Much Dithering

First published in 1938, this is just lovely. The Ditherings, Much and Little are villages known for their peacefulness. Kept firmly in the past by the Honourable Mrs. Augusta Renshawe, there isn’t even a petrol pump and that’s the way the villagers like it. Our heroine is Jocelyn, a mild mannered 25 year old who has lived with her aunt in Much Dithering all her life. Tutored as a child with Augusta’s son Lancelot, the two fall into marriage at their families request and just get on with their lives hardly noticing any difference to their routines. Lancelot keeps up with his stamp collection and rare tulips and Jocelyn can be counted on to deliver the parish magazine and play the piano at social gatherings. Even when Lancelot dies, Jocelyn’s life doesn’t change. Her small circle includes the vicar’s wife, her aunt and her mother in law, and the grumpy old Colonel Tidmarsh who they’ve decided she should marry.

But then a new family arrive, parvenus they can be up to no good, and Jocelyn’s mother, Ermyntrude Lascelles, who ‘despised her daughter for her lack of initiative and fondness for good works’, but needs a bed now that her husband has died and low and behold the rich young man she’s got her eye on has given his address as . . . Dithering Place!

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The Lost Daughter

Leda is a middle-aged divorcee who loves her work as an English teacher at the university in Florence. Her grown up daughters are with their father in Canada and she decides to take a holiday on the coast in Southern Italy. She finds an apartment to rent and everyday sets off with her towel and swimming things and works under an umbrella at the beach. Her routine is just as she’d hoped.

But also on the beach are a Neapolitan family who Leda becomes increasingly involved with. What starts as friendship between Leda and the young mother though, begins to unravel the reasons why Leda is not with her daughters and husband and the summer starts to take a menacing and at times, threatening turn.

That Leda feels liberated to be away from her daughters is the starting point for a ‘frank novel of maternal ambivalence’ (The New Yorker), and I liked the way Ferrante talks openly about motherhood. For me Leda’s conflicting feelings over being a mother with a career were the most interesting parts of the book. Her behaviour towards the Neapolitan family and especially Nina and her young daughter Elena I found bizarre and while the feeling of threat was very real and uncomfortable to read I didn’t really have any sympathy for any one. I wouldn’t like to meet any of them on holiday.

Jules et Jim

First published in 1953, this is a title that to me has gained almost mythical status, partly because of the iconic film by François Truffaut, released in 1962 and partly for me, because of it’s absolutely joyous cover photograph taken by Raymond Cauchetier and yet it’s taken me until now to read, and I still haven’t seen the film

Henri-Pierre Roché was in his mid-seventies when he wrote Jules et Jim, his semi-autobiographical novel. He is Jim, ‘Djim not Zheem’ and Jules is his best friend in real life Franz Hessel (Proust’s first translator into German).

In Paris, at the start of the twentieth century the two live a carefree bohemian life. Writing and translating, they travel as the mood takes them sharing everything and everyone without jealousy.

They decide to go to Greece and find a statue of a goddess with an archaic smile, ‘her smile was a floating presence, powerful, youthful, thirsty for kisses and perhaps for blood.’ They don’t talk about her until one day they ask each other what they would do if they ever met such a smile? ‘Follow it.’ Then they see Kate, she has the smile of the statue, and the three are bound together.

‘A perfect hymn to love and perhaps to life.‘ Francois Truffaut

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The Murder At The Vicarage

First published in 1930, this is the first Miss Marple mystery and is narrated by Leonard Clement the rather meek clergyman of St. Mary Meade who lives with his much younger racier wife, Griselda and 16 year old nephew Dennis.

Through him we get to know the local characters. Colonel Protheroe, the pompous curmudgeon who lives at Old Hall with his second wife Anne, ‘a remarkably handsome women in a rather unusual style’ and his daughter Lettice, a wraith-like creature in a yellow beret; Dr. Haydock and the gossipy cats, as Griselda calls them. When the cats meet for tea and scandal, Leonard seats himself between Miss Marple and Miss Wetherby and introduces us to Miss Marple:

‘Miss Marple is a white-haired old lady with a gentle appealing manner – Miss Wetherby is a mixture of vinegar and gush. Of the two Miss Marple is much the more dangerous.’

Into this quiet village comes an archeologist, Dr. Stone and his secretary, Miss Cram. The enigmatic Mrs Lestrange and Lawrence Redding, a young artist who paints Lettice in her bathing dress and causes a sensation. And then Leonard comes home one day to find Colonel Protheroe dead in his study. Enter Inspector Slack and Colonel Melchett and everything’s in place for a classic whodunnit.

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Princes In The Land

If Summerwater shows that families have no idea what each other is thinking in 2021 then Princes in the Land shows that they didn’t in 1938 either! Patricia and Hugh Lindsey and their three children, August, Giles and Nicola are the family, living in Oxford where Hugh is now a Professor of Poetry.

When the book opens, Patricia is going with her sister Angela and their unbearably snobbish mother, Blanche, to live with Lord Waveney, their paternal grandfather, on his estate. It’s a life of privilege and Pat grows into a tall, thoroughbred countrywomen. She’s the favourite of her grandfather but disliked by her mother for her unruly behaviour, muddy knees and aversion too balls and dresses. Her marriage to Hugh, the son of a builder, and according to Blanche ‘not really a gentleman’ takes her to Glasgow and a new way of life with three children. Stoically she cancels her subscription to Horse and Hound and substitutes it for Women and Home,

But when the children are older, there comes the move to Oxford and for Pat a return to country living, horses and dogs. Life is just as she wants it and her children grow up to love the pony club (Nicola), girls who wear pearls (August) and writing poetry (Giles). But as August wryly observes ‘It’s one’s parents’ attitude that forces one to tell lies . . .

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So far my 10 Books of Summer has turned up some really good reads but this is the one that I’ve recommended the most. I put it on my list after reading Madamebibilophile’s brilliant review here.

Set in a cabin park in Scotland during the summer solstice, twelve people are on holiday with their families as the rain pours down. From an elderly couple who have been married for years to a couple about to be married, teenagers with their parents, first time parents and couples with young children, we go inside the thoughts and cabins of each of them as they observe and react to their circumstances. But there’s also a mother and daughter who are new to the park and are different and along with the sharp observations there’s a tension that seeps its way through the pages.

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The Sealwoman’s Gift

The back cover blurb begins: ‘1627. In a notorious historical event, pirates raided the coast of Iceland and abducted 400 people into slavery in Algiers. Among them a pastor, his wife, and their children.’

The memoir of the pastor, The Travels of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson: Captured by Pirates in 1627, provide the basis for this fabulous novel. In the Author’s note, Sally Magnusson acknowledges that Iceland’s experience was far from unique at a time when slavery was being practised across the world but relative to its size, Iceland was hit particularly hard. 400 people from a population of about forty thousand, including most of the island of Heimaey, is a huge tragedy.

The memoir is written she says in ‘dense religious language’ but she could glimpse a man who loved his family and saw his distress at losing them; he mentions an eleven year old son and a younger child and a boy born on the slave ship and he talks of ‘my dear wife’. But who was she? A women who gave birth on a slave ship and returned ten years later without her children? This is Ásta’s story brilliantly imagined and I was completely swept up in it.

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The Cornish Coast Murder

Another fun mystery from John Bude and I see from the introduction that The Cornish Coast Murder is the debut novel from Ernest Carpenter Elmore writing under his crime novelist pseudonym.

It begins with a really good idea for a book club. The vicar, the Reverend Dodd meets his friend, Dr. Pendrill in his comfortable home near Boscawen, a village ‘clustered about a sandy, rock-strewn cove’. After sherry and an excellent dinner the two bachelors settle in front of the fire with their coffee and open a crate containing six crime novels that has arrived from the library

They each take three novels to read and then swap with each other a few days later before repackaging and returning to the library. They’ve carried on with this ritual for years, each vicariously living the life of a crime buster until an actual murder actually happens in their own quiet village one stormy night and they get to put their ideas into practice.

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The South

I’m sorry I’ve been missing for so long. A lovely family holiday in Italy led to pure laziness in the sunshine when I got home, and then a dose of Covid turned the laziness into lethargy and an absolute phobia towards my computer which only got worse as the stack of books next to it got taller!

So for the last couple of weeks I’ve been telling myself to just jump in and start writing, however short, however clumsy, make a start, so I’m going to begin with a book I hardly remember anything about. Except that I absolutely loved it, and read it in one satisfied gulp.

Katherine Proctor, an artist, has arrived in Barcelona on October 24th, 1950 having left her husband and child and their home in Ireland. She isn’t a brave women, it takes her enormous courage to sit in a cafe alone for her meals, but gradually and tentatively she starts to explore the city and meets Miguel, another artist, with whom she makes a new life and eventually moves with him to the mountains of northern Spain.

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