Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit

I didn’t know what to expect from Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit, I thought that maybe the title was some sort of metaphor so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Orwell was a very keen gardener and nature lover, and was particularly fond of roses. In fact he stipulated that he wanted roses on his grave. Apparently there is one scruffy rose on his grave at Sutton Courtenay. I still have a lot of his essays to read and hope to get around to that soon.

Anyway, to the book: It begins with the author travelling by train from London to a small cottage in Wallington, Cambridgeshire to see if the fruit trees and roses that Orwell planted in a garden there in the 1930s were still alive. Orwell had written a meandering essay about planting them, the roses being an absolute bargain from good old Woolworths. Sadly all of the trees had been cut down but there were a couple of his roses still blooming.

Orwell was sent away to a preparatory school at the age of eight, there he was bullied and shamed because he was one of the pupils who was there at reduced fees. From there he was sent to Eton at the age of 13. He acquired the Etonian accent but as a scholarship boy was in the same position as he had been at the prep school, looked down on by the rich boys. Obviously his school experiences led to him writing Animal Farm.

This is a lovely book which wanders around various subjects such as art, war crime trials, the origin of the phrase “Bread and Roses” – something that I must admit I had never even heard of before, his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, the history of the enclosure acts, how the changes affected people, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, the plight of Russian peasants, flower production in Colombia and how damaging it is for the people and the environment, the list of subjects tackled seems endless but the author always comes back to Orwell. It ends with

“Orwell’s signal achievement was to name and describe as no one else had the way that totalitarianism was a threat not just to liberty and human rights but to language and consciousness, and he did it in so compelling a way that his last book casts a shadow – or a beacon’s light – into the present. ….
The Work he did is everyone’s job now. It always was.”

Many thanks to Granta Publications for sending me a digital copy of the book via NetGalley.

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

The setting of The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles is 1954 Nebraska, and 18 year old Emmett Watson has just been driven home by a warden. Emmett has just finished serving a year long stretch at a work farm, his punishment for inadvertently killing someone. It isn’t long before Emmett discovers that two of the other inmates have hitched a ride to his home, hiding inside the boot/trunk of the warden’s car.

Emmett had had big plans for his release. With his mother having left home years before and his father’s recent death coupled with the fact that the bank had just foreclosed on the family farm, Emmett has nothing to stop him from chasing his dream of taking his younger brother Billy and driving west to California where he plans to start his own business. Farming isn’t for him.

The unexpected and unwanted arrival of the two inmates who have absconded throws all Emmett’s plans into the air. A lot happens over the next ten days but with remarkable calm he manages to cope with all of the problems that his sometime friends cause him, mainly because Emmett is determined never to act rashly again as that is what had led to him being at the work farm/jail in the first place.

The Lincoln Highway is well written and I enjoyed it, although not as much as the author’s previous books A Gentleman in Moscow and Rules of Civility, both of which I really loved.

I was very happy to be sent a digital copy of this book for review by NetGalley via the publisher Viking. Thank you to both.

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym  cover

I read most of Barbara Pym’s books back in the 1970s and enjoyed them, so when via NetGalley I was offered the chance to read The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne I was keen to do so. Not for the first time though where authors are concerned I wished I hadn’t because I found Pym to be quite unlikeable. Paula Byrne has written the book using Pym’s diaries, but as Pym had obviously intended that they would end up in some sort of archive and had an eye on her posterity I can’t help wondering how honest the diary is. Also lots of pages had been torn out, Byrne assumed that those pages were seen as being too revealing on reflection and assumed they were about her sexual exploits – and for those days she was certainly adventurous it seems. She was no virginal spinster, which is fair enough although unusual as at a time when the male students and dons at Oxford had to resort to prostitutes in Oxford or further afield in London, as most women were terrified of getting pregnant. Barbara Pym was literally stalking men that she fancied and falling into bed with them. Some have taken this trait of hers as proof that she was a woman before her time. If you see being a modern woman as being a victim of philandering, arrogant and self-centred men then she was indeed a woman before her time, I think she was just incredibly immature and niave. It would seem that she never got beyond the obsessive crush stage that was so common among the young girls who were starved of male company at the boarding school she attended. She also adopted alternative personas. I can just imagine all those misogynistic dons at Oxford rolling their eyes and commenting to each other that they knew it would be like this when women students were accepted!

In 1934 she went to Germany and became besotted with Hitler, stalking him and frequenting the restaurant she knew he used. Of course she ended up falling for a Nazi close to Hitler, Friedbert Gluck was an SS officer. On her return to the Oxford village she was living in she saluted the local shopkeeper with a Heil Hitler while wearing a black shirt and presumably the swastika pin her Nazi boyfriend had given her. Truly the locals must have wondered whether to laugh or cry. It was only after the outbreak of WW2 that she thought she might have been wrong about the Nazis but she was still hankering after Friedbert. She even had to be advised to expunge the Nazi/German bits in one of her books before sending it to a publisher. She definitely lacked a moral compass!

Sadly she never matured and was still falling for completely unsuitable men in her old age, an almost forty year age gap didn’t seem to bother her. The poor lad! Never much of a looker she was described as looking like Joyce Grenfell (comedienne) but she had a thing for tall, dark handsome men who went on to marry someone else, or else were homosexual. During the war she was living in a shared house with another woman and her two children, the woman was described as her best friend, but when that friend’s philandering husband came to visit his family it didn’t stop Pym from falling into bed with him instead of leaving him to his wife and children. Her poor so-called friend must have thought – et tu Barbara! But of course when he did get a divorce from his wife, he married another woman.

So it would seem that Barbara Pym had no conscience whatsoever when it came to men, sex and Nazism and was a nightmare neighbour as she spied on them to use them as characters in her books, even stalking them when they left their house. Whatever happened to using your imagination?!

Strangely there’s no mention of fear of getting pregnant in this book, that was what stopped most women from sleeping around back then. Pym’s father was the illegitimate result of a seduction between a 16 year old ‘young master’ and a 19 year old housemaid, his mother. Barbara knew about that as her father was quite proud of being a by-blow of a wealthier family. Possibly she thought that if she did get pregnant then it would lead to marriage.

I read most of Pym’s books back in the 1970s and had a re-read of a few of them a decade or so ago and didn’t enjoy them as much as I had when I was younger, although there is some witty dialogue, but it would seem that she was really just recounting things she had overheard people saying.

Im later years Barbara Pym lived in fear of her younger sister Hilary re-marrying as they were living together, and Hilary was really supporting Barbara who earned very little money. There’s a lot more in this book but not much of it is admirable, you’ll have gathered that I was less than impressed by her adventures.

I’ve always wondered about the authors that weren’t championed so vociferously and publicly on TV by Lord David Cecil and Philip Larkin, which is what kick-started her writing career when it was floundering. It’s handy having friends in high places!

Lily by Rose Tremain

Lily cover

Lily by Rose Tremain is subtitled A Tale of Revenge. It begins in 1850 when on a freezing cold night a young policeman Sam Trench discovers a tiny baby which has been abandoned by her mother in a park near Bethnal Green, London. He takes the baby to the nearby London Foundling Hospital, better known as Coram, a home for orphans. The babies that end up there are farmed out to people in the country until they are six years old. The couples are given ten shillings a month to bring up the children so it’s just a way of making ends meet for them. But Lily’s foster family, farmers in rural Suffolk, Nellie and Perkin Buck grow to love her. At the end of the six years the unsuspecting Lily is dragged away from Nellie, the woman she loved like a mother and who loved her too, as did Perkin and their sons, they want to keep her but aren’t allowed to.

Then begins a nightmarish existence for Lily at the hands of the cruel sisters (presumably nuns) of the Coram. No toys or fun for the children who have to work, picking okum, scrubbing, washing clothes, sewing. Lily has been taught sewing skills by Nellie, but her skills don’t help her avoid the abuse and terror of the place.

It’s a twisted form of Christianity that’s taught there, but when Lily gets work as a wigmaker when she’s old enough to leave the hospital, the fate of the girls still left behind at the orphanage haunts her.

This is a really good read, despite the fact that it is a wee bit disjointed at the beginning, and it doesn’t have chapters, something that I dislike as I like to read to the end of a chapter before putting a book down and no chapters makes it difficult to break off. Having said that, I’m hoping that there will be a sequel to this book.

This is only the second book by Tremain that I’ve read, I read Merival previously and really liked that one too.

I was sent a digital copy of this book by the publisher via NetGalley. Thank you. The book is due to be published on the 11th of November 2021.

The Rose Garden by Tracy Rees

The Rose Garden cover

The Rose Garden by Tracy Rees is the first book that I’ve read by the author and although I enjoyed it in parts it did have problems for me as there were at least a couple of glaring historical mistakes in it and the relationships between the women seemed unlikely to me.

The setting is 1895 London where Mabs is working as a docker, dressed as a boy to get the work as obviously females can’t work there. Her mother is dead, her grieving father has taken to drink, and she and her younger siblings are facing starvation. Against all the odds Mabs gets a job as a companion to Abigail a woman who has just moved to London from Durham with her husband and children. Abigail seems selfish and spoiled to Mabs and not ill at all, but the husband has asked Mabs to spy on his wife and Mabs realises that things are not at all as she was led to believe. Olive Westwater is a spinster, only child of very wealthy parents and at 28 she doubts that she will ever marry, but she has a yen to have a child and so adopts a three year old girl against her parents’ wishes. Through Olive the lives of them all become woven together and when Abigail’s situation becomes dire it’s to Olive that Mabs turns to for help.

I was unable to suspend my disbelief in this premise, it just seemed far too unlikely for me, but if you aren’t as pernickety about details as I am then it won’t bother you.

The glaring historical mistakes are a mention of the phrase ‘the elephant in the room’ which is a very modern phrase, apparently first used in the US in 1935 but it didn’t reach the UK until years after that, probably around 1990 by my reckoning. The author had difficulty writing the voices of the various characters. There’s just no way that a wealthy and genteel Victorian lady would have used the word ‘guff’. The other mistake was that one of the young girls in the absolutely poverty stricken family which could barely afford food was still at school aged 15. Poor children back then left school at 12 and particularly in England free secondary schooling wasn’t available until 1944 and even then most people left school at the age of 14. The Scottish education system has always been different and we had free education decades before England had.

Also there is just no way that a seventeen year old girl could have got work at the docks even dressed as a boy. In those days, and up until comparatively recently (1960s) dockers were hired by the day and had to stand every morning looking fit and strong, hoping to be chosen to work a shift that day. A skinny girl would never have passed muster under those circumstances. These are all problems that should have been picked up by an editor but maybe nobody cares that there are big holes in the plot. Maybe I’m weird to be bothered by things like that – but that’s just me!

My thanks to Pan Macmillan for sending me a digital copy of this book via NetGalley.

Murder at Standing Stone Manor by Eric Brown

Murder at Standing Stone Manor cover

Murder at Standing Stone Manor by Eric Brown is the eighth book in his Langham and Dupre mystery series. Donald and Maria have just moved from London into Yew Tree Cottage where they have a distant view of Standing Stone Manor from across their snow-covered garden. The villagers of Ingoldby in Suffolk are mainly very welcoming, but it seems that Professor Robertshaw who owns the manor can be a bit of a thorny character. When Donald is invited to the manor he’s surprised that the professor is very affable, but he wants help from Donald to get to the bottom of something strange.

The professor is an archaologist and he’s been digging on land that apparently doesn’t belong to him and obviously that’s causing tension, particularly from the man who believes the land is his. But Robertshaw’s own household is not a comfortable place to be. His wife Xandra is seriously ill and is being nursed by her niece Nancy who would otherwise be homeless. Xandra’s son Randall is arrogant and bullying towards Nancy, as is the professor, and they are both especially obnoxious to Nancy’s friend, an ex-RAF man who is living rough in an old caravan.

When the professor is found dead there are quite a few people in the neighbourhood who would have been glad to see the back of him and of course Donald and Maria sort it all out.

The book is set in the 1950s and Brown does manage to evoke that era well. I enjoyed the mystery which I suppose comes under the category of cosy, and there are some really likeable characters, not just Donald and Maria. I do wish that we could have more of Charles who is Donald’s agent and appeared more in the earlier books, I really liked him. I don’t think it’s necessary to read the others in this series although if you can get a hold of them then you should definitely give them a go.

Thank you to Canongate Books/Severn House and NetGalley who sent me a digital copy of this book for review.

Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian – 20 Books of Summer 2021

Goodnight Mister Tom cover

Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian was first published in 1980 and a new 40th anniversary edition has been published. I hadn’t read it before although I had seen the film. It’s a great read.

Willie Beech is a 9 year old who has been evacuated from Deptford in London to the rural community of Little Weirwold. He has been allocated to Tom Oakley, an elderly widower who has been a bit of a recluse since the death of his wife and child 40 years previously. It doesn’t take Tom long realise that Willie has suffered terrible abuse at the hands of his mother. All his life Willie has been told that he is wicked and has never heard a kind word from his mother. Tom Oakley copes with the bed-wetting and tends to the multiple bruises and scabs on Tom’s emaciated body.

Slowly Will or William as he is called now gains confidence and even learns to read and write helped by Tom. But it isn’t only Will who blossoms, Tom becomes more involved with the other villagers who are surprised at the change in him. He had cut himself off from people after the death of his young wife and was a bit of a curmudgeon until he had another human being to nurture and protect.

Of course Will’s mother writes to say he must go back home to London as she needs him. Tom and Will are both devastated, but after horror comes happiness, all’s well that ends well! I was sent a digital copy of this book by Penguin/Puffin via NetGalley. My thanks to both.

This is a great read. This 40th anniversary edition also contains the short story which the author wrote which inspired her to write the book. I also enjoyed the 1998 film which featured John Thaw as Mr Tom, it looks like you can watch the whole film on YouTube.

The Runaways by Victor Canning

The Runaways by Victor Canning was first published in 1972 and it’s the first part of his Smiler trilogy. It was made into a film for US television in 1975. The book is about 15 year old Samuel Miles, his mother is dead and his father is away at sea most of the time, so his older sister and her husband look after Samuel while his father is absent. ‘Smiler’ as he is known is a bit of a handful for his sister, but there’s no malice in him.

However, he ends up being wrongly convicted of stealing an old lady’s handbag and is sent to a borstal for young offenders, he manages to escape only to be recaptured by the police on a stormy night. On the way back to the borstal he takes a chance to escape again and manages to fend for himself in the barn of a house which has nobody living in it.

Smiler isn’t the only one being hunted down. A cheetah has escaped from the famous Longleat Wildlife Park. It was the storm that gave Yarra the opportunity to escape when a tree was blown over. She heads for Salisbury Plain, much of which is used by the army for training. Unknown to the two escapees they take cover in the same barn, with Smiler being in the loft and so begins a wonderful relationship between the two.

This was a great read, aimed at older children or Young Adults as they say today in publishing. It’s very well written with some really likeable characters and I’m very much looking forward to reading the other books in the series.

I was sent a digital copy of this book by Farrago Books via Netgalley. Thank you.

The Feast by Margaret Kennedy

The Feast cover

The Reverend Bott of Cornwall is having a tough time writing a funeral sermon, so he’s unable to entertain his friend who is visiting for his annual holiday. It’s an unusual situation as it’s a multiple funeral for people who had been in a nearby hotel when the cliffs above it had collapsed on the building. With tons of stone obliterating the hotel there was no way anyone could have survived, or been extricated for a normal burial. Then the tale slips back to the run up to the disaster, featuring a large cast of characters in the shape of the hotel guests, including children.

The hotel had been the Siddal family home but with Mr Siddal’s career as a barrister having come to a halt for some reason, they just can’t afford to live in the house, so Mrs Siddon decides to turn it into an hotel. Her rather feckless husband and adult children help to run the place, along with a few locals, particularly the much put upon Nancibel (she hates her name). Mrs Siddal is a strange mother – favouring her son Duff over everyone else, seemingly because he is handsome. She has nothing but disdain for her son Gerry who is a doctor and is actually supporting his younger brothers via education fees.

This is a great read with characters that you love to hate, including Hebe, a truly ghastly child, but it did take me a while to get really into it. Given that the reader knows what happens within the first few pages I inevitably spent my time hoping that the horrible people would get their comeuppance and the ‘good guys’ would survive. It was a very satisfying read considering that I hadn’t been all that happy knowing about the fate of the hotel so early on in the book, it turned out to be a good strategy by the author, it added a lot of suspense – for me anyway.

Thank you to Faber and Faber who sent me a digital copy of The Feast via NetGalley.

This was my fourth 20 Books of Summer read.

Never Greater Slaughter by Michael Livingston

Never Greater Slaughter by Michael Livingston which has a foreword by Bernard Cornwell is a really good read if you’re interested in the history of Britain. About half of the book is about the run up to the Battle of Brunanburh which according to history was a horrendous 10th century battle which left thousands dead in a battle which lasted a very long time, possibly all day. Most well known battles were over and done with in a very short time. With an alliance of Irish, Scots and Vikings intent on fighting the English, and putting an end to English power, it’s easy to see what the outcome was as the English still hold that power. It was King Athelstan, King Alfred’s grandson who won the battle, but it was a close run thing.

Strangely the actual site of the battle had been lost and apparently there has been lots of speculation over the years, there’s been very little written about the battle, just some poems and accounts by unreliable sources written long after the battle took place. Michael Livingston’s research seems very reasonable to me and the upshot is that the most likely location of Brunanburh is the Wirral. If you drive on the motorway towards Birkenhead then look to your left between Exits Four and Three – that’s the lost battlefield of Brunanburh. However, the author has obviously incensed people who are equally sure that the battle was fought in several other locations.

This was a really good read, not at all dry as some history books can be, it was published by Osprey and I was sent a digital copy of the book via NetGalley. For some reason all of the numbers in the text only appeared as hieroglyphics, which is a bit of a drawback for a history book and I presume that this will eventually be rectified.