Sunday, 25 January 2015


I'm looking forward to the TV adaptation of the Lewis trilogy, although it won't be on for ages (and to my holiday on Lewis and Skye). Watching this tonight has put me in the mood. I'm not sure I fancy the local delicacy - pickled guga and potatoes - it sounds like codliver oil on a plate - but the scenery is stunning.

Clearly there's several of you who enjoyed these books and will also be looking forward to the TV series. Perhaps I should have made it clear that it will be a good while yet before this hits our screens. Meanwhile, the programme I watched (see link above) is still on iPlayer - it's a documentary (part English, part Gaelic with subtitles) about the books and the people and places who inspired them. Sorry if I caused any confusion. Must not blog carelessly late at night!

Friday, 23 January 2015

So who made the rule that Books of the Year lists had to be published before New Year's Eve? I've been meaning to do this for weeks and thought it was too late to bother - but what the heck. I wouldn't say that 2014 was a vintage reading year; but that's not to say that there weren't days or weeks when I had my head stuck in a book and didn't want to surface. I still get through a book a week, although I used to read twice as much as I do now, up until a couple of years ago ... so what am I doing instead? Don't ask me! Maybe I'm reading fatter books. Or frittering reading time by blogging and making lists!

Anyway, here's my round-up, in no particular order.

Rather to my surprise, two of my strongest contenders for Book of the Year were actually published last year. In fact, I'll get off the fence and say that my 2014 award for contemporary fiction goes to Ann  Weisgarber for The Promise. Runner-up is Sarah Waters for The Paying Guests.

Looks like it's going to be 2016 before we get the third instalment of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy, which is in a league of its own. But in the meantime, I was completely gripped by Robert Harris's novel about the Dreyfus affair, An Officer and a Spy - which gets my double award for best historical fiction and best thriller.

Shall we award Mrs Miniver's Rosebowl for best vintage fiction? What a difficult category in which to select an outright winner because these are my long, enjoyable wallow books. First up is EH Young for Chatterton Square and William. Could I possibly choose between them? Between delightful William and disagreeable Mr Blackett? (There are plenty of copies of Chatterton Square for 1p on Amazon.)

I didn't get round to posting about The Three Sisters by May Sinclair but this novel from 1914 was definitely another contender for the Rosebowl, a heartbreaking story of repressed women.  I'm Not Complaining by Ruth Adam was a novel that I'd really love to adapt for TV and I was casting it in my mind as I was reading.

It didn't quite make Mrs Miniver's Rosebowl, but I'll give an honourable mention to Madame Solario, originally published anonymously (in the 1950s, but you'd think it was from another, earlier era). Again, this was one I didn't get round to posting about - sorry. But Madame Solario lingered in my mind as such an entrancing, mysterious character and there's an excellent review here. This was 1p well spent on Amazon, too. For some reason, I thought it was a forthcoming Persephone title; but maybe I'm wrong.

Oh, and another honourable mention to Betty Miller for On the Side of the Angels as it reminded me of  Elizabeth Taylor and At Mrs Lippincote's.


Shall I round it off with an award for non-fiction? I thoroughly enjoyed Lynn Barber's A Curious Career. I seem to have had a midsummer blogging slump and again, I can't find a post for the gripping, but very gruelling Journey Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Semyonovna Ginzburg, now republished by Persephone. I found it a compelling read about Stalinist Russia (but I chose it for our bookgroup and none of the other members would agree with me!) A much easier read was Mollie Panter-Downes' London War Notes, fascinating and quirky, and coming soon as a Persephone title.

Most disappointing read of the year? Hilary Mantel's book of short stories was a big letdown. I wish she'd cracked on with Wolf Hall III instead of rattling the cage of Daily Mail columnists.  I didn't care about it being tasteless, it was just a bit ... boring.

Thursday, 22 January 2015


A catchier title would be The Taste of Wolf Hall. I devoured this fascinating book over a few days last week and, as it's full of relatively easy-to-recreate recipes, I have grand plans for sweet potato pie and biscuits baked in mussel shells, then boiled in a sugar glaze (alas, only discovered after I had mussels for supper  and chucked all the shells!)
There was lots of food in Hilary Mantel's novels and I seem to remember that Thomas Cromwell (at least, the fictional Cromwell) took a keen interest in sauces.
So I'm keeping an eye on the television series to see what they're dishing up ... only herrings and salad last night, but it was Lent!

Wednesday, 21 January 2015


Delicious shivers ... I'm not sure why I was so pleased to see all of the horrid novels from Northanger Abbey when I caught the last day of this excellent exhibition about the Gothic imagination at the British Library. I was going to say it had everything from Austen to Zombies. But, actually, there was a Zombie Pride and Prejudice. Has anyone read it?
I hardly ever watch horror films - but when I got home I couldn't resist watching this.

Monday, 19 January 2015


Happiness, Emily Carr, 1939
It was the tree paintings that bowled me over ... you could almost smell the damp earthiness of the forest floor, feel the pine needles, hear the rustling branches ...

Sketching in the big woods is wonderful. You go, find a space wide enough to sit in and clear enough so that the undergrowth is not drowning you. Then, being elderly, you spread your camp stool and sit and look round. 'Don't see much here.' 'Wait.' Out comes a cigarette. The mosquitoes back away from the smoke. Everything is green. Everything is waiting and still. Slowly things begin to move, to slip into their places. Groups and masses and lines tie themselves together. Colours you had not noticed come out, timidly or boldly. In and out, in and out your eye passes ... Sunlight plays and dances. Nothing is still now. Life is sweeping through the spaces. Everything is alive. The air is alive. The silence is full of sound. The green is full of colour ...

I own up. I'd never heard of Emily Carr - who is a household name in Canada - and my excuse is that there is very little opportunity to see Canadian art here.

So I didn't know what to expect from this show at Dulwich, except that it had very good reviews. It turns out that Emily Carr was also a very engaging writer; that extract is from her diary in 1935, when she was 63. She was born in 1871 and, after the early death of both her parents, she took off to Europe to learn to be an artist, then returned to paint the forests and skies and document the legacy of the indigenous peoples of British Columbia.

Self-Portrait, 1938-39
There was a 15 year gap in her career when she more or less gave up on art, when she couldn't make a living from it and became a boarding house landlady instead.

I don't fit anywhere, so I'm out of everything, and I ache and ache. I don't fit in the family and I don't fit in the church and I don't fit in my own house as a landlady. It's dreadful - like a game of musical chairs - I'm always out, never get a seat in time, the music always stops first.

Yet look at the titles of her paintings ... Sunshine - Happiness - Tumult - Windswept Trees.

I loved the illustrated sketchbook of her 1907 holiday in Alaska with her sister, Alice - full of wit and fun about the ups and downs of what must have been quite a gruelling trip.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Eric Ravilious, The Waterwheel, 1938

Eric Ravilious, Belle Tout Interior, 1939

A date for my diary. I'm really looking forward to this.

Saturday, 10 January 2015


I started this over Christmas, not the most festive choice of reading but fascinating. It tells the story of a  cluster of remote villages, on an inaccessible plateau of the Massif Central, that saved hundreds of Jewish children from deportation during the Nazi occupation. It was a heavily Protestant area, with a long tradition of discretion and silence. It was also, since long before the war, well known for its children's homes and pensions catering for needy and abandoned children in the clean mountain air.
The beginning chapters are particularly shocking, chronicling the appalling collaboration of the Vichy regime; more than collaboration, it was wholehearted participation that went over and beyond the demands of the Germans. This is the story - a story with many grey areas, of course - of ordinary, decent, courageous people who wanted no part of it.