Tuesday 30 April 2013

Books are Amazing... April Edition!

Welcome to the April edition of what I like to call Book Club. Although it's not really anything like a book club, as we aren't all reading the same book and discussing it over wine. But we ARE talking about books, and I'm pretty drunk right now.

This month's Book Clubber is the lovely Alex from Odd Socks and Pretty Frocks. She has lovely taste in books, dresses and country houses. That's good enough for me! Take it away, Alex...

Thanks for letting me invade your blog, Sarah!

I’m Alex and I am a complete bookaholic – I read fast and I read a lot (over 300 books a year). You might wonder from looking through this list of my favourites if I ever bother with books published after about 1985. I do, I promise! It's just that I read so much that books have to really stand out in order to make it anywhere near my favourites list. I'm sure some newer ones will jostle their way onto it soon but for now, these are my best beloved books:

Devil's Cub by Georgette Heyer
I LOVE THIS BOOK. I can't even tell you how much. Looking at how many copies of it I own might help illustrate my love for it though. I love it so much that I want to shout to the world about how amazing it is but I have to fight that constant battle of people being judgey about romance novels. Lots of people scorn Georgette Heyer and lump her in with Barbara Cartland and all the modern Regency rubbish romances. These people are idiots. She basically created the genre of Regency romance, although her books are so much more than that. A lot of them are comedies of manners, some are mysteries, some are straightforward historicals; all of them are immaculately, captivatingly written. Devil's Cub is my absolute favourite of all her books and probably my favourite book ever, by any author.

This is a Georgian romance rather than Regency and is a sequel of sorts to These Old Shades which is also rather glorious, although you don’t need to read them in order. Dominic, the Marquis of Vidal, is a very wild young man; a reckless gambler, drinker and dueller (totally swoon-worthy though!). Mary Challoner's younger sister Sophia, a rather ditzy piece, is about to flee to France with him when he's forced into exile but Mary intercepts a note and takes Sophia's place (masked, of course) in order to save her reputation. Well as you might imagine, things don't go exactly to plan. It's a tremendous romp through France with elopements, shootings, duels, fibs and confusions aplenty and a wonderful hero and heroine. Please don't be put off if you don't like girly books or romances - give one a go and judge it on the quality of the writing and storytelling. She puts most authors to shame.

A Tale of Time City by Diana Wynne Jones
I've loved this book for years and years.  Diana Wynne Jones is one of my favourite authors and this book is the perfect example of her inventiveness, sense of humour and amazing skill.  Her books may technically be for children but there's never the slightest hint of pandering to her audience. They're quite often deeply steeped in mythology and folk literature (try Fire & Hemlock or The Homeward Bounders for two of her best). That doesn’t apply quite so much to this book but the concept behind it is just as fascinating. It starts in Britain in 1939 where Vivian Smith is being evacuated from London.  Only she never quite makes it to the safety of the countryside because she's promptly kidnapped from the train station by Jonathan and Sam (two boys who are under the impression she's a different Vivian Smith) who then whisk her off to Time City.  The city is set in a patch of space and time outside history - the people there observe and maintain history and stop it from going wrong.  But now the city itself is now starting to crumble, the Time Ghosts are behaving in unexpected ways and history is going critical. 

It's complicated to explain why this is happening and even more complicated to explain why Vivian, Jonathan and Sam start venturing into the Unstable Eras of history in search of missing polarities, so I suggest you read it yourself! DWJ's writing is an absolute treat and Time City is practically a character in its own right, with the most intriguing mixture of technology and traditions.  I think perhaps you're meant to feel a bit sorry for Vivian, having been hauled out of her normal life into this exotic and baffling place, but I just want to be her, having lessons with Dr Wilander, wearing one of Elio's favourite outfits, joining in with the mayhem of running around to find Sempitern Walker's ceremonial clothes and trying the thing that I think everyone remembers this book for.  BUTTERPIES!  If you don't want to eat one of those, there's no hope for you.

The Secret Countess by Eva Ibbotson
Oh, how I wish this book had a different title. It was originally published as The Countess Below Stairs (presumably they thought shoving the word secret in made it sound jazzier?) but that's not great either. I'd like it to be called something a bit less twee because I’m sure it puts people off picking it up in the first place. If they knew how utterly charming and captivating it is, they’d be buying ten copies at a time and throwing it at their friends. It was the first of Eva Ibbotson's books that I ever read and I loved it so much that I now own everything she's ever written, even the books that are solidly aimed at the under 5 market. This one in particular is my go-to comfort read. It's not complicated or issue-ridden, it's just a very good story, wonderfully well written and described. Even after umpteen re-readings, there are still parts of it that make me bite my knuckles and whimper (p237, I'm looking at you. Oh my god. Rupert kills me every time).

The (not-so) Secret Countess is Anna Grazinsky, part of an aristocratic Russian family who have had to flee their homeland during the Bolshevik Revolution and start a new life in England, in much reduced circumstances. She goes to work as a maid at Mersham, a large country house which has been a bit unloved during the war years and is now being spruced up for the return of the new Earl and his new (and extremely rich) fiancée. In the hands of a lesser writer, this would be all cliches - swooning embraces behind the potted plants, cardboard characters and the evil fiancée destroying their happy little world. It's not. It's magical. Well ok, Muriel is a complete horror and she does manage to upset an awful lot of people, but even that is is done beautifully in a very insidious sort of way. The characters, even the minor ones, are so real and vivid that the worlds of Mersham and post-WW1 London sparkle to life.

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson
Speaking of charming books, let me introduce you to another one. Miss Pettigrew is an utter delight of a book and I’m pretty sure I’ve recommended it to everyone already. On the off chance that I haven’t, let me inform you that it is brilliant and you need to go out and buy a copy immediately. It fills me with complete joy when I read it and there aren't many books that I can say that about.

It takes places over the course of a single day and starts off with a misunderstanding. Miss Pettigrew goes for a job interview (the wrong job, as it turns out) and is swept up into the fun and chaotic world of Delysia LaFosse and her various friends, acquaintances and lovers. There’s a makeover, several parties, a bit of carousing and some excellent examples of how to tell off alpha males. Oh, it’s magical. I might be making it sound like virtual candyfloss here but it has a definite bittersweet edge. Miss Pettigrew is in really dire straits at the start of the book and she can't entirely shut out her poverty-stricken reality, even when surrounded by a dizzying whirl of champagne, silk frocks and nightclubs. I love the way she blossoms throughout the book and discovers a version of herself that she didn't know existed. It's not entirely a fairy tale but I think it's the twentieth century version of one.

China Court by Rumer Godden
Another book featuring a country house. Yes, I know I’m predictable. But I am a complete sucker for any book where the house is just as much of a character as any of the people that live in it and China Court, a house in Cornwall, is every bit as interesting as the Quin family who live there. I devour Rumer Godden’s descriptions of it each and every time I read the book. Her prose is sumptuous. If I started quoting sections to show you what I mean then I'd be here all day. It's that good.

I hesitate to label this book as a family saga because it’s definitely not one of those awful potboiler novels where everyone mopes around Oop North wearing clogs and having lots of incestuous, illegitimate children. This does cover five generations of the Quin family but it’s beautifully written and very cleverly structured. It swirls around the generations, skipping backwards and forwards in time from the 1860s to the 1950s and telling little parts of the various stories of the Quins that don’t really fit properly together until the very end of the book. The resolution is so neatly tied into the intertwining stories of all residents of the house that I can’t really go into too many details and anyway, I really don’t feel like I can do this book justice in a brief description. You’ll have to read it for yourself. And as luck would have it, it’s just been reprinted as a Virago Modern Classic – hurrah! Treat yourself to a copy.

Ancestral Voices by James Lees-Milne
This is a diary covering the period 1942-1943, a time when the author had been invalided out of the Army and rejoined the National Trust in his pre-war job as Historic Buildings Secretary. It was a very different organisation to the one you may know now, with hardly any staff and only a handful of houses open to the public. Yet this was a time when finances were dwindling, heirs were dying and country houses were fading out of their former glory. His role was to tour the country and talk to owners of these houses to see if any could be handed over to the Trust. His impact was astonishing - he saved an amazing amount of significant houses for the nation - and this diary is an extraordinary record of that long lost world.

It's also a wonderful, vibrant depiction of London during the war years and for those of you who are interested in mid 20th century aristocracy/artists/novelists/society folk, it's a must-read. He was very well connected - the Mitfords, Churchills and Sitwells get frequent mentions, as do most of the intellectual and social figures of the time. He’s not particularly kind about them either but the whole thing is written with a level of candour and wit that makes you forgive his lapses into bitchiness.

And there you have it: six of the best. If you want to know more about my taste in books, hop on over to my blog and have a look through the A Blogging Good Read series. I’m hoping to persuade Sarah to join in with it soon!

Thanks, Alex! These books are really fleshing out my Amazon wishlist. I have bloggers lined up for the next few spots, but if you're interested in being a contributor, let me know!


  1. As if I really needed an excuse to lust over more books! These all sound so good. Thanks for the tips :-)

  2. Argh more books for me to swoon over/buy!

    Maria xxx

  3. Ahhh these will be added to the list. I need to update my kindle for my holiday too!

  4. I'm dying to read A Tale of Time City now. Sounds exactly my kind of thing, great recommends. Perhaps my favourite one so far! Thanks!

  5. I totally read a Diana Wynne Jones book ages ago - someone said she was the predecessor to JK Rowling. Can I remember what book I read or what happened in it? Of course not because I am MENTAL like that.

    Hurrah for Miss Pettigrew lives for a Day - brilliant. It's an absolute charmer of a book.

  6. That's it, I definitely need to get into Georgette Heyer in a big way. Thanks for the recommendations Alex!

  7. Alex is my book hero - I truly trust these recommendations, I haven't sat down and read in such a long time xxx


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