Top 10 Books of 2018

Happy New Year to everyone reading the blog. Thank you for all your kind comments and feedback during the past year.

2018 on the whole, was a year of comfort reading. It has been three years since we moved back to India after spending many years abroad. Slowly but surely, we are easing in to a pattern of life here. Perhaps I will be ready for darker, more complex books next year? 🙂

A major highlight of my reading year has been reading all 12 books in Miss Read’s ‘Thrush Green’ series. Though none of the books made their way into my Top 10, they provided much needed comfort and reflected a way of life that I would at least love to emulate (although not remotely possible under the circumstances).

I ended up reading a total of 45 books during the year. Although not a large number, I enjoyed my reading year at large and can’t wait to jump in to a fresh new year of enhanced reading.

 

Here, in Order of Reading Chronology, are My Top 10 Books of 2019:

The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

Return of the Soldier’ by Rebecca West is about a Great War veteran who has returned from the trenches suffering from shell-shock.

His amnesia prevents him from remembering his wife of ten years, with whom he has loved and lost a small child. His cousin Jenny, who lives with them, he can recollect, but only as a young woman, fifteen years younger.

To the dismay and disgust of his wife Kitty, the one person he can remember is his sweetheart from fifteen years ago- Margaret, with whom he has a very romantic history. She was then, a young, simple girl, a poor inn-keeper’s daughter, of little sophistication.

Christopher and Margaret meet again and rekindle their relationship at Christopher’s behest but Kitty is anxious for her husband to meet a doctor and be treated for his lapse of memory.

It is left to Margaret, with her superior understanding of Christopher’s mind (in-fact the perfect soul mate) to trigger an emotion that will bring about the return of the soldier in both the physical and emotional states. This is a story about love and sacrifice and is also an exploration of the relative strengths of different human relationships.

 

Can You Forgive Her by Anthony Trollope

Trollope’s entree novel in to his ‘Palliser series’ is a novel dealing heavily with political power and personal ambition.

Political ambition, certainly seems to be one of the main motivating factors behind male actions in this book.

However, the women in this novel show a great deal of indecision in the course of the novel.

Why is Alice- the lead female protagonist, such a dithering fool? Can we forgive Alice for her lack of decisiveness. And as Alice is not the only dithering lady in the book, are we more inclined to forgive the other ladies in question (Lady Glencora and Mrs Greenow)?

As with all Trollope novels, there is much food for thought about the cause and effect of human actions.

 

Young Anne by Dorothy Whipple

‘Young Anne’ is the eighth and final Dorothy Whipple novel to be published by Persephone Books but in the grand chronology of things, is Whipple’s first and most autobiographical novel.
It is set in the years leading up to the First World War and follows the life and growth of Anne Pritchard, youngest child of a middle-class, Lancastrian family. The ‘Young’ in ‘Young Anne’ not only refers to the tender age of the female protagonist, it also helps to emphasize the extreme naïveté of Anne Pritchard, the mistakes that youth often make and the consequences of immature decision making on adult life.

 

The Lark by Edith Nesbit

This is the first time that I’ve ever read any adult literature by Nesbit and I couldn’t be more in love with this little gem of a novel.
The writing is airy and light, full of childlike whimsy and delight and the plot is delightful.
Two young women, upon coming of age discover that their inheritance has been misspent. They have no relatives to call their own, they are alone in the world – all they have been left as an endowment is a small country cottage and a trunkful of vintage clothing in the attic. Rather than get upset with this unfortunate turn of events, the two young women try their hand at a number of money-making ventures. They treat the whole situation as a ‘Lark’ and their attitude is so positive and cheery that they win a lot of friends along the way.
It is also a remarkable example of female determination and independence, much in keeping with the decision to publish this novel as part of a series dedicated to celebrating Penguin Women Writers and the centenary of women getting the vote in 1918.

 

Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton

Guard Your Daughters deals with the unconventional upbringing of five daughters. Five daughters, who despite a lack of formal education, shine in different ways. This is the story of their unusual way of life, sequestered from mainstream society due to the neuroses of an over protective mother.
I must admit that ‘Guard Your Daughters’ was one of those books, where one paragraph in, I just knew that this was going to be one of my most favourite books.
One can’t but help draw a comparison between Dodie Smith’s voice in ‘I Capture the Castle’ and Diana Tutton’s in this particular novel. Highly recommend this coming of age novel that deals with important issues of mental health.

 

The Children Who Lived in a Barn by Eleanor Graham

This is the rather unlikely story of a small group of children, whose parents unexpectedly travel to Europe to attend to the needs of an ailing relative. The children are left unattended, without an adult to take care of them and when their parents don’t return or send word of their whereabouts – they are left in the strange
predicament of having to fend for themselves.
The landlord of the house where the family lived suddenly decides to evict them due to a sudden whim and the children have no recourse but to live in a nearby farmer’s barn.
The entire village is up in arms against the children and want them to separate and go to different homes. The children decide to fight all odds, stick together and eke out an existence in the barn.
Though the story is an unlikely one, the determination and initiative taken by the children is truly remarkable. I think it is a fascinating read for children and adults alike.
After all, how many of us as children have dreamt of being self sufficient and resourceful enough to have a small house/tree-house of our own- a private sanctuary where we act as independently and responsibly as grown ups?

 

The Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith

This brilliant Victorian epistolary novel – ‘Diary of a Nobody’ comes highly recommended if in need of comic relief on topics related to the absurdities of daily life.
If you loved ‘Diary of a Provincial Lady’ you will certainly enjoy this novel.
The difference is that the tone of the provincial lady is self deprecating, whereas is this case Mr Pooter is bursting with self importance and a sad need of demanding respect from society.
The term ‘pooterish’ – is winsomely derived from the character of the lead protagonist in this book.

 

Fair Stood the Wind for France by HE Bates

Fair Stood the Wind for France’ by H E Bates is a war time work of fiction that deals with the story of a group of British airmen, who are compelled to make a forced landing in occupied France and have to take refuge in the home of a kind French family, who risk all they hold dear to help the men.
In particular it is the beautiful story of the love and trust that grows between the injured head flight pilot and the daughter of the French family.
Fair Stood the Wind for France was poignant, a World War Two story about love and trust and loss on an epic scale.

 

The Lark in the Morn by Elfrida Vipont

This lesser known but critically acclaimed children’s book author (winner of the Carnegie Medal in 1950) penned a series of books about the lives of a Quaker family living in England.
At times the mode of writing can seem a bit archaic but the beautiful plot of this, the first book, will have you grabbing the second book (Lark on the Wing) in no time at all.
A young, rather forlorn, motherless child realises her vocation in life – that of being a singer. Lark in the Morn charters her realisation of this process and Lark on the Wing – outlines her struggle to establish herself as a singer.
The storytelling in both books is very compelling. If you enjoy music and the arts, this is a particularly uplifting read.

Village Christmas by Miss Read

I spent the entire year reading all 12-13 books in Miss Read’s ‘Thrush Green’ series but ultimately it was Village Christmas, from the ‘Fairacre Series’ that stole my heart.
The book, in my opinion, can be read as a stand-alone.
It chronicles a day in the life of two elderly sisters, who are called upon quite suddenly, to help a needy neighbour on Christmas Day.
The story has all the wonderful light touches and beautiful details that make Miss Read’s books so endearing and comforting. I think I will be reading this book as part of an annual tradition.
Which was your favourite book of 2018? If I had to pick just one – I would say ‘Guard Your Daughters’.

 

 

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

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I am reviewing this book as part of the #1944club, initiated by Simon David Thomas of ‘Stuck in a Book’and Karen of ‘Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambling’.

To take a look at other books published in the same year, reviewed by other bloggers, please take a look at the round up posts that should be up on the previously mentioned blogs.

‘Fair Stood the Wind for France’ by H E Bates is a war time work of fiction that deals with the story of a group of British airmen, who are compelled to make a forced landing in occupied France and have to take refuge in the home of a kind French family, who risk all they hold dear to help the men. In particular it is the beautiful story of the love and trust that grows between the injured head flight pilot and the daughter of the French family.

HE Bates’ ‘Darling Buds’ series is one that I read in my early teens and it has always been very dear to me. Apart from the obvious humour in the stories of the inimitable Larkin family, there is a beauty in Bates’ writing that brings out the best in all natural things. Moreover his writing has a sensual quality. With a keen eye for observing small details, one gets the idea, that here is a writer who knows how to live life to the lees and appreciates the small things.

The beautiful nature writing, descriptions of food, sensuality in describing human interactions and emotions is rendered just as beautifully in ‘Fair Stood the Wind France’. To add to that you have a moving love story and an epic struggle where the protagonists strive to find freedom.

The story starts with the British plane hovering over the French Alps during the night. There are some wonderful descriptions of the snow glistening on the mountains beneath the aircraft.

Sometimes the Alps lying below in the moonlight had the appearance of crisp folds of crumpled cloth. The glacial valleys were alternately shadowy and white as starch in the blank glare of the full moon; and then in the distances, in all directions, as far as it was possible to see, the high snow peaks were fluid and glistening as crests of misty water.

The man in charge of the aircraft, one John Franklin, feels a deep sense of responsibility for his crew of four sergeants, a responsibility that has grown over the year that they have flown together. It is the third summer of the War, tempers are rising, impatience is growing, a sense of uncertainty prevails.

When the engine of the aircraft fails, Franklin is forced to make an abrupt landing, in the dead of the night, in marshy terrain, in what they hope is Occupied France. I’m still confused why landing in this part of France was preferable.

Franklin seriously injures his arm during the impact of an abrupt landing. The crew take recourse to the medical help provided by a local French family. The family, consisting of a mill owner, his beautiful French daughter and aged mother provide the airmen with shelter at the risk of being shot and discovered.

Moreover, papers are procured for the British airmen- false papers that will take them across the border to unoccupied France and further to England. The path to safety is a long one and one that holds considerable risk. Even when the airmen reach the relative safety of unoccupied France, there is the risk from the French people themselves, who are impoverished and in need of food and money themselves.

The world that Bates paints is fraught with much strife, pain, suffering and uncertainty.

In fact this sense of uncertainty and helplessness pervades the entirety of the novel. From a year of publication perspective, the fact that the novel was published in 1944, when the outcome of the war effort was still uncertain, surely contributes to set the tone of the novel. Moreover, there is an overwhelming sense of sorrow, a deep sense of grief for the war and everything that it stands for, and the monstrous face of what it has turned the world and it’s people into.

He felt she was crying for something that he could never have understood without her and now did understand because of her. Deep and complete within himself, all these things were part of the same thing, and he knew that what she was crying for was the agony of all that was happening in the world.

’Fair Stood the Wind for France’ may  have become one of my most beloved wartime novels. The story is full of heartache and poignancy. I wonder how much of it was based on what Bates himself saw first hand, as a writer, commissioned by the RAF to write short stories?

Revisiting the Chalet School Series by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

D81B984F-EC0F-43E8-B382-4449D357E5EB.pngI had a such a lovely time revisiting the first in a series of books written by the school story writer Elinor M Brent-Dyer.

Best known for her prolific Chalet School series, the book that I am speaking of is ‘The School at the Chalet’.

 

The Legacy of the Chalet School Series

The Setting of the Chalet School

The setting is the glorious cold climes of the Tyrolean Alps, to be more exact a small lakeside village perched up in the mountains above Innsbruck. The time is the interwar years.

Madge Bettany finds herself left with a small legacy and the predicament of having to look after herself and her younger sister. Their brother Dick Bettany is posted in the Forestry Department in India but living there poses a problem for the delicate health of Jo Bettany, Madge and Dick’s young sister.

To Madge’s mind, opening a small English boarding school in the Alps is a solution to all their problems. It provides Madge a source of income and allows Joey to recover her health.

The trio travel to Briesau in the Tyrolean Alps and set up school in a chalet on the shores of an alpine lake. Initially the students are few in number, consisting of a handful of girls from England, France and a few locals. However, based on the glowing reports of the English education provided at the institution, the students swell in number.

 

The Chalet School Book Plots

Most of the Chalet School books are quite formulaic. There is usually an errant school child who tries to break the rules, causes trouble and strife and learning the fault in her ways – tries to conform.

If you can tolerate these slightly predictable plots the books have a lot more to offer. Brent-Dyer writes beautifully about the customs and cultures of Tyrol, the simple ways and endearing relationships that the Tyrolean people nurture with the British and international students at the school.

In the second book in the series, ‘Jo of the Chalet School’ a typical Tyrolean Christmas in Innsbruck is described with great charm.

 

A Portal to a Different Culture

In a way, the books provide a good example of travel writing. Ever eager to discover the world through books, the Chalet School series are the perfect portal in to discovering Austrian culture.

As the series progresses (58 or more books in total!) the school ages in real time and the effects of the Second World War are felt by the inmates of the school. Shifting to Guernsey and later to England and Wales and finally to Switzerland, we follow a protracted course in the school’s growth and development.

‘Chalet School in Exile’ is the book that describes the Chaletians fleeing from Austria to safer pastures during the ensuing Second World War.

 

The Central Characters of the Chalet School Series

Josephine Bettany is one of the most central characters in the Chalet School stories. She is a strong, independent character, blessed with great writing skills and a bad temper. She reminds me so much of another Jo- the Jo of Louisa May-Alcott. Are all great female heroines of a certain type?

Strong female characters have always been the way in the Chalet School stories. They are uplifting to read. Though the times change and school girls come and go through the hallowed precincts of the Chalet School, the example of female leadership and female education burns very bright.

 

I’ll be curious to see how my 6 year old daughter enjoys the Chalet School series. I hope to pass on the legacy of reading the Chalet School series on to her. I have twenty more books to collect in the Chalet School series. Filling the gaps in my collection of this substantial work of children’s literature has kept me busy and has been tremendously satisfying.

Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham

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‘Earth and High Heaven’ is the love story of Marc Reiser and Erica Drake, set against the social and political backdrop of a segregated Montreal, in the midst of the turmoil of the Second World War.

The social milieu of Montreal is very important in the context of the story. Montreal, at the time, consisted of a majority of English Canadians and a minority of French Canadians and Canadian Jews.

The English and French Canadians were collectively referred to as the ‘Gentiles’ – forming the upper crust of Quebec society, although intermarrying within these communities was still frowned upon. The Canadian Jews formed a more isolated corner of society- exempt from holding select jobs of privilege, disallowed from occupying certain hostelries, eating at various restaurants- generally treated abjectly.

It is in this social context that Erica Drake- an English Canadian from one of the best Montreal families meets Marc Reiser- a Canadian Jewish lawyer, at a house party held at the Drake residence. Erica and Marc fall helplessly  in love at first sight. Outwardly he is perfect in every regard for Erica- except for the racial tag that he is associated with.

Erica’s father, Charles Drake, president of the once flourishing Drake Importing Company refuses to acknowledge Marc at his own house party due to his Jewish background, much to the ire and embarrassment of his daughter.

Many weeks later Erica and Marc, meet by chance on a railway platform and both of them realize that they have much more in common than the sum of their differences.

Their love affair grows in intensity, and when Erica announces her relationship to her father she is met with a wall of prejudice. Determined to change Erica’s mind, her parents treat her with indifference in the hope that her ‘infatuation’ will disappear. For the first time in their lives father and daughter reach an impasse. Charles refuses to acknowledge Marc, refuses him entry to their house, and Erica resorts to meeting him in restaurants and street corners – all the while hoping that her father’s prejudice will dissolve in time.

With Marc having enlisted for the war, Erica knows her days are numbered with him. She realizes that Marc may or may not return from the War, and that even if he does, there is no guarantee that they will stay together for the rest of their lives. For Marc is reluctant to indoctrinate Erica in the Jewish way of life and to have social prejudice be heaped on her shoulders as well. And even though Erica is willing to sacrifice everything, her family, her religion, her social status for Marc, it may not be enough to convince Marc that she is making a decision that they she will not regret later in life.

‘Earth and High Heaven’ is a very elaborate social commentary on racial prejudice. It shows how people born into a fixed social pattern can overcome centuries of difference, in an overwhelming desire to embrace the most unifying emotion of all- love.

There were many moments that made me well up with emotion while reading the book. The issues that the book explores are relevant today and have been relevant during every stage of human history. ‘Earth and High Heaven’ is also a book about soul-searching decisions. The decisions one makes for oneself- in opposition to societal demands and familial expectations.

 

The Fairacre Festival by Miss Read

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On a stormy night in October, calamity strikes the placid, Cotswold village of Fairacre. High winds fell some ancient elm trees, which in turn damage the roof of St. Patrick’s Church.

The entire village, especially the vicar Mr Partridge, witness the damage done to their beloved church in the aftermath of the storm. Estimates to repair the roof and restore the church to its former glory, come in at the huge sum of two thousand pounds.

Even the most optimistic villager can foresee that innumerable jumble sales, weekly raffles and whist drives will not be able to meet that amount.

An emergency meeting of the Parochial Church Council is called, at which Mr Willett, the church sexton, comes up with the marvellous idea of hosting a Fairacre Festival in the summer- a sort of Edinburgh Festival on a smaller scale.

A number of smaller events like a fête, a jumble sale, whist drives, bingo and dances are planned around the main event- a Son et Lumiére with St. Patrick’s as the backdrop. A famous opera singer, Jean Cole’s performance is added to the roster of events, but will these collected efforts be enough to raise the entire sum of money or will the village’s Queen Anne’s reign silver chalice have to be sold to save the roof?

As usual, this is a slow, quiet, amusing book that has some lovely moments. The stories though very simple have an underlying message. This book emphasizes the importance of community and the strength of collective endeavour to achieve a single purpose.

The more I read of Miss Read, the greater appreciation I develop for her knack of appreciating the small things in life and imparting wit to small everyday instances.

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson

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Lady Rose leads a life of great privilege but it is largely bereft of love. Her parents neglect her, her first husband marries her for her money and title. So when she meets the love of her life in a commoner, on a park bench in Edinburgh, she has a momentous decision to make. Should she follow the dictates of social etiquette or shun society, follow her heart and thus lose all she holds dear?

 

One afternoon, a party of three people leave Edinburgh and journey along the coast of Fife, until they happen upon a huge estate with twenty feet high wrought-iron gates, bearing faded coats of arms. The party consists of Mr Dacre, an English lawyer, his wife Helen and their American friend Van Elsen and the grand estate they have stumbled upon is that of Keepsfield, estate of Lady Rose Targenet, Countess of Lochlule.

The party are shown over the house by a silver-haired, quiet housekeeper called Mrs Memmary. Filled with insatiable curiosity, Helen tries to unearth Lady Rose’s past, while observing the house, it’s rooms and the personal effects of the owner.

The past is slowly but surely revealed to the reader through the reminiscences of Mrs Memmary, stray letters and whispers from the past.

We learn of Lady Rose’s childhood, her distant parents and her loneliness at an English boarding-school. We revisit Lady Rose’s presentation at court and her decision to marry well, into a neighbouring family to thus combine their estates. Her husband is Sir Hector Galowrie and Lady Rose marries him with little knowledge of their compatibility but with a binding sense of duty to ‘marry well’.

When they marry, Lady Rose’s father suddenly dies and she is bequeathed the title of Countess of Lochlule by Queen Victoria. Lady Rose and her husband are required to reside at Keepsfield but Sir Hector deeply resents Lady Rose’s position and wealth. The marriage is loveless and unhappy but Lady Rose finds solace in her children.

Sir Hector suddenly dies in a shooting accident on the estate and though there is a jarring note in the incident, the reader realizes that this is a means of escape for Lady Rose.

Lady Rose travels to Edinburgh to speak to her lawyers and once there, happens to meet a wonderful man in Princes Street Gardens.

He is a commoner, a clerk by the name of Andrew Moray Montmary. They fall in love and decide to marry to the consternation of the entire aristocracy of England and Scotland.

Lady Rose and Moray are forced to flee to Europe, to escape society and Lady Rose is also barred from taking her children with her. The couple live a life in exile for many decades.

The story although a sweet fairytale on the surface, speaks of many deep-rooted societal issues, class snobbery being one of them. It also raises the question whether it is worthwhile shunning home and hearth, life and one’s family for the sake of true love.

As with all good books, Ruby Ferguson leaves this point as an open-ended question for the reader to ponder over.

Adult life is full of such momentous decisions and we are often faced with the repercussions of the choices we make, for better or for worse.

Filled with beautiful descriptive writing, Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary is a sweet love letter to Scotland and so much more. The story aims to address prejudice regarding class consciousness and certainly reaffirms the belief that marrying for love is of paramount importance.

Title: Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary
Author: Ruby Ferguson
Year Published: 1937
Setting: Fife, Scotland.
Characters: Lady Rose (Countess of Lochlule), Mrs Memmary, Helen Dacre, Sir Hector Galowrie, Andrew Moray Montmary.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

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‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ by Muriel Spark tells of the rise and fall of an unconventional Edinburgh schoolteacher, Miss Jean Brodie and the strange love triangle she shares with two fellow schoolteachers.

The story is told by an omniscient narrator, in the present and in flash-forwards and hence, the pieces of the story are revealed in fragments. The mode of storytelling and the tension fraught in its format, makes it quick and compelling reading.

At various intervals in her career, Miss Jean Brodie handpicks a a select group of girls from her elite Edinburgh school, whom she trains in private. She educates them in her own particular modes of wisdom and she calls them the ‘créme de la créme’. Jean Brodie’s  specialised curriculum consists of information including but not limited to the Buchmanites and Mussolini, the  Italian Renaissance painters, the advantages of cleansing cream and witch hazel over soap, the meaning of the word ‘menarche’ and the interior decoration of the London house of the author A.A. Milne.

The six selected girls are famous for different things. Monica Douglas for mathematics, Rose Stanley for sex (or I suppose her suspected potential), Eunice Gardiner for gymnastics, Sandy Stranger for her enunciation, Jenny Gray for her grace, and Mary Macgregor for her silence.

Jean Brodie’s unconventional teaching methods are frowned upon by the school authorities, who are continually searching for reasons to dismiss her. It is only the Brodie set that are close enough to Jean Brodie, to be able to acquire incriminating evidence against her and thus betray her. There is one person among the set who betrays Jean Brodie, and the latter  spends her entire life brooding upon the identity of this betrayer. It is beyond her comprehension that someone out of the group of girls-  a group that she has given up the best years of her life and even sacrificed her love life for, should thus stab her in the back.

While the girls are being trained, they were also privy to the emotional and personal life of Jean Brody- a lady in her prime ( a term that is repeated and reinstated in the novel several times) and embroiled in a complex relationship with two scoolmasters – the singing teacher Gordon Lowther and the handsome, one-armed war veteran Teddy Lloyd.

The betrayer of Jean Brodie is someone who also gets involved in this love triangle, thus proving that often jealousy arising from love can overwhelm loyal and decent relationships.

The book is full of such unusual and challenging relationship dynamics. It is also a book about morals and ethics and politics. Jean Brodie in her ‘prime’ forsakes morals and chooses to sleep with the singing teacher, while all the time nurturing a deep, obsessive passion for the art teacher.

There is a displacement of love in the story, such that physical love is only shown to occur between individuals who do not care for one another. A cycle of retribution seems to occur so that Jean Brodie is ultimately punished for her seemingly unrelated action of sleeping with the singing teacher.

The humour in ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ is very dark and best described as black comedy. It’s hard for me to exactly pinpoint what the essence of the novel is about. To me it feels like a commentary on the rejection of all things conventional and a lesson on the havoc it may create.