A Spoonful of Sugar: A Nanny’s Story by Brenda Ashford
Does the title have you picturing Julie Andrews, the singing nanny in The Sound of Music? Try listening to the audiobook; the narrator sounds like her. Brenda Ashford, age 92, looks back at her happy childhood, her very long career as a British nanny, and her training at the famed Norland Institute, whose motto is “love never faileth” and which banned spanking. Brenda learned to love babies when her little brother David was born. Not as quick at book learning as her sister Kathleen, who became a midwife, Brenda was thrilled to be admitted to the Norland Institute in 1939. From learning nursery management, cooking, laundry, storytelling, sewing, and working in a hospital’s children’s ward, the teen received a thorough education. Then war disrupted life, with the students taking care of children evacuated from London’s East End and living on a country estate. All of her evaluations are included, along with tidbits of nanny’s wisdom, a daily schedule at each job, and several recipes for “puddings”. Her first several families are described, with the focus on the day and night nurseries and the children. Her heart is broken along the way, she learns to manage an early daycare, called a war nursery, and to care for and cuddle many, many babies. Her work schedule sounds exhausting, with very little time off. Her relief when electric irons become available is evident. Eventually she finds a family to belong to, and later even cares for their grandbabies when she’s 80! A charming read for Anglophiles.
Jane Austen Made Me Do It, edited by Laurel Ann Nattress
I really enjoyed reading this collection of stories inspired by the work of Jane Austen. There is a wide variety of settings, characters, and styles. A story by mystery author Stephanie Barron led me to the collection, and I was pleased to see stories by bestselling authors Adriana Trigiani, Lauren Willig, and Jo Beverley. In a few, Jane is a character, in others the main (or minor) characters from her books are featured. There are historical and contemporary settings, mystery, ghost stories, romance, and even adventure at sea, featuring Jane Austen’s brother as a character. In one story, Jane is haunted by her characters. If you like Regency romance, witty dialogue, or Jane Austen’s books, movies, or mini-series, you might enjoy this collection.
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Wolf Hall won a major literary award and is a memorable, rewarding book to read. Its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, might be even better. Shorter by 120 pages, it’s certainly a faster read. Both novels are about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII, and both won the Man Booker Prize for best novel in English by a writer from Great Britain or the Commonwealth. Even though it’s shorter, Bring Up the Bodies has more about Cromwell’s earlier life and family, including his father the blacksmith. The storytelling is magnificent and the book is quite readable, something I don’t expect in a literary award-winning novel. I don’t know how it would be to read it without having read Wolf Hall first, but if your time is limited, jump in. When the book opens in 1535, Thomas Cromwell is secretary to Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn is queen, and her daughter Elizabeth is a toddler. Anne becomes pregnant, and hopes for an heir for Henry VIII. Anne’s predecessor Katherine is in failing health. The reader knows that Elizabeth will later become queen, and that Anne Boleyn’s life will be cut short, but Mantel still makes the story absorbing, poignant, and occasionally suspenseful. Thomas Cromwell is still good company, looking to the future of his son Gregory, nephew Richard, and protégé Rafe, while doing his best for king and country. It becomes clear that Henry is also looking ahead, and hoping that quiet Jane Seymour is part of his future. A third book, The Mirror and the Light, is planned.
Foundation: The History of England from its earliest beginnings to the Tudors. By Peter Ackroyd
Life in medieval England was nasty, brutish and short. Mr. Ackroyd does not spare on the horrid details of daily life in very old England. In the beginning, people, mostly Celts lived in mud huts with their livestock. If you got sick, there were the leaches and the bloodletting followed by a poultice of cattle dung applied to the affected area. There were constant wars between competing factions and soldiers were easily expendable. And this was before the “100 years war”, which actually lasted 114 years. If you got into trouble, really bad trouble, like William Wallace who dared to defy Edward Longshanks (see the movie Braveheart) you could be hanged, then dis-emboweled while you were still alive, then drawn and quartered which meant that your head and limbs were severed and put on display. If you were a heretic, which there were not many, you would be burned at the stake. If you were a King and were deposed by an opposing faction you could die by having a red hot poker shoved up your backside.
Here is Richard the Lionheart, who was not so noble, but was really good with a sword. King John was so bad that the barons teamed up and presented him with the Magna Carta, the basis of all western law.
Here too is the Battle of Hastings in 1066 which some people still regard as the end of true English civilization, with England being overrun by Normans. The Author shows through archaeological data that long before the “Norman Conquest”, the Celts were being infiltrated by a constant stream of Danes and Vikings, who intermingled with the population.”
The Black Death shows up in the 1300’s and a third of the population dies. The author postulates that it was not Bubonic Plague but instead was Anthrax, Influenza, or a form of Haemorrhagic Fever.
Regarding the Jews “The history of the Jews in medieval England is an unhappy and even bloody one. Since Christians were not allowed to lend money at interest, some other group of merchants had to be created. The Jews became moneylenders by default, as it were, and as a result they were abused and despised in equal measure.”
The last part of the book is devoted to the Wars of the roses; the house of Lancaster vs. the house of York, the white rose vs. the red rose.
In conclusion Ackroyd says : “when we look over the course of human affairs we are more likely than not to find only error and confusion. There is in fact a case for saying that human history, as it is generally described and understood, is the sum total of accident and unintended consequence.” I guess some things never change. There is a volume 2 to this history, “Tudors the history of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, which will be published in October of 2013.
The Walnut Tree by Charles Todd
When World War I breaks out, Lady Elspeth Douglas is visiting her pregnant friend Madeleine in Paris. Agreeing to stay until the baby is born, Elspeth also accepts a promise ring from Madeleine’s brother Alain. Later, trying to return to England, Elspeth helps wounded soldiers and encounters family friend Captain Peter Gilchrist. In London, Elspeth trains to be a nurse, without requesting permission from her uncle, then works with the wounded in England and France. She struggles with her feelings for Peter and Alain, and waits impatiently for news of both men. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Fiona Hardingham, and found the vivid descriptions of wartime nursing, travel, and life in London absorbing. The mystery is a minor part of the book, which is a stand-alone novella connected to Todd’s Bess Crawford series. The Walnut Tree was also interesting because of the restrictions young women faced, especially the daughter of a Scottish laird.
Princess Elizabeth’s Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal
Maggie Hope, born in England but raised by her aunt in New England, is a mathematician, a typist, and is training to be a spy. After the adventures in her first mystery, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, reviewed here, Maggie is training with MI-5. The physical training is very difficult for the bookish Maggie, but her loyalty and intelligence are valued, so she is reassigned. She is sent to Windsor Castle, to be a math tutor for 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth, and also to help keep her safe. The castle is huge and chilly, and Maggie is expected to dress up for dinner with the staff. Her sweetheart is missing in action, but her handsome contact with Churchill’s Irregulars is a good friend, until he too is reassigned. A sudden death on the castle grounds, and a possible plot to kidnap or harm the princess keep Maggie very busy, along with helping stage a play for Christmas. The royal princesses are charming, as is the peek inside a castle in wartime. Maggie’s distant father, a cryptographer, continues to be an enigma. A friend’s wartime wedding, a suspicious death in London, and a possible romance enliven this mystery. Two more books about Maggie Hope are planned.
The Murder Room by P.D. James
I was looking for a good audiobook to enjoy in the car, and picked a P.D. James mystery because the morning book discussion group is discussing James’ Death Comes to Pemberley at 10am, October 16. Venerable British mystery author James is now 92, and still writing. The series featuring Commander Adam Dalgliesh is lengthy and I’ve just read a few of the books. This title was published in 2003, and was made into a BBC miniseries, which our library owns on DVD. The setting is the privately owned Dupayne Museum, devoted to the inter-war years, 1919-1938. There is an art gallery, a library, and the murder room, which contains exhibits with articles and artifacts from some of the most notorious British murders.
Adam Dalgliesh had recently visited the museum, at a friend’s request. The Dupayne Museum is at a turning point; its lease is expiring and a new lease needs the signatures of all of its trustees. The trustees are the children of the museum’s founder. Caroline is a school principal who keeps a flat in the museum’s building; Marcus has just retired from the civil service, and Neville is a psychiatrist who favors closing the museum.
The first murder is not a surprise, but the similarity to a case from the murder room has the staff and volunteers naturally concerned, especially Tally, who lives in an adjacent cottage on the edge of lonely Hampstead Heath. Dealing with the Dupaynes reminds Detective Inspector Kate Miskin of her working class background, while her colleague Piers Tarrant is being transferred soon. Mostly the mystery centers around the museum and Dalgliesh, who is the sort of man strangers confide in. Dalgliesh is falling in love with Emma, but the demands of New Scotland Yard may have cancelled too many dates for their relationship to survive. The mystery kept my interest, but the memorable characters had me worried for their safety. Charles Keating narrates well.
John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk
John’s mother Susan is an herbalist, but a religious zealot stirs up a village mob to drive John and Susan from their village in 1625. They retreat to Buccla’s Wood, where Susan teaches John to read and he learns about herbs. Susan dies after a hard winter, and young John is sent to Buckland Manor to work as a kitchen boy. John works and sleeps in the kitchen, learning all the different work stations beginning in the scullery, catching occasional glimpses of Lady Lucretia, Lord William’s daughter. John, who has a real gift for cooking, works his way up to assistant cook. Lucretia has issues with food, and goes on a hunger strike when her father arranges her marriage to Piers Callock. John helps prepare dishes to tempt Lucy’s appetite, and is attracted to Lucy.
As Lucy’s marriage approaches, the English Civil War ensues. Sir William, Piers, and the men of the household, including the cooks, go off to war. When they return, John becomes Master Cook and the religious reformers have control of Buckland Manor.
I haven’t mentioned all the mouthwatering descriptions of food, including spectacular pastries, that are prepared in the vast kitchens of Buckland Manor. This is a real treat for foodies and Anglophiles. Learn about the author’s inspiration for the book here.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley
will be discussed on Tuesday, September 25, at 7pm. Meet Flavia de Luce, amateur sleuth and aspiring chemist, age 11. The Flavia de Luce mystery series is set in the early 1950s in a small English village, and at Buckshaw, the family estate. Flavia lives with her two older sisters, and her father, an avid stamp collector. Mrs. Mullet, the cook and housekeeper, finds a dead bird on the doorstep with a rare stamp stuck on its beak. Later Flavia hears her father arguing with someone in the garden, and finds a man dying in the cucumber patch. Inspector Hewitt arrests Colonel de Luce, so Flavia, aided by their shell-shocked gardener/handyman Dogger, investigates.
This is the award-winning first book in an ongoing series; see my review of the latest book here. For more about Flavia, visit the author’s website. For a real treat, Jane Entwhistle narrates all of the audiobooks.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce
If you look at the book cover of Rachel Joyce’s first novel, you may be expecting a happy, quirky, light read. While a very good read, this is not a light or happy book. It’s about a journey taken by Harold Fry, whose life is rather empty. His wife Maureen cleans obsessively; Harold does yard work. He gets a letter from former coworker and friend Queenie Hennessey with news that she is very ill with cancer. Harold writes a brief note and goes to post it, but is troubled that a note is inadequate. Harold was a brewery sales representative who traveled with bookkeeper Queenie to visit pubs. So he keeps walking while he thinks about it. A talk with a young woman at a gas station’s convenience store inspires him to keep walking, the whole length of England, to visit Queenie.
His wife Maureen is flabbergasted, and can’t decide if she’s more angry, worried about him, or lonely. Harold is not much of a walker, and gets lots of blisters. He sends postcards to Maureen and Queenie, and buys souvenirs for them along the way. His wife is concerned that he will empty their retirement savings account on such a long journey, so Harold starts camping instead of staying in hotels. Harold is very shy, and has always felt akward because he’s tall, but people like to tell him their stories. His walk to save Queenie inspires some fans and even gets some publicity, leading to some funny parts of the story. Harold’s long pilgrimage gives him lots of time to think, and to reflect on his life. The journey eventually answers some questions for the reader. Why did Maureen move into the spare room, yet they stay married? Why does their bright, troubled son David never come to visit? Why did Queenie leave the brewery, and why doesn’t Harold drink? Will Harold’s walk for Queenie make a difference? And, finally, will Harold be able to finish his pilgrimage? A memorable journey for Harold and the reader.