For sale: Letter From England by Mollie Panter-Downes

I’m actually trying to sell one of the Project 24 books I bought… and I thought I’d try here.

Letter From England

It’s a bit frustrating. I’ve been waiting for a copy of Letter From England by Mollie Panter-Downes for ages, thinking that it was a prequel to London War Notes. One eventually turned up, and I paid an eye-watering £35 for it (which I would never normally do, but Project 24 means I can splurge a bit on pricier books). And then it turned out to be almost entirely the same as the 1939 and 1940 sections of London War Notes… (Which is entirely excellent!)

There are a few entries in this one that aren’t in London War Notes, but not a huge percentage. I recognise that this is entirely for Mollie Panter-Downes completists. But if anybody wants to email simonthomasoxford[at]gmail.com and say that they’ll pay £35 for it, then it’s yours!!

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch

Tolstoy and the Purple ChairFor my holiday, I treated myself to one of the unread books from my shelf of books about reading. I’m rationing these because they seem all too finite, and I can’t get enough of them. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair (2011) turned out to be quite different from most of them, but a very good read.

Nina Sankovitch decided to read a book every day for a year. Each day = one book. And one book review. It sounds like an impossible task, but it’s what she needed to do to help recover from grief at losing her sister to cancer – which happened three years before her year of reading took place, but it took that long to realise that other coping mechanisms simply weren’t working.

Sankovitch wrote about her experience at her Read All Day blog, which I assume was later picked up by a publisher, and the first question has to be: how does she fit it in? Well, she wasn’t in paid work at the time: she’d left her job as a lawyer to raise four children, while her husband did paid work. By the time her ‘year of magical reading’ (overt nod to Joan Didion) began, all four were school age – so she prioritised reading during the day, as setting her on the path of recovery from grief.

The venture is bold and rather beautiful – but how to turn it into a book? We wouldn’t want to read 365 short book reviews in a row – or, at least, it wouldn’t be a continuous narrative. I was super impressed by how Sankovitch managed to make it work – because she manages to turn the experience into a novel. It is about memories of her sister, it is about the quick downhill spiral of the cancer, it is about everyday moments for a mother – and all the while, it is also about the books.

All the great books I was reading were about the complexity and entirety of the human experience. About the things we wish to forget and those we want more and more of. About how we react and how we wish we could react. Books are experience, the words of authors proving the solace of love, the fulfilment of family, the torment of war, and the wisdom of memory. Joy and tears, pleasure and pain: everything came to me while I read in my purple chair. I had never sat so still, and yet experienced so much.

There are plenty of books from her reading year which don’t get a mention in Tolstoy and the Purple Chair – except, thankfully, in the complete list at the end. (I’ve read only 22 of the 365, and haven’t heard of most of them – I think quite a lot of contemporary American lit appears, though Sankovitch’s reading tastes are catholic and admirable, and she writes very well about how books have affected her, as well as their literary qualities. And the Provincial Lady features!) But she does weave certain of them through chapters – either grouping, such as several that consider death, or sex, or war, or drawing out moments of beauty and realisation from her reading.

Somehow it all works beautifully together. I don’t think I’d ask for either less or more detail from her reading reflections, and presumably can dig out fuller details on her blog. But she has worked a miracle in making a story about grief and a story about reading 365 books come together into a captivating, moving memoir.

My only real criticism of the book (incidentally, I have a beautiful American paperback edition) is the title. She reads in a purple chair; one of the first books she reads is a Tolstoy novel. The book is emphatically not about Tolstoy, which is surely what anybody would think seeing this title? It’s certainly what I thought – and there are any number of titles that would have crystallised the book far better.

But hopefully you can see past the title, and add this to your own books-about-reading shelf. It deserves a place there.

The Osbornes by E.F. Benson

I’ve been off for a week in a beautiful chateau in the Loire Valley – this one, to be precise, in case you want to follow suit – though I left a couple of scheduled posts to tide me over. There were 17 of us, most of whom I’d only met a few times or not at all – but it was such a wonderful week. Beautiful surroundings, wonderful people, lots of fun, and lots of reading. I read four books in the five days we were there (because the first and last days were basically all driving) and one of those was The Osbornes (1910) by E.F. Benson.

The Osbournes

This is only the third book I’ve read by E.F. Benson that falls outside the excellent Mapp and Lucia series (which I’ve read twice). My shelves have plenty of his books on them, though, and I’d decided to stop buying them until I’d sampled some more – and loved Daisy’s Aunt around this time last year. Unintentionally, I picked a novel from the same year – yes, he had three novels published in 1910; check out his Wikipedia page to see how astonishingly prolific he was. Even more astonishing, both novels are really rather good.

The Osbornes considers a question that has echoed throughout English literary history almost from when it began: what happens when you love outside your own class? From Pamela to Lady Chatterley’s Lover and onwards, this topic has (in its different forms) been a peculiarly English preoccupation. And it is at the forefront of The Osbornes, where Dora falls in love with the Adonis-like Claude. Claude’s family is the Osbornes of the title – nouveau riche, and not ‘quite quite’.

Nobody disputes that he and his family are kind and good, but their money has not brought them a sense of what is right to say and what is not. Not that they have come from the gutter; Claude went to Eton and Cambridge, and the list of things that Dora’s family object to make for rather mysterious reading, over a century since the novel was written. Here is Dora’s (selfish, grabbing) brother on the topic of Claude:

“I think Claude has masses of good points: he simply bristles with them, but he gives one such shocks. He goes on swimmingly for a time, and then suddenly says that somebody is ‘noble-looking’, or that the carpet is ‘tasteful’ or ‘superior’.”

It’s not exactly spitting on the floor, is it? But it is enough to irritate Dora once they are married, and once the gleam of lust has worn off. She is very fond of his parents, but cannot help seeing the same things in them – Mr and Mrs Osborne (senior) come with them on a trip to Venice, but are more impressed by the metalwork they see than by the architecture. The size of the paintings in a gallery astonishes them, rather than the artists’ genius. It prickles Dora over and over.

You could draw a gallon of pure fresh kindness from that well-spring which also was inexhaustible, but even before you had time to put your lips to it, and drink of it, some drop – quite a little drop – would trickle in from the source of his vulgarity and taint it all. It was even worse than that; there was a permanent leak from the one into the other; the kindness was tainted at the source.

More on the kindness in a minute. But this did make me think – obviously we laugh at this sort of snobbery now, particularly when it’s so hard to see the nuances that bothered them so much. But I wonder if it has been replaced with other sorts of things – codes that we are used to in our families, and can’t imagine making new relations outside of that perimeter. This struck me when the topic of humour came up – I certainly wouldn’t say I looked down on people who had a completely different sense of humour from me, but it would make forming close bonds very difficult. We may feel angry with Dora and Jim from our 21st-century vantage (agreeing with the character who says “how God must laugh at our divisions of classes. We must look like children arranging books by the colour of their covers instead of their contents”) but that is to miss the point of the contemporary setting, perhaps? Any seismic class shift in England was still around forty years away.

The strength of this novel doesn’t lie, though, in this moral maze. It’s in the Osbornes – not Dora and Claude by Claude’s parents. I loved hearing all your suggestions for happy marriages the other day (and keep meaning to reply, not least because some of them certainly don’t meet my mental criteria!) and here is certainly one. Eddie and Mrs O (as they call each other) have one of the most beautiful marriages I’ve ever read about – and Benson treads just on the right side of saccharine for the reader to swallow it. They have been together since they had little, but in their riches want no more than each other’s company, laughing at the same weak family jokes that have occupied them for decades. There is a little wisdom in them, but only really a little – mostly, Benson paints strengths of character and, yes, kindness.

His wickedly funny cynical side doesn’t emerge in this novel, and an unkind reader might think there are moments in here that are too sentimental – but either I was beguiled by the beautiful French countryside, or Benson manages to get away with it. He remains funny throughout, and dodges a tricky societal quandary by having a bit of an easy out in the end, but somehow the ingredients all add up to another delightful offering from a pen that doesn’t seem able to do anything but delight.

Note: I accidentally wrote ‘Osbournes’ every time in my initial version of this post – thanks for noticing, Tony!

The Pelicans by E.M. Delafield

The Pelicans (1918) by E.M. Delafield was a wonderful find in a real life bookshop – one I visited with Rachel and Jenny – and one of my Project 24 books. Delafield is one of my very favourite authors, and this is about the 23rd book I’ve read by her – nothing beats finding one of them in the wild. Early warning, it might well be the worst book of hers that I’ve read, but it’s testament to her talents that I still liked it.

The Pelicans

The Pelicans starts with kindly, scatterbrained Lady Argent and her artistic son Ludovic discussing the recently orphaned young sisters Rosamund and Frances. They live near the River Wye and have had an idyllic childhood in many ways – but now they are to be taken away by a distant relative of their mother, who wishes to be called Cousin Bertha. Lady Argent thinks she is a paragon of kindness, and this is clearly the reputation that Bertha wishes to promote – and quite possibly believes herself. But Ludovic is not convinced, and the sisters are also rather daunted by the move. Her friendly approaches towards them leave them rather wary and confused – but off they go, to join Bertha’s daughter, a simpering and devoted companion, and a grumpy but affectionate husband (affectionate to the girls; he clearly loathes his wife but has determined to stay out of the way).

Delafield wrote about unpleasant women time and again, and they are very often the sort who project an appearance of capability and being the supposed centre of adoring crowds. This can sometimes be done comically, as in The Provincial Lady in Wartime, or with a rather darker overtone – Faster! Faster! or Humbug. In The Pelicans it rather falls between two stools. Even her darkest novels have amusing moments, and there are many in The Pelicans that I will come onto, but she hasn’t quite decided how to treat the character of Bertha. Ironically, by making her quite nuanced (because how many people are actually ogres in disguise?), she is less satisfying as a character – do we require more consistency in a fictional construct than we would encounter in real people?

My favourite sections came when Bertha talks to her neighbour and frenemy – no word describes it better, I’m afraid – Nina, who has a son about Rosamund’s age (there is a brief romance) and is a widow. They exchange spiky conversations where each tries to outdo the other, and subtly insult each other. It’s all so delicious, and I longed for those pages – particularly whenever Nina would use the Biblical analogy of Mary and Martha to compare them, which she does often, and which displeases Bertha immensely. Another of Nina’s traits is to remind her friend about her (Nina’s) status as a widow:

“It somehow gave me a little pang – it seemed to bring back that concert, years ago when Geoffrey and I were together.”

Bertha was too familiar with the singular power that the most unlikely incidents possessed of recalling Nina’s happier hours to accord more than a passing acknowledgement towards this tender tribute to the past.

The companion-cum-housekeeper (Miss Blandflower) was also a delight to read, with her verbal tics done beautifully:

“Here I am, last but not least,” agitatedly murmured the late-comer, while her hostess cordially embraced her, and presented Rosamund and Frances.

Miss Blandflower belonged to that numerous and mistaken class of person which supposes the art of witty conversation to lie in the frequent quotation of well-known tags and the humorously-intended mispronunciation of the more ordinary words in the English language.

These examples show you the way Delafield has with a sardonic sentence, familiar to anybody who has read any of her novels, and I could read it for hours. But this novel gives us rather more of a different sort of novel – one which sneaks into so many of her early novels: it’s about a nunnery. Frances becomes very involved in the Catholic church (Bertha is not Catholic, but has a deep interest) and this takes over – Frances goes on a retreat, and eventually decides to live there, and many of the scenes are in this new cast of characters. It doesn’t follow the well-worn path of bashing the church, thankfully, but it’s a new set of people when we haven’t really got full potential out of the original set, and they were not as interesting to read about. It got a little slow, though there were definitely highlights in the dialogue of a booming woman who lived at the nunnery (though not a nun) and considered herself rather more at home than those around her might suggest.

The main issue with The Pelicans is probably structure. It covers so much of the girls’ lives that we never quite linger at any one stage long enough – and the periods Delafield picks seem a little disjointed and unexpected, as though she’d plunged into their timeline at random. It was only her third novel; she got much better at this.

So – her humour and the way she balanced comic sentences was already there. The melodrama that popped its head up throughout her career was a little unbridled. She hadn’t quite worked out how to manipulate characters into the forms that would work best for her. But it’s always fascinating to see the development of an author, and – if this is perhaps at the bottom of my list of EMD reads – it’s pretty impressive that it’s still really rather good. Hurrah for Delafield!

Tea or Books? #43: scientists vs clergymen, and As It Was vs Fair Stood the Wind for France

Scientists! Vicars! H.E. Bates! Helen Thomas!


 
Tea or Books logoWe’re popping in between holidays to record an episode about clergymen and scientists in novels – doubtless missing plenty of them, but thank you for everyone who tweeted in with your suggestions. We’d love to hear more!

In the second half, we discuss Helen Thomas’s memoir As It Was (1926) and H.E. Bates’ novel Fair Stood the Wind for France (1944) – which turn out to have more in common than we feared (and less than we initially thought). It’s quite the rollercoaster, guys.

Do check out our iTunes page, and you should be able to rate and review through iTunes apps and maybe podcast apps and one day I’ll work out how this happens. Below are the books and authors we mention in this episode:

Poldark series by Winston Graham
The Brother Gardeners by Andrea Wulf
The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys
The Chateau by William Maxwell
The Boat by L.P. Hartley
The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley
A Perfect Woman by L.P. Hartley
Instead of a Letter by Diana Athill
The Warden by Anthony Trollope
Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope
Emma by Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
As For Me and My House by Sinclair Ross
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield
Frost at Morning by Richmal Crompton
The Rector’s Daughter by F.M. Mayor
The Vicar’s Daughter by E.H. Young
The Clergyman’s Daughter by George Orwell
Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte
Under the Rainbow by Susan Scarlett
Clothes-pegs by Susan Scarlett
A Room With a View by E.M. Forster
Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey
Tess of the D’Ubervilles by Thomas Hardy
The Pastor’s Wife by Elizabeth von Arnim
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
To The River by Olivia Laing
Appius and Virginia by G.E. Trevelyan
Hackenfeller’s Ape by Brigid Brophy
Dangerous Ages by Rose Macaulay
Agatha Christie
Oliver Sacks
Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
The Morning Gift by Eva Ibbotson
Middlemarch by George Eliot
The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
The Island of Dr Moreau by H.G. Wells
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
Margaret Atwood
Famous Five series by Enid Blyton
As It Was by Helen Thomas
Fair Stood The Wind for France by H.E. Bates
Edward Thomas
World Without End by Helen Thomas
The Darling Buds of May by H.E. Bates
Love for Lydia by H.E. Bates
Under Storm’s Wing by Helen Thomas
To Bed With Grand Music by Marghanita Laski
The Village by Marghanita Laski

Lives For Sale: Biographers’ Tales ed. Mark Bostridge

Lives For SaleThis was one of the books I picked up in Hay-on-Wye last year, and it’s going to be more or less impossible to write about in detail – so I’ll start with saying that it’s a fantastic book and anybody interested in biography and biographers should hunt down a copy.

It’s a collection of essays written about biography by the great and the good of that world. I won’t list them all, but Lyndall Gordon, Hermione Lee, Margaret Forster, Hilary Spurling, Claire Tomalin, Antonia Fraser, Frances Spalding, John Sutherland, Michael Holroyd, Jenny Uglow, Claire Harman… even, rather surprisingly, Beryl Bainbridge. It’s quite an impressive collection (originally compiled for the launch of a new edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) – I’m not sure how many were written especially for this, but it’s absolutely fascinating.

The essays that work best are those that look at particular issues with the process of biography – whether that be antagonistic relatives, unearthing unexpected manuscripts, or racing against another biographer of the same subject. These glimpses behind the curtain are sometimes gossipy, sometimes moving, and always extremely interesting. #

There are a handful of essays that don’t work so well. The editor, Mark Bostridge, has rather bizarrely given himself 17 pages when everybody else gets around 6 – it feels rather vain, and his chapter isn’t especially interesting – and the essayists (notably Hermione Lee) who write about their subjects rather than writing the biography seem to have missed the point. We don’t need an abridged version of findings from the biography; much more interesting is how they chose the topic or the obstacles they faced.

Luckily, most of the chapters do just this – and whether or not you are particularly interested by the subjects or the authors themselves, I think you’ll find it almost all extremely engrossing. An invaluable accompaniment to any biography bookcase!

To Bed With Grand Music by Marghanita Laski

I read To Bed With Grand Music (1946) by Marghanita Laski for the excellent Undervalued British Women Writers conference I went to a while ago, but it’s been one of those titles I’ve had on my real or imagined tbr pile for a long time. It seems such an unusual novel – and so risky that Laski published it under the pseudonym Sarah Russell.

To BEd With Grand Music

It takes place during the Second World War, and our ‘heroine’ – in a fairly loose sense – is Deborah, whose husband has been called up to fight for King and Country. Before he leaves, he initiates a frank chat about what will happen whilst he’s gone. He can’t, he assures her, be expected to remain celibate. He is sure (he adds) that she will understand. Deborah isn’t happy about it…

But, once alone, she rather quickly falls into her own life of dalliances, kicking off with an American soldier named (of course) Joe. It’s rather more nuanced than that, but the reader can see it coming – she finds her scruples gradually worn down, and after the first, the scruples more or less don’t exist. We are taken on a rather dizzying whirl of the men she has relationships with in London – well, some are rather briefer than relationships – and Laski does a great job of delineating them and demonstrating what their appeal is to Deborah. Sometimes it is power, sometimes money, sometimes charm, sometimes looks. One of them, mais naturallement, is French.

Meanwhile, her son is left in the countryside (with the rather more affectionate and capable housekeeper), and Deborah feels only occasional pangs of guilt.

Deborah understood him. “You’re at least the third person,” she said, ” who has asked me if it mightn’t be better if I went home to my chee-ild. Well, darling, that’s just one of the things I’ve really thought out for myself and I know it’s better to be happy than unhappy, and not only for me but for my baby as well. I like this sort of life, in fact, I love it, and seeing as how I’m hurting no one and doing myself quite a lot of good, I rather think I’ll carry on with it. I’ve come to the confusion that conventional morals were invented by a lot of unattractive bitches to make themselves feel good.”

Laski balances two things well – a real investigation of what might confront a woman in Deborah’s position, and (I think I’m right in saying) some sort of satire. It feels like a parody of the Casanova type – there is a real treadmill of conquests – but the tone remains firmly realistic, never allowing hyperbole to creep in, or any laughter from the author. The mix works well, even if it ends up wrong-footing the reader a bit.

This isn’t as sophisticated as some of Laski’s novels, perhaps chiefly because it’s only really doing one thing. The plot, or even the scenario, is really the point of the novel – an exercise in examining one woman and her choices, rather than a more complex canvas. As such, it works very well at what it is trying to do, and shines a light on a part of the war that most 1940s fiction left in darkness, but it is not her most ambitious novel. But, for the parameters she sets, it is both very good and very intriguing.

 

Others who got Stuck into this Book:

“No matter where you stand on the issue of Deborah’s character, this is an absolutely fascinating, brilliantly written portrayal of a completely different side of wartime life” – Book Snob

“This is a very interesting book to compare to Laski’s other World War II title, Little Boy Lost.” – The Bookbinder’s Daughter

“And so I found another Marghanita Laski book that I could argue with while reading. She is so good at that!” – Fleur in Her World

 

Insomniac City by Bill Hayes

Insomniac CityProject 24 is going so well, guys. Not just that I am (cough, very broadly speaking, cough) on track – 15 books so far – but that I’m reading most of the books I’m buying. That’s pretty good going, since there are still a fair few that I haven’t read from Project 24 in 2010.

I already have a fair few Oliver Sacks books unread on my shelves, but I couldn’t resist going out and buying Insomniac City (2017) by Bill Hayes – mentioned in a recent Weekend Miscellany here, and which Jenny informed me existed. I even paid full price for a new hardback for myself, which basically never happens cos they cost dollar-dollar. But think of the money I’ve been saving through Project 24! Think of it and, if you see them, mention it to my bank manager.

Bill Hayes was Sacks’ partner in the last years of Sacks’ life, and has written books on various topics including blood, insomnia, and Gray’s Anatomy. So it seems like Sacks and Hayes shared an interest in quirky books about medicine… they also shared a love of New York, though Hayes’ was quite different from Sacks’. While Sacks lived in a curious parallel timezone – never using computers or technology – Hayes embraced the noisy, hectic modern world in all its forms. Even when they had been a couple for many years, they maintained separate lives to an extent – separate apartments, separate forms of engagement with the modern world. But there was nobody closer to give a detailed account of this period of Sacks’ life – as ‘O’ – and it is beautifully poignant, mixing humour and memory (including many of Hayes’ diary entries from the time).

Undated Note – June 2011

The difference between us in two words:

“Me, too,” I say.

“I, too,” O corrects.

Hayes takes us through their meeting, their relationship, and Sacks’ cancer. It is an extraordinary depiction of moments scattered through their experiences together, forming a whole from the glimpses.

If Insomniac City is a love letter to Sacks, and it unquestionably is in many ways, it is also a love letter to New York. That’s the sort of phrase that would normally put me right off a book, but here it works. Perhaps because it is not the sort of love letter that deals in overblown similes and references that exclude the non-traveller; Hayes gives us a collage of photos, diary entries, and reflections about his experiences of the city.

The other day, I was on a local 6 going uptown and seated next to a young woman with a baby in a stroller. At each stop, a man (always a man) would enter the car and end up standing right above us. I had my iPod on and was just watching. Inevitably, each man would make goofy faces and smile at the baby, and the baby would smile and make faces back. At each stop, the standing man would be replaced by a new one, straight out of central casting. First, an older Latin guy. Then he gets off and a young black man appears. Then a white man in a suit. Then a construction worker with a hard hat. Tough guys. New York guys. All devoted to one important task: making a baby smile.

In fact, a collage is a useful way to think about this book. It is a patchwork of thoughts and observations that hold together unexpectedly, even while we are aware of all the bustling life that Hayes doesn’t document. I would rush towards anything connected with Sacks, and this is a wonderful addition to my Sacks shelf – not at all the sort of book he would have written, nor the way he would have written it, but a beautiful complement to the writer and the human that ‘O’ was.

Whence happy marriages?

1920s wedding

I set my book group a challenge recently, and we didn’t do very well. Could we think of novels about happy marriages?

The criteria were simple. The married couple has to be a central point of the novel, not just on the peripheries. They have to get married before the novel starts (or, at a push, in the first chapter). They have to be married after the novel ends – no deaths. Happy marriages, if you please, not just not-unhappy ones.

It’s harder than you think…

I can only really think of Greenery Street by Denis Mackail.

Over to you!

Summer at Hope Meadows by Lucy Daniels

Here is another review in the series of review-copies-lying-around-my-house-that-my-housemate-picks-up. So I’ll hand over to Melissa and her review of a book that landed unsolicited on our doormat!

***

Summer at Hope MeadowsBut who is Lucy Daniels?

If, like me, you read the Animal Ark series growing up, and if you, unlike me, have moved on since then to grown-up literature, then you are the target audience for this book. Animal Ark is an ever-growing collection of kids’ novels with tacky alliterative titles like Puppies in the Pantry, Squirrels in the the School, and Lion by the Lake. They feature the adventures of vet’s daughter Mandy Hope and her best friend James, who spend their lives rescuing helpless animals (as identified in the title) in their friendly Yorkshire village of Welford.

Although we acquired a substantial collection of these novels when I was growing up and I faithfully read each one, I wouldn’t have caught on that this one was linked to them from the cover if it hadn’t helpfully spelled it out for me on the back: ‘Hope Meadows is based on the globally bestselling Animal Ark series’. At which point I decided I had to do the proper thing and read it, to find out whether I thought it was well done.

My first surprise was to discover under ‘About the Author’ that **Lucy Daniels is not real**. Instead, she is ‘the collective name for the writing team that created the best-selling children’s book series Animal Ark‘ – her name picked so as to place her beside Colin Dann’s The Animals of Farthing Wood, as I learnt from this revelatory articleI’m told Nancy Drew was also written by a similar concatenation of individuals. I had to go and check up on others such as The Babysitters Club; which I’m partially reassured to find out was largely contributed to by the person whose name is on the cover.

My second surprise was that Animal Ark, which I deemed a dated series from my childhood, is still actively growing and has already spawned several spinoff series (serieses? seriei?); but this is the first one for adults. It follows Mandy as she returns to Welford as a qualified vet to help out her parents in their clinic.

Having read it, it’s quickly summed up: Just like the rest of Animal Ark, but with relationships.

Without necessarily saying that predictability is wrong, this is one of those books which gives away on the back cover a lot of what is going to happen, and the names of the key players in the area of relationships are helpfully italicised. You’ll forgive me for a plot spoiler when I remark that they have chosen not to italicise the name of Mandy’s current boyfriend; and you’ll forgive me for being a little bit cross with the accepted practice, on page and even more so on screen, of using pre-existing relationships merely as the backdrop for complicating new love interests rather than as meaningful in their own right (rant over, at least for now). Mandy, whose character has not changed a bit, manages to fall out with every man in her life over their attitude to animals.

The other central relationship in the book is much more interesting; James, at the start of the book, is getting married, with Mandy as his best woman. He’s getting married to a man named Paul, who is terminally ill. Introducing a gay relationship adds very little of interest to the novel, and feels a wee bit like a ploy to make sure that James is out of the running for anyone who was still struggling to figure out after reading the back cover who Mandy might be interested in. Paul’s sickness, on the other hand, adds a serious theme to the novel which belies the otherwise incidental plot. In fact, the weighty themes of death, bereavement, and for-better-or-worse love, seem rather out of place alongside the still rather childlike idealism of Mandy’s care for animals, or for that matter her fairly adolescent approach to relationships. On the one hand, Paul’s sickness and his relationship with James are treated sensitively and certainly add more depth to the novel; on the other, it feels a bit unbalanced to make them the side-plot of much less weighty themes.

The Lucy Daniels representative who actually penned the book in this instance, Sarah McGurk, is a qualified vet herself, which I really appreciated as much of the story revolves around veterinary surgeries and their animal patients. It seems fitting that as Mandy returns to Welford with much greater knowledge and understanding of veterinary science, the author is also able to describe ailments and treatments with more detail and accuracy. The sections dealing with animal wellbeing, which is meant to be Mandy’s specialism, did give some measure of pause for thought given that we tend to treat animals for physical ailments and not pay too much attention to their experience. Perhaps Mandy’s idealism in wanting the animals around her to be happy as much as they are healthy is no bad thing, and suffers unfairly from its juxtaposition with Paul’s illness.

If you’ve read and enjoyed any of the Animal Ark series, I’d definitely recommend having a read of this; however, in spite of the presence of more adult themes, don’t expect it to be a much more grown-up read.