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.


Yvonne @ Fiction Books Reviews said...

No! There is still one person left who has yet to read 'Where The Crawdads Sing', although I was one of the first to add it to my 'wish list' (I think that might make the situation worse rather than better?)

I had a really lovely copy of 'The Wind In The Willows' when I was a child, but I have no idea what happened to it, which is such a shame, as it was one of my favourite stories too! One of my other favourites was 'The Water Babies' by Charles Kingsley. If you haven't read it before you should try and get hold of a copy. I don't know why that even came into my head, I guess because they both involve water :)

I'm not sure if I like my childhood being referred to as living 'land-locked' (just joking). Living on the coast has always been a dream of mine though, although that's probably never going to happen the way things are right now, whereas D enjoys nothing more than a long countryside ramble, which is not my ideal day out!!

Happy November reading :)

Margot Kinberg said...

I'm another, Cath, who hasn't read Where the Crawdads Sing, although I keep telling myself I should. At any rate, Dear Hugo really appeals to me. I think epistolary novels can work very well, and I like the idea of that look at society at that time through the eyes of the people who live in it. I'm glad you enjoyed it so well.

Lark said...

I still haven't read Where the Crawdads Sing, and I'm not sure I want to having heard a little bit about how it ends. But I'd love to know your thoughts on it! If you love it, then maybe I'll give it a try. :D Have a great weekend!

Cath said...

Yvonne: Ah right, not just me then. LOL I'm usually rather late with trendy books I have to admit, often I'm a couple of years behind everyone else.

I didn't own or read The Wind in the Willows when I was a child. I'm not even sure when I first read it but I was well into adulthood I think. I understand your feeling the loss of a precious book though. I had a lovely copy of Alice in Wonderland that I also have no idea what happened to it. Yes, I have read The Water Babies... I think when I was around 11 or 12. But not since and it's odd but I was thinking the other day that I ought to reread that.

I was brought up by the coast and moved aged 20 to Keynsham, near Bristol. Since then we've lived on the North Devon coast and the Somerset coast but are now 'land-locked' again. I do miss the sea I must admit but we're only 45 minutes or so away.

Have a nice weekend, Yvonne!

Cath said...

Margot: I will report back on Crawdads, it is a crime novel... at least I think it is as there's already one dead body!

Yes, you're right, looking at society through the eyes of an author who was living through certain times is a very authentic thing to do. A good author can really bring those times alive and Molly Clavering really does so with 1950s Scotland.

Cath said...

Lark: Oh... I didn't know Crawdads had a questionable ending. OK. I will report back. You have a good weekend too.

TracyK said...

I like epistolatory novels but I often have the same reservation that you mentioned, that no one writes that level of detail in a letter (or even in a journal?). But no matter, I like them anyway. So, from your review, I am looking forward to reading this book. Sometimes it amazes me that I was a child in the fifties, the same time all these people were recovering from losses during the war. I do remember that it all still seemed real, even if I had not experienced it. I had a male friend in the neighborhood, and I remember telling him I was glad I was a girl because I would not have to fight in a war. I have few memories from that time as vivid as that.

Getting back to books, Pam Ayres book also sounds very good, even though I had never heard of her. I will see if I can find some kind of collection of her work.

I have also not read Where the Crawdads Sing, and so I will be especially interested in what you think of it. I was also put off by a couple of reviews I read (and I cannot even remember why now). I have The Wind on the Willows on my list for a reread.

My reading has been slow but good, two books I have given 5 stars to so far. So I cannot complain.

Judith said...

Hi Cath,
So much to comment on in this post!
Which Wind in the Willows illustrator is this one? Would love to know.
I have quite a few volumes of The Secret Garden, each illustrated by a different artist. I so love this small collection, which I indulge in every early spring season. I MUST get a hold of an exquisitely illustrated Wind in the Willows. Which would you suggest?

I am probably the only reader in the U.S. who has not read Where the Crawdads Sing. The synopsis didn't happen to grab me, and I must confess that I stupidly shy away from books that the multitudes are reading and loving. It has been on the New York Times Bestseller List for YEARS! I'm truly glad for the author. I will be fascinated to learn what you think about it. I am sure it is a great novel.

So interested to hear about what you've been reading!!

Cath said...

Tracy: Yes, I love epistolary letters too despite that tiny little reservation. I think what I failed to take in as a child, listening to the experiences of men and women who had fought in the war, was exactly how close we were to WW2. 15 - 20 years. I didn't realise that it seemed like yesterday to them and I didn't fully appreciate that. I do now as look back on the turn of this century, from 1999 to 2000 and find it too feels really recent. Those experiences for them must've felt so fresh.

I think the best way to experience Pam Ayres is to look on Youtube, she's funnier performing than via a book, in my opinion anyway.

I'm about a third of the way through Crawdads and while I like it, it's not overwhelming me with joy. We'll see. At the moment I'm not sure whatall the hype was about. That could change of course.

Cath said...

Judith: This edition of The Wind in the Willows is illustrated by Australian, Robert Ingpen. I also have one done by Eric Kincaid, and a 1952 edition illustrated by Ernest H. Shepherd which I love to bits. Another good one which I don't have is the version illustrated by Inga Moore. I've seen some of the artwork on Twitter and it's wonderful. If it were me, I'd either go for the Robert Ingpen one or the Inga Moore.

Well, it seems I'm not the only one who hasn't read Crawdads. Like you I thought The Multitudes had been at it and it had been read to death. Not quite the case apparently. At the moment it's ok. I'm about a third of the way in and have not been set alight by it but that can change as you know. We shall see. The sense of setting, coastal, marshy North Carolina, is quite strong.

Cathy said...

Just so you know... you're not the last person to read Where the Crawdads Sing. I've had it waiting for me for yonks. Good thing it's patient!

Cath said...

Cathy: No! There're apparently hundreds of us all holding off on reading a 'flavour of the month' sort of book. LOL!