My Commonplace Book: March 2016

commonplace book
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary


A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.


He had a narrow, swarthy face with a high forehead, so high he had his cropped dark hair brushed forward – he was losing his hair, then. His eyes slanted downward, sensual, melancholic and secretive. Saints in the churches, painted on panels and murals, had halos of light around their heads and bodies; the prince seemed to have a tracing of darkness, as if he was standing in front of a prince-shaped hole that led into something terrible, and you could just catch glimpses of it when he moved…

The Red Lily Crown by Elizabeth Loupas (2014)


Do you keep time in the same place that you save it? If so why is it so difficult to find? It must be in a very safe place.

Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson (1997)


Miss Rebecca was not, then, in the least kind or placable. All the world used her ill, said this young misanthropist, and we may be pretty certain that persons whom all the world treats ill, deserve entirely the treatment they get. The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind companion; and so let all young persons take their choice.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1847)


Buddhist caves, two hundred and fifty BC…? It was the Emperor Ashoka who had ordered them to be made, he felt almost sure about that. But there was something else, something to do with the shape of the caves, that escaped him. Was it about meditation? He hadn’t been paying close attention, his mind had been preoccupied, and now their purpose remained a mystery – as it seemed so much in this country was destined to, at least for him.

Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut (2014)


The children of Dynmouth were as children anywhere. They led double lives; more regularly than their elders they travelled without moving from a room. They saw a different world: the sun looked different to them, and so did Dynmouth’s trees and grass and sand. Dogs loomed at a different level, eye to eye. Cats arched their tiger’s backs, and the birds behind bars in Moult’s Hardware and Pet Supplies gazed beadily down, appearing to speak messages.

The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor (1976)


Days lived, whether full or empty, whether busy or serene, are but days gone by, and the ashes of the past weigh the same in every hand.

The Royal Succession by Maurice Druon (1957)


As for the cold, he had never experienced anything like it: a dry, iron clamp upon the land, like death itself, full of unexpected beauty, like the hard crystals that formed on the inside of the windows. The cold did something strange to the quality of sounds around the farm, deadening all background noise so that the smallest scratching or whisper was emphasised. It was easy to see how the unwary settler could die in such a scene, lulled into marvelling at its deadly beauty even as his blood began to freeze.

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale (2015)



Under Dad’s philosophy, books were not shape-shifting constructions of a reader’s imagination. Novels, he said, offered the specific clues, maps and guidelines necessary for their own evaluation. By clues, he did not mean metaphors and he did not mean symbolism. He meant actual clues. To him, every book was its own treasure map. A good novel, he said, left the close reader with a useful souvenir. All you needed to do was learn to see what was right under your nose.

The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell (2016)


“Robert has been led most of his life by his ambition – our family’s ambition – for him to be king. All of us have paid a price, for some the highest price, for him to fulfil that desire, but we have done so because we see in him something that lifts him above most other men; something that makes us hope. He has the iron will of our grandfather and, yes, the hot blood of our father, though he’ll not hear the latter said, but he also has the heart of our mother. It is a true heart. A good heart. You must keep faith, my lady.”

Kingdom by Robyn Young (2014)


Sitting at her bureau a short time before, Frances had been picturing her lodgers in purely mercenary terms – as something like two great waddling shillings. But this, she thought, shuffling backward over the tiles, this was what it really meant to have lodgers: this odd, unintimate proximity, this rather peeled-back moment, where the only thing between herself and a naked Mrs Barber was a few feet of kitchen and a thin scullery door.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (2014)


“I think you’ll find most women in pursuit of a husband share an interest in appearing less educated than they really are,” said Beatrice. “It is why I have a low opinion of them.”

“Of women, miss?” said Abigail.

“No, of husbands,” said Beatrice.

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson (2016)


Knighthood’s not for the likes of these people; for Madame Perrers’ brood. He thought she knew her place. But she’s overreached herself; she’s as grasping as the rest of them, after all. Do these people think they can buy or steal everything?

The People’s Queen by Vanora Bennett (2010)


Favourite books this month: The Red Lily Crown and The Summer Before the War.

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

The Summer Before the War Six years after her debut, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson is back with a second novel – and, in my opinion, it has definitely been worth the wait! The Summer Before the War is a beautiful, moving story about a small town in East Sussex and how it is transformed forever by the effects of the First World War.

It’s the summer of 1914 and spinster Beatrice Nash is arriving in the town of Rye to take up a position as Latin teacher at the local grammar school. Despite the support of Agatha Kent, one of the school governors, Beatrice quickly discovers that not everyone is happy with the decision to offer the teaching job to a woman and that she could be about to lose her position before she’s even begun.

Also in Rye for the summer are Agatha’s nephews, Hugh and Daniel, two young men who think they know what the future holds: Hugh expects to complete his medical studies and then marry Lucy Ramsey, daughter of the surgeon he has been working for, while Daniel, an aspiring poet, hopes to go to Paris and start a literary journal with his friend, Craigmore. With the onset of war, however, all of these plans will be thrown into disarray and life in Rye will never be the same again.

Towards the end of the novel, the action switches to France where we join the men in the trenches, but most of the book, as the title suggests, is devoted to those lazy, idyllic summer days and the changes that are brought by the approach of war. The rigid social structure in place at the beginning of the summer – a time in which independence in women such as Beatrice is seen as something to be discouraged, the atrocities experienced by a young refugee girl make her a social outcast, and Daniel’s relationship with Craigmore risks causing scandal – begins to break down as the war progresses and priorities change.

The Summer Before the War is a long book (with a lovely, cheerful and sunny front cover) but I enjoyed every minute I spent with this set of characters. The story is told with humour, intelligence and sensitivity – and some witty, Jane Austen-style dialogue. Occasionally a word or phrase feels out of place, but otherwise the atmosphere of that summer of 1914 is perfectly evoked. Although the pace is quite gentle I was completely absorbed, discovering as I reached the final chapters how much I had come to care for the men on the front line and the women left behind.

This is a warm, emotional and poignant story and I was close to tears at the end. I loved it and look forward to more from Helen Simonson.

Thanks to Lovereading for providing a review copy.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

For some reason I have found this review very difficult to write and have started and re-started it several times. I think the problem is that Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a very simple novel, but also a very complex one. On one level it’s a gentle, romantic story about sixty-eight year old Major Ernest Pettigrew and his love for Mrs Jasmina Ali, the Pakistani woman who runs the village shop. But there’s so much more to the book than that. In Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson explores a number of issues including racism, religion, loneliness, family relationships and tradition vs progress.

The book is set in the small English village of Edgecombe St Mary where Major Pettigrew, a retired British army officer, lives on his own at Rose Cottage. Both he and Mrs Ali have suffered recent bereavements and are starting to feel very alone in the world. The Major welcomes Mrs Ali’s friendship as she’s refreshingly different from the other women in Edgecombe St Mary; she’s quiet, dignified and shares his love of literature. Unfortunately, the Major’s middle-class friends and neighbours disapprove – they can’t think of Mrs Ali as anything other than the woman from the village shop. Meanwhile, Mrs Ali’s nephew, Abdul Wahid, is also unhappy about his aunt’s new relationship – he’s hoping she’ll move away to live with family so that he can take over the management of the shop. Can the Major and Mrs Ali overcome these obstacles and find happiness?

Major Pettigrew is a wonderful character, both endearing and annoying at the same time. It seemed to me that while he was accusing others of being judgmental, he was constantly making his own judgments about people: northerners, teenagers, Americans and even his own family and friends. However, he is never rude to other people and he does come to discover that some of his own prejudices are unfair. He has a certain amount of old-fashioned charm and I could sympathise with him as he tried to adapt to a rapidly-changing world. I loved him from the beginning because he was a polite, honourable person who genuinely wanted to do the right thing.

I also loved Mrs Ali. She wanted so much to be accepted by her neighbours but struggled to fit in with such a narrow-minded community where most of the other ladies were wrapped up in a world of parties, dances and committees, and didn’t even seem to realise how hurtful and insensitive some of their comments were. Almost all of the other characters, as seen through Major Pettigrew’s eyes, were loud, selfish and bad-mannered, which reflected the way the Major viewed the modern world. The Major’s son Roger was particularly obnoxious!

I really liked the setting of Edgecombe St Mary. Although the story was presumably supposed to be taking place in the 21st century, the descriptions of the village could have been from decades ago and showed a stark contrast with the commercialism and development that the Major hated so much.

If there was one thing that spoiled this book for me, it was a plot development near the end that I thought was unnecessarily dramatic and which felt completely out of place. Up to this point the story had been fairly slow-paced and subtle, concentrating on the small dramas of day to day life, and I would have preferred it to have continued this way to the end. Apart from this small criticism, I really enjoyed this book. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is a lovely, inspiring story and for such a gentle, leisurely read it was very difficult to put down!