Wednesday 21 May 2008

The Peacetime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

Author, Mollie Panter-Downes, started writing short stories for The New Yorker just before the outbreak of WW2 and continued on until the 1980s, contributing articles, fictional stories, poetry, book reviews and so on.

Throughout the war (apart from 1945) she wrote stories depicting life in Britain during the war and these are available in Good Evening, Mrs Craven:The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes, published by Persephone. She followed that with a novel, One Fine Day, published by Virago, which dealt with how the middle-classes coped with life in the aftermath of the war. After that came this set of stories which are very much along similar lines and have been published, again by Persephone, as Minnie’s Room: The Peacetime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes.

There are only ten stories in this collection, written between 1947 and 1965. They deal primarily with how the war changed people’s attitudes, or not. Thus you have a middle-aged couple in The Exiles emigrating to South Africa because of a labour government that was taxing them out of existance in order to pay for the new welfare state. I wasn’t aware of it but some 50,000 people actually did emigrate to South Africa at this time. In the title story, Minnie’s Room, a middle-class family are unable to cope when Minnie, their longtime cook, decides to leave them for a room of her own, a thing she has always promised herself she will do if, at the age of forty five, she remains unmarried. In What are the Wild Waves Saying? and Intimations of Mortality two girls on the verge of womanhood learn valuable lessons about real life, one as opposed to romantic novels, the other as opposed to her comfortable life with ‘Nanny’ in a middle-class home. Beside the Still Waters tells the story of a dying mother, none of whose adult children wish to disturb their own lives by taking her into their homes for her final months. I tend to think of this as a modern-day problem but clearly that’s not the case. I think my favourite story of the lot though was Their Walk of Life. A middle-class couple are told by their eighteen year old daughter that she has met the man she wants to marry - has been seeing him for quite a while behind their backs in fact. When they discover that the fiancĂ© is not some chap she met at the tennis club, destined for a professional career, but a labourer who digs ditches for a living, they are horrified. They go to see his parents, a working class couple (the husband is illiterate) with seven children, where they discover that their point of view is not the only one…

This little volume of short stories could probably be read in one sitting but that would be a shame because these are stories that ought to be savoured. I don’t think I’ve ever come across more perfect short story writing. Every single story was a work of art. That sounds like a ridiculous thing to say, I know, but it’s true - you really don’t come across writing that’s this sumptuous very often. I was frequently stopped in my tracks and had to go back and reread paragraphs just to wallow in the prose. None of the stories are earth shattering, they’re all just small scenes from people’s lives, and the general theme is the middle-class and how they dealt with difficulties presented by the war and after. Each tale is only ten to fifteen pages long but none of them needed to be any longer, they’re all perfect, to my mind, and each time I found myself completely immersed in the story that was unfolding. Fantastic.

I should probably have read the Wartime stories before the Peacetime ones, but the Peacetime volume was what the library had, so that was what I read. However, thanks to a tip-off from Booksplease I’ve just picked up the Wartime volume in Waterstones, where they have a 3 for 2 offer on it. (We won't talk about the fact that I didn't just come home with *one* book, I came home with five. *cough*) And One Fine Day is definitely on my ‘look for’ list now. It horrifies me sometimes to think of how many excellent female authors have been lost to the modern reader. Thank goodness for publishers such as Persephone and Virago, say I.

Monday 19 May 2008

Peace at last

This is a post for mums with very young children really... or for grandmas keen to encourage their grandchildren to love books, which is the category I come under these days. My eldest grandchild is Ruth aged almost eight, she's my eldest daughter's daughter, and then there's Scott, who's my youngest daughter's son. It seems to me that boys and girls are different. (Big surprise!) Ruth loved to sit on your lap from about 9 months and would sit patiently through the whole book. Scott has been different. He's 19 months old now and we've had to persevere with him because he got bored and wriggled off your lap pretty quickly. But all that has stopped now and I thought I'd show the book responsible for the change.

This is Peace at Last by Jill Murphy. I wish I could properly explain the attraction of this board book. It *is* delightful I realise that, utterly charming in fact. But I can't explain why it was, and is, the favourite book of both my grandchildren despite the fact they have plenty of others to choose from and despite the fact that they are different sexes. Ruth adored it from about twelve months, up to around four or five and Scott is now suddenly potty about it too and will sit quietly throughout the whole thing, clearly loving it.

Admittedly, it has noises. Poor Mr Bear can't sleep because Mrs. Bear is snoring loudly. So he tries to sleep in all manner of places from Baby Bear's room, where airplane noises are being practised, to the kitchen where the fridge is noisy, to the garden where there are owls, cats and hedgehogs all doing their best to keep him awake. And then poor Mr. Bear keeps saying, 'Oh NO. I can't stand this!' and the children love that and join in when they can speak well enough. It's terrific fun I suppose and maybe even very young children just love a good yarn? And then there's the hairnet. Mrs. Bear is sporting one in bed and young Scott is rivetted by this thing. He keeps pointing to it and one day I shall have to try and explain exactly what a hairnet is and I'm sure he'll think it's ancient history, which of course it is. My gran wore one, as did most of her generation, but who uses them these days? LOL. All good fun though.

So anyway, that's my book recommendation for today. If you have young kiddies or a new or toddling grandchild, you could do a lot worse than invest in Peace at Last by Jill Murphy, for I can promise you hours of fun and giggles and a subsequent love of books in the child you're reading it to.

Saturday 17 May 2008


I think this is my fourth book for Carl's Once Upon a Time II challenge. Four off my list of nine but I have read two extra books. The problem I find is that other people's books are far more interesting than mine and I keep wanting to buy and read their's instead! Typical ditherer, that's me.

So, anyway, Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett. This is the third of his Tiffany Aching/Wee Free Men trilogy which is a series within his Discworld books.

Tiffany is now almost thirteen years old. She's living with Miss Treason, the oldest living witch (she refers to the quite ancient Granny Weatherwax as, 'the girl, Weatherwax') and quite the scariest one too. Most young witch apprentices staying with her leave within the first day; Tiffany is still there three months later because, 'although Miss Treason looked bad and sounded bad and smelled like old locked wardrobes, she didn't feel bad'.

One night, Miss Treason takes Tiffany off into the forest to witness 'the dance'. Tiffany is given orders not to talk, only to look at the dancers and not to move until the dance is finished. Unfortunately, Tiffany is mesmerised by the beat of the drums and realises that the dance is a Morris dance, the dance that welcomes in the Spring and Summer. She can't keep still and, almost hypnotised, she joins in the dance. A Big Mistake. She comes to the notice of the wintersmith and things go downhill from there. Suddenly it's snowing Tiffany shaped snowflakes and the older witches realise that the wintersmith has fallen for Tiffany. A permanent winter sets in and Tiffany has to keep a very low profile, with the Wee Free Men guarding her, in order to evade the wintersmith, who meanwhile has decided to become human in order to capture Tiffany's heart. Things come to a head when Miss Treason announces her own death, attends her own wake, and then dies, leaving Tiffany with nowhere to go. Which is where Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax come in...

These three books are definitely among my favourite Discworld novels now. I very much like the way in which this is not just a tale about the wintersmith falling for Tiffany but a continuation of 'her' story. You get a lot background information about how the witches live, what motivates them, what little tricks they employ to kid the villagers about their power and so on. 'Universe building' in other words and Pratchett is an absolute master at it. As always it's funny, he slips in lines that take you completely unaware, often in his dialogue:

'Mr Anybody?' said Roland as they glided jerkily along.


'Why am I sitting next to a blue cheese with a bit of tartan wrapped around it?'

'Ah, that'd be Horace,' said Rob Anybody. 'He's Daft Wullie's pal. He's no' bein' a nuisance, is he?'

'No. But he's trying to sing!'

'Aye, all blue cheeses hum a bit.'

See? Just enough to make you giggle and then admire an author who can slip a little line like that in so nonchalantly that if you're not paying attention, you'll miss it. 'Genius' I call it.

My only complaint about the story is that I did find the ending a bit pat and I'm not really sure if I missed something there. But it didn't spoil my enjoyment of what is an excellent read and I'm only sorry that this is the last of the Tiffany Aching books and of course 'now' there's no knowing whether or not there will be any more.

Other reviews:

Darla D

Monday 12 May 2008

My Family and Other Animals

I seem to be on a bit of a Gerald Durrell kick at the moment. Heaven knows why - I seem to get these weird flights of fancy from time to time. And, to tell the truth, I can't remember whether I've read this book before or not. I'm getting it confused with the TV series I suspect.

Anyway, everyone knows that My Family and Other Animals is about Gerald Durrell's childhood on Corfu. His family move there when one of his older brothers suggests it during a bad winter in England. I think they had just moved home from India and all seemed to be suffering from the usual winter ailments. So off they went, ten year old Gerald, his widowed mother, two older brothers, Leslie and Lawrence (the famous author), and Margo, his sister. The book is almost like a series of short stories as various adventures are retold, many of them to do with Gerald's animal collecting habits and some of the dire repercussions that result from said habit. But also there is much about his family, new friends made on Corfu and about the island itself.

I kept having to remind myself that this was Corfu in the 1930s because this is a book that makes you want to rush off there; which would be silly as I believe it's not like this any more. How sad. Durrell had such powers of description that it truly sounds like heaven on earth. Anyway, this is a gem of a book. The family are the stars of the show, Gerald's rather vague mother, stuck-up Lawrence, gun-crazy Leslie and Margo who falls in love with Gerald's tutor and has to be parted from him. Spiro, the Greek who adopts the family, is also great fun, I forgot that he was played by Brian Blessed in the series - talk about perfect casting. I did find myself slightly horrified at the animals Gerald took from the wild to make pets of. But I reminded myself that this was 1935 and people felt differently about such things back then. And it *did* lead to a lifetime's work with endangered species on his behalf, so it was an ends to a means.

Excellent read, funny, wonderfully evocative, perfect. I'm busy collecting more of his books now and especially want the next two 'Corfu' books. I'm also replacing this copy of 'My Family' as I don't like the cover and want an illustrated version.

And now time for some book pics.

It was my birthday on Thursday and I was lucky enough to get some books. The boxed set is the first ten 'Just William' books by Richmal Crompton, from my eldest daughter. The Robin Hobb is from my youngest daughter and the Debbie Macomber and Sophie Kinsella from a friend. I think I did pretty well for books for my b/day. :-)

Recent buys. Two new Gerald Durrells - especially pleased with that illustrated hardback which turned out to be a 1st. edition. The Peter Lovesey is an author new to me so I'm looking forward to trying him. Natural Flights of the Human Mind was a 'ReadItSwapIt' exchange book. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a fictional book about the Holocaust. Selected Stories by Katherine Mansfield I bought because I've never read anything by this author and a lot of people rate her. These last two are both charity shop buys as are the two Gerald Durrells.

Tuesday 6 May 2008

Assassin's Quest

At last, an update from me. I've been ill for a week or so and am still not completely well so have not been spending that much time online. I have been trying to read though but, over the last couple of days, not very successfully. No matter, today I have a book to talk about that covers three challenges in one. That can't be bad! Those challenges are, Carl's Once Upon a Time, the Here Be Dragons, and the Cardathon. For details of any of those see my sidebar.

Anyway, Assassin’s Quest is actually book three in the Farseer trilogy by Robin Hobb. I read the first two in the series in 2006 and it’s taken me two years to get back to it, a fact which I really do regret.

The main character in these books is Fitz. A nameless boy with no memories of the time before his mother gave him up, Fitz is brought up in the stables of Buckkeep, a coastal fortress, by stablemaster, Burrich, until he’s old enough to realize that he’s a royal bastard. He’s then taken into the main castle to learn court behaviour and, later, the role of a court assassin under the mysterious Chade. Fitz, it turns out, is the illegitimate son of the king-in-waiting, Chivalry, who has abdicated his position because of this bastard son and disappeared. His successor is Verity, a prince very powerful in the ‘Skill’ - a kind of magic that he has to use to try to prevent the Red Ship raiders from decimating the country’s coastline and ‘forging’ (rendering souless) the inhabitants. There is another brother, Regal, with a lust for power and a willingness to do anything to gain it and it is Fitz’s battle to stop this happening, and to help Verity with the war, which take up the majority of the first two books, Assassin’s Apprentice and Royal Assassin.

Assassin’s Quest picks up the story at the point where Verity has been gone for about a year. He set off to find a mysterious race called The Elderlings, to gain their assistance with the Red Ships, and has not returned. Regal has proclaimed himself king and is allowing the Red Ships to wreak havoc along the coast having moved himself and his court well inland to safety. Fitz first has to rehabilitate himself after a traumatic incident and then sets off to find Verity and The Elderlings. It’s a very long journey and most of the book revolves around his travels, incidents along the way, new characters he meets - and old ones as the enigmatic ‘Fool’ re-enters the fray. And more than that I’m not going to say as it would involve serious spoilers.

To tell the truth, I don’t believe I personally can do justice to these books. I’m going to stick my neck right out though and say that this series is one the best fantasy series out there and that Robin Hobb is a writer of the first calibre. As you can tell from my ham-fisted attempt at a review, the plotlines that run through the books are complex. There are twists and turns galore, political and court intrigue, and I would add that this is not a ‘fun’ or ‘light’ read and is definitely for adults, not children. Many dreadful things happen to all of the characters and there are readers who might find it all a bit much. I myself like humour and ‘some’ lightness in my reading but there isn’t a lot to be had in this series. Truthfully, if I knew why none of this mattered one iota to me, I’d say so. I think, to be honest, that it all boils down to the quality of the story-telling.

Assassin’s Quest is 830 pages long and I read it in precisely one week. That’s fast for me, as I'm a slow reader, and the way I did it was to aim to read about 100 pages a day. Apart from on busy days, this was not diffcult or a hardship and I did it easily. Of course it does help that Robin Hobb is a ‘page turner’ kind of author and once you get started it’s hard to stop. There are two more series in this universe. After the ‘Farseer’ trilogy come the three ‘Liveship Traders’ books and then the ‘Tawny Man’ trilogy. The ‘Liveship Traders’ series is set in the same world and country but with none of the same characters. The ‘Tawny Man’ books carry on with the story of Fitz and The Fool, so you could skip the middle series but most people suggest that you really shouldn’t. And I don’t plan to. And nor do I intend to wait another two years before I get back to reading Robin Hobb.