January, 2016 Wrap Up

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Here is a round up of book related favourites for the month of January, 2016. For a glimpse into December, 2015’s Bookish Favourites please see here.

1. Books

 I read a total of seven books in January. I read mostly from the modern classics genre and successfully ticked off two titles from my list of 12 New Authors I Would Like to Read in 2016 (that made me feel very good!). I enjoyed all these books so much, especially The Diary of A Provincial Lady and A Month in the Country.

1) Britannia Mews by Margery Sharp

I realised I posted about this book in December but didn’t manage to finish it till January. I reviewed this book as part of Margery Sharp Day hosted by Jane from the lovely blog Beyond Eden Rock.

Britannia Mews is a book that describes the life and times of the central character of Adelaide Culver, a child of privileged circumstances, living in one of the row of houses along London’s Albion Place. Adjacent to Albion Place, stands Britannia Mews, once a stable, housing the horses used by the genteel folk living in Albion Place but now reduced to a slum at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Set in the late nineteenth century, Victorian London is portrayed at the intersection of where the rich meet the poor.  Adelaide Culver, marries her struggling art tutor and thereby goes to live in the slums of Britannia Mews. This is the story of what happens to a girl who has bravely broken away from the family shelter into a life of domestic strife and hardship. I enjoyed Margery Sharp’s excellent writing, descriptive and laced with subtle wit and wisdom. For a full review please see here.

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2) Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is the story of twenty-one year old Sophia, during the time when she was married to Charles Fairclough. The story is in its entirety, a first person narrative and tells of the harrowing poverty, the ups and downs of the young couple, in a time during which Charles refuses to take any financial responsibility for his household, using his need to practice his art as an excuse to shirk his duties. This was an exceptional book! For a full review please see here.

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3) A Tale of Two Families by Dodie Smith

A Tale of Two Families by Dodie Smith is the story of the relationship between two families: those of May and June, two sisters, who marry two brothers, George and Robert. When May and George decide to relocate to the countryside for a few years, on a landed estate with a small cottage, it seems the most natural thing for June and Robert to leave their father’s house and set up home in the cottage on May and George’s leased estate. Robert, a skilled but lesser known writer plans on writing his magnum opus in the idyllic surrounds of the cottage. June is happy to be carefree and close to her sister. Robert and George’s father, Baggy, comes to stay with George’s family. May and June’s delightful mother, Fran, decides to stay with her two daughters for a while. The children in the family come upto the property on weekends, from London or the boarding schools they go to and a good time is had by all in the family. Then the close proximity leads to unforeseen events…

For a full review please see here.

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4) A Month in the Country by JL Carr

A Month in the Country by JL Carr is the story of war veteran Tom Birkin and the unforgettable summer he spends in the country, uncovering and restoring a medieval wall mural inside an old country church. It is a journey of discovery for Tom Birkin, both in regards to his work and rediscovery of self after the trauma and ravages of his war experiences. This was a charming, poignant novel. I felt that the narrative was a little uneven, which made it a bit of a slower read, but on the whole the story was so wonderful and evocative that I can’t help but look back upon it, with starlight in my eyes.

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5) The Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield

This was my favourite book this month and it really made laugh. The diary entries are so self deprecatory and certain incidents so cringe-worthy, they make great reading.

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I am #currentlyreading (tagged by Jessica @bookreveries) EM Delafield's classic novel 'The Diary of a Provincial Lady' first published in 1930 and wondering why it took me so long to read this little gem. A domestic diary of a Devon housewife full of self-deprecatory hilarious anecdotes, it is definitely a laugh a minute. The following is an encounter between the diary writer and neighboring Lady Boxe. ~ "Plant the indoor bulbs. Just as I am in the middle of them, Lady Boxe calls… Do I know, she asks, how very late it is for indoor bulbs? September, really, or even October, is the time. Do I know that the only reliable firm for hyacinths is Somebody of Haarlem? Cannot catch the name of the firm, which is Dutch, but reply Yes, I do know, but I think it my duty to buy Empire products. Feel at the time, and still think, that this is an excellent reply. Unfortunately Vicky comes into the drawing-room later and says: 'Oh, Mummie, are those the bulbs we got at Woolworths?" #theyearinbooks

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6) Mystery at Saint-Hilaire by Priscilla Hagon (Mabel Esther Allan)

I don’t remember how I came upon this book or the author but I was lucky enough to find a copy at my library. I’m glad I did. It read exactly like a grown-up Enid Blyton book so if you are a Blyton fan, this is a book for you.

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Mystery at Saint-Hilaire' (1968) (also known as 'Castle of Fear') by Priscilla Hagon (a pseudonym for Mabel Esther Allan) is a perfect example of a book fitting into the #followmetobookland tag. It's a work of fiction that is set along France's Brittany Coast, where the people speak the Breton tongue (with Celtic origins) rather than the native French. It's hard to categorize the writing: to me it felt more like an Enid Blyton book for grown-ups with a faint whiff of a romance story. The penmanship is not terribly sophisticated but it fits into the old-world, charming, writing style that I enjoy. The story centres around a young British girl called Gwenda, who spends a summer working in a British bookshop in Paris. Whilst perusing some books that have been recently returned from an address in Brittany, Gwenda discovers a note, tucked into the pages. The note is written by another English girl called Sarah, writing to her brother, and she claims that her life is in danger. She speaks of sinister goings on and the death of a fisherman near the Chateau of Saint-Hilaire. Gwenda feels compelled to investigate further and finds herself journeying to an unknown medieval castle, located in the middle of the sea, off the coast of Brittany, to unearth the letter's mystery, only to find herself in the midst of romance and grave danger. An indulgent read, 'Mystery at Saint-Hilaire' is a fabulous foray into the romance of yesteryear. ~ Last night, I stayed up late and finished of this 'adult Enid Blyton' novel accompanied by a square or two of chocolate. I think Enid would have approved. Happy Friday friends. What plans for the weekend? //ps: can we also admire my lilies(?) soooo voluptuous !!

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7) Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

This was another favourite book this month. Quite funny, with several quotable, witty, one liners, this tells of a day in the life of staid, middle aged Miss Pettigrew. It is a day of astonishing unexpected events that transform Miss Pettigrew’s mind and outlook on life for ever.

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2. Movies and Audiobooks

The only movie I watched this month was the BBC adaptation of Tess of the D’Urbervilles (screenplay by David Nicholls) and it was soooo good! It really made me want to pick up the book and read it. I listened to the BBC full cast adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Sittaford Mystery. I do enjoy these full cast dramatizations: it almost feels like going to the theatre.

3. Miscellany

I bought so many books this month. Most of them were bought with Christmas money or were gifts to myself to revive my dwindling library. I hope to enjoy and read them over the next couple of years. Here is a picture of the books!

I hope you all had a great month of reading. I have several library books to get through in February which I am excited to share. Do have a great month!

Britannia Mews by Margery Sharp

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This review is written in celebration of Margery Sharp’s birthday on January 25th, 2016. I would like to thank Jane from Beyond Eden Rock for encouraging us to celebrate the life and works of a wonderful author, most of whose works remain difficult to find.

‘Britannia Mews’ is a book that describes the life and times of the central character of Adelaide Culver, a child of privileged circumstances, living in one of the row of houses along London’s Albion Place. Adjacent to Albion Place, stands Britannia Mews, once a stable, housing the horses used by the genteel folk living in Albion Place but now reduced to a slum at the turn of the nineteenth century.

Adelaide falls in love with her art teacher and aspiring artist, Henry Lambert and throwing all caution to the winds, elopes with him, to live a life of severely reduced circumstances and drudgery in a small house in Britannia Mews. In the beginning, Adelaide is happy with her new found independence, the novelty of keeping her tiny house spick and span and the belief that Henry will make a name for himself in art circles.  Slowly, however, she is resigned to the fact that Henry is a drunk, with no ambition in life and has married her for no reason other than a desire to get by on Adelaide’s annual income.

When Henry Lambert falls to his death from the steps of his Mews house due to accidental circumstances, Adelaide believes she has been released from the prison that she has created for herself in Britannia Mews. She longs to go back to her parental house in the countryside. However, a devious neighbor has witnessed the slight push that Adelaide gave her husband that accidentally led to his death. This results in blackmail: the neighbour forces Adelaide to pay her ten shillings a week and compels her to stay on in the Mews.

Then as time passes on and Adelaide’s life seems very bleak she discovers real love in the most unexpected way. The strength of this attachment (with a man named Gilbert) gives her the strength to forsake everything and everyone else in her life. Adelaide and Gilbert create a Puppet Theatre in the Mew’s stables and this eventually leads to the upliftment of Britannia Mews and several of its residents. The birth of the famous Puppet Theatre leads to the gentrification of Britannia Mews. Adelaide’s success leads to great empowerment; Adelaide is envisioned as a strong inspiring woman by subsequent generations. The Theatre brings employment to several individuals and much needed entertainment to innumerable people, especially during the dark, dreary times of the Second World War. The story is brought full circle when Adelaide inspires her niece to forsake her life of comfort and luxury in rural suburbia and live a life of artistic endeavor and adventure in running the Puppet Theatre in Britannia Mews.

Set in the late nineteenth century and leading into the years spanning the Second World War, Britannia Mews is a story spanning several generations and several important world events.

The attitudes and affectations of Victorian London are very much at variance with those of subsequent times and these are highlighted in the different characters of the story.

The book focuses on the intersection of where the rich meet the poor, the difference in living conditions of the two factions, the snobbery of the upper class, the raucousness of the underbelly of London society and the dissolution of these classes with the onset of the Second World War.

Women are portrayed in strong, influential roles. They marry to please themselves, not to gratify society. Convention is severely flouted in the book ‘Britannia Mews’.

It is an astonishing novel on many levels and depicts a slice of English history that is multifaceted and rich in detail. I’ve enjoyed reading a Margery Sharp novel that is a little different from the other books I have read, but quite, quite lovely!

Martha, Eric and George by Margery Sharp

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This review is written in celebration of Margery Sharp’s birthday on January 25th, 2016. I would like to thank Jane from Beyond Eden Rock for encouraging us to celebrate the life and works of a wonderful author, most of whose works remain difficult to find.

‘Martha, Eric and George’ is the third book in the Martha trilogy written by Margery Sharp. For reviews of the first two book in the series, please see here and here.

If ‘The Eye of Love’ was a lively entree into this delightful trilogy, ‘Martha in Paris’ was a deliciously light and entertaining prelude to the substantial finale of the drama- ‘Martha, Eric and George’, surrounding the central character of Martha.

The child Martha, her stolid personality, her large appetite, her obsession with drawing and sketching, even in the most trying circumstances amuses us in the book ‘The Eye of Love’.

In ‘Martha in Paris’ Martha due to her benefactor, Mr Joyce’s encouragement, accepts an opportunity to study art under a master-class artist in Paris. In Paris, she meets Eric, an English bank employee, and the two embark on a relationship of sorts, brought about under the most peculiar circumstances!

Martha’s plans to seriously continue her artistic studies are seriously thwarted, however, when she discovers that she is carrying Eric’s child. ‘Martha in Paris’, memorably concludes when Martha deposits her newborn son (unknown to Eric) on the doorstep of Eric’s Parisian apartment.

‘Martha, Eric and George’ starts when the baby is discovered by Madame Leclerc, the concierge of the apartment buildings that Eric and his mother reside in. In all her thirty years of being concierge at the building, this incident, perhaps, tops it all.

…she hadn’t meant to be defrauded of the most exciting incident in all her thirty years as concierge. There had once been a suicide on the Fifth, a burglary on the Third; in each case Madame Leclerc gave evidence, for so respectable a house it wasn’t bad, but neither episode could touch, for drama and human interest, the act of placing within the arms of a serious young man his illegitimate offspring.

Eric is astonished to discover that he is a father.

His single pertinent thought was still classic. “Oh God,” thought Eric Taylor,”why did this happen to me?”

Bewildered, Eric unburdens his offspring into his Mother’s arms, who is delighted to find that she is a grandmother.

Meanwhile, Martha escapes to England and starts practicing her art in earnest. In the next ten years she develops a reputation as a formidable artist. She does not think of her son during this time. Eric, is unable to track down Martha due to lack of a forwarding address. When an opportunity to exhibit her work in Paris arises, ten years later, she is  reminded that somewhere in Paris, she has a son.

There is a remarkable section in the book that describes the meeting of Martha, Eric and George in a Parisian coffee shop. One can only imagine the repercussions of such a meeting. One would imagine a mother to be visibly moved upon meeting her son, perhaps her heart might be softened upon seeing her offspring… one can never be sure, especially with Margery Sharp’s excellent storytelling.

Without giving too much away, I will leave it to you to find out what happens next…

Eric, Martha and George deals with several feminist issues: those of a woman or mother’s expected role in society. Indeed, it challenges those societal norms. We are encouraged to think sometimes, why should a man too, not be expected to play a nurturing role, outside that of merely supplying monetary sustenance to a child?

This is a clever book. One which kept me and keeps me thinking about it.

Martha in Paris by Margery Sharp

Martha in Paris is the second book in Margery Sharp’s trilogy based on the character of Martha. Find the review for the first book in the series, The Eye of Love here.

  • Title: Martha in Paris
  • Author: Margery Sharp
  • Published: 1962 by Little, Brown and Company Toronto
  • Location of the story: Paris
  • Main Characters: Martha (an art student), Eric Taylor (an English bank employee in Paris), Eric’s Mother, Madame Dubois(Martha’s guardian in Paris).

Martha in Paris picks up the story of Martha nearly a decade after where the The Eye of Love left us. At that juncture, Martha (an orphaned child living with her aunt Dolores) and her artistic talent had been discovered by a rich patron, Mr Joyce, a friend of the family. In the subsequent years Martha’s talent has been nurtured with special art training.

Martha in Paris recounts Martha’s student years in Paris. Here, for two years she studies art under the guidance of one of France’s most eminent art instructors. Her tuition and expenses are met by the kind aegis of Mr Joyce, Martha’s wealthy benefactor.

Mr Joyce aptly observes:

“These next two years will show,” thought Mr. Joyce. “Sink or swim!”

Whilst in Paris, Martha meets an Englishman by the name of Eric Taylor. They meet each other regularly under the tromp l’ oeil’ statue of Tragedy and Comedy in Tuileries Garden where Martha sits on the exact same bench everyday to enjoy her half-French loaf stuffed with delicious charcuterie. Eric, hungry for companionship with a fellow English person tries to engage Martha in lively discourse. He mistakes her lack of conversation for reticence, little knowing that Martha would rather shun any kind of interaction whatsoever.

After a week of one-sided discourse on Eric’s part, he invites her to dinner to meet his mother on Friday night. Nothing can persuade her to accept his invitation until she hears of the bathroom renovations the Taylor’s have installed in their apartment. Martha in desperate need of a comforting, hot bath quickly changes her mind and accepts Eric’s invitation with great alacrity.

“Is the bath vitreous?” asked Martha.

“If you mean is it a sort of china, yes,” said Eric.”Pale green.”

Her defences pierced at last-

“What time on Friday?” asked Martha.

Martha arrives at the Taylor’s apartment at the appointed time on Friday, with a mysterious paper packet. Eric mistakes the packet as a thoughtful hostess gift but notices that Martha fails to bestow the gift to Mrs Taylor. Promptly upon arrival Mrs Taylor shows Martha around, based upon the understanding that Martha has a keen interest in viewing the apartment.

As soon as they enter the bathroom and Martha has admired the facilities she laments that she has not had a proper hot bath in months! One thing leads to another and before very long, in fact the ten minutes remaining before dinner, Martha  decides to take a hot bath much to Mrs Taylor’s astonishment.

“I’ll have it now,” said Martha, swiftly opening her packet, which in fact contained one clean vest and a pair of clean knickers.”

Despite Martha’s unconventional behaviour, Mrs Taylor tolerates and indeed welcomes Martha’s weekly visits. This is because Mrs Taylor does not find Martha’s appearance or personality intimidating.

The weekly Friday visits and baths become a ritual and Martha and Eric find themselves in a situation which is too close for Martha’s comfort. How Martha deals with the resultant circumstances of her relationship with Eric forms the theme of the remainder of this novel.

Sharp’s writing is at her wittiest best in this novel. The stolid, determined and somewhat selfish artistic temperament of Martha is fully manipulated to render moments of extreme comedic humour in the novel.

Quite disconcertingly, however, Martha’s  ‘artistic temperament’ fills us with dismay as we notice a complete absence of love and compassion.

I enjoyed the quirky book and the unusual ending made me immediately put in a library requisition for the third book in the trilogy- Martha, Eric and George.