to work my way through the books I have in my house and I don’t have many classics unread. Having said that – this is a re-read for me as I read Thirkell’s books just as I managed to get a hold of them, and now I’ m reading them again, in the correct order. Summer Half was first published in 1937.

Colin Keith’s father expects him to continue with his law studies and go on to be a barrister, but Colin feels bad about living off his parents, he feels it’s time to earn some money so he applies for a teaching post at the prep school at Southbridge. He’s nervous about the boys though, would he be able to cope with them? When he’s successful he’s in two minds about it as he really does enjoy his law studies.

The other teachers are a friendly set though and Colin settles down. Philip Winter is another young teacher there and he has the misfortune to be engaged to Rose Birkett, the headmaster’s daughter. Rose is beautiful to look at but she’s an intensely annoying dimwit with a tiny vocabulary. Philip is her third or maybe fourth fiance- and she’s only 18. The older boys in the school are incensed at the way Rose treats Philip and young Tony Morland and Eric Swan particularly do their best to protect him from her constant flirting with any other handy males.

As the setting is mainly the school there’s a lot of fun with the boys, particularly Hacker who is their classics scholar and is a bit of a nerdy character. He has a pet chameleon and in Hacker’s attempts to look after his pet he inadvertently causes mayhem in the school, but such fun!

“Mr Carter pointed out that the classics appeared to be no preparation for life, in that they did not, so far as he could see, even train a boy to think.”

I had to laugh when I read the line above as it’s so true. You just have to think of Boris Johnson who allegedly reads ancient Greek, but can barely string a sentence together in English.

This one was perfect light reading for Covid-19 times.

Classics Club Spin #23 – the result

The spin number was chosen today and its number 6 which means that I will read Angela Thirkell’s Summer Half and blog about it by the 1st of June.

Summer Half is a re-read for me, but I’ve been reading Angela Thirkell’s books in order again as the first time I read them it was just in a random order as and when I could get copies of the books.

Strictly speaking I don’t really think of her books as ‘classics’ although as they are still in print decades after they were first written I suppose it’s fair enough to categorise them as classics. I know it will be a light and amusing read which will be perfect for these Covid-19 times that we’re having to endure, and no doubt we’ll still be in a similar situation by the 1st of June.

I did want to get number 3 which is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, maybe I’ll just read that one soon anyway. Are you up for that too tracybham?

Trooper to the Southern Cross by Angela Thirkell

Trooper to the Southern Cross cover

Trooper to the Southern Cross by Angela Thirkell was first published in 1934 but my copy is a Virago reprint. I can’t imagine why they chose the cover image for it which is apparently called Self Portrait by George W. Lambert. It belongs to the Art Gallery of New South Wales, but other than that being in Australia it is a poor choice for this book.

This one isn’t one of Thirkell’s Barsetshire books. It is I’m sure very autobiographical as Angela Thirkell did sail to Australia on a troopship with her second husband just after the end of World War 1. This is an account told by Major Bowen who is newly married and taking his young English wife back to Australia with him. He’s a doctor and had been in the thick of it in Egypt, Gallipoli and France, but now the Australian Imperial Army is sailing home.

There’s a lot of humour in this book although the voyage itself is a complete nightmare as the ordinary Australian soldiers (diggers) were well known for being undisciplined and out of control. ‘Borrowing’ was their way of life and everything that wasn’t screwed down was stolen and stolen again. There are also prisoners on board but they seem to be able to get out and about as they feel like it.

Hundreds of men women and children have been squashed into a ship which had originally been part of the German Navy but had been confiscated from them at the end of the war. Knowing this would happen the German sailors had spent their time disconnecting all the pipes and reconnecting them wrongly. Salt water was coming out of the cold water taps and there was no hot water, but steam came out of some pipes. The ship’s engineers were having a horrendous time trying to rectify it all, and the heat was terrible.

Meanwhile the diggers were spending their time gambling and fighting when they weren’t stealing things. According to the narrator the problems were caused by the large number of soldiers on ship who were of Irish descent, of course the Catholics and Orangemen were at daggers drawn and Major Bowen had the job of patching them all up again. He even had to resort to violence himself when he was attacked.

However the women on board were at no danger from the men who seemed to have a respect for them – even if some of them were real ‘wowsers’, and the most violent of men would meekly stand and take a bawling out from a woman if their child had been woken up by them. Many of the diggers were fathers and had missed their children, so sometimes the nursery was full of diggers taking a turn at dandling the babies.

I prefer the Barsetshire books but this was a hoot too, and very true to life I think as during World War 2 the Australian army was notorious for bad behaviour. After towns were wrecked by Aussie soldiers word would get about and ports refused to allow them to disembark – so I’ve been told.

My Blog’s Name in TBR Books

I’ve never done this meme before but lots of the blogs that I enjoy frequenting have been doing it including Margaret at BooksPlease and I decided to join in. The idea is that you choose book titles from your TBR pile which begin with the letters of your blog name. So, here goes – sixteen of them. I intend to read them before the end of this year.

TBR Books

PPapa-la-bas by John Dickson Carr

IIf This Is a Man by Primo Levi

NNicolo Rising by Dorothy Dunnett

IIf Not Now, When by Primo Levi

NNot So Quiet by Helen Zenna Smith

GGuest in the House by Philip MacDonald

FFor the Sake of the School by Angela Brazil

OOld Hall-New Hall by Michael Innes

RReputation for a Song by Edward Grierson

TTroy Chimneys by Margaret Kennedy

HHow Late It Was – How Late by James Kelman

EEdinburgh by Robert Louis Stevenson

WWinter by Len Deighton

EEverything You Need by A.L. Kennedy

SSpiderweb by Penelope Lively

TTrooper to the Southern Cross by Angela Thirkell

Have you read any of these books and if so where should I begin?