Now the year is over

This year, for the first time, I kept some statistics on the books I read. I didn’t go out of my way to read differently, I just recorded what I felt were the key details, with a view to looking at them at the end of the year. Well, here we are. So what have I learned?

Of my 78 books read in 2012, 12 were non-fiction, 3 poetry and 63 fiction. 32 were written by women, 41 by men and 5 had multiple authors covering both genders, so that’s not a bad split. Only 7 were translated, which is pretty poor. And only 15 of the authors were non-UK, non-US. I think I should work on that.

So will I read differently in 2013? I’d like to try but the TBR is getting unwieldy so my first priority is to stop buying books for a while! And I still have to add the generous pile of Christmas books to the TBR, which will make it even longer…

A merry Christmas indeed

And now it’s time to do some painting before I can bring in the New Year with some of that Christmas wine. Happy New Year everyone! Do you have any reading resolutions?

I’ve just been poring over my spreadsheet again, as I am wont to do, and spotted that while my reading wasn’t as international as I would have liked, I did read something written by at least one author from every continent, and every continent was represented as a setting as well. However, that’s counting America as one continent. If you split it into north and south, then South America is a big glaring omission from my 2012 reads. Good thing I already have a Peruvian book lined up for January!

There must have been some extraordinary quality

The Mitford Girls
by Mary S Lovell

The Mitfords weren’t really on my reading radar until I started book blogging (almost three years ago) and suddenly they were everywhere. After trying to read a volume of Nancy’s letters and failing to see the charm everyone else seemed to have found, I decided it might help to know more about the family and by a stroke of luck, spotted this biography in a charity shop. It worked, in that I am now completely smitten with the Mitfords.

This book is clearly extensively researched – there are 80 pages of notes, index and bibliography at the back – but it manages not to read as a dry product of research, as biographies sometimes can. This is partly due to Lovell’s clear affection for the family, though she only briefly spoke to, rather than knowing intimately, four of the sisters and recounts those meetings very honestly in her introduction. In fact, she does an excellent job of bringing to life her large cast who were largely dead or elderly at the time of writing. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Mitfords were such a very interesting bunch of people.

For those who don’t know, the “Mitford Girls” of the title are the sisters Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah, of whom only the youngest, Deborah, is still alive. For much of the 20th century they were household names, for various reasons. Nancy was a bestselling writer, author of many greatly admired biographies as well as novels including The Pursuit of Love that were heavily based on her own family. Diana married Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, and was a staunch supporter of his political ideals despite decades of hatred from the British public. Unity went even further and became friends with Hitler, in fact was obsessively in love with him and tried to kill herself when Britain declared war in 1939, resulting in brain damage. Jessica was a card-carrying Communist, worked for the civil rights movement in the USA and became such an accomplished journalist that she lectured at universities including Yale and Harvard. Even the less-featured-in-the-headlines Pamela and Deborah lived the kind of lives most of us would find hard to imagine, born as they were the daughters of a Baron, hobnobbing with the great and good of Society, including John Betjeman (family friend), Evelyn Waugh (good friend of Nancy), Winston Churchill (their cousin by marriage), the Kennedys (related by marriage to Deborah) and Harold MacMillan (also related by marriage to Deborah), to name but a few.

I think, because the details were new to me, it was Unity’s story that I found most shocking:

“There must have been some extraordinary quality in Unity that not only attracted Hitler’s attention but caused him to establish a deeper relationship by continued invitations… Unity chatted to Hitler as she would to any member of her family, unselfconsciously bright, always seeking to amuse, entertain or impress. No-one else in his life dared to treat him in the casual manner that Unity adopted.”

Lovell’s job was not, I suppose, an easy one as so very much had previously been published about the family, often directly contradictory. As you might imagine from the differing political affiliations, there were some serious fallings out between members of the family and the combination of sisterly cattiness and a public profile that allowed them to publish their views on any subject in print meant that Lovell did have some work to do establishing the facts. However, sometimes I found this point pressed a little too hard, especially in the earlier sections where I, as a relative newcomer to the story, did not have any preconceptions and therefore got a little bit bored of being told what I had apparently got wrong. Lovell also had a lot of material to wade through, as no less than four of the sisters had written memoirs; they were all prolific letter writers and kept diaries; and being such high-profile figures, many biographies and documentaries of some or all of the family exist.

Despite the title, Lovell also writes quite a lot about the girls’ parents, Sydney and David, and the one brother, Tom. Tom, I suspect, would make a great subject for a biography of his own and does take a bit of a back seat here, though he was clearly universally adored.

My main criticism of this book (and bear in mind here that I thoroughly enjoyed it) would be that Lovell does seem to defend Diana and Unity’s political beliefs but remains critical of Jessica’s Communism (despite stating in her introduction that she would not take a political side). This was also the stance of the parents – Sydney in particular greatly admired Hitler, even after the war – and perhaps it is just that Lovell’s reportage of the opinions of family and friends seemed one-sided because their opinions were heavily sided against Jessica. In fact, on reading this I have come to admire Jessica most of all, as she was instrumental in early civil rights activism in the USA and spent her life bringing to light and campaigning against injustice. As she wrote of her youthful political awakening in Hons and Rebels:

“The discovery of other people’s reality – more than fifty million in England alone! – is one you can grasp from time to time, only to find it eluding you again, its vastness proving too much for you to handle. You discover suffering – not just your own suffering, which you know is largely of your own making, nor the childhood suffering over Black Beauty, David Copperfield or Blake’s Little Chimney Sweep – but you catch disturbing, vivid glimpses of the real meaning of poverty, hunger, cold cruelty.”

In fact most of the passages I marked in the book were about Jessica or noting something that annoyed me: Lovell’s adoption of some of the upper class language (“on non-speakers”, eurgh), her insistence on using nicknames throughout, her repeated use of the phrase “at the height of her beauty”. Except for this one passage, which illustrates the warmth and joy the sisters seemed to be filled with:

“For Nancy, Paris increasingly became the beau idéal of life. She found there an elegance, glitter, warmth and freedom that were lacking in London. One could be uninhibited there without drawing clucks of disapproval, ‘I have often danced all down the Champs Élysées,’ she wrote to Tom, ‘and no-one notices, they are so used to that sort of thing…Oh, I am so excited.’ “

And that’s what makes this a good read. The Mitfords were/are such wonderful characters. I foresee a lot more of them in my reading future!

First published by Little, Brown and Co in 2001.

Bookish things in the post

Life has been hectic for me lately, so I haven’t been paying the blog enough attention, but I’ve had a few bookish arrivals in the post that I thought I might share.

The Book Bloggers Holiday Card Exchange is a very lovely idea run by Courtney and Judith. When I got post from France I was initially confused who it could be from, but when I saw this lovely card inside it twigged:

Card from the Book Bloggers Holiday Card Exchange

My exchange partner was Beth and I love my French card and the very friendly bookish message written inside it, so thank you Beth.

I also received this very exciting book from And Other Stories:

First book on subscription from & Other Stories

And Other Stories is a small publisher that works on a subscription model. They publish six new books per year, often translations into English. Subscribers get their names printed in a numbered first edition of each book they subscribe to. I was very excited to read my name in this book! And as a bonus they included a few copies of this poem, which I have stuck to our fridge:

Lovely poem from & Other Stories

Have you had any good post lately?

He doesn’t have the sense of a billy goat

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe
by Fannie Flagg

This was a book club pick and I thought somehow that it would be light and fluffy and girly, possibly because that’s how I remember the film (though on rewatching the film this week I discovered it’s not really those things either). It’s certainly an easy, enjoyable read, but it covers a lot of issues without labouring the point and has some very interesting things to say.

In the 1980s middle-aged Alabama housewife Evelyn Couch is visiting a nursing home and gets talking to a resident there, Mrs Ninny Threadgoode. Ninny is old and a little forgetful but also charming and immediately launches into stories about her early life in a small town called Whistle Stop. At the heart of these stories are Idgie and Ruth, the two women who ran the Whistle Stop Cafe from 1929 until it closed. However, inbetween there are snippets about other characters from the town and their lives, all told with a wonderful sense of humour.

“This skinny little man, so black he was a deep royal blue, had caused a lot of trouble for the opposite sex. One gal drank a can of floor wax and topped it off with a cup of Clorox, trying to separate herself from the same world he was in. When she survived, claiming that the liquids had ruined her complexion for life, he became continually uneasy after dark, because she had snuck up behind him more than once and cracked him in the head with a purseful of rocks.”

And at that level it all sounds a bit twee. But this book covers racist violence, domestic abuse, homosexuality, prostitution, extreme poverty and death, which is some pretty dark stuff for a story that’s so nice and chirpy on the surface. I know some at book group felt that this meant none of the themes were really explored, but were just thrown in there, and certainly the only subjects really talked about are female empowerment and death.

But then one of the running themes in this book is not talking about important things. Idgie and Ruth are a couple, which you would think was a big no-no in a small southern US town in the 1930s, but the whole town seems to know and just accept the situation. I wondered if this was because they all consider Idgie an honorary man. She certainly not only joins in with but often takes lead in hunting, fishing, gambling, drinking and the other manly pursuits of the town. But she’s far from being the only strong woman in town.

“Cleo, Idgie’s brother, was concerned…
‘Idgie, I’m telling you, you don’t need to feed every [hobo] that shows up at your door. You’ve got a business to run here. Julian…says he thinks you’d let Ruth and the baby go without to feed those bums.’
…’What does Julian know? He’d starve to death himself if Opal didn’t have the beauty shop. What are you listening to him for? He doesn’t have the sense of a billy goat.’
Cleo couldn’t disagree with her on that point.”

Each chapter takes a different source or viewpoint, so there’s Evelyn’s daily life, Ninny’s reminiscences, the Whistle Stop newsletter and other newspaper articles, and occasionally a plain old omniscient narrator. There’s also lots of jumping back and forth in time, which was confusing at first because there seemed to be sections that were unrelated, but by the end it all ties together. And also, in the end there is no single character who knows everything that the reader does, which I quite liked.

Generally, I found what could have been a heavy-handed moral tale a much more subtle look at life in the southern US. The one unsubtle message was about strong women. Really, it’s Evelyn’s story, and she is discovering through Ninny’s stories how unhappy she is with her life, downtrodden and ignored by her husband.

“After the boy at the supermarket had called her those names, Evelyn Couch had felt violated. Raped by words. Stripped of everything. She had…always been terrified of displeasing men…She had spent her life tiptoeing around them like someone lifting her skirt stepping through a cow pasture.”

As someone at book club pointed out, at the novel’s heart is the power of storytelling. Ninny’s stories have to be good for us to believe they would have such a profound effect on Evelyn. And it is all a rollicking good yarn, with a running theme of tall tales.

I seem to be saying this of every other book at the moment, but I think I would get a lot out of re-reading this.

First published 1987 by Random House.

It is the ideas and stories that count

Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!
by various authors

Slightly meanly, I think, the publisher has not credited anyone as the editor of this collection of essays on the topic of reading. Even the introduction is simply signed “Vintage Books, 2011”. I bought this book on a whim at the same time as The Library Book, as they were both pretty and colourful and contained essays by interesting people.

Foyles haul

I think it’s probably not surprising, then, that my reaction to this book is very similar to my reaction to The Library Book. Hit and miss. But perhaps to more of an extreme in this case. The hits had me nodding my head furiously, while the misses in some cases had me furious.

I like that the 10 essays are not only written by big names. They include novelists, poets, publishers, journalists, academics and the founder of a charity, the Reader Organisation. And the wide topic allowed them to take very different angles. Blake Morrison writes intelligently and profoundly about the pleasures and benefits of reading, including why poetry matters:

“It takes courage to own up to dark thoughts and dangerous feelings. But poetry – the most intimate yet public of forums – is the ideal place. Ted Hughes is one writer who recognised this. Writing, he said, was about facing up to what we were too scared to face – about saying what we would prefer not to say, but desperately need to share.”

This illustrates what my favourite of these essays do well – they quote widely, creating a whole reading list for me within their few pages of eloquent argument. Carmen Callil writes interestingly about books in her life and how being a woman in a man’s world led her to found Virago. She shows a great, warm love for books. Tim Parks, in contrast, goes negative. He generalises the average westerner as someone who either doesn’t read or only reads the latest big title:

“If we read fast, superficially, for plot, to get through, so as to congratulate ourselves…we’re not only missing out on certain pleasures, we’re actually putting ourselves at risk, leaving ourselves open to messages and attitudes we haven’t weighed up…”

Not only is this quite ungenerous, not to say judgemental, but I also think it’s wrong. Different books have different effects on us and who is he or I to tell someone that they shouldn’t read a certain book because we didn’t get anything from it? Thankfully Mark Haddon says entirely the opposite:

“This, I think, does a disservice both to readers and to the books themselves…because it’s not true. Visit a prison library and you’ll meet good people whose lives have been saved by potboilers, and psychopaths reading Jane Austen.”

But Haddon also writes intuitively about the act of reading itself:

“Stop reading right now. Look around you…The sense of being inside looking out, of seeing a world that belongs to everyone, but is nevertheless yours alone. It is this uncrossable gulf between me and not-me, between my private experiences and yours, which lies at the heart of being human and which no other medium can touch, and this border is where the novel lives and moves and has its being.”

And then Jeanette Winterson went and ruined it by returning to Parks’ snobbery and turning it up to 11. She goes from praising the King James Bible and Shakespeare to:

“We live under 24/7 saturation bombing from an enervated mass media and a bogus manufactured popular culture. If you don’t read you will likely be watching telly, or on the computer, or listening to fake music from puppet-show bands…The consequences of homogenised mass culture plus the failure of our education system and our contempt for books and art (it’s either entertainment or elitist, never vital and democratic), mean that not reading cuts off the possibility of private thinking, or of a trained mind, or of a sense of self not dependent on external factors…Attention Deficit Disorder is not a disease; it is a consequence of not reading.”

What?!! There is so much wrong with these statements. That last sentence…whooah! Has she ever expounded her theory to a doctor or ADHD specialist? I’d be interested to hear their response! I mean, I think reading is important and rewarding, but that really is taking it too far. And as for her comments on modern pop culture, well that’s her own personal taste and to extrapolate from her dislike to such disparagement is unkind and even ignorant. Music can transport me, make my heart race and my emotions surge – and I don’t mean classical music here, I mean rock, folk, dance and pop music. Not every song, or course, but plenty that I am sure Winterson would turn her nose up at. And let’s not forget that Shakespeare was the pop culture of his day.

I think in general it is a stubborn clinging to the past that frustrated me. A few of the essayists write about how the physical printed book is intrinsically better than ebooks, and how new technology and mass media threaten today’s youth and therefore the entire world. Personal preference is one thing, but I think we have to face up to the fact that we live in an age of transition and be positive about the possibilities the future offers. The final essay by Maryanne Wolf and Mirit Barzillai addresses this well:

“The Greek transition from an oral culture to a literacy-based culture provides a valuable analogue…Socrates argued that the seeming permanence of the printed word would delude the young into thinking they had accessed the essence of some aspect of knowledge, rather than simply decoded it…Will [today’s] young people immersed in technological innovation become adept at prioritising, sorting and critically evaluating information, adapting different types of reading styles based upon their purpose…Will the flexibility of digital text actually enhance the reading experience for many readers, propelling them into a deeper engagement with text, or will such enhancements serve as further distraction?”

I accept that my own preference for reading novels in hard copy is a product of my life to date, but I didn’t exactly dislike my brief dalliances with a borrowed Kindle and I absorb most of my journalistic writing via computer these days. I think a love of music, film, TV, comedy and theatre complements my love of reading, rather than detracting from it (though I won’t deny that they are all competing for my time). I think reading is important, valuable and worth encouraging in others but it is not about to disappear. As Callil says in her essay:

“The human race has been telling stories, and trying to record them on papyrus, on manuscripts, on stones, since the beginning of time. Whether we read on the printed page or on a machine is beside the point. It is the ideas and stories that count.”

Published 2011 by Vintage.

And we got back to work

The Restraint of Beasts
by Magnus Mills

I was sent this book by an old friend in a book swap and I can see why he chose it. It’s a comedy of a pretty niche sort and I think you’d have to know someone well to confidently recommend this to them. I was amused, so thanks Matt.

Mills takes a very simple story of everyday working class life, with all the drudgery and repetition that real life entails, and injects a few bizarre moments and a lot of black humour. Tam and Richie are Scottish fencers working under the supervision of the unnamed narrator, who must cajole and harass them into doing their job. Early in the novel, their employer sends them away from rural Scotland to equally rural west England to erect specialist fences for a grumpy farmer. The three main characters must share a small, dilapidated caravan and all they have to look forward to, aside from going home to Scotland when the job is finished, is their nightly visit to the local pub. When they come across local fencers the Hall Brothers, they think they have inadvertently trodden on toes and are in trouble for it, but the tale turns out to be much stranger than that.

Or does it? At the end I had quite a few unanswered questions. There are a number of things said that seem to be evasions or euphemisms that are not explained. Everything is sinister and suspect. A talk from the boss will be built up to as a climactic event, while the real big drama just happens with a shrug. The humour is understated and dark.

“Tam slowly advanced on the sheep, chisel raised like a dagger, getting within a few yards of the animal. Then suddenly he sprang forward.
‘Tam, no!’ I yelled.
The sheep instantly bolted, and Tam fell forward onto the ground…
‘What are you doing?’ I said.
‘I was just seeing if I could catch it, that’s all,’ he replied.
‘In case we have to eat them.’
‘Why should we have to do that?’
‘Well, there’s fuck all else, is there?’ He looked desperate…
I made Tam promise not to kill, or practise killing, any sheep, and we got back to work.”

Tam and Richie are harmlessly useless. Work-shy and thoughtless to the point of stupidity, they spend all their money (and more, in the form of loans from the narrator) on beer and cigarettes. But they’re sweet in their reliance on one another and they’re happy enough with what they have. When persuaded to work they are good at their job and often it’s easy to sympathise with their reluctance to work – when it’s cold and raining and they just want to be finished and home for Christmas, for instance.

I’m not sure if a point is being made or if it’s just intended to be funny but there are a lot of conversations in the novel where a manager gives an impossible order or wilfully misunderstands an employee. The story is certainly firmly on the side of the main three characters – the working men. It doesn’t try to make big statements about society or the state of Britain but you could argue that this one small example does illustrate issues such as employment rights, debt and heavy drinking.

I did find the tone and subject disorienting at first. Mills worked as a fencer for years and has included a lot of detail about the job in his prose. And the tone is so very dry that it took me a while to pick up on the irony at work. But a chapter or so in it clicked for me and I found myself grinning through the rest of the book.

Published 1998 by Flamingo, an imprint of HarperCollins.
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Whitbread First Novel Award. Winner of the McKitterick Prize in 1999.

To define happiness, its one clean note

Seducing Ingrid Bergman
by Chris Greenhalgh

When I spotted this title in the Penguin Press Newsletter it wasn’t so much Bergman’s name that attracted me – though she was a great actress and some of her films are deservedly classics – but that of the other half of this brief affair – war photographer Robert Capa. Photography interests me as a hobby and as an art form and I was interested to see how that would be handled within a novel about one of the medium’s legendary names.

It’s a great story that has all the right ingredients for becoming a great film, but it didn’t immediately click for me. Despite a dramatic, well judged opening that contrasts Capa parachuting into enemy territory and being shot at in March 1945 with Bergman receiving an Oscar in a glittering ceremony in Hollywood, I found myself noticing the writing, tutting at all the similes that would have served better as metaphors and the slightly obvious parallels drawn with photography wherever possible:

“…involuntarily she repeats the way Pia had wrinkled her nose, closing both eyes at the same time as though taking a photograph.”

However, I think perhaps I just took a while to get over the fact that these were real people and that I had been expecting something that felt a bit more like historical fiction or even biography. Because this is solidly a novel, ascribing thoughts and fears and feelings to its characters and even using first person for about half of the narrative (always as Capa). And as I gradually got pulled into the story I began to thoroughly enjoy it and even to pick out well written passages:

“We watch as the light rises, giving the world shadows. The grey shapes of the trees on the boulevards hold their breath for the heat of day. And behind the buildings the sun comes up with its liquid edges.”

The bulk of the story is set in Paris, where Bergman is sent to entertain troops and Capa is based in-between assignments. Greenhalgh does a good job of describing Paris, primarily in a romantic light but with the occasional touch of realism, such as very funny observation about a high class cafe having a hole-in-the-floor toilet, and Capa imagining all the fancy ladies in their high heels squatting over the filth and being impressed by them emerging looking flawless.

I must admit, and this may be largely my own cynicism, that I found the early descriptions of the affair saccharine to an annoying degree:

“I don’t know whether it’s the music or Ingrid sitting there, her spoon poised over her ice cream, but everything merges at this moment – the leaves, the sunlight, the scent of vanilla, the street with its sliced shadows – and if I had to define happiness, its one clean note, well, this is the closest I’ve come to it.”

For me, it was everything else in their lives that captivated me, for instance when Capa had flashbacks to wartime and was terrified and yet would profess later that day a desire to get back to work, meaning another war. Or descriptions of Bergman making films I know and love, such as Notorious.

Perhaps I would have been better off reading biographies of these people and an anonymous love story, but the one advantage this novel does have is that you know from the start (or at least I did) how it ends, you know that this was not the only love either person experienced in their lives, nor even the most dramatic one, and yet while it lasted it was all those things and more, because that’s how life and love are. And I do now want to go back to Capa’s photographs and Bergman’s films, which is after all their legacy, not who they loved.

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Published November 2012 by Penguin Books.

She believed in the worst and knew herself to be imagining the best

by Noel Streatfeild

This is one of those books that I wished didn’t have to end, though in a way I was glad that it did because it’s the tale of a downward spiral. It’s also a beautiful book physically, being my first (finally!) read from Persephone Books.

End paper gorgeousness

Streatfeild is famous for her children’s books, especially Ballet Shoes, but she also wrote books for adults, though they never sold as well. This may possibly be the pick of the bunch but Saplings is so wonderfully good that I am saddened it’s the only one of Streatfeild’s novels for adults currently in print.

It’s a clever, sharply observed book about children, family and war. The Wiltshires are a happy, comfortable middle-class family, with two parents, four children, a nanny and a governess, a home in London and holidays to the seaside. But from the first pages the potential cracks are there. The adults are worrying about the inevitability of war and whether London is a safe place for children. The father Alex worries that war will take him away from his family. The mother Lena worries that she will have to go with the children when all she wants is to be at Alex’s side. The baby of the family, four-year-old Tuesday, frets because the adults are clearly worried, while 11-year-old Laurel mixes together war-time fears with more mundane worries about school:

“She believed in the worst and knew herself to be imagining the best. As a shield she made loud fun of all war precautions…It didn’t matter being the plain one at home, people were used to it. If only she had managed to be super at something, then she could have gone to the Abbey School carrying her ability like a screen.”

The story follows the family from summer 1939 until summer 1944, such a short time but of course one of huge change for Britain as a whole. Streatfeild never tries to extrapolate the wider changes going on, she simply illustrates them through the Wiltshires and their extended family and friends. Things do not just suddenly fall apart, the descent from happiness is gradual. Some of it is unavoidable – evacuating the children to their grandparents’ house and then to boarding school, for their own safety. But a lot of what happens is far more subtle. Things aren’t said that should be, expressions are misunderstood, situations are mishandled. It is a heartbreaking study of avoidable unhappiness. And I thought this passage a very good description of a panic attack:

“He saw the attacks as if they had shape. Huge, black and soft, ready to fall on him…First he felt a tenseness in his diaphragm, which got steadily worse til he was hard in front, as if he were made of wood. Then he had a sinking sensation. The people around him were still there but on a different level, beyond reach…he had to get away alone and let the attack reach its climax. Then everything swam before his eyes, his heart beat quicker and quicker, there was thumping in his ears…”

The prose in insightful rather than poetic but once I realised that the slightly irritating idyll of family life at the start of the story was both part-facade and about to break apart anyway, I was carried along by the momentum of the story. Streatfeild does not keep surprises or mysteries up her sleeve, the narration is open in a way the Wiltshire family never can be. If anything this lesson may be repeated a little too often, but it is such a realistic one, touching on both the stoicism of wartime and the very English habit of keeping one’s emotions to oneself. She does allow herself a few characters who know the children well enough, or are just observant enough, to see what other adults don’t, but the wartime setting keeps these saviours away for long periods.

And without wishing to give anything away, everything is not alright in the end. Bad things have happened and those who are in a good or safe place know that it may not last. This was, after all, published while the war was still going on, and after several years of “It’ll all be over by Christmas,” optimism had faded, even when things were finally going well for the Allies. But also, the two oldest children, Laurel and Tony, have grown up over the course of the story and are 16 and almost 15 at the novel’s close, so they are seeing the world differently in more ways than one.

This is a story full of heart, and completely on the children’s side. Even the best of the adult characters gets thing wrong from the children’s perspective, and Streatfeild shows how a thoughtless word or imagined slight can lead to months of real misery. I wanted so badly for things to suddenly be all good, but of course life isn’t like that.

I chose this book after reading Liz’s review and it was bought for me by my very loveliest friend H who took me on a special trip to Persephone Books a few months ago. Thanks to both of them!

First published 1945 by Collins.
Published by Persephone Books in 2000.