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100 Years of Books

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Olga, Albert Rafols-Casamada (Spain 1923-2009)

100 Years of Books is an ongoing project where I am aiming to read a book published in each year from 1850 to 1949. In the process I hope to increase my knowledge of classics and writers that I might not otherwise encounter.

There’s no schedule, no deadline and I reserve the right to change the list at any time. Life has enough rules already! 🙂

There are a couple of authors listed twice, but generally I’ll try to read as many different writers as I can.

If you have any recommendations for the unallocated years, or even other ideas for the already allocated years, I’d love to hear them.

If I review a book, I’ll link to my review. I’m not great at writing reviews, so don’t expect many!

Here we go….

1850 – The Black Tulip, Alexandre Dumas

1851 – Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell

1852 –

1853 – Ruth, Elizabeth Gaskell

1854 –

1855 – The Warden (Chronicles of Barsetshire #1), Anthony Trollope

1856 – Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert

1857 –

1858 – Phantastes, George MacDonald

1859 – The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins

1860 –

1861 –

1862 – Les Miserables, Victor Hugo

1863 –

1864 –

1865 – War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

1866 –

1867 – Cometh up as a Flower, Rhoda Broughton

1868 – Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

1869 –

1870 – The Thorny Path, Hesba Stretton

1871 – Middlemarch, George Eliot

1872 –

1873 –

1874 –

1875 –

1876 –

1877 –

1878 –

1879 – A Dolls House, Henrik Isben

1880 – Heidi, Johanna Spyri

1881 –

1882 –

1883 –

1884 –

1885 –

1886 – The Death of Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy

1887 – A Study in Scarlett (Sherlock Holmes #1), Arthur Conan Doyle

1888 – Laddie, Evelyn Whitaker

1889 – Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K Jerome

1890 – The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde

1891 –

1892 –

1893 –

1894 – The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling

1895 – The Time Machine, H.G.Wells

1896 –

1897 – The Wayward Tourist, Mark Twain

1898 –

1899 –

1900 –

1901 – My Brilliant Career, Miles Franklin

1902 –

1903 – The Call of the Wild, Jack London

1904 –

1905 – The Scarlet Pimpernel, Emmuska Orczy

1906 – The Railway Children, E. Nesbit

1907 – The Shepherd of the Hills, Harold Bell Wright

1908 – A Room with a View, E.M.Forster

1909 –

1910 –

1911 – The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett

1912 –

1913 –

1914 – The Man Upstairs, P.G. Wodehouse

1915 –

1916 –

1917 –

1918 –

1919 –

1920 – The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton

1921 –

1922 – The Velveteen Rabbit, Margery Williams

1923 –

1924 – The Home-Maker, Dorothy Canfield Fisher

1925 – The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

1926 – Winnie-the-Pooh (Winnie-the-Pooh #1), A.A. Milne

1927 –

1928 – Orlando, Virginia Woolf

1929 –

1930 – High Wages, Dorothy Whipple

1931 – All Passion Spent, Vita Sackville-West

1932 –

1933 – High Rising, Angela Thirkell

1934 –

1935 –

1936 – Ballet Shoes, Noel Streatfeild

1937 –

1938 – Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Winifred Watson

1939 – And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie

1940 – Mariana, Monica Dickens

1941 – Good Evening Mrs Craven….., Mollie Panter-Downs

1942 –

1943 – Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis

1944 –

1945 – Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh / The Pursuit of Love, Nancy Mitford

1946 – Britannia Mews, Margery Sharp

1947 –

1948 –

1949 –

Picnic Races (1962) by Dymphna Cusack

“as Australian as a yellow box tree” – The Canberra Times, 1962

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Gubba is preparing to celebrate its centenary and its history as a goldrush town. But there are two factions in Gubba – the wealthy ‘woolocracy’ with their social pretensions and the ordinary townsfolk who are just after the peaceful life.

Pretty young Eden Dutton gets caught up in the feud – her brother wants to make the town a centre for tourism and ‘picnic races’ – but her heart seems to be fighting for the opposite side. Young prospector Greg Millard isn’t her family’s idea of the right type of bloke, but the Hon. Ralph Tenterden certainly is.

And then a surprise discovery brings a change when it was least expected and upsets all the townspeople’s plans.

(Allen & Unwin publishers synopsis)

I really wanted to love this book. It had all the right ingredients: small-town Australia, an eclectic mix of quirky characters, a romance, gum trees and farms and swimming in rivers all to the backdrop of 1960’s social upheaval. Unfortunately, it nearly became a DNF, twice – once for boredom, then for distaste. However, each time, a day or so later, I felt compelled to continue and now that I’ve finished I feel a strange, fond nostalgia for it.

The story starts off well. We meet a few characters and they are portrayed vividly, with humour and that recognisable ‘Aussie’ pioneer, salt-of-the-earth spirit. Cusack’s writing is lovely. The haze of dust, the smell of the wool-shed, the thrill of a moonlight dance. Her descriptions of the old farms, houses, the town and the bush are wonderfully evocative.

However, no sooner does the story take off that it slows down again as we meet a bunch more characters and their backstories…multiple backstories for some of them. It seems Cusack wants us to meet every Gubban and know their life stories inside and out. It went on a bit.

Then the young, beautiful, bright hope of the social set, Eden arrived and it became interesting again. The pace picked up, the dialogue sparkled and things began to happen. Such as THE party. It was the 60’s afterall so I shouldn’t have been shocked, but there were a couple of scenes Cusack wrote that didn’t sit well with me. That was the second DNF.

I picked it up again as I really did want to know what happened in the end and I was rewarded with a delightful, very funny and surprising final fifty pages.

Upon its release, a reviewer in The Canberra Times “praised its setting while being a little less impressed with its overall worth as a novel” and I would entirely agree with this. I rarely review books I don’t love, but there is so little out there about this book that I didn’t want it unmentioned it all. It certainly isn’t without merit and if you’re interested in 20th century rural Australia then it’s worth a read.

Dymphna Cusack (1902 – 1981) was a prolific writer, outspoken social reformer, republican and prominent anti-nuclear activist. She travelled extensively whilst suffering ill health for most of her adult life, being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis three years before her death. She firmly believed that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ and used her writing to promote her beliefs, often courting controversy. She collaborated with Miles Franklin on ‘Pioneers on Parade’ in 1939 and her most well-known piece of work ‘Come in Spinner’ in 1951 with Florence James.

I found my 2nd edition, dust-jacketed copy of Picnic Races in a second-hand bookstore, but print-on-demand copies can be purchased here.

The Nightingale (2015) by Kristin Hannah

IMG_20170315_102028050“In love we find out who we want to be. In war we find out who we are.”

The Nightingale is a beautifully crafted historical novel about two sisters, separated by their differences and brought together by war. Their experiences during the Nazi occupation of France force them to see each other, and themselves, in a completely new and forgiving light. I love sister stories, and this one had me gripped from the first page and staring into space for quite a few moments after the last page.

I haven’t got on board with any of Hannah’s previous novels, which is why I hesitated (for two years) in picking up The Nightingale.

I do enjoy historical fiction as long as it doesn’t get bogged down in detail or become a slave to small, insignificant facts. I want to be moved by truth, but also the story. That sometimes means using creative licence to evoke a particular emotion. I bring this up as Hannah has been criticised for lack of research, unrealistic narrative and clichéd writing. For, example, I read three reviews where the readers were annoyed because Vianne and Antoine, on their postman/school teacher wages, could not have realistically afforded their picturesque property. But, their lovely home and garden added a beauty to the novel and provided a contrast to pre-war and occupied rural France, so it didn’t bother me in the slightest.

I enjoy a good time-shift and Hannah deftly handled the moving between past and present, ensuring that I was invested enough in the present to care about the past. It was clear and added to the story seamlessly rather than jarring like some time-shift books can be.

I thought Hannah’s language for the most part was wonderful and evocative. It was a little flowery in parts, and there were clichés, but the storyline moved along nicely, the characters were engaging and their inner and outer development was well done. It was a reflective read and I often found myself wondering what I would do in a given situation. I think that was probably Hannah’s intention.

The Nightingale will stay with me for some time. I have immense appreciation for authors who can take harrowing true stories and weave them together with fiction to create a journey that leaves us asking questions of ourselves. The novel was tied up perfectly with an ending that, even though I did see coming, was hugely satisfying.

Kristin Hannah, keep writing stories like these and we can put aside our past differences.

You can read more about Kristin Hannah’s books and current projects at her website.

The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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“…among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby has been on my TBR list since dinosaurs roamed the earth. The 2017 Back to the Classics challenge finally prompted me to take it off the shelf. I feel completely unqualified to write a review about a book so well-read and discussed and adapted to film no less than five times. What else could I possibly contribute? I found myself spending a lot of time thinking about the social context of the story. That’s where its fascination lies for me.

The Great Gatsby is written beautifully and evokes the restless energy of the jazz age with ease. It’s visually attractive, exciting, thought provoking, tragic and timeless. I’ve seen both the 1974 (Robert Redford & Mia Farrow) film, and Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation, so I came to the book with a pretty good idea of the storyline. (I think Luhrmann did a great job, even if the first half hour did drag on forever.)

I am fascinated by the period between the two world wars. I read a lot of books written or set in this time. Dizzying materialism, prosperity and hope, which turns to poverty and despair in the Depression. There were also huge social changes, especially for women, during this period. The Great Gatsby was written in the early 1920’s, fresh from the war, optimism abounding.

But it didn’t immediately set the world on fire. Its popularity has instead grown over the decades with the benefit of hindsight. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ability to chronicle the mood of a generation and provide a historical snapshot is why it is now considered one of the greatest classics of American literature. It covers themes including power, greed, justice, betrayal and social stratification with interesting characters, each representing different status, dreams and dreams broken.

Fitzgerald’s writing is exquisite. You can almost feel the wealth dripping like champagne and strings of pearls from the pages. The music, the drinking, the lazing around being bored, the lack of moral responsibility and the folly of trying to cling to the past are all so viscerally present that it’s impossible (for me anyway) not to be emotionally absorbed. Although written before the Depression, The Great Gatsby with its unbridled excesses was almost prophetic in its conclusion.

Growing up in Australia, it’s rare that this book makes it onto the school curriculum. I’m quite glad because I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as a teenager. I think you have to have ‘lived life’ a little.

The Great Gatsby is a short book and many have wondered if therein lies its success. Perhaps. It certainly doesn’t need anything added. I read it in in two evenings and I’m sure I’ll read it again one day, if for no other reason than to immerse myself in the language and extravagance of it all.

I don’t know a huge amount about the lives of F.Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, but after reading The Great Gatsby I’d like to rectify this. I’d love to hear recommendations of further reading….

The Scandalous Life of Sasha Torte (2017) by Lesley Truffle

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Read more about The Scandalous Life of Sasha Torte at Goodreads

Author: Lesley Truffle

The Scandalous Life of Sasha Torte is a rollicking ride of decadence, betrayal, aphrodisiac elixirs, Shakespeare, champagne, poison, love, more champagne, delicious pastries, wild women and reckless, libertine men.

It is pure escapism and I loved it.

From the first page I was captivated by the life of Sasha and the thriving, conniving, lawless Tasmanian harbour-side town of Wolfftown. It is a colourful tale, full of whimsy and magic about making the best of what life hands you amidst a culture of moral ambiguity.

We meet 22 year old Sasha in 1912 languishing (in total luxury) in gaol for murder. Writing her memoir, she takes us back to her tragic childhood with a dead father and runaway, murderess mother. She is cared for by her doting and wealthy grandfather and aunt who, although not social outcasts, certainly have a bad reputation. Early on Sasha realises, quite happily, that she too is likely to become a ‘black sheep’.

She is educated and taught to think for herself. Thanks to her reprobate of a grandfather and open-minded aunt she grows into a worldly-wise, sassy, intelligent woman who decides at a young age to make her own way in the world. She learns that most social conventions in Wolfftown are based on bigotry, hypocrisy, nepotism and ignorance. When she opens her own patisserie shop, she makes it clear that she will stand for none of these things which make her a nemesis to some, a curiosity to others, and an unobtainable object of desire to many of the men in town.

Sasha is strong, resilient, compassionate and generous to those loyal to her. Her undoing begins upon meeting the Dasher brothers. One betrays, seduces and introduces her to an addiction that nearly claims her life. The other loves her.

The secondary characters are as vivid and alive as Sasha. Her best friend Viola is hilarious and insatiable with a heart of gold. Her jaunty grandfather, Brendan is as rakish as an old man can be, and her aunt Lil lives voraciously and depicts melancholia with heartbreaking beauty. Even the psychic, Buddhist goldfish, Alphonse swam into my heart.

There is more profanity, sex, drugs and general racy-ness than I usually read, but I was so engrossed with the story I didn’t mind at all. Perhaps, like Sasha, we all have a bit of the black sheep in us. 🙂

I love that Truffle set the story in Tasmania. It would have been so easy to base it in Sydney or Melbourne or even one of the pirate coves of Cornwall. There is so much mystery surrounding post-Van Diemen’s Land Tasmania that it lends the story an enigmatic, fantasy element.

I wish that Wolfftown was a real place so I could walk along the cobbled streets of the old town, see the faded buildings and the harbour docks and if I’m really lucky perhaps glimpse the ghosts of Sasha, Viola, Brendan, Lil and Captain Adam Dasher, all stirring up trouble while guzzling gallons of Tasmania’s finest bubbly.

I can’t wait to be carried away again on Lesley Truffle’s next wild adventure.

5 stars and a second helping of croquembouche at Lady Dasher’s 😉

Peg’s Fairy Book (1944 & 1975) by Peg Maltby

pegs-coverLike many of us, my love affair with reading books began with pictures. I was given Peg’s Fairy Book by my Great Aunt and Uncle on my fourth birthday and I was enchanted from the moment I ripped off the wrapping paper until…well, her illustrations still captivate me. There’s so much vibrant detail and whimsy in each picture. They influenced how I imagined the worlds of other books I read, especially Enid Blyton’s enchanted forest.

I particularly love how her illustrations have a British woodland feel with native Australian flowers and animals. Which makes perfect sense when learning about her life.

Peg (1899 – 1984) was born Agnes Newberry Orchard in Leicestershire, England. Her father gave her and her siblings a love of drawing nature, especially wildflowers. She trained as a poultry keeper but kept drawing in her spare time. In 1922 she married Major George Maltby and they emigrated to Melbourne, Australia in 1924.img_20170301_163531

She continued drawing and took classes at the National Gallery Art School and joined the Victorian Artist’s Society. During the Depression she was able to supplement the family’s income by painting chocolate box lids and greetings cards.

Her drawings were first published in book form in 1944 and the publishers persuaded her to write stories to go along with them. Peg’s Fairy Book was the result and it sold over 180,000 copies.

In 1947 the family moved to Olinda in the Dandenong Ranges (a beautiful mountain town not far from where I live :)) where she built a studio and public gallery to exhibit her work. Peg continued to produce children’s books and published over 40 in the next three decades.img_20170301_163437

In 1975, publishers Angus and Robertson wanted to reprint a new edition of Peg’s Fairy Book. Sadly (unfathomably!), all of the original drawings had been lost so A&R requested that Peg, already in her seventies, re-illustrate the book. She did so, and the new drawings were considered to be even more beautiful than the original.

I never saw the original, but I think I might agree.

One of our large department stores in Melbourne, Myer, puts together a stunning multi-window display every Christmas which showcases a particular childhood theme. For most children, this is an annual pilgrimage, worth the trip into the city and battling the crowds. I’m not sure if it’s still as popuimg_20170301_171624464lar now, but during the 70’s and 80’s it was a magical experience.

In 1976 the theme was ‘Peg’s Fairy Book’ and I have very faint memories of pressing my nose to the windows and being completely enchanted as the colourful images of fairies and talking mice and witches and mermaids came to life before my eyes.

Do you have a favourite picture book from your childhood?

Cluny Brown (1946) – film by Ernst Lubitsch

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(Please note that this review contains spoilers for both the film and Margery Sharp’s book)

“I would build you the most beautiful mansion, with the most exquisite and complicated plumbing, I would hand you a hammer, and say “Ladies and Gentlemen, Madame Cluny is about to put the pipes in their place.”

What an enjoyable way to spend a Saturday morning. I read Cluny Brown last week (review and short synopsis here) and was looking forward to seeing how the film compared. I’m pleased to say it stays close enough to the spirit of the book to maintain the essence of ‘Clunyness’, and adapted itself reasonably well within the storyline.

The film is a witty, light comedy with a perfectly fitting cast. Jennifer Jones plays the vivacious Cluny with such charm and lack of guile that, although she is prettier than the book describes, I will always picture her as Cluny. Charles Boyer plays the charming Adam Belinski with a light touch, great lines and a lot of fun.

The film spends more time developing Cluny and Belinski’s relationship than in the book. In fact, they meet in almost the first scene and he is immediately fascinated by her pluck. He encourages her to question the expectations of society by telling her to “give squirrels to the nuts” which becomes her mantra.

Visually the film is a beautiful accompaniment to the book. The characters, Carmel Manor and the village were just as I imagined they would be. I would watch it again just to wander around the gardens of the estate and through the village. Heaven for an Anglophile like me.

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Cluny suggests to a bemused Lord Carmel which piece of mutton is the largest and least fatty.

Peter Lawford and Helen Walker play Andrew and Betty and their love story is developed beautifully also. Lord and Lady Carmel are just as they are in the book…naïve and delightful.

Once Cluny begins ‘walking out’ with Mr Wilson, Mr Belinski’s jealousy is evident and he works on sabotaging their relationship at every step. Every time he walks by Mr Wilson’s shop he opens the door, ringing the bell and then hides, to the annoyance of Mr Wilson. Pure juvenile humour that had me laughing each time.

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Mr Wilson, played by a very young Richard Haydn (Uncle Max from The Sound of Music) stole the show for me. Apart from a slightly weird accent, he played the part of the stuffy, happy with his lot, unambitious, village chemist. He genuinely cares for Cluny and seems touched that she would care for him too. He is a far more caricatured character in the film compared to the book, but he was a delight to watch.

The death knell for Cluny and Mr Wilson’s relationship happens on the night he is to propose to her at a dinner gathering at his home. During the meal, an almighty noise coming from the bathroom indicates a plumbing emergency and, true to nature, Cluny rolls up her sleeves, shimmies under the sink and fixes the problem. Of course, this horrifies Mr Wilson and his guests, who in quiet awkwardness take their leave.

Cluny returns home to find that Mr Belinski has left, having given up on winning her love. She runs to the train station, hops on the carriage when she finds him and they ride off into the New York sunset together.

Cluny Brown wouldn’t be my favourite classic film, but it was warm, cosy and made me smile. It’s worth a watch. Read more here.

The only other Margery Sharp movie adaptation I’ve seen is The Forbidden Street (Britannia Mews) 1949. After a slowish start I ended up loving it. Maureen O’Hara and the ever-watchable Dana Andrews play the leads. I haven’t yet read the book…I’m saving that pleasure for the next Margery Sharp Day. If I can wait that long.

I believe The Nutmeg Tree was also adapted to film as “Julia Misbehaves” with Greer Garson in the lead role.

Have you seen any Margery Sharp film adaptations? What did you think?

Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp (1944)

img_20170221_121830910“How shocking. Shocking Cluny Brown! I’d like to meet her.”

What a charming, humorous and ultimately confounding (to me) book. Set in 1938, it is an ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ kind of story, full of likeable characters and witty dialogue.

Cluny Brown is a young orphaned lady, a plumber’s niece, who ‘doesn’t know her place’ and wonders why she is scolded for having tea at the Ritz, eating oranges in bed all day (it’s revitalising!) or bathe in strange men’s apartments (I’m with her uncle on this one). She is sent away from her home in London to be a parlourmaid at a large Devonshire estate, Friars Carmel, where it is hoped she will learn to behave herself.

Without an ounce of cynicism, Cluny questions society’s expectations for her life. Not such a big thing in 2017, but in 1938 a young lady’s reputation rested on her ability to thrive in the status to which she was born. At Friars Carmel her genuine questioning endears her to everybody in spite of themselves and usually with great exasperation.

But Cluny Brown is not the whole story, and I was very glad about that. The book could have been more accurately called Friars Carmel. For me, the story was about Andrew, the heir to the estate. Andrew and Pretty Betty. I LOVED them. Andrew was the anchor. He turned the story from a fun, fluffy piece of middlebrow comedy (which I adore anyway) into a more substantial look at young, privileged people on the verge of war and their attempt to find meaning and purpose amidst rapid change and pressing ‘Lord of the Manor’ tradition.

I did struggle with the ending. If you don’t want any spoilers you may wish to skip the next paragraph.

I did not expect Cluny to marry Mr Wilson. But neither did I see her marrying Mr Belinski. The only reason I could see Cluny choosing Belinksi is that she knows he won’t hold her to any societal conventions. It was him, afterall, that said “for you, I imagine, the whole universe is to let.” But was this enough for her to marry him? I know she wanted more out of life, but she didn’t come across as rash or reckless. Either I didn’t get how desperate she was to escape, or I didn’t get how much she admired Mr Belinski. And he had never seemed that enamoured with Cluny. Either way, I wondered if I’d slept through huge chunks of the story. Was I supposed to dislike Mr Wilson? Because I didn’t. If you’ve read the book, I’d love to know your thoughts on the ending.

In spite of this, I know I’ll read Cluny Brown again one day. I haven’t even mentioned Lord & Lady Carmel and the Colonel. Delightful, delightful, delightful. The story is beautifully written, very funny and if you have a hankering after all things British, I highly recommend spending a few cosy hours on this picturesque Devonshire estate.

(I’m about to watch the movie. 🙂 I’ll review it in the next few days.)

Carry Me Home – Dorothy Adamek

img_20170211_165736802Read more about Carry Me Home at Goodreads

Author: Dorothy Adamek (her website is gorgeous!)

I’m not a big reader of 19th century romances, especially with ladies in long flowing dresses on the cover. I have an assumption that they’ll be a bit sickly sweet and that I won’t identify with the characters. But, within a few pages I discovered with relief that Carry Me Home is different.

It is incredibly well-written and beautiful in the way that beauty is when it’s forged from tragedy. The main characters are interesting and flawed and multi-layered. The storyline and sub-plots are original and twisty, it has non-clichéd secondary characters (the Pastor, Goliah, is a hoot) and a location that is right out of my childhood. Literally. Which is why I picked up this book in the first place.

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Cowes Jetty, Phillip Island by Walter Withers c.1900

Carry Me Home is set on Phillip Island, just outside Melbourne. I spent countless holidays there as a child. Small towns, gentle beaches, rugged coastlines, rolling countryside, koalas and penguins. It seems Phillip Island holds the same nostalgic magic for Dorothy Adamek and she does the landscape and its history justice.

And boy, can Adamek write a good hero! I was smitten with Shadrach immediately. You can tell she visualises each scene because the movements come alive on the page, which is magical when witnessing the growing attraction between Shad and Finella. It had my pulse racing! And this is who Adamek had in mind when she was writing Shad…. 🙂

She deftly turns that spark into a gradual and deep abiding love worn deeper by the internal and external conflicts each has to overcome.

The thread of Christian faith weaves so gently through the story that I believe it would appeal to all readers, regardless of beliefs, who enjoy a well-written story of finding where one’s heart belongs.

I’m not 100% sure I’m ok with the ending, I’ll have to mull it over for a few days. Even so, Carry Me Home is the best piece of romantic fiction I’ve read in a long time. And as it’s romance week and I’m feeling all fuzzy and loved up, I might give another one a go….

Carry Me Home is the first in the Blue Wren Shallows trilogy and I eagerly await the next one.

Highly recommended, especially for romance week!

Keep calm and listen to Handel

Enjoy five minutes of calm with George Handel on this Wednesday ‘hump’ day –

George Frideric Handel’s Pifa (Pastoral Sympony)

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George Handel by Harry Everett Townsend (1879 – 1941)

I’ve gone all ‘pastoral’ again this week. Must be James Herriot’s All Things Bright and Beautiful set in the gorgeous Yorkshire Dales that I’ve been reading.

Handel’s Messiah is arguably his most well-known piece of work, if not his finest. In the scene called ‘the annunciation to the shepherds’, movement no. 13 is a lovely five-minute piece which is known as the Pifa, or Pastoral Symphony.

There are lots of explanations surrounding the meaning of the term Pifa. My understanding is that as the shepherds are being introduced, Handel alludes to the music of the Italian Pifferari, the rural bagpipers who come down off the mountains to play in the village streets. If I’m wrong, please correct me!

Handel was born in Germany in 1685. He showed promising musical talent even as a young boy, however his father discouraged his musical pursuit believing that a profession in law would provide him with a more acceptable income. Fortunately his mother recognised his talent so she hid a clavichord in the attic where Handel would sneak up to practice. At eighteen, he dropped out of law and committed himself to a career in music.

At the age of nineteen he nearly got himself killed during a sword fight with fellow composer, Johann Mattheson. The sword struck a button on Handel’s chest saving his life. The reasons for their quarrel were never discovered. Teenagers!

At age 41, Queen Anne enticed him to London with a sizeable income (Dad would have been happy) where he remained for the rest of his life. His operas were so successful that he was permitted to choose his own leading ladies. During one such opera, two rival diva’s of their time began fighting on stage and had to be dragged away, tearing strips off their costumes as they went.

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George Frideric Handel (left) and King George I on the River Thames by Edouard Hamman, 1717

Over the next 30 or so years he continued composing and at the time of his death at the age of 74 he had written nearly 80 oratorios and operas. His final years were plagued with health issues including two strokes, injuries from a coach crash and blindness for the last eight years of his life. He kept composing.

Although experiencing bouts of depression he was known for his positive outlook, pleasant demeanour and generosity. He was never married or bore children, so he left his considerable fortune to his servants and numerous charities. Over 3000 people attended his state funeral. He is buried in London’s Westminster Abbey.

If you’re living in or visiting London I wonder if you’ve been to the Handel & Hendrix? “Separated by a wall and 200 years are the homes of two musicians who chose London and changed music.” This looks like a fascinating museum, beautifully restored.

It’s been a lovely little ‘project’ reading, albeit very briefly, into the life of George Handel. The portraits from this era give their subjects an austere quality and their talent, intimidating. But I have an inkling he would have been a friendly, down-to-earth sort of fellow.