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Susie B
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Egremont Max : Secret Lives (Hbk)
Egremont Max : Secret Lives (Hbk)
by Max Egremont
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Secret Lives, 28 July 2016
Please Note: 'Secret Lives' is the US title of the British novel: Painted Lives

Max Egremont, who is most probably better known for his well-regarded biography of Siegfried Sasson, also wrote four novels during the 1980s and early 1990s, and 'Painted Lives' which was first published in 1989, is the third of these. In this novel we meet George Loftus, a young man employed by an art institute in London, who arrives at Cragham, a country house in the north of England, to assess and arrange for the restoration of some paintings belonging to the elderly Bob Layburn, the owner of Cragham. Also staying at the house is Bob's old friend, art historian Philip Bligh, who Bob became acquainted with during the Second World War. Philip was also a close friend of Bob's strikingly beautiful, but now deceased wife, Catherine, and it is Catherine's portrait which is one of the works of art that George will be restoring. Despite only having recently arrived at Cragham, George finds himself becoming interested in the lovely Catherine and when he sets up his easel and restoration materials in the old library and discovers in one of the cupboards a journal written by Catherine, where she reveals sensitive details about her life and her marriage to Bob, George cannot resist reading it. Aware that he is trespassing where he shouldn't, George nevertheless takes time out from his restoration work to closet himself in the library to read Catherine's outpourings, and this is how we learn about Catherine's first meeting with the older and more sophisticated Bob; about their whirlwind courtship and marriage; of Catherine's friendship with Philip, who helps to improve her knowledge of cultural matters; of her growing disillusionment with her marriage; and of her meeting a man whom she feels can provide her with the passion that is lacking in her marriage. There is more, of course, but I shall leave that for those who have yet to read the book to discover for themselves.

This book was one of the 'Daily Telegraph' Books of the Year in 1989 and is an accomplished and entertaining novel where Max Egremont writes descriptively well of Cragham and its environs, and of Bob Layburn's endeavour to keep the old house within the family. Although a subtle and gently paced story, and one where there is a lot we don't know about these characters and their situations, Catherine's journal entries draw the reader into her life and, as we read of her yearnings for a different existence to the one that she has found herself in, we become invested in discovering how her dilemma will be solved - or otherwise. Maybe not a book I would recommend for those looking for a pacy, plot-driven narrative, or a story with a conclusively resolved ending, but I found this elegantly written novel, with its focus on the significance of history, an enjoyable read and I'm now interested in looking at the author's other three fiction titles and also his biography of the poet Siegfried Sassoon.

4 Stars.


Painted Lives
Painted Lives
by Max Egremont
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars Painted Lives, 28 July 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Painted Lives (Hardcover)
Max Egremont, who is most probably better known for his well-regarded biography of Siegfried Sasson, also wrote four novels during the 1980s and early 1990s, and 'Painted Lives' which was first published in 1989, is the third of these. In this novel we meet George Loftus, a young man employed by an art institute in London, who arrives at Cragham, a country house in the north of England, to assess and arrange for the restoration of some paintings belonging to the elderly Bob Layburn, the owner of Cragham. Also staying at the house is Bob's old friend, art historian Philip Bligh, who Bob became acquainted with during the Second World War. Philip was also a close friend of Bob's strikingly beautiful, but now deceased wife, Catherine, and it is Catherine's portrait which is one of the works of art that George will be restoring. Despite only having recently arrived at Cragham, George finds himself becoming interested in the lovely Catherine and when he sets up his easel and restoration materials in the old library and discovers in one of the cupboards a journal written by Catherine, where she reveals sensitive details about her life and her marriage to Bob, George cannot resist reading it. Aware that he is trespassing where he shouldn't, George nevertheless takes time out from his restoration work to closet himself in the library to read Catherine's outpourings, and this is how we learn about Catherine's first meeting with the older and more sophisticated Bob; about their whirlwind courtship and marriage; of Catherine's friendship with Philip, who helps to improve her knowledge of cultural matters; of her growing disillusionment with her marriage; and of her meeting a man whom she feels can provide her with the passion that is lacking in her marriage. There is more, of course, but I shall leave that for those who have yet to read the book to discover for themselves.

This book was one of the 'Daily Telegraph' Books of the Year in 1989 and is an accomplished and entertaining novel where Max Egremont writes descriptively well of Cragham and its environs, and of Bob Layburn's endeavour to keep the old house within the family. Although a subtle and gently paced story, and one where there is a lot we don't know about these characters and their situations, Catherine's journal entries draw the reader into her life and, as we read of her yearnings for a different existence to the one that she has found herself in, we become invested in discovering how her dilemma will be solved - or otherwise. Maybe not a book I would recommend for those looking for a pacy, plot-driven narrative, or a story with a conclusively resolved ending, but I found this elegantly written novel, with its focus on the significance of history, an enjoyable read and I'm now interested in looking at the author's other three fiction titles and also his biography of the poet Siegfried Sassoon.

4 Stars.

Please note: This book was published in the US as Secret Lives


Highland Fling
Highland Fling
by Nancy Mitford
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.39

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "A taster of coming delights", 26 July 2016
This review is from: Highland Fling (Paperback)
We are in the 1930s, and Jane Dacre, a beautiful, young woman looking for adventure and excitement, arrives at Dulloch castle in Scotland to stay with her 'Bright Young Things' friends, Walter and Sally, who are playing host to an assortment of hunting, shooting and fishing types who have been invited to the castle by Sally's absent Aunt Madge. Also invited to stay is Walter's rather flamboyant and foppish friend, Albert Gates, a surrealist painter who enjoys playing pranks on his unsuspecting fellow guests and, whose outrageous behaviour, Jane finds particularly irresistible. But does Albert feel the same way towards the lovely Jane? Or is he too busy occupying himself with baiting the bumptious General Murgatroyd and dressing up as a ghost to get his revenge on the snobbish and vulgar Lady Prague, to take notice of Jane's romantic interest in him?

In the Foreword to my edition of this novel, Julian Fellowes comments that this book, which was Nancy Mitford's debut and first published in 1931, is a taster of coming delights, and I would certainly agree with this - however, although I found this an entertaining read and always enjoy Miss Mitford's acerbic wit, I do have to say that I found this book nowhere near as enjoyable as her witty and satirically amusing: The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate - which although, like this novel, are very much of their time, do have darker undertones which this debut lacks. That said, Nancy Mitford was trying out her wings with this first novel and it is interesting to see how the author progressed from the writing of this novel to her later work. If you are new to Nancy Mitford, this may not be the best place to start, but if you particularly want to read the books in the order in which they were written, or if you have read her other novels and are a completist, then you will want to add this to your reading list.

3 Stars.


The Bookshop
The Bookshop
by Penelope Fitzgerald
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Subtle and Quietly Devastating, 23 July 2016
This review is from: The Bookshop (Paperback)
It is 1959 and plucky Florence Green, a middle-aged widow living in the coastal town of Hardborough in East Anglia, decides she would like to open a bookshop. After a few sleepless nights pondering on whether she should buy the freehold on a damp and dilapidated 15th century property called the Old House, she makes her decision to proceed and then quickly sets the wheels in motion. Having worked in a bookshop and learned the business thoroughly when she was a young woman, Florence feels she has the knowledge to make her venture pay its way and when her bank manager asks her if she is merely opening the bookshop to bring some culture to the town, she responds tartly: "Culture is for amateurs. I can't run my shop at a loss. Shakespeare was a professional!" Before long Florence has ordered in her stock (which later includes Vladimir Nabakov's controversial 'Lolita'), moved into the property (despite her plumber informing her that the building is haunted by a poltergeist), made the decision to open a lending library, and employed a local schoolgirl to help her in the shop. However, despite encouragement from Mr Brundish, a descendent of one of the most ancient Suffolk families, who promises to support her in her endeavour, Florence finds herself in opposition to the snobbish, manipulative and influential Mrs Gamart, who wants the Old House for an arts centre, and is going to do her best to make sure that Florence's venture will not succeed…

Beautifully written and with some wonderfully evocative depictions of East Suffolk, Penelope Fitzgerald's 'The Bookshop' is a masterpiece in brevity, but one that is full of dry humour, perceptive observations and luminous sentences that make the reader want to read them again for the pleasure provided by the prose. The author's description of a heron flying across the estuary trying to swallow an eel, and the metaphor intended by this description, is skilfully accomplished and truly memorable, as is the scene where she shows Florence helping marshman, Mr Raven, to file down the teeth of an old chestnut gelding. And her comic portrayal of the members of Florence's lending library scrabbling to be the first reader of the latest biography of Queen Mary, and one of the ladies being rapped over the knuckles with a ruler by Florence's doughty (and marvellous) schoolgirl assistant, was a pleasure to read. Although I realize that Ms Fitzgerald's economic style of writing is not to everyone's taste and there is a lot that we do not know about these characters or their inner lives, with Penelope Fitzgerald this somehow doesn't seem to matter because her distinctively controlled style of writing is so impressive and so beautifully wrought that what we have here, as in the author's other novels, is the essence of her characters' lives. This is an unusual, subtle and quietly devastating story and one to read, to enjoy and to then return to the bookcase to experience again in the future.

5 Stars.


Friendly Fire: Some Things You Can't Learn at School
Friendly Fire: Some Things You Can't Learn at School
by Patrick Gale
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars An Atmospheric and Absorbing Read, 21 July 2016
Set during the 1970s, Patrick Gale's 'Friendly Fire' focuses on Sophie, who is a bright fourteen-year-old when we first meet her, and whose life is irrevocably changed when she wins a scholarship to Tatham's, an exclusive and very traditional independent school with its medieval buildings and 14th century Gothic chapel. Sophie, who has been brought up in a children's' home called Wakefield House, initially keeps herself very much to herself - the majority of the other pupils are from backgrounds hugely different to her own and although she isn't ashamed of her social status, she doesn't want to advertise her origins. However, when she sets eyes on Lucas Behrman, a wealthy Jewish boy whose exotic good looks attract her (in fact the first time she meets him, he is wearing a dress) Sophie allows herself to become caught up in his precarious life, and also in the life of Lucas's friend, the effeminate Charlie Somborne-Abbot, both of whom involve her in a web of secrets and forbidden passions. Sophie, torn between the lure of Tatham's and of making the most of the wonderful educational opportunity she has been awarded, and the seduction of Lucas's way of life, realizes that there are lessons to be learnt both inside and outside of the school gates.

Although the plot is mostly fictitious, Patrick Gale has drawn on his own schooldays at Winchester College for his inspiration for this novel, and he has written a compelling and very atmospheric tale and one that is a coming-of-age story with a rather darker edge. Sophie is an engaging and sympathetic heroine and I thought all of the characters were well-portrayed, especially Charlie's mother, the snobbish and narrow-minded Mrs Somborne-Abbot, the 'salt of the earth' Margaret and Kieran, the house-mother and house-father at Wakefield House, and the genuinely kind and gracious Lady Droxford (mother of one of the schoolmasters at Tatham's). I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the school: "Sophie stood in Flint Quad, transfixed. House martins were swooping down from their nests under the eaves…" and "…pools of wintry light were shed by narrow, cobwebbed windows…the stone around each window slit was as thickly carved as the cloister pillars with initials and dates going back to the fourteenth century…" and if, like me, you have attended or teach at a traditional independent school, then you will find this aspect of the book very rewarding to read. I always enjoy Patrick Gale's novels as he writes about relationships and family life with sympathy and a perceptive observation and he seems to write almost as well from a female perspective as he does from the male. In addition to this book, I can also recommend Patrick Gale's: 'A Perfectly Good Man'; 'Notes From An Exhibition'; 'The Whole Day Through'; 'Ease' and 'Kansas in August'.

4 Stars.


The Flight Of The Maidens
The Flight Of The Maidens
by Jane Gardam
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars The Flight of the Maidens, 18 July 2016
First published in 2000, Jane Gardam's entertaining novel ''The Flight of the Maidens' begins in the summer of 1946 and follows three girls living in a Yorkshire town who have just won scholarships to university. Firstly there is Hetty Fallowes, whose father is a shell-shocked World War I veteran, still suffering from the ordeals he underwent at the Battle of the Somme, and whose kind, but over-protective and meddlesome mother has taken refuge in religion and in the admiration of the local vicar. Then there is Una Vane, whose doctor father committed suicide, and whose resolutely cheerful, self-trained hairdresser mother has turned their house into a beauty salon and a home for cats. Lastly, there is Lieselotte Kleine, a German Jewish refugee who arrived in England as part of the Kindertransport programme and who has been living with Quaker foster parents since the beginning of the war. As we follow all three girls as they prepare for university - Hetty to read Literature at London University, Una to read Physics at Cambridge and Lieselotte also off to Cambridge to read Modern Languages - we read of how Hetty rebels against her loving, but interfering mother and escapes to the Lake District to study, and of her meeting the eccentric Lady Fitzurse and her family, including the handsome Rupert (who Hetty falls for); we learn of Una's romance with Ray (the local ex-fish boy, ex-milk boy, turned railway clerk) a fledgling socialist whose down-to-earth manliness and attitude to life attracts the fatherless Una; and we read about Lieselotte who leaves her foster family and travels to London to stay briefly with an elderly Jewish couple before embarking on a trip to the States to meet her sole surviving relation, a very rich and elderly aunt, of whom she knows nothing and did not even know she existed...

Beautifully written and deftly composed, as one would expect from Jane Gardam, this novel makes for absorbing and entertaining reading and, despite the story being rather sad at times, it's also very funny in places too. It is true that, with three main protagonists, the reader (or this one anyhow) does not really get to know the characters as much as perhaps they would like, and I wish Ms Gardam had revealed more about Lieselotte's back story and more about her inner thoughts and feelings, and I would have liked to have read more about Hetty's visit to the Lake District and of her relationship with the Fitzurse family. I do have to confess that Una's story interested me less than the other two girls' stories, and although I found her the most straightforwardly likeable personality of the three (and I do realize that her more ordinary life experiences balanced out the more unusual lives of Hetty and Lieselotte), I almost wish that the page time devoted to Una had instead been spent on Hetty and Lieselotte. That said, I always enjoy Jane Gardam's writing and I appreciate her perceptive observation and her vivid flashes of wit - and this novel, with its cast of eccentric characters leading unusual lives, will be returned to one of my bookcases to read and experience again in the future.

4 Stars.


Wilder
Wilder
by Kim Hargreaves
Edition: Paperback
Price: £17.24

4.0 out of 5 stars Wilder, 18 July 2016
This review is from: Wilder (Paperback)
As I have commented in previous reviews of mine for Kim Hargreaves' knitting books, I've been knitting from Kim's books for many years, including the Rowan Knitting books - where Kim was, until she branched out on her own, one of the main designers. Fortunately, I have always been very pleased with the finished results - her designs and the yarns she uses produce garments that have a stylish hand-crafted appearance, rather than looking like a homemade effort, which is important when the knitter is going to be spending time and energy on a project. Although this is not my absolute favourite of Kim's books, there are (as always) several designs in 'Wilder' that I would like to knit such as: 'Windswept' - a fitted cable and lace stitch cardigan with 3/4 sleeves and a square neckline, which is knitted in Rowan Summerlite 4ply; there is 'Prairie' - a sweater with eyelets and button edgings knitted in Rowan Handknit Cotton DK (I would have preferred this in a lighter weight yarn than the Handknit DK which, although lovely to work with, is quite a heavy weight cotton); then there is 'Kitt' which is a pretty lacy sweater with eyelets - a similar design to 'Prairie' but most probably a better option for me as it's knitted in Rowan's lovely Cotton Glace - a lighter weight than the Handknit DK. In addition, there is 'Free' - a fitted off-the-shoulder sweater in Rowan Cotton Lustre, which would be ideal for evening wear; there is 'Tucker' - a fitted garter stitch jacket knitted in Rowan Revive; and there are two lacy cardigans: 'Cloudy' knitted in Cotton Lustre and 'Beloved' in Summerlite 4ply, both of which would be ideal for slipping on over strappy dresses and tops. There are more designs than those I have mentioned (21 in total) and if you want to see these in detail, do visit Kim's website or English Yarns, based in Shoreham, West Sussex, who have a great website where you will be able to see all of the patterns in detail and they also sell the materials needed to knit the designs. John Lewis now also sell a wide range of Rowan Yarns online.

4 Stars.


Never No More
Never No More
by Maura Laverty
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.00

3.0 out of 5 stars A Gentle and Sentimental Story, 15 July 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Never No More (Paperback)
First published in 1942 and set in the 1920s, Irish author Maura Laverty's semi-autobiographical novel 'Never No More' tells the story of thirteen-year-old Delia, who goes to live with her much-loved grandmother in an old farmhouse situated on the edge of the Bog of Allen in County Kildare. Delia loves living with her grandmother, a very practical, but warmly affectionate woman and an excellent country-style cook, who gives Delia the love and affection that has been lacking from her life so far. Deciding that her granddaughter has the makings of a good teacher, and wanting the very best for her, Delia's grandmother sends her off to be educated by nuns at a convent boarding school, but Delia misses her grandmother, her grandmother's cooking and their life in the Irish countryside so much, that she doesn't make the most of the opportunity she has been given.

Full of homely descriptions, homespun philosophies and an abundance of little stories about the inhabitants of the village Delia and her grandmother live in, I have to admit that despite enjoying the descriptions of Irish country cooking (no worries about cholesterol levels when this book was written), I found the story too overly sentimental for me. Although there were parts to this gentle, undemanding novel that were pleasant to read, and I can understand why other reviewers writing here have given it a high rating, I found the story just a bit too maudlin for my taste and feel I would have been better off just reading the sequel: 'No More Than Human', where Delia leaves Ireland to work as a governess in Spain (as did the author in real life) as I think I might have found the broader focus of that story more interesting.

3 Stars.


King Edward VIII: A Biography
King Edward VIII: A Biography
by Philip Ziegler
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars King Edward VIII: A Biography, 12 July 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Philip Ziegler's biography of Edward VIII(1894-1972) was first published more than twenty years ago and, as the author comments in his preface to the latest edition of his biography, there have been more than twenty further books dealing with Edward VIII's life or certain aspects of it, in addition to a proliferation of newspaper articles, plays and television documentaries. Mr Ziegler's scrupulously researched biography, however, still stands the test of time and gives the reader a full and interesting account of the life of the king who chose to abdicate rather than live a life without the woman he loved as his consort. So in a chronological format we learn of Edward's early years and of his entry into the Royal Naval College in 1907 when he was almost thirteen years old; we read of his time at Oxford, (which he did not enjoy); of his involvement in the First World War, where although he spent time in the trenches, he was rarely, to his frustration, allowed close to the real action at the Front; we learn of his punishing schedule of royal tours after the war; of his years of heavy drinking and smoking and of his habit of staying up until the early hours, contrasted with his self-imposed regime of extreme exercise. We read of his relationships with married women, his dislike of the duties that came with his position as the Prince of Wales and of his parents' (and others') concern of his suitability as a future King. And, of course, we read of his relationship with the twice-married Wallis Simpson, a woman described by her detractors as hard-boiled, vain, shallow and grasping, but a woman for whom Edward developed an obsessive passion that resulted in him giving up his right to the throne.

Mr Ziegler has extensively researched his subject, drawing on Edward VIII's diaries, his private papers, his correspondence and love letters, and the private papers of certain prime ministers, and this scrupulous research has resulted in an authoritative, even-handed and elegantly written account of a man who seemed to never really grow up and who wanted all of the privileges but few of the responsibilities that came with being King. The author examines closely the events that led up to the abdication, but he also focuses carefully on Edward's post-abdication years: the haggling with his brother, King George VI, over his financial settlement; his refusal to accept the magnitude of his abdication and its aftermath; his naive expectation that his family would, in time, come to accept Wallis as a member of the royal family and to allow her to be addressed as Her Royal Highness (they didn't, of course, and had no intention of ever doing so); his unwise and indiscreet comments and behaviour at the beginning of the Second World War, which have since led to accusations of his being a traitor - an accusation that Mr Ziegler refutes by commenting that although Edward was often "silly, indiscreet and egotistical" the author is absolutely certain that "with all his faults, he was a patriot who would never have wished his country to be defeated or have contemplated returning to Britain as a puppet king." All of which makes for a very interesting, informative and compelling reading. Recommended.

5 Stars.


Child of All Nations (Penguin Modern Classics)
Child of All Nations (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Irmgard Keun
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Child of All Nations, 10 July 2016
Set in the 1930s in the build-up to the Second World War, Irmgard Keun's 'Child of all Nations' focuses on nine-year-old Kully who, with her mother and writer father, are exiled from their home in Germany due to her father's literary output having been blacklisted by the Nazi regime. Leading a nomadic life, the three of them move from one European country to another, travelling first class and staying in expensive hotels that Kully's charming, but feckless father cannot afford to pay for. Kully soon learns the importance of maintaining the illusion of wealth, as making economies would destroy her father's ability to obtain credit - however, when the hotel bills become due for payment, and her father disappears to beg, bluff or borrow money from friends and acquaintances, it is poor Kully and her long-suffering mother who are left behind as surety and who have to cope with the difficult situation Kully's father has left them in. Even when her father does manage to persuade someone to finance him, he spends the money lavishly and irresponsibly, and no sooner has he managed to clear one debt, then another larger one seems to accrue. When their visas expire for each of the countries they visit, the family are forced to keep on the move, which means they are never in one place long enough for Kully to feel at home. However, despite not being sent to school, Kully has learnt to speak several languages and she knows things that most nine-year-olds would have no knowledge of; on the subject of Hitler, she tells the reader: "I don't know the man, but my father doesn't like him. When I'm grown up, I expect I'll find out what's wrong with him. What I do know is that Hitler belongs to the Germans, but the Italians have one of their own, called Mussolini."

First published in 1938 and inspired by the author's own exile from Germany in the 1930s, 'Child of all Nations' is, as it says on the cover of my copy "…a compelling snapshot of an unconventional existence at an extraordinary time…" and is, at times, a haunting and poignant story, but one which also has its lighter and very amusing moments. Kully is a marvellous creation, who narrates her own story and whose engaging personality almost leaps from the pages, as does that (albeit to a lesser extent) of her charming, but alcohol-dependent and impoverished father (who is thought to be partly based on the Austrian-Jewish writer Joseph Roth, with whom the author lived and travelled during the years 1936-38). Expertly translated by Michael Hofmann and with an interesting 'Afterword' by Hofmann - where he comments that his only quibble with the story is where Kully and her father leave the intensity of the situation in Europe and travel to America, and I would agree that this part of the book somewhat weakened the impact of the story. However, that said, this is a little gem of a novel and one to read from start to finish in one sitting, if you can, and to then return to the bookshelf to read and experience again in the future.

4 Stars.


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