Posted by: janesandell | December 23, 2018

23rd December

My friends Anna and Suzanne, who lived across the road from me growing up, owned a copy of Elizabeth of the Garret Theatre and kindly lent it to me and my sister to read. It’s one of the few books that Ann and I both read as children that we both liked and still like. Mum also liked it and she went on to collect all of Gwendoline Courtney’s books. After she died and her collection came to me I read these other titles but for a long time it was just Elizabeth and her family that I knew. Its original title was Stepmother which gives a clue to its plot but only a partial one as it turns out. The four Verney sisters are all horrified when their father remarries but Nan, the stepmother of the title, turns out not to be wicked and is, in fact, responsible for changing all of their lives for the better. What I liked, and still like, was the depiction of family life: the squabbles, the fun, the inter-reliance. It’s one of my feel-good books now and I often read it in times of stress.

Okay, cards on the table: I chose to read Summers of the Wild Rose by Rosemary Harris because it is partially set in Innsbruck. A devotee of the Chalet School books from a young age, anything to do with Austria, and Tirol in particular, jumps out at me. This is not the Chalet School by any stretch of the imagination but a diligent reader of the early books in that series will recognise the setting in time as well as place. Part one of Summers of the Wild Rose is set in 1936 in the midst of rampant anti-Semitism. It’s told from the perspective of Nell Dobell an English girl who travels to the Austrian city with her choir to take part in a music festival. There she meets Franz and sees for the first time the corruptive nature of power. The second part of the novel is set well after the Second World War and we meet Nell as a mature woman, still involved in the musical world. And we also meet her niece through whom the past is resolved.

Posted by: janesandell | December 22, 2018

22nd December

Many years ago the BBC dramatised The Warden and Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope. I watched them, loved them and immediately became a devoted reader of Trollope’s work. So when I had to choose a subject for my CSYS English dissertation I plumped for the first three of the Barsetshire Chronicles, the two titles already mentioned and Doctor Thorne. I took as my theme the way the plots are driven by lack of communication amongst the characters. Maybe because I came to it fresh, without anyone else’s interpretation of it in my mind, Doctor Thorne became, and remains, my favourite of this series. Trollope isn’t easy reading but he’s extremely rewarding and very funny. He’s also a very astute observer of character. If you’re looking for something different to read, I suggest you look no further.

Right from the Prologue of The Last Minute the reader knows that an explosion has taken place on Heathwick High Street. The rest of the novel recounts the events of the minute before the explosion. We are introduced to a diverse selection of people and competing explanations for the coming explosion with a creeping sense of horror for what lies in wait. In a few sentences Eleanor Updale makes us care about the characters’ fate and hope passionately that our favourites will be spared. I found myself willing some of them to move more or less quickly to ensure their survival. This is an outstanding novel for mature readers of any age and adds lustre to Eleanor Updale’s established brilliance.

Posted by: janesandell | December 21, 2018

21st December

Mabel Esther Allan has already appeared in this month’s posts in the guise of Jean Estoril, one of her many pseudonyms. In her own name I first met her in one of two books.  At this distance I can’t remember which came first!  The title I’ve selected for this month is The Vine-Clad Hill, one of her travel romances – as I describe them in my head.  In this one eighteen-year-old Philippa goes to Bellinzona for the summer to help look after three younger cousins.  In trademark MEA style the adventure begins with a beautifully described journey from London to Switzerland.  I still wish I could travel by train in the fifties when it seems to have been so much more glamorous than it is now!  It’s for her descriptions of places that Mabel Esther Allan is most appreciated and she certainly made Bellinzona come to life for me.  One day, perhaps, I’ll get to see it in reality.

Rosamunde Pilcher’s books came into my life through The Shell Seekers, a must-read book of its time.  Much as I enjoyed it, it is another of her long family stories that I tend to return to. September is set in rural Scotland and revolves around a few wealthy and/or titled families who gather for a ball.  Although the immediate action takes place in the month of September, there are many back stories intertwined with it and with each other.  There’s wonderful characterisation and engrossing storytelling and evocative description.  All in all it’s a book that welcomes me in and keeps a hold of me from start to finish.

Posted by: janesandell | December 20, 2018

20th December

The book I most associate Judith Kerr with is When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and it’s another of the very few primary school class books I actually enjoyed.  It’s a fictionalised autobiography, describing how Judith’s (Anna in the book) family leaves Germany as Hitler comes into power.  Her father (actually the Jewish drama critic and journalist Alfred Kerr) was a noted opponent of the Nazi party and the family escaped Berlin with little time to spare. Pink Rabbit, the first in a trilogy, ends as the family arrives in England as hopeful refugees.  This was the first novel I read set in this time period and is one of the most impactful books I read as a child.

A Hidden Beauty by Tessa Barclay covers a great swathe of time, sweeping through the fifties and early sixties in the wake of Corie Duggan. Corie is a photographer and through her job is present at many of the major events of the period.  I love this kind of book with a long look at the main character.  Tessa Barclay is a great storyteller and this epic example of her work keeps moving along at a cracking pace.  London life in the early fifties, Grace Kelly’s Monaco wedding, war-torn Korea, Cuba in turmoil and the Berlin Wall all feature and are surrounded by a fascinating supporting cast including the up-and-coming politician Jack Kennedy and his PR man, German-American Drew Richter.

Posted by: janesandell | December 19, 2018

19th December

Mum tried for years to interest me in O Douglas’ books but it took a lot of persuading before I finally delved in. Of course, once I’d taken the plunge, I couldn’t understand why I’d hesitated.  The books are a real surprise: they look like they’ll be a bit saccharine and old-fashioned even for their time (mostly the inter-war period) but Anna Buchan was no-one’s fool and she had a firm grasp of what her world was really like.  I love them all and chose The Setons after some thought.  Elizabeth Seton is an engrossing companion, one I don’t tire of.  She’s a minister’s daughter living on the south side of Glasgow, looking after her widowed father and much younger brother.  In many ways it’s a domestic tale of its time but it’s not at all stuffy and is peopled by some wonderful characters.  It’s set just before, and in the early days of, the First World War and was published in 1917; thus it honestly captures the feeling of the day and has no happy ending but only unanswerable questions.

Murder on the Flying Scotsman by Carola Dunn is set just after the War but was published this century. It is the fourth in the series about Daisy Dalrymple, scion of the nobility trying to earn her own living as a writer in London.  Daisy has an unbelievable tendency to become involved in murders – merely as a witness I should point out!  In the course of the first book she meets Detective Chief Inspector Alec Fletcher of the Met, and their relationship is a feature of the series. Murder on the Flying Scotsman introduces his daughter Belinda into the action and she plays a prominent part.  I’ve read my way through the whole series now, having discovered them this year, but I particularly like this one both for its murder mystery and Daisy and Alec’s developing relationship.

Posted by: janesandell | December 18, 2018

18th December

I came early to John Buchan’s thrillers courtesy of my mother who insisted that I watch the BBC adaptation of Huntingtower in 1978.  I’m very glad that she insisted and that I acquiesced as I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and Huntingtower remains to this day my favourite of John Buchan’s novels.  Needless to say some of the plot went over my head but the fast-moving adventure was great fun.  And I loved the contrast between the solid Dickson McCunn and the mischievous Gorbals’ Diehards.  It’s hard to know now what I remember from television and what from countless readings of the book but wherever the memories come from they are happy ones.  And I was thrilled last year when the Diehards made a re-appearance in Robert J Harris’ The Thirty-One Kings.

Not long before her death, I was privileged to be invited to meet Eva Ibbotson in her Newcastle home. I had a fascinating time, discussing her books and her life.  One thing she said has stayed with me all these years.  I complimented her on her writing which I find immeasurably good and spoke about how effortless it was to read.  She replied that it could take her hours to get a sentence exactly right and that I shouldn’t imagine that writing was anything other than hard work.  Now I knew that in my head, of course, but I think that was when I first really understood the effort that goes into superlative writing.  I took two of her books with me to get signed, one children’s and one adult.  In the latter category I selected Madensky Square set in Vienna just before the First World War.  It’s told by Susanna, a dressmaker, in the form of a diary and beautifully evokes a slice of Viennese life.

Posted by: janesandell | December 17, 2018

17th September

There aren’t many classics on this list but an early choice was A Room with a View by EM Forster.  When I was in Sixth Year my inspired and inspiring English teacher Mr Stephen gave me a period a week to browse in the school library and read whatever I wanted.  I was the only person studying CSYS English that year and I already knew that I was going to study it at university.  It was Ken Stephen’s considered opinion that reading widely was the best thing I could do in preparation.  So, along with Shakespeare and Shaw, John Donne and Hugh MacDiarmid, Jane Austen and Neil Gunn I read randomly and in a completely unguided way.  And A Room with a View was one of the books I thus discovered.  It’s a perfect study of manners and character and a wonderful sideswipe at Edwardian society.

I don’t remember when or how I came across Jennifer Crusie’s books but it would certainly have been in another library. Bet Me is by far and away my favourite.  It’s a contemporary American romance full of punchy, witty, sharp dialogue and quirky characters.  Minerva Dobbs is a risk-averse actuary with a love of food, a domineering mother, a beautiful, thin younger sister and an inferiority complex.  Fortunately she also has two loyal, supportive but honest best friends.  One crazy evening she bumps into Cal Morissey in a bar with his two friends and colleagues.  And so begins a roller-coaster definitely-not-love story.  It’s clever, funny and fast-moving and my go-to book when I want something not quite demanding to read.

Posted by: janesandell | December 16, 2018

16th December

Elsie Oxenham was one of the Big Three school story writers in the early and middle part of the twentieth century, the others being Dorita Fairlie Bruce and Elinor Brent-Dyer of whom you will have already read! I collected her books for a long time after discovering them as a teenager. Much as I enjoyed reading them, there was something about many of them that made me feel slightly uncomfortable. And I am afraid that it was Elsie Oxenham’s unthinking snobbishness. In their attitude to class and wealth, they have dated much more than Dorita Fairlie Bruce’s or Elinor Brent-Dyer’s books. And yet they are still enjoyable. I recently decided to sell off my Oxenham collection, keeping only a few. And one of these is The Secrets of Vairy. It’s part of a small set of books related to the main Abbey series and is set on the west coast of Scotland. It’s a completely ridiculous story but I love the setting and the way the characters interact. I borrowed it from a fellow collector when I was sixteen and for years it was the Oxenham I aspired to own. Having waited so long for it, I have no intention of getting rid of it.

Airborn is a book I had to read whilst judging for the Carnegie Medal and my heart sank when I saw it. It appeared to be yet another sci-fi/fantasy mixture, two of my least favourite genres. But one should never, of course, judge a book by its cover and when I finally steeled myself to read it, I was enchanted. It’s set in an alternative past (it feels Edwardian) on an airship – a very enclosed community – and tells the story of Kate and Matt who are first-class passenger and crew. It’s a fast-paced adventure but it’s also a character study and has a great supporting cast. I use my story of discovering it when I’m helping children choose new authors. It’s always worth trying a new book.  You never know; it might become one of your fifty favourites!

Posted by: janesandell | December 15, 2018

15th December

I discovered the Drina books by Jean Estoril serendipitously in Lossiemouth Library as a child. I read them in a random order as and when they were available. And only the first six, which had been recently re-issued, were available at all. The last of these chronologically is Drina Dances in New York, set partly in that city and partly on board a transatlantic liner. I may have said before that I grew up with my Mum’s stories of sailing to Australia and back, and ship-board life had always fascinated me. And I was a great reader of ballet stories so this was a combination guaranteed to appeal. I still re-read the Drina books and I now have all of them, including Drina Ballerina, published MUCH later than the others when the series was issued in paperback. I have them in a variety of editions as I find their publishing history fascinating. They’ve been updated over the years but haven’t suffered too badly. Honestly, I could have selected any of the books for inclusion in this list but the description of life at sea probably brought Drina Dances in New York into my mind first!

A few years ago Greyladies, a small independent publisher, re-issued some of the books of Susan Pleydell, a mid-twentieth century Scottish writer. I enjoyed them (Summer Term and A Young Man’s Fancy) so much that I checked the library catalogue to see if we had any of the rest of her ten novels. And thus I found Brighouse Hotel, her final offering. It’s set in the fictional Glen Torran somewhere unspecified – between Inverness and Fort William is my best guess – in the Highlands. Clunie Ritchie, a regular visitor to the area as a teenager, suddenly finds herself homesick for the mountains. So when the receptionist at Brighouse Hotel is rushed into hospital, Clunie is delighted to deputise. The hotel, as well as being frequented by walkers and fishers, is the local Mountain Rescue base and much of the plot revolves around this. But really this is a story about people and relationships and how both change and develop. It’s a charming novel without being at all cloying and enough of the real world of the 1970s intrudes to make it believable.

Posted by: janesandell | December 14, 2018

14th December

My first of two books by O Douglas (Anna Buchan) is The House that is Our Own, the last of her completed novels. It was published in 1940, a dark year for the author whose brother John died in Canada where he was serving as Governor-General. Much of the action takes place in that country and is clearly based on Anna’s recent visit. But the titular house is in the Scottish Borders not far from Peebles. Isobel Logan, a Scot by birth who has never set foot on her native soil, goes to stay in the area on the recommendation of her friend Kitty who has family connections there. Isobel falls in love with the area, makes friends and ultimately buys Glenbucho Place, a rundown country house. Before she has time to settle in properly she is persuaded into a visit to Canada where she makes the acquaintance of the house’s former owner, Gideon Veitch…

Although they were born decades apart I think that Isobel would have had a lot in common with Kate Milbank, the heroine A Foreign Affair by John Rowe Townsend. I devoured his books as a teenager and this is one of the two I have kept. It’s described as a modern fairytale and it’s actually a Ruritanian novel being set mostly in the Alpine country of Essenheim. Kate is the teenage daughter of a newspaper editor who unexpectedly finds herself making the news when, after becoming involved with the Crown Prince, she travels to Essenheim in the company of two disaffected students and an exiled writer. The resulting story is a wonderfully frothy confection with a deep seam of satire running through it.

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