The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

This is the first of the five volumes which form The Cazalet Chronicles, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s series about an upper-middle class English family and how their lives are affected by World War II. Everyone seemed to be reading these books a year or two ago (if they hadn’t already read them at the time of publication), so I’m coming to them late as usual!

First published in 1990, The Light Years opens in the summer of 1937 with three generations of the Cazalet family gathering at Home Place, the Sussex home of ‘the Brig’, now an elderly man but still in charge of the family business, and his wife, affectionately known as ‘the Duchy’. The Brig and the Duchy have three sons; two of these, Hugh and Edward, work in the business and are able to provide comfortable lifestyles for their wives and children, but the third brother, Rupert, has chosen a different path in life – as an artist who is yet to find any success, he is struggling financially, much to the disappointment of his second wife, the beautiful and much younger Zoe. There is also a sister, Rachel, who is unmarried but, unknown to the rest of the family, in love with her friend, a woman called Sid.

After being introduced to each of the Cazalets, their spouses, children, servants and friends, we then jump forward a year to 1938 when the same people – and several more – are beginning to gather together again. On the surface it looks like being another idyllic summer of relaxing in the garden, playing tennis and board games and visiting the beach, but in reality, few if any of the characters are truly happy. There are cracks appearing in Rupert and Zoe’s marriage, and in Edward and Villy’s, Rachel dreads being separated from Sid, and the children face a series of dramas ranging from chickenpox and the loss of beloved pets to the fear of being sent away to school. Meanwhile, the approaching war casts a shadow over everything, as the possibility of conflict with Germany, which at first seemed so remote, begins to look more and more likely.

I didn’t get off to a very good start with this book; it took me a while to get into it, but I think part of the problem was that with so many characters, and the perspective switching from one to the other every few pages, it made it difficult to find someone to identify with and focus on. Somewhere around the middle of the book, though, things changed. I felt that I was starting to get to know some of the characters at last, and to feel sympathy for the situations they were in. I went from wondering whether to continue reading to knowing that I would not only be finishing this book, but almost certainly reading the second one, Marking Time, as well!

I particularly enjoyed spending time with the younger generation of the family. The relationships, friendships and rivalries between three of the girls – Louise, Polly and Clary – and three of the boys – Teddy, Simon and Christopher – were very well written and I’m looking forward to seeing them continue to develop as they grow up. Sometimes when you read a novel with child characters, it feels as though the author has forgotten what it was like to be a child; that was not the case in this book – I felt that Elizabeth Jane Howard had remembered exactly how a child’s mind works and the things that are important to them.

I did end up feeling very positive about this book overall and can understand now why so many people love this series so much. The last thing I need at the moment is to be adding four more long novels to my TBR, but I think I’ll have to as I can’t imagine not finding out what happens next to the Cazalets!

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Margaret Kennedy Day: Lucy Carmichael

For this year’s Margaret Kennedy Day, hosted by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock, I decided to read Lucy Carmichael, Kennedy’s tenth novel, published in 1951. With so many of her books still unread to choose from – I’ve previously read only The Constant Nymph and Troy Chimneys – I had no real reason for picking this one over the others, but it’s one of Jane’s favourites so I hoped I had made a good choice!

Lucy Carmichael, as you would expect, follows the story of Lucy Carmichael who, as the novel opens, is preparing for her wedding to Patrick Reilly. It should be one of the happiest days of Lucy’s life, but instead it is one of the worst: Patrick doesn’t turn up, the wedding doesn’t take place and Lucy is left devastated. As she tries to come to terms with what has happened, she decides that if she is to move on with her life she needs to get away and start again in a place where nobody knows about her past. And so she jumps at the chance to take a new job at an arts institute in another town, which sounds like just the sort of change she needs.

Settling into her new home and new job in Ravonsbridge, Lucy makes new friends, forms new relationships and becomes a valued member of the community. Eventually she will even have the chance to love again, although it will take her a while to get to that point as she now has different priorities and more experience, and wants to get things right this time. Apart from the drama of the opening scenes this is not a very dramatic story, but there is still a lot going on in Lucy’s life and I won’t delve into the plot in any more detail as I wouldn’t want to spoil any little surprises for future readers.

Margaret Kennedy shows a lot of understanding and sympathy for Lucy’s situation; being jilted at the altar is, thankfully, not something I have experienced myself but if it did happen I hope that I would have the strength to react the way Lucy does, with dignity and resilience, rather than allowing her heartbreak and humiliation to destroy the rest of her life. Lucy is also lucky that she has a close and loyal friend – Melissa – who keeps in touch with her after she leaves home, and although the story of their friendship is told mainly in the form of letters, it was one of my favourite aspects of the book.

But although I did enjoy this book – very much so – I couldn’t quite love it. I thought the story lost its way a little bit during the second half of the book and while Lucy’s work in the community was still interesting to read about, I wasn’t as absorbed as I was at the beginning. Last year for Margaret Kennedy Day I read Troy Chimneys, which turned out to be one of my books of the year; of all Kennedy’s novels, I suspect that was the perfect one for me and that I can’t expect the others to satisfy all of my personal reading tastes in quite the same way. Still, it was lovely to meet and get to know Lucy!

Have you read Lucy Carmichael or anything else by Margaret Kennedy? Are you taking part in this year’s Margaret Kennedy Day?

Vittoria Cottage by D E Stevenson

This is only the third book I’ve read by D E Stevenson, but I’m finding that her novels are perfect when I’m in the mood for something gentle and undemanding, but still with convincing characters, some insights into human nature and just enough plot to keep me interested from beginning to end. Having read what other people have to say about her books it seems that they vary in quality, but I think I’ve been lucky with the three I’ve chosen to read so far (Miss Buncle’s Book, Amberwell and now this one).

Vittoria Cottage is the first in a trilogy. The ‘cottage’ of the title is located in the quiet English village of Ashbridge and is home to the Dering family. Arnold Dering died before the novel opens, leaving behind his widow Caroline and their two daughters (there’s also a son who is with the army in Malaya). The younger daughter, Bobbie, doesn’t give Caroline any problems – at least not during the course of this first novel – but the same can’t be said about pretty, selfish Leda. Her engagement to law student Derek causes concern for both families, who can see that the young couple will have no money and are perhaps not very well suited anyway. However, Caroline and Derek’s father resist the temptation to interfere too much and leave Derek and Leda to learn this the hard way.

Meanwhile, Caroline has a romantic interest of her own, although she tries to deny even to herself that she is falling in love. He is a newcomer to the village – Robert Shepperton, a man with a mysterious past. What did he do during the war? What happened to his family? And why has he come to Ashbridge? When Caroline’s sister Harriet, a London actress, arrives for a long stay at Vittoria Cottage, she also finds herself drawn to Robert. But which sister, if either, is Robert interested in?

The main characters in the novel are well drawn and engaging (apart from one or two, such as Bobbie, who remain a bit shadowy) and I liked Caroline immediately. As an older, more mature heroine, she is sensible and practical and if she can sometimes be frustratingly naive and lacking in self-confidence, it only makes her all the more human. I enjoyed watching her relationship with Robert Shepperton slowly develop – a relationship built around friendship and trust. I also liked Caroline’s maid, Comfort Podbury, a young woman who has gained a lot of weight due to a medical condition and is devoted to Caroline because she is one of the few people in Ashbridge who doesn’t judge her by her size.

Vittoria Cottage was published in 1949 and the effects of the war on Caroline and her friends are clear – rationing is still in place, the Derings wonder where Mr Shepperton gets enough coupons to buy so many new clothes, and Caroline is surprised when she finds herself in trouble for attempting to send eggs to Harriet in London. If I’m going to be critical, I could say that this book doesn’t feel very original and I can think of quite a few other novels I’ve read by similar authors which have similar settings and similar types of characters. I don’t think that matters too much, though, because DE Stevenson is very good at writing novels like this and, as I said at the start of this post, sometimes they are just what I’m in the right mood for.

I didn’t enjoy Vittoria Cottage as much as the last Stevenson book I read, Amberwell, but I did like it. The ending seems very abrupt and, without saying too much about it, it’s satisfying in some ways but in others not very satisfying at all! If I want to know what happens next to the Dering family, I’ll have to read the other two in the trilogy, Music in the Hills and Shoulder the Sky.

More mini-reviews: The Sea Road West; Circle of Pearls; The Silver Swan

Time for another trio of mini-reviews! I’ll start with The Sea Road West, a 1975 novel by Scottish author Sally Rena. Set in a small community in the Scottish Highlands, the novel begins with the death of the parish priest, Father Macabe. It’s not long before a replacement arrives, but Father James, being young, idealistic and English, is not quite what the people of Kintillo were expecting. Struggling to settle into his new home and job, Father James is sure that he is destined to remain an outsider; the only person with whom he feels any connection is Meriel, the granddaughter of the elderly Laird. As his relationship with Meriel develops, there is a sense that it can only end in tragedy for everyone concerned.

I found this a strange and atmospheric story. Although it’s short enough to be read in just a few sittings, the pace is slow, with not much actually happening until the final pages. Instead, the focus is on the characters; there are not many of them, but as well as Father James and Meriel and her family, we get to know Miss Morag, the eccentric housekeeper obsessed with memories of Father Macabe, and Magnus Laver, a retired doctor with an unhappy past who lives alone in a tiny cottage and seeks solace in alcohol. They are not a particularly likeable assortment of characters and the overall tone of the novel is quite a sad, melancholy one. There are some nice descriptions of the Scottish countryside and coastline, though, and an exploration of one of my favourite themes – the coming of change and progress to a community which still clings to the old ways and old traditions.

The Sea Road West was an interesting read, but the next book I’m going to write about here, Circle of Pearls by Rosalind Laker, was more to my taste. Set in 17th century England and spanning the eventful period of history from the end of the Civil War through to the Restoration, the plague and the Great Fire of London, this is the story of the Pallisters, a Royalist family who live at Sotherleigh Manor in Sussex. Being on the losing side in the war, the family go through a great deal of turmoil during the years of Oliver Cromwell’s rule before King Charles II is restored to the throne and their fortunes change again.

There are several romantic threads to the story; our heroine, Julia Pallister, is in love with her brother’s friend, who happens to be Christopher Wren, the architect and scientist who would become famous for redesigning St Paul’s Cathedral after the Great Fire, but she is also romantically involved with the son of a neighbouring Roundhead colonel. Meanwhile, Julia’s brother Michael rescues a young woman from being hanged and brings her home to go into hiding at Sotherleigh – but before their relationship has a chance to go anywhere, he is forced to flee the country for exile in France. There’s more to the story than the romance, though. I loved the drama of the plague and Fire sections, the triumphant return of Charles II to London, and the descriptions of the ribbon-making business Julia establishes.

On the negative side, I thought the book felt longer than it needed to be and there were too many changes of perspective, sometimes several times within the same page, making it hard to become fully absorbed early on. Although I did enjoy Circle of Pearls, I think it suffered from being read too soon after Pamela Belle’s excellent Wintercombe, which is also set in an English country house during the Civil War and which, in my opinion, is a better book.

Back to a modern day setting with the final book I want to discuss in this post, Elena Delbanco’s The Silver Swan, one that I think will particularly appeal to classical music lovers, although with a plot involving secrets, lies and family drama, there’s enough to interest non-musical readers too.

When Mariana’s father, the world-famous cellist Alexander Feldmann, dies just days after his ninetieth birthday in 2010, Mariana expects to inherit his beloved cello, a Stradivarius known affectionately as the Silver Swan. However, when the will is read, she is shocked to learn that he has left the valuable instrument to Claude Roselle, one of his former students. The fate of the cello brings Mariana and Claude together and as they get to know each other and to understand the reasons for Alexander’s choice, Mariana must decide whether or not she is ready to give up her claim to the Swan.

The Silver Swan is not a bad novel – it’s quite a pageturner in fact – but I finished it with a mixture of positive and negative feelings. Half of the novel is written from Mariana’s perspective and half from Claude’s (in the form of alternating chapters) which I thought worked well as they are both equally important to the story. However, I struggled to engage with either of them; they didn’t seem like real people to me, although that could be partly because the world they live in is so different from my own that I just couldn’t identify with them. There are some plot twists, but I found them too easy to predict and wasn’t at all surprised when the truth was revealed. Anyway, this was a quick read and one that I enjoyed without feeling that it was anything special.

Have you read any of these? Do any of them tempt you?

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton

For many years, Amaterasu has been grieving for the loss of her daughter and grandson, believed to have been killed when the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. Even now, Amaterasu still struggles with the feeling of guilt – why did she survive when they did not? – and with the need to find someone to blame. When a stranger comes to her door, claiming to be her lost grandson Hideo, she is unable to believe that it’s truly him. To prove he really is who he says he is, he gives Amaterasu a package of diaries and letters which shed some light on what happened all those years ago and help her to decide whether this man could possibly be Hideo.

As Amaterasu sits and reads the papers she has been given, she is forced to revisit moments from the past which she would rather forget and in the process comes to know more about her daughter Yuko than she did while she was alive. It’s obvious from the start that the villain of the story, as far as Amaterasu is concerned, is Jomei Sato, Yuko’s lover, but we don’t know at first why she dislikes him so much and why she believes he played a part in her daughter’s death. Before we can make sense of the chain of events that led to Yuko standing in a cathedral in Nagasaki which was destroyed when the bomb fell, we have to go back in time to see the beginnings of Yuko’s relationship with Sato – and then further back again to discover Amaterasu’s own personal story and to understand what makes her feel the way she does.

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding is a beautifully written novel dealing with a subject which I’m sure must have been difficult and emotional to research and to write about. Although Jackie Copleton didn’t actually live through the bombing of Nagasaki herself, her descriptions of the bombing (or pikadon, from the Japanese words for flash and boom) and its aftermath are vivid, intense and shocking. This is not just a novel about war, however. The events of that terrible day in August 1945 are just one part of the story, along with other topics and themes such as family, love, forgiveness and how different people cope with loss and heartbreak.

My knowledge of Japanese history and culture is very limited so I can’t really comment on the accuracy of the novel, apart from to say that it all seemed convincing enough to me! Every chapter begins with a Japanese word or term and its English translation, each one giving us some insight into one small aspect of Japanese life. Sometimes the relevance of the word and its definition to the chapter which follows is obvious, but sometimes I had to think about why a particular word was chosen to represent a particular chapter.

This was an interesting read (especially as it’s one of my goals to read more historical fiction set in Japan) but, with the exception of the pikadon chapter, I didn’t find it quite as moving as I’d expected. This could partly be because of the structure of the novel – the story takes the form of Amaterasu’s memories interspersed with short extracts from Yuko’s diaries and Sato’s letters, and this meant that I was always very aware that I was reading about events that were already in the past, rather than actually being there with the characters sharing their experiences as they happened. I think it might have been this lack of immediacy which stopped me from fully connecting with the characters on an emotional level.

Still, I thought this was a very impressive novel, particularly as it is Jackie Copleton’s first. I would say that I enjoyed it, but ‘enjoyed’ is not really the right word to use given the subject of the book. Instead I’ll say that it is fascinating, gripping and informative and I would be very happy to read more books by this author.

The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

Years ago now, certainly before I started blogging, I read The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova’s novel based on the legend of Dracula. It had sounded like the sort of book I would enjoy, but I remember being disappointed, although I can’t recall the reasons why. I didn’t read her next novel, The Swan Thieves, but when I heard about this latest one, The Shadow Land, I decided it was time to give Kostova another try. That was a good decision, because I found this to be a moving, powerful and beautifully written novel and I liked it much more than The Historian.

The Shadow Land is set in Bulgaria, beginning in 2008 when a young American woman, Alexandra Boyd, arrives in the country’s capital city of Sofia, where she will be starting a new job as a teacher at the Central English Institute. Discovering that she has arrived at the wrong hotel, she stands outside to wait for a taxi and here she falls into conversation with a family consisting of an elderly couple and another younger man who are also leaving the hotel. It’s not until Alexandra is sitting in her taxi, on her way to her destination, that she discovers she has picked up a bag belonging to the elderly people. Looking inside, she is horrified to find that she is now in possession of an urn engraved with the name Stoyan Lazarov and containing somebody’s ashes.

Instructing her taxi driver, Bobby, to take her to the nearest police station, Alexandra hopes this will be the end of the matter, but when the police prove to be less helpful than she’d expected, she decides to find the family and return the urn to them herself. She knows what it’s like to grieve for a loved one – her brother Jack disappeared on a hike in the Blue Ridge Mountains several years earlier – and she wants to make her apologies in person. However, the family of Stoyan Lazarov appear to have disappeared almost without trace…and it seems that somebody else is also searching for the urn.

With Bobby’s help, Alexandra travels around Bulgaria from town to town, trying to pick up the trail of Stoyan’s family and in each place she visits she learns a little bit more about the man whose ashes she is carrying. I have to admit, I found this quite unconvincing as I’m sure most of us would just have handed the urn in to the hotel reception or insisted on leaving it with the police – and even if we had decided to track the people down ourselves, it’s unlikely that a taxi driver we’d only just met would agree to come with us! The implausibility of this central plot point, however, didn’t really bother me because I was already enjoying the story so much.

Having the action moving from one location to another also gives Kostova an opportunity to describe the feel and appearance of various Bulgarian towns and villages and to capture the beauty of the countryside. Because we’re seeing all of this through Alexandra’s eyes, we can appreciate what it’s like to be exploring a new country for the first time, unable to speak the language and with no knowledge of local customs and traditions. As for Bobby, I loved him and, unlikely as it might have seemed, I was glad that he decided to abandon his usual routine and join Alexandra on her mission.

The Shadow Land really is a fascinating novel. It begins with a simple idea – a person accidentally taking something which doesn’t belong to them and then trying to return it – and slowly expands into an examination of Bulgaria’s history, of war, communism and political unrest, and of one man’s courage in the face of unimaginable horrors. I wish I could go into more detail, but I would rather let you read about Stoyan Lazarov’s experiences for yourself. It’s a very dark novel in places, particularly later in the book as Stoyan’s story begins to unfold, but it’s an important story and, despite the darkness, I think it’s one that needs to be told.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

A trio of books: London Roses; The Hurlyburly’s Husband; The King’s Favourite

I’ve been struggling to keep up to date with my reviews recently – I seem to go into each new month with at least four or five books still to write about from the month before – so I thought I would try putting together the occasional multi-book post with slightly shorter reviews than normal.

London Roses by Dora Greenwell McChesney, first published in 1903, follows the stories of a group of people who meet in the Manuscript Room at the British Museum. Rhoda Comstock is a young American woman who has come to London to stay with her English cousin, Una Thorpe, and the two strike up a friendship one day with journalist Stephen Fulford and his brother Thomas, getting together to discuss their research and to engage in lighthearted debate about the differences between life in Britain and America. When Stephen makes the sudden decision to go to South Africa to report on the Boer War, he leaves behind a scandal which puts Thomas in a difficult position and poses a threat not only to the bond between the two brothers but also to their newly formed relationships with Rhoda and Una.

London Roses is packed with interesting ideas and themes – loyalty and friendship; the importance of trust; adjusting to life in a different country – although none of these things are explored in as much depth as they could have been. The characters also had the potential to be a lot more complex and well-developed than they actually were. None of the main four ever came fully to life and I was much more intrigued by the character of Anthony Pettigrew, an old man Rhoda nicknames the Moth, who has spent thirty years coming to the British Museum to research books that he’s never written.

Far too much of the novel is spent discussing the English Civil War, which is apparently a passion of several of the characters (and also of the author – as I know, having read her historical novels Rupert, by the Grace of God and Cornet Strong of Ireton’s Horse), but which felt a bit strange as it had very little to do with the rest of the plot. On a more positive note, there are some nice descriptions of London and the Museum, but overall I was disappointed by this book and was thankful that it was such a short one!

The Hurlyburly’s Husband is an English translation by Alison Anderson of Jean Teulé’s 2008 French novel. Set in 17th century France, it tells the story of the often forgotten husband of Madame de Montespan (mistress of the Sun King, Louis XIV). Louis-Henri, Marquis de Montespan, marries Athénaïs, as she becomes known, after her fiancé flees following a duel. He loves his new wife and believes that she loves him, but it’s not long before Athénaïs goes to court as a lady-in-waiting and takes the place of Louise de la Valliere in the king’s affections. Unlike many cuckolded husbands of the period, Montespan is not interested in using his wife’s position to gain money and titles at court; instead, when it becomes obvious that Athénaïs is lost to him, he chooses to defy the king and take revenge in any small way he can.

A lot has been written about Madame de Montespan, her relationship with the king and her involvement in the Affair of the Poisons, but her husband is usually ignored. It was good to have the chance to read his side of the story and to see how he may have felt about all of this. As Athénaïs is absent from her husband’s life for most of the novel, the focus is always on Montespan himself: his attempts at winning glory on the battlefield, his relationships with his children, and his acts of defiance against the king (adding horns to his coat of arms, for example).

This is an entertaining little novel, as lively, colourful and scandalous as the French court it describes. There are even some illustrations, which are always a nice addition to any book. And in case you’re wondering, the hurlyburly of the title refers to the hairstyle popular in the 17th century known as the hurluberlu.

The final book I want to talk about here is The King’s Favourite by Marjorie Bowen (originally published in 1938 under the pseudonym George R Preedy). The King of the title is King James I of England and VI of Scotland – and the Favourite is Robin Carr, a young man who catches the King’s eye when he falls and breaks his leg in the tilt yard. Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton, sees his chance to gain influence at court by pushing his pretty, seventeen-year-old great-niece Frances into an affair with Robin. But Howard is not the only one who is plotting and scheming; Robin’s friend, Tom Overbury, is also keen to encourage the romance between Robin and Frances in the hope of gaining more power for himself.

Nobody expected the two to actually fall in love, but that is what happens. With his plans thrown into disarray, Overbury finds himself caught in the middle of another plot – but this one is directed at himself. The King’s Favourite is based on real events from history, but I was unfamiliar with the details of this particular story. My lack of knowledge meant I had no idea what was going to happen and could enjoy this as a suspenseful true crime novel before looking up the facts after I’d finished and comparing them with Marjorie Bowen’s version.

While the plot (after a slow start) is an exciting, dramatic one, the characters are not particularly strong and not at all sympathetic either! I can’t say that I liked any of them – although I was interested to see that the astrologer and physician Simon Forman plays a prominent part in the story. I remember being intrigued by his appearances in Sally O’Reilly’s Dark Aemilia, so it was good to learn more about him here.

I see that there have been several other novels written over the years that also deal with the Overbury case, including one by Rafael Sabatini (The Minion) which I’m now very interested in reading. The TBR continues to grow!