The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark

The joy of the book group is other group members highlighting bits you’d overlooked and joint appreciation of memorable passages. This happened a lot last night and this insightful review rounds it off.

JacquiWine's Journal

Last year I read and really enjoyed Muriel Spark’s 1959 novel Memento Mori, a darkly comic exploration of ageing and mortality. In the hope of building on this positive experience, I recently turned to another of her early works, the wonderfully titled The Girls of Slender Means. Luckily for me, it turned out to be a great success. It’s a mercurial novel. Deceptively light at first sight, there are some genuine elements of darkness lurking just beneath the surface, all of which come together to make it a really interesting and surprising read.

Set mostly in the summer of 1945, The Girls of Slender Means centres on the May of Teck Club in Kensington, a hostel for the ‘Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation…

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The Purple Swamp Hen

This evening’s book provided a lively discussion. Final verdict was that these were typically magazine stories. Here is a fuller post.


Dame Penelope Lively has had a storied literary career. Short-listed for the Booker a couple of times and a recipient once, she is the recipient of many other literary awards. She has written two memoirs with a third that focuses on gardens due out this month. Apart from novels and children’s books she has five short story collections of which “The Purple Swamp Hen” is the most recent. Distinctly traditional post-World War II British in tone, each story is narrated with limited dialogue. Well written, but due to narration, most of the stories have the emotional detachment of an observer. Relationships, particularly marital fidelity or lack thereof, are the subject of a number of the stories.

Her constructs are imaginative. The title story is told from the perspective of a purple swamp hen in Pompei. “Biography” is a series of interviews about Lavinia Talbot, a recently deceased professor (and BBC…

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Brat Farrar – Josephine Tey

Last night’s book was a success all round – here is an excellent blog post to sum it all up.

I Prefer Reading

Patrick Ashby committed suicide when he was just thirteen. He threw himself off a cliff or swam out to sea until he could swim no more. His parents had been killed in a plane crash shortly before but his family – twin brother Simon, sisters Eleanor, Jane & Ruth & Aunt Beatrice – & friends had no idea that he was distressed enough to take such a drastic step. Beatrice Ashby (known as Bee) had stepped in to look after her nephews & nieces & take on the running of The Latchetts, the estate & horse stud that would provide a precarious living for the family. Precarious, that is, until Simon, now the heir to his mother’s fortune after Patrick’s death, turns 21 when he will inherit.

Just before this milestone, a young man turns up claiming to be Patrick Ashby. From the beginning, the reader knows that he is…

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My Mother’s House and Sido – Colette


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Last night’s delightful book features vignettes of French country life at the turn of the 20th Century. This excellent blog post includes 3 very typical quotes giving a true flavour of the book. (It also highlights the importance of the choice of translation – the one used was the one most of us had bought and included some exquisite passages)

Ordinary World

What glory can there be in snapping green beans? A few weeks ago, I was given a large bag along with the inherent task of discovering just that. The beans were dirty, and more numerous than I hoped. They also had some spots that would need pruning before the whole bunch could be washed and prepared on the stove. Thinking about a plate fully laden with freshly cooked and delicately seasoned green beans, brimming with potassium and shell outs, impelled me to begin the task, made longer by the hems and haws of getting started.

That afternoon I wondered about the lack of celebration for the mundane. It seems we all want to kick ass in a specialty of one sort or another. We want to be stellar, even singular, at something good and praiseworthy. Then, we all want our plate of steaming vegetables for dinner. Perfectly prepared, but perhaps…

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Les Parisiennes by Anne Sebba


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Autumn seems to be the time we traditionally read some serious non-fiction. (Last year it was Ben Judah’s This is London)

For 2017, the chosen book is Les Parisiennes by local author, Anne Sebba. This is not a book to enjoy.  It is a book to pull you up short and consider the good fortune of living in the 21st century in a country with no experience of enemy occupation.  It is ferociously well-researched, amplifying our understanding of the depths of barbarity which the Germans meted out to French women in situ in France, and after their subsequent deportation. French complicity in the round up of the Jewish population is examined in depth as is the disparity in the treatment of returning Jewish deportees from the Resistance deportees.

It is a long harrowing read and needs considerable stamina to continue as the details are unimaginably bleak. But it is worth it. The closing chapters are very thought-provoking. They reveal (among other things) how the de Gaulle government manipulated the emphasis of media reporting once the initial purges of collaborators had taken place and analyses the difficulty deportees had reintegrating into society.

It is also an account of how French culture defiantly retained its place in the world despite the German onslaught. Attempts to pillage French art treasures and transfer haute-couture to Berlin were thwarted. The coverage is good of Picasso’s reasons for staying put in Paris and continuing to work, despite the exodus of other artists. And overall the book is a corrective to the post-war glamourizing of the activities of the Resistance.

We were evenly split over whether the immense weight of detail was irritating or whether it was necessary to provide every last fact in order to refute Holocaust deniers.

In terms of evaluating the narrative thread, each individual woman’s story was at times difficult to keep separate in the mind as the action progressed. Several of the SOE agents for example just blend into each other until their very shocking ends are retold. So hard to read if, like a lot of us do, you usually read very quickly. 

The book memorialises the hideous sacrifice made by many women to achieve the salvation of France. And it inhabits the mind for quite a few days after completing – the very definition of a good read.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day


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I was amused to read Lucy Kellaway (formerly of the FT) describe this the other day as a book about a job interview which of course it is. I wanted to recommend it but felt it might be too sweet but this excellent post explains the underlying tone which backs off the romantic element.


I’m sorry I did not take the advice of my fellow bloggers AT ONCE and dive into this charming, funny novel by Winifred Watson. It is sweet without being too sickly, an escapist fairytale with a good dose of humour and wisecracks to keep it grounded. It has the feel and style of those 1930s Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers comedies which I used to watch after coming home from school in the afternoon, before I sat down to do my homework. It was – for once – not relegated to the underground storage room of the library, but up proud and yellow on the ‘mood boosting books’ shelf. And never a truer word was spoken!

It is a fairy-tale, a Cinderella story of a middle-aged, downtrodden governess who is sent by mistake to the apartment of a glamorous nightclub singer, Delysia LaFosse, rather than a household full of unruly children. Before…

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Books we have lent…..


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We recently had a theme of Books we’ve most often lent and why? and we reflected ruefully that had more of the books we’d lent been returned we’d have a bigger list !

A unanimous choice from all present at the discussion was The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.  A classic tale of love and life with a backdrop of the unification of Italy. This is one we’ve all promoted to other people.

Here in no particular order are the rest of our favourites.

Riddle of the Sands – Erskine Childers (Novel)

Pre-first world war (1903) and early example of an ‘invasion’ novel about how a German landing was stopped by two young men on a sailing holiday. Writer was in the Navy. It’s a grown-up Famous Five (though there only 3 of them)

On Broadway  – Damon Runyon (Short Stories)

This is an omnibus of Damon Runyon’s short stories written about gangster life in New York – Broadway to be specific – during the Prohibition Era.   Full of lovable rogues and skullduggery. Narrator writes in the vernacular of the period. It’s the sort of book you can just dip into at any point and start reading, so very specific and so sums up character it works.  The musical Guys & Dolls was based on it.

The Last September – Elizabeth Bowen (Novel)

The story of a big house in Ireland before its demolition.  Set in the early part of the twentieth century during the Ascendancy – time of the Black & Tans.  It’s notable for the way it captures that time and how the house seems to mould characters. (very good Wikipedia entry about this book)

The Tortoise & the Hare – Elizabeth Jenkins (Novel)

Story just unfolds in a rather grand commuter village.  Excellent characterisation. This was one of the novels we read in May 2014.  Here is a review written at the time

Glass Room – Simon Mawer (Novel)

Such different uses for the same house set in the very interesting central strip of Europe.  It belonged at times to the Nazis then Soviets and finally to the Czechoslovak state.  The house is built for a young couple and the story opens as the wife as an old lady goes back.

The Third Policeman – Flann O’Brien (Novel)

Fantasy, ridiculous but very funny

The Innocent in Erendira – Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Short Stories)

The Innocent of the title is a non-person, a sort of Cinderella without the happy ending.

The Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad (Novel)

Really dark story of a trader and his passage down a river in Africa.  A psychological journey not a light read – a deeply questioning book

The Company She Keeps – Mary Mccarthy (Short Stories)

Set in bohemian New York literary/political circles not long after Mccarthy’s best known novel, The Group and using some of the same characters.

The Ice Age – Margaret Drabble (Novel)

Terrific state of the ­­­­nation novel, very atmospheric about a developer in the North East (based on John Poulson). Gritty atmosphere of the time.  Echoes of 2008 and echoes of now.

South Riding – Winifred Holtby (Novel)

The writer was a great friend of Vera Brittain.  A winter book set before WW2 – the characters are all very real.  The heroine is a young headteacher who has come from elsewhere.  All human problems are here; it shows the terrible poverty that existed before the Welfare State.  Chapter headings are grouped under various committees of the council.  Well intentioned and very much of its time and useful to read now with the retreat of the the state. Shows genuine insight into the past as written contemporaneously.

In Montmartre – Sue Roe (Non-fiction)

Subtitled Picasso, Matisse and Modernism in Paris 1900 – 1910 it gives a good idea of who knew who and how they interrelated. Also a very good description of what Picasso was trying to do artistically through this period

Revolution in the Head – Ian MacDonald (Non-fiction)

Subtitled The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties.  The introduction is a very good (if left-leaning) account of the history of the Sixties followed by a listing of every single track recorded by The Beatles looking at musical construction, musical influences, particular instruments used. Finally at the back of the book is a useful glossary of musical terms.

And finally an email choice sent in by a member unable to attend

My choice for tonight would have been  Miss Garnet’s Angel – Salley Vickers (Novel), which was lent to me when I set off on my own to Venice in 2006 and I’ve since lent to a number of other people when they tell me they are going to Venice. However, it’s less about Venice (although it gives a wonderful sense of Venice and you can trace some of the settings in the novel) and more about love and loss, friendship, self-discovery and of course angels and miracles. I enjoy Vickers’ novels for her insight into her characters and relationships – she’s a Jungian therapist – but they’re not heavy reading.

Thank you to everyone for sharing your enthusiasms and giving us food for thought for our free-reading month of August.









Valentino’s Ristorante, Isleworth, TW1


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Every so often we go out for a meal together and Kay has written an excellent review here on her own blog of our most recent meal night and she has kindly agreed for us to reblog it on our site, for which many thanks.

Travel Gourmet

People are surprised, indeed even shocked, when I tell them that my book group meet once a week. Most book groups meet once a month to discuss a novel, so for most people the idea of having to read a book a week is a bit much. But then I explain it’s not quite like that: we read one novel a month to discuss on the 1st Tuesday of the month; on the 2nd we discuss books based on a theme (the last was Writers from Hull to celebrate that city being this year’s City of Culture); the 3rd Tuesday is poetry night when we might discuss a particular collection of poetry or maybe just more generally the poetry of a chosen poet, and we always read the poetry aloud, which I really love; the 4th Tuesday is our short story evening. The last three choices don’t necessarily take up…

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Strange Pilgrims by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Revisited


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It is rare for the Book Group to read the same book twice but in this case there are enough people who didn’t read it first time round plus new members having joined since the first reading that the highly idiosyncratic Strange Pilgrims is having a second outing. As for rereading books in general we felt it was a good idea and that three years had been long enough for us to come to these stories afresh.

Last time the magical realism for which Gabriel Garcia Marquez is renowned was sometimes a hurdle to enjoyment of the stories. (Read the related blog post here) The stories do improve on a second read as one notices the details of the ridiculous scenarios and realises how inventive Marquez is. Light is like Water for example is preposterous on several levels but just suppose light does behave like water ……

Interestingly we all of us at the discussion on Tuesday evening had enjoyed the stories this time. We accepted the bargain with the writer of not probing too deeply what is plausible and what is not.  If it is good writing and he creates vivid images by inventive use of words we carried on reading.   In The Saint for example the idea that someone could carry around their seven year old daughter’s coffin for twenty years while they try to get her canonized is just accepted as a given and you move on with the narrative. Similarly, in Maria dos Prazeres successfully teaching your dog to cry at your grave so you will be mourned after death is truly bizarre but nonetheless in keeping with the tone of the story.

Marquez makes people stand before you in their physicality before you know them through the story, giving a precise and graphic image of the characters in the mind’s eye. Two examples early in the book are –

“He wore the dark blue pin-striped suit, brocade vest, and stiff hat of a retired magistrate.  He had the arrogant mustache of a musketeer, abundant blue-black hair with romantic waves, a harpist’s hands with the widower’s wedding band on the left ring finger, and joyful eyes.” (Bon Voyage, Mr President)

“She was beautiful and lithe, with soft skin the color of bread and eyes like green almonds, and she had straight black hair that reached to her shoulders and an aura of antiquity that could just as well have been Indonesian as Andean.  She was dressed with subtle taste: a lynx jacket, a raw silk blouse with very delicate flowers, natural linen trousers, and shoes with narrow stripe the color of bougainvillea”(Sleeping Beauty and the Airplane)


Two of us read the collection starting at the back. The last two stories are among the most effective in casting their spell over the reader. The Trail of Your Blood in the Snow (first published in Playboy in 1993) is the story of a beautiful young couple embarking on a lavish honeymoon after a three month courtship. Clearly this should be the beginning of an idyllic life together; Marquez subverts this and to strong effect. Light is like Water is the penultimate in the collection. Very short – the ideal taster if you want to get a sample of typical Marquez writing. A house guest has said to two young boys “Light is like water, you turn the tap and out it comes.” In 5 pages the author explores what might happen if this were true.

The last word should go to The New York Times which neatly sums up the collection like this –

These tales knit together Mr. Garcia Marquez’s natural storytelling talents with his highly tuned radar for images that bridge the world of reality and the world of dreams. Gracefully written as these stories are, they lack the emotional depth of field found in Mr. Garcia Marquez’s novels. They leave the reader beguiled, but hungry for something more




The Gustav Sonata gets Switzerland right, beautifully


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Following on from our lively discussion last night here is a review which really captures the Swiss background to the plot. While several of us loved the book there were others with reservations particularly about the Hollywood ending.

Clare O'Dea


When I heard Rose Tremain’s new book, The Gustav Sonata, was set in Switzerland, I could not wait to get my hands on it. Knowing she had a particular gift for evoking time and place, I had to see what she would do with the challenging setting of Switzerland during the Second World War.

From the first page, I was struck by how exquisite this novel is. Tremain delivers on all three fronts – story, characters and writing. The first of three parts is written from the point of view of the protagonist, Gustav, as a boy. I wanted to rush in and rescue this darling child. The middle part shows us how his ill-fated parents met each other and drifted towards their ruin. The third ‘movement’ brings us close to the present day, where we meet Gustav again in late middle age, the proprietor of a hotel and lonely heart.

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