Book of the Week, Forgotten books, women's fiction

Book of the Week: To Bed With Grand Music

I knew less than halfway through this book that I was going to have to lend this to my sister and my mother, and as soon as I finished this book that it was going to be this week’s BotW.  Hands down.  And as you’ve probably never heard of it (I hadn’t before I got given a copy) this makes it possibly the best sort of BotW – because hopefully it means I might point a few more people towards it.

My copy of To Bed with Grand Music
Ok, so it’s not the most exciting looking book ever, but don’t let that fool you…

In To Bed With Grand Music we follow the wartime adventures Deborah, a young wife and mother whose husband has been posted to Cairo.  On the first page, while in bed together before he leaves, he says that he cannot promise to be physically faithful to his wife because “God alone knows how long I’ll be stuck in the Middle East, and it’s no good saying I can do without a woman for three or four years, because I can’t.”  Instead he promises not to fall in love and not to sleep with anyone who might possibly take her place.  He asks Deborah to promise same.  But Deborah doesn’t take him up on his offer, instead she promises to be absolutely faithful to him and not act on any attraction she might feel to anyone else – in the hopes that he’ll change his mind and do the same.  He doesn’t and is soon off to Egypt, leaving Deborah and their son Timmy at home in the countryside with the housekeeper come nanny.

But it doesn’t take long for Deborah to get fed up of life in the countryside and bored of her son.  Deborah, it turns out, is a terrible person.  She’s got a gift for rationalising in her mind whatever it is that she wants to do as being the best solution to whatever problem (real or imagined) that she is facing.  So she decides that the best solution is for her to get a war job in London.  This would mean being away from Timmy during the week and leaving him in the cae of the housekeeper, but she rationalises this as being the best thing for him – because although he’ll see her less, he’ll only see the best parts of her because she’ll be so much happier in herself.  So off she goes to London, where she meets up with an old friend in the hopes that she can help her find a job.  She and Madeleine (the friend) end up going out for dinner with a couple of soldiers and Deborah ends up staying the night and sleeping with one of the men.  Oops.  So much for that promise Deborah.  She’s repulsed by her own actions and scurries back to the countryside and puts off the idea of getting a job.  But soon she’s bored again and changes her mind and takes a job in London and moves in with her friend, however she’s determined not to make the same mistake again…

Madeleine at first was quite prepared to make Deborah’s life less lonely.  She accepted as a natural obligation that for a week or two she would introduce Deborah to people until gradually Deborah could build up a circle of her own.  But Deborah resisted all Madeleine’s suggestions for companionable evenings: if I once give in, she told herself, I’m done for, certain in her own mind that even a sherry party or a game of bridge could have only one conclusion.  She martyred herself til her very martyrdom became her excuse for her release.

And that pretty much sets the tone for all that happens next.  I think you can probably work out where this is going, but I don’t want to spoil it for you because it’s so much fun watching in fascinated horror as Deborah manages to justify abandoning bit by bit whatever moral code she has as she tries to get herself the glamourous life she thinks that she deserves – and how the climate in wartime allows her to do that.

As you’ve probably worked out, this is not a home fires burning, sweet little wife pining at home sort of World War II novel.  This is the seamier side of wartime relationships – if you can’t cope with casual sex and marital infidelity, don’t read this book.  But if you read the Camomile Lawn and want to read about a character who has all of Calypso’s worst traits and then some, then this may well be the book that you have been searching for.  Equally if you’ve read Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, then there’s all the bad bits of Villy and Louise and early Zoe here without the redeeming features.  Deborah is brilliantly, splendidly dreadful and her exploits are compulsively readable.

To Bed With Grand Music was originally published in 1946, with the author given as “Sarah Russell”.  It’s now been republished by Persephone Press (one of my favourite sources for books like this) with the real name of its author – Marghanita Laski who (under her own name) was a journalist and author from a prominent family of Jewish intellectuals.   Given the book’s frank depiction of sex and morality, I can totally understand why the author didn’t want to attach her real name to the book at the time.

You should be able to get hold of the Persephone Press edition from Big Green Books or order it from Amazon – I can’t find an ebook edition at the moment.

Happy reading!

Book of the Week, Forgotten books, women's fiction

Book of the Week: Anna and her Daughters

This week’s BotW is one I picked up as a Kindle Daily Deal a couple of weeks back: Anna and her Daughters by DE Stevenson.  You may remember me waxing lyrical about my love for Miss Buncle and her book back in a #Recommendsday about Comfort reads a while back and this was the first non-Buncle book I’ve read by DE Stevenson.

The cover of Anna and Her Daughters
I’m not sure about the cover on this, but hey, when the book is good it doesn’t matter!

The Plot:  Anna’s husband has died and the family’s finances are in a mess.  They’re going to have to sell the London house and move to somewhere smaller.  Anna decides that she wants to go back to the area of Scotland that she grew up in and starts making plans.  None of her three nearly grown up daughters are precisely keen on the idea, but only one, Jane, is prepared to make the best of it.  Anna and the girls move – Helen and Rosalie are practically kicking and screaming – and start their new lives.

The story is told through Jane’s eyes – she’s the plain but clever sister, who would have gone to Oxford if it hadn’t been for the money problems.  Helen is pretty, but selfish and used to getting her own way.  Rosalie isn’t as pretty as Helen, but isn’t clever like Jane either and tends to drift along in Helen’s shadow.  The combination of the three sisters makes for fascinating reading.  Anna is remarkably clear sighted about her daughters in some ways – she sees their faults in a way that many parents do not.  She tries to explain her attitude to Jane, who (justifiably) gets angry about the way that Helen treats people and the fact that she gets away with it.

As the book goes on we see the girls grow and change.  Jane discovers a gift for writing, Rosalie chooses security and Helen continues to be Helen, regardless of the consequences.  This book is very melodramatic in some ways but also feels like nothing much happens.  I loved it.  Especially when Miss Buncle gets a quick mention.

Anna and her Daughters is available in Kindle or you’ll have to go and find a secondhand paperback copy, which by the look of Amazon maybe expensive.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, fiction, women's fiction

Book of the Week: The Camomile Lawn

This week’s BotW is another case of “why on earth haven’t I read this before”.  I have no idea why I hadn’t got around to the Camomile Lawn before.  All I can think is that the TV version had Jennifer Ehle in it and that my mum may have steered me away from it in the immediate aftermath of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice because I was 11 and if the TV series is anything like the book, it really wasn’t suitable for me at the time and I may have got it in my head that the book wasn’t worth it! Who knows.  Anyway.

A copy of The Camomile Lawn and a glass of Pimms
A book, a Pimms (sorry, summer cup for the Great British Menu viewers) and a weekend on the beach

The Camomile Lawn tells the story of five cousins, who we meet at their Aunt-by-marriage’s house in Cornwall in the summer before the start of the Second World War.  We follow them through the war and meet up with them again some years later as they reassemble for a funeral. There is beautiful, mercenary Calypso, outwardly conventional Polly, Oliver, Walter and much younger Sophy, who watches what the older ones are up to and wants to join in.  And then there is Helena – married to a man injured in the last war and bored by her life, watching the kissing cousins as they set out into the future.  As the war begins, life changes for all of them – new opportunities open up for the women and danger lurks for all of them – not just the obvious ones for the boys in the forces.

Mary Wesley was in her 70s when she wrote this – and it was only her second novel.  She lived through the war that she is writing about and was a similar age to the characters when it happened.  If she hadn’t been, perhaps there would be a temptation to say that the characters were having too much fun and too much sex considering that there was a war on.  This reminded me a lot of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles, but with the sex and antics turned up.  Wesley doesn’t really bother with description – except for some of the details of the house in Cornwall – but she writes in a wonderful, understated way dropping bombshells in like they’re nothing so that you do a double take as you read it.

I’m off to read some more Mary Wesley and to try and get my hands on a DVD of the TV mini-series.  You should be able to get hold of a copy of The Camomile Lawn fairly easily.  I got mine from a secondhand bookshop on Charing Cross Road.  The Kindle and Kobo versions were £$.99 at time of writing and the paperback version was £5.99 on Amazon albeit in a slightly older cover than I saw in Foyles.

Happy Reading!

fiction, literary fiction, Recommendsday, women's fiction

Recommendsday: Standard Deviation

Another day, another great holiday read to recommend, this time it’s Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny which filled some very happy hours on the plane and the beach last week and which I’m sure I’m going to be recommending to a lot of people this summer.

The cover of Standard Deviation
I love the origami figures but I’m still not quite sure the cover of this really does it justice.

Graham Cavanaugh is on his second marriage.  Wife #2, Audra, is one of Those Women – you know the sort – who know every one, who makes friends effortlessly and opens her arms (and home) to any waif or stray of her acquaintance (no matter how tenuous the connection) who needs help. They have one child, origami-obsessed Matthew, who has Asperger’s and sees the world slightly differently and finds a lot of it a bit challenging.  When Wife #1, Elspeth, re-appears in Graham’s life, the contrasts become apparent.  Because of course Audra wants them to be friends with Elspeth and so their lives get tangled up together all over again.

This is a fun, witty and touching look at the choices that we make and how our lives can change. Just reading about life with Audra makes you tired, but despite that and despite her nosiness and lack of boundaries you still warm to her.  I don’t think I’d want to be friends with her in real life, but then the same applies to Graham and to Elspeth too.  They all have their monstrous moments, but it makes for fascinating reading.  It has some heart-warming moments too – mostly dealing with Graham’s hopes for Matthew as he grows up and Audra’s efforts to try and give him a normal life.

This is Katherine Heiny’s first novel, but it doesn’t feel like a debut.  It feels like the work of an author who is already well in their stride, with confidence in the characters that they have created and the stories that they are spinning.  But perhaps that is unsurprising given Heiny’s background in short stories.  She’s been published in the New Yorker and had a collection of short stories – Single, Carefree, Mellow – published a few years back*.  This article from the Guardian says that she’s written more than 20 Young Adult novels under various pseudonyms, but frustratingly doesn’t give me any titles (and nor does good reads) which doesn’t help me with my need to glom on everything that she’s written.  Luckily I have a New Yorker subscription so I can go back and read the full version of How to Give the Wrong Impression from back in 1992.

If you like Nora Ephron movies and books, this may be the beach read for you.  In writing this I’ve seen lots of comparisons to Anne Tyler (who I’ve never read but always meant to) so I’ll be recommending this to my mum who’s had a bit of a Tyler thing recently.  My copy of Standard Deviation came via NetGalley, but it’s out now in hardback (sorry) and you should be able to get hold of a copy from all the usual places and it’s also available on Audible (the link may only work if you’re signed in) Kindle and Kobo.

Happy reading!

*which is now on my wishlist unsurprisingly!

 

Book of the Week, literary fiction, women's fiction

Book of the Week: Difficult Women

This week’s BotW is Roxane Gay’s short story collection Difficult Women.  I’ve been reading this as my bedtime book for a few weeks (which is where short story collections often end up in my house!) and have really enjoyed reading.

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay
My copy of Difficult Women

Difficult Women is a collection of stories about very different women, all of whom might be termed “difficult”.  The term “difficult women” conjures images of angry or confrontational women, but that’s not necessarily who these women are.  These are women who don’t fit into neat categories.  They’re women who have had bad experiences.  There’s abuse, violence and infidelity and a whole host of trigger warnings here, but no two women are the same.  There’s poverty and privilege, there are single women, married women, violent women and women who are in fish out of water situations and there’s some sci fi too.

Some of the stories are sad.  But somehow this is not a sad book.   It’s thought provoking and clever and really beautifully written.  There were women that  liked, women I didn’t like and women who had life experiences a million miles from mine but there was always something in the story to make you feel empathy with the women, no matter how terribly they were behaving.

The last short story collection I raved about on here was American Housewife (I think) which is totally different to this, but both reminded me that when done well short story collections can be as satisfying as 500 page novels. I’ve been following Roxane Gay on Twitter for ages and have heard people raving about her but until now I’d only read odd stories in isolation or her essays.  I know I’ll be going out and finding more of her writing after reading this.

You can get hold of Difficult Women from Amazon, Waterstones and Foyles and on Kindle and Kobo.

Happy Reading!

fiction, Forgotten books, literary fiction, women's fiction

Book of the Week: The Making of a Marchioness

This week’s pick comes from the bottom of the to-read pile – which is now the top because of the unfortunate fireplace situation.  I acquired a little stack of Persephone Print books from a friend a year (and the rest) ago and some how they ended up getting relegated to one of the piles behind the sofa arm.  What a mistake to make.  Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Making of a Marchioness, although not perfect, turned out to be a little gem.

The Making of a Marchioness is a story of two parts.  Both are about Emily Fox-Seaton, a well-born lady in her early 30s (so on the shelf for the era – this was published in 1901) who has very little money and who supports herself by running errands for people better off than herself.  In part one, she gets invited to visit a country house to help out and during the course of her stay her fortunes change.  The second part chronicles how she adapts to her change in fortunes.

Now, in order to explain my feelings about this book, I’m going to have to give some spoilers. Sorry. So, if you don’t want to be spoilt (so to speak) then don’t read below the photograph that’s coming up.  But if you like a Cinderella story, but one that’s populated by really quite unromantic people who aren’t all beautiful or clever, than this might well be the book for you.  The latest Persephone edition, although not quite as pretty as mine is £9.00 on Amazon and Foyles as I write this or in the edition that I own for £14 from Waterstones, but the total bargain is the ebook because both Kindle and Kobo have a free versions.

Photo montage of The Making of a Marchioness
I do love these Persophones – plain unassuming grey cover and then a beautiful design inside.

And now the spoilers.  I did warn you.

I really, really, liked the first part of the book – with Emily winning the Marquess by being herself and realising what she was doing.  Emily is an immensely likeable character who is cheerful and uncomplaining and just generally indispensible.  Part two, where we see her adapting to life as a Marchioness is really very Gothic and melodramatic and I didn’t like it as much – perhaps because it was so different from the first part of the book.  Emily’s obliviousness to the machinations of the unsuitable heir and his wife (and her maid) started to annoy me a little after a while and I just wanted her to buck up and write that letter to her husband (away in India on government business) or confide in Lady Maria who would have sorted it all out.  The two parts were originally published as separate books, and I can’t work out if I would have liked the second part more or less if I’d read the first part in isolation and then come across its sequel.

What is true of both parts is that they are very well written and without the overblown romantic transports of many similar novels.  And the way it portrays marriage is also very different from other novels of the time.  Emily is not on the prowl for a husband in part one, she’s content to try and live her life without a man (even if she is worried about old age and poor health) but when she does get married, her husband is not a romantic hero – in fact he’s really not sure why he settled on Emily at some points – and their relationship is very stiff and Victorian (and Edwardian).  There are some slightly dated attitudes in here – but I’ve read much (much) worse and it’s on the nicer end of the attitudes and problems of its time.

Anyway, I really enjoyed reading an adult novel by an author that I only knew for her famous children’s stories like The Secret Garden – and I’m really looking forward to reading more of the Persephones on my to-read pile.

Happy Reading.

cozy crime, romance, women's fiction

Christmas Reading

The schools have broken up, offices are starting to wind down and although I’m only midway through my run of nights, it really is starting to feel a lot like Christmas.  So if you’re already in full-on festive mode, here are some Christmassy reading suggestions for you.  All my links in this are to the Kindle editions – partly because there are so many e-specials in here, but also because it’s so close to Christmas now you’re probably not going to be able to get the actual book in the post in time.

As with every year there is a healthy crop of new festive novellas about.  In the main, I think they mostly work for people who are already fans, rather than people who are new to the author, but if you’re a fan of Katie Fforde, you can check in with some old friends in Candlelight at Christmas, or with the characters from Cathy Bramley‘s Plumberry School of Comfort Food in Comfort and Joy.  Alex Brown returns to Tindledale to write a emotional story about finding a new love in Not Just for Christmas.  Liz Fenwick has written a Christmas Carol-inspired novella, A Cornish Christmas Carol, for those of you who want to see a Scrooge converted.  And there are short stories from Jennifer Crusie, Donna Alward and Mandy Baxter in It Must Be Christmas – I liked the Crusie the best, but be warned it’s been previously published (I discovered I’d already read it) and I think it’s a little expensive (over a fiver at time of writing) for what it is as I thought the other two stories each had a problem or two with them.

I reviewed Sarah Morgan‘s Christmas novel Miracle on Fifth Avenue for Novelicious – it’s wonderfully Christmassy even if it’s not quite grovelly enough in the resolution for me.  Morgan writes excellent Christmas stories – I read the first book in her Snow Crystal trilogy, Sleigh Bells in the Snow, a couple of weeks back and that’s great as well.  I’m currently trying to resist the urge to buy the other two in the series.  It’s not new, but I read Tessa Dare‘s Spindle Cove fill in Once Upon A Winter’s Eve this year – and whilst I took an early dislike of the hero and didn’t think it was long enough for him to be able to redeem himself fully, I know that other people have loved it.  I’ve also read the last in Sabrina Jeffries‘s Hellions of Halstead Hall series this year, Twas the Night after Christmas, which is actually mostly set in the run up to Christmas.  I found the characters a bit stubborn and the central plot device is a bit melodramatic and overblown, but other people ha

There’s also no shortage of Christmas books in the series that I follow and I’ve read quite a few of them this year.  The latest in Robin Stevens‘ Wells and Wong series , Mistletoe and Murder is a Christmas one – as I’ve already mentioned in a BotW post and you’d be fine starting the series there if you really wanted to.  And I think Donna Andrew‘s Duck the Halls would be fine for someone to read if they haven’t read the other 15 Meg Langslow books – although you’d be missing the background to Meg’s eccentric extended family so she might come across as barking mad.  I’m behind in the series (because I collect them in papberback but wait for the secondhand prices to come down because of the backlog) so there’s another Christmas-y Meg after this one, The Nightingale Before Christmas as well as an earlier festive one, Six Geese Are Slaying.  Alan Bradley‘s fourth Flavia de Luce novel is set at Christmastime.  In I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, Flavia is cooking up a trap for St Nick but a film crew is snowed in at Buckshaw and a murder is committed. The fifth in Kerry Greenwood‘s Corinna Chapman series, Forbidden Fruit, is a Christmas book – but it’s Christmas in Australia which makes a lovely change from snow scenes and roaring fires.  It also has recipes at the back, which is always a bonus – and one of things I like about Trisha Ashley‘s books.  I’ve mentioned her a fair bit here before – but she has some fabulous Christmas books – particularly my favourite A Winter’s Tale, which I usually re-read at this time of year.

Some of the series have Christmas fill-in novellas too – in Jodi Taylor‘s Chronicles of St Mary’s series When A Child is Born sees Max and the gang in England for Christmas 1066 and all does not go as planned (but then when does it ever?) and A Christmas Present had me in tears twice as Max goes back in time to avert a double tragedy.  this year I’ve also enjoyed Silent Night and Twelth Night, the two Christmas fill-ins in Deanna Raybourn‘s Lady Julia Grey series but much as I love her,  I really do think you need to have read the other books to be able to get the best out of them.

This is a real monster list (much longer than I thought it would be when I started writing it) and I hope this has provided plenty of Christmas-y reading for you – but if this is still not enough, here’s last year’s Christmas-themed reading post with some more suggestions.