Wild Strawberries: Angela Thirkell’s Warped Downton Abbey


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Happy Halloween!

On the most magical day of the year, I’m sure many of you are bracing yourselves for the winter, preparing to write novels, or simply enjoying your pumpkin spice while wearing oversized hoodies (I am).

With a new novel to plan myself, I’m staying in today, but that doesn’t mean I’ll ignore the occasion; every Halloween I read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a tradition I created five years ago. It helps get me into the mood.

I won’t dwell on the spooky in this blog post. I’ve just finished a delightful novel called Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell. I can’t believe I haven’t heard of her before. I got it as an eBook this summer before my trip to Europe, but did not get to it until yesterday. I was not disappointed; short, sweet, and humorous, it had a springtime vibe that made me forget the chill outside.

I’ve never before read a book that made me laugh out loud. Certain scenes had me in tears. Poking fun at aristocrats with their dignified houses, Thirkell has a writing style that leaves you wanting more. She crafts characters you cannot hate, even if they behave in ridiculous ways. It made me think of Downton Abbey, especially scenes where the butler participates, except this butler is more keen to cause a fuss than Mr Carson would be.

I thought I was good at crafting characters; now I envy Thirkell, with her ease for giving each protagonist their color. There is the quirky Lady Emily Leslie, sixteen-year-old Martin who is spoiled and seems to know it, Lady Emily’s daughter, Agnes, who pulls off the “simple-minded” character–I felt like the characters had already existed, and Thirkell was commenting on the things they did, almost in a bored fashion.

After I finished Wild Strawberries, Goodreads told me it is the second book in a series; this means I will need to find the first one. I don’t know where Angela Thirkell has been all my life, but like Rosamunde Pilcher, she is a new voice that I’m glad to have found. They have different tones: Thirkell is humorous, Pilcher seemed rather melancholic, but both told tales that engrossed me.

If you like Downton Abbey, read Wild Strawberries. When I read the other books in the series, I’ll report on those as well.

Enjoy your Halloween, and I hope you get lots of candy!

Discovering The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley



This week, I am reading The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley. It is another book I found at the thrift store, and I found to my delight that the writing is bold as the woman’s red hair on the cover.

Kearsley paints pictures so perfectly in my imagination that I am disconcerted when I need to put the book down.

Writing this blog post feels like a premature book review, but I need to talk about how I feel. I am fond of stories such as this, where the main character is an author; it’s fun to recognize problems in the writing process, storytelling quirks, and the determination of a writer to tell a tale.

It’s a book where the characters speak to their author. I wonder if my own characters speak to me as loudly and I do not hear. I find that, especially in the winter, it’s difficult to keep my mind clear enough to listen, in particular when I lack motivation. It must be something that comes with practice.

It breaks my heart when I find half-finished books at thrift stores. Whoever owned this copy of The Winter Sea before me read half of it and then gave up. I can tell because there’s a clean fold in the middle; the pages in the second half look fresh from a bookstore, while the first have dog-eared corners.

I’m glad to give it the love it didn’t receive from its first owner, using pencil to underline sentences I find lovely (something I would only do with a used book; I could not bear to write in a brand new novel). Some of those phrases wind up as quotes on my Instagram, because works of art should be admired, even if only a sentence out of five hundred pages.

Persistent as a cold winter breeze, the story soaks through me. It’s creeping into my list of favorite books. In it, historical fiction and romance balance like in ballet. The last time I felt this way about a book was for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, another thrift store find that someone had abandoned half-finished.

Perhaps I’m noticing a pattern. Let the half-finished books come to me: I seem to fall in love every time.

The Empty House & Discovering Rosamunde Pilcher


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Thrift stores are exciting; one never knows what they will find. I’ve brought home things such as a teacup from Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation to a stuffed kangaroo. The clothes at thrift stores, at least in my experience, tend to be cozier; I’ve found my favorite sweaters there.

But what I find most enchanting about thrift shops are their books.

In thrift shops we find hardcover copies, most of them characterised by age and use. I have found poetry books in which passages were marked by the previous owner, little notes in the margins; it is a lovely sense of not reading alone. Also, thrift stores let us find novels that aren’t well-known; we rediscover the bestsellers of yesteryear.

I have felt tempted to weep at the books that exist but I will not have time to read. I am glad, though, that I discovered Rosamunde Pilcher in time to revel in her heartwarming stories. I will read as many of her books as I can; perhaps some brilliance will rub off on me. They have the feel of a warm cup of tea on an autumn afternoon.

The first book of Pilcher’s that I read was The Empty House. A powerful, clean romance, it gave me hope to follow Virginia’s journey as, after a tragedy, she found her own identity. She built herself from scratch, took back what was hers (including her children), and chose at last to live the life she’d dreamed of. She discovered what love is, and what it is not.

If you want a story that will make you feel good, The Empty House is a short read, and you will remember it. Not all books need to be long in order to make an impact.

It’s a lesson I learned this year: often the best stories are the ones that can be finished in a day. However, it will not be an ordinary day. If a story is good, if it has the author’s heart in it, the reader will never forget the day the book was read.

The Written World by Martin Puchner


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On the surface, The Written World looks to be a history book on the topic of literature. I discovered it was something deeper, far more delightful.

Author Martin Puchner has a love for books much like my own; this book is his journey to find the soul of literature, the source of her power, the reason she can change the world. Its reflective nature made it more powerful than a history book. Because the author included himself as the explorer, the journey feels romantic.

I have always had similar reverence for the power of reading. There is more to any book than symbols on a page; the classics, for example, have become immortal for a reason. Something about them reached into the soul of society; something about them survived, while other manuscripts vanished into history, only a few to be discovered later.

From this memoir, I gathered something I already knew: give someone the gift of literacy and they will never be helpless. Teach a child to read and you never know what they will achieve. They will discover topics that fascinate them; they’ll find their vocation, and perhaps go on to win Nobel prizes.

Of course, it suffices that they read. The power is, in the end, to read.

Once upon a time, books were expensive to own. Only the wealthy could afford to build a library. Books are more accessible now, but do people recognize their value? It is not the same to download a file off of the Internet. Books were expensive back then because of their power; let us not lose sight of that power now that they can be obtained for free.

The prices of books have changed; their value remains the same. A book can still turn the world upside-down. It was worth reading a book about books to put this into perspective. It was worth reading The Written World so that I could understand my place as a writer. It opened my eyes to the great power I have: I can read, and in doing so, I can change my world.

The Charles Dickens Museum


I have a confession to make: I almost did not leave England. I can’t tell you what I would have done should I have stayed, being utterly unprepared for a move to a different country. Still, I cried on the night before we were to fly out. It had been lovely to walk the streets, take buses, and admire old buildings. I knew I was going to miss them, and I already do.

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I can’t say that, during this trip, I found the London I read of in books. I didn’t expect to, either. A lot of time has passed between now and the England of Charles Dickens. Buildings have been torn down or made into shops; skyscrapers have been built that he would likely have thought hideous.

Yet beneath all this change, this modernisation, something felt familiar.

I might have been a tourist with only distant relations to England (ancestors from Derbyshire) and I might not have known where anything was. Still, there was something about the air as I walked. In my heart I couldn’t help but think, Ah, this is familiar. I am where I ought to be.

What is this magic that made me feel as if I had been there before? I can only think it is the power of story. The novels I read paint a different place than that which I saw, but those words captured the soul of that city like a sponge. When you tell a story about a person, you’re speaking of the person, whether they change or not. The same is true for cities.

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I almost did not leave London. The only thought that got me into the plane out was the knowledge that I hadn’t the money to start over. I also did not want to make a rash decision blinded by the charm of tourism. However, I have every intention of going back, and perhaps the second time I will stay.

I was in love with England from the moment I stepped onto her soil.

Ten days in England was not enough to see all I wanted to, but it was possible to cover the basics. Buckingham Palace, the National Gallery, the Tower of London–it was all lovely. Having said that, my favorite place was the Charles Dickens museum.

You might call my love for his work an obsession. He had a grip with the English language that I cannot find with other authors; if you know of someone else whose work I might enjoy that much, I am open to suggestions.

We visited the Charles Dickens museum on our last day, with four hours to go before a rush to the airport. We rose earlier that morning and my mother asked me, “Do you want to see the Charles Dickens house?”

I had resigned myself to putting off my visit for the next trip; it was a sweet, unexpected surprise when she woke me to such an invitation. I dressed in a heartbeat and we called a taxi.

I felt chills as we wandered the museum, which is actually his house. It is encouraging as a writer to know that one of the greatest authors of all time had a desk to work at, a piano to play; he needed a bed to sleep on, and he had a library. His talent was great, but he was  human like me. I can be a successful author while being myself.

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A family photo with Dickens’ silhouette next to me–how charming!

There came a moment when I was alone in his library, and I told him, “Thank you for the stories.” Maybe he heard me; if not, at least I tried.

I think some of his inspiration rubbed off on me, because now that I am home I feel like writing again. I feel like publishing another book. I want to go back to being a writer.

Until the day comes when I can return to England, I will read more about her. There is so much to know. I will learn her literature and poetry, I will explore my roots, I will improve as a writer.

This trip to Europe has done wonders for me. I doubt I will have my house made into a museum like Dickens’, but I will at least have a reader or two. I will at least write again.