I have been reading. And talking. There has been so very much talking.
Dutch family was visiting, so the talking was a curious mixture of Dutch and English. My words haven't quite untangled themselves yet, so they remain a curious mix of Dutch and English (Dutchlish?) When I open my mouth to speak now, I'm not sure what is going to come out so I get tongue tied. Or I speak more slowly and simply to make sure I'm understood. This has to stop soon, because I'm getting looks of sympathy from people who surely are thinking along the lines of, "Oh, the poor girl! Perhaps she has bumped her head?"
The reading has been very welcome as it signals the end of a book drought. Hoorah! A book drought is never pleasant… rather like being on a dinghy in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by salt water and unable to take a drink. There are so many books in the world, so why is there nothing for me to read? One day I picked up a book and it was exactly the right story at that time. I was utterly drawn in, and when it was over, I found another, then another…
Reading so many stories back-to-back, I’m not always able to untangle myself from one before starting the next. I kept waiting for Esme, from The Bookstore to appear in The Writing class, then when I picked up Season of salt and honey it took me a while to remember it wasn’t the war-time England of The Summer before the war.
That’s one I'd like to tell you about: 'The Summer before the war' by Helen Simonson is a book I've been waiting for since Simonson published her first, 'Major Pettigrew's last stand' in 2010. (I wrote about it here.) Major Pettigrew is a difficult book to describe... it is endearing and charming; a story of manners particular to its time and place. I enjoyed it so much that I passed it on to everyone who would listen to me, and remains at the top of my list whenever I'm asked, "What should I read?" To find a new (or new-to-you) author is a wonderful thing, isn’t it - like stumbling upon an undiscovered country and having a whole new territory to explore. Hester Browne, Marisa de los Santos, and Helen Simonson have brought me such adventures in reading.
So, I had hoped and waited for Simonson to publish another book ever so patiently, but years passed so that I gradually stopped looking for it. (As I had with Annie Barrows after 'The Guernsey literary and potato peel pie society', then this year – at last! - she released ‘The truth according to us’.) And then suddenly, there it was, all unexpected, on the new book shelf looking dreamily enticing in its period-piece way with the girl on a bicycle, red scarf flying behind her. I was intrigued by the title and the book cover ("Don't judge" they say, but a book cover either grabs your interest or it doesn't, don’t you think?) and because I like stories of war time Britain I had high hopes for this one.
I was not disappointed, though total honesty leads me to say it isn’t the gem that Pettigrew is. Like Pettigrew, ‘The Summer before the war’ is a charming tale of manners in the English countryside, but whereas Major Pettigrew is a man uncomfortable with how modern life is changing and wants to hold on to the old ways, Beatrice Nash is well in advance of what is expected of women in 1914: she is educated, well-travelled, capable and independent-minded. She finds herself suddenly relying on the benevolence of distant family, expected to comply with their plans for her. In order to salvage independence and integrity, Beatrice obtains a job in Rye as a Latin teacher, and as we’ve learned from Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple mysteries, life in the small villages of England is far from bland or boring. There is enough intrigue, plotting, gossip, and romance to keep Beatrice busy through the war years and beyond. Also of interest, one of the characters is studying to be a trauma surgeon, and we follow him to the Front, getting some sense of what those conditions were like.
I recommend ‘The Summer before the war’ to anyone who enjoyed Major Pettigrew, was hooked on Downton Abbey, likes stories of English life, or is keen on World War fiction.
I’d like to hear if you’ve discovered a new author, have stumbled on an unexpectedly good book, or finally got your hands on a long-awaited next novel. Leave a comment! In English, please – or even Dutch! (This, to the person leaving me comments in Arabic. I think.)