The Tots 100 Book Club: The House At Riverton.

I think this book, The House at Riverton, will always have a special place in my heart because it kept me company through the last night I was pregnant with Ben. I took it into hospital and, after a few hours of restless sleep, I woke up at 2am and read it to the end, all those hours suffused with that odd sensation of ‘what will happen to me now?’ that such circumstances produce. Something about the mood of the book sat very well with oddness of being unexpectedly alone in a hospital room at night knowing that everything would change in a few hours and that, whatever happened, it would be huge.

The book sat on my virtual shelf for ages, months, as if it were waiting for the right moment. It is the story of a young housemaid who, In the twilight of her years, is drawn back to her past to relive a life and a story by someone who wishes to tell it. The house, a place of mystery and intrigue and complicated lives and loves and losses looms through the story with great presence, a character in its own right. I grew up in a house which seemed accorded almost as much right and personality as the people in it, so perhaps that pulled another string and made me love it, but I also enjoyed the style; it was unashamedly wordy and picturesque as a novel and very much mirrored the era of the book, the decaying and roaring war years and twenties.

I loved the book for its themes of friendship, loyalty, love, desire and fresh starts, deception, change and growth. For that reason I nominate Josie from Sleep is for the Weak to read it, fiercely loyal friend that she is, worthy of love, first person who knew Ben had been conceived and first blogger to know he was born.

 

 

Book Review #18 A Perfect Proposal by Katie Fforde

Katie Fforde has long been one of the authors I rely on for a cheerful easy read that makes me feel good. I bought my first book of hers, The Rose Revived, when I was at college and it has remained one of fail-safe favourites through the years. Up until a few years ago, I read each one as it came out and always enjoyed them; then there was a period of time when her heroines became women ahead of me in their time line and I couldn’t relate and a couple of novels where perhaps I had read too many by one person and they lost their magic. On reflection, I think that says more about where I was at the time and how my reading changed; I wanted to be surprised more and stretched more and perhaps you shouldn’t look for that in books which are unashamedly chick lit :)

Katie is a friendly soul on Twitter and I’ve been enjoying chatting to her, which motivated me to download some of her back catalogue on to my Kindle. A Perfect Proposal is a return to her ‘young slip of a thing’ characters and, with daughters growing up around me, they are somehow appealing again. It feels like the days of working in cafes might be behind me, but they probably aren’t far off becoming part of household life again and Sophie was believable, if something of a cautionary tale in how not to become a pushover. The story had a flavour of American, New York life to it, reminiscent of some of Jane Green’s novels, which made for a change of scene that was fun and if the love story twists didn’t stun me into gobsmacked silence, there was plenty of familiar ‘oh god, will this work out… is he a rat or a duck?’ to it. The two older members of the cast, around whom the plot revolves to a greater extent, were lovely – I wanted to go and meet them – and I was giggling at the description of a really hideous element to Sophie’s family, who made a cameo appearance :lol:

What I missed for a while in her stories was some of the “let’s do the show right here!” immediacy; I loved the way her original books focused on detail down to ‘clean the boat, make the tea, what the hell am I doing on this side of town with no money?’ – it always feels like I am right in the book when a story is like that, the nitty gritty of problem solving and life all laid out to sink right into. A Perfect Proposal had more of that again and I enjoyed it more for the descriptions of train journeys and trying to find places to stay for the night.

I’m back to enjoying her books again and am now rightly pleased to have several more that I can wile away the Summer on – hurrah for Kindles and Katie Fforde!!!

Book #16: The Hare with Amber Eyes

The is the story of a family, a Jewish family from… well, all over Europe, the Ephrussi family. It tells the story of them across several generations, how they lived and operated, how they lived an opulent and wealthy life, a powerful family across Europe with banks in all the major capitals and fingers in every money making pie. Beginning with Charles, it describes their art collections, their holidays, the delight of having money, being good at making money, being close to painters, poets and artists, being patrons and collectors and a family who could, by speculating with grain and supply and untold wealth, effectively hold a country to ransom in the name of fairness and saving their people.

It is the story of being Jewish, wealthy Jewish, at the end of the 19th and early 20th century and in some ways, it describes perfectly how the Jews of their class provoked such jealousy and hatred. Anti-Semitism was hardly new, of course, but it is a catalogue of how to be disliked. They were a family who wanted to be ‘assimilated’, wanted to live as the French and the Austrians in the countries they moved to did, but they were set apart by not just success, but attitude, effort and their own unique ability to fashion a world around them.

It is also the story of a collection of netsuke, tiny Japanese figures and how they passed from hand to hand, through the generations until they came to the hands of the author.

I found the early part of the book slowish – interesting, but slow. De Waal has a knack for words and brings the characters to life, he has a talent for painting a picture with his descriptions and in the early part I found myself googling for the painting mentioned and discovering that, yes, the one I had in my head from the bottom staircase at school, was indeed the one her meant. I learned a lot, not least why so many Monet pictures are Japanese influenced. I enjoyed it, I enjoyed following hisjourney in uncovering his past, but I wasn’t grabbed.

Then came, in Vienna, the first world war and that caught me; it keyed into something I knew about, bizarrely enough from Chalet School books and I was fascinated by this different view of a war I know about. I raced through it, keen to know they all survived.

And then… and then… with the inevitable crunch of knowing history… the Anschluss. He can’t hide his emotion and his horror at what happens as the Nazi’s march in with planned and premeditated attacked on the wealthy Jews happening within hours, was absolutely gut wrenching. It is, quite simply, horrific to read descriptions of a house you have come to know being pulled apart and people you care for, with all their quirks, being beaten and rendered to nothing. It touched part of me from other books I know and love; the Chalet School in Exile, the proud and desperate characters of those children’s books and the stoical fortitude of the Jewish characters in The Morning Gift by Eva Ibbotson. It was like lifting a rock you know well and finding the slime and creepy crawlies underneath that you knew about but pretended didn’t exist.

I read the second half of the book in a morning, I simply couldn’t leave them in the limbo of being half read. And The Hare with Amber Eyes went from 3 stars to 5 stars in no time at all.