Tag Archives: England

Review: The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Scribner via Netgalley.

My Review:
Sheep and GoatsThis was the perfect book for me to take on my recent beach vacation to Maine.  The story is set in England during a sweltering heat wave in the summer of 1976.  This neighborhood in the English Midlands is so tight knit that when Mrs. Creasy goes missing, every one notices, even ten-year-old friends Tilly and Grace.  Since Tilly and Grace are on summer vacation, they decide to use their time to look for clues around The Avenue in order to find out what happened to Mrs. Creasy.  The first person they seek out for advice is the local pastor.

The pastor tries to reassure Tilly and Gracie who are worried about Mrs. Creasy.  The girls don’t want anyone else in their neighborhood to disappear so they look to the pastor for comfort and he tells them that God is everywhere and will protect them.  So in addition to finding Mrs. Creasy, the girls also set out to find where God is hiding himself on The Avenue.  As they visit each house, we are given a glimpse into the quirky and oddball characters that inhabit The Avenue.  Joanna Cannon has written a book that is chock full of likeable and sympathetic characters in whose lives we become emotionally invested.

Some might be hesitant to read a story from a child’s perspective, but the characters of Grace and Tilly are charming and funny.  The girls have some of the most droll and amusing lines in the book.  It is Grace who aptly describes the oppressive heat of the summer: “We had to share bathwater and half-fill the kettle, and we were only allowed to flush the toilet after what Mrs. Morton described as a special occasion.  The only problem was, it meant that everyone knew when you’d had a special occasion, which was a bit awkward.”

As the girls visit their neighbors on The Avenue we are introduced to an engaging cast of characters.  Mr. Creasy is plagued with an obsessive-compulsive disorder and is consumed with counting things.  His wife, Mrs. Creasy, was the only person who could keep his anxiety at bay and now that she is gone his neurosis is back in full force.  Mrs. Forbes is a nervous wreck most of the time as well and her tendency to forget things forces her to constantly make to-do lists.  Mr. Lamb is a widower whose pride and joy is his lush garden.  These are just a few of the interesting characters that we meet on The Avenue.

As much as I enjoyed the characters and the clever writing style of the book, the author’s greatest strength is her ability to create meaningful and compelling relationships between the characters.  Grace and Tilly are best friends and it is touching how Grace is worried for Tilly because of her fragile health.  Grace and Tilly have a touching relationship with Mrs. Morton, a widow who lives alone on The Avenue.  Mrs. Morton takes care of the girls while their parents are having a rest and they feel just as comfortable in her home as in their own.  Grace tells us, “My mother spent most of 1974 having a little lie-down, and so I was minded by Mrs. Morton quite a lot.”  And  Mrs. Creasy, who has a gift for listening and compassion, has a special relationship with many of her neighbors on The Avenue.  We understand throughout the course of the book why everyone is so eager to have this kind woman back in their lives.

The title cleverly points out an important lesson that Tilly, Grace and the rest of The Avenue learn through the mystery of Mrs. Creasy’s disappearance.  All of the neighbors are whispering about some secret that they have been keeping for quite a few years.  They suspect that Mrs. Creasy must have discovered this secret and fled The Avenue. The guilt and the shame of whatever it is that they have done starts to weigh on the neighbors and they start to point fingers at one another.  Tilly and Gracie attend church one Sunday and are fascinated when the pastor reads Matthew 25:31-46:

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

What Grace and Tilly, and really the rest of The Avenue can’t figure out, is how do we tell who is a sheep and who is a goat?  The entire Avenue has decided that their eccentric neighbor Walter Bishop is a goat and as a result they been excluded him from their community.  When I was reading the sections about Walter and his mistreatment at the hands of his neighbors I kept thinking of the famous character of Boo Ridley in To Kill a Mockingbird. Walter Bishop lives alone, is very shy and quiet and has some interesting hobbies like photography.  But The Avenue sees him as a threat to their peaceful cul-de-sac and blame him when anything goes wrong.  But Gracie and Tilly are on a mission and they even visit Walter on their quest to find God and Mrs. Creasy.  These little girls give their neighbor the respect and kindness that no one else will show him and in the process they also learn that it is not always easy to separate the goats from the sheep.

This story was funny, charming and engaging.  I was surprised to find out that this is Joanna Cannon’s first novel because she has the talent of a mature and experienced author.  This has been one of my favorite reads so far this summer.

For more information about Joanna Cannon visit her website: https://joannacannon.com/



Filed under British Literature, Literary Fiction, Summer Reading

Review: A Lady and Her Husband by Amber Reeves

My Review:
A Lady and her HusbandThis latest release from Persephone Books is a charming and entertaining look into the life of a middle-aged British couple that has been married for twenty-seven years.  When the book begins Mary is being told by her second eldest daughter, Rosemary, that she is engaged to be married.  Mary tries very hard to be stoic about this announcement even though she is upset because another one of her children is flying the coop.  Mary married John at a very young age and she has been a devoted wife and mother for her entire adult life.  The thought that of all three of her children no longer need her makes her sad and she feels lost.

Rosemary feels so guilty that she is going to be leaving her mother that she comes up with an idea of how Mary can now occupy her time.  Mary’s husband, John, owns a successful chain of tea shops and Rosemary thinks it would be a great idea for her mother to take an interest in the shop girls and find ways to improve their working conditions in the shops.  Rosemary is much more liberal and progressive than her mother so she knows that this task is way outside her mother’s comfort zone.  But Rosemary encourages her mother to have a life beyond her home.  Mary has never ventured into the realm of social causes so she is very hesitant to agree to this little project but she does so reluctantly after her husband John talks her into it.

The real conflict in the book begins when Mary starts to form her own ideas about improving the working conditions in the tea shops.  Mary wants the girls to wear more comfortable shoes, to have a proper place to eat their lunch, and she wants to increase their wages.  When Mary timidly approaches John with her suggestions, his temper explodes and he berates her for what he calls her silly little reforms.  Mary’s idea to increase wages for his employees is especially worrisome to John who believes that he pays his workers a fair wage.  John immediately rejects all of Mary’s ideas for changing the tea shops and tells her that she is naïve and that none of her ideas are practical and would work in the real world.

There is an underlying commentary in the book on the differences between men and women and how they must recognize and learn to work around those differences in a marriage.   Mary and John have had a marriage that is free of arguing and misunderstandings because she stays at home and doesn’t have anything to do with John’s business. John often comes across as condescending when he calls Mary “little mother” or “poor old thing.”  He does truly care for her but he draws the line at wanting to please her when she tries to interfere with his business.  Mary, on the other hand, after visiting John’s shops, better understands the plight of the poor and working classes and she approaches these issues from an emotional angle.  At one point in the book she recognizes that she cannot make a rational decision free from emotion with John around so she takes a flat in London to give herself time to think.

This book was written in 1914 so it brings up many political and social issues that were relevant at the turn of the last century and which continue to be discussed into the 21st Century.  Debates that have taken place during the recent elections in the U.S. have reminded us that women are still paid less than their male counterparts, the minimum wage for workers continues to be too low, and millions of Americans still do not have access to proper healthcare.  Reeves has written a charming and humorous book about the differences between men and women and the perils of navigating a successful marriage.  But there is also a serious side to the book that highlights issues that persistently affect the working classes and the poor.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  If you love the titles in the Persephone catalog then you must read this book.

About the Author:
Amber Reeves, the daughter of William and Maud Pember Reeves, was born in 1887 in New Zealand. When her father was appointed Agent-General in 1896 her parents moved to England. Amber went to Kensington High School. Her mother was active in the Fabian Society and in 1912 wrote Round About a Pound a Week (now Persephone Book No. 79). In 1905 Amber, ‘a clear and vigorous thinker’, went up to Newnham College, Cambridge to read philosophy. After her affair with HG Wells led to pregnancy, in 1909 she married a young lawyer, Rivers Blanco White. Two more children were born in 1912 and 1914. She published three novels including A Lady and Her Husband (1914), worked at the Admiralty, and ran the Women’s Wages Department at the Ministry of Munitions; later she was briefly a civil servant, wrote a fourth novel, stood for Parliament, taught at Morley College for 37 years and published books on ethics and economics. She died in 1981.



Filed under British Literature, Classics, Persephone Books

Review: A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

I bought this title a few months back when the New York Review of Books had a fantastic winter sale.  Please visit their website for a full list of their amazing titles: http://www.nybooks.com/books/imprints/classics/

My Review:
A Game of Hide and SeekHarriet and Vessey have known each other for their entire lives.  When they turn eighteen there is a physical and emotional attraction between them which neither one feels comfortable or mature enough to acknowledge.  When they babysit Vessey’s younger cousins, they play hide and seek with the children so they can be together; they are so shy and naive that they don’t take advantage of this time alone while they are hiding to reveal their true feelings.

When Vessey moves away and goes to college and eventually begins his second rate acting career, Harriet settles down with a comfortable and safe man named Charles.  But for the duration of her married life she holds Charles up to her ideal image of Vessey against which fantasy Charles could never compete.  Harriet tries to make the most of her marriage by keeping a tidy home and taking care of their daughter Betsey.  But there is a feeling of loneliness and isolation that pervades Harriet’s life.

Taylor also shows us her comedic side in this otherwise serious novel through the introduction of a group of spinster ladies with whom Harriet works at a local dress shop.  They spend their days avoiding work, gossiping, primping themselves and discussing their latest male conquests.  They give Harriet who at this point is still unmarried, the worst relationship advice.

An aspect of Taylor’s writing style in this book that is worth mentioning is her transitions both within chapters and between chapters; time shifts very abruptly in the novel which is fitting for the topics of love, marriage and how our opinions of these things change, sometimes rather drastically, as we grow older.  When Vessey reappears in Harriet’s life she is middle-aged and well-settled in her marriage.  Will she choose a life with Vessey that she has idealized for so many years or will she stay with her husband and daughter and keep her family together.

A GAME OF HIDE AND SEEK is a wonderful novel to begin with if you want to sample Elizabeth Taylor’s work.  In June I will be reading and reviewing her novel A View of the Harbour, which is another reissue from The New York Review of Books.

About The Author:
Elizabeth TaylorElizabeth Taylor (née Coles) was a popular English novelist and short story writer. Elizabeth Coles was born in Reading, Berkshire in 1912. She was educated at The Abbey School, Reading, and worked as a governess, as a tutor and as a librarian.

In 1936, she married John Micael, a businessman. She lived in Penn, Buckinghamshire, for almost all her married life.

Her first novel, At Mrs. Lippincote’s, was published in 1945 and was followed by eleven more. Her short stories were published in various magazines and collected in four volumes. She also wrote a children’s book.

Taylor’s work is mainly concerned with the nuances of “everyday” life and situations, which she writes about with dexterity. Her shrewd but affectionate portrayals of middle class and upper middle class English life won her an audience of discriminating readers, as well as loyal friends in the world of letters.

She was a friend of the novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett and of the novelist and critic Robert Liddell.

Elizabeth Taylor died at age 63 of cancer.



Filed under Classics, Literary Fiction, New York Review of Books

Review: The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi

I received an advanced review copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.

My Review:
Last WordMamoon Azam is an Indian born British writer who is now in his seventies and living a quiet and unassuming life in the bucolic English countryside.  Although he has produced many thought-provoking and award-winning books in his career, it has been several years since he has been relevant in the publishing world.  Mamoon, his wife Liana and a major publishing house decide that a biography of the writer would be just the thing to make Mamoon important again as well as rich.

Harry Johnson, a struggling writer himself, is hired by the publisher to write a scintillating, scandalous and lascivious biography of Mamoon.   The first half of the book is a hilarious satire not only of authors, but of everyone involved in the publishing industry.  The old novelist is portrayed as an acrimonious,  self-absorbed recluse who has not written anything worthwhile in years.  Harry, Mamoon’s biographer, is a bottom-feeder in the publishing industry because he is trying to make a living by writing about another man’s career.  Rob, the editor at the publishing company, is greedy for a tell-all biography which will unveil shocking and unseemly secrets about Mamoon’s life.

At a party given him by his overly emotional and needy wife, Mamoon is awkwardly asked to deliver an impromptu speech for his friends, family and fans.  His remarks about writers and their role in the world of publishing is a sad, yet accurate commentary on what this industry has become: “These days a writer without bodyguards can hardly be considered serious. A bad review is the least of our problems.  Every idiot believing any insanity has to be humored: it is their human right.  The right to speech is always stolen, always provisional.  I fear the game is almost up for truth.  People don’t want it; it doesn’t help them get rich.”

The most interesting character in the novel is Harry himself who has a heavy load of emotional baggage over his paranoid, sex-crazed, suicidal mother.  Harry has a fiancé but he cannot seem to stay faithful to her.  His own life is a mess and in a state of crisis while he is chasing a reluctant, and at times recalcitrant, Mammon around his home trying to pry details out of the novelist about his life.  Harry’s personal affairs are presented as a ridiculous farce and, much like the author whose life he is trying to capture, he has a tumultuous history of relationships with women.

Overall, THE LAST WORD is an entertaining and starkly vivid satire about what the state of the publishing world has become in the 21st century.  Mamoon knows that he has an important life and career which ought to be documented, but at the same time he is running away from that very corrupt and profit-focused industry that is in charge of illustrating his life.

About The Author:
Hanif KureishiHanif Kureishi is the author of novels (including The Buddha of Suburbia, The Black Album and Intimacy), story collections (Love in a Blue Time, Midnight All Day, The Body), plays (including Outskirts, Borderline and Sleep With Me), and screenplays (including My Beautiful Laundrette, My Son the Fanatic and Venus). Among his other publications are the collection of essays Dreaming and Scheming, The Word and the Bomb and the memoir My Ear at His Heart.

Kureishi was born in London to a Pakistani father and an English mother. His father, Rafiushan, was from a wealthy Madras family, most of whose members moved to Pakistan after the Partition of India in 1947. He came to Britain to study law but soon abandoned his studies. After meeting and marrying Kureishi’s mother Audrey, Rafiushan settled in Bromley, where Kureishi was born, and worked at the Pakistan Embassy.

Kureishi attended Bromley Technical High School where David Bowie had also been a pupil and after taking his A levels at a local sixth form college, he spent a year studying philosophy at Lancaster University before dropping out. Later he attended King’s College London and took a degree in philosophy. In 1985 he wrote My Beautiful Laundrette, a screenplay about a gay Pakistani-British boy growing up in 1980’s London for a film directed by Stephen Frears. It won the New York Film Critics Best Screenplay Award and an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay.



Filed under Humor, Literary Fiction

Review: After The War Is Over by Jennifer Robson

Today I welcome TLC book tours back to the blog with an historical fiction novel set in Britain just after World War I.  In invite you to read my review and visit the other stops on the book tour.

My Review:
After the War is OverCharlotte works in an office in Liverpool that tries to find help for the poor and destitute.  The circumstances of many families has become dire especially since The Great War has ended.  Veterans are coming home wounded and unable to work and women are left widows with children to feed.

Jennifer Robson vividly portrays the sadness and destruction that has been left in the wake of the war; everyone in England has been affected by this deadly and costly conflict.  There are several sub plots in the book that will give the reader a better appreciation of the variety of ways in which men and women from all walks of life had their lives altered by World War I.

Charlotte served as a nurse in a hospital in London that specialized in helping veterans from shell shock; her memories of the patients she helped there always haunt her.  But when her old friend, Edward, comes home from the war a changed man, she uses her expertise as a nurse to try and help him recover from his trauma.

There is obviously a history between Charlotte and Edward and the narrative flashes back to the time they spent together before the war.  But since they are from very different social classes, Charlotte assumes that they will never be romantically involved.  The scenes in the book in which Edward and Charlotte are getting to know each other were my favorite parts of the book.  My only complaint about the book is that Robson did not include more interaction between these two characters.

Overall, AFTER THE WAR IS OVER is a fantastic read if you have an interest in historical fiction set during and after World War I.


About The Author:
Jennifer RobsonJennifer Robson first learned about the Great War from her father, acclaimed historian Stuart Robson, and later served as an official guide at the Canadian National War Memorial at Vimy Ridge, France. A former copy editor, she holds a doctorate in British economic and social history from the University of Oxford. She lives in Toronto, Canada, with her husband and young children.

Please click on the TLC tour banner below to see the additional stops on this book tour:




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Filed under Historical Fiction, World War I