Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Vintage Reading - St Simon Square

I found a lovely, gentle family story in the Gwendoline Courtney and Mollie Chappell style in the British Library last month and can't recommend it highly enough. I wish I knew more about the author, but St Simon Square (1952) appears to have been Frances Hamilton's only book, and a quick check on ABE shows that it had at least one reprint. Recent reading patterns show that I seem to be developing a preference for vintage family stories and I enjoyed this one of trainee librarians, dress designers, social workers and farmers. Reading it again before posting about it, it struck me that Frances Hamilton had thrown every 'type' into her text, but it worked incredibly well. The three Parker sisters dominate - the youngest brother Tim hares off to the nearby family farm at every opportunity and so is neatly sent into the margins. A widowed hardworking and generous mother comes straight out of the Marmee mould and showers her children and their friends with kindness whenever deadlines allow this respected journalist out of her office to show the importance of maternal understanding. What of her daughters? Casey - trainee librarian - is prim and almost learns to let herself go before her jealousy eats her up. I might even say consumes her, but that's too dramatic for a woman who makes a virtue out of restraint. Fran, the second sister, is allowed most of the story in her last year at school and the realisation that you need to work for the job you yearn for, academic drudgery as means to an end to be a workroom assistant in the local atelier. Finally, there's Thea, who is little more than the confident youngest, though she has a certain charm. Added to this, there's Clare, the South African exile suddenly sent to live amongst strangers and call a new place home. She's the embryonic social worker whose awakening consciousness of providing a haven for the deprived local youth is a parallel development to making her home in England even while dreaming of blue African skies.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The Girl Who Chased the Moon

I've been working my way through a selection of young adult novels recently and a highlight was The Girl Who Chased the Moon, a gentle story of family secrets, muddled relationships, cake and the supernatural in an isolated corner of North Carolina. Imagine a cast of eccentrics in a house where the wallpaper changes colour and pattern to suit your mood and the importance of family history. I read this magical story in an evening and am now hunting the author's backlist as I'd never heard of Sarah Addison Allen before and am doing my best to change that. I am also determined to try hummingbird cake after reading this.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Well, now neatly overcome the various gremlins and have set up an account for The Whicharts. I hope that makes life easier for American buyers.

Sunday, 8 May 2011


I don't just read books - I'm also known to go along to authors' talks and book signings and try to hide in the back row. So, I went along to a lovely evening at the Institut francais last week to hear the converstation with Joanne Harris and Tatiana de Rosnay about being French and English and loving literature. I wasn't expecting the endearing muddle that is Joanne Harris: beautiful French accent when speaking French, but strong Barnsley accent when speaking English. She wore statement jewellery (three large yellow stones set in gold on a chain) which suited her, but the elegant white linen-like jacket clashed horribly with pale blue jeans, yellow socks and plain trainers. She was quite happy to refer to herself as a mongrel and scruffy, so I don't suppose she minds. Tatiana de Rosnay is much more French in appearance: groomed, soignee and terrifyingly elegant. She was more at ease and quicker to respond, though Joanne gave the questions more obvious consideration. It was an evening of anecdotes and memories as you cover childhood, teachers, books you were exposed to (in both languages) and when. Nothing ground-breaking, nothing unexpected. Interesting that both women retreat to the classics in both French and English and find the modern novel difficult to enjoy. I now have a list of French authors to try - this may take some time as I'm not exactly sure that I spelled some names correctly.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Novel read in a day

The late and much-missed Eva Ibbotson is one of my favourite authors, and one I reach for when I'd like something comforting, the literary equivalent of hot chocolate. Whether it's Vienna-set The Star of Kazan or Madensky Square or the Amazonian Journey to the River Sea or A Company of Swans you have the comforting familiarity of niceness triumphant. Yes, there will be restrained evil relatives, mishaps and muddles, but you're heading for a happy ending. Ibbotson herself thought her adult novels were for people recovering from flu, but I'm a great believer in reading for a happy ending as well as reading new books. Her last book, One Dog and his Boy, has just been published after her death last year and will, I suspect, be a perfect read for children at the confident reader stage looking for animal adventures longer than those of Dick King Smith or having read Dodie Smith's One Hundred and One Dalmatians, but want a certain edge and modernity, so there are circuses (with the moral debate about performing animals), care homes and neglectful parents. This is a lovely book to read or have read to you as you see trusting animals, good grandparents and dog-lovers who go to great lengths to provide good homes for their four-legged friends. I haven't seen such an interesting story about animals including their thoughts and voices without being twee or over-emoting for quite a while and really enjoyed this gentle tale of friendship developing between humans and dogs - the right companion finds you, it seems.