29 August 2015

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans

I. Loved. This. Book.

It wasn't until I removed the hold slip at the library that I took a good look at the cover.  Then there was a swift recollection of the author's name (when you work at a library you place holds on all sorts of things...really fast...between customers).  Several years ago I thoroughly enjoyed Their Finest Hour and a Half so when I twigged that my new book was by the same author I couldn't wait to get stuck in.

The story begins in Hampstead during the early days of World War II.  Noel Bostock is nearly ten years old and living with his godmother, Mattie, in a 'spacious brick box, with a fancy ironwork verandah and a garden full of azaleas'.  Mattie is a fascinating character with a fiercely dedicated belief in independence and education, although she is highly suspicious of government, rules, and regulations.  She was also an active participant in the fight for women's right to vote.  Noel has seen her pins, bars, sashes, rossettes, and a medal that states she was force-fed while imprisoned.  But these days Mattie struggles to recall names and places...

'Or 'that church', she'd say, standing at the top of Hampstead Heath, gazing down at the scribble of blue and grey that was London.  'The one with the dome - remind me of what it's called.'
  'St Paul's Cathedral.'
  'Of course it is.  The architect has a bird's name.  Owl...Ostrich...'
  'Right again, young Noel, though I can't help thinking "Sir Christopher Ostrich" has a tremendous ring to it...'

You can already sense the perfect combination of delightful characters, setting, and humour.  But it's not all tea and roses.  The bombs begin to fall and Noel is evacuated...

'The day after that, all the children disappeared, as if London had shrugged and the small people had fallen off the edge.'

Vee Sedge is a down-at-heel woman living in grim circumstances with her adult son, Donald, above the offices of a scrap metal business in St Albans.  They can't afford to miss an opportunity and this time it comes in the form of a little boy.  Noel.

There is another wonderful character in Vee's mother.  Flora considers Mr Churchill, as in 'the Prime Minister', to be a personal pen friend.  She writes letters to inform the elected official of her thoughts about everything from ration rip-offs to people whom she suspects to be spies...

'I don't know if you know this, but when Alvar Liddell on the wireless says Nazi on the news broadcast he says it in a different way to the way you say Nazi, you say it Narzee and he says it Nartsi.  People have noticed this, and when I met my cousin Harold at the Abbey Tea Rooms last week he told me that he's even heard jokes about it.  I thought you out to know.  Alvar sounds a foreign name to me.'

Lighthearted bits like that provide gaps of pleasure because, as I mentioned earlier, it's not all urns of tea and chatting over the wall.  There are other characters looking to thwart the system and have no bones about using violent means to accomplish their will.  Black-outs and bombings provide the opportunity for thievery and it's not always the perceived image of a criminal that is the mastermind.

Crooked Heart is a wonderful story about relationships between the young and old and that family is sometimes where you find it.  It also portrays the fact that despite severe hardship you can still have principles; stand up for what is right.  By the time I was on page sixteen I knew this was a book that must have a place on my bookshelf so I will be buying a copy to enjoy again and again.  It's an absolute delight!

*Just read that Lionsgate has bought the rights to Their Finest Hour and a Half with Gemma Arterton and Bill Nighy in starring roles!

28 August 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating


'In the 17th century the general opinion of herbalists and botanists and connoisseurs of simples was that the banana was the strongest candidate for the original tree of the knowledge of good and evil.'

No Go the Bogeyman

21 August 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

1663 - 88

My Lady Widderington ressett for a Looseness

Take hogs dung newly dunged and boyle it in a pint of milke prity well the Straine and drink it off - to make the hog dung you may turne hime round severall times and falloe him till he does it - 

Receipt Book

Pigs in a Farmyard by George Morland

18 August 2015

Sisters By a River by Barbara Comyns

Well, I finished this book a few minutes ago and have the 'beastly 'dancing class' feeling in my stomach' that Barbara feels whenever she is uncertain about something about to happen.  What an extraordinary piece of writing.  Apparently this book was written as a memoir to share with her children.  While knowing that Barbara Comyns' background was an extremely sad and difficult one, I resisted the urge to do a bit of digging at the halfway point to find out if things were as horrific as written in this book.  I'm not sure how her children felt about this bold reveal of their lineage full of violence and madness but Sisters By a River would make a perfect bedtime read to horrify twelve year-olds at summer camp.

Told in a series of episodic pieces, each lasting just a few pages, Barbara writes about her family from childhood until she leaves home at seventeen.  The babies began to arrive when her mother was only eighteen with the last one rendering Mammy infertile and deaf.  Similar to descriptions of the Mitford household, there seems to be a knowledge of many things far beyond their years but the babies are thought to be hatched.  While the house seems to be on the scale of a country manor it's in a rundown state and animals raised in front of a warm stove are eventually doomed for the dinnertable.  Doling out cruelties to animals wasn't solely performed by the adults as the girls once tried to ride their rabbits - the results were pretty grim.  Caterpillars were hung on string, ants were burned, and fish were trapped in drainpipes.  There were no heights to which the level of violence would not reach and in describing her father's behaviour....

'Occaisonally he unsuccessfully tried shooting Mammy and as she was quite deaf she didn't even notice.'

The spelling error is intended and an example of how the writing is treated throughout the book although I didn't find it at all distracting.

Written before mass vaccinations there is a consuming fear of rheumatic fever, diphtheria, and pneumonia, which all end up visiting family members at some point,  I did find a laugh out loud moment at one particular incident though...

'Kathleen had a beautiful croupy cough that was always coming, when I had a cough I used to pretend it was much worse than it was and strain myself to make an awful horse croak, but one of the maids called Florrie told me she used to work in an infermany, and an old man there kept coughing away, an up came his lung and she slipped on it in the dark, so I didn't try to cough any more after that.'

To the modern reader there are obvious signs of mental illness but it's also interesting to see signs of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder before it was widely acknowledged.  Routine tasks are repeated a certain number of times to keep away evil happenings, throwing away items that had been touched, and excessive cleaning and disinfecting.

While some of the details in Sisters By a River go a long way to shining a light on Barbara Comyn's personality and writing style I am glad this wasn't my first experience with her work.  I came to this book after the fantastic Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, The Vet's Daughter, and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead and prepared for something off-kilter and slightly macabre.  Still, I've been left feeling a bit wobbly after reading this book and can understand why publishers were hesitant to release it prior to 1947.  It's going to take some time for the queasy feeling to go away but I can already see the brilliance and bravery in the writing.

Girls at a Rabbit Hutch at Ravelston by George Cruikshank