Miss Silver Comes to Stay by Patricia Wentworth

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‘Miss Silver Comes to Stay’ is the sixteenth book in Patricia Wentworth’s ‘Miss Silver’ series. It’s the second Miss Silver mystery that I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

As far as I can tell, each of the Miss Silver mystery stories can be read as standalones- at least this particular story was not reliant on any previous knowledge of characters, apart from Miss Silver herself.

There are 32 Miss Silver mysteries published over a period from 1928 to 1961. They do have a listed chronology. The first mystery in the series is ‘Grey Mask’ and I had the pleasure of reading it in 2011, when I commuted daily on long train rides to and from Boston.

I remember being totally in thrall of the rich atmosphere of the book. I felt I had slipped into a black and white film noir.
I must admit that one of the negatives of such standalone mysteries is that you don’t get very much time to acquaint yourself with a host of new characters. I did enjoy getting to know Miss Maud Silver better.

Miss Maud Silver predates Miss Jane Marple by a few years and one can’t help thinking that they might be closely related to one another. Silver haired, soft spoken but with the most piercing eyes that ask the most pertinent questions- being interviewed by Miss Silver is enough to intimidate the most wily criminal.

In ‘Miss Silver Comes to Stay’, Miss Silver visits her friend in a quiet English Village, but as ‘luck’ would have it, a murder occurs.

The victim is a 41 year old James Lessiter, who arrives in the village after 20 years as an extremely wealthy man, who has inherited his Mother’s large property in the village.

He has a number of scores to settle with numerous people in the village. There is the case of Catherine Lee- who has embezzled a large portion of his Mother’s personal fortune. Then there is Rietta Cray- his sweetheart of many years ago, whom he broke up with in a quite unpleasant manner.

There are several other people who might stand to gain from James Lessiter’s death- and so when he is murdered – there are many possible suspects.

It’s left to Miss Maud Silver to place the pieces of the puzzle together and help out the local police force.

Though we didn’t get to see too much of Miss Silver, I did enjoy the little bits in the story where we glimpsed into her brilliant mind.

The story had a number of red herrings, like most Golden Age mysteries and I must say that the mystery aspect of the book was rather good.

I remember finding Grey Mask quite scintillating – so for me, this mystery paled a little in comparison. Nevertheless, with all 32 of the Miss Silver mysteries packed into my Kindle (picked up on a great deal during a Black Friday sale, when I used to live in the States), I’ll be eagerly reading through everything else Wentworth had to write.

I’ll then be moving on to Marsh and Allingham.

Do you enjoy Golden Age mystery and have you read Patricia Wentworth?

Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton

Processed with VSCO with a4 presetI 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.

There are heaps of whimsical characters, a novel writing Father who keeps himself locked up in his dressing room, an unconventional upbringing, a sort of coming-of-age story but here the similarities end.

Guard Your Daughters deals with the unconventional upbringing of five daughters. Five daughters, who despite a lack of formal education, shine in different ways.

Their father is an eminent detective novel writer, their mother is a delicate lady, suffering from unknown neuroses- the main one being the relative sequestration of her daughters from mainstream society. The Mother strives through various means to ‘protect’ her girls by not sending them to school, discouraging them from going to parties or dances, and not having a social life. The girls strive to never cross their Mother, mainly due to the constant watchfulness of their Father but there are stray incidents that threaten to upset the delicate balance of the family.

The daughters, devise various ways of meeting young men. A certain gentleman is literally pounced upon when his car breaks down in front of the family homestead. Another young man is befriended at the cinema. None of them is encouraged to visit the isolated family.

Due to the fame of the literary father, none of the girls needs to venture out of the house to earn a living. There is no dearth of money as such – but the limitations and deprivations of post war rationing are evident in the conjuring up of the family meals. As the girls observe – Father is never stingy with his money but there’s a mystery about where all the money goes, given his great fame and fortune.

It’s only during the last few pages of the novel that you realize that Guard Your Daughters is quite a serious novel and it deals with quite a serious subject- that of mental health. In retrospect, one appreciates that the author has been building up slowly to this realization through the entirety of the storytelling process.

One of the things that drew me to Guard Your Daughters was the strength of the mother and father’s relationship. It was very beautiful to see, especially given the sacrifices the father made to appease his wife.

Guard Your Daughters would have undoubtedly been one of my favourite novels – given the sprinkling of odd characters, memorable situations, sparkling and witty dialogue and creation of beautiful moments. But for me, Diana Tutton takes the story to an entirely new level with her dexterity in storytelling, and her ability to convey raw emotions. I will be thinking about this book for a very long time.

The juxtaposition of the funny and the extremely sad has been so skillfully managed by Tutton. In a modern world where mental health issues are so frighteningly relevant, Tutton seems to strike a very raw chord. If you were to read only one Persephone book this year, please make it this one.

The Bird in the Tree

‘The Bird in the Tree’ was the first Elizabeth Goudge novel I’ve ever read and certainly won’t be my last.

Published in 1940, The Bird in the Tree, is the first in a trio of novels – collectively called the Eliot Chronicles. The second and third books in the trilogy are ‘The Herb of Grace’ and ‘The Heart of the Family’.

For the Eliots of Damerosehay, the family homestead, Damerosehay, as such, is very much the central character in the story.

The Eliots are a large family and their story is as intricate and detailed as most familial tales. The matriarch, Lucilla, is still living- Mother to many children and grandmother to many more.

The children- her beloved son Maurice (father to David) and Roger have died in the Great War. All who remain are an unmarried daughter, Margaret , a son Hilary- a parson, Stephen and George who lives in India.

Damerosehay means a lot to Lucilla. She found it during a particularly troubled time in her life and sold the dwindling family fortunes to create a home – a sanctuary of sorts – that would protect her and her descendants for years to come.

Damerosehay is a large homestead situated along the Hampshire Coast. Surrounded by sprawling gardens, woods and marshes – the sea is not that far away and is a part of the charm of living at Damerosehay.

Grandson David, son of her favourite child Maurice, is the apple of Lucilla’s eye. They see eye to eye on many things- one of them being their shared passion for Damerosehay. Lucilla deems that David is the true future protector of the family fortunes – and she decides to bequeath Damerosehay to him upon her death. The other grandchildren, George’s children are still too young and uninitiated as to the great value of the estate.

However, David has a guilty secret of his own to disclose- a secret that threatens to break the Eliot family apart and the homestead that provides a roof over their heads.

Rather than fight a battle with David, Lucilla trusts that David’s love for Damerosehay will win through in the end and he will forsake his private passions for the greater good of the family.

In trying to persuade David to do this, Lucilla reveals secrets from her own past that are quite personal and that provide an example of her past sacrifices for her family.

Without giving too much of the plot away – the book is a gentle dialogue on the tousle men and women have of choosing between personal gratification or making choices that benefit family and future generations.

Whilst the story was a compelling one, what drew me to the book was Goudge’s unhurried storytelling, her talent for noticing the small things in life and her gift for writing beautifully about nature.

I’m quite eager to carry on with this family saga- and follow the future fortunes of the Eliots of Damerosehay.

Have you read this particular book and do you have a favourite Goudge novel?

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My Thoughts on Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles Series

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It took me two years, but I’m pleased to say that I’ve finally finished the set of six novels that collectively form the Barchester Chronicles series.

The genre of novels I enjoy, mostly modern classics written by women, tending to focus on matters of home and hearth and human psychology, frequently referred back to this seminal work by Trollope. So, for this reason I was eager to discover his writing. A group of fellow Trollope enthusiasts who decided to readalong with me, enabled me to finally find out what all the fuss was about.

 

The Chronology of the Barchester Novels

The six books in the series, in chronological order consist of The Warden, Barchester Towers, Doctor Thorne, Framley Parsonage, The Small House at Allington and lastly, The Last Chronicle of Barset.

 

Favourite Books in the Barchester Chronicles Series

It’s hard to pick favourites, but if I was compelled to, I would choose The Warden for being memorable and the Last Chronicle of Barset due to its poignant, soul-searching subject.

 

The Subject Matter of the Series

Though the focus of each individual novel differs, on the whole, the series addresses problems within the ecclesiastical system of Victorian England. Trollope pinpoints various gaping defects in church matters in the obvious hope for reform. The clergy are depicted as flawed individuals, sometimes greedy for power, sometimes prone to  earthly pleasures like other mortals. In this sense, the world that Trollope paints is incredibly real and believable.

Trollope’s female characters are no mealy-mouthed individuals. They have plenty of spunk, force of character and show that they can and will marry for love alone. For this reason the names of Lily Dale, Mrs Proudie and Eleanor Bold are memorably penned in the annals of Victorian literature.

In short, without revealing too much of the plot, here is what each individual novel focuses on:

The Warden

‘The Warden’ takes place in a fictional cathedral town in Victorian England-Barchester. It highlights the plight of an elderly man, a church employee. As he is suddenly thrust into the middle of a much publicized national scandal surrounding his (suspected) inflated salary, thereby cheating several bedesman, under his direct care, out of the stipulated income in an old will. It is a story involving several Victorian institutions: the government, the press, the church, the law, and several tiers of society. But at the heart of the matter, it is the story of a man’s desire to quell his conscience.

Barchester Towers

‘Barchester Towers’ takes us back to the hallowed precincts of Barchester, a few years after where ‘The Warden’ left off. The main plot centres around three key events- the position of Warden at Hiram’s Hospital is still unoccupied, the Bishop of Barchester is on his deathbed and John Bold has left for his heavenly abode.

There is a struggle for ecclesiastical power which highlights the power hunger greediness of the clergy.

Another plot line is that of the love interests of newly widowed Eleanor Bold- who unfortunately falls prey to several bachelors, some of who are interested in acquiring Eleanor’s substantial private income.

Doctor Thorne

Doctor Thorne is one of the most romantic books in the series and deals with the story of Frank Gresham and Mary Thorne. Frank Gresham is the son of a bankrupt landowner, so it is highly derrière by his family that he marry for money to revive the family’s fortunes. However, he falls in love with a lovely girl, Mary Thorne, said to be illegitimate and certainly with no claims to fortune. The story has an excellent twist and is highly readable.

Framley Parsonage

This, the fourth book in the series deals with the ambitions of a young clergyman, Mark Robarts, who quite naively strives to climb the social ladder and lands himself in woeful monetary trouble due to the dubious company he keeps.

The Small House at Allington

The main issue that the novel deals with is the question of whether or not a person should marry solely for the purpose of money. The two sisters in the novel have two very distinct personas. There is Lily Dale- a Victorian version of Elizabeth Bennet/Marianne Dashwood (bubbly and impetuous) and we have the more cautious figure of her sister Bell. Each of the sisters is part of a unique love triangle. The novel largely deals with the love interests of each sister.

Virginia Woolf describes ‘The Small House at Allington’ as perhaps ‘the most perfect of English novels’ alongside Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’.

The Last Chronicle of Barset

The last book in the Barchester Chronicles and Trollope’s most soul-searching, heart-rending book about a man’s effort to preserve his integrity in the face of extreme adversity.

 

Who Should Read This Series?

Readers Who Love a Good Love Story

Trollope is surprisingly eloquent when he expresses the feelings of love between men and women. Nearly each novel has a central love theme and Trollope waxes quite lyrically during the innumerable love scenes.

Readers Who Enjoy Long Detailed Novels

The Victorians loved their long novels, many of which were published in serial format in many reputed newspapers and journals of the time. Trollope is no exception to the rule. The Warden is the only slim volume in the pack.

Readers Who Love Cozy, Comforting Books

People might be taken aback by the length and breadth of Trollope’s bibliography, but fear not! Trollope’s writing is incredibly comforting and cosy. Once you get used to the Victorian language, the writing is very easy to follow,

Readers Who Love Learning About Details of Victorian Living

How Victorians dressed, what they ate, their education and most importantly, how they managed their money, are all subjects of interest in these novels.

 

Favourite Quotes

What on earth could be more luxurious than a sofa, a book, and a cup of coffee?…Was ever anything so civil?” – The Warden

 

“Don’t let love interfere with your appetite. It never does with mine.”- Barchester Towers

 

“There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel.”- Barchester Towers

 

“Rest and quiet are the comforts of those who have been content to remain in obscurity.”- Doctor Thorne

“And, above all things, never think that you’re not good enough yourself. A man should never think that. My belief is that in life people will take you very much at your own reckoning.”- Small House at Allington

Further Reading

If you enjoyed Trollope’s ‘Barchester Chronicles’, the good news is that he wrote lots, lots more novels- over and above 50 novels! Other Victorian writers who come to mind who remind me of Trollope are Mrs Gaskell and Dickens- although Trollope’s characters ate more middle-class than Dickens’ poor people. The novelist who perhaps was the most influenced by Trollope was George Eliot.

Later Angela Thirkell set her series of loosely linked novels in the fictitious county of Barsetshire. Several Trollopian characters reappear in different avatars in her books, Great fun!

 

Trollope was one of the most prolific of Victorian writers. Her wrote exactingly and untiringly about the quotidian details of provincial life. And he sought to highlight some glaring flaws in ecclesiastical order. He deserves to be read more widely by modern audiences.

Top 10 Books of 2017

 

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Looking back on 2017, I see a wonderful list of books and honestly I can’t say that I regret reading a single one of them. In this particularly good year of reading (52 books in the year) a few stood out to me.

 

These are the ten books that left the most indelible impression on me in 2017:

1. Mariana by Monica Dickens

A coming of age novel dealing with a young girl’s quest to find the perfect love. Though the body of the novel is well written and engaging, it is the beginning and ending of the novel that elevate the quality of the story in my opinion, making it truly memorable. There are echoes of Tennyson’s poem ‘Mariana’ in this book.

2. Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson

What a delight of a novel. The characters are excellent, the plot immaculately constructed and the writing is very funny.

A young woman, Miss Barbara Buncle opts to become a novel writer when her annual dividends are not as lucrative as usual. As the young lady has no imagination whatsoever, she writes completely from experience, portraying the people and incidents occurring in her rural corner of England. When the village people read the book and discover themselves (in an unflattering light) in the pages of the story, they determinedly set out to uncover the identity of the perpetrator of the village crime.

3. My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

This might be my new favourite du Maurier novel alongside Rebecca. It kept our book club continually guessing (we are still unsure to this day). Apart from the suspenseful aspect of the novel, I enjoyed the Cornish setting and the gothic feel of the story.

4. One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

This was such a quiet, wistful novel, spanning the events of one particular day. It deals with the struggles of the post-WW2 upper-middle class, coming to terms with the loss of their glorious past and changing domestic situations.

5. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

A suspenseful, fast-paced Victorian novel and a pre-decessor of the modern day thriller, although in my opinion, much better written than most of the modern-day bestsellers.

6. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Hard to describe Mrs Dalloway. Perhaps to me- it strikes as a poem of a novel talking about deep-seated issues – some of them related to mental health. The descriptions of  London in the novel are glorious.

7. Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham

Set in Toronto during World War 2, Earth and High Heaven deals with the then frowned upon love affair between a Canadian English woman and a Canadian Jewish man. The book is an 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.

8. The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope

The last book in the Barsetshire Chronicles and Trollope’s most soul searching, heart-rending book about a man’s quest to preserve his integrity in the face of extreme adversity.

9. My Grandmothers and I by Diana Holman-Hunt

A memoir written by the grand daughter of the eminent pre-raphaelite painter William Holman-Hunt. It tells of her unusual upbringing, alternating in the homes of her paternal and maternal grandmothers. It is a wonderful chance to glimpse into the eccentric lifestyle of Holman-Hunt. It’s also a rather poignant memoir written in a cheerful way, from the viewpoint of a young girl, who was essentially an orphan and who never knew the comfort of a stable home.

10. Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell

The subject of this Victorian novel had quite a modern tone. It dealt with illegitimacy and the strictures of Victorian society and religion. However, what I appreciated the most about this novel was the fact that the pain and suffering, the vulnerability of a young orphan girl was highlighted, thus painting her plight in a very sympathetic way.

Please leave me a comment sharing your favourite book of the year.

Here’s to many more books in 2018.

The Fulfillment of a Literary Dream- Helene Hanff’s ‘Duchess of Bloomsbury Street’

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If you’ve read 84 Charing Cross Road, you’ll appreciate that Helene Hanff’s trip to London, the city of her literary dreams is the realization of a life-long ambition. Brought on by the success of the book describing her long-distance relationship with antiquarian bookseller Frank Doel, this journey is more than a literary pilgrimage, it is a homage to the quiet, bookish man who sparked the inspiration for the book itself. 

‘The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street’ starts in the summer of 1971, with author Helene Hanff preparing to fly the Atlantic Ocean, in order to visit London, the city of her literary dreams.

The realization of this dream has been a long time in the making. It all started out with a correspondence between Hanff in New York and Frank Doel, an antiquarian bookseller in London. The correspondence spanned a number of decades and has been beautifully documented in Hanff’s memorable book ’84 Charing Cross Road’, the address of Doel’s bookshop.

The untimely death of Frank Doel resulted in Hanff’s personal tribute to the quiet but learned, kind, compassionate man with the publication of ’84 Charing Cross Road’.

In the ‘Duchess of Bloomsbury Street’, we find Hanff travelling to London to mark the launch of the British edition of ’84 Charing Cross Road’. It had always been her dream to visit literary London, but had previously been impossible due to financial constraints (in 84 CCR we learn that dental bills were partially responsible for this!).

This second book is the diary that Hanff kept during her wonderful weeks in London. If you love books and you love London, you will delight in the literary tour-de-force that Hanff takes you on, from Dickens to Donne.

This book is more than a literary tour however and does not completely project a rosy image.

It is a chance to meet with the widow of Frank Doel and this meeting is not completely free of pathos and poignancy.

The book is also peppered with Hanff’s acute observations of British life and manners. There are frequent aspersions to class distinction and snobbery.

You look at the faces in the Hilton dining room and first you want to smack them and then you just feel sorry for them, not a soul in the room looked happy

There is another isolated incident of a lady walking her poodle in Hyde Park. Hanff greets the poodle but is deterred by the sharp rebuke from the lady.

” Please don’t do that!” she said to me sharply. “I’m trying to teach him good manners.”

I thought, ” A pity he can’t do the same for you”.

Despite these observations, Hanff, intelligent and highly observant, realizes that of course, there is more to London than the ‘reek of money’.

Around every corner, there is the “hallowed hush of privilege … stories of the fairy-tale splendour of monarchy, the regal pomp of England’s Kings and Queens”.

And as Hanff so acutely observes, history is alive and flourishing in London.

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10 Contemporary Authors I Enjoy Reading

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I am a bit of an old soul. Though I may be physically present in the now, my mind flitters off away into bygone eras- the heyday of the 1920’s, the Depression of the 1930’s or the tumultuous times of the Great and Second World Wars. I wonder what it must have been like to live in the Regency, Victorian or Edwardian periods or in Imperial Russia.  If only I could travel back in time armed with a  package of antibiotics and an iPad!

It is quite natural that my reading should be centered on mostly writing from these periods and genres.  That is not to say that I do not enjoy a few contemporary authors and I hope to build on that list in the following years. Ironically, most of these authors write of bygone eras or have an old-fashioned way with words.

Here in no particular order are a few of my most read, contemporary authors:

1) Alexander McCall Smith:

McCall Smith is perhaps my most beloved contemporary author. I’ve enjoyed delving into both his Isabel Dalhousie series and 44 Scotland Street series, both set in Edinburgh. I’ve also enjoyed the simple stories of the Mme Ramotswe set in Africa. His stories have a simple charm, offer great minute details into daily life and a dry humour. He reminds me of a male Barbara Pym or a modern day PG Wodehouse.

2) Kate Atkinson:

I read Atkinson’s ‘Life after Life’ which was a stunning novel written in an unusual format telling of an individual’s experience of the second World War. There was great depth to the historical detail provided by Atkinson’s storytelling. I cannot wait to read more.

3) Jacqueline Winspear:

If you like the ‘cozy mystery’ genre and if you enjoy historical fiction, then Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series is for you. I appreciate Winspear’s great attention to historical detail and exacting prose. She has an eye for documenting the minutia of everyday life.

4)Peter Mayle:

There are a number of books describing expat life in the South of France, but few do so as evocatively as Peter Mayle. All the sights, sounds and flavours of Provençal life are embodied in his sunny, descriptive prose.

5) Paula McLain:

I greatly enjoyed McLain’s novel .’The Paris Wife’, providing a fictional (yet quite believable) account of Hemingway’s life in Paris from the perspective of his first wife Hadley. The narrative is smooth and free flowing and very engaging.

6) PD James:

I remember being quite absorbed with PD James’ Cordelia Grey mystery, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. Though decidedly gritty, it was one of those mystery/thrillers that you really cannot put down.

7) Colin Dexter:

Dexter weaves a wonderful web of mystery and history on the streets of Oxford in his Inspector Morse series. They are fast, intelligent and absorbing reads.

8) Helen Fielding:

I grew up reading Fielding’s entertaining ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’. I have a great love for the epistolary format of storytelling and Fielding’s depiction of a modern day ‘Pride and Prejudice’ scenario is both refreshing and extremely funny.

9) JK Rowling:

Where would we be without the magical world Rowling has created in her Harry Potter novels? Just as I grew up with the magic of Enid Blyton and CS Lewis’s stories, many generations of children have already grown up with the comfort of the mystical realm of these fantasy novels.

10) Vikram Seth:

I do believe that Seth’s magnum opus ‘A Suitable Boy’ will be a classic that will be remembered and loved many years from now. Not only is his prose lovely, the scope of his novel is quite breathtaking and true to the narrow slice of historical time he has depicted in post- Independence India.

An Equal Music is another favourite book of mine.

Other authors I wish to read soon are  Donna Tartt, Murakami, Adichie and many others.

Tell me, who your favourite authors are, who are living in the present day and age?