Review: The Light of the Midnight Stars by Rena Rossner

My thanks to Orbit/Little, Brown Book Co and NetGalley for a review copy of this one.

This, like the author’s previous book The Sisters of the Winter Wood combines history, fantasy, Jewish folklore, and fairy tales (the previous book didn’t have a fairy tale but Christina Rossetti’s Gobin Market as its base). In 14th-century Hungary, in the small village of Trnava lives Rabbi Issac with his wife and three daughters, Hannah, Sarah and Levana; also the Rabbi’s old mother. They are Solomonars, descendants of a clan to whom Solomon had handed his secrets. Each of the family possesses certain powers—Rabbi Isaac can change form, his wife has healing powers and knowledge which she is passing on to Hannah who also has a way with making plants grow; Sarah can weave by magic and also can set fire to things, and Levana is absorbed in the stars. The Rabbi and his wife are training each of the girls in certain skills but Sarah in particular feels very dissatisfied and is rebellious for she feels she is not getting the opportunity to do the things she would were she a boy, in particular to study the texts that boys can. The story is told mostly in the narratives of the three girls with folklore and third-person sections tying them together.

The family are leading a relatively peaceful, devout life but a dark mist is creeping across the country and into their lives, something each of the girls can sense but don’t seem to share with anyone else. While their father and his students/disciples seem to be taking steps to keep this at bay, it spreads and ultimately brings tragedy into their lives as not only must they suffer personally, they are blamed for bringing the misfortune upon their village and must flee. In a new village, a safe place, they give up their heritage, their names and their past and start anew. But can they really be safe and finally find happiness or will trouble follow them in their new lives as well?

This was something of a mixed read for me. Starting out with the story, I found it very easy to get into the three sisters narratives, enjoyed their individual voices, and seeing events proceed from each of their perspectives. (Compared to the Sisters of the Winter Wood, where I felt I needed to get my head around some of the plotlines, and reading the basic story of Goblin Market made it easier to follow, in this book I didn’t face that problem). I felt for the family, for all that they lost, and that they had (as many other have) to live in constant fear, constant uncertainty, not knowing when they would have to give up their home, become unwanted again. Of the three girls themselves, I liked Hannah and Levana better than Sarah somehow (though Levana was rather strange compared to the other two). I felt Sarah, though one understands the reasons for her dissatisfaction, has a touch of nastiness, also of selfishness about her. Still all three girls are strong—have to face much, bear much, and give up much, still they carry on and keep trying. One can’t but admire them for that.

I also found I enjoyed the stories and elements of folklore that are interwoven in and between the different narratives. I liked reading those, and also following the lives of each of the three girls.

The issue for me in the book lay in the fact that I felt like the stories of the three girls, the paths they follow and where they end up, didn’t really fell cohesive like part of a single tale—they felt like different stories that could well have been complete in themselves and that were just put together. Also, while Hannah’s and Sarah’s stories involved fantasy elements and a bit of magic, Levana’s felt like it belonged to an entirely different realm than that of the other two even though the author has woven it in with their world.   

So this turned out to be a book with many elements I enjoyed but one that didn’t quite seem one story over all. (The cover by the way, is once again absolutely gorgeous).

Shelf Control #135: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Wednesday, the 14th of April, and time once again for Shelf Control! Shelf Control is a weekly feature hosted by Lisa at Bookshelf Fantasies, and celebrates the books waiting to be read on your TBR piles/mountains. To participate, all you do is pick a book from your TBR pile, and write a post about it–what its about, why you want to read it, when you got it, and such. If you participate, don’t forget to link back to Lisa’s page, and do also leave your links in the comments below as I’d love to check out your picks as well!

Today, my pick is the first of a trilogy of the same name, The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang. This combines fantasy and history to create an exciting tale of war, treachery, and magic.

This is the story of Rin who aces the Keju, a test to train at the Academies. This is a surprise to authorities who can’t believe a war orphan can do this, to her guardians who wanted only to marry her off, and to Rin herself, finally free of the servitude and despair of her daily existence. She is to attend Sinegard, an elite military school. But this is doubly difficult with her peasant background, colour and poverty which make her the target of her rivals. Facing them, she finds she possess a magical but lethal power–shamanism. Meanwhile their kingdom which has experienced war but is now living in peace and has turned somewhat complacent is brought to the brink of war again–the Third Poppy War. And it falls to Rin and her powers to save her kingdom and people.

I’d been hearing about this book a lot, and while I don’t usually like war-centric or battle-centric stories, the story dis sound interesting. A couple of months ago I read She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chen which while very different from this, is also a combination of history with some fictional and fantasy elements (more specifically, she gives the story of Zhu Chiongba, the founder of the Ming Dynasty an interesting spin). I enjoyed that story very much and as a result, also became more keen to try out this one, and ended up ordering myself the first instalment in the series. That it has a strong female character and an underdog of sorts who manages to overcome various odds makes it all the more interesting and I want to pick it up soon.

Have you read this book or the series? How did you find it? Worth the praise? Looking forward to your thoughts!

Find Lisa’s pick this week, The Other Family by Loretta Nyhan here

Book description and cover image via Goodreads as always (here)

Review: The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne

My thanks to NetGalley and William Collins for a review copy of this book.

I first came across Barbara Pym I think may be ten years ago through an online book group on Shelfari, and I remember the first time I read her (now I really don’t remember which of her books it was I started with), I thought the book too melancholy. But still I tried others and soon began to really enjoy her works, especially the fun she pokes at people, and so many times at the world of academics, and soon enough I began to count her among my favourite authors. So of course when this bio appeared on NetGalley, not having read a bio of her before, I jumped at the chance, and put in a request.

Barbara Pym had a rather interesting life with plenty of ups and downs (a lot more the latter) both in her romantic life and in her career as author, and this book takes us along on Pym’s journey. Opening with a ‘pilgrimage’ she made to her favourite author Jane Austen’s Cottage during one of the toughest periods in her life when her work was rejected for over 16 years by publishers, we go back to get a glimpse of Pym’s childhood and thereafter go along with her as she attends Oxford, is a Wren in the second world war (and travels to Italy), begins her literary career (after a great deal of struggle), then through the 16 years that she was considered too old-fashioned to publish, and finally as her writing career revives. Pym did not have the best luck in love and most of her romances seemed to end in heartbreak for her, and she often ended up pining (perhaps stereotypically) after the wrong person. But she was lucky in her friendships and in the admirers of her work for it was her friends who supported her through life, from critiquing her work and helping her improve it to fighting to get her the recognition she deserved which poet Philip Larkin did for years. But whatever she suffered, whether in her personal life or the rejection in her career, writing was something that was a part of who she was and she never stopped, no matter the outcome in terms of publication which was something I thought really admirable (and perhaps also requiring a certain strength).

The first thing I noticed in this book was the delightfully titled chapters but I couldn’t point my finger to the inspiration behind that until I came to the part where the author Paula Byrne refers to Pym’s love of picaresque novels, and I thought this a lovely touch by Byrne.

The book looks a lot into her romantic life and various entanglements which isn’t something I usually enjoy reading about (as it seems much too intrusive) but in the case of Pym, as Byrne explains and we see later, all of these experiences that Pym went through was where so many of the characters in her stories and even specific scenes and events came from. And this wasn’t confined to only her love life, but her experiences working at the International Africa Society and as assistant editor of the Africa Journal too provided material for so many of her characters (all those anthropologists) and also the fun she pokes at academia. So it was with the experiences living in a bedsit with her sister (this strangely, her first book foretold). And it was really interesting to see how she saw people and things for who they were and how she interpreted them eventually in her writings.

In her life she met and interacted with several other writers including Elizabeth Bowen and developed life-long friendships with Robert (‘Jock’) Liddell and Philip Larkin. In fact, she and Larkin (who admired her works) corresponded for years before they actually met but Larkin put in a lot of effort to help her work get the recognition it deserved, and it was eventually his and Lord David Cecil’s mention of her as England’s most underrated writer that brought attention back to her, and not only did her works begin to be published once more, she was also nominated for a Booker. This after all the hardships she had gone though also makes the reader feel as pleased for her as her friends must have been.

Books too are central to the bio as we see the various books and authors that Pym read and that inspired her from Crome Yellow which heavily influenced her first efforts, to the works of Elizabeth von Arnim, Jane Austen and Ivy Compton-Burnett (among others).

Certain things like the different personas she adopted at different periods and some of her obsessiveness I found somewhat strange but at the same time, Pym certainly had an interesting life, despite its hardships, as a result of which perhaps her works saw her explore themes that were perhaps even ahead of her time, and certainly not in the conventional mould. In many ways, her own story is as interesting and poignant as her books.

Drawn from Pym’s diaries and papers, this book turned out to be a very interesting and enjoyable read. Four and a half stars.

This title releases on 15 April 2021.

Bookquotes: Quotes from Books (156)

Photo by RODNAE Productions on

Much more surprising things can happen to any one who, when a disagreeable or discouraged thought comes into his mind, just has the sense to remember in time and push it out by putting in an agreeable determinedly courageous one. Two things cannot be in one place.

Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden (1911)

Review: The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

Over February and part of March this year I reread Nicholas Nickleby in six segments, part of a readalong hosted by the blog FandaClassicLit (here).

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby is the third of Dickens’ completed novels and was first published in serial between 1838 and 1839. This was I think only my second time reading it, but it was the first of Dickens’ novels which really got me hooked the first time I read it and made me pick up almost all the other Dickens novels.

Our hero is of course Nicholas Nickleby, the grandson of one Godfrey Nickleby of Devonshire. Godfrey came into a fortune when one of his relations died of which he left his house to his elder son Nicholas (Sr) and money to the younger Ralph. Ralph heads of to the city where his sole focus is making money (unscrupulously of course). On the other hand, Nicholas (Sr) marries and has two children Nicholas, our hero who is nineteen, and Kate, fourteen. At his wife’s behest Nicholas Sr speculates with what little money he has, loses everything and as is usual in such stories dies shortly after leaving his family at the mercy of his cold brother Ralph. Ralph takes a dislike to the younger Nicholas from the start but secures him a position, as he does for Kate whom he takes to, and agrees to look after Kate and her mother so long as Nicholas holds on to his job. But as can be expected, neither position is particularly pleasant.

Nicholas is an assistant master at a school, Dotheboys Hall, run by the odious and sadistic Wackford Squeers in Yorkshire where the boys are poorly fed, poorly looked after and taught next to nothing. Nicholas feels his blood boil but holds on for a while until Squeers treatment of the students gets beyond bearing and he gives Squeers a taste of his own medicine (whip) before leaving. He is followed by Smike a weak young man of about Nicholas’ age who is languishing and bearing torture at the establishment where his family seem to have abandoned him. Nicholas and Smike then find their way to London where they are helped by the kind-hearted Newman Noggs, Ralph Nickleby’s assistant (under service to him because of owing him money) and then on to Portsmouth where he encounters Mr Crummles who runs a theatrical group. Nicholas and Smike both find work here, and begin to lead an interesting life among the colourful theatrical troupe (which includes a performing horse). But he is soon summoned back to London where Kate is facing some trouble. Once there he tries to find employment again and encounters the very kind Cheeryble twins who run a counting house. Here Nicholas is able to secure not only work but also a home where he can look after his mother and sister. But he still has unpleasant people to contend with among them Ralph and Squeers and his love interest, Madeline is also in trouble and Nicholas must rescue her before it is too late.

Kate on the other hand was found a place by her uncle at a milliner, Madame Mantalini’s where she begins by doing well, but her youth and pretty looks attract some unpleasantness from coworkers. Also Mr Mantalini has a roving eye and while he doesn’t actually do anything, it is certainly unsettling for her. Her uncle Ralph on the other hand, invites her home where he is entertaining his rather slimy business acquaintances whose unwelcome attentions she must bear. But Kate is spirited and speaks up for herself, though Ralph while shaken is in no mind to relent and tell off his friends. Kate does manage to secure a slightly better situation when the Mantalini establishment breaks up but here too she cannot escape the attempts of her uncle’s friends Sir Mulberry Hawke and Lord Frederick Verisopht. Finally, Nicholas arrives and takes her away and she can live the life she dreamed of, her family all together again. But of course, our story doesn’t end thus for the heroes and heroines must get their rewards and the villains their just desserts!

Mrs Nickleby’s Admirer, by Phiz, via Project Gutenberg,

While Nicholas Nickleby is a comic novel essentially, it really has a bit of everything, tragedy, drama (and may be some melodrama), humour, romance and adventure. As a serial it must have made for a really fun read—the equivalent of a TV soap in its day, albeit much better material than the latter. The book is clearly influenced by the picaresque novels Dickens used to read (among them those by Tobias Smollett), as one can see in the various adventures that befall out itinerant hero as he moves from place to place.

One of the elements I enjoyed most about the book was the sheer array of characters that Dickens has created; one might be able to classify them in terms of black and white rather than grey but they are still a wide range, some offering contrasts. Among our heroines for instance, is Kate Nickleby, Nicholas’ young sister who finds herself in rather trying situations and at the receiving end of harassment at the hands of her Uncle’s business acquaintances. She is young and living in somewhat a dependant position but this does not prevent her from speaking against the injustices she is subjected to not from confronting Ralph and making him decidedly uncomfortable. On the other side is Madeline Bray who Nicholas falls in love with. She is beautiful certainly but also too much of a saint for my liking—sacrificing herself into a marriage with the much older Arthur Gride because she must protect her father who treats her like a slave.

Then we have Mrs Nickleby herself. Said to be based on Dickens’ mother, she is fickle, changing her statements (and convictions) at the drop of a hat, silly, and ready to trust strangers over her own children. But despite these not so pleasant characteristics she is the source of much entertainment for readers with her somewhat Mrs Bennett-like tendency to ramble on, and her ‘romance’ with a man next door who turns out to be a patient in a mental establishment.

The Cheeryble Brothers and their Clerk Tim Linkinwater, by Phiz,

Among the characters we also have the kind hearted, like Newman Noggs who is forced to work for Ralph but helps Nicholas and his family; the Cheeryble brothers (who also perhaps fall in the too-good-to-be-true category); Miss La Creevy a miniature painter, and also John Browdie, a Yorkshire farmer who ends up befriending Nicholas and rescuing Smike from Squeers’ clutches more than once.

The theatrical troupe—the Crummles family and others add a lot of colour to the story and give us a peek into the performing life. Their morals and outlook perhaps are not the same as others as one of our minor characters Mr Lilyvick (water-tax collector and uncle of the Kenwigses who live in the same lodging house as Newman Noggs) discovers to his dismay.

Rehearsals for the Theatre, by Phiz,

And then there are the villains; once again we have an assortment of despicable characters: There is the cold-hearted and money-minded Ralph Nickleby and the sadistic Wackford Squeers. There is the slimy Sir Mulberry Hawk and Lord Verisopht both of whom plague poor Kate with their unwelcome attentions but luckily also get their comeuppance. And also Mr Mantalini who has clearly married his wife only for her money, and ends up bringing not only himself but also his wife down in the world.

Some of our characters might seem bland and unlikeable but the majority give us a variety of shades and are both unique and interesting. I also feel they get added colour from Hablot Knight Browne or Phiz’s illustrations.

Besides entertainment, Dickens’ novels are known for the social problems they highlighted which often did lead to real-life changes—from the poor law in Our Mutual Friend that poor Betty Hidgen tries hard to escape to school teachers in Hard Times (Mr Chokumchild’s name itself is a hint) to nurses like the awful Mrs Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit. In this one we have him taking up the issue of schools like Dotheboys Hall—Squeers’ establishment—where children were not taken care of, instead subjected to cruelty and punishment, the headmasters’ only objective being profit. Squeers was in fact based on the real-life William Shaw who ran Bowes Hall Academy where 8 neglected students went blind. The book played a major role in destroying schools of the type which went out of business in 1840 (here).

I enjoyed my reread of this one very much—the comic elements and the rich array of characters made this a truly entertaining read.

Have you read this one? How did you like it? Did you enjoy it as much as I did? Looking forward to your thoughts!

Cover image: Goodreads; other images all by Hablot Knight Browne ‘Phiz’ via Project Gutenberg (here)

My wrap ups of the weekly segments I read are here, here, here, here, and here

Review: Peel Me a Lotus by Charmian Clift

My thanks to Muswell Press and NetGalley for a review copy of this one.

This is the second volume of memoirs by Australian writer Charmian Clift of the time she and her family spent in Greece (they lived there 14 or more years). The first, Mermaid Singing, was of their time on the island of Kalymnos while this one is of a year in Hydra. I think it is may be a little less than a year—beginning in February and ending in October. Each section is about the events in a particular month.

As the volume opens, we learn the family is in Hydra and in the process of buying a house of their own (When they moved and why Hydra was their choice is not explained). This is expensive at 120 gold pounds (thus taking away nearly all of their savings), but still a large house at this price is something they would never have been able to afford in England. Charmian is at the time expecting her third child. The first part of the book focuses on how they go about buying a house and all the work that is needed to get it in shape before they can move in. By this time, her children Martin and Shane are used to life in Greece, attend school there and play with their new friends. Unlike Kalymnos where Clift and her family were the only foreigners, Hydra has a sizeable community of expats, mostly artists and writers, and a few intellectual hobos as well as drifters and tourists who keep coming in. And while they also have their Greek friends, here their interaction is more with this community. Of these their close friends are Sean (who has come to Hydra to write) and his wife Lola, and artist Henry and his wife Ursula (all pseudonyms). Once the house is ready and the baby is born (an adventure in itself), we move on to their experiences living there, things that go wrong with the house, their interactions with others, and incidents and adventures that befall them. Like in the first volume, there is also a lot of work, with Charmian having to cook, shop, and look after the baby (though she has help) and of course write and George having to write, at times books he does not wish to for that will put food on the table (besides other work like pumping water, and even paiting the house).

This was like the first volume quite an enjoyable read—I liked Clift’s writing a lot and as in the first volume, her descriptions are vivid and her observations keen. We have an assortment of characters in this one, each colourful in their own way—whether it is Henry who must go anywhere for the sake of his art while his wife Ursula wants some stability to Sean who persists in his writing despite many rejections or his portly wife Lola who is warm and welcoming. We have three Swedish young men who are on the island, Toby and Katherine an American couple who are trying to live the ‘Greek’ way, Katharine’s domineering mother, Mrs Knip who comes for a visit to set them straight, and even a film crew which comes to make a movie on the island (and many others). They are all interesting even if not all attractive, but Clift’s (and indeed Mrs Knip’s) observations do make us wonder about them and their motivations. (The movie crew we learn in the introduction by Polly Samson who has written a novel based on Johnston and Clift’s life in Greece were filming Boy on a Dolphin starring Sophia Loren who also came there).   

In the introduction to this volume, Polly Samson mentions that this is much darker than Clift’s first set of memoirs, and this is something that does stand out almost all through. Clift does for the most part enjoy the simple joys of their life in Greece (swimming every day, picnics, and conversations) but there is also understandable frustration with things going wrong with the house often, money being tight, and their responsibilities with the children weighing on them especially in the face of the fact that many of the others there are not struggling just to live and do not have like responsibilities. But yes, her dissatisfactions come to the surface more often, and one can see some disillusionment creeping in and her questioning their choice even though she does enjoy life more or less. Even her observations of the people they interacted with, their friends as well as the drifters and intellectual hobos (who talk of Kierkegaard and Dali among others), sharp though they are, also feel rather cynical. This is very different from the first volume where you could see her amusement with everything and a decided light-heartedness.

But these were still a very interesting read—a peek into life in the artists’ colony of sorts that was on Hydra where there were not only intellectual conversations but also uncertainly, not only about money but even whether they would be allowed to remain in light of the Cyprus crisis. There are a range of experiences from the film crew literally changing the face of the island to an earthquake to daily troubles like drains going wrong, making life rich even if hard.

Once again we have illustrations, this time by Lola/Nancy Dignan but also the newer ones that appeared in the previous volume—these I always enjoy.    

I was really pleased to read these volumes and do see myself visiting them again.

Cover image: Goodreads

My review of Mermaid Singing is here

Nicholas Nickleby Readalong Week 6 Post #NicholasNickleby2021

The final segment of Nicholas Nickleby, part of the Readalong with Fanda from Fanda ClasscicLit over February and March 2021. (This post does have some spoilers).

While I did finish the book a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t get a chance to write either this post on the last segment or my overall review of the book. This final segment, in typical Dickens style sees a ‘perfect’ storybook ending. Every thread is neatly wrapped up and all our characters—central and minor—get their just desserts. Of course we have drama, tragedy, secrets revealed—all the elements for an entertaining serial.

As this last segment opens, we finding Nicholas has rushed off upon learning his uncle Ralph and Arthur Gride’s plans for Madeline—to force her into a marriage with the latter but realizes that he can’t simply go bursting in. But he does go and speak to Madeline who refuses to leave her father or be rescued from her fate. On the other side, Arthur is preparing for his wedding and we get hints of some other mischief he may have been upto regarding Madeline. Ralph and Arthur arrive for the wedding and Mr Bray tries to seek some respite for his daughter but to no avail. Meanwhile Nicholas arrives, this time with Kate to make a last ditch attempt to make Madeline see sense. But luckily for Madeline, her father dies and Nicholas and Kate take her with them, foiling Ralph’s plans.  The situation is dramatic certainly, but perhaps not the dramatic rescue that we might have been expecting. But with the way Madeline is as a character, this is perhaps the only solution since she is entirely bent on sacrificing herself for her good-for-nothing father, and would most likely have refused to leave even if Kate had spoken to her.

By Hablot Knight Browne ‘Phiz’ ,

Meanwhile Nicholas runs into Mr Lillyvick, the water tax collector, and we find that his wife, the former Miss Petowker has run away with another man, leaving him heartbroken. This however, bodes well for the Kenwigses who are now reconciled with their uncle and indeed, their prospects.

Ralph and Arthur have more nasty surprises in store as they return home to find that Arthur Gride’s housekeeper has made off with certain important papers. Among these is a will from Madeline’s grandfather leaving her all his wealth (again, he was willing to give her everything provided she left her father, but this our saintly heroine was not willing to do). Ralph employs the slimy Squeers to recover the papers, but Frank Cheeryble manages to secure the will before it is destroyed.

The Will being recoveredn by Hablot Knight Browne ‘Phiz’,

Smike we know has been ill, and things take a turn for the worse. While Nicholas escorts him to the country to recover, he does not and dies, confessing his love for Kate before he does. Also he spots the man he remembered from his childhood as having left him at Squeers’ school. Later, the Cheerybles discover the secret of Smike’s birth and family.

Ralph has a heavy price to pay for his sins—not only have his plans been foiled, he learns of a secret from his own past which breaks his heart (it seems he does have one after all), and he does the only thing  he feels he can.

Squeers too must pay for his crimes, and we finally see his establishment shut down, and his poor ‘prisoners’ at last free.

Squeers School Breaks Up, by Hablot Knight Browne ‘Phiz’,

Despite all this drama and tragedy, things end on a happy note with not one but three weddings (two of course we know, but I’ll leave you to guess the third—but no it isn’t Mrs Nickleby and her admirer), and good-hearted Newman Noggs once again a gentleman.

Thoughts: This was a really enjoyable revisit for me. Nicholas Nickleby is a comic novel (somewhat on the lines of the picaresque books Dickens read) but I think like a soap, has elements of everything—humour, drama, tragedy and romance. We have a wonderful assortment of characters, good and bad—from the theatrical Crummles to John Browdie from Yorkshire who helps rescue Smike on more than one occasion, the sadistic Wackford Squeers to the cold and money-minded Ralph, to the kind-hearted Cheeryble brothers and Newman Noggs. Among the women too, we have the rather silly (and credulous) Mrs Nickleby, the level-headed and sensible Kate, and the rather too saintly (for my liking) Madeline Bray. Even the more minor characters, from Mr Lillyvick and the Kenwigses to Miss La Creevy and the Mantalinis are wonderful creations. I liked most of the characters, but the heroine Madeline and Mrs Nickleby were my least favourite while Kate, John Browdie and Newman Noggs among those I liked the most. (I will write more about the characters in my review which I will post separately).

Dickens endings are as I already wrote fairly storybook rather than say Trollope who can be more realistic (and harsh), but I still enjoy seeing all the storylines wrapped up and all the villains in particular, get their just desserts.

 I could have probably done without the soppiness surrounding Smike, though I did feel for him but it was essential to the plot and how things ended.

Overall an entertaining and enjoyable read. I was happy to have been able to join the Readalong.

Full review to appear shortly.

Find Fanda’s post on Week 6 here.

Shelf Control #134: Maddy Again by Pamela Brown

Wednesday, the 7th of April, and time for Shelf Control once again! Shelf Control is a weekly feature hosted by Lisa at Bookshelf Fantasies, and celebrates the books waiting to be read on your TBR piles/mountains. To participate, all you do is pick a book from your TBR pile, and write a post about it–what its about, why you want to read it, when you got it, and such. If you participate, don’t forget to link back to Lisa’s page, and do also leave your links in the comments below as I’d love to check out your picks as well!

Today my pick like last time, is another young person’s title–Maddy Again by Pamela Brown. This is the fifth of the Blue Door series by the author. The Blue Door series follows seven children between the ages of nine and seventeen–three pairs of siblings–Lyn, Jeremy, Sandra, Nigel, Bulldog, Vicky, and Maddy. They have different talents and set up the Blue Door Theatre company in their town. Their parents are sceptical of their talents and want them to take up more conventional lines of work. The first book follows their adventures getting started with the theatre company, the second the adventures of Maddy (left at home when the rest go to drama school), the third their experiences working in a theatre, and the fourth, them reviving the Blue Doors as a repertory company on their own. I read these books via NetGalley a couple of years ago but didn’t read the last.

Now I happened to get copies of the whole series including this, the final book in the series which is now on my TBR. This one sees somewhat the reverse of the situation we had in Maddy Again, with Maddy in the Actor’s Guild in London on her own while the others are working in the Blue Door Theatre (I think they don’t make an appearance at all, or only just). Maddy has a new roommate, a new chaperone, and also a new teacher, Mr Manyweather who introduces the students to television. Is Maddy going to survive her first taste of failure or will she embark on her greatest acting adventure?

I really enjoyed the first four books in the series which were recommended to me by a friend. I was thrilled to see they were being republished–these were originally published in the 1940s and 1950s, and jumped as I saw them on NetGalley. The children’s experiences with acting and working at the theatre are not sugarcoated or magical–they have to face real problems (including being cheated of all their earnings), struggle to keep things running, and put in a lot of hard work. This was the aspect I enjoyed most about the books. I was also in awe of the fact that the first book was written by Brown when she was only 14 or 15. I have read that this last book (which written much after the first four) seems a bit disconnected from the others but I’d still like to pick it up since Maddy was such a fun character.

Have you read this one or any of the others in the series? Which one/s and how did you find them? Looking forward to your thoughts!

Cover image and description from Goodreads as always.

Find Lisa’s pick this week, Where the Lost Wander by Amy Harmon here, a historical love story set on the Oregon Trail in the mid-1800s.

Review: Mermaid Singing by Charmian Clift

My thanks to Muswell Press and NetGalley for a review copy of this one.

In the 1950s, Australian writer Charmian Clift and her husband George Johnston (with whom she also jointly wrote books) decided to leave grey, dreary London (where George was working on Fleet Street) to move to a Greek Island with their children and live by their pen—not being of the other persuasion of journalists who apparently take to pig-farming. Mermaid Singing is the first of two volumes of her memoirs, this one of the year the family spent living on the impoverished island of Kalymnos. (The other, of their life in Hydra is Peel Me a Lotus, which I’ll have a separate review of).  At the beginning of each chapter are pen and ink illustrations by Cedric Flower—these I think are new.

Beginning with their rather uncomfortable boat ride (after hours of air travel) to the island, experience finding a house and settling in, we are taken through various facets of the family’s life there—the different people they met and interacted with, things Clift observed–from nature to human nature, the children’s experiences and the adults’, to other aspects of island life–taverns, customs, meals and celebrations. Kalymnos was an island of sponge divers—the men went by ship to the African coast each year to dive for sponge while their wives and children remained on the island. Life was hard and the fact that synthetic sponge was being preferred to natural meant the divers’ livelihoods were under threat. (Interestingly around the time I was reading the book, I happened to chance upon a short TV programme on Greece which also discussed the livelihood problems the sponge divers are facing in the current context, half a century or so since this volume). The society was very traditional and strongly patriarchal, but there were women that spoke their mind and questioned the limitations they had to live under (like their domestic help Sevasti). Clift and her family were the only foreigners but there were also Greeks who had been brought up in England or elsewhere but now lived in Kalymnos. Life there was completely different from anything they had known or experienced, yet rich and much more satisfactory and fulfilling. And it is this, from small everyday experiences (like leaks in their house when their first moved in) to little adventures (like getting the children the pet they were promised, or ‘the small animus’ as a Greek friend called it) and trips they took (on which they are never left alone), to larger issues like that of gender that we see in this book. 

When I started this book, what immediately captured my attention was Clift’s wit and humour. For instance, ‘There is some mysterious affinity between a journalist and a Berkshire sow, that to me is completely unfathomable, but then I married into the island persuasion of journalists’. Perhaps there are more downright funny observations at the start than later but her writing is great fun all through. Clift was a keen observer and gives us vivid descriptions with great detail about each facet that she is writing about, be it a person or occurrence or scene. Reading the book, one could well be sitting with her and her family watching events unfold or gazing at the landscape.  

Considering how full their life seemed with just the events described, she does point out that amidst all that she and George did write the book they were there for, and she would have been writing this one as well. So certainly as she writes, on the island away from modern entertainments and distractions, they had the time to work, spend with their kids, and enjoy the life that it offered to the fullest. Yet reminders of their old life (an unpaid gas bill that follows them) are kept on as their link with that other life. 

Reading about island life and culture, especially the patriarchal set up, I was somewhat surprised by how much was similar to other parts of the world—early marriages and dowries (or at least their equivalent), strict (and unfair) gender roles, and of course the misogyny. Charmian stands out and perhaps shocks residents by dressing in pants, swimming with (and faster than) men, and drinking in taverns which were the realm of men alone.

Charmian and her family’s life isn’t necessarily the idyllic island life with picturesque scenes (though there are those) and lolling about in the sun—the characters are rich, there is a great deal of colour but there are also tragic and melancholy stories and gory details (Clift doesn’t shy of describing the butcher’s shop or the fate of the poor spring lambs)—besides work, of course.

This was a really enjoyable read for me, one I could be lost in. So glad to have come across this on NetGalley since I hadn’t heard of either Clift or the books before.