Wednesday 30 November 2022

Winter Solstice

So, people have been telling me for years that I must read something by Rosamunde Pilcher. I don't just mean one person, I mean more in the order of 'multitudes'... hordes of folk, horrified that I haven't read a single book by her. And I have meant to. The Shell Seekers has been off the shelf, onto the tbr pile, and back again more times than Imelda Marcos changed her shoes. It's shaming really. BUT, I have at long last put that right and I have read Winter Solstice. (And just look at this fab cover!)

Retired actress, Elfrida Phipps, has moved to Hampshire from London. It's a big step for her, buying her own house and moving to a small village on her own after losing someone close to her. Luckily, the locals in the village are friendly and welcoming and she soon becomes close friends with the Blundells, Oscar, Gloria and their 12 year old daughter, Francesca. Then comes tragedy. Elfrida is away in Cornwall when it happens and knows nothing until she gets back. Life for Oscar Blundell has changed irrevocably and he turns to Elfrida for help.

Carrie is back in London after quite a few years working in the skiing industry in Austria. She's trying to work through a loss of another kind but does not want to talk about it with anyone, including her selfish mother, Dodie, or likewise selfish sister, Nicola. Nicola has a daughter, Lucy, aged 14, and there's a problem. Christmas is looming and Nicola wants to go Florida with the new man in her life. Dodie is going to Bournemouth for the holiday and does not want Lucy along. Carrie steps in and makes plans for her and Lucy. She calls her older cousin Eldfrida... who is in Scotland with Oscar Blundell, in a large house half-owned by him.

Sam, who has been in NewYork for 6 years, married there and then separated, is moved to Scotland with his firm to rescue a failed woollen mill.  He's met 'Hugh' at a dinner party in London. Hugh owns half a house in the coastal Highlands of Scotland, with Oscar Blundell, but wants to sell it. He thinks it might be the perfect place for Sam as it's close to the factory. Sam, of course has no idea that the house is now occupied.

As is the way with this kind of tale, all of these various lives and stories meet and merge and there's an outcome, but not before you have learned to love them all, Elfrida, Oscar, Carrie, Lucy and Sam. We have a story here about family, friendship, grief and recovery... or at least an acceptence of loss in that life will never be the same but can still be wonderful again given time, help and encouragement. 

This is also a story about a house and how it can have a personality of its own. We all know this. How often have we been house hunting, despairing of ever finding the right place, and then walked into 'the next one on the list' and thought immediately, 'This is it'. Four times that's happened to me and I've never been wrong. The house in this book is known simply as The Estate House and is a rambling Victorian pile the bones of which are fine but which needs a lot of tlc inside. Oscar and Elfrida move in and love it immediately. But they're rattling around in it, so when Carrie and Lucy arrive for Christmas, Elfrida is delighted. She's one of these wonderful easy-going 'what will be, will be' kind of people who just get on with welcoming people and being lovely. I adored her. 

There is not a huge amount of plot or action in this book so if that's your drug of choice this might not be your fix. It's really 500 pages of character-driven meanderings and thoughts and the delightfulness of an isolated Scottish village and its inhabitants as winter hits and Christmas approaches. (Inverness was an hour and a quarter by car and I tried to decide where the village was, I decided in the end that it was out near Ullapool but it could easily have been in several other directions.) I loved its gentleness and humanity to bits and now realise why the world and his mother-in-law wanted me to read Rosamunde Pilcher.

Monday 21 November 2022

I have been reading and plan to read...

So I finished a couple of books and have also been making plans for December (actually, I've been making plans for 2023 but we won't go there just yet...) First up, books read.

In a Glass Darkly, by Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu, is a book of spooky or weird tales first published in 1872. M.R. James was apparently a big fan of Le Fanu's writing saying he, 'stands absolutely in the first rank as a writer of ghost stories'. Praise from a master. This collection consists of five stories, all of them cases which a Dr. Hesselius has investigated and written about.

The first story, Green Tea, concerns a Reverand Mr. Jennings who has a parish of his own but can't go and preach there because when he does he's haunted by a small, spectral, black monkey that follows him everywhere. That one really creeped me out. The Familiar tells of another similar situation. A Captain Barton gets engaged to a woman in the city of Dublin. Walking home late one night he hears footsteps behind him but when he turns around no one's there. Eventually the presence shows itself to be an old man who haunts the captain, changing his life completely. Mr. Justice Harbottle is a 'hanging judge' as they used to say, merciless and cruel, and the story tells of how he gets his comeuppance via a nasty dream. The Room in the Dragon Volant is a story set in France. The narrator is doing a tour after the fall of Napolean. On the road he witnesses an accident and falls for one of the women involved. He follows them to an inn and gets involved with her and her very elderly husband and things deteriorate from there. This one is not a ghost story but really a mystery made creepy by the excellent writing and setting, although I thought it dragged a bit in places. The final story, Carmilla, is one of Le Fanu's most famous stories. It's set in the forests of Austria, the main protagonist, Laura lives there with her father in a huge old castle. A carriage accident outside the castle delivers to them the injured 'Carmilla' and she stays there with them while her mother goes off on some urgent business. Lonely Laura and Carmilla become good friends but their visitor is a bit strange. Not only that, Laura is sure she recognises her from somewhere. This vampire yarn is effective and atmospheric and who doesn't love a weird story set in an Austrian or German forest! Anyway, not a bad collection, I thought one or two of the stories dragged a bit, if I'm honest, but the writing was superb and the tales never lacked for atmosphere. I had read several before, and recently, so that probably did not help. I would like to read Le Fanu's full length novel, Uncle Silas, at some stage as I think I would rather like it, influenced a bit, I have to admit, by Lark's review.

Next, The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. This is my third reading of this iconic classic, written for children and published in 1908, but equally wonderful when read by adults. This qualifies for both the Back to the Classics and  the Book Bingo challenge I'm doing.

The main characters in the story are of course Ratty and Mole but the supporting cast is equally as interesting in my opinion: Badger, grumpy and anti-social but kind, Otter, strong and very family orientated, Toad, prone to fads and mad as a bag of ferrets. It's a very long time since I read this book so I'd forgotten how much it resembles a series of long short stories put together in one volume: Mole moving in with Ratty, Mole getting lost in the wild wood, Toad discovering gypsy caravans and then automobiles, Toad going to gaol. And then a wonderful interlude where Ratty meets a Sea Rat who tells him of his travels around the world, almost mesmerising Ratty (and me!) into going with him. I'd totally forgotten that chapter which is odd as it was absolute 'magic'... what a novel that would've made! And lastly, how the Toad question was resolved except that we all know it wasn't really. It's many, many years since I read The Wind in the Willows so I had completely forgotten the beautiful writing and atmosphere of a quiet life lived by the river interrupted by various crises. The artwork in my version, by Robert Ingpen, is fabulous too, my post showing some of the paintings is HERE. For me the best sections in the book are when Mole gets lost in the wild wood and how they subsequently find Badger's  home. Also when Ratty and Mole are walking home late one night near Christmas and walk through a human village. And, as previously mentioned, the Sea Rat's tale. Toad I always find annoying and am not so keen on the sections which involve him. All in all, 'gorgeous', 5 stars, and I'll doubtless read it again in a few years.

So, I've just started this:

Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher. I've wanted to read this for a while now as it comes highly recommended by several devoted Pilcher fans I know. But I wanted to read it at the right time of year and kept missing it somehow. So it's now just a few weeks away from the winter solstice and perfect timing so off I go! I'm only 20 or so pages in and love it already in that way that sometimes you know immediately you start a book that it's going to be a joy.

In December I plan to read some Christmas short stories taken from various books and perhaps do some posts about them.

I also plan to have some fun reading crime fiction for a Booktube event called Cloak and Dagger Christmas which is based around the Twelve Days of Christmas song. There are 12 prompts and I don't expect to do them all but I'm definitely going to try to do the four or five crime book prompts. I don't have a Youtube channel obviously but that's not necessary to take part. 

This is the ten minute introduction post from one of the hosts, Janelle at Too Fond of Books: 

Cloak and Dagger Christmas

I think that sounds like a 'lot' of fun. (I highly recommend Janelle's channel actually, her love for crime fiction is just glorious.) My first book for it will probably be for the 'Read a book with an alliterative title' and I'll read Jumping Jenny by Anthony Berkeley or Murder in the Mill-Race by E.C.R. Lorac. 'Nobility', probably The Fatal Flying Affair by T.E. Kinsey, although two series that Janelle recs in another vid, Wrexford and Sloane by Andrea Penrose and the Veronica Speedwell books by Deanna Raybourn also sound interesting and might bear investigating next year. 'Foil on the cover'... possibly Rebecca, but we'll see.

Anyway, this post is now long enough methinks! Happy late-November reading and I would love to hear about any plans you have for December/Christmas/Winter reading.

Tuesday 15 November 2022

Where the Crawdads Sing

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is the author's first foray into fiction writing. Astonishing to have such a huge success on your first attempt, although I gather Owens has written several non-fiction travel type books and I think that shows. Anyway, the book.

The story opens with the discovery of a body at the bottom of a local watch-tower. It's Chase Andrews, the son of a local wealthy family. Has he fallen from the tower accidently or was he pushed? It's not long before people have decided that The Marsh Girl killed him.

Catherine Clark, otherwise known as Kya, is the youngest of six children who live with their parents in the marshlands of coastal North Carolina. The parents' marriage is an abusive one, both physical violence and mental is inflicted on the mother and often on the children as well. To the point where eventually the mother walks out. The older children have already gone, leaving two with the father, Kya and her older brother, Jodie. Before long he hops it too and Kya is left alone with her alcoholic, abusive father. She quickly learns how to keep out of his way using the marsh as her hiding place.

Then one day he is gone too. Kya, aged nine or ten, is left alone. The authorities make a half-hearted attempt to get her to school but the girl is too clever for them. And thus begins Kya's life, living alone in the marshes, surviving by selling shell-fish for money for necessities, relying on help from the black population of the local village. To the white inhabitants she's known as The Marsh Girl, dirty, tainted, a child to keep your own children well away from.

Two men become a major part of Kya's life. Tate, the son of a widower fisherman and Chase Andrews from a wealthy family. Tate teaches Kya to read and shares the wonders of the marsh wildlife with her. They're both experts but it's really only Tate who will be able to make the most of this. Chase is another case altogether and comes into her life as Tate is leaving it. Kya has no idea of his reputation in the nearby town, cut off as she is from civilisation, but he is the one who will have the most impact on her future life in ways she cannot even imagine.

So, a hugely hyped book from three or four years ago. My daughter lent it to me otherwise I probably would not have bothered unless I'd spotted it in the library. First I should say that I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads, if I could've given it 3.5 then I probably would have done. It's was immensely readable, the setting was gorgeous, we've driven across that area so I had some idea of what it's like. I mean 'really' I can see exactly why so many people loved this book... although there are plenty on Goodreads who don't I notice. 

CAUTION - SPOILERS! (I mean it!)

Once I got into the book I found it compulsive reading even though the story was driving me a bit crazy. I wanted to slap the men in it and then had to keep reminding myself that this was set mainly in the 1950s and 60s when attitudes were very different. Although thinking about it, perhaps things have not changed that much in that department. But the main thing I found so unbelievable was how the children's mother could walk out and leave two vulnerable children with a monster. Given how much she clearly loved them (Kya has some lovely memories of family times together) would she do that? And then just write one letter, surely knowing the father would destroy it, and then no more attempts at contact? I just could not buy that at all and it rather spoilt the book for me. 

My heart bled for Kya, a girl whom everyone left and she knew it. Whether she could've helped herself a bit more by not being so reclusive is open to debate. Lots of it. It's easy to see why she was permanently frightened of people though. Her vulnerability leaps off the page at the reader and when she's accused of murdering Chase Andrews it seems like persecuting this woman has become a spectator sport with local people. It feels shameful and is.

The story is told by hopping back and forth in years. I did find that slightly distracting having to constantly remind myself how old Kya was in that year, although sometimes we were told. I'm not at all keen on courtroom dramas so did not enjoy that long section towards the end. Hence the 3.5 intention on Goodreads. I will not say that I did not enjoy the book because it's not true. The setting, the concentration on local flora and fauna, the descriptions of the marshes, were all superb. I just couldn't buy some of the plot... the mother's behaviour, Tate's behaviour, the manner in which Kya was accused of murder on very circumstancial evidence. Too much of the book was questionable... for 'me' anyway. Your mileage may vary as they say and I hope it does. It's a good book, just for me, not a 'great' one. 

Friday 11 November 2022

A couple of short reviews

So, two books to catch up on today, one non-fiction, one fiction. So... different but in actual fact... not so different. Both of these books feature quite heavily British country life in the 1950s, one in the Borders of Scotland, the other, rural Wiltshire in England.

First, Dear Hugo by Molly Clavering. 

Sara Monteith has moved to the Scottish Border town of Ravenskirk. She's alone and unmarried because her fiancé, Ivo, was killed in the second world war. He actually came from Ravenskirk but Sara decides not to tell anyone that. She recounts her experiences, meeting new people from the village, walking the beautiful surrounding countryside, to Ivo's brother, Hugo, who lives in South Africa (or maybe it was Rhodesia, not quite sure now) by letter, so this is an epistolary novel. The village is inhabited with the usual motley array of folk, there're the friendly and welcoming such as Elizabeth Drysdale and her large brood and the Curries, mum and daughter. There's Mrs. Bonaly, judgemental to the core and there's cleaner, Mrs. Marchbanks and her daughter Madge who's an unmarried mum... nothing to us these days but a real scandal in the early fifties. Sara takes Madge on as a cleaner and is frowned upon in the village for doing it. It's not long before she has an addition to the household in the shape of Arthur, twelve-ish and at private school but basically homeless because his mother died and his father has remarried and gone to the US with his new family. 'Atty' is related to Sara but I forget the relationship now, his father might be Sara's cousin, something like that. Sara quite likes her own company, working in the garden, going for long walks, but is thwarted in this because there always seems to be something going on or people demanding her attention and things become even more hectic when her correspondent, Hugo, decides to come home for a holiday. Well, this was such a beautiful, gentle, relaxing book, but not without its point to make... so many women widowed or who lost a fiancés in the war. Sons and daughters lost too, or children left homeless after losing parents or, as in Atty's case, still having a father but said father hardly knew him and was not all that interested in his wellbeing. So many war-related stories, some uplifting of course, but many really sad, requiring people to step up to the mark and help out as best they could. It was lovely to see Sara and Atty settle in together and become very close. He was just what Sara needed really. I loved this book. I did wonder, in the manner of these epistolary novels, whether people would be 'quite' so forth-coming as to write 'everything' down and send it to someone they didn't know all that well. But that's a minor quibble. I think I've read three novels by Molly Clavering now and loved them all.

Lastly, The Necessary Aptitude by poet, Pam Ayres.

Pam Ayres is a bit of a national treasure in the UK. She writes and recites her own humorous poetry and has been appearing on TV and publishing books for about forty years. I'm sure there're those who are not fans at all but I am. Her poems have always cracked me up with their keen observations of the human condition. She's recently been on C5 with two doc. series about the Cotswolds and its surrounds. Delightful. This is her autobiography, published in 2012, so I've had it hanging around for a while now. About half the book concentrates on her childhood and teenage years at home in the village of Stanford in Wiltshire. She was the youngest of six, four boys and two girls, and they were not at all well off. Quite the opposite and life was pretty tough but there was a lot of love in the shape of the children's mother. Anyone interested in English social history of the 1950s could do a lot worse than read this book, it's incredibly detailed about life in rural villages at the time. Having been brought up in a coastal town, I have little experience of land-locked villages so found it all fascinating, quite like reading a Miss Read book to be honest. And here's a strange coincidence, one of the lodgings Pam had in her twenties had previously had another writer living there, one Dora Saint... who was of course, Miss Read. The title, The Necessary Aptitude, refers to Pam never having it. Whatever job she turned to, she never seemed to be quite up to it, even when she spent several years in the WRAF, including a year in Singapore, she always felt her ability fell short of what was required. The only thing she felt she was any good at was writing. Luckily she found her niche and the rest is history. This book was so interesting and delightful that I gave it 5 stars on Goodreads.

Here's a shortish sample of Pam's work, a tale we can all identify with: Round and Round the Car Park.

So, today is Armistice Day and a small link that binds these two books together is that of men coming back damaged from WW2. Sara's nextdoor neighbour is one such man and his wife is of course impacted by trying to cope with this. And Pam Ayres always thought her father's explosive temper which would cause horrible atmospheres in the house for weeks on end, was a result of things he saw in the war. I think quite a few people of a certain age who had parents serving in the war would have similar kinds of stories to tell, and how tragic is that.

So, my current read is this:


I might just be the last person in the world to read Where the Crawdads Sing, but I've been saving it for my Book Voyage challenge, the November region being North America. I'm enjoying it so far. Wonderful sense of place (North Carolina).

I'm also about to start my 3rd. or 4th. reread of this wonderful classic for the Book Bingo and Classics challenges I'm doing this year.

I did a post  HERE which shows a few of the absolutely gorgeous illustrations in this version of The Wind in the Willows. I must confess it's a book I have several versions of and love very much.

I hope you're all keeping well and enjoying some good autumn reading.

Tuesday 1 November 2022

Books read in October

So, I had a slowish reading month in October. Not that it matters a jot, sometimes other things grab your attention and that's fine - I've really enjoyed doing some jigsaw puzzles this month, both real ones and online (for those interested,  Jigidi  is great site.)

Anyhow, six books read and these are they:

90. A Time of Torment - John Connolly 

91. A Body in the Village Hall - Dee MacDonald. Two sisters move to Cornwall and find murder and mayhem amongst the cliffs and coves. Fun but not sure whether I'll read more in the series or not.

92. Persuasion - Jane Austen 

93. The Black Seraphim - Michael Gilbert 

94. Postcards from South America - Alistair McGuiness. Author does a tour of a number of South American countries, Bolivia, Peru, Ecquador etc., with his wife. Okay but didn't really engage me completely.

95. The Seven Dials Mystery - Agatha Christie 

Looking at the six books, I had four excellent reads and two average. Basically, the ones I reviewed were the ones I loved and that's the way I seem to be going these days, reviewing the loved books, mentioning the ones I liked but that didn't really thrill me. And I'm okay with that.

Currently I'm reading several books. Halfway through, In a Glass Darkly, spooky short stories by Sheridan Le Fanu, and it's excellent so far.

And I've just started these two:


Dear Hugo by Molly Clavering is an epistolary novel set during World War 2. I try to read something connected with the the two world wars in November, it being Armistice Day on the 11th.

The Necessary Aptitude by poet, Pam Ayres, is her autobiography which I've had hanging about for years (it was published in 2012). I've been watching her delightul documentary series about The Cotswolds, she's done two series now, and thought her book would make a lovely bedtime read. And so it is.

Anyway, that was my reading for October. Highs and lows etc. Or, more accurately, highs and not so highs, no real lows at all.

And here's the prettiest, rather autumnal looking, jigsaw I did in October:

Have a good November and I hope you find some great books to read.