Friday, 26 December 2014

Jane of Lantern Hill - L M Montgomery

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So glad to have come across this L M Montgomery - the last novel she wrote from what I've found.  If you loved Anne of Green Gables, or any of her others, this one is worth seeking out and reading.  This comes in a new paperback edition from Virago Modern Classics (number 620) with just the most beautiful cover by Daniela Jaglenka Tetrazzini.  I saw a review on Amazon which said "I first read this when I was seven....".  If I had read this when I was seven, it would not have made the impression on me that it has now, for woven into this children's story are things that seem common to us now, in a world where everyone knows everyone's business via social media.  But when it was written, I think it might have seemed extraordinary to any young reader that it brings in the jealousy that adults feel when things do not go their way; the way children have to cope when adults manipulate things to suit themselves; that PTS (post traumatic stress) is mentioned, but of course not by name as it wasn't invented back in the 1930s.

Jane is Jane Victoria.  Two names.  Jane she likes, but her grandmother in whose house she lives does not, and refers to her always as Victoria. Jane lives in number 60 Gay Street, off Bloor Street in Toronto.  Remind yourself that gay meant something else altogether then - but it's not a gay house:  in fact, there seems no fun and joy in the house she shares with her mother, grandmother and aunt.  It's a sombre, bitter place and her grandmother can find what we'd now call a put-down in every remark she makes to Jane.  Not only that, but with a dead father and a mother who has a busy social life, it is a place where laughter is never encouraged, and neither is cleverness, nor the lower orders. And then, one early summer, a letter arrives.  Jane's father is not only alive, but requests that she spend the summer with him on Prince Edward Island.  It has to be done, and Jane sets out with dread on the long train journey from Toronto to stay with a man she does not know, that her mother is still married to and once loved, and that her grandmother detests with her entire being.  What she finds on the Island is an eye-opener and I will stop right there, for this is a book that needs reading, with few clues beforehand.  It's one of those cosy up on the sofa in front of the fire with no interuptions kind of books - and even at my age I loved it.

I found out whilst researching this book that only in 2008 did the heirs of L M Montgomery release the fact that Montgomery had committed suicide in the early 1940s, and that she had suffered from depression for a lot of her life.  Her husband, a church minister, also had mental health problems.  The family had always known, but it was brought into the public domain because they decided it was time to talk about mental health.  Good for them.  It's so often the silent illness (i.e. no-one wants to talk about it), and it shouldn't be.  You see, if you break your arm, everyone can see the plaster.  But if your head is not in the right place, often the remark made is "pull yourself together".  Do think kindly of Montgomery whilst reading (or re-reading her books).  She didn't do too badly with her writing at all!

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

We Are All Welcome Here - Elizabeth Berg

We Are All Welcome Here  Yet another Elizabeth Berg novel that I just happened upon.   She's an American writer, and I think sometimes, that in the UK, American writers are passed over by readers because the subject matter, whilst the same, is just that bit different.  Well, they would be, wouldn't they?  It's not home, is it?   Actually, yes, it is - just a slightly different one.  She writes a good story, she writes from the heart, but she's not a hearts and flowers type of writer at all.  She's another like Lori Lansens who writes about life as it actually is.  Or in this case, was.

Set in the very early days of the Civil Rights Movement in the USA, when a white man supporting a negro cause was just as likely to be killed as the negro he was supporting, Diana is the thirteen year old child of a paralysed mother, Paige, who contracted Polio before the birth of her daughter.  To everyone's surprise, she delivered the child in her iron lung and they both survived.  Her marriage did not.  Her decision to bring the child up on her own is frowned upon, but she has Peacie, the day housekeeper to help, and an evening helper too.  She's meant to have a night nurse too, but there is no money to pay for that, so over the years, Diana has done the night care.  This is, first of all, the story of relationships - how different people act with each other and with other folk.  And in Peacie, I found a real live heroine.  Black, hard faced, and perhaps buried deep a real heart, for it is she that ensures that Diana eats properly, that she has clean clothes, that she knows how to shop with very little money, that she doesn't mix with the wrong sort.  And of course Diana resents it, and hates Peacie - she's an adolescent! 

Polio is one of those forgotten tragedies, but the description of how difficult life was for a sufferer brought me up sharp;   I couldn't imagine how awful it must have been.  And Civil Rights?  God, even towns were segregated into black and white areas, even though some whites lived poorer than some blacks they still thought themselves superior.    Well written, and at less than 200 pages still manages to pack a punch.  The story is not based on truth but was suggested to the author by someone who's own mother had been trapped in an iron lung but accomplished much.   I loved the characters here.  I knew Paige would never not have polio but I wished her a better life.  With Diana, I remembered adolescence.  And I loved Peacie - a huge character for a small book. Hugely recommended.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Island Magic - Elizabeth Goudge

I recently read one of Elizabeth Goudge's childrens' books, and it reminded me that she'd written a lot, and I'd read little.  So I decided to start at the beginning, and read a few of her adult novels.  Island Magic was published in 1934, and possibly set at the end of the 19th century.  It has a story which, if brought up to date, would involve tears, angst, bitterness, estrangement, at least one affair and all the other things that we expect (?) these days!

Island Magic is set on the island of Guernsey, an island that Goudge was familiar with from visits in her childhood.  The descriptions of the island itself lean towards the florid, but you get an idea that she was still developing her style - If I had been asked who wrote this without knowing the author, I probably wouldn't have guessed who it was.  The family at the centre of the story, the du Frocqs, live at Bon Repos; an old farmhouse with what would probably be described as a smallholding these days, for a few pigs, a couple of fields and a yard does not make for a large farm in any way.  The du Frocqs, it is very soon clear, are short of money, living in a house lent to them by the dreadful Doctor du Frocq - of the school of "don't do as I do, do as I tell you", widowed with two sons, one of whom he has not seen for many years, and the other, Andre - father of five children, husband of Rachell and living, by his father's grace, at Bon Repos.  Andre is not cut out to be a farmer, it is only because of his wife's money, now fast running out, that the family can stay on.   Into the lives of this family comes a shipwrecked sailor, Ranulph Mabier, who is certainly not all he seems.

It's not a book to rush through, but rather, a book to curl up by the fire with.  Each chapter is divided into sub-sections, so you can read a little or a lot at a time, and always have a stopping place.  My favourite of all Goudge's books was Little White Horse, a children's novel from the 1940s and a Carnagie Medal winner.  This book is not in that class, but interesting nevertheless and most certainly a picture of a way of life that is long gone.

A big thank you too, to Nan of the blog  Letters from a Hill Farm, whose recent post reminded me of this author.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Just to say - Have a Cool Yule!

ZsaZsa Bellagio


Whether it snows or not - have the Christmas-tide you want, stay warm, eat what you fancy and look forward to a better new year.  I'll be back at the very end of the year with your January book subject, so see you then.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Tell The Wolves I'm Home - Carol Rifka Brunt

Tell the Wolves I'm Home


22 years ago, a friend of mine died.  Aids.  just a little time before that wonderful cocktail of drugs was found that would have kept him alive. So this novel was very close to home.  Some readers may find this painful, and very emotional; but told by a fourteen year old girl, whose sixteen year old sister hates her with a vengeance, some may find all sorts of truths within.

The girls' uncle, Finn, was a painter who's stock was rising when he died.  June, who tells the story, was in love with her uncle, and Greta, her sister was jealous.  It sounds simple, but think again, for there are truths and untruths here, and it takes most of the book for everything to become clear.  When Finn dies, June is heartbroken, and Greta becomes ever more cruel.  At the funeral, they see a man who their parents steer them clear of - Toby, Finn's "special friend",  who will play a large part in June's life for a very short time.

Set in the mid-1980s, the book reminded me of that time when it seemed that anyone could catch the damned disease, people were frightened, and so many died.  The anger, the fear, the despair are all here, seen through the eyes of people who are unlikely to die from it, but are affected by it.  The girls's mother, Finn's sister - who is so angry that her brother left her; the girl's father, taking his wife's side  and working hard to keep the family safe;  the boy at school who likes June, and Greta, jealous of Finn's treatment of June. Then of course, Toby, who is affected ..... all these people will be touched in some way by June's feelings. This is how teenagers feel.  This is how they lie, how they think no-one else knows, how they cope with grief.  Is it aimed at Young Adults?  It's a book for everyone, although some may love it, and some may not.  I am one of the former.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Smokey-House by Elizabeth Goudge

Smokey-House is the name of the village pub in the village of Faraway, deep in a valley in Cornwall, bounded on three sides by the high moors, and the last by the sea.  In Smokey-House live a family of 5 motherless children, the oldest acting as housekeeper, and their father the publican.  Add to that two dogs (stolen from someone else) and a donkey with a bad temper.  The children are Jessamine, Genefer, Tristram, Michael and Jane; the dogs Sot and Sausage, and the donkey Mathilda.  They live a lovely life, rabbit stew every evening, space to run and play, and nothing to fear except the Man-With-The-Red-Handkerchief (although, frankly, he's the least of their worries, as you will see further on in the story).  The children know that people in the village are smugglers, or Free Traders, as they prefer to be known, they know that the local squire gives money away to the poor, that he loves to hunt, eats well - but have no idea where his money comes from.  When a fiddle-playing foreigner arrives in the village things change in the most dramatic way.   

Elizabeth Goudge won the Carnagie Medal for Little White Horse in 1946, and it has never been out of print since.  Smokey-House, not so well known, has been out of print for some time and it does not have quite the charm of LWH, nor of Henrietta's House, two of my own favourite children's books.  It isn't without charm though.  It has a rather Christian feel to it, perfectly understandable given Goudge's background (father a vicar) and her own deep faith.  But even if you are an atheist, an agnostic, or person of another faith, there is a lovely story here - if you believe in fairies, babies that just arrive, and the goodness of people.

I think I am going to push on and read (or re-read) several more of Elizabeth Goudge's novels.

Monday, 1 December 2014

What to read in December - Mrs Mac's choice for you

Well, well.  Every month happens once every year, and every December some of you celebrate Christmas.  And there are so many reads set round this seasonal time that I think you should read something different.....

So - will you read something snowy?  Perhaps The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey


Good Luck, and Yuletide Greetings all

A song for Issy Bradley - Carys Bray

A blooming good read - one to make you sit up, pay attention and (very possibly) count your own blessings.  If you have a faith, you may find yourself agreeing with much that happens - if, like this reader, you have no faith, you may find yourself gasping in horror at the throw-away comments made by members of this particular church.

For this is the story of a family broken apart by the death of their youngest child, who dies so quickly, they have hardly noticed she is ill.  Claire, the mother, copes for a couple of weeks, and then goes into such deep depression that she will not leave her dead child's bed; Ian, an important man in the church cannot leave his church duties alone just for his family; and the remaining three children just have to find their way on their own.  The belief of this particular church is that every one of them, if they follow the rules, will reach Celestial Heaven and all will be well, so death is not a hardship - hence the comment of a sister of the church who comes to visit, when Claire says "Im sad...." says  "Oh! is that all?".  Claire's decline within the family is all important to the book.  The lower she sinks, the lower her profile, the more the others are affected. 

It was a hard book to read.  It hurt.  But although it may never be a classic in the accepted sense of the word, it is wonderfully observed, well written, and I felt that the author, an ex-member of the church in question, had a lot to offer by way of explanation - and achieved it for me.  It was a must-read.  It was unputdownable.  It was bitterly sad, but in parts made me smile - viewing their faith (or not) though non-tinted glasses was illuminating.  It may not be the prizewinner on the list in question but it certainly deserves to be read.