Idaho by Emily Ruskovich


Every December I look on Amazon to see what books are coming out in the following year, and I have lots of fun scrolling through different genres and adding books to my wishlist. While doing this last year, I was initially attracted to Emily Ruskovich’s debut novel simply because of the image of its gorgeous cover; such artistry had to promise something delightful within. This quite shallow attraction caused me to research the author further, and when I discovered an interview in which she listed her favourite American writers as being all of my favourites too, I thought I would probably find myself liking her work. So, when it came out last month I hotfooted it to Foyles and excitedly read the first few pages. Impressed by the lyrical quality of the writing, I snapped it up and made it my first new fiction read of 2017. I raced through it in two days over the Easter holiday, hardly bearing to put it down between mouthfuls of chocolate. Ruskovich has a wonderful way of writing that manages to be incredibly atmospheric without feeling the need to draw attention to itself by painstakingly cluttering sentences with metaphors: a rare gift indeed. To her great credit, despite having an MFA, she doesn’t write in that elaborate, ponderous way so many contemporary writers seem to at the moment, and substance and style occupy an equal place, creating a fantastic story that sings off the page.

Told from multiple viewpoints, and jumping around in time, the story centres on an act of random violence in which a small child, May, is killed by her mother, Jenny, one summer in the mountains of Idaho. Her older sister, June, after witnessing what happens, runs away, and cannot be found. Wade, Jenny’s husband and the girl’s father, marries Ann a year after the event, and the narration starts from Ann’s perspective, some years later, when Wade is starting to lose his mind to dementia, and the painful legacy of the loss of his children is rearing itself ever more presently within their everyday lives. It is Ann’s desire to understand that day, to try and work out from the occasional snatches of information she gains about the girls and their mother, and the life they had with Wade, how and why Jenny can have killed her child, that drives the narrative, and there is much that is haunting, moving and surprising along the way.

I won’t say much more other than to warn in advance that this is not a thriller, or a detective story; there is no conclusion to the story, as Ruskovich has been incredibly brave in choosing not to provide a reason for what happened. There is no neat confession, no moment of realisation when a light is shone into the darkness. We are left to use the information we are given to come up with our own interpretation, just like Ann, and personally, I preferred it like that. I closed the pages with so much left to think about, and the characters and the beautifully realised world of the Idaho mountains in which they live stayed with me for days. It is a tragic and deeply sad tale, yet also one that quivers with hope and beauty. Ruskovich paints such a rich and wise portrait of humanity, exploring with an exquisite lightness of touch how deep and unfathomable the depths of all our lives truly are, even to those who think they know us the most. I loved it. I would say it’s definitely been my book of the year so far, and I already can’t wait to read what Emily Ruskovich writes next.

A Winter Away by Elizabeth Fair


I was kindly sent this to review by Dean Street Press, who have recently reprinted a whole host of female middlebrow authors from the mid 20th century in attractively designed paperbacks and ebooks. Now normally I leave review books languishing for months in guilt inducing piles, but I knew instantly from reading the description of eccentric village life on the blurb of my copy of A Winter Away that I would love it, and so I began reading as soon as it plopped onto my doormat. My instincts were not wrong; this is a hilarious, witty and wonderfully warm story about a number of misfits whose convergence in a corner of rural Dorset leads to just the sort of trifling yet utterly absorbing events that make up the often ridiculous course of everyday life. This is the perfect antidote to current affairs: it’s light and wonderfully funny, but also very well written and sensitively observed. I adored every moment, and felt quite bereft at leaving the world of the characters behind. If you are a fan of Persephone Books, Barbara Pym, and/or Angela Thirkell, then I can guarantee you will find in Elizabeth Fair a marvellous new author to get stuck into.

A Winter Away begins with Maud, young and delicate, sent away to live with her much older cousin Alice and her friend, Miss Conway, in their cottage in the village of Glaine. She is to be the secretary to the eccentric, elderly lord of the manor, Mr Feniston, her cousin’s landlord, and owner of a large and crumbling mansion a short walk up the lane. However, Maud’s stay in the countryside, which is supposed to be a chance for her to build up her strength in an untaxing environment, seems far from relaxing from the moment she arrives. Not only does Miss Conway seem to resent her presence, but there are unsettling remarks made about the fate of Mr Feniston’s previous secretary. Maud is not convinced she will be up to the job, nor whether she particularly wants to stay in the same house as the jealous, prickly Miss Conway. However, she soon discovers that Mr Feniston, or Old M, as she calls him, is all bark and no bite, and he quickly warms to his keen, insightful young secretary. Meanwhile, life in the village becomes far more exciting when it transpires that Old M has a son, Oliver, and a nephew Charles, both of whom have troublesome relationships with the patriarch of the family, and who also happen to be rather good looking. Maud, who has found herself becoming very attached to the Fenistons, decides to take it upon herself to try and heal the rifts in the family. However, Old M’s penchant for keeping secrets from everyone, and making her keep them too, puts her in a rather difficult position. Added to these problems is the issue of poor Ensie, cousin Alice’s neighbour, whose overbearing father keeps her practically housebound, and can’t see that she has fallen in love with the local curate. Maud takes it upon herself to help Ensie too, but keeping everyone else’s secrets only leads to the unconscious masking of her own…

The village of Glaine comes vividly to life through Fair’s description of the surroundings and the residents, all of whom are excellently drawn. I loved Mr Feniston the best – contradictory, mischievous and stubborn, his dialogue sparkles on the page and left me in fits. I also found Miss Conway a very intriguing character; there were hints that she felt a little too strongly for cousin Alice, and her jealousy of Maud was a lightly treated, but still rather dark undercurrent to the story. Ostensibly A Winter Away is a love story, but it is also a rather Stella Gibbons-esque tale of how an outsider can transform the stagnant lives of a small community through refusing to observe the traditions that keep the inhabitants trapped in their ways. Fair was a very talented writer with a real gift for characterisation, and I can’t recommend A Winter Away highly enough. This is definitely a novel that thoroughly deserves to be brought back into the light.

Spring Sojourns

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The sun has finally come out in London, and the smell of spring is in the air. Over the past couple of weekends, I’ve been out and about in the city, and found some previously undiscovered gems that were made even more glorious thanks to being seen against the backdrop of blue skies. A couple of weeks ago I was at an English teacher’s conference at the British Library, and one of the speakers happened to mention that just up the road in the graveyard of St Pancras Old Church could be found the grave of Mary Wollstonecraft. As regular readers know, I love nothing more than a poke about a graveyard, and so as soon as the conference finished, I hotfooted it up Midland Road, past St Pancras and a host of modern blocks of flats, to a rather anachronistic looking Victorian church, marooned with its green island of a graveyard amidst the bustling modernity of council estates and high rise apartments. I soon discovered that the church was a Victorian replacement for a much earlier foundation, when the church was situated in the then country village of Somer Town, and was a tranquil, idyllic spot, far from the smoky metropolis.

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As London expanded, it devoured the village and the church became the heart of a slum, which the Metropolitan Railway saw no harm in tearing down to make way for their new railway line and gargantuan gothic folly of a station in the 1860s. The railway line cut straight through the church’s grounds, necessitating the removal of a number of bodies and graves The Thomas Hardy tree in the back of the churchyard is another fascinating reminder of the graveyard’s links to the railway; as a young man, Hardy was hired to help exhume and move the bodies that lay in the path of the construction works. As can be seen in the photograph of the Hardy tree, the railway line is incredibly close to the church, and is still having an impact on its structural safety nowadays. A beautiful, tranquil and totally unexpected little space in the city, it is a rare survival, as is the grave of Mary Wollstonecraft, which she shares with her husband William Godwin. Despite being in this out of the way spot, I was heartened to see that someone had recently left a tulip on top as a tribute. If you are in the vicinity of King’s Cross or St Pancras, I recommend a brief detour to the church; the graveyard also contains the grave of Sir John Soane of the museum fame, and its rich history makes it well worth a visit.

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Last weekend, I popped to Leighton House Museum in Holland Park to see the Flaming June exhibition before it closed. I’ve been meaning to go to Leighton House for years; its aesthetic interior is legendary, and though Leighton is one of those Victorian painters who fell out of fashion quite considerably in the 20th century, I have a great admiration for his work. Flaming June, arguably his most famous painting, was bought for a song in the 1960s, when no one was interested in Leighton’s work, and is now displayed in a Portuguese museum. It has not been back to the UK since it was sold, and so it was a wonderful opportunity to be able to see it in the flesh, on show with the other paintings it was initially displayed with when Leighton presented it at the Royal Academy. Fascinatingly, there is a bit of a mystery associated with the group of paintings; all of them bar one has been traced. Most went into private collections, but one, thought to have been given to Queen Maud of Norway, has disappeared entirely. I’d love to know where it is, and whether someone has unknowingly got it sitting in their house somewhere! The house itself is beautiful on the inside, filled with priceless oriental artefacts as well as a range of Victorian paintings both by Leighton and his friends. Its exterior shows clearly how Leighton adapted the house to suit his needs both as a painter and as an aesthete, and the huge studio windows and large garden certainly made me jealous! It’s well worth a visit, and a trip can be combined with nearby 18 Stafford Terrace, another Victorian artists’s house museum that belonged to illustrator Edward Linley Sambourne, which I must revisit soon.

ps. do listen to the latest Tea or Books? podcast here, in which we discover some new middlebrow favourites!

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

The First Cloud 1887 by Sir William Quiller Orchardson 1832-1910

I think Anthony Trollope might be my new favourite novelist. His books might be ridiculously long, but they’re so much fun that the pages whip by in an ecstasy of stifled giggling, and leave you bereft when you emerge from the world he has created, desperate for more of his wonderfully drawn characters. I had only read one Trollope, some years ago now, when I decided, when stuck on a train with only what I had downloaded on my Kindle to read, to give The Way We Live Now a go. I know many people say it’s their favourite, and having watched the TV series (back in 2001, apparently – that makes me feel old!), I was keen to see what I would make of it. As I am currently completely submerged in the nineteenth century thanks to all the reading and research I’m doing for my MA, I have been avoiding Victorian fiction when I read for pleasure, but this was such a perfect blend of literary entertainment that I couldn’t put it down. Trollope is, in my opinion, far superior to Dickens in that he doesn’t preach and he doesn’t caricature; he presents life as it is and leaves the reader to make the judgements, and he does it all in a refreshingly pared-back prose that has none of the fuss of Dickens’ lavishly trimmed sentences. If you think Victorian fiction is too heavy going for you, then Trollope, I can promise you, will be a pleasant surprise. And The Way We Live Now is an excellent example of how atypically Victorian he is, as the world of selfish, materialistic characters being held to ransom by the machinations of the corrupt financier Melmotte feels disturbingly contemporary!

The multi stranded plot revolves around the central character of Sir Felix Carbury, a young, indulged and perpetually hard up aristocrat whose doting mother, Lady Carbury, is determined to secure him a financially stable future. Struggling to make ends meet, she is pursuing a literary career with little success, and is in despair at her daughter Hetta’s refusal to marry her irritatingly nice, sensible and wealthy cousin, Roger, who lives at the family estate in Suffolk. As Hetta won’t marry for money, and her embarrassingly terrible literary efforts aren’t filling the coffers as quickly as she would like, Lady Carbury sets her sights on the only daughter of mysterious financier Mr Melmotte, who is newly arrived in London and causing quite the stir. Marie Melmotte is hardly pretty, but she is rumoured to be the richest young woman in Europe, and isn’t averse to finding a husband. Thankfully for Felix, who has no inclination to marry, but is so desperate for cash to pay off his gambling, drinking and horse riding debts that he’ll do anything to get some money, is criminally handsome. As such, Lady Carbury’s plan to push the two young people together works like a charm; Marie is smitten at first sight with the gorgeous young baronet, and Felix is prepared to marry her if he can guarantee she’ll prop up his idle lifestyle.

Meanwhile, Sir Felix has embroiled himself in Mr Melmotte’s latest financial scheme; the Central Pacific and Mexico railway, which is promising riches to everyone who invests in it. Melmotte secures the backing of a number of aristocrats, and the talk in town is that he is sitting on a fortune, but soon the inexperienced and rather dense Lords who have been corralled into the scheme thinking it will save them from financial ruin become suspicious at both the lack of ready money and information about what exactly Melmotte is doing with the shares. Most concerned is Paul Montague, whose firm are behind the railway scheme; he doesn’t trust Melmotte, and is worried that his money has been sunk into a black hole. He also happens to be in love with Hetta Carbury, and she in love with him, but being penniless – especially as he has seen no return as of yet from his shares in the railway – he has no chance of winning Lady Carbury’s consent.

As Sir Felix, Lady Carbury and Marie plot a marriage behind Melmotte’s back, rumours, fuelled by an aristocrat who thinks he has been cheated, begin to circulate that Melmotte is not an honourable man. Stories surface about midnight flights from various European cities, broken promises, and bankruptcies. Questions are asked about whether Melmotte’s fortune actually exists, and investors in the railway begin to become nervous. Felix starts to wonder whether Marie Melmotte is really such a catch after all, and as all of London gossips and chooses sides, those who are reliant on Melmotte for their financial security are forced into nailing their colours to the mast. Will they stay loyal to Melmotte in the hope of a return, or will they withdraw, choosing the dignity of their names over the means to live up to them? And will Melmotte manage to weather the growing storm of doubt and disapproval before it brings his empire to its knees?

This is such a fabulous book, and there are plenty more characters and sub plots than I have been able to detail here. Trollope creates a wonderfully rich, vibrant world that takes us from impoverished country estates to city board rooms, London salons to boarding houses, all filled with lively, colourful and utterly real characters, all striving to make a life for themselves in a capitalist world. Sir Felix is a magnificent piece of characterisation, perfectly exemplifying the results of indulgent parenting, a poor education and the sense of entitlement that comes from unearned status, who still just about manages to be sympathetic despite being an utter waste of space. Melmotte is enigmatic, complex and not the villain you would expect, and the female characters are well drawn, with subtlety and realism in the dilemmas and strictures they face. Trollope is a refreshingly human novelist, with no axe to grind or agenda to peddle; he invites us to take a look at the corruption of society at all levels, and decide for ourselves who is at fault. There is no heavy handed narration, no clumsy moralising; instead, there is merely honesty, and an honesty that is hilarious as it is depressing. I couldn’t put it down, and I already can’t wait to read more. This is classic fiction at its finest; I’d challenge anyone not to love every minute of it!

A Pin to See the Peepshow by F Tennyson Jesse


I read A Pin to See the Peepshow as part of a podcast over at Tea or Books?, when Simon and I decided to read and compare two books based on the same real life murder trial; that of lovers Edith Thompson and Freddy Bywaters, convicted and hanged for murdering Edith’s husband Percy in 1922. (The other book is Messalina of the Suburbs by E M Delafield, which you can hear all about on the podcast!) F Tennyson Jesse, who spent much of her career writing about true crime, found this trial fascinating, being as it was that many considered it to be a miscarriage of justice, with Edith Thompson always pledging her innocence. As such, her novelised version, with a pretty, intelligent and ambitious heroine, Julia, being cast as the unfortunate Edith, is a very interesting, sympathetic account of how thoughtless actions can lead perfectly ordinary people into a nightmare from which there can be no escape. It was certainly enough to send shivers down my spine!

The novel opens with Julia Almond’s schooldays, where she is the pet of her teachers in their small, suburban school filled with middle class girls. Julia is bored of her drab surroundings, and her painfully boring, unaffectionate parents. She longs to make something of herself, and have beautiful things, and fall in love. Passionate and more than a little selfish, she feels life and its injustices incredibly deeply, and struggles to control the emotions that tussle within her chest. Her lively imagination, ambition and keen sense of aesthetic beauty elevate her above her contemporaries, and soon she finds herself in the enviable position of being a shopgirl at L’Étrangère, a smart West End boutique run by a society lady as a bit of a hobby. Julia becomes utterly absorbed in the shop, revelling in making herself invaluable, and soon she is responsible for buying, even being sent to Paris to do so. Successful and attractive, Julia believes herself capable of anything, but when her father dies and she and her mother begin to struggle financially, Julia’s harmonious life is shattered by the reality that she will soon have to share her bedroom with her younger cousin when her mother’s relatives move in to share the housekeeping costs. Relishing the sanctity of her own space, the thought of sharing with someone else, of losing her freedom to come and go and do as she pleases, is enough to throw her into the arms of her father’s newly widowed friend Herbert Starling, whose freshly acquired military uniform and status, as well as his smart flat, suddenly make him a most attractive prospect.

Hastily married and installed in her smart, clean flat, away from the press of relatives who she hated seeing after her busy days working in the shop, Julia is content. She is talented at her work, enjoys the social whirl of wartime London, and the problem of not really loving her husband is something she can at least, for now, put on the back burner. However, when Herbert returns from the front, unscathed, he expects to find Julia ready to play the role of a traditional wife, and Julia’s disgust for the man she is now trapped with leads to a nightmare of evasion and recriminations. Neither able to understand or accommodate the needs of the other, their marriage is a disaster, made even more so when Julia meets Leonard Carr, and falls madly in love. Longing to be with him, but unable to leave Herbert, she snatches any time she can find with him, in the meantime writing obsessive, lavish letters detailing her love and all the things she would do to be with him. She fantasises about Herbert’s death, never dreaming of doing him harm, but wishing one of his many hypochondriac ailments will kill him for her, especially after he forces her into sex with him. However, she doesn’t anticipate that Leonard will eventually have enough of the situation, and take matters into his own hands, dragging her down into the depths of hell with him as she finds herself suddenly on trial for her life….

This a brilliantly written, wonderfully psychologically complex look at women’s lives in the early 20th century, and Tennyson Jesse’s skill at making Julia’s actions so utterly comprehensible and sympathetic is extraordinary. Where the book really comes into its own is in the final chapters, when Julia reflects on her life while waiting to be condemned in her prison cell, and her realisation of the completely unrealised joy of freedom, and the fact that she will never have it again, is heartbreaking. Her life, once so busy, so purposeful, has been destroyed by an emotion that she is not even sure is real, and the way in which Tennyson Jesse subtly questions the true depth of her and Leo’s relationship is very skilful. I also loved the glimpses into the working world of women in the Edwardian period, the flashes of London street life from the tops of omnibuses, and the domestic details of everyday Edwardian homes. Overall, however, I loved Tennyson Jesse’s beautiful writing, and her ability to create a world so convincing, and a character so sympathetic, that I was almost in tears at the end. This is a remarkable book, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s currently out of print, but is widely available used. I’m now looking forward to reading more of Tennyson Jesse’s work. Any recommendations would be welcome!