Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Lucia in Wartime and Lucia Triumphant

During my absence on this blog, I turned to a number of comforting reads - two of which form part of the wonderful Mapp and Lucia saga.  Lucia in Wartime and Lucia Triumphant were both penned by Tom Holt in the mid-eighties and continue the story about the inhabitants of Tilling where the original author, E. F. Benson, left off.

For those of you not yet acquainted with the delicious sparrings of Miss Elizabeth Mapp and Mrs Emmeline Lucas, E. F. Benson wrote six exquisite novels - most set in Tilling (based accurately on Rye in East Sussex) revolving around its inhabitants and the constant battle for supremacy in social circles in this picturesque town. 

I have read all six original novels and also read Major Benjy by Guy Fraser-Sampson, which is another addition to the saga that was published in 2007.  I only had two short stories by Benson to look forward to and re-readings of these cheerful, witty novels.  So it was, with a hopeful heart, that I turned to Tom Holt's novels, which several Benson enthusiasts had proclaimed were as good as the originals.  My expectations were therefore quite high and my anticipation at re-entering Tilling with fresh stories was palpable.

Lucia in Wartime  plunges Tilling into World War II - a brave move as previous novels only ever hint at the legacies of the First World War - and embues all Tillingites with a strong dose of patriotism.  Not surprisingly, the social sparrings are concentrated around the war effort.  Both Mapp and Lucia try to outdo each other in terms of 'doing their bit' and each tries to gain prestige by assisting the army and country, although by very social means.  Major Benjy seizes control of the Home Guard and Georgie finds hidden talents in educating the nation on how to entertain in style by using modest and rationed ingredients.  Indeed, Georgie's ascending star threatens to eclipse Lucia's and even Mapp takes advantage of this momentary weakness.

Although this novel tries to mirror Benson's style and writing, I felt that it fell short in achieving this.  Perhaps it was the war setting that, although treated in a light-hearted way and only used as a device for Mapp and Lucia's social climbing, weighed down the atmosphere of the book.  I certainly did not like Mapp's portrayal and her constant defeat in battle against Lucia.  I think that all the characters, Mapp in particular, were not painted with the touch of fondness that Benson sometimes employs.  Benson's characters are largely self-involved, catty and underhand but you like them all the same as he pokes fun at their foibles whilst inviting us to laugh at them and admire their grace and wit.  In this novel, the main characters simply feel shallow and selfish and Mapp's portrayal was a little depressing for me as she is constantly thwarted and belittled.  I have a softness for Mapp and Benson skillfully nurtures this feeling in us when she does battle with Lucia on occassions when Lucia is patently in the wrong.


By contrast, I found Lucia Triumphant a much better offering and feel that Holt hit his stride in this novel.  The descriptions of Mallards and various Tilling (Rye-based) landmarks and houses are superbly described and successfully transport us to this enchanted town.  The tone and dialogue of this novel are so close to Benson's style that I quite often forgot that I was reading a pastiche.  The characters are all well-drawn with Lucia and Mapp sharing centre-stage in more or less equal quantities.  The fondness for the main characters was present and they were all largely successfully portrayed with wit and charm. 

Set in in a familiar war-free Tilling, Lucia is seeking a new outlet for her energies and questioning what the future holds for someone who has accomplished everything.  Mapp is on hand to spur her onwards and upwards and the lances are out for another round of social jousting.  Lucia dreams up an inspired and ambitious project to be known as the Tilling Tapestry which initially has all of Tilling (except Miss Mapp) at her beck and call.  Mapp naturally retaliates and succeeds in producing a new obsession to replace sewing and bridge... the Monopoly board.  I found this particular weapon quite inspired and entertaining whilst adding a modern feel to the novel.  Imagine it, all of Tilling held inthrall around a Monopoly board with each Tillingite appropriately represented by a Monopoly piece!


I highly recommend these two novels as a pleasant addition to the Mapp and Lucia sextet.  Although I personally found the first instalment weaker than the second, it is still an entertaining read and Lucia Triumphant certainly makes up for it.  Mr Holt successfully hit the mark with his second offering and it's such a shame that he stopped there.  May we please have some more?

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Agatha Christie Week

It's Agatha Christie Week and the 120th anniversary of this famous author's birth!  I first discovered Agatha Christie in my school library in my early teens and was hooked ever since.  I have probably read about half of her mystery novels (the Poirots being my favourite) but have been quite lax in reading any more. This is probably due to the love that I have for the wonderful adaptations with David Suchet (although the current episodes are not my favourites).  I know most of the stories by now... but this year I decided to read Agatha Christie in chronological order and to reintroduce myself to some of her other sleuths along the way.

Do pop over to the excellent Agatha Christie site as they have lists of events at the Torquay Agatha Christie Festival (if you're lucky enough to be in that beautiful spot) and also have several competitions going on.  Our local libraries in Kent usually have an interesting display of Christie books so that is also a good place to check out if you're interested.

If you're in London, Brown's Hotel in Mayfair are having a special Christie-themed tea which sounds quite delicious and fun.  If you're an established fan, or would like to sample her works, why not enter this fabulous competition to win each and every Christie book in your language?

I'm off to re-read the very first Christie (and Poirot) novel... The Mysterious Affair at Styles and am looking forward to working my way through all 80 plus books.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Return to Corduroy Mansions - Next Week!

Yes, it's that time of year again when Alexander McCall Smith turns his attention to his perennially popular online novel, Corduroy Mansions.  The third instalment - A Conspiracy of Friends - commences on Monday, 13 September 2010 and runs until December 2010.

I hope to read the second instalment in book form soon and I'm tempted to rush into the third online.  It's quite cheering to visit the Telegraph page each morning to enjoy Iain McIntosh's comical drawings first thing... and then taking in the hilarity of the chapter headings before you even begin to read the chapter.

I'm used to following these novels in Autumn and Winter in the UK - a cosy antidote to the darkening days - but this time I will be following its initial progress in a very hot South Africa.  It'll feel strange but it should allay some of my homesickness.

You can follow the daily chapters online here or opt to receive daily podcasts of the audio version - read by Andrew Sachs - further down on the same page. 

I only hope that he'll find time to continue with the lovely Scotland Street series in the Scotsman this year, so that I'll be able to read it next year when it is published in book form.  Fingers crossed!

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Between Two Continents

Hello to all my dear readers and friends.  I have missed you all and missed following your postings and comments.  I hope to be resuming with this blog now, with a greater emphasis on book reviews and bookish things.  I would like to thank you all again for your kind and touching words of condolences.  This has been even harder than I could imagine and the pain continues, made worse by the unbelievable bureaucracy and costs that accompany such an event.

My life is currently suspended between the UK and South Africa and I'm not sure when it will return to normal.  I have found some comfort in reading and hope to have some reviews up in due course.  I have received a few review copies and would like to thank the publishers for their generosity. I shall try to read these and review them as soon as I can.

I have decided to give the blog a makeover and simplify things.  Although I liked the design of the previous incarnation, it wasn't suitable for all monitor resolutions.  I hope that the current style does the job and conveys a little warmth and simplicity.

I look forward to hearing from you all again and to dip in and out of your comments and blog postings.

A joyful Spring to those of you in the South and a mellow Autumn/Fall to those in the North.  Whatever the hemisphere, the latter part of the year holds a bounty of new publications.  Happy reading!

Saturday, 1 May 2010


My dear friends... late yesterday afternoon I was told that my dear Dad had passed away.  I am going back to South Africa in a day or two to be with my Mom and brother and may have to stay there a while to look after my Mom.

My darling Father died unexpectedly and he was only 65.  I feel desolated and lost and still can't believe it.  This blog may be silent for a little while but I may well visit yours when I feel able.  I have enjoyed all your comments in these short few months that Rochester Reader has been operational and I hope to see you again soon.

Friday, 30 April 2010

Serial Anticipations for Summer 2010

May 2010
1 The Importance of Being Seven (44 Scotland Street 6) - Alexander McCall Smith
At long last!  The latest book instalment of the charming 44 Scotland Street serial.  The last book was published in 2008 (eek!).  This is my favourite McCall Smith series so I have been bereft for a while.  I am really looking forward to reading this in the (hopefully) sunny May days ahead.

June 2010
10 Dead in the Family (Sookie Stackhouse 10) - Charlaine Harris
I am a little ashamed to admit that I actually enjoyed the popular American TV series True Blood, which were based on these novels.  I say ashamed as I was quite shocked at the excessive and gratuitous sex scenes and constant profanity used (which annoys me greatly), however the storyline was highly addictive and I persevered through all two seasons of the series.  I have been informed by fans of the novels that there are great differences between the TV series and the books themselves so last year I purchased the first book... but gave up reading it after 60 or so pages.  Somehow the first-person narrative did not click with me and I get bored if I am aware of the story line in advance.  However, I will try again as the TV series will take a while to spin out 10 books and it has already strayed from the originals (not to mention that I can only stand so much use of the F-word before my ears rust and my brain explodes!). 

Did anyone else watch the TV series or read the novels?

July 2010
1 A Colourful Death (Cornish Mystery 2) - Carola Dunn
The second instalment in Carola Dunn's newest mystery series set in a Cornwall reminiscent of the 60s.  I have added this to the list to see how the series develops... A short review of the first book will be up soon.
5 The God of the Hive (Mary Russell 10) - Laurie R. King
I became interested in the premise of this series a couple of years ago and have the first three instalments sitting on my shelves.  Sherlock Holmes... retired and married to a young lady who is his equal in intelligence and in the art of detection... and she is the hero of the piece... sounded promising.   I was thrilled to see that Laurie R. King has continued adding to this series (she writes at least one other mystery series) as these books have received very enthusiastic reviews.

29 Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess (Blotto and Twinks 2) - Simon Brett
The second in a new comical mystery series by Sussex-based author Simon Brett.  I am a fan of his Fethering mysteries and love the Mrs Pargeter series too so thought I might look into this one.  Simon Brett likes to add dollops of humour and wit to his mysteries and this one promises to have a more liberal dose.

September 2010

2 Blameless (Parasol Protectorate 3) - Gail Carriger
Ah, those pesky vampires again!  I have just finished the first in the Parasol Protectorate series (love that name!) and have ordered the second so very happy to see that a third is not far away.  Like the Sooky Stackhouse/True Blood series, this involves vampires and werewolves who live openly among mortals but it is set in an alternate version of the Victorian era.  It is funny, fantastic, clever and has sprinklings of romance thrown in.  I hope the sequels hold the momentum and originality that I enjoyed in the first novel.

2 The Charming Quirks of Others (Isabel Dalhousie 7) - Alexander McCall Smith
As usual, Mr McCall Smith continues to conjure up three or four novels a year to the delight of his fans.  This is the next instalment in the Isabel Dalhousie novels that are sent in Edinburgh and have a large philosophical bent.  Indeed, a great part of these novels engage us in the moral musings and philosophical pontificating that Isabel (philosopher and editor) is prone to... all executed in a charming and gracious, gentle manner.  I have a couple of books to read in this series before I am up to date.

Are there any series that you follow and are anticipating reading this Summer (or Winter if you're in the Southern hemisphere)?  Please let me know as I always like to add promising series to my TBR list.  I find that there is something warm, comforting and a little exciting about looking forward to a new book release and immersing myself once again in the company of well-loved characters and settings.

Monday, 26 April 2010

A Cupcake, A Latte and a Lot of Sun

Saturday: Enjoying a vegan cupcake and latte on the balcony of the elegant 30's De La Warr Pavilion building in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Snapshot Sunday

A display with foxes in a garden centre in South Africa.  My apologies for the size of the photo but my mobile camera loves to play tricks on me and reset the resolution when I'm not looking!

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Persephone in Spring: The Biannually has Arrived!

The postman has just delivered the latest Persephone Biannually on this beautiful, sunny Spring day and the cover is fitting.  Included was a charming bookmark to match the book Dimanche and Other Stories by Irène Némirovsky.

As you may already know, the two books for Spring/Summer 2010 are that mentioned above as well as Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon.  Being a knitting enthusiast, I also adore the bookmark for Still Missing which is a closeup of a sophisticated-looking ribbed knit.  The Persephone Books website reveals that they will be publishing another Monica Dickens novel in Autumn/Winter as well as the very first Persephone diary!   Entitled The Persephone Ninety, it will feature the ninety endpapers along with details of each and the first line of each book.  I'm tempted, very tempted...

A quick perusal of the Biannually reveals a number of interesting articles and tidbits such as information and reviews of the two Spring/Summer books and the short story Dimanche. There is also an article about the Blitz and a piece about a Norwegian island.  As usual, the magazine is punctuated by gorgeous and colourful pictures from the period and plenty of reviews including blog reviews from my favourite bloggers. 

Of particular interest is the news that the Persephone Forum will be launched on the 1st June and the first book up for discussion will be William - an Englishman, followed by Mariana in July.  The forum sounds like a wonderful opportunity to interact with other like-minded readers and to exchange views and opinions on each book in the Persephone line.

I'm looking forward to Persephone Week, although I may only be able to contribute for part of the week as it falls upon my birthday.  I'm off to enjoy the sunshine and sip a cup of freshly-picked mint tea with my Persephone...  I hope you have received yours (or will do soon) and will enjoy it too.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Still Here!

My apologies for the latest silence!  I am still here and back in the UK... blogging will resume very soon.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Dig In and Grow Your Own

I was happy to note that the Grow Your Own 'movement' that began last year has continued into 2010 and is being embraced by more businesses and individuals.  Last year, I succeeded in growing delicious tomatoes, runner beans, strawberries and spring onions.  This was my first proper foray into Grow Your Own (I had previously grown baby tomatoes years ago on a tiny scale) and I thoroughly enjoyed it (bar a few worries about whether I watered too much or too little).  I also planted radishes, carrots, and beetroot but they were miniscule and underdeveloped due to ignorance on my part (and too tight a spot for the carrots).  The garlic I planted became poorly so I shall try again this year along with potatoes, more tomatoes and onions, various herbs, beans, carrots and more.  I look forward to really digging in and tucking in!

I missed out on the BBC's Dig In campaign for free seeds last year but I was informed yesterday by a friend that my seeds for 2010 had arrived!  Here is a photo of some of the seeds I planted last month... they are growing strong but it is all a learning curve for me (thanks to a kind friend who is watering in my absence!).  I shall have a load of seeds to plant when I return - both crops and flowers and wild flowers for our bee and butterfly population.

For anyone in the UK who may be interested, you're still in time to request the Dig In seeds if you fill out your details here.  Be quick as they ran out of seeds very early last time.  Hopefully you'll get your pack (with 5 different veggies) within three weeks as I did mine.  If you have never done this before, this is a perfect way to learn and to try your hand at growing something you can eat... it's true: it does taste so much better if you grow it yourself!

Another bit of good Grow Your Own news is that there is a new programme due on BBC2 next Wednesday with gardener Alys Fowler entitled The Edible Garden.  The description sounds promising and involves an interesting way of weaving in food crops with flowers and roses.

Are you trying your hand at growing your own this year?  Or are you an experienced gardener who delights in growing tasty crops?  If you're outside the UK... does your country run similar campaigns?  I'd love to hear from you as I find this quite exciting and my aim is to gradually become more self-sufficient, healthier and more knowledgeable about the food that I eat.

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Foyle's Back!

At long last, one of my favourite television series returns on Sunday, 11 April on ITV (20:00).  Any other fans out there?  I think that Foyle's War is one of the best TV series made in a long while: entertaining, provocative, atmospheric, supremely well acted and with a mystery thrown in.  When I was reading interwar novels a few years ago, a lot of what I learnt through fiction was confirmed and expounded upon in this series.  I learnt a lot about Britain in the World Wars through novels and this excellent programme.  A bonus is that it is set in Hastings, a place I know and love.  I had great fun searching out Foyle's home and other locations in Hastings.  I do hope they'll commission another series...  it is definitely worthy.  For more on Foyle and pictures of Hastings, visit this entertaining site: http://www.foyleswar.com/

Monday, 29 March 2010

McCall Smith Madness in May

There are no less than three - yes three! - Alexander McCall Smith books being published in May. Two brand new ones (The Dog Who Came in from the Cold and The Importance of Being Seven) and one paperback copy.

Although I am quivering with anticipation at being reunited with the residents of 44 Scotland Street in The Importance of Being Seven, it was the new cover of the paperback edition of Corduroy Mansions that caught my eye. It is an illustration by the excellent Iain McIntosh and those of you who read this book online at the Telegraph site or in hardback will recognise some of the scenes and icons from the novel. I think it's quite clever and Freddie de la Hay looks ever so cute (and regal) with his outstretched paw.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Snapshot Sunday

Nessie is alive and well at Scotney Castle, Kent!
(More about this charming house and grounds during the week)


My apologies to you all for the current silence here at Rochester Reader.  Life has been a bit hectic these past two weeks with the consequence that no reading or blogging has been done.  I am currently in South Africa for a few weeks but hope to start posting (and reading!) again now.  I also have a lot of blog reading to catch up on and I look forward to exchanging comments with all you lovely people once again :-)

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Wodehouse Competition at The Book Depository

The Book Depository is holding an exciting competition whereby you could win all 70 of the Everyman edition of Wodehouse books!  All you have to do is to answer three Wodehouse-related questions.  The competition closes on 31 March 2010 and you can enter it here.

How spiffing it would be to own all of these!

Monday, 15 March 2010

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

This is a charming novel written by first-time novelist Helen Simonson - a native of East Sussex, England who has resided in the U.S. for over twenty years.  Her website is an interesting read and includes a breath-taking header picture of the white chalk cliffs of this region.

The novel opens in East Sussex and concerns a 60-something retired major - Ernest Pettigrew - who is grieving the recent loss of his brother Bertie.  Major Pettigrew lost his wife not many years before and continues to reside in their pretty English cottage in the village of Edgecome St Mary.  Although he has a son, extended family and several golf buddies and neighbours, it is clear that he is lonely and the death of his brother brings this to the fore.  It is on the day of his receiving this news that he begins to view the village shopkeeper, Jasmina Ali, in a new light.  She too recently lost her husband and they begin to bond over their love of poetry, Kipling and the beauty of the English countryside.  Mrs Ali awakens a slow burning passion in the Major and inspires a new love of life and friendship. 

The novel's main focus is this gentle love story but it skilfully introduces various subplots and brings them each to a satisfying conclusion.  There is the matter of the twin Churchill guns - given to Major Pettigrew's father by the Maharajah - with one gun bequeathed to the Major and the other to his brother Bertie.  Upon Bertie's death, both guns were to be reunited and passed to the Major but Bertie's family have other ideas.  There is the friction between the Major and his self-involved son Roger and his new girlfriend.  Roger is only concerned with profit and prestige and is rarely able to communicate successfully with his father.

Mrs Ali has her share of recent problems, involving her nephew and her husband's pushy family.  Added to this, the village seems to be under threat by property developers who mean to transform the calm and character of the Major's home.

I found this a highly enjoyable read and an excellent first novel.  Indeed, it is so polished and well executed that it is hard to believe that this is Ms Simonson's first effort.  All of the characters are well drawn and their actions and dialogue believable.  I became fond of the Major (except for his duck shooting!) and Mrs Ali early on and really despised his son Roger for his shallow nature.  East Sussex is beautifully and lovingly portrayed and the seaside town of Eastbourne is easily recognisable in the guise of Hazelbourne-on-Sea with its beautiful long manicured lawns filled with bright and vibrant flowers.  Ms Simonson's descriptions of English locations and English characters are spot on and many a dialogue is spiced with a hint of humour, particularly with the Major's dry wit.

I took my time in reading this story and found it to be perfectly paced.  It is not a short book at 358 pages but I found the author's juggling of the various plots enjoyable and I let her take her time in leading me to the happy ending.  It is a delicate love story building to a passionate revelation and the tempo seemed to fit the grace and poise of the main protagonists.  

The lovely Penelope at Bloomsbury very kindly sent me this review copy and I was happy that I got to spend time in the country with these quirky, warm characters.  I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves gentle humour and a well-written tale of English village life and its foibles.


Sunday, 14 March 2010

Snapshot Sunday: Dickens' Chalet

This beautiful swiss-style chalet now stands in Rochester High Street just behind Eastgate House.  There is an appeal to raise funds in order to restore it as it is in danger of being lost.  Anyone who is interested in donating - or of spreading the news - can write or send a cheque to the following address:

Dickens Fellowship (Chalet Fund) 27 Amethyst Avenue, Chatham, Kent ME5 9TX

Thank you to Book Psmith for bringing this to my attention.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

And the Winner is...

Firstly, thank you to all you lovely bloggers who participated in the competition.  My trusty assistant Angus placed the names into a 'hat', shook it well and drew a winner (no peeking!).

Congratulations to Cottage Garden! You have won a copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Scones by Alexander McCall Smith. Please e-mail me at rochesterreader@gmail.com with your address so I can pop this into the post early next week.

As we had such few entries, I would also like to give a small Rochester-related consolation prize to Book Psmith and A Bookish Space. Could you each please e-mail me at rochesterreader@gmail.com with your addresses.
Thanks again for your participation and I hope that Cottage Garden will enjoy the book as much as I did.