Friday, 28 February 2014

The Year in Books - February

I came rather late to The Year in Books, hosted by Laura at Circle of Pines.  So my January book, "Miss Pettigrew lives for a Day", was reviewed in February.  This time I am running to catch up and hope to sneak my February book in just under the wire on the last day of the month.

There are all sorts of contenders for the book of the month this time.  I have read Louise Doughty's "Apple Tree Yard" for my new book club choice and "The Language of Flowers"by Vanessa Diffenbaugh.  I have also reread two books by Mary Stewart, "Airs above the Ground" and "This Rough Magic".  None of this is heavy stuff and I have enjoyed all of it, particularly coming back after many years to Mary Stewart's thrillers written in the 1950s and 60s and just bristling with intelligent, period charm.  Thanks so much to Chris of Home Thoughts Weekly for reminding me of these.  They are just exactly what you need for a burst of pacy, well written and intelligently plotted escapism.

I have plumped in the end though for another form of escapism, "Summer at Fairacre" by Miss Read.  I used to see the Miss Read books on my mother's bookshelves and to be honest I was always a bit snooty about them.  I imagined they were soft centred, sentimental light reading,  a Hallmark card in book form.  I should have known better.  Mum could not abide sentimentality and she was a great one for getting rid of things.   If a book was on her shelf it must have earned its place.  So a few months ago I picked the first one up, mainly because I was looking for something easy, Ovaltine for the brain.  Wrong.  While no-one could say they are heavy weight literature and they certainly do offer an escape into a simpler world, pap they are not.

The Miss Read books were written by Dora Saint and purport to be the diaries of a middle aged spinster school teacher who lives and works in a small, two teacher school in the village of Fairacre, somewhere high on the Downs in the South of England.   Miss Read is clearsighted, acerbic, compassionate and self sufficient.  She loves her single life and the children she teaches.  She is a sharp observer of human nature with a fine line in gentle wit.  She is also a lover of the natural world and her descriptions of her village in its changing seasons are superb.  There is nostalgia in these books no doubt, partly simply the reader's nostalgia for a simpler life and our own schooldays.  Many of the books were written in the 1960s about a life which even then was beginning to disappear as village schools closed, village life changed and villages became dormitories for those who worked in towns and cities.  Miss Read herself does not look at life in the countryside through rose tinted glasses.  She sees hardship and poverty in the cottages with roses around the door.  But she also sees kindness, decency, a quiet devotion to the welfare of others and a readiness to find ways of getting along with one's neighbours.

The strongest impression one takes from these books is of the importance of community, the tight knit life of a small village where everyone knows everyone's business.  To live it might perhaps be claustrophobic but to read it chronicled by the wry, sympathetic pen of Miss Read is comforting, amusing and therapeutic somehow.  The annual story, determined both by the seasons and by the rhythm of the school year, rolls around. Nothing much happens and everything happens, much like most people's lives.  Dora Saint is a little like Barbara Pym in her eye for pomposity or hypocrisy but the overriding feeling that reading these books generates is of a quiet joy in a life well lived in a place well loved.  Reading them helps your fur to lie smooth again when it has been rubbed the wrong way by 21st Century life.

If you decide to read them it is a good idea to start with "Village School", the first of quite a long series. They remind you that you can read for all sorts of reasons.  These won't excite you or educate you or turn you inside out or make your stomach turn at what man can do to man, but they will make you nod in smiling recognition and look a bit more closely at the world around you .

48 comments:

  1. It's Mary Stewart's 'Thornyhold' which really captured my imagination this time round; the country house with secrets,Geillis, the wise godmother, Gilly, the sensible heroine, but above all those beautiful descriptions of nature and such lovely writing. I love your choice of books and how you've described them - helping 'your fur to lie smooth again when its been rubbed the wrong way by 21st Century life', it's exactly the kind of reading I've needed lately. Cx

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    1. Yes, well me too as you know! Comfort reading perhaps rather than comfort food. have just ordered Thornyhold to take with me for a few days away.

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  2. Intrigued - I looked up Apple Tree Yard on Amazon - and it got rave reviews and really bad ones - is it any good? I'd trust your opinion more than all those strangers!
    And talking of books - you'd love Sue Gee (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sue-Gee/e/B000AQ6L1Q/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1393631148&sr=1-2-ent) if you haven't found them already. I just introduced Charles to her and he's reading them one after another and it's proving hard for him to do anything but read!

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    1. Thanks Anne. I will take a look at sue gee. A whole new author to read is as attractive just now as it would have been in my teens! Interesting to see that my response ti apple tree yard is similar to janes below. It had tremendous narrative force. It was a very clever book in many ways but if didn't "like" it. To me it was a book without compassion. I can see why it has become a best seller though. It did take you by the throat and refuse to put you down.

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  3. I took your advice and obtained a copy of "Miss Pettigrew lives for a Day" -- it arrived just when I needed a ray of light -- I and my three cats aged 16, 10 and 6 must move house, but I could not find a suitable place that would accept more than two cats --How do you decide which one has to go? It was a delightful read. Miss Pettigrew's world was a great place to escape to. (I did finally find just the right sized place that will take all three cats and had my application accepted two days ago -- whew!). On Amazon just now, I found an omnibus copy of Miss Read's books, "Chronicles of Fairacre" which contains the one you mention, plus two more, and just ordered it.

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    1. I am glad you had miss pettigrew to hand at just the right time!

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  4. I loved reading the Miss Read books -- about 15 yr ago. And although I've never read "Miss Pettigrew", I saw the movie which was quite delightful.

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    1. I was about to tell you that the miss read books bear rereading when I noticed Joanne below saying exactly the same thing!

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  5. I've looked up 'Miss Pettigrew lives for a day' it sounds like a book I may enjoy so another on my wish list. I loved reading the Fairacre series by Miss Read so much I ended up buying the lot. I enjoyed each & every one & re read them each year.

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    1. I can understand the rereading. Because they have a strong sense of the seasons I can imagine choosing a summer book for summer and so on.

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  6. How strange! I have just re-read a couple of Mary Stewarts before putting them into one of the many cardboard boxes of books destined for a huge charity book sale in May. I found them difficult to read this time around...the last was about 15 years ago, so a sign my tastes have changed perhaps. But I love Miss Read. The old ones I had were literally falling to pieces, not even bad enough for a boot sale, so I treated myself to a set of new paperbacks, and look forward to working my way through them. They make you hanker for a more gentle, slow pace of life don't they, when there was a real sense of community in villages, when there was a village shop, a village bobby and the nearest you got to anti social behaviour was a couple of cheeky lads scrumping apples!

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    1. What I like it that there is that gentle slowness but also from time to time that slightly ascerbic edge!

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  7. It is years since I read the Miss Read books - loved them then.
    Two books I can recommend. One is Winifred Holtby's Land of Green Ginger - a rather sad and yet
    finally uplifting book. Also Judy Fairbanks Island Wife, which is a good., honest book about life in the Hebrides, not at all glamourised.

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    1. Thank you for the recommendations. I have read the Winifred holtby but not the other. On my list!

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  8. I have been meaning to read the Miss Read books for a long time, thanks for reminding me and for recommending the first in the series.

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    1. If you like them there is a long series so you are in for a treat.

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  9. Your post has brought back some delightful reading memories :) I used to read the Miss Read books years ago and loved them. I read Mary Stewart at the same time too :) Sadly, I had a big clear out of fiction paperbacks a few years back - have a horrible feeling I recycled Mary Stewart but hopefully Miss Read books are in one of the many storage boxes. I must try and dig a few out and re-read.

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    1. Some of these are very cheap on kindle if you use one. I am using mine to help control the need for book space!

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  10. I read lots of Mary Stewart when I was about 15 or 16. I loved her novels and am now inspired to re read some of them. I agree, my books have earned their place on my bookshelf and I hate parting with any book. I once gave the whole series of Winston Graham's Poldark to a charity shop and then went back the next day and bought them all back! I can't imagine being withoutv book.

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  11. I remember reading the first three books in Mary Stewart's Merlin series as a teenager and loving them but I didn't read any of her others - I should really give them ago.
    Like you, I was always put off a bit by Miss Read books, but I should perhaps have another look.

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    1. If you do give miss read a try I would love to know what you think

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  12. This is fabulous! Both 'Miss Pettigrew' and 'The Language Of Flowers' were books I firmly enjoyed! I will be making note of the titles you recommend, thank you Elizabeth.

    I also wished to let you know that I have included you in my latest blog post!

    Warm wishes,

    Stephanie

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    1. Thank you for the mention Stephanie. I have been pointed to all sorts of books which I have enjoyed by your blog so I am pleased to be able to return the favour!

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  13. Elizabeth, thank you for your comment over at my place. (From my post you already know what I've been reading ... Ian Rankin and Stella Gibbons...what a pair.)

    I've not read any Mary Stewart, and may just have to check some of her books out. Misses Pettigrew and Read I know well.

    Miss Pettigrew I read a few years back after having met Nicola Beauman of Persephone Books, the publishing house responsible for reissuing Miss P. I would easily recommend lots of the Persephone booklist as well at the Persephone website. Much fine writing to be found there, too.

    Ages ago I came across Miss Read in a Daedalus catalogue of remaindered books. This was way before Amazon got going, and Daedalus was a great book source. I ordered a couple of the Miss Read books and was delighted. Your review of these books expresses my reasons for liking them exactly. I ended up sending my copies of the books off to my own Mom, who also liked them.

    It's so much fun trading book reactions and recommendations! xo

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    1. Now Stella Gibbons I know and love but for some reason although I have been aware of Ian Rankin for years I have never read any. Time to remedy that perhaps!

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  14. I too love Miss Read and agree with your comparison of Dora Saint and Barbara Pym. I will be reading Miss Pettigrew soon following your recommendation.
    A note about Daedalus - they are still out there doing a good job of bringing great reads to us. I think that may be where I was introduced to Miss Read also.
    Thanks for all the wonderful recommendations!
    Mary

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    1. I have not come across Daedalus so am off to find out about it. Sounds like my sort of thing!

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  15. I love the Miss Read books and read them all many years ago and then after gradually collecting them all from charity shops I re read them last winter. I went to a two teacher primary school in a village and much rings so true.
    I read Mary Stewart when I worked in libraries between 1971 and 1980, have never read them again although I note that some were reprinted recently.
    Just couldn't get into Miss Pettigrew, but I will try it again sometime as I found a Persephone copy a while back. Love Persephone books with their bookmarks to match!

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    1. I think Miss Pettigrew is something to read practically at one sitting. Would be interested to know if you like it if you go back for another try!

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  16. I am so glad to see you write about the Miss Read books! I love them, and still have all the ones I've ever read. Two other gentle authors that you might enjoy for their slice-of-a-simpler life are English mystery writer Hazel Holt, whose Mrs. Malory series always remind me of a letter from my beloved sister in Essex. The other author is American essay writer Gladys Taber. She died in the 1980's. Many of her books are in diary form too, showing the change of seasons in her New England home, which she and a lifelong friend remodeled and in which they brought up their three children after two failed marriages (one husband died; the other divorced). These are the books I reach for in the middle of the night when I can't sleep. I just turn to the section for whatever portion of the year I am actually living through (spring, summer, fall, whatever) and read her comforting prose.

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    1. Now I have not heard of Gladys Taber. I will look out for the books as I clearly should have done!

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  17. I too have been re-reading Mary Stewart and still finding them good books. It's such a relief when you return to an author and they still read true isn't it? I must re-discover 'Miss Read' now. I love Barbara Pym so I'm happy with the thought.

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    1. There are one or two authors that I loved as a teenager whose books I have not dared to reread as an adult just in case they don't "read true". Perhaps I should try!

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  18. Why does it not surprise me that: 1) you appreciate Miss Read and: 2) so do so many of your readers!! Thanks to you all! Have been jotting down authors and titles while reading your post and the comments, and will be heading directly to my Kindle and/or Audible to make a few purchases when I'm finished here. My mother introduced me to the Miss Read books years ago and I read all of them periodically,alternating between the Fairacre and Thrush Green series. Every December, I dust off the Christmas stories (The Christmas Mouse, Village Christmas, No Holly for Miss Quinn) and enjoy them once again. I did order 'Miss Pettigrew' and consumed it in a matter of hours- thank you for the suggestion - I thoroughly enjoyed it! Its compactness and short time frame (as well as the very satisfactory ending) put me in mind of 'The Ladies of Missalonghi' by Colleen McCullough. It's a gem in the 'comfort reading' genre (or, as I refer to it, 'escapist literature') and a satisfying read. Off to peruse the book sites - thanks again!

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    1. Yet another recommendation from someone whose taste I trust! I love this!

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  19. I think I read all of the ‘Miss Read’ stories and loved them all. I wish there were more. Simple is by no means simple-minded.

    Mary Stewart, yes I remember her too.

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    1. Exactly so. Easy to skate over them and underestimate their intelligence. Good to know you are another fan.

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  20. I remember Madam will you talk, and Nine coaches waiting. A schoolgirl lost in Mary Stewart. Miss Read is on my bookshelf.

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    1. I read one or two when I was at school but am coming fresh to many.

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  21. I am a huge Miss Read fan. Love both series.

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    1. I started with Fairacre and thought I preferred it when I moved on to Thrush Green. By the time I had finished Thrush Green I had turned around!

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  22. Thanks for the book recommendations! A year spent reading is a good one.

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    1. I am a very erratic reader Sarah. Sometimes I only read non-fiction, other times I devour fiction as I am doing now. Sometimes I read "serious" literature, other times I read detective novels or poetry or biography. As a child I was the archetypal reader of cereal packets so I guess that has stuck!

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  23. I felt so guilty for reading Miss Read when I was a young teenager. It seemed so elderly, so safe, so wrong. You have encouraged me to take another look, not under the covers or inside another book this time. Nowadays, I think you can never have enough reliable comfort literature. The Cazalet series has become my absolute sick in bed winner, vying with Mapp and Lucia. I'vm very glad for the other suggestions here.

    As for Apple Tree Yard, I did not enjoy reading it, though I could not put it down. I was desperate for it to finish and found the end very believable and very shocking. A clever book.

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    1. Very interested to read your thoughts on Apple Tree Yard Jane. I very much shared your experience. I read it at exceptional speed and could not put it down but I did not enjoy the experience.

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  24. I'll come back to read this but am on a bit of a run-around-the-blogs at present with
    a hasty note to remind you there will be a link box for Tree Following posts on Loose and Leafy tomorrow (March 7th). It'll stay open for seven days.
    http://looseandleafy.blogspot.co.uk/
    Lucy

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    1. I have taken my photos and with luck should get the blog written tonight.

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Comments are great. Thank you for taking the time!