A Tale of Two Families – Dodie Smith

“But these backwaters of existence sometimes breed, in their sluggish depths, strange acuities of emotion” ― Edith Wharton

I’d never heard of this book, or the author, before I was asked to review it. In fact, I will confess to having thought it was a modern novel – as so many I am requested to review are. So I was surprised, but also not, having read the novel, to discover it was written in the 1970s. I was taken by the language and setting, and thought the portrayal of the time was done very well, but I also thought that is had a slightly modern feel to it. This has led me to conclude that Dodie Smith was somewhat ahead of her contemporaries in her writing style.

A Tale of Two Families – Dodie Smith

‘This is going to be a long five minutes’ walk,’ said June.

May thought this possible as there was still no sign of any house, but she continued to find things to praise: the overgrown hedges, the tall, still-dripping trees, the brilliant green of the grassy verges, the freshness of the air. And after several more bends in the lane they saw a white wooden gate standing open. Once through this they looked across a large, circular lawn surrounded by a gravel drive. And now at last they were face to face with the house.

‘Much too large,’ said June.

51QWhoqlqpL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_May and June are devoted sisters, married to equally-devoted brothers, George and Robert, and even after more than two decades of marriage the four still thoroughly enjoy each other’s company. So when May and her highly-successful husband commit to a five-year lease on a huge, decaying manor house out in the country it seems only natural that they should persuade June and Robert to accept, rent free, a cottage within the grounds.

The two families leave London and, once joined by two not-quite-stereotypical grandparents, and blessed by regular visits from their respective children, begin to thoroughly enjoy their new experiences. Any initial qualms about leaving the city are lost in blissful hours spent wandering through the lilac groves, listening to the birdsong of the resident nightingale, absorbing the country air and indulging in May’s excellent cooking. The only thing that could possibly distress this perfect equilibrium is the compulsory visit of dreaded Aunt Mildred aka ‘Mildew’. Eccentric, annoying and thoroughly too young for her age, Mildred delights in secret dramas, regardless of their truth, or the harm that they may cause.

First and foremost I was absolutely delighted at Dodie Smith’s portrayal of country living. There are few things I love more than day-dreaming of a blissful, quiet life somewhere remote, with only the smell of flowers, birdsong, and the thought of bare-footed, early morning strolls through dew-soaked grass to trouble me. Even though Smith’s portrayal comes through the eyes of a somewhat dysfunctional family unit it still felt to me like a kind of absolute heaven, although perhaps a less than traditional view of heaven . I was so taken by the setting, from the second May and June arrived at the manor house, on a day in which the house and ground were engulfed by a stereotypical English downpour. The rain could not put me off, there was a magic in the dripping of the tree-lined driveway, and the impression of the foreboding, unloved Dower house, standing cold and resolute against the elements, and when the washed-out introduction gave way to pure, unadulterated spring bliss I was smitten. The whole book is brimming with lilac groves, quaint woodlands, blossoms, sundials and mounds and mounds of asparagus and strawberries – I loved every single second of it.

This is a book where characters are really central to the plot, I know characters are important in any story, but here it is the development of the characters that drive the story forward. Smith clearly had a talent for creating quirky, yet believable characters. Each and every character that passes through the estate has some kind of secret, inner passion or frustration. From the sensual Corinna, who is well and truly tired of waiting for saintly Hugh to make a move on her, to the quietly frustrated Robert, who, try as he might, cannot get his next novel on paper. Mildred inspires the release of these frustrations, allowing characters true desires to take form, while undoubtedly an expertly crafter character in her own right, her primary role is to serve as a catalyst for development in others.

In this way the story is very much in the moment, and in the experience, of two families shared existence. The day-to-day happenings in the Dower house are all at once endearing, humorous, envy-inducing, and on the whole utterly ridiculous. Think about it, could you really imagine your parents moving in with your aunt and uncle? Or yourself moving in with your sister/brother and their significant other? Regardless of how close knit a family you come from the situation is really rather odd. The book reads like an extended summer holiday – beautiful in its own way but very much temporary. I get the impression that, in the end, both families might actually quite like to return home.

All in all I thoroughly enjoyed reading A Tale of Two Families, and would be interested to look up Smith’s other works in the future. I found the book to be a perfect, relaxing afternoon read – it left me feeling pleasantly fulfilled, and without the emotional torture than comes from a horrific book hangover. That said, if you like a bit more substance to your books, there is definitely potential to delve a little further into the hidden meanings behind characters’ actions. On the whole, would recommend, whether as a casual afternoon read or a more in depth book club selection.

I received a free copy of A Tale of Two Families from Hesperus Press in exchange for an honest review.

Monday motivation

There is no better way to start the week than with a special delivery from Prudence and the Crow.

Added bonus – it’s Halloween themed! Amazing!

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Beerwolf Books, Falmouth

I’ve just returned from a brief visit with friends down in Cornwall and am feeling wonderfully refreshed and recouped. There’s nothing quite like a stay in the country to help clear your mind and recharge your batteries.

During our stay we spent a couple of days in Falmouth checking out the many vintage boutiques and used-book shops, while stopping for an occasional ‘snifter’ in one of the local watering-holes. One such stop found us in a cosy little public house nestled down an alley behind the bustling main street. Now, each of the pubs we visited in Falmouth had its own special charm but this one was by far my favourite.

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Beerwolf Books is not like any old boozer – it is a bookshop and public house combined, and consequently one of the most amazing places I have ever visited. Every pub should be like this one. I know a lot of pubs these days have bookshelves in them, but I’m not talking about a Wetherspoons with a dusty collection of random texts that no one has ever so much as glanced at – Beerwolf Books is just as much a bookshop with beer as it is a pub with books.

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Upon entering the building, a steep central staircase brings you to a small room with shelves crammed full of books, which are available to buy from the bar, or simply to read during your stay. While there is a definite nautical/Cornish theme to a lot of the books there are also contemporary texts, classic literature and a great selection of children’s books and graphic novels. Spend a little time perusing the shelves and you are bound to find something to tickle your fancy.

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Outside of the book shop, the cosy bar provides the perfect atmosphere to unwind with your choice of tipple and literature. If you are feeling less than boozy you can curl up with a cup of tea, but the bookshop/coffee-shop combo has been done many a time before, and it seems a shame not to take advantage of the array of ales and ciders on tap.

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Obviously I couldn’t walk away empty handed. I’m not sure how I could I possibly justify NOT buying a book from a place like this. I was drawn, as is often the case, towards the children’s section and spent a while leafing through the local gems that were on offer before settling on this stunning hardback.

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Reviews to come and things to smile about

Ok guys, I know I’ve been a little quiet the last few weeks. The truth is, I’ve been feeling a little under the weather and decided to take some time off. I’ve been doing lots of reading, but not so much writing.

The good news is I am feeling much better 🙂 and I hope to post a review or two very soon. You can expect some sci-fi, historical fiction and a little bit of mystery in the mix.

Also, my second Prudence and the Crow box came this weekend – and I love it!

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Last month’s book, The Crystal Gryphon, was pretty incredible (review to come). I’ve got high hopes for this one, I do love a bit of mythology, here’s hoping it lives up to my expectations!

A fairytale weekend

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” ― G.K. Chesterton

After being treated to these beautiful books by a good friend I spent an otherwise dismal weekend holed up in my new reading room indulging my inner child.

The Sleeper and the Spindle – Neil Gaiman, with illustrations by Chris Riddel

23301545The Sleeper and the Spindle is a great example of a children’s book made for an adult audience. Think Snow White meets Sleeping Beauty, with some dark magic thrown in. I love modern twists on traditional fairy tales, almost as much as I love traditional fairy tales, so this book was always going to go down well.

High in a tower in a kingdom far, far away a beautiful princess lies enchanted in her bed. Lately, the spell which keeps her slumbering has begun to spread, and the people of neighbouring villages have fallen victim to the sickness. Many brave souls have tried to reach the tower in the hopes of breaking the enchantment only to lose their lives, impaled on an impenetrable fortress of rose thorns. On what is to be the eve of her wedding, a young queen decides to set aside her matrimonial plans to rescue the sleeping princess. Accompanied by a team of crass dwarves, the queen takes up her sword and chain mail and travels deep into the mountains to reach the sleeping kingdom.

The Sleeper and the Spindle combines the traditional themes we all know and love with an exciting modern twist, to create an enchanting, yet ominous tale – as delicately unsettling as it is deliciously captivating.

Oh and the illustrations are nothing short of spectacular.

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Russian Fairy Tales – Alexander Afanasyev, with illustrations by Ivan Bilibin

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If you saw my post about Children’s Stories from Japanese Fairy Tales and Legends you’ll no doubt be familiar with my fascination with foreign fairy tales. In fact, this interest does not apply just to fairy tales – myths, legends and ghost stories are also high up my list of interests. I find it really interesting to see how stories from different nations compare to those I grew up with and know so well.

This collection of tales was written, or rather, recorded by renowned Russian folklorist Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev in the mid-19th century. The book contains some of the best-known Russian folktales, including: Vasilisa the BeautifulThe Feather of Finist the Falcon; The Frog-Tsarevna; and Tsarevich Ivan, the Firebird and the Grey Wolf.

Of all the characters I came across in this volume, and there are a few who feature in more than one tale, I was particularly taken by Baba Yaga.

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Baba Yaga is a cannibalistic witch who lives in a small wooden hut at the edge of the forest. Now, this description may not seem so different from a lot of other witches in children’s stories, but Baba Yaga has so many fantastic quirks, the likes of which I would never have imagined.  Her hut stands on hen’s legs, and will only lower itself to permit entry when in receipt of a certain rhyme. It is also surrounded by a picket fence adorned with the skulls of Baba Yaga’s victims, the eye sockets of which glow in the night.  Instead of a broomstick, Baba Yaga travels through the forest in a giant mortar, driving herself forward with a pestle in her right hand, while sweeping the forest floor with a broom in her left hand. Oh and she is also often followed by spirits.

I love her.

Having no familiarity with Russian folklore prior to this, I feel the collection gave a good introduction to some of the most famous characters in Russian folk literature. It’s a beautiful volume, and some of the illustrations are so elaborate I feel I could have spent hours studying them.

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The Guest Cat – Takashi Hiraide

“What greater gift than the love of a cat.” ― Charles Dickens
One shining, sunny afternoon, slipping through a crack in the open door, four bright white feet stepped softly onto the room’s insulated drain board, and with a well-honed curiosity rushing through her entire body, Chibi quietly surveyed its meagre interior.

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A married couple in their mid-thirties live a solitary life in urban Tokyo, in a small rented guesthouse on the border of an estate owned by an elderly woman and her ageing husband. Both husband and wife work from home, freelance copy-editing, writing, and proofreading from their solitary desks – it has been a long time since either one has had very much to say to the other.

Late in the autumn of 1988 a small cat, tamed by a young boy who lives next door, invites itself into their humble kitchen and begins to explore its surroundings. The cat becomes a regular feature in the couple’s home, and brings warmth and love into their lives. As the cat comes and goes, seemingly set in her routine, the couple begin to talk about her, to anticipate her arrival and share stories about her. The arrival of the guest cat opens a door which had seemed closed forever.

In his New York Times Bestseller, Japanese poet Takashi Hiraide eloquently explores the remarkable bond between man and cat. When the guest cat enters the couple’s house, she brings with her a feeling of hope; suddenly life seems to hold more promise for the husband and wife, and their days are filled with a new kind of meaning.

It is not out of preference that I use the word fate – or should say, Fortuna – but as the young cat’s visits became more frequent, I came to feel that there were some things only this word could express.

I have been told that cats emit a certain type of pheromone which makes them more attractive to the people they are around. This, some say, is why so many people do not realise how much they love cats until they have one of their own. The husband, whose voice the novella is written in, describes himself and his wife as neither having a particular liking for cats. But this all changes when the guest cat first sets foot into their kitchen.

There’s a photographer who says cat lovers always believe their own cat is better looking than anyone else’s. According to her, they’ve all got blinders on. She also says that, though she too is a major cat lover, having noticed this fact means that she is now hated by all cat lovers, and so these days only takes pictures of scruffy-looking strays.

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It is almost as though the cat fills the empty space between the man and his wife, a space perhaps reserved for a child. I imagine that the cat’s name, Chibi, which we are told means ‘little one’, alludes to her importance to the man and his wife. She is so much more than just a cat to the couple; she is a friend, a companion, something which gives their life meaning. With Chibi in their lives, the house, the garden, the zolkova tree and even the dark ‘lightening alley’ all have more light and colour. Everything brims with a new beauty created by the smallest of pleasures – watching the cat play with a ball, or hearing the gentle tinkling of her collar.

I was bought the guest cat by my father-in-law this past Christmas; he has clearly noticed that my two favourite things in life are books and cats. There was no doubt in my mind that I would enjoy the book –  my father-in-law is an excellent judge of reading material – but I didn’t anticipate just how much pleasure I would take from such a short piece of writing. The book is gentle, and beautiful, simply brimming with imagery and poetics. In just 140 pages Hiraide manages to speak volumes about the complexities of life and the existence of joy in the most unlikely places.

The writing has a stunning eloquence that fans of Japanese literature will admire. There is something I find so appealing about Japanese translations; the words seem to possess a unique flow, a beauty completely their own. The translated words stream effortlessly across the page, swirling into stunning imagery and deeply profound passages of thought, the result of which is a rare and wonderful treasure of a novella.

Needless to say, I would recommend this book. It is gentle and poetic, yet captivating enough to read in a single setting. This one is not just for cat lovers.

The Writing on the Wall: Everyday Phrases from the King James Bible – Richard Noble

“The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this.” ― Markus Zusak

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Clichés, expressions, and idioms, they can be the apple of your eye, or a thorn in your flesh – but do you know where these seemingly meaningless phrases originate? If not, this is the perfect book to guide you off to the land of nod.

In The Writing on the Wall: Everyday Phrases from the King James Bible, Richard Noble provides a fascinating glimpse into the history of 65 phrases and expressions, now firmly ingrained in everyday speech, which have their roots in the King James Bible. While it may not be for everyone, this book will whet the appetites of anyone with an interest in language, theology, or Christian history.

For each book of the King James Bible, Noble isolates a single well-known phrase, presenting the reader with a brief explanation of the original context of the words, before tracing their usage throughout history to their relevance in language today. If you are interested in everyday English speech, and intrigued by the origins of phrases such as ‘the blind leading the blind’ or ‘by the skin of one’s teeth’ this book is sure to delight your curiosity.

Those unfamiliar with the King James Bible need not be put off, as Noble’s analysis assumes no familiarity with the scriptures on the part of the reader. This said, the more devote among you are sure to appreciate Noble’s summary of the composition of the Old Testament, the relevance of the  silent Intertestamental Period and the fascinating revelations of the New Testament.

Noble has created an ideal bookshelf addition for Christians, non -Christians, historians, linguists, wordsmiths, and those who are simply fascinated by phrases. The Writing on the Wall is the perfect book to expand your understanding of the English language – a truly inestimable treasure.

The Writing on the Wall is available to buy direct from the publisher, Sacristy PressI was given a free copy of the book in return for an honest review.