Reading Round-Up: November 2021

Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for November, 2021.

Paper Girls Vol. 1, by Brian K. Vaughn – The first volume of this new-to-me comic by Brian K. Vaughn (of Saga fame) opens early in the morning on the day after Halloween, in 1988 – so, naturally, I was saving it to read on November 1st. There are aliens, time travel, and a kick@$$ paper-delivery girl gang – good stuff all around. I can’t wait to read the next volume.

Murder by Matchlight, by E.C.R. Lorac – It’s a dark night during the Blitz. Bruce Mallaig, disappointed by his fiancee’s inability to meet him for dinner, strolls through Regents Park in the dark and witnesses the moment before a murder. Chief Inspector Macdonald doesn’t have much to go on – the briefest flare of light during the striking of a match, and an unidentified corpse – but it’s enough. This was my first E.C.R. Lorac (I’d read Crossed Skis, by the same author but written under a different pseudonym, and loved it) and it was a delight. I’ll definitely be working my way through all of the Loracs that the BL Crime Classics imprint has brought out – quite a few of which are already on my shelves, waiting.

Slightly Foxed No. 71: Jocelin’s Folly (Autumn 2021), ed. Gail Pirkis and Hazel Wood – A new issue of Slightly Foxed is always a treat, and this one was no different. Rachel Kelly’s beautiful essay about working through grief and depression with the help of poetry was by far the best item in the journal this season, but I also loved Clarissa Burden on Josephine Tey’s Inspector Alan Grant – really, it was all wonderful, as always.

Meet Mr Mulliner, by P.G. Wodehouse – I listened to this standalone collection of linked short stories over Audible, and it was a delight from the first word to the last. I’m not sure I’ve ever departed from Wodehouse’s two famous series – the Jeeves books and the Blandings Castle series – and it was such fun. I particularly enjoyed the two stories featuring Augustine Mulliner, but they were all great. If my family was as fascinating as Mr Mulliner’s family, you can bet I’d take up residence in a pub and spin tales about them too.

Blitz Writing, by Inez Holden – This volume collects two different works: a novella (Night Shift) and a memoir (It Was Different at the Time) by Inez Holden. The gorgeous writing reminded me a bit of Virginia Woolf, although it feels like a disservice to Holden to compare her to anyone (even the greats). The vivid description of a night of bombardment, toward the end of Night Shift, was particularly breathtaking.

The Sittaford Mystery, by Agatha Christie – Another Audible listen, and another standalone from an author better known for series – on a snowy December night, a group of acquaintances gathers around a table for a seance. The table reports that another of their acquaintances, Captain Trevelyan, is dead – murdered. Captain Narracott, tasked with ferreting out the criminal, promptly arrests the dead man’s eldest nephew, James Pearson – but Jim’s intrepid fiancee, Emily Trefusis, is convinced that Jim had nothing to do with the crime and is determined to catch the real killer and clear her beloved’s name. It took me a bit to get into this one – unusual for Christie. Everyone involved seemed completely inept and idiotic, Inspector Narracott most of all. It wasn’t until Emily appeared that things got good. (Her first appearance on the page takes place when she walks in on Jim’s arrest. He wails that he didn’t kill his uncle. “Of course you didn’t, darling,” Emily reassures him. “You haven’t got the guts.” And then I thought – thank goodness! Finally, someone with some sense.) Emily is a fabulous character and I only wish that Christie had written more mysteries featuring her as the sleuth.

Framley Parsonage (Chronicles of Barsetshire #4), by Anthony Trollope – I won’t say much here, because I’m going to write up a full review for The Classics Club, but – of course – I loved this installment in the Chronicles of Barsetshire. There’s so much going on – the novel mainly revolves around the social-climbing Vicar of Framley and the distressing scrape he finds himself in, but there’s a major side plot involving a love story between the Vicar’s sister Lucy and the young squire, which is a delight to watch unfold. And our friends Dr Thorne, Frank and Mary Gresham, and the fabulous Miss Dunstable all pop in for a hello, too. Framley Parsonage isn’t my favorite Barset novel so far (Dr Thorne still holds the top spot on the pedestal) but it was, of course, wonderful.

Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto – This poignant, heart-wrenching novella tells the story of Mikage and Yuichi, two lost souls trying to navigate loss and grief – both needing each other, but each unwilling to drag the other into their own despair. Both have lost their entire families and are alone in the world, but for one another; Mikage cooks her way out of grief and into an understanding of her deeper feelings for Yuichi. The translation from the original Japanese text is gorgeous, and I wanted to gather them both up for hugs.

Not bad for a month that included a weeklong trip to Colorado (and no reading at all, other than on the plane). Everything I read this month was wonderful, lucky me – it’s almost impossible to pick a highlight. Still, if I have to (I know I don’t have to) Trollope always takes top spot anytime he appears in a monthly booklist. But there was also P.G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie, so good company. And “Kitchen” was a marvelous, if devastating, read on which to end the month. For December, I have big holiday reading plans, as usual, and another trip – plenty of reading time in the car.

Themed Reads: A Little Blitzy

It’s no secret that I love a good World War II book – home front, travel, memoir, history, contemporaneous or historical fiction – I’ll take it all, and more, please. There’s a whole subset of World War II books set in London during the Blitz, of course, and it makes sense: when and where else was the indominable spirit of a nation more courageously on display? The material for writers is endless, and exemplified by Vere Hodgson’s diaries, in which she would downplay a night of heavy, horrific bombardment as “a little blitzy.” Here are three different examples.

First, the aforementioned Vere Hodgson, whose Blitz diary was published (and republished by Persephone Books) as Few Eggs and No Oranges. This is a doorstopper, but well worth the time. Hodgson records daily life in London, with all its challenges, from the early years through the end of the war. The office cat in the charity where she worked gets plenty of coverage, to bring some levity to the pages describing incendiary bombs and tragic destruction.

Handheld Classics brings us two Blitz books for the price of one – a novella, Night Shift, about factory workers in wartime London, and It Was Different At The Time, Holden’s Blitz memoir – combined into one volume, Blitz Writing. Holden’s very modern voice reminded me of Virginia Woolf a little bit, and the characters in both the novella and the memoir are so very lifelike. The description of a night’s bombing at the end of Night Shift is absolutely terrifying.

Finally, for something a little bit fun, E.C.R. Lorac brings us a mystery with a strong sense of time and place. Murder by Matchlight begins with a young man strolling through Regents Park on a deeply black night in London during the Blitz. All of the lights are out – it’s blackout, after all – and the only light is the momentary flare of a match. In that moment, a terrifying face looms up, and seconds later, a murder is committed. That is all Inspector Macdonald has to go on, and it’s not much. The mystery and characters are engaging, and there is a firefighting scene so vivid that you can hear the bombs whistling and feel the heat of the flames.

Of course, there’s more to World War II literature than the Blitz, and when I was considering the books I’ve read so far, most of them actually don’t focus on this particular horror. But there are quite a few Blitz books, for all that, and many of them are now classics for good reason.

Have you read any books set during the Blitz? Any recommendations for me?

Reading Round-Up: October 2021

Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for October, 2021.

The Murder on the Links (Hercule Poirot #2), by Agatha Christie – At this point I think I’ve probably read half or more of Agatha Christie’s prolific output, but this was one I’d not yet tried out. I enjoyed the second installment of Poirot and Hastings, in which the friends travel to France after they are summoned by a desperate letter, only to find they have arrived too late to prevent a murder. But the murder itself is not quite what it seems – fortunately Poirot is on the scene to unravel the knotty threads. I listened to this on Audible, and it was such fun.

O, the Brave Music, by Dorothy Evelyn Smith – The new British Library Women Writers series has been on my radar since it was announced, and I am trying to stay current on releases (I am getting in near the ground floor, which helps – by the time I started buying BL Crime Classics there were too many to stay up-to-date on). O, the Brave Music was a good place to start in both buying and reading: the coming-of-age story of Ruan, an ugly duckling who suffers great losses but is sustained by friendships. I adored it.

The Stubborn Light of Things: A Nature Diary, by Melissa Harrison – I’ve been a fan of Melissa Harrison’s seasonal anthologies (read on) and have been gradually reading them all year. The Stubborn Light of Things is a collection of Harrison’s Nature Notes for The Times, and is a restful and rejuvenating read.

Longbourn, by Jo Baker – Although I normally don’t enjoy Jane Austen adaptations, I’d heard such good things about Longbourn that I decided to give it a try – and it did live up to the hype. “Pride and Prejudice from the point of view of the servants” is the most common descriptor, and that’s technically correct, but there’s much more to it than that. Longbourn housemaid Sarah is the primary character, and she has a story and romance all her own; her life and interests definitely do not revolve around who the Miss Bennets will marry. I loved the different perspective and the new take on one of my very favorite books.

Come, Tell Me How You Live: An Archeological Memoir, by Agatha Christie Mallowan – After divorcing her first husband, Archie Christie, Dame Agatha found love again with Sir Max Mallowan, a renowned archaeologist. Come, Tell Me How You Live is her fascinating memoir of the months she spent traveling in Syria and Iraq with Max, accompanying him on his lengthy archaeological digs. It was both hilarious – I literally LOLed many times – and fascinating.

Frenchman’s Creek, by Daphne du Maurier – Daphne du Maurier is best known for her suspense novels, so I figured Frenchman’s Creek, which I’d not yet read, would make a good chilling choice for the lead-up to Halloween. Joke’s on me, because the action took place over a sultry midsummer; it’s a classic example of hot weather making people behave badly. Bored, restless Lady Dona St. Columb flees her wine- and mischief-soaked life in Restoration London, taking her two children and their nanny to her husband’s country seat in Cornwall. There, Dona is titillated by her stuffy neighbors’ stories of French pirates ravaging the coastline. Soon enough, she finds herself face to face with the pirates’ swashbuckling captain – and obviously, she is immediately and deeply attracted. Dona falls head-over-heels in love with the Frenchman, but when the local gentry mounts a determined effort to capture him, she will have to choose between her desire for a footloose life of romance and adventure, and her equally deep attachment to her young children. I loved this, and will revisit it over and over again – but next time, in summer.

Ghostways: Two Journeys in Unquiet Places, by Robert MacFarlane, Stanley Donwood and Dan Richards – As a fan of Robert MacFarlane’s poetry, I am always looking out for his work and I picked this up in Old Town Books this month. The title seemed appropriately eerie for Halloween, and it was that indeed. Ghostways includes two short pieces: Ness, about a weapons-testing wasteland, and Holloway, about a hidden half-underground world. I loved Holloway, but was underwhelmed by Ness. (Also, note that Ness includes two completely unnecessary swears. Demerits were issued.)

Autumn: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons, ed. Melissa Harrison – It’s a Melissa Harrison month! I enjoyed the last of her seasonal anthologies I’d not yet read, Autumn, very much – although I think Winter is still my favorite.

The Daughter of Time (Inspector Alan Grant #5), by Josephine Tey – Here’s one I’d been meaning to get to for ages, and it didn’t disappoint. The Daughter of Time finds Inspector Alan Grant laid up in hospital, recovering from a leg injury sustained while in hot pursuit of a criminal. Faced with weeks of endless boredom, Inspector Grant is unexpectedly captivated by a portrait of Richard III, one of England’s most notorious kings (he supposedly murdered, or commissioned the murder of, his two young nephews – the Princes in the Tower – to secure his claim to the throne). Inspector Grant finds it hard to believe that Richard III, with a face more suited to the bench than the dock, could be a murderer – or at least that he could have been responsible for this particular murder. He enlists the help of a young researcher and applies his formidable brain to answering the questions: was Richard III responsible for the Princes’ murder? And if not, whodunit? I was glued to every page and my only complaint was that it was all over too soon; I’d have wandered through the sixteenth century with Inspector Grant for hundreds more pages.

The Story of the Country House, by Clive Aslet – A book I unashamedly bought for the cover alone (look how gorgeous!), The Story of the Country House was a fun and fascinating read. Exploring the architectural history of English country houses from the Roman villa to the suburban sprawl of present day, Aslet goes into detail about building materials, architectural trends, and the like. I was expecting a little more diversified subject matter: there was some upstairs-downstairs, some food, some entertaining, etc., but not as much as I thought there’d be. So if you read this, don’t go into it expecting Downton Abbey. But it was incredibly interesting and a beautifully produced book – definitely one to keep on the shelves and refer back to time and again.

The Manningtree Witches, by A. K. Blakemore – I preordered The Manningtree Witches after hearing about it on the Slightly Foxed podcast; the author, A. K. Blakemore, is a celebrated poet so I figured the writing would be gorgeous, and it was. Plus, I can’t get enough historical witch material; you know me. Of course, it gave me nightmares. But as Halloween reading – perfect. (And I did finish it on Halloween.)

Pumpkinheads, by Rainbow Rowell – My annual tradition for three years running now has been to pull out Pumpkinheads as soon as I turn off my lights, blow out the jack-o-lanterns, and bring in the candy. I love this sweet story of friendship, succotash, and hayrides – and the art is the perfect accompaniment. If you’re looking for a Halloween read for next year and you can’t handle anything too scary (connection!) put this on your list.

Whew! Busy bookish October, indeed. My summer reading slump-ish thing is definitely over – even with a weeklong business trip to Seattle (during which I was too busy to read much at all) I managed to knock back twelve books, and enjoyed them thoroughly. The du Maurier and the Tey were definitely my highlights of the month, and any month that includes Melissa Harrison is good with me. I’m looking forward to long cozy nights with my book and my candle into November, too – it’s reading season, friends.

What were your bookish highlights of October?

The Classics Club Challenge: The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves

I was really looking forward to reading The Greek Myths. First of all, I was acquainted with Robert Graves’ writing through his classic I, Claudius, which I had loved – and how can you beat that edition, with an introduction from Rick Riordan? So I was definitely excited.

Athene invented the flute, the trumpet, the earthenware pot, the plough, the rake, the ox-yoke, the horse-bridle, the chariot, and the ship. She first taught the science of numbers, and all women’s arts, such as cooking, weaving, and spinning. Although a goddess of war, she gets no pleasure from battle, as Ares and Eris do, but rather from settling disputes, and upholding the law by pacific means. She bears no arms in time of peace and, if ever she needs any, will usually borrow a set from Zeus. Her mercy is great: when the judges’ votes are equal in a criminal trial at the Areiopagus, she always gives a casting vote to liberate the accused. Yet, once engaged in battle, she never loses the day, even against Ares himself, being better grounded in tactics and strategy than he; and wise captains always approach her for advice.

I have a decent background in Greek mythology from reading relatively widely over the years, and I’m fairly well grounded in the personalities and main myths of the Olympian gods and the principal heroes – Odysseus, Heracles/Hercules, Jason, Achilles, and to a lesser extent Theseus and Perseus (who I tend to mix up). I figured this classic compilation, which covers the entire Greek mythologic landscape, would be riveting.

It… wasn’t.

I hung in fairly well through the beginning sections, which focused more on the gods. Quickly, I gave up on my plan of reading all the footnotes, and just stuck to the main text – which was plenty dense enough without all the extra scholarly bits. Graves really started to lose me by the time he introduced the heroes, and after diligently ploughing through a quarter of the book, I started aggressively skimming. Call me unsophisticated, but I do like to have at least one character to root for, and everyone in The Greek Myths – gods, heroes, and other mortals alike – was capricious, jealous, and downright homicidal. Even my longtime favorite Olympian, Artemis, was murdering people left and right until the words started swimming on the page.

Take, for instance, the story of the marriage between King Peleus and Thetis the sea-goddess (a union which produced Achilles). Zeus had the hots for Thetis (and everyone else, too!) but prophecy held that she would give birth to a son who was greater and more powerful than his father. No one can be greater or more powerful than Zeus, so obviously he had to be hands-off with Thetis, and she was married off, much to her chagrin, to a mortal. Trigger warning:

Now Cheiron foresaw that Thetis, being immortal, would at first resent the marriage; and, acting on his instructions, Peleus concealed himself behind a bush of parti-colored myrtle-berries on the shores of a Thessalian islet, where Thetis often came, riding naked on a harnessed dolphin, to enjoy her midday sleep in the cave which this bush half screened. No sooner had she entered the cave and fallen asleep than Peleus seized hold of her. The struggle was silent and fierce. Thetis turned successively into fire, water, a lion, and a serpent; but Peleus had been warned what to expect, and clung to her resolutely, even when she became an enormous slippery cuttle-fish and squirted ink and him–a change which accounts for the name of Cape Sepias, the near-by promontory, now sacred to the Nereids. Though burned, drenched, mauled, stung, and covered with sticky sepia ink, Peleus would not let her go and, in the end, she yielded and they lay locked in a passionate embrace.

(It’s almost impossible to choose a passage to quote, there’s so much “ravishing” in this book. I missed my nice sanitized-for-children version that I grew up reading.) Anyway, Thetis’ marriage starts off inauspicious and gets worse: all of the Olympians attend the wedding, and Hera, Athene and Aphrodite get embroiled in a dispute over a golden ball, which leads directly to the Trojan War. Hate when that happens, don’t you? At least no one gets murdered at the wedding.

If you couldn’t tell, I was decidedly ambivalent about this book. I can see myself returning to it over and over as a reference – Greek mythology is so ubiquitous in popular culture that it’s nice to have a comprehensive guide, for sure – but I didn’t enjoy the reading experience nearly enough to re-read it from cover to cover. Rick Riordan’s introduction was the best part.

Have you read The Greek Myths?

Themed Reads: Charming Correspondents

It’s no secret that I love a good epistolary novel. I often think that if I ever wrote a book myself, I’d choose to write in the novel-in-letters form. There’s something so cozy about curling up with a volume of letters – fictional or not, really – and so much the better when the letter-writer grabs your heart. In my years of seeking out epistolary novels, I’ve come across a few truly charming correspondents.

There may be no correspondent more charming than Rose-Marie Schmidt of Elizabeth Von Arnim’s classic Fraulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther. When the novel opens, Rose-Marie, the daughter of an impoverished teacher in a German hillside hamlet, is falling in love with one Roger Anstruther, an English student of her father’s. When Roger goes home to England, Rose-Marie writes him long and effusive love-filled letters. Sadly, Roger is by no means worthy of the wonderful Rose-Marie, and the engagement is short-lived. But a few months later, lonely and in need of an outlet, Rose-Marie renews the correspondence – now with her friend “Mr Anstruther” (demoted from Roger). With the love affair over, the good letters begin, and Rose-Marie writes of her love for books – she’s a particular fan of Jane Austen – of the turn of the seasons in her beautiful mountain home, and of the local denizens of the hamlet. We don’t get Mr Anstruther’s side of the correspondence, which is just fine – Rose-Marie is the star, and rightfully so.

If there’s anyone who can rival Rose-Marie Schmidt as a correspondent, it’s Hilary Fane of the absolutely delightful Business as Usual by Jane Oliver (with fabulous line drawings by Ann Stafford). Hilary is the daughter of an Edinburgh professor, recently engaged to an up-and-coming obstetric surgeon, and she gets the novel idea to support herself with a job (the thought of it!) in the year before her marriage. Her well-meaning middle-class parents are astonished and her fiancé is, frankly, horrified. But Hilary decamps for London with a month’s worth of savings and lands herself a temp gig in the book department of “Everyman’s” (a thinly disguised Selfridge’s). Through a combination of luck and pluck she works her way up, and her letters charmingly depict the drudgery of a “nine-to-six” with cheer and humor. I laughed out loud on almost every page.

Lastly, I can’t leave out one of my favorite literary letter-writers: Anne Shirley. Anne of Windy Poplars (or Windy Willows as it’s known in Canada and abroad – obviously that’s the correct title but I grew up with the American version so what can you do?) is not an entirely epistolary novel, but Anne’s letters figure prominently in the text, and major segments of the story are told in her voice, writing to sweet, dashing Gilbert Blythe. Anne describes her trials and tribulations as the principal of a rural school while she waits out her engagement – she gets off to a bumpy start but, characteristically, charms everyone in the end. It’s always a joy to dive back into her letters with their lively chatter of cats, and Rebecca Dew, and Katherine-with-a-K.

What are your favorite epistolary novels?

Reading Round-Up: September 2021

Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for September, 2021.

Where Stands a Winged Sentry, by Margaret Kennedy – I flew through this memoir of the tense summer between the official declaration of World War II and the beginning of the Blitz. Margaret Kennedy is a renowned and respected novelist, but her war memoir, taken from her diaries of that hot and anxious stretch, never mentions work – Kennedy is consumed with her children, her responsibilities, missing her London-bound husband, and invasion worries. This was beautifully written and a wonderful read.

The Hour of Land, by Terry Tempest Williams – I brought this with me to Shenandoah National Park for Labor Day weekend and it was a perfect choice. Williams, a noted environmental activist and nature writer, shares twelve of her most personally significant national parks. The writing is beautiful and atmospheric, although I did start to bog down near the end.

Slightly Foxed No. 70: Tigers at the Double Lion, ed. Gail Pirkis and Hazel Wood – Not much to say about Slightly Foxed that I haven’t said before! I thoroughly enjoyed the summer issue – as always.

Goldenrod, by Maggie Smith – I preordered the new volume of Maggie Smith’s poems and I did enjoy it, although some spoke to me more than others did. Smith’s bittersweet reflections on motherhood were the highlight for me.

Crooked Sixpence, by Jane Shaw – Loved this recent reprint from Girls Gone By publishers! Six friends team up to investigate who is sending poison pen letters to the cherished and cuddly local squire. There’s a ghost – maybe! – and some Roman history. Good fun all around.

Spam Tomorrow, by Verily Anderson – In the mood for another war memoir, I picked up this reflection on life on the home front. I’d been saving it, and am so glad I finally read it, because it was a total delight from the first chapter – when Anderson goes AWOL from the FANYs to get married, but it’s fine because she was a terrible FANY anyway – through to the harrowing birth of her first child. There is a lot of moving houses, and a hilarious chapter in which Anderson and her friend/roommate Julie decide to open a B&B to earn extra cash in the absence of their husbands; they’re not born hoteliers. Altogether a total delight – highly recommend.

Period Piece, by Gwen Raverat – I decided to re-read Period Piece, as it was the September choice for Miranda Mills’ comfort book club. It ended up getting downgraded because Raverat reports a deplorable racist attitude that her mother held (I’d read Period Piece before, but that didn’t stand out to me the first time). I say this every time I read a book that is “of its time” – but perhaps there is a blog post there. I tend to take an “if you know better, you do better” attitude and use those moments as reflection points. Other than that one paragraph, this is a lovely book and I enjoyed it just as much the second time as the first.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles (Hercule Poirot #1), by Agatha Christie – Total spur-of-the-moment pickup, but I have been itching to read The Mysterious Affair at Styles and how it all began for Hercule Poirot for ages now. Totally ingenious mystery, as always, and good fun all around.

The House Party: A Short History of Leisure, Pleasure and the Country House Weekend, by Adrian Tinniswood – This was a quick one – the work of about ninety minutes – but fun. Tinniswood explores country house parties “between the wars” – from the transportation to the guests to the food and more. Interesting and enjoyable.

Business as Usual, by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford – This is going to be another one of my highlights of the year. Business As Usual is an epistolary novel following a young woman as she decamps to London with the novel idea of spending a year working and earning money before she marries her surgeon fiance. It was a fabulous, funny and sweet read. I loved it.

All Creatures Great and Small, by James Herriot – This is something of a triumph – after about eight months of listening in fits and starts, I finally finished All Creatures Great and Small on audio. Really enjoyed this classic memoir by a Yorkshire vet, but it was rather more detail about bovine birth than I bargained for. I expect I’ll continue with Herriot’s memoirs, but I need a little break first.

The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves – Read for the Classics Club Challenge, this is the definitive compilation of Greek myths. All of your murder, incest, forced marriage and eye-gouging, you can find it here. I’ll have a full review coming later in the month, but… it was a bit much.

Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life, by Marta McDowell – I needed a palate cleanser after The Greek Myths and this was perfect. I love these Timber Press books about famous authors and the gardens and landscapes that inspired them (I’ve read The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh and The Landscapes of Anne of Green Gables already) and this tour of Beatrix Potter’s life in gardens was lovely. And the books are absolutely gorgeous.

Fresh From the Country, by Miss Read – This standalone book by Miss Read has been staring at me from my shelf for months – it was time. Young Anna Lacey, fresh-faced and innocent, leaves her idyllic farm home and embarks on a new career as a teacher in an overcrowded suburban school. At first, Anna is desperately homesick – cold, hungry and lonely in her penny-pinching boarding house landlady’s clutches – and lost and confused at school. But friendship and romance await, and her first year of teaching proves to be eventful. I so enjoyed this book, and will re-read it again and again.

At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond, by Various Authors – So, this is a classic “I bought it for the cover” book, but that cover didn’t lead me wrong – it was wonderful. Women of all ages, shapes, sizes, and backgrounds muse on the peculiar magic of the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond in a series of essays. I especially loved “The Lifeguard’s Perspective” – an essay by a lifeguard who watched the life of the pond swirl around her from her yellow canoe, while a new life grew inside her. And I appreciated that the essays weren’t universally adulatory – a non-binary writer mused that they don’t swim at the ladies’ pond anymore because they don’t feel female enough, for instance. I’ve never been to the ladies’ pond, but I feel like I have now.

Whew! Some month. I definitely got my reading mojo back after the long, hot summer of not-much-book-time. It would be hard to pick a favorite for the month; Business As Usual was an absolute joy, but so was Fresh From the Country. And then there were two – not one, but TWO – standout World War II home front memoirs, and wonderful nature writing, and the Queen of Crime… no, I can’t pick a favorite. But I’m grateful for this lovely month of reading, and excited for October’s books ahead.

Themed Reads: Set in September

I love reading seasonally through the year, as you know – summer books in hot weather; Christmas books at the holidays, etc. Surprisingly, though, I haven’t found many books set during the month of September. You’d think that the beginnings of crisp weather and the turning of another school year would present ample material for novelists – and maybe they do and I just haven’t found them, but it seems to me that there’s a niche to be filled here. There are a few standouts set during the ninth month of the year, though, and they’re as lovely as September itself.

R. C. Sherriff’s A Fortnight in September – republished by Persephone Books – has proven popular enough to be made into a Persephone Classic, and for good reason. It’s one of those books in which nothing happens and at the same time everything happens. Covering a family’s annual seaside holiday from the delicious anticipation of the night before to the last bittersweet walk on the promenade, it’s a poignant and sweet read that will stay with you.

One of my recent reads – just this month! – Crooked Sixpence, by Jane Shaw, follows six intrepid friends as they investigate some seriously sinister goings-on over a few hot September weeks. Why is the kindly and beloved local squire (grandfather to two of the gang) receiving poison pen letters with the apparent aim of driving him from his ancestral holdings? What is the connection to the spooky “Tudor Boy” ghost who has been appearing nightly and clanking across the too-aptly named Villain Field? And how is this all connected to the Roman coin that a local shut-in gave to the lead character? There’s haying, a rollicking camping trip, and lots of good food (advice: DO NOT read this book hungry).

Finally, can’t leave out the ultimate – September, by Rosamunde Pilcher, actually takes place mostly over the course of six or so months leading up to the climactic September ball. As is typical for Pilcher, it’s a hefty novel packed with detail – there are picnics in the Scottish heather, lots of tea, a cast of fully-realized characters, and a poignant climax. I love Pilcher’s novels, and although this didn’t top The Shell Seekers as my favorite (although if you’ve read that one, you’ll recognize one of the characters in September) it was a cracking good read.

What are your favorite books set in September? Any recommendations for me?

Reading Round-Up: August 2021

Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for August, 2021.

Chesapeake, by James A. Michener – I first picked up this doorstopper (metaphorically; I read it on my kindle) back in early July, while camping in Chincoteague, and have been picking at it for two months. It’s engaging and well-written, but almost comically long. The novel follows the life of the Eastern Shore and the Chesapeake Bay from the 1500s to 1978, through the stories of a few local families over the generations. I enjoyed it and never found it to be really a slog, but it just took me forever. I’ve got a blog post percolating about the experience of reading Michener, so watch for that.

The Swiss Summer, by Stella Gibbons – Needing a major reading refresher after that doorstopper, Chesapeake, I turned to one of the books I really hoped to get to this summer – Stella Gibbons’ The Swiss Summer, recently reprinted by Dean Street Press. I have enjoyed every single Dean Street Press title I’ve picked up, and this one was no different. Lucy Cottrell, wealthy and beloved by her husband but childless, is looking for a change of pace and finds it when she is invited to join Freda Blandish, companion to the aristocratic Lady Daeglish, at the latter’s Swiss chalet for a summer of cataloguing the library. Lucy’s plans for a peaceful summer of books and Alpine flowers are shattered when the chalet is invaded by half a dozen noisy guests. Shenanigans and romance ensue. It was a total delight and just what I needed.

A Month in the Country, by J. L. Carr – Another one from my summer reading list – I’ve been meaning to get to Carr’s slim novel for years and it absolutely lived up to the hype. Tom Birkin, broken in body (from the trenches of World War I) and spirit (from a failed marriage) plods into the northern village of Oxgodby with a commission to uncover what is believed to be a medieval masterpiece under centuries of limewash on the church wall. As the painting gradually reveals itself, Tom begins to shed his layers of heartache and come back to the world. This book was absolutely gorgeous.

Summer: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons (Seasonal Quartet #2), ed. Melissa Harrison – I’ve loved each of the Melissa Harrison seasonal anthologies (having read Winter and Spring in their respective seasons). This one was just as much of a delight – mingling poetry, excerpts from classic novels and nature volumes, and modern writing on the season commissioned specifically for this anthology. It was all lovely, but my favorite piece was an essay by a twelve-year-old birding enthusiast on being taken by his dad to view a rare specimen – totally charming.

The Adventurous Summer, by Mabel Esther Allan – I’ve recently gotten into collecting the classic children’s novels reprinted by Girls Gone By Press and I’ve accumulated quite a stack. This is one of the most recent reprints, and was a delight. Nick and Sorrel are Londoners who come to stay with their aunt and uncle in the Cotswolds while their parents are in America (touring with the father’s orchestra). Although disgruntled about the plan at first, they quickly make friends and dive into country life. I flew through this in two days and couldn’t put it down – couldn’t wait to see what the Adventure Club friends would do next. Such a fun way to wrap up the season!

Well! Five books may not look like much, but I got my reading mojo back in a big way. After spending more than six weeks plodding my way through Chesapeake, I slammed four books in the last week-and-a-half of the month, and enjoyed each one thoroughly. I’m not even sure I could pick a highlight from among the latter four. They were all absolutely wonderful. I guess the real highlight of the reading month is starting to get excited about books again. I always go through a bit of a dry spell in summer – that’s normal – but I’m looking forward to some long reading evenings and weekends in the colder months that are looming around the corner.

What did you read in August?

My Top Ten Books From The First Half Of 2021 (And Then Some)

Every year, it seems, I forget to round up my top ten books of the first half of the year until late July or early August, so I guess this is par for the course? Let’s not even pretend I remotely have my act together anymore. In any event, I’ve had a great six (actually seven) months of reading – and plenty of good writing ahead of me for the rest of the year, of course. In no particular order, here are my top ten highlights of the year (as always, this list covers books read this year, not necessarily published this year) so far.

Mrs. Tim of the Regiment, by D.E. Stevenson – I have a feeling that 2021 is going to be my Year of D.E. Stevenson. It took me way too long to get to her most famous character, Mrs. Tim Christie, but when I did I was enchanted.

The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton – Gorgeously written, lushly evoked, and frustrating for being so avoidably tragic, The House of Mirth might be Edith Wharton’s masterpiece. I still love The Age of Innocence most, but any Wharton is going to end up on my best-of list for the year, it’s basically guaranteed.

My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell – If you’re looking for something to scratch a travel itch and make you scream with laughter, look no further. I literally laughed until I wept, and then looked up flights to Crete.

Subpar Parks: America’s Most Extraordinary National Parks and their Least Impressed Visitors, by Amber Share – I’ve written on here before about Amber Share’s work and what a huge fan I am. Her first book – featuring some of her best known pieces from social media, but a bunch of new parks too, juxtaposes iconic national park images with idiotic nitpicking criticism and is absolutely hilarious and the pinnacle of irony. Let’s all just crown Amber queen now.

Rhubarb, Rhubarb: A Correspondence Between a Hopeless Gardener and a Hopeful Cook, by Mary Jane Paterson and Jo Thompson – I flew through this, but loved every second. Thompson and Paterson exchange breezy notes, recipes, gardening tips, and life updates. There are beautiful illustrations and photographs and it’s utterly lovely.

Spring Magic, by D.E. Stevenson – See, didn’t I tell you it was going to be my year of D.E. Stevenson? I thought of leaving the charming Spring Magic off this list because Mrs. Tim was already on here, but I couldn’t. I just loved every second of this delightful book.

Mango and Mimosa, by Suzanne, Duchess St. Albans – Give me all the eccentric expat childhood memoirs, please.

Black Narcissus, by Rumer Godden – Not a comfortable reading experience (like most of the other entries on this list were), but Black Narcissus was lush, eerie, gorgeously written and quite frightening. I couldn’t put it down.

A Winter Away, by Elizabeth Fair – Elizabeth Fair is a new-to-me discovery this year and I’ve already read two of her six novels (the other being Landscape in Sunlight, which just narrowly missed this list). These are charming, cozy, comfortable comedies of village life and I am here for them all. (And this one had the added benefit of not being completely obvious who the heroine would end up with – I did guess at the final romantic coupling, but only about 25 pages before the end.)

Winter: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons, ed. Melissa Harrison – I’m reading my way through this series this year, and I’ve read both Winter and Spring. Both are lovely but I enjoyed Winter just a bit more – perhaps because I like winter better than spring in general? Either way – everything from the cover to the last page was just lovely.

What have been your favorite reads of the year so far?

Reading Round-Up: July 2021

Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby. I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book. Here are my reads for July, 2021.

Landscape in Sunlight, by Elizabeth Fair – I am so enjoying Elizabeth Fair’s quietly acerbic comedies of village life – first A Winter Away, and now Landscape in Sunlight, and both have been wonderful. Gentle scheming and romance abound, all set around that tense time in the annual country calendar – the lead-up to the annual church summer fete. Y’all know I can’t resist a summer fete.

Arsenic and Adobo (Tita Rosie’s Kitchen #1), by Mia P. Manansala – I’ve been waiting impatiently for my turn with the library’s copy of this one, and it didn’t disappoint. After a bad breakup, Lila is back in her tiny hometown trying to save her aunt’s failing restaurant. But when Lila’s ex-boyfriend – now a small-time food critic who delights in cruelly eviscerating local restaurants and seems to be trying to put Tita Rosie’s Kitchen out of business – dies of apparent poisoning immediately after arguing with Lila and eating Tita Rosie’s food – things go heavily sideways, and fast. There’s a brash BFF, a handsome defense lawyer, and an attractive dentist love interest who happens to be the brother of the lead investigator (who is devoting all his handsome energy to putting Lila behind bars). This was fun and the descriptions of food – Filipino and otherwise – were mouth-watering.

Tokyo Ever After, by Emiko Jean – I heard this described as “The Princess Diaries in Japan” and that’s a pretty apt take. Izumi is a modern young Californian, raised by a crunchy-granola single mom, who discovers one day that her father – who she’s never met – is actually the Crown Prince of Japan. Before “Zoom Zoom” knows what hit her, she’s on a plane to Tokyo, where a scheming extended family and a handsome but scowling bodyguard await. Hijinks ensue, and the story wraps up perfectly poised for a sequel.

Subpar Parks: America’s Most Extraordinary National Parks and their Least Impressed Visitors, by Amber Share – I’ve already written a few times about how much I love Amber Share’s clever, witty and ironic illustrations – one-star yelp reviews embedded over iconic images of our most beautiful national parks. So I won’t go on and on here; just to say, go check out her work on social media, and pick up this book! It’s hilarious, inspiring, meticulously researched, and will explode your travel agenda.

Noel Streatfeild’s Holiday Stories, by Noel Streatfeild – After enjoying Noel Streatfeild’s Christmas Stories last December, I was keen to check out this summer collection (also, the hardcover is so pretty!). This was a light and fun gathering of children’s stories with a loose summer theme. It was easy reading and charming, but didn’t hold my attention enough to keep me glued to the page.

Mrs. Lorimer’s Quiet Summer, by Molly Clavering – I’m always interested when Dean Street Press drops another collection, and having never heard of Molly Clavering I was particularly intrigued to learn that she was close friends with D.E. Stevenson. Mrs. Lorimer’s Quiet Summer is a loosely autobiographical novel based on Clavering’s friendship with her much more well-known (bestselling) neighbor. There’s reference to both women being writers, but the spotlight is on Mrs. Lorimer’s large and boisterous family of grown children (and a few grandchildren). I loved this delightful light read, and will definitely be picking up more of Clavering’s books soon.

Well – there we have it, a very light reading month. Partly, this has to do with the fact that on and off during the month, I’ve been working my way through James A. Michener’s doorstopping Chesapeake, with which I am still not done. And then I just spend less time reading in the summer than I do in the colder months, anyway. I did read some good ones this month, though! The two Dean Street Press books – Landscape in Sunlight and Mrs. Lorimer’s Quiet Summer – were definite highlights, as was Subpar Parks. I have some good reads on deck for August, too – just as soon as I finally finish Chesapeake. It’s gonna happen.

What were your July reading highlights?