What’s In a Name 2017: Wrap Up Post

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I’ve now completed the What’s In a Name Challenge 2017, hosted by Charlie at The Worm Hole. The challenge runs from January to December. During this time you choose a book to read from six categories.

These are the books I read, linked to my reviews.

A number in numbers

The 12.30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts – Golden Age crime fiction

A building 

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen and also Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid (joint post) – a classic and a contemporary take on Jane Austen’s novel

A title which has an ‘X’somewhere in it

A Place of Execution by Val McDermid – crime fiction

A compass direction

South Riding by Winifred Holtby – a modern classic

An item/items of cutlery

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns – a modern classic

A title in which at least two words share the same first letter – alliteration!

A Death in the Dales by Frances Brody – crime fiction

I enjoyed them all, especially A Place of Execution and South Riding. My thanks to Charlie for hosting this challenge.

South Riding by Winifred Holtby

South Riding

Blurb:

The community of South Riding, like the rest of the country, lives in the long shadow of war. Blighted by recession and devastated by the loss, they must also come to terms with significant social change.Forward-thinking and ambitious, Sarah Burton is the embodiment of such change. After the death of her fiancé, she returns home to Yorkshire focused on her career as headmistress of the local school. But not everyone can embrace the new social order. Robert Carne, a force of conservatism, stands firmly against Sarah. A tormented man, he carries a heavy burden that locks him in the past.

As the villagers of South Riding adjust to Sarah’s arrival and face the changing world, emotions run high, prejudices are challenged and community spirit is tested. 

My View:

I bought Winifred Holtby’s sixth and last novel, South Riding, after watching the BBC television adaptation by Andrew Davies, starring Anna Maxwell Martin and David Morrissey, broadcast in February 2011. And I’ve  only just got round to reading it – it was well worth the wait. It’s one of those books that make you feel as though you are there taking part in the action – I was totally immersed in the story and I loved it.

The book was first published in 1936, six months after Winifred Holtby’s death, aged 37, from Bright’s disease. Set in the early 1930s in Yorkshire it paints a moving and vivid portrait of a rural community struggling with the effects of the depression.

South Riding is a fictional place – Yorkshire consists of a North, East and West Riding – there is no South Riding. The word Riding is derived from a Danish word ‘thridding’, meaning a third. The invading Danes called representatives from each Thridding to a thing, or parliament and established the Ridings System. South Riding is based on the East Riding where Winifred Holtby’s mother was a county alderman, but she explained in a prefatory letter to her mother that Alderman Mrs Beddows was not Alderman Mrs Holtby, that the characters were not her colleagues on the county council and that the incidents in the book were not derived from her mother’s experience.

Nevertheless,the main focus of the novel is centred on local politics and the work of the county council in dealing with a variety of issues  including social issues, education, unemployment, local building programmes, poor relief and the treatment of the insane. There is a large cast of characters and a list is given at the start of the book, which I found most helpful.

It is an intensely detailed story, involving many sub-plots as the lives of all the characters unfold. The main characters are Sarah Burton, the new headmistress of Kiplington High School for Girls, a fiercely passionate and dedicated teacher; Councillor and farmer Robert Carne of Maythorpe Hall and his struggles both personal and financial; Joe Astell, a socialist fighting poverty; and Mrs Beddows, the first woman alderman of the district, a strong older woman (age 72), a generous and charitable woman – my favourite character. This is how Winifred Holtby describes her:

She was a plump sturdy little woman, whose rounded features looked as though they had been battered blunt by wear and weather in sixty years or more of hard experience. But so cheerful, so lively, so frank was the intelligence which beamed  benevolently from her bright spaniel-coloured eyes, that sometimes she looked as young as the girl she still, in her secret dreams, felt herself to be. (pages xxiv-xxv)

And here is one of the passages in which she describes Sarah Burton:

Sarah believed in action. She believed in fighting. She had unlimited confidence in the power of the human intelligence and will to achieve order, happiness, health and wisdom. It was her business to equip the young women entrusted to her by a still inadequately enlightened state for their part in that achievement. She wished to prepare their minds, to train their their bodies, and to inculcate their spirits with some of her own courage, optimism and unstaled delight. (page 42)

I could go on – all the characters are clearly defined and well rounded people and the locations bring the area to life, showing the contrast in living conditions between the different sections of society.

In short South Riding is a wonderful book, portraying life in the 1930s. I would very much like to re-read and enjoy it again and again. I’m sure that I would find plenty in it that I’ve missed on this first reading.

  • Paperback: 560 pages
  • Publisher: BBC Books (6 Jan. 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1849902038
  • ISBN-13: 978-1849902038
  • Source: I bought the book
  • My Rating: 5*

South Riding is my 18th book for Bev’s Mount TBR 2017 challenge and my final book for Charlie’s What’s in a Name Challenge 2017.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

I read Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns for the What’s in a Name Challenge (in the category of a book with item/items of cutlery in the title). It’s a book that I’ve been meaning to read for years.

Description from the back cover:

Pretty, unworldly Sophia is twenty-one years old and hastily married to a young painter called Charles. An artist’s model with an eccentric collection of pets, she is ill-equipped to cope with the bohemian London of the 1930s, where poverty, babies (however much loved) and husband conspire to torment her.

Hoping to add some spice to her life, Sophia takes up with Peregrine, a dismal, ageing critic, and comes to regret her marriage ‘“ and her affair. But in this case virtue is more than its own reward, for repentance brings an abrupt end to the cycle of unsold pictures, unpaid bills and unwashed dishes . . .

My thoughts:

I quoted the opening and an extract from page 56 in one of my Friday Posts. Now I’ve finished the book I understand the opening sentence ‘I told Helen my story and she went home and cried’, because it’s such a sad and, in parts even a tragic, story. As the synopsis indicates this is set in 1930s London and Sophia and her husband Charles (both artists) live a life of poverty whilst he struggles to sell his artwork. Actually Charles contributes very little money and it is left to Sophia to earn whatever she can working in a commercial art studio and as an artists’ model.

Their marriage is blighted by Sophia’s money worries and Charles’s cavalier attitude to life. Things get worse when Sophia realises she is pregnant – Charles had told her before they were married he never wanted to have children – and she realises too late that her idea of birth control as being a matter of controlling your thoughts and thinking very hard, and saying ‘I won’t have any babies’ was quite wrong!  After the birth of Sandro, a harrowing experience that makes me so thankful for the NHS, their situation deteriorates even further.

Despite their circumstances, Sophia tells her story in a casual, matter of fact way, with much humour. Sandro is a small, sickly baby and Sophia was afraid he would die. She also thought that if she applied for free milk the council would take him away if on the grounds that his parents had no visible means of support. Charles is no help to her at all, he dislikes Sandro and wants him out of the way:

‘Babies have no feelings and would be just as happy in an orphanage as anywhere else.’ On the other hand, he would be much happier of the baby was out of the way, so to send him to a ‘home’ was much the most reasonable thing  to do. (page 71)

Theirs is a life of hardship and heartbreaking tragedy, but Sophia’s spirit is not broken despite the tragic events that descend upon her. From a lighthearted and comic beginning the mood of the novel darkens as it moves towards an inevitable tragic climax. What seems to make it even more tragic is the conversational tone in which it is all told, concealing such real pain. However, the novel does not end with tragedy – it is not all doom and gloom and as the opening page reveals Sophia survives to tell her story:

… it all happened eight years ago, and I’m not unhappy now. I hardly dare admit it, even touching wood, but I’m so happy that when I wake in the morning I can’t believe it’s true. I seldom think of the time I was called Sophia Fairclough; I try to keep it pushed right at the back of my mind.

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is a semi-autobiographical novel as indicated by this note at the beginning of the book:

The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and Chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty.

Thankfully the really tragic events do not occur in these chapters. There are moments of comedy and humour throughout and the novel is written in a light, chatty style. It is a portrait of life in the Thirties, a life ruled by poverty and hardship and of a marriage destroyed by circumstances and personalities.

Barbara Comyns (1909 – 1992) began to write and illustrate her stories as a child. Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, first published in 1950 was her second novel.

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Virago (4 July 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1844089274
  • ISBN-13: 978-1844089277
  • Source:  library book
  • My Rating: 3˜…

Northanger Abbey

July marks the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death and I’m planning to write more about her other books in later posts. I regularly re-read Pride and Prejudice, but it’s been years since I last read Emma – so that is on my list for later this year. I first read Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey when I was at school and reading it again now was like reading it for the first time.

I really wasn’t going to read any of the Austen Project books (a series of books by contemporary authors give their take on Jane Austen’s novels). I’m not at all keen on adaptations, sequels, or prequels, but I’ve been meaning to read Val McDermid’s books for ages and when I saw her version of Northanger Abbey on the mobile library’s shelves I borrowed it. Although now I’ve read it I think it’s probably not the best of her books to start with. I can’t imagine that it’s representative of her books!

Northanger Abbey (The Austen Project, #2)

As it’s been so many years since I’d first read the original by Jane Austen I thought I should refresh my memory and re-read it before tackling Val McDermid’s version.

Northanger Abbey

Jane Austen originally wrote the book in 1789-99, then revised it in 1803 and in 1817. Originally called Memorandum, Susan, then Catherine it was first published posthumously along with Persuasion, also previously unpublished, in December 1817, with the title Northanger Abbey, although 1818 is the date on the title page.

Northanger Abbey is a love story about Catherine Morland, a naive and impressionable 17 year-old, whose imagination has been filled with visions of diabolical villains and swooning heroines from the Gothic novels of her day. Childless neighbours, the Allens, take her with them for a six week stay in Bath. Here her eyes are opened to the social complexities of real life. Bath at that time was a thriving spa resort, popular with fashionable society. The place where rich and fashionable people went to take the waters and enjoy the social life, dancing, going to the theatre and concerts, shopping and also to find a husband or wife.

Here, too, Catherine meets the Thorpe family, the insufferable John Thorpe, who she immediately dislikes and his sister, Isabella who she instantly finds to be a kindred spirit – or so she thinks. She also meets and falls in love with clergyman Henry Tilney, whose father, General Tilney owns Northanger Abbey. She is thrilled when Henry and his sister, Eleanor invite her to stay with them at the Abbey, a place she fantasises about, imagining it as one of the romantic buildings full of dark corridors, with remote rooms where females are imprisoned that feature in the Gothic novels she loves.

Even though the Abbey doesn’t live up to her expectations, because although it is part of an ancient building it has been modernised and made comfortable. But that is not enough to prevent Catherine’s imagination running riot, viewing the details of Henry’s mother’s death with great suspicion. The General is a most unlikeable and unpleasant character and she suspects that he could have played a part in his wife’s death – he never talks about her, and shuns her favourite walk in the garden. She imagines all sorts of Gothic horrors.

Northanger Abbey parodies both the Gothic novel and intense female friendships, such as that between Catherine and Isabella as they enthuse obsessively over the horror and romance of the Gothic novel. It’s a book of melodramas and misunderstandings, exposing ambition, greed and the love of power and pleasure mixed with self-interest. Catherine only gradually learns to tell reality from fantasy.

At first I read the two books side by side, a chapter from each. That worked well for a while and it made it easy to see that Val McDermid had followed Jane Austen’s book closely, changing locations and things, such as Edinburgh instead of Bath, the Scottish Borders instead of the Gloucestershire countryside, cars instead of carriages and so on. It’s the style of writing and language that is so very different. I liked the way Val McDermid substituted the Edinburgh Book Festival for Bath – that worked well and also used modern names for the characters – Cat for Catherine, Bella for Isabella and Ellie for Eleanor. And setting  Northanger Abbey in the Scottish Borders is a stroke of genius.

But by the time  I got to the second half of the book where Catherine goes to stay at Northanger Abbey I realised it was Jane Austen’s original that was  appealing more to me, so I finished that first.

I’m not going to go into detail about Val McDermid’s version as she has stuck in the main to the original, that is, until she got to the end. I got tired of the use of modern expressions, tweets, texts and Facebook, and also the silliness of Cat and Bella, and all the vampire nonsense that replaces Catherine’s love of ‘horrid mysteries’. Yes, I could see that it was just as much a spoof on the modern obsession with vampires as Jane Austen’s parody is of the Gothic literature of her day, but I didn’t like it has much as Jane Austen’s version. However, despite that criticism, overall I did enjoy it – it’s light and easy to read.

I was interested in Jane Austen’s list of Gothic novels, which in contrast to the books in Val McDemid’s version, are real books. These are the books that girls and young women were reading in the 1790s and early 1800s (all available today as e-books on Amazon):

  • The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Ward Radcliffe
  • Castle of Wolfenbach by Eliza Parsons
  • Clermont by Regina Maria Roche
  • The Mysterious Warning by Eliza Parsons
  • Necromancer of the Black Forest by Karl Friedrich Kahlert
  • The Orphan of the Rhine by Eleanor Sleath
  • Horrid Mysteries by Carl Grosse

Northanger Abbey fulfils the category of ‘a book with a building in the title’ in Charlie’s What’s in a Name Challenge.

A Death in the Dales by Frances Brody

A Death in the Dales is the 7th book in Frances Brody’s Kate Shackleton series of historical crime fiction books set in 1920s Yorkshire. Kate is an amateur detective. I’ve read the first two, Dying in the Wool and A Medal For Murder, and so I’ve jumped ahead in the series with this book. It’s not always possible to read a series in order and in this case I don’t think it matters – A Death in the Dales reads well as a standalone.

It’s 1926 and Kate Shackleton’s friend, Dr Lucian Simonson, has offered her the use of his late Aunt Freda’s cottage in Langcliffe for a short holiday with her niece Harriet, who is recovering from diphtheria. Ten years earlier Freda had witnessed the murder of the landlord of the alehouse across the street from her house. A man was found guilty of the murder and hanged – but Freda was convinced that they had convicted the wrong man.

Freda’s friend Mr Wigglesworth, the local apothecary, asks Kate to investigate the murder and gives her Freda’s papers regarding the trial. Although she had intended to have a holiday from her investigations she can’t resist looking at the papers and is convinced that Freda had wanted to her to solve the mystery and find out who had killed the pub landlord.

As well as investigating the murder, Kate also helps Harriet and her new friend, Beth to find out what has happened to Beth’s young brother who has gone missing from the farm where he was working, and then a suspicious death on the same farm.

I enjoyed reading about life in the 1920s; Frances Brody paints a very believable picture of life in a rural setting in the Dales during the post World War One years. Kate is a very likeable character and has to overcome the suspicion of strangers from the local community once she starts digging into the past. And there is the added complication of Kate and Lucian’s personal situation. All in all it’s a complicated mystery with several strands, numerous suspects and plenty of red herrings.

Frances Brody is an excellent storyteller and her books are well-plotted and complex murder mysteries in the historical setting of the 1920s and in the style of the golden age crime fiction.

The series so far is:

1. Dying in the Wool (2009)
2. A Medal For Murder (2010)
3. Murder in the Afternoon (2011)
4. A Woman Unknown (2012)
5. Murder on a Summer’s Day (2013)
6. Death of an Avid Reader (2014)
7. A Death in the Dales (2015)
8. Death at the Seaside (2016)
9. Death in the Stars (to be published in October 2017)

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR 2017 and What’s in a Name? in the category: ‘A title in which at least two words share the same first letter ‘“ alliteration!’

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Piatkus (1 Oct. 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0349406561
  • ISBN-13: 978-0349406565
  • Author’s website: Frances Brody
  • Source: I bought it

The 12.30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts

This is the second book by Freeman Wills Crofts that I’ve read. The first was Mystery in the Channel, which is a complicated murder mystery with plenty of red herrings and I had no idea about the identity of the killer. The 12.30 from Croydon couldn’t be more different – it begins with a murder but the identity of the murderer is known before he even thought of committing the crime.

The result is there is little mystery, as Charles Swinburne sets about murdering his uncle, Andrew Crowther, in order to inherit his fortune. It’s set in the early 1930s when the country is suffering the effects of the ‘slump’ and Charles’ business is on the edge of bankruptcy, and he is unable to raise the money to keep it going.

The major part of the book is taken up with describing how Charles became convinced that the only way out of his dilemma and the only way he could convince Una, a mercenary rich young woman, to marry him, was to kill Andrew. Consequently Andrew died on the 12.30 plane from Croydon. From that point onwards we see how Charles devised a plan and created an alibi that he thought would be perfect – and how it went wrong and how he was drawn into committing yet another murder.

Inspector French appears later on in the book to explain Charles’ thoughts and actions, and how he broke his alibi, just as Poirot sums up his thoughts and methods of deduction in Agatha Christie’s books.

The 12.30 from Croydon focuses on the psychology of the murderer and from that point of view I think it works well.  Charles’ personality is thoroughly explored, showing his ingenuity, efficiency, and the ways he overcame his scruples about murder were in the main convincing. But the in-depth detail of the planning means that it is hardly riveting reading. So whilst the plotting is clever my interest in the outcome flagged as the only thing to work out is would Charles get caught out, and would Inspector French break his alibi. But I did want to know how it would end.

What I found more interesting is the description of the thrill of the early passenger flights. In the opening chapter Rose Morley, Andrew’s young granddaughter flies to France with him and her father, Peter, because her mother had been knocked down and seriously injured by a taxi in Paris. Rose thinks the plane looks like a huge dragonfly. From her seat her view through the window was of the lower wing with its criss-cross struts connecting it to the upper wing. She was delighted by the whole process the increasing speed and the roar of the motors as the plane miraculously left the ground. Peter remarks that it was a wonderful improvement on the early machines when you had to stuff cotton wool in your ears. Rose loved the whole experience.

I also like the setting Crofts created for the novel – the enormous pressure that drove Charles to take such drastic action due to the financial disasters of the period in the 1930s is well presented. I liked the book but as I enjoy trying to work out the why and the how for me it needed more mystery, and more red herrings.

 My thanks to Netgalley and Poisoned Pen Press for a review copy of The 12.30 From Croydon. It was first published in 1934; this edition with an introduction by Martin Edwards was published in 2016 by Poisoned Pen Press in association with the British Library.

Amazon UK link

Amazon US link

This is my first book for the What’s in a Name 2017 in the category of ‘a number in numbers’.

What’s in a Name 2016 – Completed

I have now completed the What’s In A Name 2016 challenge, hosted by Charlie at The Worm Hole. The challenge was to read books with titles from six categories. At the beginning of this challenge I listed the books I had initially chosen to read –  but I didn’t read any of them. Instead I realised, usually as I finished reading the books, that they just slotted into the categories.

These are the books I read, with links to my reviews:

  • A countrySunshine on Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith – this is an easy read, meandering from one character to the next. It has a light, humorous tone that I enjoyed, along with thoughts about friendship, religion, spirituality and happiness.
  • An item of clothing – A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards – a beautiful and intense book, dramatic and full of emotion and passion, about relationships and what happens when jealousy and betrayal tear people apart.
  • An item of furnitureA Game of Thrones by George R R Martin – I was completely immersed in the world of the Seven Kingdoms, inhabited by numerous characters, all portrayed in meticulous detail and expertly constructed so that all the fantastic creations are credible, and complete with back stories.
  • A profession – Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope –  about mid 19th century prosperous country life and the importance of birth, of wealth and above all about money, class and power. Trollope uses gentle satire, emphasising the absurdities of the class divisions in society and poking fun at the professions.
  • A month of the year – The Madness of July by James Naughtie -a political thriller set in London in the mid 1970s, a book that makes you think, that keeps you on your toes as you read, that both puzzles and entertains you.
  • A title with the word ‘tree’ in itThe Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver – I loved this book. There are several themes including family relationships, particularly mother/child, sexual and physical abuse of small children, the integration of cultures, and the issue of refugees and illegal immigrants. I thought it was thought-provoking, as well as being fascinating reading.

I began the challenge in March when I read Doctor Thorne and finished it just a couple of days ago, reading A Cupboard Full of Coats. I enjoyed them all, each one different in style and genre, ranging from a 19th century classic to 21st century fantasy fiction.