A Vicarage Family

A Vicarage family: A biography of myself

‘A Vicarage Family’ left me with mixed feelings. Best classified as autobiographical fiction, this is Noel Streatfeild’s story with some embellishments, as the author couldn’t possibly know the inner thoughts of her schoolteachers and household staff. However I found it a fast read and I was quickly caught up in Victoria’s plight.

The middle child of a poor vicar’s family, Vicky is forever making resolutions to improve herself and forever failing to keep them. Her older sister Isobel is a gifted artist and every attempt is made to encourage her artistic talent. Victoria’s younger sister, Louise, beautiful and spoiled, is comfortably predicted for an early marriage and lots of children. The only person who seems sympathetic to Vicky’s feelings of being ‘left out’ are her cousin John who visits and stays with the family on holidays.

Vicky has a lively and creative nature and is forever seeming to land herself ‘in the soup’. Expelled from her grammar school, she is transferred to another girls’ school with hope of improving both her scholastic record and in her character.

There are poignant and entertaining anecdotes of this young family mixed with the stories of summer holidays that seem to be mostly endured due to incessant rain and lack of funds for entertainment. However, there are also bright spots like the Christmas holiday traditions:

“Their mother always decorated the tree and they were never allowed to see it until the candles were lit. That year the tree stood in the small annexe to the drawing-room – a perfect place, because there were curtains which could be drawn back when the tree was to be seen in all its glory. That year there were about fifteen waifs and strays, mostly women, all rather shy and sad while they drank tea and ate Victoria’s birthday – now the Christmas – cake.

When the tea was cleared, Annie and Hester joined the party, and soon everyone was circling the tree singing ‘The first Nowell’ and then ‘Good King Wenceslaus’, with John singing the King’s verses and Victoria the page’s. Then came the time to strip the tree. The majority of the parcels were for the family of course, but no one was allowed to feel left out, so there were plenty of little gifts for the guests.”

Vicky’s headmistress at her school despairs of her as do her teachers, but Victoria’s grandparents provide support and understanding just when she needs it most. The family cook Annie takes Victoria under her wing and champions her, even personally caring for her when the entire family suffers through an epidemic of influenza. Vicky finds she has a talent for writing and directing plays, but her attempts at self-improvement seem to her to be frustratingly slow. However by the end of the story Victoria finds that she has grown up, partly due to the harsh circumstances of the war.

I found that I wanted to continue on with the story and will be definitely looking for a copy of the next book in the series.

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The Edge

The Edge

Tor Kelsey, orphaned at a young age, was brought up by his aunt. His aunt loved to go to the racecourse, so Tor is very familiar with horses, racing, and has a wide, versatile knowledge of personalities. Although he is left a huge inheritance and will never have to be concerned about finances, he decides to take employment in security for the Jockey Club, and so the mystery begins.

If Tor seems a little mature and confident for his age, that is simply ‘par for the course’ in this Dick Francis novel. All of his heroes are bigger-than-life (although not offensive), assured, and have a variety of rare and admirable talents. Tor himself, rather than enjoying an affluent lifestyle, decides that in order to keep his integrity, he needs to keep himself busy. Tor wants to maintain his self-respect; a rare quality in the indulgent (“I have my rights!”) thinking of today.

“It isn’t so easy,” I said slowly, “and don’t laugh, it really isn’t so easy to be able to afford anything you want. Short of the Crown Jewels and trifles like that. Well… I don’t find it easy…I’m like a child loose in a sweet shop. I could eat and eat… and make myself sick… and greedy… and a jelly-fish. So I keep my hands off the sweets and occupy my time following crooks. “

Julius Filmer has already been acquitted in the murder of a stable boy, after threatening and deterring several witnesses for the prosecution. The Jockey Club has learned that Filmer has purchased tickets for the train through Canada that will be making several stops at racecourses along the way, and his purposes are deemed to be neither innocent nor virtuous.

“In the context of ten thousand years, I thought, what did Filmer and his sins matter? Yet all we had was here and now, and here and now was always where the struggle toward goodness had to be fought. Toward virtue, morality, uprightness, order: call it what one liked. A long, ever-recurring battle.”

Tor’s problem is to discover where Filmer is going to strike next, and so he is given the assignment of catching him ‘in the act’. The problem is that no one seems to know what that particular act will be, and Tor has to be both vigilant and ‘invisible’ to the passengers. Tor is a genius at finding creative solutions for blending into his environment and the reader is entertained by his quick-thinking and inventive disguises.

The plot is complicated with an entertainment-style staged mystery for the passengers, something that I did not always follow (to be honest), and at first felt superfluous. However the author demonstrates his clever plotting when further on in the book, Tor creatively uses the actors in the mystery-play to expose Filmer and bring him to justice (something I must admit caught me by surprise!)

Although not my favorite from the author so far, this novel was more low-key than others of his, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

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If I Gained the World

If I Gained the World (Second Chances Collection, #4)

Lenore has a toddler-age son, Scott, and she is still waiting for Daniel, Scott’s father, to marry her. When she presses him and he hesitates too long, she decides she can no longer wait… and so she leaves. The amazing thing is that Daniel lets Lenore walk away with their son and does nothing about it.

Do such men exist? (oh yeah!) In this story, it’s going to be a long hard road for both of them. Lenore is suddenly left with the responsibility to find a new home, a job, and a way to take care of their young son. When she comes across a neighbor willing to help and he in turn points her to his church family, she is (understandably) cautious.

“Lenore raised her eyebrows. She had never known church people to be empathetic. Mostly they had seemed to want to get her to do something, be something, or believe something. None had been curious, at least about her.”

However, as Lenore tests the waters and begins to get her feet up under her, realizing she can survive with the help of these unknown well-meaning Christians, she begins to have hope once again: “Yesterday she had been lying in the bed, too sad to move, and here she was – employed, her dark apartment feeling more like a home, cupboards full, son happy and loved. She saw again how one thing could lead to another and how much could depend on just one person’s actions… She felt as if a life was being offered to her, held out in the same hand that had misted this evening, had set those mountains in place, had carved the channel for the bay beneath her.”

When Daniel reappears in her life, there is no quick all-is-well-lets-be-happy-now solution: “She wondered if forgiveness was more like peeling an onion than breaking an egg. That had been top-layer forgiveness. This would be deep forgiveness, boring down to the bedrock, to the taproot, to the core of who she was and what Daniel had done.”

Daniel has his own journey to make as he finds success, loses it, and finds it again. It took me a long time to empathise with Daniel Monroe’s character and understand his selfishness! It is obvious that Daniel’s life goals do not include simply a home and family, and he continually wants more. But as he begins to hit the reality of the baggage that ‘success’ brings, there is a lot for him to question. Daniel in desperation starts to question his motives, and he remembers his childhood growing up in a coal mining community. Could there be more to life than material possessions and the acclaim of a fickle crowd? “He lay there in the borrowed bed and thought of his uncle George, his cousins. The mundane work they did. The small acts of faithfulness they performed every day – getting up, going to work, coming home, playing with their children, listening to their stories, going to bed. Then getting up to do it again.”

As other reviewers have mentioned there are lots of references to Christianity, but this novel is done in a fresh, personal way, without seeming contrived or ‘preachy’. Rather, the author works through the lives of each character and their heart issues, probing, examining, and illustrating to the reader the real-life struggles that sometimes have no easy answers. Scott goes through a period of teen rebellion. Some of the characters struggle with substance abuse, promiscuity (not graphic), and life-threatening illnesses. And yet the author holds out that even in the midst of tragedy, there is hope.

Can it be possible that even our failures can be used and redeemed in our lives? “Too much of a coincidence to be believed, and yet it was exactly the way God worked. She had seen it happen again and again. He wove lives together and apart, bringing one home, taking one away, working His tapestry, creating His picture from the raw mistakes and false starts of their lives.”

I read this somewhat lengthy (400 pages!) novel in just over two days, as I just couldn’t put it down. Reading this book has made me grateful. Thankful that I have a home and family, that I have never been abandoned, had to raise my children on my own, or (knock on wood) suffered through cancer surgery. And thankful that, even in the darkest places, there is a road back.

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A Rush of Wings

A Rush of Wings (Spencer Family #1)

Noelle St. Clair is fleeing her life as a pampered, sheltered ‘rich kid’ and has nowhere to go. Unable to use her credit cards or cell phone (she doesn’t want to be traced), she places two thousand dollars in cash in her backpack with some toiletries and a couple of changes of clothing and gets on the bus, headed out of Long Island and for points West.

Ending up on a ranch in Colorado (the only decent place available to rent in the small town), Noelle’s life is about to change… but it is going to be a long time before it changes for the better.

I liked this book because it doesn’t give quick, happy endings. Life is a struggle and often filled with mistakes and pitfalls and can also be threatening. Memories can overwhelm emotion (we are frail human creatures) and take over reason. Noelle needed to find a place of safety but the two brothers, Morgan and Rick, who offer it to her, are vastly different. With her past, how can she ever come to resolution in her own heart, much less trust anyone else’s?

“Something had made her run away, something gave her a jaded eye, caused the panic attacks, the fractured images. Even if she couldn’t remember what, she recognized the effects. Broken trust was not easily fixed, and the only way she knew to be safe was to trust only herself.”

I read this book quickly on my kindle and it kept me going! There are a couple of chapters I would have left out, (not because they were graphic or upsetting), that I considered unnecessary to move the story along.

I enjoyed experiencing Noelle’s decisions, her mistakes, her slow coming-to-grips with life, and the hesitant approach to belief in a God who would allow evil in a treacherous world (something that seems to be a common stumbling block for many).

Morgan and Rick Spencer are brothers who were raised in the same home and yet one is a fervent Christian, and the other (definitely!) not. The author does not shy away from depicting family conflict or differences but she does portray Christianity in a fresh, believable manner. Rick, who seems so mature, has a faith crisis that is neither shallow nor implausible.

Life is hard, and sometimes almost impossible, and it is so refreshing to read a story that doesn’t try to whitewash the questions with pat answers that gloss over the hard places.

“The sadness was still deep inside her and the knowledge that she might never recover what she’d lost as a five-year-old child. But she no longer faced it alone.”

I got a little impatient with Morgan’s character but it was helpful to realize later that his actions were a front to his own pain. There are so many different facets to how we handle the experiences of life, and the author is able to creatively address how individual we truly are.

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Dimestore: A Writer's Life

“Dimestore” is, according to the author, a series of essays but it seems to be more of a memoir. Lee Smith is known for her fiction set in Appalachia (I have only read “Fair and Tender Ladies” although she has written several). She describes growing up in the mountains of western Virginia and her family, life in a small town, and discovering fiction and Southern writers. Her reminisces made me want to delve into the Southern writers again!

I especially enjoyed the chapters on writing and literature. “I was still drunk on words and books, just as I had been as a child, when I used to read under the covers with a flashlight all night long.  My favorite professor at Hollins was Louis D. Rubin, Jr., who introduced us to Southern literature; I hadn’t even known it existed when we started out. I had already gotten drunk on Faulkner a couple of times, then had to go to the infirmary for a whole day when we read William Styron’s “Lie Down in Darkness’ – I got too ‘wrought up,’ as my mother used to say. The nurse gave me a tranquilizer, and made me lie down.”

She writes about meeting Eudora Welty and her disillusionment (“I was deeply disappointed. Why, she certainly didn’t look like a writer! She didn’t have a cape, or boots or anything.”), that changed instantly to enthusiasm as Welty begins to read aloud a passage from one of her stories. And she relates both the difficulties and the fulfillment that writing brings:

“These days, very few are the writers whose book jackets list things like bush pilot, big game hunter, or exotic dancer. No, more often we are English teachers. We have children, we have mortgages, we have bills to pay. So we have to stop writing strictly about what we know, which is what they always told us to do in creative writing classes. Instead, we have to write about what we can learn, and what we can imagine…”

It has been a long time since I’ve read a non-fiction book. I do enjoy reading diaries, letters, and memoirs, as I love reading other viewpoints that enlarge my world. The author tackles difficult subjects (divorce and remarriage; schizophrenia, aging, dysfunctional families, illness).

“Dimestore” centers mainly on Lee Smith’s childhood memories (her father owned a five-and-ten). She also writes candidly and unashamedly about the mental illnesses in her family. There is a very sad, poignant chapter about the death of her son. The author explores in her literature and writing, not only how she herself dealt with loss and grief but the engima of human frailty and surviving the challenges that life brings.

“Then Dr. Stevenson leaned forward intently and said, “Lee, since your parents are both ill, I wonder if you have ever worried about getting sick as well.”
“You mean, if I am going to go crazy, too,” I blurted out.
“Yes’, he said,  “if you are going to go crazy too.”


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Jane and Prudence

Jane and Prudence

I had read Barbara Pym some years ago (not sure which one, it may have been “Excellent Women”?) and although I remember liking it, felt it was very mild. And then I read “Jane and Prudence”.

For some reason this book really absorbed my interest (and why is that? sometimes a book just happens to hit the spot just at the right time.) At first, it was a little slow-moving for me but once I began to delve into the lives of the characters I found it to be a fast read and so entertaining!

Jane is a thoroughly incompetent vicar’s wife who doesn’t seem to mind that she can’t seem to get her act together. It took me a while but I began to really like Jane! She is fresh, unassuming and yet forthright in her opinions, and isn’t too concerned or caught up in outward appearances: “Jane put on an old tweed coat which hung in the hall – the kind of coat one might have used for feeding the chickens in – and they went out together.”

Prudence Bates, Jane’s good friend from university days, is one of the few of their circle left ‘on the shelf’, and Jane decides she must ‘help’ Prudence find a satisfactory husband. (Shades of “Emma” and Jane Austen? probably. )

“There’s Miss Morrow and Fabian Driver – I think I told you about him in my letter.’ Jane was too wise to appear anything but casual in her tone as she mentioned this eligible widower. She knew that the pride of even young spinsters is a delicate thing and that Prudence was especially sensitive. There must be no hint that she was trying to ‘bring them together’.”

There are little vignettes of village affairs, afternoon tea, and tense meetings of the Parochial Council where the most difficult item on the agenda (and the one most discussed) seems to be which photo to put on the cover of the parish magazine. Insightful human perplexities and frailties are scattered throughout, with amusing commentaries (mostly from Jane) that hold the reader’s interest. (There are times when even the reader is unsure whether Jane realizes that her comments are meant to be taken seriously!)

Whether Prudence ultimately will contentment and fulfillment in her (dull) office job, or succeed at snaring the elusive and hopefully-reformed Fabian Driver, is not revealed until the final few chapters.

“She told me a good deal about Mr. Driver,’ said Jane. ‘About his wife and other things.’
“Ah, the other things,’ said Miss Doggett obscurely. ‘Of course, we never saw anything of those. We knew that it went on, of course – in London, I believe.’
‘Yes, it seems suitable that things like that should go on in London,’ Jane agreed. ‘It is in better taste somehow that a man should be unfaithful to his wife away from home.’

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Tim Ekaterin’s parents were rich… up to a point. Enjoying a privileged upbringing of comfort and ease, Tim’s memories included lavish vacations and going to the races. “I had been their only child and they’d given me a very good childhood, to the extent that when I thought of holidays it was of yachts on warms seas or Christmas in the Alps.” However, by the time Tim’s father passes away, he and his wife had lost millions of pounds through gambling. “In twenty-five years, it seemed, my mother had gambled away the best part of half a million pounds; all gone on horses, fast and slow.”

The logical choice for Tim, of course, was to join his grandfather’s prestigious banking firm… or was it?

Tim approves a loan of five million pounds to finance the purchase of the famous racing stallion, Sandcastle, for the purpose of breeding high-performing race horses (an unprecedented loan…who would risk such an amount on a horse?) But when the foals begin to appear with birth defects, it is apparent that someone is interfering and bent on sabotage.

This novel, like almost all of Dick Francis’ writing, *does* involve the world of horses and racing, although not exclusively. Tim will save one of the characters, a ‘faith-healer’ of sorts (of horses! is there such a thing?) from a knife attack, and later we find Tim risking his own safety to rescue a runaway horse. In between, he navigates the always- volatile -and -unpredictable world of finance and banking, stumbles upon evidence in a murder of a popular veterinarian, and saves a stud farm from almost certain failure.

The author brings home to the reader with fresh, illuminating insight, the undeniable tragedy that murder brings: “I’d thought of her young life once as being a clear stretch of sand waiting for footprints, and now there would be none, now only a blank, chopping end to all she could have been and done, to all the bright love she had scattered around her.”

“Banker” is not a novel easily categorized. Is it a murder mystery?  Partly.  Banker is also a novel about the world of finance, horse-racing and breeding (not too explicit thankfully!), and includes villains, heroes, and plain, everyday folk just hoping to ‘make it’ in their world.

The author is not only talented at writing suspenseful mysteries, he is also good at creating believable characters. “Banker” is both fast-paced and intriguing and I was rooting all the way for Tim’s success.

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