The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard


I’ve been meaning to read the Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard for years, ever since I watched the TV series that aired on the BBC back in 2001. Somehow I never got around to it, but 15 years later, I have finally begun reading, and I can’t believe I waited this long to read something so utterly marvellous. I steamed through the first in the series, The Light Years, and am now on the second, Marking Time; they are completely absorbing and so evocative of their period that I can’t put them down, and the characters are alive in my head all day, waiting for me to rejoin them as soon as I get on the tube home.

Over five books, Elizabeth Jane Howard (who was a fascinating person) tells the story of the Cazalet family; a large, sprawling upper middle class clan who span several generations and all have very different outlooks on life. We are first introduced to the family in the summer of 1938, when they are gathering, as usual, at the Sussex home of the ‘Brig’ and the ‘Duchy’, who are the now elderly parents of four very different children. Hugh, the eldest, was badly injured in the first war, and is sensitive, kind and very much in love with his intelligent and homely wife Sybil. They have two children, and another on the way, and spend most of their time in London, where Hugh works in the family timber company. In a neighbouring house to Hugh and Sybil live Hugh’s brother Edward; strikingly handsome and wonderfully charming, he has a charmed existence. He is married to Villy, a former ballerina, with whom he has three children. Edward, however, has a dangerously roving eye, and Villy, with her exceptional intelligence and artistic talents, is frustrated by the limits of her life. Rupert, the third son, is a failed artist, forced to take a job as a teacher to make ends meet. His much loved first wife died in childbirth, and he and his two children now live with his new wife, Zoe, a decade younger than him and breathtakingly beautiful, though incredibly selfish and resentful of his relationship with his children. Rachel, the only daughter, has remained unmarried and still lives with her parents; completely devoted to her family and indispensable to them all, her life is subsumed by her siblings, their wives and children, though they are completely unaware that she is desperately in love with her female friend Sid.

When together at the country pile of the Brig and the Duchy, the family live an easy, relaxed existence, spending long afternoons lazing around in the gardens, evenings talking and listening to the gramophone, and happy days picnicking at the beach. All their needs are taken care of by the army of servants, and the descriptions of the colossal meals prepared by the indefatigable cook are marvellous. However, fault lines run beneath each of the relationships, and as we flit between the viewpoints of each character, including delightful forays into the minds of the Cazalet children, the reality of their seemingly charmed existence is brought into repeated question. Rupert and Zoe’s marriage seems to be heading for disaster; Villy is desperately bored; Rachel longs for a way to be with Sid; Hugh’s son is terrified of being sent away to school; Rupert’s daughter hates her stepmother. And bigger than all of this is the looming threat of war, which has the potential to destroy everything they hold dear. Amidst the seeming idyll of a long, hot English summer, plenty of storm clouds are brewing. Every member of the family has their own battles to face, and Howard is brilliant at being able to dip into each of their consciousnesses in turn, making every character, no matter how young or seemingly insignificant, come wonderfully to life.

This is exactly the sort of book I love; full of the minutiae of the everyday that is far more engrossing than any adventurous, action packed plot, with characters who are so real you feel you know them as friends, all set amidst a background that is marvellously realised and so evocative of its period. I know I won’t rest until I’ve read my way through all of them; if you’ve never read them, you must. They are pure reading pleasure, and are set to become absolute favourites that I know I’ll go back to time and time again. Especially in these uncertain times (I am another frustrated Remain voter…sigh), a good book like this is a very welcome balm to the troubled soul.






I am pitifully poorly travelled in Italy; my trip to the gorgeous Amalfi Coast a couple of years ago was my first foray into this beautiful country, and it left me desperate for more. As such, two weeks ago, I boarded a plane to Rome in order to finally see the sights that had impressed upon my imagination the romance of Italy since childhood; the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Vatican, the lavish churches, the narrow winding lanes, the endless, surprising piazzas, the hilltop vistas…I couldn’t wait!



As the wonderfully named Leonardo rapid train from the airport neared the city, I had my first gasp of amazement as I realised we were passing through the almost two thousand year old Roman walls, around which are clustered the distinctive stone pine trees that so conjure up visions of the Italian countryside for me. On exiting the station, we hopped on a tour bus to enable us to quickly see the main sights and gather our bearings for the days ahead, and every turn along the streets had my eyes growing wide in awe. The beautiful streets lined with ochre buildings that were centuries old, and decorated with gorgeous carvings gave way onto squares with lavish churches, Roman temples, Roman monuments and gushing fountains. Medieval houses nestle amidst Roman ruins; modern day shops and restaurants stand side by side with buildings their thousand year old ancestors would still recognise. History lives in Rome in a way I have never seen it truly live elsewhere; the Romans’ footprints are everywhere, their cultures, traditions, every day habits, still in plain view. In London most evidence of this time has long been buried, but in Rome the colossal, indestructible edifices have been left standing, in varying conditions, a living testament to their belief that their Empire would stand forever.



I saw so much beauty that I thought I was at risk of developing Stendhal syndrome; there really was too much to take in. I was lucky to be visiting with a friend who not only reads Latin, but is an expert in Ancient Rome, so I was wonderfully well informed as we trotted through the streets of the city. In terms of favourite sights, there are simply too many to mention; of course the Colosseum was utterly amazing, as was St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican, and Trojan’s Column was a real wonder for me too, as I had seen the cast of it in the Cast Courts at the V&A hundreds of times when working there, and always longed to see it in the flesh. The Pantheon is truly incredible when you realise that the very modern looking ceiling and perfectly preserved decorations are all original and 2000 years old, and walking around the Forum was a pure delight. However, many of my truly most memorable moments were the unexpected ones; stumbling through the dark doorway of a church to find a masterpiece of Renaissance painting and sculptures by Michelangelo; wandering through an alleyway and finding a piazza where one side was held up by Roman columns; visiting the Palazzo Barberini after finding it down a side street and discovering the famous Caravaggio painting of Judith and Holofernes in one of its spectacular rooms; walking through a park and finding the gargantuan remains of the biggest bathhouse ever built; watching the sunset over the Rome skyline from the terrace of our hilltop hotel. Rome is a breathtaking, magical place that has to be seen to be believed. I have visited a lot of cities in my time, and it is the most beautiful I have ever seen – even more so than my beloved London, I will admit! If you haven’t been, you must go. And if you have – where should I go next time?


The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie


When Simon and I were debating Miss Marple v Poirot on our latest podcast (you can listen here), he said I should read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, as it’s widely considered the best of Christie’s books. When Simon tells me to read something, I usually take heed, and it just so happened that Simon and I, along with some other lovely bloggers (of which there will be more anon) met a few days after the recording of the podcast to enjoy a literary walk across Hampstead Heath. Obviously no visit to Hampstead by book bloggers can be complete without a visit to the Book Shop of Death on Flask Walk (so named by me, as it is a serious health and safety hazard involving acrobatic, mountain climbing and contortion skills in order to access the books for sale), and the very first title I clocked on walking in just so happened to be a lovely green Penguin edition of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Evidently the book gods wanted me to read it, and so into my hands it came (thankfully at no risk to my life). I promptly began reading it on my way home, and was soon swept into the mystery of the murder of wealthy businessman Roger Ackroyd, stabbed to death in his study on a quiet summer evening in the village of King’s Abbott.

It has been a busy few days in King’s Abbott; Mrs Ferrars, a rich young widow, has just committed suicide, and rumours are flying. Many think that she killed her husband, and the guilt pushed her to finally take her own life. However, this seems a strange occurrence; she was happy, having been about to marry her neighbour, none other than Roger Ackroyd. What can have induced her to want to kill herself now, a year after her husband’s death? Ackroyd is distraught, and asks his good friend, and the narrator of the novel, kindly local doctor James Sheppard, to the house to talk things over with him. However, shortly after Dr Sheppard leaves that night, he receives a telephone call saying that Roger Ackroyd has been murdered; rushing back to the house, he finds that no one there has made such a telephone call. On breaking into the study, Ackroyd is indeed found dead, stabbed in the neck with his own ornamental dagger. The household, made up of Roger’s sister in law and niece, an old friend and the various servants, are quizzed, but all seem to have reasonable alibis apart from Ralph Paton, Ackroyd’s troublesome stepson, who has suspiciously disappeared. All of the evidence appears to point to Ralph being to blame for the murder, but Roger’s niece Flora, who was secretly engaged to Ralph, is insistent that he didn’t do it. Desperate to clear his name, she enlists the help of the newly retired Poirot, who has just moved in next door to Dr Sheppard, to help her.

Much excitement, intrigue and marvellous period details then ensue, with Christie demonstrating her mastery of intricate plotting in setting up a wide variety of characters with viable motives and fascinating histories to keep the reader guessing throughout. I changed my mind constantly, second guessing every character who passed through the quaint, slumbering village of King’s Abbott. However, the ending took me entirely by surprise; it has to be the best twist I have ever come across in a novel, and I was kicking myself for not seeing it coming when I realised how easily I had allowed myself to be taken in. If you haven’t read it, you must: it’s a quick and highly entertaining read that will have you absolutely in awe of how clever and brilliant Christie is. They don’t make them like this any more!

The Years by Virginia Woolf


I have now officially read all of Virginia Woolf’s novels, and unfortunately I finished my Woolf reading adventure on one that left me feeling utterly uninspired. The Years, her penultimate novel, is a move away from the impressionistic, stream of consciousness style of her most famous works such as To the Lighthouse and The Waves, and is much more traditional, though certainly not as conventional as The Voyage Out or Night and Day. Its prose is most similar to Between the Acts, though for me, it had none of its beauty or lyricism. Though the earlier chapters, describing the gas-lit streets of Victorian London and shadowy, over-stuffed rooms of the Pargiter family’s home were incredibly evocative and absorbing, as the events moved through to the 20th century, it became increasingly incoherent and rather dull.

The novel centres around the aforementioned Pargiter family, who begin the story in the 1880s in a large, warren-like terrace in Kensington, waiting for Mrs Pargiter, an invalid of some years, to die. As one would expect of a Victorian invalid, she has no identifiable illness, but is just wasting away in a darkened bedroom upstairs, a nurse in constant attendance, while the rest of the family struggle with the guilt of wishing she would just die, and free them all from the tyranny of perpetual sickness. Eventually she does, and slowly the impressive number of Pargiter children drift off to find their places in the world, with several sticking to the conventional roles expected of them, while others take on the stereotypical roles assigned to characters novelists wish to use as symbols of 20th century progress; political agitators, suffragettes, artists, etc. We also meet the Pargiters’ cousins, and over the course of the novel, which skips ahead in sections to significant dates up until 1937, various extended members of the Pargiter family marry, die, have children, become spinsters, move abroad, move to various down-at-heel neighbourhoods and flit in and out of each other’s lives with no real narrative purpose or meaning that I could find besides serving as metaphorical representations of societal change between the 19th and 20th centuries.

Through the characters, Woolf asks questions about the meaning and purpose of life, of work, of war, of relationships, and this is all very well and good, but as we spend so little time with each of the characters, their thoughts and experiences become rather meaningless as there is no opportunity to become invested in or truly understand them. They are all just a series of shifting shadows, and though this is perhaps Woolf’s point about the essential meaningless of human existence, she does cover this ground far more skilfully in Between the Acts, which had a compelling story and characters as well as beautiful writing. While The Years certainly has its moments in the descriptions of the creeping fog, white-pillared crescents and aspidistra dotted drawing rooms of Victorian London, much of the latter portion of the novel is taken up with the unconvincing and very random conversations between various distant relations. In fact, I gave up fifty pages before the end, deciding that life is too short to wade through passages of prose that contain, for me, no pleasure or purpose. I’m sure that for some this book is a masterpiece, but personally, I found it turgid and self-indulgent, and certainly not representative of Woolf’s true powers as a stylist. It’s a strange novel, with the air of being rather unfinished; I felt like it was a first version of what could have gone on to become a brilliant final draft. I’d be interested to hear other people’s opinions of it, however; did I miss something?

A Miscellany

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The unthinkable has happened; despite feeling like a twelve year old inside, last weekend, I turned 30. This was a birthday I was not particularly looking forward to; I’m sure I don’t need to spell out the various existential crises that I had swirling around inside my head as the seemingly enormous figure loomed and I contemplated the failures of my lost youth. However, one week on, I can report that I am feeling absolutely fine, and no different to the 29 year old me whatsoever. I may have achieved precisely none of the goals the younger me had expected by the time I reached this grand old age, but my life has wandered down many different paths that the younger me never even imagined I would tread, and my dreams and ambitions have altered as I have rerouted myself on the map I had previously marked out.In my twenties, I had a lot of fun and I also experienced a lot of heartache. I made wonderful friends and said painful goodbyes to some old ones. I fell in love and out again, I moved countries, I tried different jobs until I was lucky enough to find my true vocation, I moved house more times than I dare to count, I travelled, I explored, I took risks, I rejoiced in my successes and I cried over my many failures. I learned how to do grown up things like unblock my own sink, fill in a tax return, bake bread, manage my finances, change nappies and look busy at work. I also learned the truly important stuff that you don’t really think about when you leave university and launch yourself into your twenties: that the things I was afraid of doing were not as frightening as failing to do them, that listening is more important than talking, that it’s far more rewarding to help someone else than push yourself forward, that happiness does not lie in money and status, that you can’t impose the expectations you have of yourself onto other people, that true friends really are worth their weight in gold. So, despite the fact that I don’t have an awful lot to show for myself other than an impressive collection of books and the half dead contents of a miniature greenhouse, I don’t think I’ve done too bad a job of my first three decades. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s in store as I tentatively paddle into the next one!

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In between attempting to keep myself from falling into an abyss of despair, I have been up to quite a lot over the past month or so. I had the great joy of visiting Hampton Court Palace for the first time, which is impossibly beautiful and full of so many delights that you could stay for a week and still not see everything. I loved the intricate details in the windows and mouldings that revealed the changing occupation of the rooms over the years, the melange of Tudor and Baroque architecture, the acres of gardens filled with a rainbow of tulips and daffodils, and the miles and miles of delicately wrought iron fencing that separates the gardens from the Thames, which flows rather lazily past as if it were a mere country brook. It’s magical, and highly recommended. Though, this was a description of my first visit; it wasn’t quite so magical a couple of weeks later, when I took my Year 8s on a school trip and lost three of them in the maze…

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I popped to Broadstairs for the day with some friends in order to celebrate my birthday last weekend; it’s such a wonderful little seaside resort, with a sheltered sandy beach, bracing cliff walks, a lively high street, plenty of excellent fish and chip shops, a brilliant 1950s ice cream parlour (Morelli’s), a great second hand book shop, glorious historic architecture, and more Charles Dickens themed pubs, shops and restaurants than you can shake a stick at. Dickens loved this town, and used it for inspiration for many of his novels: perched on the cliffs above the bay is the Bleak House; now a B&B, and the home of the woman who inspired Betsey Trotwood is now the Charles Dickens House Museum. The winding lanes and huddles of beautiful, historic homes make it easy to imagine what it must have been like in Dickens’ day, and it makes for a lovely day out from London: the high speed train from St Pancras gets you there in just an hour and a half.

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In literary news, now I am old I feel I can give up on books, and I found myself handing Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch back to the charity shop after getting to page 100 and still waiting for something to draw me in. I was so disappointed, because I loved The Little Stranger, but I was drowning in description and found myself not caring for any of the characters at all. I’ve returned to a trustier source, and am now reading The Years, which is the only Woolf novel I’ve not read. It too is full of description, but this description is different; it transports me to another plane, and I am adoring every minute of submerging my senses in the world of the Pargiter family as they journey through the 19th and 20th centuries. On my way home from work the other night, I popped into Foyles for a browse and came out with this gorgeously illustrated edition of Pride and Prejudice; Alice Pattullo, the illustrator, is a wonderful artist who I’ve been interested in for some time, and her drawings bring a wonderful whimsicality to the text. I already can’t wait to re-read it!

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I also want to apologise for blogging so sporadically these days; it is not intention, merely circumstantial. I am still attempting to write a book (aim: finish by 40), I started learning the piano just over a year ago and it has become a rather unhealthy obsession (I recently passed my first ever music exam – Grade 3 –  which I was more proud of than any other certificate I have ever received!) and I have very little time to read amidst the general whirl of work and socialising and other hobbies. But from now on I resolve to be better at coming here more often and sharing more of what I am doing. It’s been almost seven years since I started this blog, and it continues to be a source of great pleasure; I appreciate every single reader and I hope to give you more posts that are worth reading from now on! (Also, don’t forget that Simon at Stuck in a Book and I record a podcast every two weeks, where you can hear our rambling opinions on a variety of bookish topics – you can listen to the latest one here!).