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.

Posted by: janesandell | December 13, 2018

13th December

Back in the fifties and sixties career novels were all the rage, particularly those aimed at girls. I read them in the eighties and was first of all puzzled, and then fascinated, by them.  There was Jane, Young Author (!), Juliet in Publishing and Molly Qualifies as a Librarian (not by going to university, though, as I was planning).  Of course, these careers were only there to fill in the time before marriage inevitably ensued!  Hester: Ship’s Officer is one of The Bodley Head’s career novels.  It was published in 1957 and from a modern standpoint it’s absolutely hilarious.  But in spite of everything it’s a remarkably good story.  Many of these career novels (which I love and collect) are little more than tracts for different jobs but this has plot and character and everything!  The author is Valerie Baxter, actually Laurence Meynell, who wrote a lot of the better career novels.  Obviously I like this because it’s set on a ship.  Or, at least, that’s what you’d think.  Actually it takes Hester about half the book to get on board…

Between Two Seas is by Marie-Louise Jensen.  The author is half English/half Danish and the book is set in the two countries at the end of the nineteenth century.  The heroine is Marianne, the illegitimate daughter of Esther.  At the start of the novel they are living in Grimsby but the action really begins after Esther’s death when Marianne sets sail for Denmark in search of her unknown father. In my opinion, the book’s major strength is its description.  I’m predisposed to envisage the sea but Marie-Louise Jensen certainly created a clear setting for me in the north Danish fishing village of Skagen.  Having been there since reading the book (because of reading the book if the truth were to be told) I can see how well it was described.  My only slight problem with the book is that everything falls into place quite easily.  Marianne leaves Grimsby with limited money, speaking no Danish and not knowing where Skagen is but somehow she arrives with little difficulty.  I am also very envious of the ease with which she seems to master Danish.  I spent two years learning Norwegian, a very similar language, and I still find it pretty hard going in spite of a number of visits to Norway.  But my quibbles are professional; on a personal basis I really enjoyed reading it.

Posted by: janesandell | December 12, 2018

12th December

In a sneaky move I’m including a second book by Dorita Fairlie Bruce who, you may remember from last week, is my favourite collectable author. The Serendipity Shop introduces Merran and Julia Lendrum, orphaned sisters living happily enough with relatives in London. In the great tradition of Dorita Fairlie Bruce, though, they’re exiled Scots, and when an unexpected legacy recalls them to their home town they fight off all opposition from their well-meaning relatives and return. The book is set in Colmskirk, a thinly disguised Largs, and it makes me happy! Julia and Merran are welcomed back to the town warmly. Merran, the reserved older sister, has inherited an antiques shop and, along with it, an enemy. Insouciant Julia, still at school, makes friends with the enemy’s daughter. In an unexpected turn, however, all four are thrown together in an effort to save the town from an unscrupulous businessman. Dorita Fairlie Bruce’s characterisation is always strong and the description of the small town setting with its idealised sense of community is my best kind of feel-good.

It was Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies Detective series that rocketed him to fame. Mma Ramotswe struck a chord and put Botswana securely on the map for many readers. But Botswana had been front and centre of my mind for a long time. Brought up in the United Free Church of Scotland, I knew more than most about the southern African country where much of the denomination’s overseas work was focused. I loved the series from the outset and got very over-excited in the staffroom one day when a real life character who had once stayed with us got a mention. Shrieking wasn’t in it! However I also enjoy the Edinburgh based books and it’s one of them I’ve chosen for my list. Alexander McCall Smith’s deceptively simple style of writing is well known and The Right Attitude to Rain exemplifies it well. It is the third in his Isabel Dalhousie series set in middle class Edinburgh and meets the high standard of its predecessors. I enjoyed the first two books in the series (The Sunday Philosophy Club and Friends, Lovers, Chocolate) but for me this was better than either of them because of what we learn about Isabel. In this book, Alexander McCall Smith sensitively describes her emotional character. He also leaves us on the edge of a precipice that I certainly never saw coming…

Posted by: janesandell | December 11, 2018

11th December

Clare Mallory was a New Zealander who wrote books for children and teenagers in the 1940s and 1950s.  I came across her books fairly recently and immediately enjoyed them.  Many of them are school stories but the schools tend to be much more relaxed than their British contemporaries although they do have much in common. My favourite of Clare Mallory’s novels is Juliet Overseas.  It concerns a girl who is sent halfway around the world to attend her mother’s old school in England.  In a typical school story plot, the tone of the school is not all it might be and Juliet takes it upon herself to effect an improvement.  Of course she succeeds but reading about how she does it is entertaining and even thought-provoking.  Juliet is an engaging character, fairly self-sufficient but keenly aware that the customs of New Zealand are not those of home – as England is always referred to – and anxious not to trample on sensitivities, whilst at the same time being impatient with the unwillingness to change displayed by some of her contemporaries.

I love a Regency romance and one of my favourite writers in the genre is Julia Quinn. She’s American but she manages to hide that pretty well in her use of language and, unusually for American-penned novels of the genre, there are very few jarring notes in her writing. Her series of books about the Bridgerton family is good fun.  The characters are likeable and varied and over the series Julia builds up a great picture of their family life.  Each of the children has a book describing his or her courtship and these stories are all quite different. I like Colin’s story, Romancing Mr Bridgerton, best of all.  He’s an urbane young man, intelligent, witty and attractive but with a deep seam of insecurity.  The heroine of the piece is Penelope Featherington, old enough to be considered an irredeemable spinster but hiding an explosive secret.  It’s funny, romantic, sexy and great escapism!

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