What’s In A Name? – 2016

Whats in a name16

I’ve decided that in 2016 I’m not going to take part in many reading challenges. But I’ve been doing the What’s In A Name? challenge for so many years that it’s become a given for me – and the challenge is just to read 6 books over the year!

It’s hosted again in 2016 by Charlie at The Worm Hole and runs from January to December. During this time you choose a book to read from each of the following categories. The titles in brackets are the books I’ve initially chosen, but this could change over the year as I have more than one for each category:

  • A country (Stephen Fry in America)
  • An item of clothing (The Black Robe by Wilkie Collins)
  • An item of furniture (The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year by Sue Townsend)
  • A profession (The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy by Barbara Vine )
  • A month of the year (The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim)
  • A title with the word ‘˜tree’ in it (The Tree of Hands by Ruth Rendell)

See The Worm Hole for more information and the sign-up post.

Good Evening, Mrs Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes

good-eveningThere are 21 short stories in Good Evening Mrs Craven: the War-time Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes. These portray the lives of people on the Home Front, getting on with their lives set against the backdrop of war. They’re not stories of action but their subjects are psychological, emotional and social.  They offer a glimpse into what life was like then – the mood, the atmosphere, the tension and the fear, the hopes and the devastation, the loss and the loneliness, the stress and the tragi-comedy of life.

Mollie Panter-Downes’s style is fluent, a touch journalistic, sometimes subtly ironic and most pleasurable to read. There are stories of housewives, evacuees, billeted soldiers and Home Front volunteers, of the ladies in the Red Cross sewing party who met ‘twice a week to stitch pyjamas, drink a dish of tea, and talk about their menfolk’,  the effects of food rationing, of lovers separated by the war and of ‘The Woman Alone’.

Social changes are highlighted in stories such as ‘Cut Down the Trees’. Forty Canadian soldiers are billeted at Mrs Walsingham’s big house by the river. Her maid, Dossie is horrified by the changes. She mourns the passing of the old way of life, blaming the Canadians:

Of course it wasn’t precisely their fault they were there, but it made her sick to hear their big boots clattering up and down the stairs and to see their trucks standing in line along thelime avenue. (page 150)

She looks forward to the end of the war:

When peace came, sane existence would be immediately resumed. Dossie sincerely believed that the big house, quietly chipping and mouldering above its meadows, would be instantly repopulated, as though by a genie’s wand, with faceless figures in housemaid’s print dresses, in dark-blue livery and gardener’s baize aprons. She believed that the lawns would be velvet again, that visiting royalty would once more point a gracious umbrella towards Mrs Walsingham’s Himalayan poppies, that the gentry would know their places and sit over their claret in the dining room, where they belonged.

In contrast, Mrs Walsingham is more realistic and accepts the inevitable change. When the trees are cut down to make space for the soldiers’  ‘paraphernalia’ she thinks it is an improvement, letting in more air and light. She says

It’s altered the view from this side of the house, but what’s a view? Everything else is changing so fast I suppose we shouldn’t bother about trees and water staying the way they were. (page 153)

A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch: a Book Review

A severed head 1

This last February was the tenth anniversary of Iris Murdoch’s death. I’ve enjoyed several of her novels and biographies of her by John Bayley, Peter Conradi (an official biography)and A N Wilson (this last one was rather controversial). Recently I’ve read A Severed Head, first published in 1961  and have been wondering what to write about it without giving away too much of the plot.  As I was reading it I thought it would make a good farce and then I discovered that Iris Murdoch had adapted her book for the stage.

I felt I was looking into a different world and time. There are only a few characters – Martin, who is complacently happy with his mistress Georgie and his wife Antonia, Palmer who is Antonia’s analyst, Palmer’s half-sister, Honor, and Martin’s brother and sister Alexander and Rosemary. Iris Murdoch has made a tightly-structured novel, using Martin as the first-person narrator. Martin is shocked when his wife announces that she wants a divorce because she is deeply in love with Palmer. This sets in motion a sequence of events in which Martin’s weakness and need are clearly evident. Throughout the novel Murdoch uses the weather to indicate Martin’s mental and emotional state – the dense fog that covers the London streets and pervades his mind.

The novel depicts an amazing muddle and chaos ensues as Martin like a man possessed pursues Antonia, trying to keep Georgina at arms length whilst still not wanting to let her go.  He is a man in a mid-life crisis behaving like a teenager swept along by his emotions and falling in love at the drop of a hat.

There are some funny episodes as Martin moves his belongings out of his house into a flat and back again but set against that are serious issues such as abortion, marriage, incest and the struggle for power within relationships. Honor is one of the strangest characters. She is a powerful woman, an anthropologist who describes herself as

a severed head such as primitive tribes and old alchemists used to use anointing it with oil and putting a morsel of gold upon its tongue to make it utter prophecies.

She can wield a Japanese samurai sword like an expert, tossing a napkin  in the air she is able to slice it in half as it flutters to the floor. She has a pale sallow face with black gleaming hair, with “something animal-like and repellent in that glistening stare”. On her first appearance at Palmer’s house she appears to Martin like

some insolent and powerful captain, returning booted and spurred from a field of triumph, the dust of battle yet upon him, confronting the sovereign powers whom he was now ready if need be to bend to his will.

It’s not a novel I’d describe as comfortable reading, but it is entertaining.

(This is the 14th library book contributing to the Support Your Local Library Challenge.)

Sunday Salon – An Ordinary Couple?

Sunday Salon

After  ploughing my way through White Noise and feeling a bit jaded I turned to an old favourite – Agatha Christie and this week I read By the Pricking of My Thumbs. After such a rambling, verbose book as White Noise it was so refreshing to read this book, posing a mystery to be solved – what had happened in the house by the canal, whose child had died and how, and where was Mrs Lancaster?


This is the first Tommy and Tuppence story I’ve read, but it’s not the first Agatha Christie wrote – there were earlier ones featuring Tommy and Tuppence, which I’m now going to look out for. Outwardly they are an ordinary couple, pleasant and past the prime of life, just like any other old couple. But appearances are deceptive and in By the Pricking of My Thumbs Tuppence in particular has no hesitation about getting mixed up in dangerous situations. Her daughter wishes that ‘her age she’d learn to sit quiet and not do things.’ There’s no chance of that after Tuppence met Mrs Lancaster in the nursing home where Tommy’s Aunt Ada had died. Seemingly incoherent and rambling Mrs Lancaster referred to ‘something behind the fireplace’ and a ‘poor child’ and when she disappeared after leaving behind a painting of a house by a canal Tuppence sets out to investigate.

As you would imagine from the title of the book (taken from Shakespeare’s Macbeth), ‘something wicked’ is afoot, there is evil about and Tuppence’s life is in danger. A dark and sinister tale.

I was still feeling like reading another mystery and picked up Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News? Jackson Brodie featured in the other book by Kate Atkinson that I’ve read – Case Histories – and I was pleased to find he’s in this one too. I read this in a couple of days, finishing it this morning as I just had to find out what happened. My faith in books has been fully restored as this is a very good book, and very satisfying – a complex and complicated plot with lots of action, good characterisation and drama.  More about that in a separate post.

Fire in the Blood

I bought Suite Francaise by Irène Némirovsky ages ago, full of enthusiasm to read it at once. I read a few pages and then for some unknown reason left it lying around unread. A few weeks ago I borrowed Fire in the Blood from my local library and once I started to read it I just had to finish it. Now I’ll have to read Suite Francaise as soon as possible.

Irène Némirovsky was born in Russia in 1903 and fled the Russian Revolution for France where she became a best selling novelist. She moved from Paris just before the German occupation in 1940 and went to live in the small village of Issy-l’Eveque (in German occupied territory). She was arrested in 1942 and deported to Auschwitz where she died in August 1942.

Fire in the Blood is set in a small village based on Issy-l’Eveque between the two world wars. The narrator is Silvio looking back on his life and gradually secrets that have long been hidden rise to the surface, disrupting the lives of the small community. The people are insular, concerned only with their own lives, distrusting their neighbours. All Silvio wants now is a quiet life, but he cannot avoid being drawn into helping Colette, his cousin Helene’ s daughter, when her husband Jean is found drowned in the mill stream.

Although only a short book (153 pages) it is an intense story of life and death, love and burning passion. It’s about families and their relationships – husbands and wives, young women married to old men,  lovers, mothers, daughters and stepdaughters. Silvio in his old age feels rejected by life and lonely. In his youth he had travelled the world, seeking his fortune, propelled by the fire in his blood.  Now his passions are extinguished and he no longer knows who he is. He remembers :

When you’re twenty love is like a fever, it makes you almost delirious. When it’s over you can hardly remember how it happened … Fire in the blood, how quickly it burns itself out. Faced with this blaze of dreams and desires, I felt so old, so cold, so wise. (page 45)

The flesh is easy to satisfy. It’s the heart that is insatiable, the heart that needs to love, to despair, to burn with any kind of fire … That was what we wanted. To burn, to be consumed, to devour our days just as fire devours the forest. (page 152)

The characters are drawn with simplicity and detachment, but this is deceptive as there are layers upon layers and there is a brooding, silent and haunting atmosphere, almost menacing as the truth emerges. Added to this is the writing itself full of rich descriptive passages of the land and the people. It is indeed a gem of a book.

Castle Dor

Castle Dor

Castle Dor by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and Daphne du Maurier is the first book I’ve read for the What’s In a Name 2 Challenge ( a book with a “building” in its title). It’s also been on my to-be-read list for at least a year. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch was born in Fowey, an English professor, writer and critic, the editor of The Oxford Book of English Verse (1900), who wrote under the pseudonym “Q”.

Although not as good as Rebecca it’s an interesting book, mainly because of its joint authorship and its retelling of the legend of the tragic lovers Tristan and Isolde. It was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s last unfinished novel and Daphne took it over at the request of his daughter after his death. It came at a low point in her life and I think she struggled to complete the book. The first part (by Quiller-Couch) has a more mysterious, mystical and dreamlike atmosphere than the latter part which is written in a more straight forward and somewhat chatty style.

Place and time are fluid as events from the past are repeated in the present and the characters are held by something stronger than themselves, linking them inexorably to the past. The land itself, its history and above all the ancient earthworks at Castle Dor are central to the story. Castle Dor, an “ancient cirque, deserted, bramble-grown”, once a bastion “filled with men commanding this whole wilderness now grass mounds, sleeping under a quiet sky.”

There are different versions of the Tristan and Isolde legend and these are explored in the story by Dr Carfax and his patient Mr Tregentil. Set in Cornwall in the 1860s, Dr Carfax recognises the signs that Linnet and Amyot Trestane are unknowingly re-enacting the tragic events that befell Tristan and Isolde. He tries to to keep them apart but from the moment she heard his name and met him

… she had a strange sensation of something breaking out of the past to connect itself with something immediately to come.

And Linnet too late realises

 … that bliss is transient, that nothing perfect lasts…

What’s In a Name 2 Reading Challenge

This year I joined the What’s In a Name? Challenge, which has been very enjoyable.  I’m currently reading After the Fine Weather by Michael Gilbert in the Weather category and that will complete this year’s challenge.

Next year the new Challenge is to read one book from each of 6 different categories between January 1, 2009 through December 31, 2009:

A book with a “profession” in its title.

  • Dear and Glorious Physician – Taylor Caldwell
  • The Vicar of Wakefield – Oliver Goldsmith
  • Doctor John Lee of Hartwell – Hugh Hanley
  • A book with a “time of day” in its title.

  • The Meaning of Night – Michael Cox,
  • The Friday Night Knitting Club – Kate Jacobs
  • A book with a “relative” in its title

  • Sex Life of my Aunt – Mavis Cheek
  • the Sixth Wife – Suzannah Dunn, Daughters of Fire Barbara Erskine,
  • My Cousin Rachel – Daphne Du Maurier
  • A book with a “body part” in its title.

  • Needle in the Blood – Sarah Bower
  • A book with a “building” in its title.

  • Castle Dor – Daphne Du Maurier,
  • The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks,
  • The House of Spirits – Isabelle Allende,
  • The Mill on the Floss – George Eliot
  • A book with a “medical condition” in its title.

  • Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Marcia Marquez
  • These books are all in my to-be-read list, so that should make it not too difficult. My choices in the “body parts” and “medical condition” categories are rather limited at present and of course, I may decide to add different books as time goes by.