Book Review: Bewildering Cares by Winifred Peck

” “And as for recipes, a stew’s a stew whether you fill it with odds and ends and call it Raggout Victory or not, I say!” And I must admit that after many experiments with New War-time Suggestions I couldn’t help feeling that Kate had right on her side.”

I’ve been rather ignoring the kindle of late- I’ve been so proud of myself for making some sort of indent on the TBR that I’ve been ignoring the virtual stacks.

I have really enjoyed the few Furrowed Middlebrow books I have read, as I knew I would- it’s one of the first blogs I started reading. I read A Chelsea Concerto and The Dancing Bear not long before I started this blog and I couldn’t put them down- if you haven’t read these memoirs I can’t recommend them strongly enough. They are both written by Frances Faviell, the first about her time as a nurse in London during the second World War, and the second is about her time living in Berlin not long after the war ended.

Anyway, I knew that by picking up a Furrowed Middlebrow title there was a decent likelihood that I would enjoy the book. I went with Winifred Peck’s Bewildering Cares. I have read her two mystery novels but that is all. It was published in 1940 and is narrated by the vicar’s wife as she tells us about life in the small parish of Stampfield in the North of England in the early days of the war.

” “Oh, not that old ‘has-been’!” was the reaction of the working-party, as they settled down to their work —the pink flannelette in its most curious size and shape was all ready. As my feelings about George Eliot are, alas, almost identical, I tried instead bits of The Diary of a Provincial Lady and The Demon in the House by Angela Thirkell, with unparalleled success. They would hardly allow me to stop; we omitted the last hymn, as Mrs. Jones candidly stated that stop laughing she could not, not even if it was for “Brother thou art gone before us”. I could only realize, later, that Mrs. Weekes will think more poorly of me than ever, and the ghost of George Eliot will haunt me eternally.”

There’s a gently humorous tone to her descriptions, and yet there is also a grimness and a real depth to the writing as she tries to find her faith and keep it in this state of war. I found the balance of these mostly very well done, one moment I am amused and the next pondering, although as the book goes on the level of introspection does increase. I have to imagine that some of the author’s personal thoughts and worries are being channelled through the character of the vicar’s wife.

Their only son has joined up, although it is not clear where he is stationed. There are frequent memories of things Dick has done in similar situations or the narrator imagining how her son would react to something that has happened or that she has said. It makes it imminently clear that her son is always on her mind, and though her worry for him is not frequently alluded to it is nonetheless evident throughout that he is preoccupying her thoughts at all times.

“I see myself then, in my search for true Faith, as someone groping his way through a huge dark, shuttered house, in this black-out of our lives. At last I see a crack of light, and enter one room where there is an open, undarkened window at last, though the window indeed is small and high up in the wall. That there is a great and glorious view from it, if I could reach up to it, is certain; but that view, the vista of the whole truth of God’s scheme for the universe, I must leave to faith. While we must be in the house, our tabernacle of the body, we cannot hope to see the whole.”

The book is divided into days, and takes place over the course of one week. The main thread running through the novel is the havoc caused by the Curate, Herbert Strang, when he takes one of the services and talks about pacifism and not fighting the Axis powers. This causes fall out in the small village. However, what we really see is how busy life as a Vicar’s wife is, and how hard it was for small communities to hold together when all the young people of the area have left. Peck, was the daughter of a Bishop and so whilst not a Vicar’s wife herself, it is clear that she understands the life of the clergy well.

Overall I enjoyed this novel. It was very witty and I found the period details intriguing. Perhaps, the musings on religion were a little much for me and sometimes went on a bit, but in general I think it was handled well and was clearly suited to the setting of the novel. I loved the characters Peck created, I felt I could really see them. The narrator always having to bite her tongue; Kate, their one domestic servant, outspoken but kind always wanting to leave early to spend time with Private Jenkins before he leaves; poor, highbrow Miss Croft who struggles to make ends meet. I would definitely recommend this to anyone interested in the home front during the early years of the Second World War. I’m really glad I read this 1940 addition to my A Century of Books challenge

“I hate to put visitors in Dick’s room, but I didn’t dare to risk the black-out in the spare-room, as we have just had a new air-raid warden appointed to this district, and he is unlikely to have sunk into the easy-going ways of Miss Boness, who said candidly that if the Germans were fools enough to bomb Stampfield in the snow she’d let them.”

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A Winter Book Haul

In a corner of Glasgow’s West End are some of my favourite places… Second hand bookshops.

Near Kelvinbridge subway there are three delightful and rather distinct bookshops all within about five minutes walk of each other.

The lovely Thistle Books which also incorporates Alba Music for fans of sheet music. This bookshop always has classical music playing and smells just as an old bookshop should.

Their books are always in great condition and it seems to abound with the sort of authors and publishers I love. I was trying to behave on Saturday so only bought one book, but I could have easily bought a dozen or more. Apart from anything they had a load of the British Library crime classics.

Just around the corner is the infamous Voltaire & Rosseau, which is not for the faint-hearted! Piles and piles of books, almost as tall as a person and three or four stacks deep with bookcase behind- this is not where you go if you are looking for something specific. If you are happy to have a rummage, you know as soon as you enter that you could find a possible treasure. However, it can become frustrating when you can’t find anything of interest but you just know that there must be something amazing buried that you will never find. Nonetheless, I found two books here. Since reading my first Muriel Spark recently, I was determined to get hold of some more of her books, so when I saw one peeking out from of these tottering piles I was never going to resist.

Finally, the easiest to find as it is on Great Western Road, Caledonia Books, is a delightful little store on two levels, with a lovely shop front, and a spiral staircase rising through the shop that just adds to the quaint look. A little pricier than the other two perhaps but filled with some gems if you take the time to look.

When I am stressed out, or needing a pick me up, or just generally looking to have a nice quiet morning, I will find myself in this little corner of the world which never disappoints. I love that these independent bookstores continue to exist, and I hope to continue visiting them for a long time.

Since it was the first of December when I visited, I made myself behave and I think I was remarkably restrained given that I visited three different bookshops and came away with only four books!

I haven’t read any Ngaio Marsh, although I love classic whodunnits. This fontana cover is completely mad, so it will be interesting to see if the contents of this novel at all match the outside. I am always nervous when starting a new author, particularly a prolific one, in case I inadvertently pick a weak book and am put off forever after.

There was never any chance I wasn’t going to pick up this Muriel Spark after I saw it- not after enjoying The Public Image recently and with it still fresh on my mind. I have a feeling Muriel Spark has lots still to offer to me.

The only hardback I picked up, and shockingly the first Rumer Godden to grace my shelves. Every time I think I have read a lot of books, I realise just how few I have really read. Rumer Godden, Muriel Spark and Ngaio Marsh are all extremely well known and respected authors, all of them fairly prolific, and I am only just considering reading them now when I am nearing thirty.

My final book purchase, is also by an author I have read far to little of. I have recently been reading Down and Out in Paris and London so when I saw this little George Orwell I had to pick it up. I read Animal Farm in my early teens and for some reason never read any other Orwell after.

Some absolutely delightful covers from this book haul- I just hope that the insides live up to them!

Has anyone else realised that despite reading frequently, sometimes they have missed some potentially very important reading?

Book Review: Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier

I have always had a weakness for fairytale re-tellings. I read Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest a few years ago which was loosely based on the six swans and the legend of the children of Lir- I was unfamiliar with both of these and just enjoyed the tale. It was rather beautifully written, but for some reason I didn’t fall in love with it.

I have had Wildwood Dancing on my shelf for a long time now but have never been quite in the mood to pick it up until recently. I’m glad I did. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was getting myself into- I will never understand books without blurbs on the back- but it soon became apparent that I was reading something at least loosely based on the Twelve Dancing Princesses. I then had an inkling (possible spoiler alert) that the Frog Prince would come into play as well. It was all set in the Romanian winter.

I will always hold fairytale re-tellings up against the standard set by Robin McKinley but this isn’t particularly similar in style to her. If anything it is written in a style more similar to Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver or Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale– although I am perhaps just seeing that because of the wintery Eastern European setting. Published in 2007 it pre-dates both of these.

The story is told from the first person perspective of fifteen year old Jena, who is the second oldest of five sisters. Tati (short for Tatiana) is the oldest-a year older than Jena and is considered the beautiful sister. Jena is the plain, practical sister. Thirteen year old Iulia is curvaceous and just starting to want to be treated like a women, and is portrayed as slightly shallower than the others. Eleven year old Paula is the clever, academic one, and five year old Stela is the baby. Whilst I really enjoyed this story, it did feel that with five sisters not all of them were developed much past these simple descriptions- I’m very glad that the author did not go with twelve sisters!

Their father leaves as the winter is starting to set in as he has been ill and sets off for warmer climes, leaving Jena in charge of the business and Tati to be mother to the younger girls. This is handled really well in the book, the uncertainty of his health and the isolation that the girls live in means that contact between them is very sporadic throughout this book, and despite not knowing him at all, his precarious health hangs over the whole book and how this could affect the characters’ futures.

Fortunately, their Father’s cousin Nicolai lives nearby and will look out for the girls as needed and his son, Cezar is eager to help the girls. Cezar’s help is far more controlling than Jena would like, and although this story has many fairytale elements it is also the story of a woman trying to thrive in a man’s world. My issue with this however, is that I didn’t ever feel like I saw Jena succeed on her own. She was very brave and principled but she never really solves any of her problems herself. Too much independence would probably have felt unrealistic in the setting, but I would really have liked it if Jena had solved at least one of her issues completely on her own.

The fairytale element was managed well, magical beings are a part of all the local people’s beliefs but at the same time most are very wary and avoid more magical areas where possible. Magical creatures are feared, if respected, and are not understood well. The exceptions to this are Jena and her sisters who have been travelling to a magical land on the night of the full moon for many, many years. Here, they have friends and dance the night away- or in Paula’s case take part in spirited and learned discussions. But even the sisters are wary to an extent and have strict rules about their conduct in this land such as no eating or drinking and no leaving the dancing circle without their sisters.

I would recommend this book, which weaves together magical and mundane problems very well, and has Jena finding Cezar’s controlling, dominating ways much more terrifying than the unknown of the magical beings. I will most likely go on to read the sequel which is set several years later in Istanbul with Paula as the protagonist.

However, this book wasn’t perfect in my eyes. Tati’s storyline really irritated me… She is lovelorn, and stops looking after her sisters and seems to have absolutely no back bone. I can’t be doing with lovesick heroines, and although she is only sixteen I couldn’t bring myself to have any sympathy for her!

Nonetheless, Marillier is really good at world building, and if you enjoy fairytale re-tellings I think this is worth a read. I have read this as my 2007 entry for my A Century of Books challenge.

Book Review: The Public Image by Muriel Spark

“He was one of the last remnants of a past life she had not known at the time had been as good as it already seemed in retrospect”

I have had this book on my shelf for about a year. I have been wanting to read Muriel Spark for a while now, after all I am always excited to try a new Scottish author. Spark is one of those writers that I’ve always been meaning to read so I was almost surprised it took me so long to actually read one of her books.

I have to admit though, my reason for reading this when I did was primarily that it was the slimmest book in my bookcase. I’ve been reading the rather chunky non-fiction The Victorians by A. N. Wilson, and I was craving some fiction.

I might have chosen it for a stupid reason, but I am very glad I did read it.

This very short novel, it is only 124 pages, is the story of young husband and wife Annabel and Frederick Christopher. Essentially, it is about two rather unpleasant people who really dislike each other and have a pretty hateful marriage. I normally can’t stand books where I don’t like any of the characters.

Somehow Spark really makes it work, it’s darkly comic, and I was compelled to keep reading. Annabel is an actress, to start with it would seem more by luck than anything else. Her husband, Frederick, is much less successful and resents her success- although he is more than happy to take her money. He feels that he is genuinely talented but that Annabel is more successful because she cares so much for and cultivates her public image.

It is clear to the reader however that Frederick is also creating a public image of a tortured, intellectual. Spark’s biting, acerbic tone is brilliant at depicting this couple’s life together.

Frederick, however, held to a theory that a random collision of the natal genes had determined in him a bent for acting only substantial parts in plays by Strindberg, Ibsen, Marlowe and Chekhov (but not Shakespeare); and so far as that went he was right, everything being drably right in the sphere of hypotheses, nothing being measurably or redeemably wrong. In fact, his decision about what parts he was suited to perform on the stage of the theatre did not matter; he was never considered for any parts in the plays he wanted to act in.

By the time he was twenty-nine years of age his undoubted talent had been tested only a few times in small productions and then no more. His mind took the inward turns of a spiral staircase, viewing from every altitude and point of contortions the unblemished, untried, fact of his talent.”

When they have a baby, a decision made by Annabel in order to improve the couple’s public image, Annabel finds herself genuinely loving her child even if this does not lead her to stop her machinations.

However, it certainly does not bring the couple closer together and Frederick carries out a final, spiteful act that Annabel spends the second half of the novel trying to spin the way she wants it to be seen.

This was published in 1968, fifty years ago, but in an era of fake news and click bait headlines the subject matter seemed very relevant to today’s world.

I loved the way that Spark’s clear contempt for all of her characters comes through in a very readable and sometimes amusing way and I read this in a single morning. Her characters have no real depth or layers… But that’s rather the point here.

I have definitely been convinced that I need to look out for more of Spark’s work. I know that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is probably her most famous work, but I would love to hear if anyone has any recommendations of what Spark to try next.

This is my read for 1968 in the A Century of Books challenge, and I have to admit it has been a bit of a relief to enjoy this read so much as I had a lukewarm response to my two reads previous to this, which were both by authors I am exceptionally fond of. Interestingly, I found this to be much less dated when I read it than Don’t Look Now by Daphne du Maurier which was published three years later in 1971.

Overall, I am very glad to have been introduced to Muriel Spark and I look forward to reading more of her books in the future.

Sci-fi: Recommendations Needed!

I have been quite happily foraging for books recently as I get organised with the A Century of Books challenge. Whilst the challenge does intimidate me, I read fairly heavily from the 30’s through 50’s so the early parts of the challenge don’t particularly scare me.

Since I’ve been quite excited about doing this, it has come up as a topic in real life a few times. My other half laughed when I suggested he try it too, so it was rather unexpected when my Dad was full of enthusiasm, and volunteered himself for the challenge.

I think he is only just realising what he has gotten himself into, so I thought I would try and provide at least a little assistance. Unfortunately, our reading tastes aren’t particularly similar. Horror and Sci fi are very much not my genres. I think our only real overlap is our lack of enthusiasm for the short story!

So I thought I would see if anyone had any wonderful ideas- particularly from 1920-1970, but any recommendations at all would be enthusiastically received.

I am if possible looking for horror, of the scary rather than gory sort and sci-fi of the, I think I want to say, space opera sort??? He adores Peter F Hamilton, and I believe has read a lot of Kevin J Anderson. I think he was a Clive Barker fan as well when he was younger.

If anyone could help me out it would be greatly appreciated. I think I read quite widely, but I really lack any kind of knowledge of these genres- as can be seen by the photo above. I had wanted a pile of related books but my shelves were most disobliging and I had to just go with a random selection.

Book Review: Don’t Look Now by Daphne du Maurier

This collection of short stories took me several weeks to read. Even now that I have finished it I am unsure how I feel about it. Five stories each about fifty pages long and all rather different from each other but clearly the work of the same author. I like du Maurier but I tend to dislike short stories. I had heard a lot of good things about this collection though, particularly the title story, so I was looking forward to reading it.

I’m still not sure if I enjoyed it. It felt extremely dated, and I couldn’t get away from that thought. I read a lot of books set during and between the two world wars but somehow I felt that this collection from 1971 showed its age much more. Perhaps it was the blatant lack of political correctness or the pinching of women’s bottoms but I really felt this collection showed its age, and not in a good way.

I don’t want my ambivalence to put anyone off of reading this, my lacklustre response seems to be unusual.

The first three stories all have surprising twists at the end, which I think ties together three rather different stories but the fourth, The Way of the Cross, is a tale of a rather unpleasant trip to Jerusalem in which many things go wrong but there is no element of surprise. The last story, The Breakthrough, is a mixture of scientists and psychic energies; mysterious research facilities and hypnotism. Yet to my mind despite this it tails off in the end and is a disappointing end to the collection.

I genuinely enjoyed the second and third stories however. Not After Midnight was I believe an alternate title to this collection and this is understandable as it is a strong story. Essentially, a middle aged school master goes on holiday to Crete to relax and paint. Du Maurier manages to create a slow but steady build in tension as the protagonist, Timothy Grey, begins to realise that all is not as it seems with his chalet or with the other guests at the resort. I found this slow build impressive considering that it is after all a short story.

The third story, A border-line Case, was probably my favourite. Perhaps it is just because I am more partial to a female narrator and this was the only story to have one, or it may have been that although I guessed the final twist at the beginning of the story the rest of this tale really kept me guessing. It was definitely a story of many twists and turns and I have to admit I am not sure I can describe the plot without giving half of it away. I suspect much of its appeal is that the reader is firmly in the narrators shoes- Completely out of the loop of what is going on.

Don’t Look Now is both the title story and the first story in the collection. It was made into a famous film. The introduction to my copy describes it as quintessentially du Maurier. It is the story of a grief ridden couple holidaying in Venice, when everything around them turns sinister and has quite the shocking ending. Doesn’t that sound like a little slice of perfection? Fifty pages of pure du Maurier goodness?

I didn’t get it. Maybe I need to read it again, or perhaps my dislike of short stories got in my way but I just couldn’t get into it. I did like the portrayal of the grieving couple and the different ways they had reacted to their loss but the rest of the story left me cold.

I would be very interested to hear if anyone else has read this collection. I think my opinion is very much in the minority as far as this book is concerned, so please don’t let my thoughts put anyone off trying this. This has been my second read in a row of a favourite author where I have found the book to not be as enjoyable as I was hoping. Maybe I need to stop hyping up authors.

This has been an interesting addition to my century of books challenge for 1971. I may not have loved it but I am glad I read it and perhaps I can be convinced to give short stories another go- after all I do have another ninety-seven books to go.

Need to read: Monica Dickens

I have been rather enjoying sorting through my books in anticipation of the Century of Books challenge.

I sorted my bookcases into already read and to be read. The to be read section was depressingly large. I want to say I was surprised, but I have at least achieved step one: I am well aware I have a book buying problem!

I then sorted my TBR into decades…. The seventies are pretty scanty apparently. However, what I did realise was that I have been happily buying Monica Dickens’ books when I’ve come across them, but I have never actually read any of her books. Is anyone else guilty of this? For some reason I am so certain I am going to like her books that on four occasions I have bought one, and yet for some equally indecipherable reason I have not read any of them.

One Pair of Hands is a 1939 memoir about Dickens time as a cook-general, and is her first book. I have heard only good things about it!

The Happy Prisoner is the orange penguin, and was originally published in 1946. My biggest issue with these penguin editions is not the tiny font, but the lack of blurb. I clearly had no idea what this book was about when I bought it but a quick scout on Amazon suggests it is about a soldier who is bed bound from a war wound and how he deals with this- could be an interesting read, and a time period I find fascinating.

Joy and Josephine was published only two years later in 1948. This too frustratingly has no blurb. I find this so irksome when rummaging in second hand book shops but I suppose it adds an element of surprise when reading. Intriguingly the book appears to be in three parts: part one is Joy, part two Josephine and part three Joy or Josephine? However after a quick search i’m not sure the plot of this one appeals so much. Two babies are taken into a children’s home, one only to wait until rich relatives arrive to pick them up and the other is to be adopted. There is some, undisclosed, mixup and no one know which child is Joy and which Josephine. I feel this could either be charming or awful!

Finally, Mariana which was first published in 1940 and has since become one of the most popular Persephone books. This was the first Dickens I bought and has been on my shelves a shameful number of years. It is the story of a girl’s life as she grows up and is framed by the knowledge from the start that the grown up Mary is awaiting possible bad news.

All these books sound like they have great possibility. Hopefully I will finally manage to read at least one as part of my Century of Books challenge.

Has anyone read any of Monica Dickens books? Is there a particular gem to be found or have I been right in picking up all that I have come across over the last few years?