Monday, December 19, 2011

Fair Stood the Wind for France by H.E. Bates

At the unbelievably young age of twenty-two, John Franklin crash lands his Wellington bomber in Occupied France during World War II.  Despite a badly injured arm, he and his four fellow airmen make their way through fields and wood under the cover of night in search of somewhere safe to shelter. 

Franklin's declining health forces the group to trust a French family who take in the airmen despite the threat of being shot for assisting the enemy.  Francoise, the daughter, is still in her teens but exudes both confidence and courage beyond her years.  She soon bonds with Franklin layering this war novel with a love story which Bates blends to perfection.  And make no mistake, the war he writes about is not romanticized and the love affair is far from sentimental.

Each new character appearing on a page brought about new twinges of suspicion.  Every decision to be made from which road to take, where to cross on the river and who to trust could be life or death.  I'm quite sure I held my breath for half of this book and cursed everything that made me have to put it down. 

If you need further convincing here is the link to Reading Matters and thank you to Kimbofo for leading me to a stellar read.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

An End of Year Book Meme

Kate Greenaway's 'Christmas in Little Peopleton Manor' in Illustrated London News Christmas, 1879

A book meme I first spied on Cornflower's blog and too much fun to pass up!

My Day in Books

I began the day with Incidents in the Rue Laugier.

On my way to work I saw The Other Elizabeth Taylor

and walked by Westwood

to avoid An Episode of Sparrows

but I made sure to stop at The Carlyles at Home.

In the office, my boss said "To the North"

and sent me to research The Way Things Are.

At lunch with Mrs Miniver

I noticed The Tortoise and the Hare

under The Odd Women,

then went back to my desk As It Was.

Later, on the journey home, I bought A Wreath of Roses

because I have The Soul of Kindness,

then settling down for the evening, I picked up Nourishment

and studied The New House

before saying goodnight to The Winds of Heaven.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther

'She rearranged the fire a little, mostly for the pleasure of handling the steel poker, and then sat down by it.  Tea was already laid: there were honey sandwiches, brandy-snaps, and small ratafia biscuits; and there would, she knew, be crumpets.'

Coincidentally I've just laid a fire myself but something tells me that Mrs Miniver wouldn't have had to wash the black from her hands twice, pull splinters from her t-shirt or had a dizzy spell from huffing and puffing to get things going.  I digress.

Like so many others I connected Mrs Miniver with the film starring Greer Garson but this book isn't that at all.  It's better.  The character was created when Jan Struther was asked to write a series of articles about an ordinary woman for The Times.  Despite Struther's claims that the episodes she wrote about bore no resemblance to her own family life her followers weren't buying it.

There is a poignant story about the whole family arriving at the Town Hall to be fitted for gas masks at the outbreak of war.

 '...a very small child bursting into a wail of dismay on catching sight of its mother disguised in a black snout; the mother's muffled reassurances - "It's on'y Mum, duck."...'

 There were equally touching stories but with a humourous touch such as the story about her daughter, Judy, choosing which doll in the shop she liked best. 

"You see, it would be so awful to pick the wrong one.  I mean, suppose you could have gone and bought me in the shop instead of just having me; you might have made a mistake and chose Marigold Thompson instead."
Mrs Miniver's mouth twitched.  She couldn't somehow imagine herself choosing Marigold Thompson.  A nice child, but pudding-faced.
"Well," she said, "I like Marigold."
"Oh, so do I.  But what I mean is, she wouldn't have done for you.  And what's more," pursued Judy, "Marigold's mother wouldn't have done for me.  At all," she added with conviction.

Each vignette sparkles in its own way but the ones surrounding the Christmas season were timely and so charming.  And some things never change...

'At intervals she tried to pretend that Christmas Day fell on the 5th of December, or alternatively, that all her friends and relations lived in South Africa and that she had to catch an early mail; but it was no use.'

There is no doubt about Jan Struther's sense of humour or that she would have been just the sort of person people gravitated towards.  I don't think I've ever laughed out loud while reading an introduction before but the description of her family dressing up a mannequin to surprise unsuspecting guests in the loo was hilarious!

With headings such as London in August, A Country House Visit, On Hampstead Heath or A Drive to Scotland, Mrs Miniver is the quintessential 'lovely' book.  I only wished it had four times as many pages.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

Reading The Slaves of Solitude was a bit like playing with a jack-in-the-box.  The plot kept me on edge, some of the characters upset me, but I kept turning the pages to see how it would all turn out. 

The Rosamund Tea Rooms is the boarding house in Thames Lockdon where Miss Roach resides to escape the bombs falling in London.  It also houses the obnoxious Mr Thwaites, a relentless bully.  At least in London the bombs were hit or miss.

'Miss Roach now tried to dodge his fury, to apologize, in so far as it was possible, for the present state of affairs on the Eastern Front, by smiling, making a vaguely assenting and agreeable noise in her throat, and looking hard and giddily at her soup.  But Mr Thwaites was not the sort of man who would permit you to look at your soup when he was anxious to talk about the Russians.'

It was excruciating to enter the gladiator's arena that was the dining room.  Peripheral characters would either sit in silence or try to appease the bully with soft snippets while waiting to see how uncomfortable things got before a retreat was in order.  When an American Lieutenant takes an interest in Miss Roach I thought perhaps he would provide a refuge or at least a lovely distraction.  The reality wasn't nearly as appealing and his idea of showing a woman a good time involved propping up the bar.  Her most toxic relationship wasn't with either of the aforementioned men though, it was with a German woman she befriends who ends up moving into the boarding house.  Vicki Kugelmann laughs and flirts her way into a threesome with the Lieutenant and Miss Roach which can only end badly.  Worse still, Vicki entertains the bully, Mr Thwaites, in the dining room.

So many people have described The Slaves of Solitude as an enjoyable read but I found it uncomfortable.  Which I suppose is all down to Patrick Hamilton's writing skill.  From a personal perspective, as someone who was raised in an atmosphere of alcohol and bullying he nailed the tension in that dining room.  But on a cheerier note there are a couple of scenes involving the etiquette faux pas of using someone else's comb that had me laughing out loud.  The last twenty or so pages were the most satisfying for me and made me really glad to have hung in there.

As far as books set in boarding houses go I preferred London Belongs to Me by Norman Collins, accidental murder and all.  But it's good to step outside of your comfort zone when you're reading for pleasure.  It can't all be about pots of tea and slices of cake!  I just don't know what I was thinking when I also bought Hamilton's Hangover Square but no doubt I'll get through that as well.