The Light Years

The Light Years (Cazalet Chronicles, #1)

“The Light Years” is the first book in a five book series by Elizabeth Jane Howard, chronicling one family’s story in early twentieth century England.

The Cazalet family’s story begins just as World War 2 is looming on the horizon; a period that I love to read about. The changes just around the corner that would so deeply affect everyday life within the maelstrom of impending war is a topic I think I will never tire of.

William Cazalet (‘the Brig’), is the head of the family, and he and his wife Duchy are minor characters in this first book. His sons Hugh, Edward and Rupert and daughter Rachel take more of a center stage, and the grandchildren also are well-drawn. With servants, extended family and an aging, impoverished governess, the author has deftly woven a believable story.

It has been a family tradition to take a summer holiday in the country at the ‘Home Place’, and with such a large cast of characters, there is plenty going on to engage the reader. Even the school-age children have their own particular foibles, problems, and pursuits, and are depicted sympathetically and true-to-life.

I enjoyed the realistic portrayals of each character (although I did not admire some of them!) There is Villy (Viola), Edward’s wife, and her hidden regrets for the life of the stage; the young, self-absorbed Zoe (Rupert’s wife) who finds it difficult to accept her step-mothering responsibilities, and Hugh’s wife Sybil (seemingly the most content of the three). Rachel, the spinster daughter, is self-sacrificing and always seems willing to be inconvenienced for her family’s sake. Rupert as the youngest son had escaped military duty in World War 1 but his brothers Hugh and Edward have not. Edward seems to be the most resilient of the three brothers but on the other hand, Hugh’s injuries will never let him forget his wartime experiences.

And of course, there are the children. Angela who finds her first unrequited love, Christopher who isn’t athletic but intensely longing for his father’s approval, Simon’s dread of boarding school and Teddy (who most seems to be like Edward). Cousins Polly and Louise are friends until Clary (whose mother has died in childbirth and now has the inexperienced Zoe for a stepmother), comes along. Each child has their place in the family and each one is dealt with so that the reader is caught up along with them in their frustrations, challenges and joys.

When Louise’s mother has had some painful dental work, her young teen daughter Louise, finds herself useful: “She had helped Villy upstairs, helped her to undress, found bedsocks and her lacy jacket: her mother was very cold. She had lit the gas fire, drawn the curtains, rushed out the door when Phyllis knocked and taken the hot water bottles blocking her view of the invalid. She had administered the aspirin and arranged the pillows, drawn up the eiderdown and throughout her mother had seemed acquiescent and grateful….

She sat on the stairs for ages, on the curve so that she could hear if her mother called and see when her father returned, wondering whether perhaps she ought not to sacrifice her career to become a nurse. She was gliding about darkened wards at night with a lamp, relieving the agonized sufferings of wounded soldiers with a touch of her delicate but experienced hands, soothing their last moments with her gentle voice…

The attitudes of post-Victorian England are portrayed with tongue-in-cheek humor:

“(Lady Rydal) disapproved of any reference to religion made by anyone other than herself (levity); she considered politics an unsuitable subject for a lady (Margot Asquith and Lady Astor were not people she would invite to her house); any discussion of the Royal Family’s private life was vulgar (she was probably the only person in London who, from the outset of that affair, had ceased mentioning Edward VIII and who had never pronounced Mrs. Simpson’s name); any reference to the body – its appearance, its requirements and, worst of all, its urges – was utterly taboo (even health was tricky since only certain ailments were permissible for women).”

I finished this first book in the Cazalet family chronicles with somewhat mixed feelings. I became so caught up in the personalities and lives of the characters that I was eager to pick up the next volume. I decided to read a few reviews to help me ascertain exactly what the author’s purpose in writing the series is. When I discovered that the books were largely autobiographical, the pieces began to fall into place. I have to admit I was a little taken aback by the treatment of some sensitive topics. The author’s seemingly blithe attitude toward adultery and tacitly resigned tolerance of especially one character’s promiscuity caught me off guard (although not explicit or graphic in nature and the fear of discovery is a moral statement in itself). However when I read about the author’s family life and background the connections made were easily recognisable.

The human experience, the various ups and downs of country life, the small frustrations and the momentous (to the characters themselves and therefore, to the reader also) difficulties that arose were woven together realistically for the reader. The servants seem to be run off their feet (especially the cook, but no less the housemaids) and their employers oblivious to the discrepancy in roles. The author certainly had talent in crafting a large sprawling story with several characters, all from different walks of life and different ages. I found it very absorbing and although am eager to start the next book in the series (“Marking Time”), have to admit it is also with a little trepidation for the unknown. Certainly Elizabeth Jane Howard is not to be taken for granted!

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China Court

China Court: The Hours of a Country House

I really enjoyed this novel of life in an English country house throughout five generations. Although the characters at first were confusing (the author jumps around with time periods and you have to keep your head together while reading), I became enamored of the main character, Ripsie, pretty quickly.

Ripsie is a young ‘waif’, a poor village child who cannot stop gazing in through the gates of China House. Soon she becomes playmates with the children who live there, although the class distinctions for the time period don’t make it easy for her. We follow her story as she grows up, marries one of the sons of the house, and has her own children. In between Ripsie’s experiences are scattered vignettes (that the reader eventually pieces together) of the forebears who have lived in China House, English village customs (and gardens! the descriptions of the countryside are wonderful).

I loved the author’s talent for prose. “Even when one is stricken, much remains; often creature things: drinking good tea from a thin porcelain cup; hot baths; the smell of a wood fire, the warmth of firelight and candlelight. The sound of a stream can be consolation, thinks Mrs. Quin, or the shape of a tree; even stricken, she can enjoy those…How ridiculous to find consolation in food, but it is true and when one is taking those first steps back, bruised and wounded, one can read certain books: Hans Andersen, and the Psalms, Jane Austen, a few other novels. Helped by those things, life reasserts itself, as it must…”

When Mrs. Quin (Ripsie), dies, her will is full of surprises and the family reactions are priceless. This section in my opinion, ‘crowns’ the story. The author cleverly weaves a story of past generations and their actions that ultimately affect future generations, in an intriguing and unforgettable novel.

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Second Wind

Second Wind

Another fast moving Dick Frances novel, this time *not* about the race-course. If you like learning about hurricanes, flight, weather, and physics, this is the book for you. Suspenseful, it will keep you guessing until the end (and I guessed wrong! won’t be the first time).

Meteorologist Perry Stuart gets the chance of a lifetime when offered a seat on the plane his friend Kris is piloting — through the eye of a hurricane in the Caribbean islands. Sent on a mysterious errand that Kris decides to keep silent about, Perry ends up in a precarious position unraveling the motives of a close circle of questionable acquaintances. Like every hero in the Frances mystery series, though, Perry is well suited for the job.

Lucky for Perry he has a doting grandmother who doesn’t give up on him and thoughts of her keep him going. Stranded on a deserted island after the plane crashes, Perry is able to call on resources he never knew he had. “I still had no impression of hours. Day was light, night was dark. When day began fading again I finally put some resolution into things and with more effort than normal struggled to my bare feet and very slowly trudged up from sea level to the village…”

Perry will realize that his adventures have just begun.

For the most part I enjoyed this novel. The passage descriptions on physics and weather patterns for me were interesting at first but they do become a little involved (just a small warning), but the the plot as usual, is fast-paced and the characters as believable as always! It was refreshing to read a Francis novel that wasn’t centered on racing (as most of his are. Although they are still well-done), “Second Wind” is multi-layered. Whether the layers mesh well or not is a decision best left with the reader.

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I enjoyed this author’s portrayal of the first years of Queen Victoria’s reign. I must confess I am quite ignorant of the details included in her story; the difficulties within family relationships and the influence that Sir John Conroy (unsuccessfully) sought, and Lord Melbourne won.

This book was fast moving for me and piqued my interest in the time period and Queen Victoria herself. I didn’t realize how young Victoria was when she initially came to the throne. Her governess, Baroness Lehzen, helped to steer her but being German herself, did not totally comprehend the details of Parliament and duties of the monarchy. Victoria must learn quickly, and she did become adept at judging motives and procedures, although not without making some errors in judgment.

When her most trusted advisor Lord Melbourne resigns, the Queen must appoint a new prime minister. The Duke of Wellington himself has advice for her:

“If I might say so, ma’am, I think you will find Sir Robert to be a most able fellow … You may not want him, but the country needs Peel.”

Victoria resumed her pacing. Everything she had heard about Sir Robert Peel suggested that he would not be at all congenial.   Emma Portman had told her that he had no greater vice than calculus and disapproved of waltzing. How was she expected to be comfortable with a man who took no pleasure in life?”

My only regret is that I read the book after watching the television series. The dramatized version is close to a word-for-word rendition of the author’s writing.

Goodwin creates realistic, believable characters during the height of England’s international supremacy. I am looking forward to reading biographies about this admirable Queen now, due to Daisy Goodwin’s skill.

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The Summer of the Barshinskeys

The Summer of the Barshinskeys

When the Barshinkeys, a Russian emigrant family, move into the small English village where Sophie Willoughby lives, life begins to change for her family.

“I still do not really understand what drew the Barshinskeys to us and even stranger, what drew us to the Barshinskeys. They were little better than tinkers, we were ‘peasant gentry.’ They were poor, dirty, but free; we were well fed, comfortable but confined tightly within our barriers of respectability. Sometimes I think our fascination for one another began because of that particular summer – I look back and remember everything bathed in a golden haze, and it is not just the magic memory of childhood that makes it so. I have spoken to old men and women about that summer of 1902, and it was a good summer, a strange one, when wild geese flew across the skies every evening, when there were bumper cops of wild strawberries…”

The story takes us through Sophie Willoughby’s growing up years but changes perspective with the characters of Edwin, her brother, and Daisy May, the more stable member of the Barshinskey family. As war begins and then the Russian revolution, the changing fortunes of each family member comes into play and the author does a great job of involving the reader into the hardships and triumphs of the characters.

Edwin is on the road to success and following his dream of becoming a train engineer when suddenly he jettisons everything to pursue an infatuation with Galina, Daisy’s unstable, unpredictable sister. Offered a position on a steamship, he berates himself at first but then finds strength and hope as he considers the end result of his drastic choice:

“He would survive the stokehold – of course he would survive. He was young and strong and if he pulled himself together and stopped wallowing in self-pity he could achieve whatever he wanted. It was a hard work, hideous work, yes, and he was condemned to loneliness because he was ‘different’ from his fellow stokers. But did that matter? Wasn’t it much better that he should be apart from them, free to follow his own pursuits, to see Galina whenever he could? And in his mood of rising hope and determination he knew he would do whatever he had to, follow whatever path was necessary to continue seeing Galina…”

Throughout this sad story, Edwin has this hope that his love is going to change Galina. Hope on, hope ever… sometimes just simple faithfulness, perseverance and goodness *can* evoke change. But there are also instances where it does not. Human nature is not a toy, a plaything we can manipulate like dolls into behaving according to our wants and wishes. Life has a way of interfering with the most carefully thought out plans, and in this novel, a world war and revolutionary upheaval is going to have a radical effect on all of Edwin’s plans.

“The Summer of the Barshinskeys” was a long, emotion-building epic that kept me reading, even though there are many sad situations and hardships portrayed. We hope, so hope, with Edwin that Daisy’s sister Galina will mature and cast aside her promiscuous and self-centered behavior. Is there hope for Galina to become all that Edwin dreams of? We cheer Daisy May as she ventures into unknown territory, the vast land of Russia, seeking to rescue Edwin and Galina caught within the throes of suspicion and the Russian revolution. We suffer along with Sophie when Ivan is drawn to her older sister and doesn’t seem to notice her.

There are times when the author’s lyrical writing carries the reader into a place and time that is forever gone, and conversely there are moments when we want to take a character by the scruff of the neck and shake some sense into them. What a story! A story of a lost England and the effects of war on two vastly different families that intertwine throughout the years of a turbulent period in Europe’s history.


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The Scarlet Thread

The Scarlet Thread

I picked up this book off my shelf and thoroughly enjoyed the re-read as it’s been a few years and I’d forgotten much of it.

Not an easy novel to classify, “The Scarlet Thread” is part contemporary, part Christian, and part historical fiction with two story lines. Much of the book is taken up with the story of Sierra Madrid, the contemporary character whose marriage is struggling. When her mother gifts her with a journal from one of her ancestors, Sierra realizes that her problems are not new ones and that there is a way back. This ambitious novel takes the reader back into the years of Westward Expansion when settlers were offered free land to settle Oregon.

I remember reading this book and feeling that the author had given too much slack to Sierra’s husband, Alex, but this time around, I was able to get more out of the story and the author’s attempts to ‘humanize’ the characters’ motives. Both times I read it, I loved it. I love historical fiction regardless, and the author did a wonderful job of making the struggles along the pioneer trail real to the reader.

“James found a carved bed and chopped it up for fuel. I could not help but wonder who slept in it. It was such a grand headboard with leaves and vines. What a shame to burn such a costly thing, but we have to eat and need a fire to cook over.”

This is not a ‘everything always turns out roses’ kind of Christian fiction; rather, it addresses the very real problems and dilemmas present in life, whether in the early 1800’s or currently for today. We are still confronted with illness, personal safety, wrong choices, selfish disregard for others, conflicts within family relationships, and the list goes on. The author never glosses over these issues, nor does she pretend to instruct the reader, but lets her characters live out the consequences of the decisions they make. Both Sierra and her husband Alex have choices to make; some are regrettable and destructive to the stability of their lives and others are understandable. The reader is caught up in both their story and the story of Mary Kathryn, Sierra’s relative who has much to endure in her own life, and this novel is a definite page turner as both characters struggle to make sense of their world.

“Aunt Martha kissed me and took off her cross necklace and put it on me. It is the pretty one with amethyst stones I admired when I first come to Galena after my father cast me out. She has worn it every day of her life since her papa give it to her on her fourteenth birthday. She said – I want you to have it in memory of me. Let it remind you I am praying for you every day. She said – God is with you, Mary Kathryn Farr, and don’t you ever forget it.
I was not comforted.”

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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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