Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life by Rose Tremain

I don’t think I’ve read enough of Rose Tremain’s books to really describe myself as a fan or as any kind of expert on her work, but I’ve enjoyed the little I’ve read by her – Restoration and Merivel, her two novels set in 17th century England and France, and The Gustav Sonata, set in Switzerland before, during and after the Second World War – so I decided to give her recent memoir, Rosie, a try.

Judging purely by the cover and the subtitle Scenes from a Vanished Life, I was expecting something light, charming and nostalgic, but the reality was very different and the book left me feeling quite sad. It’s a slim book covering only the first eighteen years of the author’s life and I think it’s fair to say that Rose – or Rosie, as she was known when she was younger – didn’t have the happiest start to life. Born into an upper-middle-class family, with all the privilege and opportunity that comes with that, the one thing Rosie lacks is parental love. She is ten years old when her playwright father, Keith, leaves her mother, Jane, for a younger woman. Jane quickly remarries and sends Rosie and her sister, Jo, to boarding school, an incident Tremain thinks of as ‘The Great Casting Away’ and which she describes with both resentment and an attempt to understand:

When we were safely away in our cold dormitories at Crofton Grange, she and her friends could forget all about their children’s future. Instead, they could go to plays, go to films, go to restaurants, get drunk at lunchtime, flirt, shop, swear, take taxis, waste money, go dancing, have sex, and wander through London in the dawn light, laughing, determined to forget the war that had stolen their youth and so many of the people they’d loved.

The child Rosie is often hurt and confused by her mother’s actions, and not much has changed by the time she reaches adulthood; when her first play is broadcast on BBC radio in 1976, Jane says she is too busy to listen as she is going out to lunch that day. Rosie does acknowledge, however, that her mother’s lack of affection for her could be partly due to her own upbringing. Many of Rosie’s childhood memories revolve around holidays spent at her maternal grandparents’ home, Linkenholt Manor, but it quickly becomes clear that it is the house that holds a special place in her heart and not her grandparents themselves. Mabel and Roland Dudley, Jane’s parents, are depicted as cold, stern people who have struggled to move on from the loss of their two sons and see their daughter as a poor substitute; their granddaughters interest them even less. I found this so sad because my own childhood relationship with my grandparents was completely different – warm and loving and full of fun. The only love Rosie seems to receive comes from her nanny, Vera Sturt, and I was glad that she had at least one person who cared about her, although even this relationship was lost when she was sent away to boarding school.

As the title of the book suggests, the world of Tremain’s childhood is a world that has now largely vanished. Her account of her school days, of beliefs and attitudes and of society in general could only have been written by someone growing up in the 1950s and belonging to a certain class. As Rosie becomes a young adult and sets her sights on attending Oxford University, she sees her dreams shattered yet again when her mother insists on sending her to a Swiss ‘finishing school’ instead. Jane doesn’t see the need for her daughter to continue her education when all a woman needs to do to succeed in life is to find a rich husband.

Despite her privileged background then, Tremain still had obstacles to overcome as she grew from Rosie into Rose and embarked on her writing career. Because her memoir ends before the publication of her first book, she doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing her writing, but she does give us a few insights into how incidents, people and places from her early life later found their way into her novels. I’m sure this would have meant more to me if I had read more of her work! The book ends very abruptly, which was disappointing as I would have liked to have continued to follow Rose through her adult years. Still, it was interesting getting to know the young Rosie and her world. I will have to read more of her books soon; if there are any you would recommend please let me know.

Thanks to Vintage Publishing for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d by Alan Bradley

In this, the eighth book in the Flavia de Luce mystery series, Flavia is back in England following her adventures at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Canada, which are described in the previous novel As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust. If you haven’t yet met Flavia I would recommend starting at the beginning with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie; it’s not essential, as this one does stand alone as a murder mystery, but I think you’ll get more out of it if you already know Flavia and understand her family background.

At the beginning of Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d (Alan Bradley’s books always have great titles), twelve-year-old Flavia returns to Buckshaw, the de Luce ancestral home, hoping for a warm welcome. Instead, the household feels strangely subdued and quiet. The reason for this becomes clear when Flavia learns that her father is seriously ill in hospital. Desperate to go and see him immediately, she is disappointed to be told that Father needs to rest and her visit will have to wait until the next day. The thought of staying in the house with her two unpleasant sisters Feely and Daffy and her annoying little cousin Undine is unbearable, so Flavia hops on to Gladys, her trusty bicycle, and goes out for a ride.

Calling at the home of her friend, the vicar’s wife, Flavia agrees to take a message to Roger Sambridge, an elderly woodcarver. Finding Roger’s door unlocked, she enters the house – only to discover the body of the woodcarver hanging upside down behind the bedroom door. Apart from a cat, there’s no sign that anyone else has been inside the room. It seems that Flavia has stumbled upon another mystery to solve…

This book is definitely an improvement on the previous one; I hadn’t really liked Flavia being taken out of her usual environment, so I was pleased to have her back at Buckshaw, riding Gladys and conducting experiments in her beloved chemistry laboratory. I was disappointed, though, that we didn’t see her interacting more with the other members of the de Luce household. Before she left for school in Canada at the end of the sixth book, there seemed to be hints that her relationships with Feely and Daffy (Ophelia and Daphne, in case you’re wondering) could be about to turn a corner, but in this book they barely speak to each other. I was also surprised that the Nide, the secret society which played a part in the plots of the last two novels, was only referred to once or twice – not that I’m complaining as I wasn’t very keen on that particular plot development anyway.

Although Flavia has only aged by a year or two since the beginning of the series, she does feel more mature now and is more daring in the methods of investigation she chooses to use. However, she is still only twelve and I found it unconvincing that she would really have been able to do some of the things she does in the novel (such as posing as a biographer in a meeting with a publisher). On the other hand, Flavia has always been unusual for her age, which is part of the charm of these books. I did enjoy watching her solve the crime and although I guessed one or two of the twists, I didn’t guess everything.

This is, I think, the second Flavia novel to be set at Christmas, but unlike the other one (I Am Half-Sick of Shadows), it doesn’t have a very festive atmosphere – which is understandable, with Father so ill in hospital. The last page of the book wasn’t really what I was expecting and I am now looking forward to reading the next one, The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place, to see what Alan Bradley has in store next for Flavia and her family.

I am counting this book towards the R.I.P. XIII challenge (category: mystery)

Thunder on the Right by Mary Stewart

Mary Stewart is one of my favourite authors and when I saw that her birthday – today – was going to be celebrated in Jane at Beyond Eden Rock’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors, it seemed a good opportunity to pick up one of the few Stewart novels I still hadn’t read. I decided on Thunder on the Right, one of her earliest novels which was first published in 1957. I had seen a few reviews which suggested this wasn’t one of Mary Stewart’s better books, but I was pleased to find that I enjoyed it. It’s been a while since I read one of her romantic suspense novels, having taken a break from them to concentrate on her Arthurian series instead, and I’d forgotten how much fun they are.

The novel begins with Jennifer Silver, a young woman from England, arriving in the French Pyrenees to visit her cousin, Gillian Lamartine, who has written to her to say that she’s planning to enter a convent there. Waiting at Jennifer’s hotel in Gavarnie is Stephen Masefield, an old friend who may have become more than just a friend if it hadn’t been for the disapproval of Jennifer’s parents. She is unsettled by the unexpected meeting after an absence of two years, but pleased to see him again – especially as she is beginning to think that something terrible must have happened to Gillian.

Visiting the Convent of Notre-Dame-des-Orages the next day, Jennifer’s worst fears are confirmed when she is told that Gillian died after being injured in a car crash several weeks earlier and has been buried at the convent. Jennifer is devastated, but when she begins to ask questions of the nuns who nursed Gillian in her final days, she becomes convinced that something is not quite right. Is her cousin really dead? Jennifer has her doubts and, with Stephen’s help, she sets out to discover the truth.

Although Thunder on the Right hasn’t become a favourite Stewart novel, it’s as entertaining as any of her others and I flew through the pages, desperate to see whether Jennifer would find her cousin and what other secrets were being hidden in the convent. The early chapters, in which she encounters the sinister Spanish nun Doña Francisca and hears the details of Gillian’s alleged death, are wonderfully eerie and the tension builds slowly as Jennifer explores the chapels, courtyards and tunnels of the convent in search of clues. In the second half of the novel, though, things become very melodramatic – almost too fast-paced and too exciting, at the expense of atmosphere and character development.

There are other problems – the main villain is too obviously villainous to be convincing, while the romance between Jennifer and Stephen is less engaging than some of Stewart’s other romances, possibly because they already know each other before the story begins and then spend a relatively small amount of time together over the course of the novel. But the setting is wonderful, of course. A Mary Stewart novel wouldn’t be a Mary Stewart novel without lots of vivid and evocative descriptions and there are plenty of them here, as the search for Gillian is played out high in the mountains while the wind blows and the thunder crashes.

For the reasons I’ve mentioned, I would agree that this isn’t one of Mary Stewart’s very best books but it was still an enjoyable read. If you’re new to her suspense novels, I would recommend starting with Nine Coaches Waiting, Madam, Will You Talk? or This Rough Magic. Those are my favourites, along with the Merlin trilogy which begins with The Crystal Cave.

I am counting this book towards the R.I.P XIII Challenge (category: suspense).

The English Girl by Katherine Webb

One of the things I love about reading is that it gives me the opportunity to learn about places I have never visited and am probably never likely to. Katherine Webb’s The English Girl is set in Oman, which is not a country I’ve ever read about before. Having previously read only The Misbegotten by Webb, I found this one a very different novel, not least because of the fascinating setting.

The ‘English girl’ of the title, Joan Seabrook, has grown up listening to her father’s stories of Arabia and longing to explore this magical, mysterious land for herself. Now, in 1958, her dreams have come true and she is on her way to Oman with her fiancé, Rory. Foreign tourists are not usually welcome in Oman, but Joan has obtained special permission – with the help of a family friend who happens to be the foreign minister – to visit her brother Daniel, who is stationed there with the British army. Having recently finished studying for her degree in archaeology, Joan is looking forward to investigating some of the sites she has heard so much about.

Arriving in the city of Muscat, Joan is disappointed to discover that the places she really wants to see – Fort Jabrin and Jebel Akhdar (the Green Mountain) – are off limits because of the war which is currently being waged in the mountains of Oman between the supporters of the Sultan and the Imam. She consoles herself with visits to Maude Vickery, the famous explorer who was the first woman to cross the desert known as the Empty Quarter and who has made Muscat her home. Maude was Joan’s childhood heroine and she is thrilled to have the chance to get to know her. Now an elderly woman, Maude is bitter, sharp-tongued and resentful, and not at all what Joan had expected, but when Maude asks her to carry out an important mission on her behalf, Joan is unable to refuse – even if it means putting her own life in danger.

As I’ve said, this is the first book I have read set in Oman, and I loved the beautiful descriptions of the deserts, the mountain ranges, the valleys and forts, and the streets of Muscat. It’s the perfect backdrop for Katherine Webb’s story of adventure, mystery and romance! This is also the first time I’ve read about the Jebel Akhdar War of the 1950s and the conflict between the interior of Oman (the Imamate) and the Sultanate of Muscat. The British army supported the Sultan in the war and as Joan’s brother Daniel is a soldier, this gives the characters in the novel a personal connection to events taking place around them.

Although I found a lot to enjoy, it took me a while to really get into this book and I think that was partly because Joan just didn’t appeal to me as a character. I wasn’t very interested in her relationships with Rory and Daniel and I felt that she kept putting herself into dangerous situations unnecessarily. I hoped I would warm to her eventually, but I didn’t. However, this is not just Joan’s story – it is also Maude’s, and while she is not the most likeable of characters either, she is a fascinating one.

As soon as I began to read about Maude, I thought of the real-life explorer Gertrude Bell, and after finishing the book I wasn’t surprised to see that the author’s note at the end confirmed that she had been the inspiration for the character. About half of the novel is written from Maude’s perspective, taking us back in time to her exciting journey through the Empty Quarter and her determination to get across the desert before her friend and rival Nathaniel Elliot. By the time I reached the end of Maude’s story, I admired her for what she had achieved but I also understood what had shaped her into the bitter, unhappy old woman Joan meets in Muscat.

The English Girl could be thought of as a novel of secrets as everyone seems to be hiding something. Maude, betrayed by someone she thought she could trust, has been trying to hide her pain and heartbreak for most of her life, while Nathaniel has also been concealing something that happened on his own expedition. Both Rory and Daniel are keeping secrets from Joan and there are hints of further mysteries as far back as Joan’s childhood too. Most of all, there are the secrets of Oman and of the desert and seeing these unfold as the setting is brought to life will be my lasting memory of this book.

The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens

When I saw that Jessie of Dwell in Possibility was hosting a Mini Persephone Readathon this weekend, I knew I wanted to take part and I knew exactly what I would be reading: The Winds of Heaven, a book published by Persephone which I had originally been planning to read for Jane’s Monica Dickens Day last month but didn’t have time. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Monica Dickens as I’ve never read any of her books before, but I loved this one and will now be looking for more.

The Winds of Heaven (1955) follows the story of Louise Bickford, whose husband, the controlling and oppressive Dudley, dies a year or two before the novel opens. Left alone with no money to support herself, Louise cannot afford anywhere to live, so is forced to rely on the hospitality of her daughters. Although Louise has shown her three daughters nothing but love and affection, they each make it very clear that they don’t really want her staying with them and see her as a burden to be moved on to the next sister as quickly as possible.

Louise is a lovely person – generous, selfless and sensitive to the feelings of others; I had a lot of sympathy for her and for the situation in which she finds herself. The logical solution would be to get a job, but a combination of factors – her age (approaching sixty), her class, her lack of experience at any type of work and the disapproval of her daughters – mean that this is never considered as a realistic option for Louise. All she can do is continue to move from one household to the next, trying to make herself useful but knowing that she is unwanted and unappreciated.

The three daughters seem to have inherited none of their mother’s good qualities. They are three very different people, but in their different ways they are all as unpleasant and selfish as each other. Miriam is a snob, obsessed with appearances and her place in the community. Her marriage is not a particularly happy one, but as Arthur is rich enough to pay for holidays abroad and ponies for the children, she’s not complaining too much! Eva, the middle sister, is an aspiring actress who lives in London and is too preoccupied with her career and her affair with a married man to give any thought to her mother’s problems. Anne, the youngest, is a farmer’s wife but does very little to help out on the farm – she is a lazy, sullen, resentful woman who thinks only of herself and her own comfort.

For a novel with so many unlikeable characters, I found this a surprisingly enjoyable and entertaining read. Louise’s story is obviously a very sad one at times, but Monica Dickens writes with enough humour and lightness that it never becomes completely depressing. And although her relationships with Miriam, Eva and Anne are difficult, Louise does have two special people in her life who make things much more bearable. One is her young granddaughter Ellen, with whom she forms a close bond. Ellen is Miriam’s eldest daughter and, like Louise, she often feels like an outsider in the family. The other is Gordon Disher, a man she meets while sheltering from the rain in a London tea shop.

Mr Disher is the most unlikely of romantic heroes – he is overweight, sells beds in a department store and writes cheap paperback thrillers with titles like The Girl in the Bloodstained Bikini. He is also a lovely, kind, gentle man who sees that Louise is unhappy and does all he can to make things better for her. Their meetings are few and far between – Louise is sure she’s too old for romance and she doesn’t spend a lot of time in London anyway – but I found their relationship quite moving and always looked forward to the moments when they were together.

Towards the end of the book, events take a more dramatic turn and if I have a criticism it would be that I’m not sure whether this was really necessary. The final sentence, though, was perfect! I wish Monica Dickens had written more books about these characters, but I enjoyed this one enough to know that I will be investigating the rest of her novels anyway!

The Winds of Heaven endpapers

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

Today would have been Dorothy Whipple’s birthday – and she is the next author in Jane’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors. I have never read any of her books but have been curious about them for a while and I thought a good place to start might be Someone at a Distance, her 1953 novel which seems to be her most popular and which has been published both as a standard dove-grey Persephone and as a Persephone Classic.

On the surface, Someone at a Distance is the simple story of the breakdown of a marriage. At the beginning of the novel, publisher Avery North and his wife, Ellen, seem to be the perfect couple. Having been married for twenty years, they are no longer passionately in love but still have an affectionate relationship and appear to be quite content with their comfortable, middle-class lives. They are devoted to their two children – eighteen-year-old Hugh, who is away on National Service, and fifteen-year-old schoolgirl Anne – and have a lovely house in the countryside with a large paddock for Anne’s beloved pony, Roma. If only Avery’s mother, the elderly Mrs North, hadn’t begun to feel lonely living alone in her big house nearby, and if only she hadn’t decided to look for a companion for the summer…

Old Mrs North responds to an advertisement in The TimesYoung Frenchwoman desires to spend July, August in English home. French conversation. Light domestic duties – and soon Louise Lanier comes to stay. Louise is the daughter of a bookseller in a provincial town in France and sees coming to England as a way of escaping from the humiliation of being rejected by her lover who has recently married another woman. Bored and miserable, Louise sets her sights on Avery North and won’t be satisfied until she has caused as much trouble as possible.

As I’ve said, the plot is a simple one, but Whipple’s writing and the way in which she tells the story give it the additional layers that make it such a compelling read. You can see what is going to happen almost from the start, but you don’t know exactly when or how it will happen – and when the inevitable moment comes, you feel as shocked and upset as the characters themselves. My sympathies were with Ellen; she came across as such a genuinely nice person, who really didn’t deserve the treatment she receives from Avery and Louise. I was impressed by how well she coped with the huge changes in her life…at least until an incident near the end of the book, which disappointed me slightly as I discovered that Ellen didn’t feel quite the way I would have liked her to have felt (sorry for being vague, but I’m trying to avoid too many spoilers).

The reactions of the other characters – the North children, the servants, friends and neighbours, and Louise’s family in France – are also explored. In some ways their thoughts and emotions are timeless, but in others this does feel like a book of its time, for example when Anne is too ashamed to tell her teachers and friends at school about her parents’ separation because she thinks they will view her differently. As for Louise, she is a wonderful character. It would have been easy for Whipple to write her as a one-dimensional villain, who does what she does purely out of spite and nastiness, but instead she takes the time to show us Louise’s life in France and to try to explain what made her such a bitter person. There were times when I could almost, but not quite, feel sorry for Louise – although in the end it was her parents I pitied, as they were forced to come to terms with the sort of woman their daughter was.

Someone at a Distance is a great book, with much more emotional depth and complexity than I expected when I first started to read. Now that I’ve been introduced to Dorothy Whipple, I’m sure I’ll be reading more of her work.

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust by Alan Bradley

In this, the seventh book in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series, our twelve-year-old detective is sent away to boarding school in 1950s Canada, having been banished from her family home at the end of the previous novel. If you have never read a Flavia mystery before, this is probably not the best place to start; I would recommend reading at least a few of the earlier ones first, particularly the sixth, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, so that you will understand the reasons for her banishment and the choice of this particular Canadian school.

Anyway, back to As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust. Almost as soon as Flavia arrives at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Toronto, she stumbles upon yet another dead body – or rather, this one stumbles upon Flavia when it falls down the chimney in her room, having been dislodged by another girl who has climbed up to hide from a teacher. Why is there a dead body up the chimney? Who is it? Could it be one of the three missing girls who have all disappeared from the Academy over the last year or two? Flavia doesn’t know, but she’s determined to find out!

This is the first book in the series not to be set at Buckshaw, the de Luce ancestral home in the English village of Bishop’s Lacey. I have always found the setting to be part of the charm of these books, so although it was nice to have a change, I did find myself missing Father, Feely, Daffy, Dogger and everyone else from Buckshaw. There are plenty of new characters in this book to take their places – including an enigmatic and intimidating headmistress and a chemistry teacher who has been on trial for murder – but none of them felt as well drawn as the characters in the previous novels.

Still, I always enjoy a school setting because it brings back memories of the school stories I loved as a child, such as Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and St Clare’s books. Maybe Alan Bradley liked that sort of story too and wanted an opportunity to write one of his own; otherwise I’m not sure I really see the point in moving Flavia out of her usual setting. I had expected the storyline involving the Nide, which was introduced in the last book, to be advanced in this one, but actually we learn very little more about it – and what we do learn just made me more confused!

I was pleased to find that this book had a much stronger mystery element than the previous one and although some parts of the mystery didn’t feel fully resolved at the end, it was nice to see Flavia back to making her lists of suspects and searching for clues. Finally, don’t Alan Bradley’s books have great titles? This one is taken from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline: “Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust”. The title of the next one, Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, is also Shakespeare-inspired. I’m looking forward to reading it – despite not liking the last two books as much as the earlier ones, I do still enjoy spending time with Flavia!

This is Book #2 for my R.I.P. XII challenge.