Thursday, 27 February 2014

A Pleasure And A Calling


A Pleasure and a Calling by Phil Hogan
Published by Doubleday
27th February 2014
Hardback Edition

 

 

 

You won't remember Mr Heming. He showed you round your comfortable home, suggested a sustainable financial package, negotiated a price with the owner and called you with the good news. The less good news is that, all these years later, he still has the key.

That's absurd, you laugh. Of all the many hundreds of houses he has sold, why would he still have the key to mine?

The answer to that is, he has the keys to them all.

William Heming's every pleasure is in his leafy community. He loves and knows every inch of it, feels nurtured by it, and would defend it - perhaps not with his life but if it came to it, with yours...

 
If you were to put a gun to my head and ask me to explain myself, I suppose I might begin by saying that we are all creatures of habit.  But then, you might wonder, what creature of habit is a slave to the habits of others?  All I can say is that the habitual is what I love most and am made for; that the best I can do is hang on, have faith, and hope what has lately blown through our unremarkable  but well-ordered town will be forgotten and all will be calm again.  Right now I feel lucky to hear myself breathe.  The air is dangerously thin.  It seems to rush in my ears.  And yet the scene is peaceful here in the half-lit, slumbering pre-dawn: a white coverlet glowing in the room, a discarded necklace of beads, a shelf of books, one face down, splayed on the bedside-table, as though it – like the whole town at this hushed time – is dead to the world.  I cannot make out the title but the sight of this book with its familiar cover image (the shape of a man in raised gilt) returns me to that day, not too long ago, when the wind changed and the sky blackened and ordinary life – startled by the sudden thunderclap of the unusual – reared, kicked over the lantern and turned the barn into a raging inferno whose leaping, thrilling flames could be seen from a hundred miles away.

 

On the surface William Heming is an ordinary man.  Runs a successful estate agency, keeps himself to himself, quiet and unassuming.  But then you might start to wonder why he has no real friends or how come his family, such as it is, want nothing to do with him.  Dig a little deeper and you might find out why he was expelled from school, and why the neighbours from his childhood are suspicious of him.

Mr Heming has more than one secret and he’s very good at keeping them.  And not only secrets - but keys as well.  Every key from every house he has viewed and sold.  Mr Heming likes to visit your house when you aren’t there, sometimes taking a trophy or too while he’s at it.   Occasionally he stays when you are on holiday – call it all part of the service; for once Mr Heming has been let into your house, you can guarantee he won’t be leaving in a hurry.  Mr Heming likes his secrets to remain secrets, so try not to get in his way and find out too much about him, or it might just cost you your life!

I loved this book, it’s original and well-written, and a real page-turner.  If after reading this, you haven’t changed all of your locks, I’d be very surprised!

 

Happy Reading

 

Miss Chapter x

Monday, 24 February 2014

The Visitors


The Visitors by Rebecca Mascull
Published by Hodder & Stoughton
2nd January 2014
Hardback Edition

 

 



Imagine if you couldn't see couldn't hear couldn't speak...Then one day somebody took your hand and opened up the world to you. Adeliza Golding is a deafblind girl, born in late Victorian England on her father's hop farm. Unable to interact with her loving family, she exists in a world of darkness and confusion; her only communication is with the ghosts she speaks to in her head, who she has christened the Visitors. One day she runs out into the fields and a young hop-picker, Lottie, grabs her hand and starts drawing shapes in it. Finally Liza can communicate. Her friendship with her teacher and with Lottie's beloved brother Caleb leads her from the hop gardens and oyster beds of Kent to the dusty veldt of South Africa and the Boer War, and ultimately to the truth about the Visitors. Rebecca Mascull's first novel is the tale of a wonderful friendship, but it is also a thrilling adventure, a heartbreaking love story and a compelling ghost story.

 

My name is Adeliza Golding.  I am born breech and nearly kill Mother.  I hear muffled scrams from within the dark warmth of her belly and kick my feet to rid her of me.  I enter the world in a flood of fluid and blood, pulled by the hands of Doctor.  When I cry out and open my eyes I see a grey blur.  Within it crowds a host of faces; pale and curious, they whisper and nod.  This is my first meeting with the Visitors.

Mother has suffered five who died inside her before me.  I am the miracle who survived.  But my eyes are wrong.  I can see something placed before me, but little beyond that.  I learn to listen and touch, so well that I can discern Father from Nanny from Doctor from Mother from Stranger by the click of the door and the pressure of heel on rug.  The Visitors make no sound in movement, but I hear their voices.  I am a good little talker, saying new words as a fish lays eggs.

When I am nearly two, the fever comes.  A heat like boiling soup.  My ears are inflamed and leak pus.  Father's voice.  Always Father, always close.  Nanny's voice too, and the Doctor's, all grow faint and I think they whisper to spare me discomfort.  But, fade away they do, to nothingness and nowhere.  And never return.  My ears are spoiled.  Even the Visitors hush and lose their voices, looking in on me from time to time, shaking their solemn heads in pity.  I am in my darkling room for months.  It is a year before I can walk again without an arm around me.

 

 
Adeliza Golding is born with cataracts but after contracting scarlet fever, loses her hearing and her eyesight.  By three years of age she is totally deaf and blind.  As a result of this she speaks less and less and eventually becomes a blind deaf-mute.  Her temper grows with her frustration and the only people she has regular contact with are her Father, her Nanny and the Visitors.  Initially you don't know who 'they' are, other than that Adeliza can sense them surrounding her.  One day, when she is six years old, she escapes from the house down to the surrounding hop lanes.  Here she is to meet the woman who changes her life, a woman by the name of Lottie.  For Lottie can do sign language and learns to communicate with Adeliza, letting her into a world that had until then, remained closed to her.

The book progresses, and changes occur when Liza, as she now calls herself, has her sight restored by Dr Knapp in 1895 at the age of 11.  Now she can see the Visitors and they are to play a vital role in her life.  Her friendship with Lottie grows, and even more so when she meets her brother Caleb, whom she falls in love with.

The book moves from Victorian England, through to the heat and drama of South Africa and the Boer War.  I think The Visitors would make a fantastic book group book as there are lots of points up for discussion here.  Rebecca Mascull bases her book on true events including the educational experiences of the deaf-blind from the C19th to the present day; late Victorian hop and oyster farming techniques in Kent; and the Second Anglo-Boer War.  Having never read anything about deaf-blind people before, it certainly heightened my awareness of their plight, especially in Victorian England. 

 

Happy Reading

 
 
Miss Chapter x

Sunday, 23 February 2014

World Book Night 2014

Slightly excited as I've just found out I'm a giver for World Book Night 2014!  If you don't know what it is, and surprisingly lots of people don't, it's an incentive to get people to read and spread the love of reading and a good book.  Basically, givers apply to hand out books on the 23rd April, preferably to non-readers from a selection of titles chosen by the general public.  You can apply online to do this and then if successful, collect your books and hand them out!

This will be the third year I've been a giver, and this time I'll be handing out copies of Jane Fallon's Getting rid of Matthew.  My first choice was actually by Agatha Christie - being my favourite author, and all, but t'was not to be - clearly a favourite with other givers too!




The first year I was chosen I gave out Dodi Smith's I Capture the Castle which I just adore, and the book had the most gorgeous cover up-date too.




Last year I went for a complete flip and chose a very modern novel, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde which is a sort-of fantasy novel about a fictional book world.  I've read the whole series, and really recommend them, though I know for some, he can be a bit like marmite!







So...if you're in my area, look out for a woman standing on a street corner, stopping random strangers and peddling her wares!


Happy Reading


Miss Chapter x

Saturday, 22 February 2014

The Vintage Girl


The Vintage Girl by Hester Browne
Published by Quercus
13th February 2014
Paperback Edition


 

 

 

 

When Evie Nicholson is asked to visit Kettlesheer Castle in Scotland to archive the family heirlooms, she jumps at the chance. Evie's passion for antiques means that, for her, the castle is a treasure trove of mysteries just waiting to be uncovered.

But in each heirloom lies a story, and in the course of her investigations Evie stumbles upon some long-buried family secrets. Add handsome, gloomy heir Robert McAndrew and a traditional candlelit gala to the mix, and Evie's heart is sent reeling with an enthusiasm that may just extend beyond the Kettlesheer silver...

 

Everyone has a weakness.  Some people have a weakness for champagne cocktails.  Or older men with French accents.
     My weakness is old French champagne glasses.  Preferably ones that have seen a bit of apres-midnight action.  Or English pub glasses with real Victorian air bubbles, or those 1950s Babycham glasses with the cute little faun.
     Any kind of glasses, actually, they don't have to match.
     Old sunglasses too, come to think of it.  Also, gloves (satin evening ones, especially), vintage wedding photos, fountain pens, trophies for long-forgotten tournaments, postcards...
     Okay, fine.
     My name is Evie Nicholson, and I am addicted to The Past.

 

This is the sixth book by Hester Browne, but I must admit, only the first one I have read, or heard of - where have I been?  I was drawn initially to the cover, and the word vintage in the title, so had to read it; and I'm glad I did.

The Vintage Girl won't tax your brain by making you think too hard, or leave you puzzling over a huge number of characters.  It drifts along quite nicely thank you very much, in it's own happy little bubble.  And sometimes, books need to be like that - in my humble opinion.

Evie Nicholson works in an antiques shop in Chelsea, run by her boss Max, who dreams of selling valuables from the impoverished English aristocracy to, well, whoever has the money to buy them!  One cold February morning, Evie gets hired to drive to Berwickshire, Scotland to visit Kettlesheer Castle to value the antiques in their home.  Cue lots of fantasies about balls, and dancing, and long-lost letters promising hidden treasures.

The reality isn't quite what she imagines when she arrives at the cold castle, but a few dusty passageways, some hunky single men and the promise of attending the Kettlesheer ball prove to be to much for Evie to handle.  One can only imagine that it's more than dusty treasures she will be returning with!

 

Happy Reading

 
 
Miss Chapter x

Thursday, 20 February 2014

And Then There Were Nuns


And Then There Were Nuns by Jane Christmas
Published by Lion Books
21st February 2014
Paperback Edition

 
 

 


When Colin asks Jane to marry him she joyfully accepts – but then asks him if he would mind waiting for a few months, maybe a year and a half, as she has always wondered if God was calling her to be a nun. Over the course of 18 months, in 2011-2012, she tests out this vocation in a series of religious houses, and we follow her journey and her wonderings. The religious houses she spends time in are based initially in Canada, but then on the Isle of Wight and finally North Yorkshire, and she meets a range of well-realised characters en route, finding both godliness and narrow minded prejudice and inhumanity in all places. What is God calling her to do? Superbly written, very funny, very evocative and very feisty.

 

 

The timing was so unbelievably awkward, it was hard to know whether to laugh or cry.  In the end, I did neither.  I just said, "Yes."
     I had dreamed of this moment for six long years (very patiently, I might add, because six years in female terms is like, what, fifty years?).   A marriage proposal.  Who doesn't love that?  Despite having two failed marriages under my Spanx, I remain intractably optimistic about wedlock.
     I was visiting my beau, Colin, over Christmas.  Our six-year transatlantic relationship had evolved into a contented pattern of visiting each other every three months in our respective countries: England (him) and Canada (me).  The subject of marriage had been broached several times in the intervening years (by me), but it had hit a sticking point - specifically, a complete lack of interest (by him).
     So here we were in a guest room of a seventeenth-century village pub in rural Essex.  It was a bright Boxing Day morning, and a thin crust of frost shimmered on the surrounding fields.  I was absorbed in a near-commando-type mission to find a missing earring.  How does an earring so easily disappear?  It was on this table a minute ago.
     Colin was gathering up our bits and bags in preparation for check-out.  From the corner of my eye I saw his lean, lanky frame methodically checking drawers and closets to ensure nothing was left behind.  He is a quiet man by nature, but he was more so this day, and I assumed he was perturbed that I was taking so long to get organized.
     Ah, there it is!  "Found it!" I said triumphantly, as I plucked the earring from its hiding spot beneath the corner of a clock radio.  I whispered a prayer of thanks and hooked it into my lobe.

Suddenly, Colin grabbed one of my hands.  "I'm ready now; sorry to have taken so long," I said, trying to wrench my hand from his so that I could get my coat.  But he wouldn't let go.  When I turned to face him, he was on the floor.  On bended knee.
     Oh dear, has he stumbled?  I yanked on him arm to help him up, but he resisted, pulling me toward him instead.  This tug-of-war went of for a few seconds until I noticed his smiling blue yes gazing up at me through a fringe of gray-flecked ginger hair.
     Uh-oh!  My heart raced, my face flushed.  I saw a small velvet box bloom from his unfurling hand as Colin said softly, "Will you marry me?"
     I stood in a state of ecstatic disbelief, one hand holding his hand (more for balance now), the other covering my mouth as I blubbered like a schoolgirl, "Yes!"
     And this is where the awkward-timing aspect came into play, because moments earlier I had been rehearsing in my mind how to tell Colin that I had decided to become a nun.

 

Okay, so hands up, this is not my usual read.  For starters, it has a cheery yellow cover, and no murders are committed within its 304 pages, but the title is a play on one of my favourite Agatha Christie books so I had to read it, didn't I?!

It's a simple enough plot - girl meets boy, boy proposes, girl decides she wants to become a nun.  After Colin's shock proposal, Jane tells him of her intention, and he gives her 18 months to make up her mind.  We then follow Jane around a number of religious houses, on both sides of the Atlantic, to see if the cloistered life is the one for her.

This is a well-written book, and it is amusing.  It's not heavy on the religious aspects; there's no preaching involved, just a general telling of every day life for the monks and nuns that she meets on her 'journey'.  It's a lifestyle that many of us are probably not familiar with, and I was fascinated with the stories that Jane tells, and of the people still seeking out this way of life today.  I read it in a couple-of-days and really enjoyed it.  As to whether Jane chooses a life with God or with Colin though, I couldn't possibly reveal - you'll have to read the book for yourself!



Happy Reading

 
 
Miss Chapter x

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Sisterland


Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld
Published by Black Swan
1st January 2014
Paperback Edition

 

 


For identical twins, Kate and Violet are about as unlike as two peas from the same pod can be. Except in one respect - they share a hidden gift. But after Kate inadvertently reveals their secret when they are thirteen years old, their lives are set on diverging paths.

Twenty years later Kate, a devoted wife and mother, has settled down in the suburbs to raise her two young children. Violet is single, and lives a much more flamboyant and eccentric existence. Then one day Violet ignites a media storm by predicting a major earthquake in the St Louis area where they live.

As the day Violet has announced for the earthquake draws nearer, Kate must attempt to reconcile her fraught relationship with her sister, and to face truths about herself she has long tried to deny.

 

The shaking started around three in the morning, and it happened that I was already awake because I'd nursed Owen at two and then, instead of being sensible and going back to sleep, I'd lain there brooding about the fight I'd had at lunch with my sister, Vi.  I'd driven with Owen and Rosie in the backseat to pick up Vi, and the four of us had gone to Hacienda.  We'd finished eating and I was collecting Rosie's stray food from the tabletop - once I had imagined I wouldn't be the kind of mother who ordered chicken tenders for her child off the menu at a Mexican restaurant - when Vi said, "So I had a date tomorrow."
     "That's great," I said. "Who is it?!
     Casually, after running the tip of her tongue over her top teeth to check for food, Vi said, "She's an IT consultant, which sounds boring, but she's traveled a lot in South and Central America, so she couldn't be a total snooze, right?"
     I was being baited, but I tried to match Vi's casual tone as I said, "Did you meet online?"  Rosie, who was two and a half, had gotten up from the table, wandered over to a fiscus plant in the corner, and was smelling the leaves.  beside me in the booth, buckled into his car seat, Owen, who was six months, grabbed at a little plush giraffe that hung from the car seat's handle.
     Vi nodded.  "There's pretty slim picking for dykes in St. Louis."
     "So that's what you consider yourself these days?" I leaned in and said in a lowered tone, "A lesbian?"
     Looking amused, Vi imitated my inclined posture and quiet voice.  "What if the manager hears you?" she said.  "And gets a boner?"  She grinned.  "At this point, I'm bi-celibate.  Or should I say Vi-sexual?  But I figure it's all a numbers game - I keep putting myself out there and, eventually I cross paths with Ms. or Mr. Right."

 

Kate and Violet are identical twins, but aside from that, they are completely different.  Kate is married with two children, living a suburban lifestyle.  Violet is single, bohemian and gives readings to people about their future.  One day, Violet predicts that there will be a major earthquake, and this is picked up by America's media.  The whole country goes crazy; for what Kate has kept quiet about for the past twenty years, is that her and Violet have psychic tendencies.

The book weaves back and forth from the twins' childhood through to the present day, and how and why Kate decided to hide the gift that she was born with.  As the predicted day of the earthquake arrives, I found myself reading faster to find out whether the prophecy would pan out or whether Violet would end up a laughing stock for voicing her opinion so publicly. 

Woven into the story are Kate and her husband Jeremy's neighbours and best friends, Courtney and Hank.  Courtney works with Jeremy and is an expert in seismology and plate tectonics - an inevitable clash is likely as Courtney's views of the predicted earthquake differ dramatically from that of Violet's.  As a stay-at-home mother, Kate spends an inordinate amount of time with Hank on play-dates with their children; surely this can only lead to trouble?

I really like Curtis Sittenfeld's style of writing, since reading The American Wife when it was first published, and Sisterland kept me turning the pages throughout.  I have to say I got slightly annoyed by the way two year old Rosie speaks, as my children never used the third person to talk, and I desperately wanted her to be corrected from doing this, but aside from that, I thought this was a good read.  Clearly I can't say whether the earthquake prediction pans out, and I don't want to give anything away, but I felt that the book started out with the prediction as it's centre-piece and then filtered into being more about relationships and how, when under pressure, these change, sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse.  After all, if you thought a major earthquake was about to happen, who would you cling to?

I think Sisterland would make a great book group book as there are lots of points for discussion here.

 

Happy Reading

 
 
Miss Chapter x

Doll Bones


Doll Bones by Holly Black
Published by Random House Children's Publishers UK
4th July 2013
Hardback Edition

 

 

 

Twelve-year-old Zach is too old to play with toys. Or at least, that's what his father thinks.

But even though he stops hanging out with Poppy and Alice, stops playing with his action figures, it's no good. There's one toy that still wants to play with him. A doll that's made from the bones of a dead girl.

The only way to end the game is to lay the doll to rest forever. It's time for a journey to Spring Grove cemetery. It's time to grow up.

A chilling ghost story by the bestselling author of The Spiderwick Chronicles, Holly Black.


Poppy set down one of the mermaid dolls close to the stretch of asphalt road that represented the Blackest Sea.  They were old - bought from Goodwil - with big shiny heads, different-coloured tails, and frizzy hair.

Zachary Barlow could almost imagine their fins lashing back and forth as they waited for the boat to get closer, their silly plastic smiles hiding their lethal intentions.  They'd crash the ship against the shallows if they could, lure the crew into the sea, and eat the pirates with their jagged teeth.

Zachary rummaged through his bag of action figures.  He pulled out the pirate with the two cutlasses and placed him gently at the center of the boat-shaped paper they'd weighed down with driveway gravel.  Without gravel, the Neptune's Pearl was likely to blow away in the early autumn wind.  He could almost believe he wasn't on the scrubby lawn in front of Poppy's ramshackle house with the sagging sideing, but aboard a real ship, with salt spray stinging his face, on his way to adventure.

 

Following on from the success of The Spiderwick Chronicles comes this new tale from Holly Black, and I must admit, for a children's book, it's quite creepy!  Best friends Zach, Poppy and Alice love playing adventure stories with their dolls, that is until Zach's dad comes back and tells him he's too old to do that anymore.  The only problem is, Zach must continue the game, because one of the dolls has started speaking to them, she's made up of the bones of a real girl and won't rest until she is buried properly.

This story starts out innocently enough, the three friends meet and play regularly and plan at school what is going to happen next in the game.  It's interesting because whilst the activities described here are possibly to be associated with children of a much younger age, this story in parts, is all about growing up, and if or when, playing has to end.

Once the 'Great Queen' doll starts to tell her story though, the book does get quite dark.  I felt a bit freaked out by the thought of a doll made from a real person but there's a reason behind it all.  The problem for the three friends is, though, can they get her to Spring Grove cemetery so that they can end her misery, or will it all end in disaster?

This is a well-written book that kept me turning the pages.  Definitely for the 9 and up age group though!

 

Happy Reading

 
Miss Chapter x

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald


Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler
Published by Two Roads
12th September 2013
Paperback Edition

 

 



'I wish I could tell everyone who thinks we're ruined.  Look closer, and you'll see something extraordinary, mystifying, something real and true.  We have never been what we seemed.'


A novel of the woman dubbed 'The First Flapper' - Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, wife and muse to F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Set against the glamorous backdrop of the Roaring Twenties, Z is the story of the woman who lived large and ached to find her own identity in the shadow of her celebrated husband.

 

                                                                                 December 20, 1940
Dear Scott,

     The Love of the Last Tycoon is a great title for your novel.  What does Max say?
     I've been thinking that maybe I'll brave an airplane ride and come to see you for New Year's.  Wire me the money, if you can.  Won't we be quite the pair? - you with your bad heart, me with my bad head.  Together, though, we might have something worthwhile.  I'll bring you some of those cheese biscuits you always loved, and you can read me what you've written so far.  I know it's going to be a wonderful novel, Scott, your best one yet.
     This is short so I can send it before the post office closes today.  Write me soon.

                                                                                             Devotedly

                                                                                                       Z~

 
If I could fit myself into this mail slot, here, I'd follow my letter all the way to Hollywood, all the way to Scott, right up to the door of our next future.  We have always had a next one, after all, and there's no good reason we shouldn't start this one now.  If only people could travel as easily as words.  Wouldn't that be something?  If only we could be so easily revised.
     The postmaster comes, keys jingling, to lock up.  "How are you, Mrs Sayre?" he says, despite knowing that I've been Mrs. Fitzgerald since 1920. He is full-blood Alabama, Sam is; Sayre from his is Say-yah, whereas I have come to pronounce those trailing soft consonants somewhat, after being away for so long.
     I tuck my hands into my sweater's pockets and move toward the door.  "I'm just about right as rain, Sam, thanks.  I hope you are."
     He holds the door for me.  "Been worse.  Have a good evenin', now."
     I've been worse, too.  Far worse, and Sam knows this.  Everyone in Montgomery knows this.  I see them staring at me when I'm at the market or the post office or church.  People whisper about how I went crazy, how my brother went crazy, how sad it is to see Judge Sayre's children spoil his legacy.  It all comes from the mother's side, they whisper, despite Mama, whose main crime is that she came from Kentucky, being as sound and sensible as any of them - which, now that I think of it, may not be saying much.
     Outside, the sun has sunk below the horizon, tired of this day, tired of this year, as ready as I am to start anew.  How long before Scott gets my letter?  How long 'til I get his reply?  I'd buy a plane ticket first thing tomorrow if I could.  It's time I took care of him, for a change.



Therese Anne Fowler has written a cracking book about the life of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald.  I have to admit, I started this book a long time ago, last year in fact, but have been reading it slowly; letting it linger before finally finishing it last night.  Written in the first person, this book takes us from Zelda's first meeting of the man who was to become her husband, right through to his death in 1940.  Through those years, we see Zelda go from a young socialite, to the icon of the Roaring Twenties to being incarcerated for suspected schizophrenia. 

We follow Scott as a budding author, through his success as The Great Gatsby is published, and then of how his life turns, ironically at about the same time as he meets up-and-coming author Ernest Hemmingway.  Once the Fitzgerald's meet Hemmingway, things start to change for all of them, and life is not how it once was.  Added into this tale, are the streets of Paris, and trips to Italy and the Riviera, of wild parties, and endless fun - or was it?
 
Coming swiftly on the back of the re-release of The Great Gatsby film, Fowler has written a fantastic novel about the woman behind the man.  Of her struggle to find her own identity and to make a name for herself.  I loved this book, especially the beautiful cover, and wholeheartedly recommend it for immersing yourself into the glamorous Flapper Age.

 
Happy Reading

 
Miss Chapter x

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

The Secret Life of Bletchley Park

The Secret Life of Bletchley Park by Sinclair McKay
Published by Aurum Press
1st August 2011
Paperback Edition
 

 
 
 
 
 
Bletchley Park was where one of the war’s most famous – and crucial – achievements was made: the cracking of Germany’s “Enigma” code in which its most important military communications were couched. This country house in the Buckinghamshire countryside was home to Britain’s most brilliant mathematical brains, like Alan Turing, and the scene of immense advances in technology – indeed, the birth of modern computing. The military codes deciphered there were instrumental in turning both the Battle of the Atlantic and the war in North Africa.

But, though plenty has been written about the boffins, and the codebreaking, fictional and non-fiction – from Robert Harris and Ian McEwan to Andrew Hodges’ biography of Turing – what of the thousands of men and women who lived and worked there during the war? What was life like for them – an odd, secret territory between the civilian and the military?

Sinclair McKay’s book is the first history for the general reader of life at Bletchley Park, and an amazing compendium of memories from people now in their eighties – of skating on the frozen lake in the grounds (a depressed Angus Wilson, the novelist, once threw himself in) – of a youthful Roy Jenkins, useless at codebreaking, of the high jinks at nearby accommodation hostels – and of the implacable secrecy that meant girlfriend and boyfriend working in adjacent huts knew nothing about each other’s work.
 
 
Sarah Baring - and her good friend Osla Henniker-Major - received the summons by means of a terse telegram.  She remembers that it read: 'You are to report to Station X at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, in four days time.  Your postal address is Box 111, co The Foreign Office.  That is all you need to know.'
     These two aritstocratic young women arrived one evening in the spring of 1941, having travelled by rail from Euston.  Their journey had been rendered a little fraught by a male passenger sitting opposite in their compartment, apparently manipulating himself obscenely through his trouser pockets.  After some whispered conference, the two outraged young women decided that Osla should deal with the grubby man by reaching up to the luggage rack and then 'accidentally dropping their case of gramophone records' on his lap..  The man got the message and 'fled up the corridor'.
     Just over an hour later, they were there. 'We decanted ourselves from the train at Bletchley station,' recalls the Honourable Sarah Baring, 'and then, weighed down by our luggage, we staggered up a rutted narrow path.  On the side of the tracks, there was an eight foot high chained fence.  It was topped by a roll of barbed wire.'
 
 
Having finally caught up with the second series of The Bletchley Circle on television the other night, I thought I would share this fantastic book with you, about some of the men and women who actually worked at Bletchley Park during the Second World War.
 
 
 
The house at Bletchley Park
 
It is a fantastically easy read, recounting the tales of those who were there, right from the moment that they were summoned to appear at Bletchley, to the present day.  Surprisingly, despite now being able to talk about their experiences, many still keep the silence sworn by the Official Secrets Act and have still not discussed their time at Bletchley with others.  No one talked to anyone else there, especially if they were working in different huts, and couples today, still haven't discussed with each other the work that they did every day.   If you don't know it's early beginnings, let me recount some of the history for you, courtesy of the Bletchley Park website.
 
The arrival of ‘Captain Ridley's Shooting Party’ at a mansion house in the Buckinghamshire countryside in late August 1938 was to set the scene for one of the most remarkable stories of World War Two. They had an air of friends enjoying a relaxed weekend together at a country house. They even brought with them one of the best chefs at the Savoy Hotel to cook their food. But the small group of people who turned up at Bletchley Park were far from relaxed. They were members of MI6, and the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), a secret team of individuals including a number of scholars turned Codebreakers. Their job; to see whether Bletchley Park would work as a wartime location, well away from London, for intelligence activity by GC&CS as well as elements of MI6.

The GC&CS mission was to crack the Nazi codes and ciphers. The most famous of the cipher systems to be broken at Bletchley Park was the Enigma. There were also a large number of lower-level German systems to break as well as those of Hitler's allies. At the start of the war in September 1939 the codebreakers returned to Bletchey Park to begin their war-winning work in earnest.



Hut 6

I was able to finally go to Bletchley Park last Autumn, despite only growing up nearby, and took my girls along for a day of codebreaking.  It really is a truly fantastic site, and reading this book brought home the fantastic work that these ordinary people did - imagine being recruited to decipher government codes by entering a crossword competition!

Happy Reading


Miss Chapter x


 

Monday, 10 February 2014

Apple Tree Yard


Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty
Published by Faber & Faber
2nd January 2014
Paperback Edition

 

 

 

 

Don't tell them about Apple Tree Yard, don't tell them about us.  No one has any way of knowing.  Nothing is written down.


Yvonne Carmichael has worked hard to achieve the life she always wanted: a high-flying career in genetics, a beautiful home, a good relationship with her husband and their two grown-up children.
     Then one day she meets a stranger at the Houses of Parliament and, on impulse, begins a passionate affair with him - a decision that will put everything she values at risk.
     At first she believes she can keep the relationship separate from the rest of her life, but she can't control what happens next.  All of her careful plans spiral into greater deceit and, eventually, a life-changing act of violence.

 
The moment builds; it swells and builds - the moment when I realise we have lost.  The young barrister, Ms Bonnard, is on her feet in front of me: a small woman, as you probably remember, auburn hair beneath the judicial wig.  Her gaze is cool, her voice light.  Her black robes look chic rather than sinister.  She radiates calm, believability.  I have been in the witness box two days now and I am tired, really tired.  Later, I will understand that Ms Bonnard chose this time of day deliberately.  She wasted quite a lot of time earlier in the afternoon, asking about my education, my marriage, my hobbies.  She has been down so many different avenues that at first I am not alert to the fact that this new line of questioning has any significance.  The moment builds but slowly; it swells to its climax.


Apple Tree Yard begins with a court case.  You, the reader, are aware that Yvonne Carmichael and her lover, are in court, but you certainly don't know what for.  In fact, you don't know what for, until almost the very end of the book - a clever ploy by Louise Doughty to keep you reading to find out whom, what, and why.
 
Then we go back in time.  Was I wholly convinced by the initial scenario at the Houses of Parliament where Yvonne sees a man in a corridor, follows him, and then ends up having a sexual relationship with him without so much as a word being uttered?  Possibly not, though I can see how it could possibly happen.  Then, though,  the book comes into itself; who is this mysterious lover?  Why is he so aloof and cagey about his everyday life?  Is he, as Yvonne suspects, a spy?

Caught up in a whirlwind romance, Yvonne starts risking everything for her affair to continue.  Then someone from work hints that they may know more than she would like, and that's when her perfect life comes tumbling down.

Apple Tree Yard is a page-turner.  Initially you want to know about the court case and what Yvonne has done to be in that situation; then you want get drawn into the affair and that relationship.  Then, finally, at the end of the novel, Louise Doughty delivers the final blow!  You can see why everyone is talking about it!

 

Happy Reading

 

 
Miss Chapter x

Saturday, 8 February 2014

The Diary of a Provincial Lady

The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield
Published by Virago Modern Classics
First published in 1930
Paperback Edition






The Provincial Lady has a nice house, a nice husband (usually asleep behind The Times) and nice children.  In fact, maintaining Niceness is the Provincial Lady's goal in life - her raison d'etre.  She never raises her voice, rarely ventures outside Devon (why would she?), only occasionally allows herself to become vexed by the ongoing servant problem, and would be truly appalled by the confessional mode of the late twentieth century.  The Provincial Lady is, after all, part of what made Britain great.


November 7th - Plant the indoor bulbs. Just as I am in the middle of them, Lady Boxe calls.  I say, untruthfully, how nice to see her, and beg her to sit down while I just finish the bulbs. Lady B. makes a determined attempt to sit down in armchair where I have already placed two bulb-bowls and the bag of charcoal, is headed off just in time, and takes the sofa.
     Do I know, she asks, how very late it is for indoor bulbs?  September, really, or even October, is the time.  Do I know that the only really reliable firm for hyacinths is Somebody of Haarlem?  Cannot catch the name of the firm, which is Dutch, but reply Yes, I do know, but think it my duty to buy Empire products.  Feel at the time, and still think, that this is an excellent reply.  Unfortunately Vicky comes into the drawing-room later and says: "Oh, Mummie, are those the bulbs we got at Woolworth's?"


I love books that you can just dip in and out of, and The Diary of a Provincial Lady is just right for this.  Written in 1930 by E. M. Delafield, it evenutally became four books, all containing the diary extracts of, as you may have guessed, a provincial lady.  If you thought that when Helen Fielding created Bridget Jones she was being original, then you need to read this; E. M. Delafield definitely did it first.  The extracts are short, snappy and extremely funny.  And who can fail to love a book that actually begins on their birthday?!  I think the joy of this book can be justified by the number of times that it has been published, and republished.  I love the variety of the covers.


1947 dust jacket







The Cath Kidston version



In fact, such is the love for this book, that the fantastic Persephone Books are releasing it in April (but if you go to their website you can buy it early, for £8, until February 14th).


If I didn't already have a copy, I'd be buying this one!



This is the perfect book for curling up in an armchair with, whilst the world goes by.


Happy Reading


Miss Chapter x

Thursday, 6 February 2014

The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life

The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life by Lyndsy Spence
Published by The History Press
5th August 2013
Hardback Edition

 

 


The six Mitford girls were blessed with beauty, wit and talent, yet they led very distinct, cultural lives and not one sister, except for Diana and Unity, shared the same opinion or ideology.  Nancy Mitford was the ultimate tease and her talent for mockery reformed the publishing industry in the 1930s and '40s.  Indeed, the girls' popularity provoked Jessica to label it 'The Mitford Industry'.  As individuals they exploited their attributes to the best of their abilities, and through difficult times they used laughter as their remedy.  Their life experiences, although sometimes maddening, are a lesson to us all.  How would the Mitford girls cope with the pressures and turmoil of modern life?  Whether it is Pamela's guide to throwing a jubilee party, Nancy's guide to fashion or Diana's tips on how to stay young, this quirky, fact-filled book draws on rare and unpublished interviews and information to answer that question.

 

How ghastly all the Mitfords sound, though of courese in real life, ha-ha, they are ideal.

                                                                                                                              Diana



Never have there been more talked about sisters than the six Mitford girls. They were the beautiful daughters of Lord and Lady Redesdale (know to their children as Farve and Muv), and were, in order of birth: Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah.  There were sixteen years between Nancy, the eldest, and Deborah, the youngest.  This large age gap divided the sisters into two different generations which, in a way, made them almost like a separate family.
     Nancy, Pamela (to a limited extent) and Diana mixed with the Bright Young Things and experienced London's high society at the height of its glamour.  They were young adults at a time when one could hop from foreign holiday to country manor on very little money, but of course it did help if one was part of the inner circle of the British aristocracy.
     Unity, the quintessential middle child, wavered between childishly gushing to her eldest sisters and throwing her weight around with the younger set; she was a stereotypical lost soul who went to dangerous lengths to find her niche away from her dazzling older sisters.
     Jessica and Deborah were playmates and confidantes; separated from the older sisters, they relied on each other's company until Jessica eloped with their second cousin Romilly.  Deborah and Jessica experienced the 1920s and 1930s from the secluded security of the family home, Swinbrook House, with only their animals to keep them amused.

 

I've been Mitford-obsessed since 2001 when one day, I opened the Sunday newspaper and read an article about the 'Mitford girls'.  I'd never heard of them, but was instantly fascinated, so I ordered a book online and read it as soon as it arrived.  I was hooked.  Since then, I've bought as many books about, and by, the Mitfords as I've been able, and when I saw that a new one had emerged, it had to be added to the collection.



The Mitford Family



You may have already heard of Nancy, a successful author, or maybe the only remaining sister Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, responsible for rebuilding Chatsworth House to what it is today?  Or maybe you know about Unity, who shot herself when the Second World War was announced, such was her devotion to Adolf Hitler, or maybe of Diana, the second wife to fascist leader Oswald Mosley? 


Diana and Nancy


If not, let Mitford devotee Lyndsy Spence introduce you to this fascinating family.  The Mitford Girls' Guide to Life is a wonderfully light-hearted book on how this variable bunch of sisters would adapt in our modern age.  Ever wondered what advice Diana would give to going to prison?  Or, as a Duchess, what fashion choices one should make, according to Deborah?  If so, then this book is most definitely for you!


Nancy



The book also contains unseen photographs and personal recollections that are exclusive to Lyndsy Spence, so it's certainly an original tome in its own right.  Find out what Diana's favourite colour ink was, and what Deborah's dream job would have been, had she not become Duchess of Devonshire.  Personally, I love Pamela's tip for choosing an aga - chose one to match the colour of your eyes, hers was cornflower blue!  (Not so great if they are a muddy brown colour?!).  If you haven't heard of the Mitfords yet, then where have you been?  Grab a copy of this, and settle down to find out the opinions of arguably the most famous sisters of the twentieth century.  Lyndsy Spence has not let me down.  This is a worthy addition to any Mitford fan's bookshelf. 

 

Happy reading

 
 
Miss Chapter x


* Thank you to The Mitford Society for permission to use these photos.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Season to Taste


Season to Taste by Natalie Young
Published by Tinder Press
16th January 2014
Hardback Edition
 
 

 

  

Always let the meat rest under foil for at least ten minutes before carving...

Meet Lizzie Prain. Ordinary housewife. Fifty-something. Lives in a cottage in the woods, with her dog Rita. Likes cooking, avoids the neighbours. Runs a little business making cakes.

No one has seen Lizzie's husband, Jacob, for a few days. That's because last Monday, on impulse, Lizzie caved in the back of his head with a spade. And if she's going to embark on the new life she feels she deserves after thirty years in Jacob's shadow, she needs to dispose of his body. Her method appeals to all her practical instincts, though it's not for the faint-hearted. Will Lizzie have the strength to follow it through?



Lizzie got into the Volvo and adjusted the seat and the mirror.  On the air in the car and from the upholstery she caught the smell of his buttery skin and the tobacco from him; and she kept that smell in all the way to the lake. With the cold outside and the heating on and the dog breathing in the boot, she managed to trap them both in a white steaming fug and she kept her arm moving against the windscreen to clear a view of the road.  It was very silly.  But opening the window and letting that smell of her husband go seemed a bit silly too.

She crunched to a halt at the lake and looked at the coins - one and two pees - scattered around the handbrake.  There was a piece of paper with a shopping list written in pencil.

Sug

Flo

Egg

Butt

LP

A stub of pencil lay on the floor, with a chewed rubber on the end.  At Joanna's house in London he'd experimented with drugs.  He hadn't told Lizzie what, or how; only that he'd tried things, and had 'a ball'.  'LP' was loo paper.  She stared at the writing and wondered what it meant if a person wrote like that: right up in the corner, taking up so little space, and then leaving all that white.  She lifted the piece of paper right up to her eye and closed the other one while trying to read through the blur.  Then she dropped it in the driver's door pocket and went out into the air.

 


Season to Taste is undoubtedly unlike any novel you may have ever read before; at least in my case it is.  Lizzie Prain is an ordinary 50-something woman.  Nothing dramatic ever happens to either her, or her husband Jacob in their woodland cottage.  Except a few nights ago, Lizzie decided to hit her husband over the head with a spade, and now he's dead.

This part of the story isn't so extraordinary.  I read a lot of crime novels; I've read all this before.  What I haven't come across, is the next part.  And this is the crux of the story.  Lizzie decides that she doesn't want to go to prison for Jacob's murder, and that if she tries to bury him, at some point he may be discovered.  She decides that it's an all-or-nothing situation, and this requires stamina, strength and a lot of herbs.  Lizzie Prain is going to eat her husband.

And she does.  Bit by bit.  The descriptions are so intense you can smell the herbs being rubbed into each joint.  Whilst this is going on, Lizzie is carrying on with normal life, applying for jobs and meeting new people.  Who on earth would suspect her of such a heinous crime?

Whilst I read Season to Taste in only 24 hours, I'm of mixed opinions as to whether I actually liked it.  It's had a profound effect on me.  The preparations are so evocative of a recipe book that it actually put me off food.  I didn't want to read more, and yet I was drawn to find out whether Lizzie would a) eat all of Jacob and b) get away with it.  Clearly I can't reveal either scenario, you're going to have to read it for yourself to find out.  Suffice to say, Natalie Young has written a book that is going to be discussed for a long time to come.  I think this would make an ideal conversation piece for book groups everywhere.

 

Happy reading

 

Miss Chapter x