Summer Reads

Following the advice of a fellow Mitty I bought Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and spent three glorious days reading it. There is something about a fabulous book that leaves one somewhat perplexed when it has finished. Thank goodness I had a few review books to fill the void. The books mentioned below are a step away from what I usually read (family sagas with Mitfordesque characters…) but I’m trying to venture out of my comfort zone…

 

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Adele Parks crossed over to historical fiction last year with the publication of Spare Brides, a tale of upper-class women left on the shelf following the shortage of men who had been killed or injured in WWI. This tome, set again during WWI, centres around Vivian, a bright young debutante who (without revealing any spoilers) behaves very badly with a man who has no intention of marrying her. With her reputation in tatters, she is married off to an older man whom she does not love, and when war begins, he goes off to fight and sends her to the family’s country house in the middle of nowhere. Miserable and lonely with only her baby daughter for company, Vivian befriends a kindly lady whose son, Howard, is a playwright. A conscientious objector, Howard escapes imprisonment by agreeing to work on Vivian’s farm. The two begin an affair, and having fallen in love with Vivian, he realises what is worth fighting for. With her husband off at war, and now Howard abandoning his stance and enlisting, Vivian is left alone wondering which man (if any) will come home to her. Renowned for her chick lit novels and ‘telling it like it is’, Adele Parks’s latest offering is a slow-burning read which, like the war itself, picks up its pace halfway through.

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Being a massive fan of Margaret Lockwood and her iconic film, The Wicked Lady (1945), this book was a treat to read. It is based on the real life heiress, Lady Katherine Ferrars, whose privileged world is crumbling under Cromwell’s army. Married off for the sake of money and breeding, she discovers an exciting life with the roguish Ralph Chaplin, and the pair become highway robbers in a bid to find excitement and escape poverty. She knows if she is caught there is only one way it can end: death. But that excites her all the more. The Silvered Heart is Katherine Clements’s second novel – her debut, The Crimson Ribbon, was published to much acclaim. A wizard of a storyteller and master of the genre, Clement’s follow-up novel does not disappoint. In fact, I loved it!

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A Year of Marvellous Ways, set in 1947, can be described as a fairytale for adults. Except for the war and Francis Drake’s life in London, nothing about the book seems real or logical. Marvellous Ways, a ninety-year-old woman who lives in a remote creek, rescues Drake when he, quite literally, washes up in the creek. The pair forge an unlikely friendship, the cold and crass Drake, and the whimsical old lady whose mother was a mermaid. I hadn’t read anything by Sarah Winman before so I was unsure what to expect. At first glance, the book seemed bizarre, but as it progressed, I got into the story of Drake and Marvellous. It is written in a unique style, for example there are no speech marks to indicate a character is talking. So that, in a way, threw me. The parts detailing Drake’s life are explicitly written, which was a bit unnerving, but like the character’s demeanour, you become used to it. What struck me was Winman’s gorgeous imagery, beautiful passages and imaginative storytelling. Quirky and slightly harebrained, A Year of Marvellous Ways is an unforgettable book.

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A metaphysical thriller beginning in 1984, The Bone Clocks chronicles teenage runaway Holly Sykes who encounters and elderly lady offering a small act of kindness in exchange for asylum. However, decades pass before Holly understands what sort of asylum the woman is seeking. We follow the twists and turns of Holly’s life from a scarred adolescence in Gravesend to old age on Ireland’s Atlantic coast as Europe’s oil supply dries up – a life not so far out of the ordinary, yet punctuated by flashes of precognition, visits from people who emerge from thin air and brief lapses in the laws of reality. For Holly Sykes – daughter, sister, mother, guardian – is also an unwitting player in a murderous feud played out in the shadows and margins of our world, and may prove to be its decisive weapon. The Bone Clocks is a bewitching tale of time-travel, human frailty and flawed characters.

18273521And finally the book that has left me so bedazzled…..I can’t say anything because I’m at risk of revealing spoilers (just as Meems!) so I’ll leave you with the synopsis:

What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.

During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.

What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?

Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century again and again. With wit and compassion, Kate Atkinson finds warmth even in life’s bleakest moments, and shows an extraordinary ability to evoke the past. Here she is at her most profound and inventive, in a novel that celebrates the best and worst of ourselves.

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First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill

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Without Churchill’s inspiring leadership Britain could not have survived its darkest hour and repelled the Nazi menace. Without his wife Clementine, however, he might never have become Prime Minister. By his own admission, the Second World War would have been ‘impossible without her’.

Sonia Purnell’s biography of Clementine Churchill brings to life the complex women whose identity has been overshadowed by her husband, Winston Churchill. Commenting that she would have pursued a career in politics had she been ‘born with trousers and not a petticoat’, it was her calming influence, ability to read people and determination that influenced Winston and encouraged him during the murkier times of his political career. As the biography attests (something that is, perhaps, white-washed in history books), he wasn’t always well liked or respected.

Chronicling Clementines life from her eccentric and often impoverished childhood, born to a feckless father and reckless mother, Purnell brings to life the everyday occurrences of her mother Lady Blanche Hozier, namely her affair with a Dieppe fishmonger and how she, the fishmonger and his wife would argue at the fish-stall, causing a scene on the street. Her mother’s gambling and drinking cast a dark shadow over Clementine’s life, and the death of her beautiful sister, Kitty, the eldest of Blanche’s children, marked her for life. She was obsessed with order, everything had to be just so, and if it wasn’t, she became irritated. This obsession with neatness would mark her all her life. Also touched upon was her inferiority complex, beginning in childhood, and how she would have to teach French and take in sewing for pin money. Her rival, Margot Asquith, said she had ‘the soul of a servant’. Adding to this misery, her paternity was questioned, and she herself was never certain who her father was. The Mitford girls’ grandfather, Bertie Redesdale, was said to have been her real father, and Bay Middleton was also a strong contender. Regardless of the adulterous world of the upper-classes, Clementine was the target of gossip and snobbery, and among her contemporaries she was known as ‘the Hozier’. She never got over the shame she felt as a young girl.

Marriage seemed to give Clementine the stability she craved as a child, and having thwarted at least two engagements, she fell in love with Winston, an insecure young man who shared her complexities. She believed he came first, second and third in her life, and demanding so much of her attention, she was happy to leave her children in the care of staff to bolster his ego. The strained relationships with her children, especially as they aged, are touched upon, and stormy encounters with staff are revealed. Although Clementine was praised as having the ‘common touch’, she demanded complete loyalty (she disliked finding and training new staff) and certain standards were to be maintained.

Exploring Winston’s political career, with Clementine at the helm, we learn of a headstrong woman who pushed her husband to excel. On the arm of Winston, especially during wartime, she was instantly recognisable and famous in own right, but her work for the Home Front and the Red Cross (not to mention numerous charity appeals) gave her a singular purpose away from her husband. Even then, at that time, she was overshadowed by him. This battle of the sexes is apparent throughout the book, with Purnell exploring Clementine’s forward-thinking views and her sympathy for the Suffrage movement, even if Winston did not share her views. She knew she was as intelligent as any man in his Cabinet.

Mary Soames, Clementine’s youngest daughter, wrote candidly of her mother’s battle with depression in an age when little was understood about it. Purnell reveals Clementine’s hysterical outbursts, her emotional instability and, at times, her frequent rages toward Winston and her staff. And her physical health, too, was not strong. This, combined with Winston’s experience with the ‘Black Dog’ (as he called his depression), often makes for volatile passages in the book. As well as her health plaguing her, she constantly worried about money and their future together, and after he died, as a widow. I don’t think Clementine ever experienced the stability of a permanent home or being comfortably well-off. Winston’s love of gambling and extravagance contrasted with her frugality, something she was mocked for. As an old lady, she sold her paintings to fund her living expenses, but was embarrassed when pensioners began to send her tea bags because they thought she was ready for the poor house. I enjoyed the tidbits about this so-called gilded life, born into the aristocracy, and yet they were in dire straits. The concluding pages are quite touching as they detail her life without Winston and how she formed relationships with her children, and experienced the sorrow of outliving three of them – Marigold died in infancy, Diana committed suicide and Randolph died of a heart-attack.

Sonia Purnell’s biography of Clementine Churchill is a complex character study about a fascinating character as equally interesting as her famous husband. Through her meticulous research and sympathetic prose, she brings the allusive woman to life as a dynamic figure at the forefront of twentieth-century politics.

Church of Marvels Blog Tour: A Piece by Leslie Parry

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Like many children, I longed for superpowers. I wanted to fly, to conduct electricity, to breathe underwater. But most of all I wanted travel back in time. Conveniently enough, there was a time travel machine in my neighbor’s hedge – a crude, unfinished doorframe – and if I scurried quickly beneath, it could transport me to Travers’ London or Wilder’s Kansas prairie. (It could also revitalize my strength in the event I was hindered in an alien-robot battle.) Then there came a time when I could no longer trot out into the garden and lose myself in reverie. I was a grown-up: working in an office, riding the subway, eating potato chips for dinner while balancing my checkbook. In this new life, writing fiction – something I’d always done in one fashion or another – took on a different role. It became a way of immersing myself, sustaining myself, keeping that merry and curious part of me alive. As an adult, I found it was far too easy to lose that sense of play, to stray from the wild fields of imagination. So the world of Church of Marvels was not so much a deliberate choice on my part – I didn’t set out to research and write a piece of historical fiction – but rather, a natural, outward-growing expression of those necessary returns to daydreams.

Most of the novel was written in the small back room of my apartment, at a desk with a view of the alleyway. Staring out at that alley, with its trash bins and hopeful bird feeders, its snow drifts in winter and fizzled firecrackers in summer, the landscape began to take on a unique, otherworldly quality – it became the hairpin lanes of the Lower East Side, the corridor of Blackwell’s asylum, a misted stretch of sea. How do you write of a time you haven’t experienced? I’ve often been asked. And how do you know if you’ve done it well? Honestly, it isn’t easy. Historical fiction poses certain challenges of scope and philosophy – I wanted to honor the characters, to faithfully evoke to the world that they lived in; at the same time, I had to accept the fact that research could only take me so far (before it became a distraction, a crutch, an impediment). So I tried to read for pleasure as much as for information. I read about the history of magic lantern shows, bareknuckle boxing, medicine and opiates, hustlers, superstitions, the social and economic aftermath of the American Civil War. I read to understand the circumstances these characters would face, the backdrop and color of their everyday lives – but ultimately I had to create the New York they lived in. (Sometimes I wonder if I’ve lived more deeply in the city of my imagination than the city I’ve known for half my life.) It was a high-wire act, in the best sense. In the end, I relied on the research that was relevant, interesting, and meaningful – then I had to trust the characters to guide me the rest of the way.

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Leslie Parry is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work has received an O. Henry Award, a National Magazine Award nomination and an honorable mention in The Best American Short Stories 2013. Raised in Pasadena, California, she now lives in Chicago.

An Interview with Louisa Treger, Author of The Lodger

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Louisa Treger’s stunning debut novel, The Lodger, is an account of Dorothy Richardson and her affair with H.G. Wells. Louisa has very kindly answered some questions for The Mitford Society to mark the UK release of The Lodger. You can visit Louisa’s website here, or ‘like’ her author page on Facebook by clicking here.

How long have you been writing for?

I’ve been writing for most of my life. I was the sort of kid who always kept a diary and scribbled short stories and plays. But it wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I started writing in a serious, disciplined way.

Clearly Dorothy Richardson and the Bloomsbury set inspire you, but what led you to turn her story into a novel that reads like fiction and not a traditional biography?

I was fascinated by the emotional lives of these characters, and so I wanted to make use of the extra licence fiction affords in order to explore this aspect. What did Dorothy feel like betraying her oldest friend (HG Wells’s wife, Jane) by sleeping with her husband? Or realising she was bisexual at a time when this was absolutely forbidden? Biographical fiction is a genre I am strongly drawn to, because there’s a framework of interesting facts on which to hang the story, yet enough wiggle room to be creative.

Did you research her story as though you were planning a biography, or did you to take liberties with the plot and embellish some things? Is it entirely factual?

My novel is a melding of fact and fiction, broadly following the known biographical outline of Dorothy’s life. I did take some liberties with the facts, and I have talked about this at greater length in the Afterword to the novel. For example, in real life, Dorothy’s friendship with HG Wells developed into a love affair over a ten year period, but I felt that narrative impetus would be lost if I stuck to this time scheme. And so I fast forwarded and had him seduce her during the course of one spring. There are several episodes in Dorothy’s life she was coy, or utterly silent about, as though they were too painful, or shaming, to be voiced. Most striking among these is her mother’s suicide, which she never referred to directly in any surviving writing. Another is the sexual nature of her relationship with Veronica Leslie Jones. Dorothy was never explicit about this; she simply referred to nights spent together. These omissions – or repressions – formed a significant part of my novel. In fact, bringing them to life was one of the most interesting parts of writing about Dorothy’s life.

Biographies written as historical fiction were a huge trend last year. How easy was it for you to get an agent and get published? Can you describe your journey as a writer?

I always wanted to take the traditional path to publication. It was a long journey! Rejection letters from both agents and publishers were part of it. I’m a living example that persistence pays off! Signing up with a good agent was a turning point. His editorial input transformed The Lodger, shaping it into something that publishers were willing to consider. To tell you the truth, I don’t feel that my struggle has ended with publication of The Lodger. I am always striving to be a better writer.

What is your next novel about?

My next novel is about a girl who was part of the Kinderstransport – the rescue mission that brought thousands of refugee Jewish children to England from Nazi occupied Europe. They left their families to go to the care of strangers, in a foreign country whose language they only had the barest grasp of. They didn’t know what would happen to them, or if they would see their parents again. The novel describes how the girl and her descendants adjust to English life.

And last but not least, I know you’re a fan of the Mitfords. Who is your favourite? And whose story would you like to adapt into a novel?

My favourite was Jessica. She was funny and irreverent; she was the most rebellious of the sisters and she was also very brave. She embraced communism and rallied against racial discrimination, she eloped with her second cousin, Esmond Romilly, and married him despite her family’s disapproval, she became a crusading journalist in the USA. She was rather inept at domestic tasks, which I find endearing. She hated housework, rarely cooked and raised her children in a spirit of “benign neglect”.