The Light Years – Elizabeth Jane Howard

The Light Years – Elizabeth Jane Howard

A friend recommended this, but I had a few reservations – it seemed a bit saga-ish (there are several books after all) and the author’s name seemed a bit romance novelisty. However, I really enjoyed this one and will certainly read the rest.

Here is the blurb …

In 1937, the coming war is only a distant cloud on Britain’s horizon. As the Cazalet households prepare for their summer pilgrimage to the family estate in Sussex, readers meet Edward, in love with but by no means faithful to his wife Villy; Hugh, wounded in the Great War; Rupert, who worships his lovely child-bride Zoe; and Rachel, the spinster sister.

This novel was full of social detail – the drama of organising meals, buying enough food, dealing with servants, taking the family to the beach, but it is also surprisingly modern – there is a lesbian couple, there is a brief mention of anti-semitism, being a conscientious objector during war.

The characters are magnificently portrayed – the view point switches around between characters and there is a lot of pyschological insight. I was fully engaged with this novel. There was a never moment when I was jolted out of the story because of poor writing.

More reviews …

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/elizabeth-jane-howard-2/the-light-years/

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

 

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Days Without End – Sebastian Barry

Days Without End – Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry was meant to come to the Perth Writers Festival, so I thought I should read his latest novel. However, he didn’t end up coming, but none-the-less I pushed on and finished this novel.

Here is the blurb …

From the two-time Man Booker Prize finalist Sebastian Barry, “a master storyteller” (Wall Street Journal), comes a powerful new novel of duty and family set against the American Indian and Civil Wars.

Thomas McNulty, aged barely seventeen and having fled the Great Famine in Ireland, signs up for the U.S. Army in the 1850s. With his brother in arms, John Cole, Thomas goes on to fight in the Indian Wars—against the Sioux and the Yurok—and, ultimately, the Civil War. Orphans of terrible hardships themselves, the men find these days to be vivid and alive, despite the horrors they see and are complicit in.

Moving from the plains of Wyoming to Tennessee, Sebastian Barry’s latest work is a masterpiece of atmosphere and language. An intensely poignant story of two men and the makeshift family they create with a young Sioux girl, Winona, Days Without End is a fresh and haunting portrait of the most fateful years in American history and is a novel never to be forgotten.

I found this hard going at first not because it is poorly written (quite the contrary), but the era of history is not one I am that interested in. However, I persevered and was well rewarded. It is a beautiful story about family and how often the family we make for ourselves is better than the family we were given. It is a violent story – Indian massacres, civil war battles, soldiers being massacred by Indians, but the violence isn’t dwelt on it is just how life was at that time. I didn’t realise how badly the Indians were treated or the sorts of things that happened to black people in the South after the civil war – terrible times.

More reviews …

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/28/days-without-end-by-sebastian-barry-review

http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/days-without-end-review-sebastian-barrys-novel-of-a-young-irishman-in-america-20161024-gs9ckg.html

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The Secret Garden – Katie Fforde

A Secret Garden – Katie Fforde

I read all of Katie Fforde’s books – usually in a day and some are better than others, but there is something very comforting and easy about her books.

Here is the blurb for this one…

Romance, humour and happy-ever-after endings in Katie Fforde’s brand new novel for 2017.

‘What I want to know’, said Lorna, ‘is what lies behind those ash trees at the back of the garden?

Lorna is a talented gardener and Philly is a plantswoman. Together they work in the grounds of a beautiful manor house in the Cotswolds

They enjoy their jobs and are surrounded by family and friends.

But for them both the door to true love remains resolutely closed.

So when Lorna is introduced to Jack at a dinner party and Lucien catches Philly’s eye at the local farmers market, it seems that dreams really can come true and happy endings lie just around the corner.

But do they?

Troublesome parents, the unexpected arrival of someone from Lorna’s past, and the discovery of an old and secret garden mean their lives are about to become a lot more complicated…

The deliciously romantic new novel from the No. 1 Sunday Times bestselling author of A Vintage Wedding, Recipe for Love, and A French Affair.

What I like about these novels is that you get to explore a new profession/job – in this one it is landscape design and growing plants (i.e. being a plantswoman).

Another review …

http://www.onemorepage.co.uk/?p=20226

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Reading in Bed – Sue Gee

Reading in Bed – Sue Gee

I am not sure where I first heard of this book – here maybe, but I was looking for something less grim to read after New Grub Street.

Here is the blurb …

Opening at the Hay Festival, and ending with the prospect of a spring wedding, Sue Gee’s novel is a lively story of tangled relationships and the sustaining powers of good books, loyal friends and conversation.

Friends since university, with busy working lives behind them, Dido and Georgia have long been looking forward to carefree days of books and conversation, when each finds herself caught up in unexpected domestic drama. Dido, for the first time, has cause to question her marriage; widowed Georgia feels certain her husband will return to her. Meanwhile, an eccentric country cousin goes wildly off the rails, children are unhappy in love, and perfect health is all at once in question.

This book will appeal to readers – a lot of casual mentions of reading, authors and the central place reading can take in people’s lives. It is also about friendship, family and romantic relationships and what it takes to make these relationships successful. It is witty and insightful, but also a comforting easy read.

 

 

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Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner

Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner

This was novel was recommended by a friend and I took a while to get to it, but I am glad I did.

Here is the plot summary from Wikipedia …

Lolly Willowes is satirical comedy of manners incorporating elements of fantasy, it is the story of a middle-aged spinster who moves to a country village to escape her controlling relatives and takes up the practice of witchcraft. The novel opens at the turn of the twentieth century, with Laura Willowes moving from Somerset to London to live with her brother, Henry, and his family. The move comes in the wake of the death of Laura’s father, Everard, with whom she lived with at the family home, Lady Place. Laura’s other brother, James, moves into Lady Place with his wife and his young son, Titus, with the intention to continue the family’s brewing business. However, James dies suddenly of a heart attack and Lady Place is rented out, with the view that Titus, once grown up, will return to the home and run the business.

Laura finds herself feeling increasingly stifled both by the obligations of being a live-in aunt and living in London. When shopping for flowers on the Moscow Road, Laura decides she wishes to move to the Chiltern Hills and, buying a guide book and map to the area, she decides upon the (fictional) village of Great Mop as her new home. Against the wishes of her extended family, Laura moves to Great Mop and finds herself entranced and overwhelmed by the chalk hills and beech woods. When out walking, she makes a pact with a force that she takes to be Satan, so as she can remain in the Chilterns rather than return to her duties as an aunt. On returning to her lodgings, she discovers a kitten, whom she takes to be Satan’s emissary, and names him Vinegar Tom, in reference to the English history of witchcraft.

In the meantime, Titus, having visited Laura, has decided he wants to move from his lodgings in Bloomsbury to Great Mop and be a writer, rather than inheriting the family business. Titus’ renewed social and domestic reliance on Laura make Laura feel frustrated that even as a witch living in the Chilterns she cannot escape the duties expected of women. Satan intervenes, plaguing Titus with tricks, such as curdling his milk and, finally, setting a nest of wasps upon him. Finally, having had his wasp stings treated by a Londoner named Pandora Williams, Titus proposes marriage to Pandora and the two retreat to London. Laura, relieved, meets Satan at Mulgrave Folly and tells him that women are like ‘sticks of dynamite’ waiting to explode and that all women are witches even ‘if they never do anything with their witchcraft, they know it’s there – ready!’ The novel ends with Laura acknowledging that her new freedom comes at the expense of knowing that she belongs to the ‘satisfied but profound indifferent ownership’ of Satan.

My version has an introduction by Sarah Waters, which contains this gem

Having read verbatim accounts of 16th Century Scottish witch trials and been struck, as she described it, by the ‘romance of witchcraft’ for the women who became involved with it, the ‘release’ it represented to them from ‘hard lives’ and ‘dull futures’ it occurred to her to try out a novel on this theme, but with a contemporary setting.

and that is what she does with Lolly Willowes.

She wrote to her friend David Garnett

Other people who have seen Lolly have told me that it was charming, that it was distinguished, and my mother said it was almost as good as Galsworthy. And my heart sank lower and lower, I felt as though I had tried to make a sword only to be told what a pretty pattern there was on the blade.”

I have to admit I thought it was charming (subversive as well, but definitely charming!). This novel is about gender and the role of unmarried women in particular. Laura moves to Great Mop in 1921 – women had been granted the vote in 1918 (well some women) and England was dealing with returned service men (unable to find jobs and emotionally damaged) and surplus women (which was seen as a problem). For the most part unmarried older women were seen as chronically unfulfilled. There was a contrast between the lives they lived and their passionate imaginative emotional lives. Laura turns to Satan who, in the words of Sarah Waters, “who pays them the compliment of pursuing them, and having bagged them, performs the even more valuable service of leaving them alone.”

More reviews …

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/sep/15/100-best-novels-lolly-willowes-sylvia-townsend-warner-robert-mccrum

http://furrowedmiddlebrow.blogspot.com.au/2013/04/sylvia-townsend-warner-lolly-willowes.html

 

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New Grub Street – George Gissing

New Grub Street – George Gissing

I had never even heard of George Gissing before he became one of my Victorian Book Group authors!

Here is the blurb …

In New Grub Street George Gissing re-created a microcosm of London’s literary society as he had experienced it. His novel is at once a major social document and a story that draws us irresistibly into the twilit world of Edwin Reardon, a struggling novelist, and his friends and acquaintances in Grub Street including Jasper Milvain, an ambitious journalist, and Alfred Yule, an embittered critic. Here Gissing brings to life the bitter battles (fought out in obscure garrets or in the Reading Room of the British Museum) between integrity and the dictates of the market place, the miseries of genteel poverty and the damage that failure and hardship do to human personality and relationships.

and the Wikipedia plot summary

The story deals with the literary world that Gissing himself had experienced. Its title refers to the London street, Grub Street, which in the 18th century became synonymous with hack literature; by Gissing’s time, Grub Street itself no longer existed, though hack-writing certainly did. Its two central characters are a sharply contrasted pair of writers: Edwin Reardon, a novelist of some talent but limited commercial prospects, and a shy, cerebral man; and Jasper Milvain, a young journalist, hard-working and capable of generosity, but cynical and only semi-scrupulous about writing and its purpose in the modern (i.e. late Victorian) world.

New Grub Street opens with Milvain, an “alarmingly modern young man” driven by pure financial ambition in navigating his literary career. He accepts that he will “always despise the people [he] write[s] for,” networks within the appropriate social circle to create opportunity, and authors articles for popular periodicals. Reardon, on the other hand, prefers to write novels of a more literary bent and refuses to pander to contemporary tastes until, as a last-gasp measure against financial ruin, he attempts a popular novel. At this venture, he is of course too good to succeed, and he’s driven to separate from his wife, Amy Reardon, née Yule, who cannot accept her husband’s inflexibly high standards—and consequent poverty.

19th-century Grub Street (latterly Milton Street), as pictured in Chambers Book of Days.

The Yule family includes Amy’s two uncles—John, a wealthy invalid, and Alfred, a species of critic—and Alfred’s daughter, and research assistant, Marian. The friendship that develops between Marian and Milvain’s sisters, who move to London following their mother’s death, provides opportunity for the former to meet and fall in love with Milvain. However much Milvain respects Marian’s intellectual capabilities and strength of personality, the crucial element (according to him) for marriage is missing: money. Marrying a rich woman, after all, is the most convenient way to speed his career. Indeed, Milvain slights romantic love as a key to marriage:

As a rule, marriage is the result of a mild preference, encouraged by circumstances, and deliberately heightened into strong sexual feeling. You, of all men, know well enough that the same kind of feeling could be produced for almost any woman who wasn’t repulsive.

Eventually, reason enough for an engagement is provided by a legacy of £5,000 left to Marian by John Yule.

Life and death eventually end the possibility of this union. Milvain’s initial career advancement is a position on The Current, a paper edited by Clement Fadge. Twenty years earlier, Alfred Yule (Marian’s father) was slighted by Fadge in a newspaper article, and the resulting acerbic resentment extends even to Milvain. Alfred refuses to countenance Marian’s marriage; but his objection proves to be an obstacle to Milvain only after Yule’s eyesight fails and Marian’s legacy is reduced to a mere £1,500. As a result, Marian must work to provide for her parent, and her inheritance is no longer available to Milvain.

By this time, Milvain already has detected a more desirable target for marriage: Amy Reardon. Reardon’s poverty and natural disposition toward ill-health culminate in his death following a brief reconciliation with his wife. She, besides the receipt of £10,000 upon John Yule’s death, has the natural beauty and grace to benefit a man in the social events beneficial to his career. Eventually Amy and Milvain marry; however, as the narrator reveals, this marriage motivated by circumstances is not lacking in more profound areas. Milvain, it is said, has married the woman he loves, although it should be noted that the narrator never states this as a fact, merely reporting it as something others have said about Milvain. In fact, in a conversation that ends the book, the reader is left to question whether Milvain is in fact haunted by his love for Marian, and his ungentlemanly actions in that regard.

At first I was pleasantly surprised – like many Victorian novels it took a depressing turn; poverty and despair – it was very modern. There were discussions about writing as an art and writing as a business, marriage – should it be for love or a step up the career ladder/social order?  It is a novel about writing – do you know that it is easier to write dialogue and it fills the space quicker?  Gissing is sympathetic to all of his characters, particularly Marian, the point of this novel is to highlight how poverty is a terrible burden on the intelligent and sensitive.

This novel is not for the faint hearted – it is long and the last third is depressing (I suspect that was Gissing’s point). It is also bleak and cynical and none of the characters you like fare well. However, it documents a time and place in English life and publishing.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/31/100-best-novels-new-grub-street-gissing

http://www.londonfictions.com/george-gissing-new-grub-street.html

 

 

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Snowdrift – Georgette Heyer

Snowdrift and other stories – Georgette Heyer

I do like Georgette Heyer novels – the regency romances the mysteries – and, so as soon as I had of this one I pre-ordered it. And then when it arrived I saved it for my trip to Rottnest – perfect!

Here’s the blurb …

Previously titled Pistols for Two, this edition includes three recently discovered short stories. A treat for all fans of Georgette Heyer, and for those who love stories full of romance and intrigue.

Affairs of honour between bucks and blades, rakes and rascals; affairs of the heart between heirs and orphans, beauties and bachelors; romance, intrigue, escapades and duels at dawn. All the gallantry, villainy and elegance of the age that Georgette Heyer has so triumphantly made her own are exquisitely revived in these wonderfully romantic stories of the Regency period.

If you have read any Heyer, then you will know exactly what this book is like. These stories are swashbuckling fun – full of beautiful girls, masterful heros and misguided young men trying to do the right thing. It is a book of short stories and it might be better to read them one at a time with a bit of a break between them because sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.

More reviews …

http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/snowdrift-and-other-stories-by-georgette-heyer-lsv8jt73j

http://the-history-girls.blogspot.com.au/2016/09/new-georgette-heyer-stories.html – this one is an interview with Jennifer Kloester who wrote the introduction (plus she has written a biography of Heyer)

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Road Ends – Mary Lawson

Road Ends – Mary Lawson

So after reading Crow Lake I moved straight onto this one (and I think this one is the better novel).

Here is the blurb …

He listened as their voices faded into the rumble of the falls. He was thinking about the lynx. The way it had looked at him, acknowledging his existence, then passing out of his life like smoke. . . It was the first thing—the only thing—that had managed, if only for a moment, to displace from his mind the image of the child. He had carried that image with him for a year now, and it had been a weight so great that sometimes he could hardly stand.

Mary Lawson’s beloved novels, Crow Lake and The Other Side of the Bridge, have delighted legions of readers around the world. The fictional, northern Ontario town of Struan, buried in the winter snows, is the vivid backdrop to her breathtaking new novel.

Roads End brings us a family unravelling in the aftermath of tragedy: Edward Cartwright, struggling to escape the legacy of a violent past; Emily, his wife, cloistered in her room with yet another new baby, increasingly unaware of events outside the bedroom door; Tom, their eldest son, twenty-five years old but home again, unable to come to terms with the death of a friend; and capable, formidable Megan, the sole daughter in a household of eight sons, who for years held the family together but has finally broken free and gone to England, to try to make a life of her own.

Roads End is Mary Lawson at her best. In this masterful, enthralling, tender novel, which ranges from the Ontario silver rush of the early 1900s to swinging London in the 1960s, she gently reveals the intricacies and anguish of family life, the push and pull of responsibility and individual desire, the way we can face tragedy, and in time, hope to start again.

This novel, like Crow Lake, is about families – relationships between parent and child, between siblings, who is responsible for whom. It is also about responsibility for our actions – accepting the consequences and finding a way to move forward.  It is a beautifully written novel – the cold seeps of the page – and it is very moving. All of these people – Tom, Edward, Reverend Thomas – tormented by the past and their actions or lack of action. However, there is hope at the end.

More reviews …

https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/books/2013/11/15/road_ends_by_mary_lawson_review.html

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/road-ends-a-compelling-but-familiar-look-at-the-harsh-realities-of-northern-ontario-life/article15675077/

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Crow Lake – Mary Lawson

Crow Lake – Mary Lawson

I have been wanting to read this book for a long time – ever since I read that she was a relative of L.M Montgomery, but it was quite hard to get hold off eventually I found a copy at the Book Depository.

Here is the blurb …

Crow Lake is that rare find, a first novel so quietly assured, so emotionally pitch perfect, you know from the opening page that this is the real thing—a literary experience in which to lose yourself, by an author of immense talent.
Here is a gorgeous, slow-burning story set in the rural “badlands” of northern Ontario, where heartbreak and hardship are mirrored in the landscape. For the farming Pye family, life is a Greek tragedy where the sins of the fathers are visited on the sons, and terrible events occur—offstage.
Center stage are the Morrisons, whose tragedy looks more immediate if less brutal, but is, in reality, insidious and divisive. Orphaned young, Kate Morrison was her older brother Matt’s protegee, her fascination for pond life fed by his passionate interest in the natural world. Now a zoologist, she can identify organisms under a microscope but seems blind to the state of her own emotional life. And she thinks she’s outgrown her siblings—Luke, Matt, and Bo—who were once her entire world.
In this universal drama of family love and misunderstandings, of resentments harbored and driven underground, Lawson ratchets up the tension with heartbreaking humor and consummate control, continually overturning one’s expectations right to the very end. Tragic, funny, unforgettable, Crow Lake is a quiet tour de force that will catapult Mary Lawson to the forefront of fiction writers today.

For all of you Montgomery fans this does have a bit of a Montgomery feel and there is a family called Pye! In this novel we know something happened between Matt and Kate, which severed their close connection. And I have to say when the thing was revealed I was disappointed. However, I loved everything else about this novel – the characters are particularly well-written, I just thought the climax was anti-climatic. I was swept away to this small northern Ontario town – the sense of place was brilliant particularly the Morrisons’ house.

This is a story about families and family conflict and the different methods different members employ to negotiate conflicts.  It is also about choices – and how much freedom people have to make decisions about their lives.

More reviews …

https://www.januarymagazine.com/fiction/crowlake.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2002/03/24/books/the-girl-she-left-behind.html

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Hag Seed – Margaret Atwood

Hag Seed – Margaret Atwood

I don’t think I have read an Atwood novel that I haven’t liked. So I was keen to read this – I did ask at my local Dymocks and they hadn’t heard of it, which is very upsetting. Anyway this is a re-telling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project). I know nothing about The Tempest, so I read the wikipedia summary (although having read that I think The Collector by John Fowles might have some Tempest allusions – there is a Miranda, a man who wants to be called Ferdinand, but gets called Caliban – I do wonder now what my English Lit teacher was thinking not to mention Shakespeare?)

Here’s the blurb …

The Tempest is set on a remote island full of strange noises and creatures. Here, Prospero, the deposed Duke of Milan, plots to restore the fortunes of his daughter Miranda by using magic and illusion — starting with a storm that will bring Antonio, his treacherous brother, to him. All Prospero, the great sorcerer, needs to do is watch as the action he has set in train unfolds.

In Margaret Atwood’s ‘novel take’ on Shakespeare’s original, theatre director Felix has been unceremoniously ousted from his role as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre. When he lands a job teaching theatre in a prison, the possibility of revenge presents itself — and his cast find themselves taking part in an interactive and illusion-ridden version of The Tempest that will change their lives forever.

I found this to be quite the page turner – and I am quite sure I wouldn’t have found the original to be so enthralling.

It is such a clever, fun, modern interpretation (and the prisoners offer insightful commentary about the original).

As with all Atwood novels, it is beautifully written – her choice of words is extraordinary (it must be the poet in her). I wish she would write for the Austen project, which apart from Northanger Abbey has been quite disappointing.

More reviews …

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/16/hag-seed-review-margaret-atwood-tempest-hogarth-shakespeare

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/arts/review/shakespeare-goes-under-margaret-atwoods-microscope-in-hagseed/news-story/d21be2b437ca5c86a5f2365b1d08747d

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