Tag Archives: Sandra Danby

#BookReview ‘Home’ by Marilynne Robinson #classic #literary

Home by Marilynne Robinson is the story of two adult children who return home, coincidentally at the same time, who feel the shame of not living up to the standards set by their minister father, Reverend Robert Boughton. It is a profoundly sad book; the slow winding tale towards the inevitable ending is curiously addictive. It is a three-hander, concentrating on father, son and daughter. Marilynne Robinson

Glory and Jack Boughton grew up in a clerical family home in Gilead, Iowa. We learn of their country childhoods, quite different as siblings go, from their conversations and the memories prompted by visits from neighbours Reverend John Ames, his wife Lila and son. The story is told from Glory’s viewpoint. Jack takes lots of ‘dark nights of the soul’, long solitary walks in the dark to which we are not privy, and his true thoughts remain a mystery to the end. Just when you think you have worked him out, he confounds you.

Robinson draws a picture of rural America at a time of great change. There are demonstrations in Montgomery, but Gilead seems insulated from the outside apart from occasional telephone calls to their father by Glory and Jack’s siblings, and news reports of violence. Jack is drawn to the news coverage; his father dismissive. Jack is a contradiction; he struggles to believe yet knows his Bible backwards, plays hymns on the piano, and quotes scripture at Ames.

Slowly, piece by piece, we find out the details of Glory’s shame. Why she really came home, why she is no longer teaching. But Jack is more opaque, hiding his past, unable to share, he is spiky when offered help and understanding. Does he feel unworthy? He is spiritually isolated from his family, unable to connect though at times he longs to, other times he kicks out. A to-and-fro battle proceeds as Jack opens up a little to Glory, then slamming shut again when faced with his father’s well meaning but blunt questions. There are parallels between the siblings; Glory is recovering from a failed relationship with an unscrupulous man who sounds rather like Jack, while Jack mourns the loss of a good woman who sounds rather like Glory. This book tells the story of how the brother and sister come to understand themselves, and each other, more clearly, but based on fractured pieces of the truth.

As the book progresses, Boughton grows weaker as death approaches. He is one moment gentle towards Jack; the next, angry. Does he think that in striving for achievement for his children he also failed them, by channelling them towards a path they might not otherwise have followed, by not allowing them to develop naturally. I’m not sure Boughton sees it like that. They all live within the constraints of a family entwined in the strait-jacket of belief.

Robinson is best at the detail of ordinary life, the garden, the fruit and vegetables, the weather, the faded house, drawing pictures as clearly as Leonardo da Vinci drew pencil sketches of hands. “Glory made up a batch of bread dough. Brown bread was her father’s preference. Something to lift the spirits of the household, she thought. The grocer brought her a roasting hen. She opened the windows to cool the kitchen and air out the dining room a little, and the breezes that came in were mild, earthy, grassy, with a feel of sunlight about them.”

How many adults can return to visit their parents in the family home in which they grew up and find that home unchanged? “It was in fact a relief to have someone else in the house. And it was interesting to watch how this man, gone so long, noticed one thing and another, as if mildly startled, even a little affronted, by all the utter sameness. She saw him put his hand on the shoulder of their other’s chair, touch the fringe on a lampshade, as if to confirm for himself that the uncanny persistence of half-forgotten objects, all in their old places, was not some trick of the mind. Nothing about that house ever did change, except to fade or scar or wear.” The unchanging nature of the family house mirrors the unchanging nature of the family that lives in it; the patriarch with his rules and expectations, the children trying to please him but falling short and feeling guilty. Each not wanting to worry the other, protective of the myth of their family, sensitive to their father’s opinion, fearful of striking out on their own again away from Gilead and what they know. Wanting to leave, wanting to stay.

Home will stay with you a long time after reading, whether you have faith or none. It is a companion to Gilead which won the Pulitzer Prize.

Read my reviews of Robinson’s first novel Housekeeping, and Gilead.

If you like this, try:-
‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara
‘The Witchfinder’s Sister’ by Beth Underdown
‘Skin Deep’ by Laura Wilkinson

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
HOME by Marilynne Robinson #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3gf via @SandraDanby





#BookReview ‘The Long View’ by Elizabeth Jane Howard #literary #marriage

Elizabeth Jane HowardThe Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard is not so much a ‘what happens next’ novel as ‘what has happened in the past to lead to this situation’ story. It is a novel about choices and where they can lead. Howard tells the story, backwards from 1950 to 1926, of the marriage of Antonia and Conrad Fleming. As the story starts, the marriage seems doomed and you cannot help but wonder how these two people ever got married in the first place. In fact, once I finished it I was tempted to read it again from back to front.

The first paragraph is a masterful example of scene setting. It opens with a dinner party to celebrate the engagement of Julian Fleming to June, who has secretly spent the afternoon alone at the cinema. As Antonia considers the complicated marital affairs of her son – and her daughter, Deirdre, who is pregnant by a man who does not love her – I wondered how her own marriage must have shaped her children’s handling of relationships and how hers, in turn, was shaped by her parents. I found Conrad an almost totally unsympathetic character, indeed in the first part he is referred to simply as Mr Fleming. ‘One of his secret pleasures was the loading of social dice against himself. He did not seem for one moment to consider the efforts made by kind or sensitive people to even things up; or if such notions ever occurred to him, he would have observed them with detached amusement, and reloaded more dice.’

This is very much a novel of its time in which middle-class women had limited choices. As a young woman, Antonia lacks the strength to break out. She is timid, feeling she has proved unsatisfactory for both her mother and father. ‘She grew up, therefore, feeling, not precisely a failure so much as an unnecessary appendage.’ Her mother bemoans her lack of interests [Antonia does have interests, simply not those of her mother] and her father her lack of intellect [but without stimulus of career or education]. We see the transition from hopeful, eager young girl experiencing first love, to weary, middle age when the ‘trees ahead so horribly resembled the trees behind, and the undergrowth of their past caught and clung and tore at them as they moved on’.

This is Howard’s second novel. I am most familiar with her later ‘Cazalet Chronicles’ series and there are some key comparisons to be made in the writing style. Sentences in The Long View are longer, paragraphs longer, and the style not as simple and nuanced as the later books. Viewpoint also shifts within paragraphs, a technique she changed for the Cazalets. This is not to say this spoiled my enjoyment of The Long View, it is perhaps an observation for writers rather than readers, but it shows an interesting development in the author’s writing style. And I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of Antonia’s horse rides in Sussex, countryside in which the Cazalet’s house, Home Place, is set.


Read my reviews of Howard’s ‘Cazalet Chronicles’:- The Light Years, Marking Time, Confusion, Casting Off, and All Change.

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
THE LONG VIEW by Elizabeth Jane Howard #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-2ZS via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘The Wonder’ by Emma Donoghue @EDonoghueWriter #Irish #faith

Emma DonoghueWhat a compulsive read this is, starting slowly until its questions had me sneaking a few pages when I should have been working. The premise of The Wonder by Emma Donoghue sounds straightforward: a nurse and a nun are employed to observe and accompany an eleven-year old girl in rural Ireland who is surviving on ‘manna from heaven’. Is she a miracle or a fraud?

This story is very far from straightforward. The task of Nurse Elizabeth Wright, who trained under Miss Nightingale at Scutari during the Crimean War, is to watch and and ensure no food is secretly passing the child’s lips. Strangely, for a nurse, Lib is not responsible for the health of the girl. A local committee, set-up to establish if Anna O’Donnell is secretly eating or if there is a religious wonder living in their village, pays the wages of two nurses, Lib and Sister Michael, for two weeks.

Accepting nothing until she can prove it herself, Lib approaches her task with professional thoroughness, observing, measuring, weighing. Feeling isolated in a cramped home, surrounded by a religion she does not practise or understand, Lib gets little help from local doctor Mr McBrearty or priest Mr Thaddeus. Not knowing who she can trust, she trusts no one; turning away visitors to the O’Donnell home who want to see the holy girl, visitors who donate alms to a collecting box near the door. When a journalist from Dublin says it is clearly a hoax and accuses Lib of speeding Anna’s death – that the all-day watch is denying her the morsels of food she must have been earlier fed – she is horrified and is forced to reassess her role.

The first half is a slow slow build but so worth it for the second half; with an ending I didn’t expect. This story has many layers. Lib, with her scientific approach to religion, is appalled at what she sees as inconsistencies and fantasies of the O’Donnell family’s Catholic beliefs. They accept and do not question. As the story progresses, Lib untangles Anna’s beliefs and in the process re-examines her own.

Not an easy read, The Wonder tackles the emotional subjects of religion and abuse set within the context of rural Ireland in the 1850s. Donoghue is an author who defies description; each novel is so different from its predecessor. With The Wonder, she has again confounded my expectations. Excellent.


Read my review of Donoghue’s Frog Music.

If you like this, try:-
‘Birdcage Walk’ by Helen Dunmore
‘Day’ by AL Kennedy
‘House of Names’ by Colm Tóibín

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
THE WONDER by @EDonoghueWriter #bookreview http://wp.me/p5gEM4-2Z1 via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘On a Night Like This’ by @BarbaraFreethy #family #love

Barbara FreethyOn a Night Like This is the first in The Callaways series by Barbara Freethy about the extended American-Irish Callaway clan in San Francisco. Freethy is a new author for me, a best-selling American author of romantic drama. I would class this as a feel-good holiday romance, so not my usual choice. Freethy is an expert at writing series, which lock the reader into the characters.

The basis of the story is the relationship between Aiden Callaway, smokejumper, and Sara Davidson, lawyer, who grew up next to each other in San Francisco. Aiden is an alpha-male, adventurous, a risk-taker, who has never taken a woman with him to his secret camping ground in the wilds north of Napa Valley. Sara is a workaholic New York lawyer who rarely lets anyone get emotionally close. This is a story of opposites attract. At times I found their connection unconvincing, as it seemed to be purely chemical and physical. Sara had a teenage crush on Aiden which re-emerges when she revisits her widowed father in her childhood home next door to the Callaways. When a fire damages the house and her father is in hospital, Sara and Aiden are thrown together. This is a light romance mixed with a little mystery: three weeks before the two meet, Aiden is involved in a tragic fire where his best friend and fellow smokejumper Kyle died. Aiden’s colleagues blame him for Kyle’s death but Aiden cannot remember what happened and so refuses to defend himself. His loyalty to Kyle is admirable, but misguided. Sara, as the clear-thinking lawyer, encourages him to question the facts of what happened.

The setting and storyline reminded me of Anita Shreve, but without the depth of story or emotional heft, and with too many sculptured abs. The longing of Sara for Aiden became repetitive and needy, they seem such an unlikely pairing. The storyline of Sara’s rift with her father, however, was worth more page space. So, this is a pleasant light romantic read. I enjoyed the interaction of the feisty Callaway family and wanted more of them; particularly fire investigator Emma and the story of the disappearing nun and burnt-down primary school [sadly, this storyline was left unresolved]. Freethy is a hugely popular author but this book felt rather as if she was writing by numbers.


If you like this, try:-
‘Butterfly Barn’ by Karen Power
‘The Language of Flowers’ by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
‘The Stars are Fire’ by Anita Shreve

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
ON A NIGHT LIKE THIS by @BarbaraFreethy #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-35f via @SandraDanby

#BookReview ‘Amy Snow’ by Tracy Rees @AuthorTracyRees #historical

Tracy ReesWhen eight-year old Aurelia Vennaway runs outside to play in the snow on a January day in 1831, she finds a baby, blue, abandoned and barely alive. She takes the baby home and, despite opposition from her parents, demands they keep the baby. Aurelia really is that precocious. She names the baby Amy. Amy Snow by Tracy Rees is about two lost girls, each lost in different ways who through their friendship find strength to face the lot given to them by life at a time when women had few individual rights.

This is the story of a secret, well-hidden and unveiled by a series of letters. The two girls grow up together. Aurelia lives a privileged life and Amy stays on in the large house, first as a servant and then companion to her friend. She is treated harshly by Aurelia’s parents, but is looked after by Cook and under-gardener Robin. The two girls support each other as they grow up. Amy gains an education and learns how to be a lady, but when Aurelia faints, a weak heart is diagnosed. When Aurelia dies in her early twenties, Amy is thrown out of the house where she was discovered in the snow. ‘Staying here where you were not welcome. Schemer! Vagabond! Baseborn!’ shouts Lord Vennaway.

But Aurelia has not abandoned Amy. In a package entrusted to the keeping of the local schoolteacher and given to her after the funeral, Any finds money, a green silk stole and a letter. It is the first of many. In a recreation of the treasure trails she invented for her young friend when they were children, Amy must now follow Aurelia’s trail of clues. The subterfuge is necessary, Aurelia insists in her first letter, but does not explain why. So Amy travels to London and looks for a mysterious bookshop, trying to second-guess Aurelia’s clues, unsure where the path will lead, knowing only she must find the next letter. What is the secret Aurelia is protecting and why can’t she confide in Amy while she is alive? Each letter apologises for giving no answers. The trail takes Amy from London to Twickenham, Bath and York. The nature of the secret becomes obvious well before Amy realizes it, but this doesn’t stop the urge to read to the end.

There is some lovely description of the houses and the fashions of the time, and I particularly liked Ariadne Riverthorpe who was much more than she seemed. In contrast the family in Twickenham, the Wisters, are idealised. As the story progressed, the letter device came to see rather false. Also, given the title of the book, I expected the main narrative to be about Amy’s origins so when these are briefly explained at the end, it seems like a bit of an afterthought.


If you like this, try:-
‘After Leaving Mr Mackenzie’ by Jean Rhys
‘Angel’ by Elizabeth Taylor
‘The Distant Hours’ by Kate Morton

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
AMY SNOW by @AuthorTracyRees #bookreview http://wp.me/p5gEM4-2TL via @SandraDanby

A poem to read in the bath… ‘My Mother’

I was hooked from the first line here, I think because of the familiarity of the cornflake cake. So what came next was a surprise, not something my mother said to me when I made her a cake! This is My Mother by Ruby Robinson [below] from Every Little Sound. Published in 2016, Robinson’s first collection of poems was shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Forward Prize for ‘Best First Collection’, and the TS Eliot Prize for ‘Best Collection’. Ruby Robinson

Here is the first stanza of My Mother. Because of copyright restrictions I am unable to reproduce the poem in full, but please search it out in an anthology or at your local library.

She said the cornflake cake made her day,
she said a man cannot be blamed for being
unfaithful: his heart is not in tune with his
extremities and it’s just the way his body
chemistry is. She said all sorts of things.’
Source: Poetry (October 2014)

Read more about Ruby Robinson here.

Ruby Robinson


‘Every Little Sound’ by Ruby Robinson [UK: Pavilion Poetry]

Read these other excerpts, and perhaps find a new poet to love:-
‘Runaways’ by Daniela Nunnari
‘Tulips’ by Wendy Cope
‘Cloughton Wyke I’ by John Wedgwood Clarke

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
A #poem to read in the bath: ‘My Mother’ by Ruby Robinson https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3eq via @SandraDanby

First Edition: Ulysses

In 2009, a well-preserved first edition of Ulysses by James Joyce, first published in 1922, was sold for £275,000. It had hardly been read, except for the racy bits. The book had previously been lost, having originally been bought surreptitiously in a Manhattan bookshop despite it being banned in the USA. The book was banned throughout the 1920s in the UK and USA. Another first edition [below right] was defaced by a reader who condemned the book as pornographic; the book was still valued at €13,500. The novel was banned in the UK until 1936. James Joyce

Ulysses was first serialised in parts in the American journal The Little Review between March 1918 and December 1920, before being published in its entirety by Syliva Beach [above left] in Paris on February 2, 1922 [Joyce’s 40th birthday]. Ulysses is the Latinised name of Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s epic poem Odyssey. The novel has a number of parallels with the poem including structure, characters. Leopold Bloom echoes Odysseus; Molly Bloom/Penelope; Stephen Dedalus/Telemachus; taking place in the 20th century. James Joyce

A first edition dated 1922 [above] by Shakespeare & Company in Paris is for sale [at time of going to press] at Peter Harrington for £87,500. Number 136 of 150 copies, this is noted in Syliva Beach’s notebook as being one of three copies sent to James Whitall on March 28, 1922. It is signed and dated by Joyce

The story
Set in Dublin, June 16-17, 1904, the action starts at about 8am. Stephen Dedalus wakes up and talks with his two housemates, Buck Mulligan and student Haines. The action continues for 24 hours when Stephen, having politely refused lodgings at the home of two other principal characters, Leopold and Molly Bloom, discovers he is no longer welcome to stay with Mulligan and Haines. During the course of the day the characters move through their day in Dublin.

The film
James Joyce A 1967 film of Ulysses [above] starring Milo O’Shea as Leopold Bloom was nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Watch Molly Bloom’s soliloquy here.

In 2003, another film, Bloom [below] starred Stephen Rea. Watch the trailer here.

James Joyce

Other editions

James Joyce


‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce [UK: Wordsworth Classics]

If you like old books, check out these:-
The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ by John Fowles
‘The Sea The Sea’ by Iris Murdoch
‘Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Bronte

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
First Edition: ULYSSES by James Joyce #oldbooks https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3aq via @SandraDanby

Book review: Gilead

Marilynne RobinsonGilead by Marilynne Robinson is a read like no other. A slow, contemplative journey through the memories of one man’s life, as he waits to die. In 1956, the Reverend John Ames writes a letter to his young son. It tugs the heartstrings.

Robinson writes with a clear unadorned style drawing heavily on biblical texts but it is not a religious tract, it is the story of a man’s life, his memories, his regrets and loves. The first few lines grabbed me and didn’t let me go. Do not start reading this book if you are feeling impatient. Some passages are easy and quick to read, others deserve more thought. It unwinds slowly like a length of thread, telling us the story of John Ames, his father and grandfather, the legacy of the Ames family which has been inherited by the Reverend’s seven-year old son.

I am not religious and some of the references will have passed me by. In the first half of the novel, I would think ‘oh no not another section about religion’, but as I read deeper into the book I became drawn into the stories of John Ames and his forebears and how their beliefs shaped their lives. I wanted to know what happened to John Ames Boughton, the troublesome son of his best friend and fellow reverend. I wanted to know how the Reverend Ames met his second wife. Some of the questions posed are not answered until the very end.

It is a peaceful novel, set against the backdrop of Fifties Iowa, which draws on local history including the Underground Railroad. Robinson draws a picture of the Gilead community, the people, their kindnesses, their grievances. She paints a clear picture. ‘We were very pious children from pious households in a fairly pious town.’

At times, the writing was so sublime I re-read. For example, ‘Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life.’

Gilead, the second novel by Marilynne Robinson, won two prizes in 2005: the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award. I came to it with trepidation, having respected the writing style of her first novel, Housekeeping, but struggled with the pace of the narrative. Read my review of Housekeeping.

If you like this, try:-
‘Barkskins’ by Annie Proulx
‘Did You Ever Have a Family?’ by Bill Clegg
‘The Past’ by Tessa Hadley

‘Gilead’ by Marilynne Robinson [UK: Virago]

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
GILEAD by Marilynne Robinson #bookreview via @SandraDanby http://wp.me/p5gEM4-2Cb

First Edition: Mrs Dalloway

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf was published in 1925 and was actually created from two short stories – Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street, and The Prime Minister. It is one of Woolf’s best known novels as all the action takes place on one day in June 1923. The story moves backwards and forwards in time, and in and out of character’s minds, as a picture of Clarissa’s life is constructed. Virginia Woolf

A first edition of the Hogarth Press 1925 edition [above right] is for sale at Peter Harrington, at time of going to press, for £1,750. Around 2000 copies of the first printing were produced.
A rare first edition of the American book [below] with the Vanessa Bell dust jacket, published in 1925 by Harcourt, Brace and Company, is for sale at Raptis Rare Books for $5,500. Virginia Woolf

The story
Clarissa Dalloway is making preparations for a party she will host that evening. The day reminds her of her childhood spent in the countryside at Bourton and makes her wonder at her choice of husband. She married reliable Richard Dalloway rather than the demanding Peter Walsh. When Peter arrives, the tension of her old decision resurfaces.

The film
A 1997 film starred Vanessa Redgrave in the title role of Clarissa Dalloway, with her younger self played by Natasha McElhone and Michael Kitchen as Peter.Virginia Woolf

Watch the trailer here.

Other editions

Virginia Woolf


‘Mrs Dalloway’ by Virginia Woolf [UK: Vintage]

If you like old books, check out these:-
‘The Moonstone’ by Wilkie Collins
‘Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Bronte
‘Rebecca’ by Daphne du Maurier

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
First Edition: MRS DALLOWAY by Virginia Woolf #oldbooks via https://wp.me/p5gEM4-39X @SandraDanby

#Bookreview ‘Three Sisters, Three Queens’ by @PhilippaGBooks #Tudor

Philippa Gregory‘What is the point of love if it does not make us kind?’ Three Sisters, Three Queens by Philippa Gregory is a story of three women, princesses all, who marry for duty, for their country but who long to marry for love. It is a not a tale of sisterly love, more of sisterly rivalry, envy and spitefulness. The three women become sisters of England, Scotland and France but each knows despair and great unhappiness, they are alternately supportive to each other and shamelessly selfish.

The three women are Margaret, older sister of Henry VIII; Mary, his younger sister; and Katherine of Aragon, his first wife. All women have been raised to do their duty, to behave correctly, to smile when in pain, to nod to their husband when they disagree, and to always put themselves second. It is a story of English and Scottish politics, the switching of allegiances, the lies and flattery, the convenient silences. The story is told by Margaret, married young to James IV of Scotland, who is horrified after their wedding to be presented with a mob of children, his illegitimate sons and daughters. She appeals to Katherine for advice who tells her to swallow her anger and humiliation and get on with being a good queen to her husband.

The novel tends to repetition and could be shorter, and it is true that in the early pages Margaret is rather mean-spirited and complains repetitively about what she wants and what her sisters have that she doesn’t. But as the pages turned I got more involved in her story, the twists and turns, riches and poverty, love and betrayal, lies and more lies. It is not Gregory’s best Tudor novel, but it is still a fascinating account of a little known queen and sheds a light on complicated Scottish politics of the time. That, and the manipulation of the English/Scottish borders by Henry VIII and his lords, makes modern politics look lily white.

I did expect the viewpoints of each of the three sisters, which the title does imply, but in fact the story is told completely by Margaret aided by letters she receives from her sisters.

Amazon UK

Read my reviews of two other novels by Philippa Gregory:-
The Little House
The Lady of the Rivers

If you like this, try these:-
The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon
‘Kings and Queens’ [Lanchester #1] by Terry Tyler
‘Last Child’ [Lanchester #2] by Terry Tyler

And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
THREE SISTERS, THREE QUEENS by @PhilippaGBooks #books via @SandraDanby http://wp.me/p5gEM4-2yg