Saturday, 31 December 2016

Four in December

Or, more accurately, I read three books and finished a fourth in December.

Family Britain 1951-57 by David Kynaston

This has been one of the non-fiction books I dip into between novels. (I previously read his Austerity Britain 1945-51.) I started it a while ago and finished it this month – 776 pages (including notes and index) encompassing exhaustive research through newspapers, books, magazines, Mass Observation diaries and other archives.

As the blurb says this was the era when: ‘Britain was starting to move away from the hardships of austerity. Great national events jostle alongside everything that gave 1950s Britain its distinctive flavour from Butlin’s holiday camps, Kenwood food mixers and Hancock’s Half Hour to Ekco television sets, skiffle and teddy boys.’

I was born during this time so one item gave me particular pause for thought. There was a very popular radio quiz programme called Have a Go! compered by ‘Halifax’s Wilfred Pickles’. His opening catchphrase – ’Ow do, ’ow are yer? – was followed by ‘amiable chat with the mainly working-class contestants about their lives’ and there was (my italics) ‘a large round of applause if a contestant turned out to be over 60’.

From which I conclude that 90 is the new 60.

Gingerbread and Cupcakes by Claire Watts

As hinted above I am an ‘OA’ and not a Young Adult at which market this book is aimed. I was already aware of the author’s excellent non-fiction book The Covenanters so was interested to know about her novels. She is one of four YA authors who have collaborated to publish their books under the banner Paisley Piranha.

Although this title is the third in a series about a group of 17/18-year-old girls it can be read as a standalone. It’s the summer before Lily and Simon go to university. Simon has been one of their school’s heart-throbs (to use an OA expression) while Lily is quieter, more in the background. They are thrown together when Simon’s cake-shop-owing mum has an accident and he and Lily step in to help. Their sweet romance is told from both their viewpoints – and there is bonus material in the form of cake recipes at the back. Loved it.

Betty MacDonald is an author I re-read, most recently in October this year. So I was delighted to find out that there are a couple of biographies newly out on her. It was great to fill some of the gaps in my knowledge about her  – her four books for adults (she also wrote very successfully for children) are ‘lightly fictionalised’ accounts of her life. This book is self-published and my only gripe is that I would like to know what the author’s connection, if any, was to Betty MacDonald/her family. They sound such fun – even during the Depression they were able to keep cheery in their overcrowded household and made a ceremony out of every meal however frugal.

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

This is 514 pages but I read it in just over a day in the Christmas holidays – not as impressive a feat as it might appear as the type in my hardback copy is large and many of the chapters are just one page so there’s a lot of white space.

I’ve loved Curtis Sittenfeld’s books which are all quite different. The last one was Sisterland which I read in March this year. She’s such a stylish writer.

So I was really looking forward to Eligible, her modern take on Pride and Prejudice. Her Fitzwilliam Darcy is a neurosurgeon newly moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where live the feckless Bennett family. Mr Bennett has had a heart attack and as Mrs B is more interested in her Ladies’ Luncheon Club than in looking after him, 40-year-old Jane and 38-year-old Liz come home from New York to help. It was fun seeing what CS did with the characters (although perhaps too many ‘issues’ are ascribed to them) but it’s told in a kind of reportage style which I found distancing (and another reason why it was a quick read); all in all I confess I was rather disappointed.

What would Jane Austen make of 21st-century life were she to take this as her guide? I expect she’d be delighted that women can now live independently, and amused to know that they can make the running in a relationship … but I’m sure she’d be sad that, in 2016, romance (dictionary definition: a feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love) would appear to be well and truly dead.

Let’s hope that’s just in Cincinnati ...

Wishing you a happy and peaceful 2017. Oh – and, wherever you are, if you are looking for a book that does give a feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love, may I recommend ...

See reviews here. And buy it here. And may all your Christmas wishes come true.