The Light Years (The Cazalet Chronicles) – Elizabeth Jane Howard

One of my regular complaints when visiting historical sites is that I don’t get enough detail about everyday life. Yes, the tiles are beautiful, but what kind of furniture did people use? Yes, that’s the kitchen, but how did they cook, what did they eat, what time did they get up? Why are there not pictures of how this would look when it’s full of silk curtains and platters of dates?

Some of my curiosity about everyday life in the past is being sated by The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard.

The Cazalets are a large extended family who regularly get together in one place in sufficient numbers for me to forget which of the boys is the eldest, and which of the small children belongs to which brother.

In 1937, the generations span the times so that grandmother (the Duchy) is still suitably Victorian in her attitudes, while one granddaughter is starting to wear trousers. (shocking, I know) A woman facing an unwanted pregnancy reflects on how many married women have a few children, a large gap, and then one last baby. She can’t quite figure out who she could ask how to become unpregnant.

And the food! Louise learns how to make Bath buns and is rather good at them. Marie biscuits are kept by bedsides. Someone (Polly perhaps?) doesn’t really like milk chocolate but can’t tell her father because he meant it as a kind gesture. Two children on a rotating basis are allowed to eat dinner at the big table, rather than having supper in the nursery.

The Light Years was published in 1990, but the author has lived through these years (her ages approximately matches that of the elder grandchildren) so it combines the authenticity of a contemporary book with a slightly more modern style of writing, and the ability to look back.

If you like this sort of thing, you should read these books. The closest comparison I can think of is Diary of a Provincial Lady, which can either function as a recommendation for this (if you liked that, you might like this) or an additional recommendation,



2015 Book Challenge – #19 – Her Smoke Rose Up Forever

First post of the 2015 book challenge is here

This was recommended by a colleague, who neglected at first to mention that the author is FASCINATING.

First, the book.

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James TipTree Jr is a collection of SF short stories from the 70s (ish).

I am not usually a fan of short stories – I find the format very tiring as I need to adjust to a new world anew characters every few pages. My preference for a book is that if I like it I want it long, I want lots of that one book so I can get the maximum benefit out of my effort in getting into it. That’s probably why I like a long series (e.g. Wheel of Time), and why I enjoyed the doorstopper The Pillars of the Earth.

So I found this book a bit difficult, but in most cases it was worthwhile. The stories often deal with sex, gender, violence, and the state of being human. The colleague who recommended it, on hearing that I was actually reading, commented “they are a bit depressing”. It’s true. And the nature of the stories makes it entirely unsurprising to me that James Tiptree Jr was a woman. (go look her up). Apparently many other writers of the time were very surprised.

So, recommended but not “easy”. Only if you are in the mood to feel challenged (and a little disgusted, in a few cases).

2015 Book Challenge – 12 – Birdsong

First post of the 2015 book challenge is here

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks was recommended to me by a friend with the strict instructions to NOT read Human Traces.

The first part of this book starts off in pre-war France, and for a moment I thought I was back in the Suite Francaise. Lingering descritions of the hot sultry summer, the slight pressure of a foot resting against and ankle. It all sounded stifling, and I was relieved when the war began. While the writing did start out as too atmosphere-based for my taste, I enjoyed little observations such as that the pattern on a teapot showed “small pink roses set, improbably, on trails of honeysuckle”.

Descriptions of the conditions in the trenches were engrossing. The cameraderie of the “pals” who had joined up together, and the sense of loss when their numbers dwindled, was strong without being overly sentimental. Jack Firebrace was particularly worth paying attention to.

Reading about optimism before the Somme – “casualties will be ten per cent” – was excruciating (as I’m sure it was designed to be).

In an introduction I read that there was very little written about the First World War for many decades after it happened – I suppose the interludes in the 70s were designed to highlight this. I was not entirely convinced that I cared much about Elizabeth or her maried lover or her employers, but the descriptions of her “career woman” lifestyle made interesting reading. As well as the war, it seems that the flu epidemic of 1918 (which I’d now consider to be widely heard-of) had also passed out of common knowledge.

The 70s pieces did give my favourite quote

“She had taken a job because she needed to live; she had found an interesting one in reference to a dull one; she had tried to do well rather than baady. She could not see how any of these three logical steps implied a violent rejection of men or children.”

Second favourite quote:

“Stephen had a false eloquence lent by drink; it could have led him to adopt any opinion with fluency.”

2015 book challege – #10B – Far From The Madding Crowd

First post of the 2015 book challenge is here

#10A was a failure – I did not read the book. I’m OK with that though. It would have been worse to force myself to read the book, such was the extent of my non-enjoyment. So this is 10B.

10B is Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, because I had seen that a film was coming out and I always prefer to read a book before seeing the film if I possibly can.

The only Hardy I’d read before was Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and I’d written him off as a bit of abastard who hates his characters. Not just because he makes horrible things happen to Tess (I read Geroge R R Martin after all!), but because it seems that at many junctures the narrator muses on what might have happened.

If at this point Tess had done X, all would have been better, but instead she (perfectly reasonably) does Y, and so the rest of her life is shit.

FFTMC is much softer and lighter than Tess, even if our protagonist has a ridiculous name that seems doomed for disaster. I don’t know precisely what “Bathsheba” reminds me of – is it Biblical? – something from Arabian nights? – but it sounds far too dramatic for a calm life. Do not name your daughters Bathsheba. It will not go well.

I enjoyed this book and found Hardy much less of a bastard in his treatment of his characters. We can also feel assured that Jane Austen was not alone in her admonitions to young ladies not to trust a man in a red coat who has the easy art of pleasing with words. That’s not a spoiler, it’s evident (at least to my eyes) from the very beginning.

Dialogue written in dialect usually irritates me, but I found the Wessex accents easy enough to read that they did not interrupt my flow.

Best quote

It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in a language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.

Most amusing xenophobia

…the line where sentiment verges on mawkishness, characteristic of the French.

Compliment that now sounds a bit off

She was of the stuff of which great men’s mothers are made


Sort-of book review – Hikkikomori

I admit it, I wrote the title from memory and it may not be exactly correct. But it appears at least once that the author did the same, so I won’t apologise too much.

There we go, a nice bitchy start, and now anything I write from here on can’t be as bad as that. I am reviewing a self-published book, and I’m afraid to say that you can tell. The “typos” (to put it generously) are not frequent but they do illustrate the reason why the world has editors.

I read a book because I followed the author on Twitter. I really don’t remember why, presumably he said something interesting, which was RTed by someone else who I followed for no-reason-that-I-remember, so I followed him and he wasn’t annoying and therefore I didn’t unfollow him. Then when he said that he had written a book, a horror-ish book no less, I thought “I like books, and I spend far too much time on trains with nothing to do, and it’s 77p, so I will read it and then maybe even blog about it”.

Book covers for kindle-only books are a bit odd really, aren't they?

I’m writing this blog straight from my head onto the screen (via the keyboard of course) with very little plan so I apologise for any incoherency.

To summarise without spoiling (difficult) the book is written from the point of view of a man who is a recluse, he lives alone with his imaginary girlfriend and never leaves his flat, spending his nights (he is nocturnal) regretting the last words he said to his actual-human-being girlfriend: “And don’t come back!”. “Hikikomori” (I looked this time) is what his imaginary girlfriend calls him, a cutesey Japanese-inspired name meaning recluse or hermit. Neither of them is Japanese by the way, they are just the sort of people who think that everything is cooler if it is Japanese.

I fundamentally disagree with the front-cover blurb, by the way:

  • The Sixth Sense – this is a big neon sign saying “there will be a twist” – I prefer my twists to be unexpected
  • speed-written by Chuck Palahnuik – actually I can’t comment on this because I downloaded Fight Club and haven’t read it yet
  • until all the pages blurred into one – one of the noticeable stylistic features of this book is the short choppy chapters, nothing “blurs into one” at all

Particular things of note:

  • Practicalities of being a hermit are spelled out quite nicely – I am the sort of person who will read books and think “how did they eat/drink/go to the toilet” so I was quite pleased
  • Uneasyness (if that’s a word) in tone works well, if your imaginary friend doesn’t behave as you expect then is there something wrong with your imagination?
  • Not sure if “uneasyness” conveys what I meant correctly there – it is quite spooky in places and I want the first-person narrator to turn around or look in another room so I can see what is there
  • The imaginary girlfriend is an incredibly shallow caricature of a human being – a reflection of the depth of imagination that the character is capable of, or perhaps the level of interaction that he requires from “her”
  • Slightly spoilery I’m afraid, but parts written from a female point of view seem rather less fleshed-out than those from the male perspective
  • Ending… hmm. I suppose it could be exactly what the author intended, but I feel unsatisfied and not in possession of enough information to come to my own conclusion

I suppose the main question when someone tells you about a book they have read is “do you recommend it?”. I’m afraid my recommendation will have to be not-entirely-wholehearted. If your reading time is precious and limited, there are probably better books to fill it. If you find that it is the supply of books that is limited, then go for it – there are far worse ways to spend a few hours. If your kindle is full of books that you “meant to read” but haven’t gotten around to, well maybe you don’t need another book or maybe you just don’t really want to read those books and should read this one instead. Who knows?

Note: I wasn’t sure whether I should write this as it’s not entirely complimentary and I feel that it is a bit more personal than if it were a properly-published paper book by someone who was actually paid for it. (this is probably wrong anyway) But Twitter told me to write it anyway so I have.

Book review – The Secret Diary of a Princess

I’m not very good at reviews beyond I liked the bit where, so please excuse me if this sounds rather like a school writeup to prove that I have read my reading book.

I always read my reading book, by the way. I was happiest in the English lessons where our lazy (perhaps just forgetful) teacher would set us to do 10 minutes of silent reading and then forget about us for the rest of the half-hour period.

I have recently(ish) started a job where I have to do a fair amount of commuting, and serendipitously I received a Kindle for my birthday (before I even knew I was applying for the job). So I have been reading rather a lot recently, including books that I would not have read otherwise. I re-read the What Katy Did books after discovering (1) they were free for the Kindle, and (2) there are actually 5 of them, not 3 as I previously thought.

The What Katy Did books were very clearly children’s books and very much of their time, with an emphasis on how good work and piousness will make your life better, and a severe spinal injury can turn even the most wilful child into a living angel. The Secret Diary of a Princess, on the other hand, is more difficult to classify. I came to it via Twitter, where its author often posts interesting links about history and dresses. Sorry MmeG, but that’s the best way I can describe it. History and dresses. Historical dresses. Whenever I go to a museum I like to seek out the everyday things. The paraphernalia of real life. Old clothing holds a fascination because it forces you to imagine people inside it, going about their lives as we go about ours in our jeans and jumpers (although in many cases without the ability to easily turn around or get through a narrow doorway).

Is this a children’s book? I’m not sure. It tracks the progress of the youngest daughter of the Emperor of Austria as she grows from a tearaway ten-year-old Maria Antonia to Marie Antoinette, wife of the Dauphin of France. As the title suggests it is written as a diary, which makes it very immediately first-person and so the outlook and description is at times childish. I particularly like instances where MA is shown to have thoughts that she will not admit even to her diary. There are the usual unlikelihoods that plague all diary-based books (secretly writing 500+ words in bed, with pen and ink, and exactly relating whole conversations?) but these can be easily ignored if you have an averagely-active suspension of disbelief. On the other hand, while written in a childish voice, this is a book that is about power and freedom and living up to expectations, with emphasis on how children are valued more as bargaining chips than as people (particularly daughters, but sons too are shown to have little choice where they marry). I think a number of scenes would not have resonated as strongly with 12-year-old me and they did with adult-me.

So yes, if you have a Kindle, £2,88 is hardly anything, get yourself a copy and be educated and entertained at the same time. Also: be thankful that you do not live in a world where your parents have 16 children in the hopes that enough of them will live to adulthood to be married off to a suitably wide range of strangers, relatives, and royals. A final piece of info: all of the paintings that Antonia sits for (while being very bored) in the book are real.