Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Baking blind

Of course I haven't made a Christmas cake on stir-up Sunday. I haven't even blogged on stir-up Sunday. I missed it. I was probably packing books and attaching labels. A lifesaver those sticky labels.

Instead, I've been reading 'The Great British Bake Off' inspired The Art of Baking Blind. More accurately, rereading as I picked it up in the summer and keep enjoying it. It's a good story of baking and the art of showing family and friends that you care for them.

Perhaps I'll bake this weekend and fill the house with festive scents of ginger, chocolate and clementines.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Giovanna and Jane by Iris Origo (1950)

Neglected blog - that's the most difficult thing I find about publishing. I'm happy to source books and hear from readers with suggested titles, but regularly updating about what I'm reading feels odd and a bit boastful. However, I must make a bit of time for the blog.

Publishing news first. Sadly, I'm not going to BEA in New York this year to join the friendly scrum and get lost in the Javits Center for days. I was tempted, especially to go and see Alan Cumming launch his autobiography and book tickets to Cabaret at Studio 54. There will be other years and it's not as though I've read all of the books I dragged home last year just yet. I rationed myself to books I could carry and I think that was the right decision. It gave me more time to do touristy things afterwards rather than queue in the Post Office. A trip on the Staten Island ferry is far more interesting than packing a box of books and joining a post office queue. They're long enough in England and I don't expect an American queue to be any shorter. Though there might have been air-conditioning. Highlights were The Rosie Project, The Gin Lovers and Queen's Gambit.

As to reading, I found a very nice curiosity in Giovanna and Jane (1950). It looks as though Iris Origo wrote only one book for children, but concentrated essays and autobiographies relating to Italy. This story is dedicated to her two daughters.

I found this on a book hunt and was drawn to the portraits on the cover. Two heads in profile of very different little girls. Jane and Giovanna is a two-part story of girls experiencing a cultural exchange between England and Italy. Each grew up during the war with a PoW helping the family, so were drawn to the other culture. After the war the two girls see a competition advertised and win a homestay with a family abroad. Their adventures as they exchange Italy for England and vice versa are lovely. Both begin their adventures after realising the country they've been introduced to isn't the country stories had led them to expect and reject their placement families to seek out the PoWs who had kept in touch with their host families. The book tells the story of each girl separately - only uniting them at the end of the novel when they are shown to be friends at first sight. I loved this - especially the portraits of Rome and Siena.

It's a fascinating story set in more innocent times certainly, but the usual preference for country life over town life is shown. It's a common attitude in children's fiction that London (or town life) is somehow bad for you and life is better in the country. That's partly why I published Five Farthings - to show how beautiful, exciting (and, yes, expensive, grubby and busy) it can be. London, at least in Five Farthings, is the city centre, so St Paul's, Covent Garden, hopping on to routemasters, bustling life, getting by on a budget and the City's publishing houses before they moved into Euston and Bloomsbury.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

War Among Ladies - Eleanor Scott (1928). Not much changes

I came across an odd and very purple book recently about staff-room quarrels and a complete unravelling of a workplace. I can't remember another staff-room in Girl's Own fiction apart from New Mistress at the Chalet School where there is a place for everything and everything is in its place whether that's your bedroom where the bed can be turned into a sofa during the day or in the staff room where you have your own desk and bookshelf. I do remember wondering why it was so important to turn your bed into a sofa during the day on first reading as a child. Perhaps I was always laid-back and felt that was necessary effort - wouldn't you just make the bed and leave until the working day was over? It seemed rather pointless for a single woman as she couldn't really invite guests in. I expect I'm muddling up the inevitably floral bedroom and the study, but I keep imagining a floral desk set and no clutter allowed. In my more evil moments I wonder if Matron even inspected the drawers of the academic staff and think she probably did. Just to keep an eye on things.

It was, though, a friendly staff-room as a rule. Lots of coffee-drinking, biscuit-eating and enjoyment with jigsaws, card games and pleasant conversation. War Among Ladies (1928) by Eleanor Scott is probably more realistic in its portrayal of inter-staff rivalries where the staff-room is the centre of conflict rather than a comfortable place to have a break. These staff are drudges, desperate to escape teaching and fearing a poverty-stricken retirement. I'm rather glad that banks now give mortgages to single women when the alternative is living in rented rooms, mainly of the miserable variety at the mercy of petty landladies. It's almost impossible for them to have an outside social life as they're judged by the clubs they belong to and the clubs they don't join. They are concerned with exam results, the Education Department, local council, parents and standing. Most especially about appearances and standing. It's petty morality at its most entertaining. It's also a pretty good reflection of most workplaces: not everyone likes all their colleagues and there's usually someone weak who isn't doing anything about improving their skills, but they are self-pityingly wafting about doing very little. Then, the School Inspector called. Sadly, there's no consideration of career development and learning new skills, but everyone's scrambling to survive. It's professional death by politeness and a fantastic example of verbal communication and the power of suggestion.

Sunday, 2 March 2014


Well, the Winter Olympics went by in a haze of unfamiliar sports, overexcited commentary and, somehow, my paperwork is up-to-date. I'm delighted about that as it does make things easier.

Now that I've strayed into the world of television, I'll stay there a little longer and muse about the new Ian Fleming production on Sky. I'd been looking forward to this as Ian Fleming (scandal, fame, hard living) is the perfect subject for a biographer even if he hadn't written James Bond. It's an enjoyably glossy production and the costumes are the best thing about it. I am, though, rather underwhelmed by the script, though the amazing cast are doing their best. It feels as though it was rushed. As though someone read the paragraph of biography that's in the Pan Bond paperbacks and thought 'Let's make a James Bond spoof'. Not that I mind the bits that are done well. The motif of the Monty Norman "Dum di-di dum dum" is welcome as are the cast. You can sit back and enjoy Dominic Cooper, Sam West, Anna Chancellor and Lara Pulver. It's rather a pity they didn't have a better script to go with the marvellous tailoring. I'm pleased to see Ian Fleming re-imagined as 'book Bond' with the sinister undercurrents and gambling and not 'film Bond' which tends towards self-parody. I would go back to my own Bond books and I find that I cleared out the 1960s Pan paperbacks and one very nasty yellow cloth reprint of Dr No some time ago. Probably when I packed up and went to university. Pity. That's the thing about books, though. You can always buy a replacement.

Monday, 17 February 2014

February and catching up

February's always a quiet month for sales, so I set aside some time to make inroads on paperwork, proof-reading and new-title hunting. (Guess which one I prefer?) People have had the shock of December and January's credit card bills and it's a long way to Easter when sales will perk up again. Lots of people seem to buy my books for Christmas and Easter presents and that always keeps me happy. It means I can develop new titles.

Peace, quiet and an awful lot of proof-reading made up the majority of the day. That said, it's also a great time to enjoy the Winter Olympics and I frittered the late afternoon away watching a mixture of speed and figure skating. I was enough of a Harriet fan to appreciate the importance of 'figures', 'lines' and 'edges', but the lifts left me puzzled and admiring. As an aside, Sue Barker really should stop talking and let the dances start without a rushed repeat of the competitors names.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Erica James - Italian sunshine

February might be the shortest month, but it's been pretty wet and miserable so far. Much like December and January. For many of us it's been wet since before Christmas and wellies are essential. Even the daffodils aren't growing very fast at the moment and like Mary Lennox I've been clearing the leaves around them hopefully. Perhaps it's too wet for them or there hasn't been quite enough sunshine yet. I'm lucky not to be affected by flooding, though the ground is absolutely sodden. Two days of light drizzle mean that the garden has a chance to dry out and I can dry laundry.

With all the damp, darkness and rain, it's a time for for novels of wisteria and sunshine. Everything from The Enchanted April to A French Affair. A novel where trying something new is a Good Thing and you find yourself happier than you thought possible. I'm thrilled to have a proof of Erica James's Summer by the Lake and recommend it highly for (preferably) an uninterrupted afternoon with a self-refilling mug of caffeine and some smart chocolates. Given the Italian theme, I suppose it's luck that I found I had some leftover baci from Christmas and those went very nicely with my tea.

I've read most of Erica James's novels in no particular order and think this is the best yet as it combines Oxford with Lake Como. She's done some interesting modern novels mostly set around Cheshire and I liked the two strands of the story of Floriana's contemporary dilemma set against her elderly neighbour's love in Italy in the 1950s. Revealing the two stories and drawing them together was deftly done. Floriana is one of life's gentle drifters. A good friend. A considerate person and one who is easily hurt. Finding new friends in elderly Esme and Adam (Floriana's own age) reshapes her life for the better as does life under the Italian sun. Read and enjoy this - I almost didn't want it to end.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Sugar Girls and G.I. Brides

Last year in an attempt to read more non fiction while at the same time not reading fewer novels I read a social history of the sugar girls in London as the authors interviewed a number of workers and made a narrative from their memories. The book rode the trends of London history, passion for the East End (Call the Midwife) and now-vanished industry. Only natural that the covers should be white with a selection of black and white photos with foil lettering.

The authors have followed up their success by turning to the G.I. brides from an English courtship to American marriage. It's one of those books that, while fascinating, makes you grateful to live in an era when a woman holds her own passport almost as a matter of course and has her own bank account. I was also wondering if we'd see anything close to a happy ending as some of the men lost all glamour when they returned to civilian life and proved to be alcoholics, poor workers, gamblers and routinely unfaithful. I almost gave up on a happy ending, but read on. Early years of a marriage aren't always the pattern of the later relationship and for that, at least, I'm grateful.

I've been fascinated by the Mass Observation publications and the personal stories that have followed on from this trend. Nella Last, of course, is one of the best, but the four G.I. brides featured here are strong women whose hard work and unwillingness to abandon a difficult marriage is inspiring. Modern attitudes would encourage a woman to leave a drunken or womanising husband, but the 1940s/1950s attitude of 'you've made your bed, you lie in it' left these women with few choices. The expense of an Atlantic crossing made it very difficult to return to family even if their family would accept them back.