Whilst on holiday in Singapore and Malaysia I read my usual eclectic mix of books. First up was Take Six Girls by Laura Thompson (see my blog on one of her other books A Different Class of Murder) about the Mitford sisters. It looks at the lives of Nancy the author, Diana who married the fascist Walter Mosley, Deborah who became the Duchess of Devonshire overseeing the business of opening Chatsworth House in Derbyshire to the public, Unity the Nazi and close friend of Hitler’s, Jessica the Communist and Pamela, the least interesting one.
It’s a fascinating book which explores how one family produced such headstrong characters, and particularly focuses on the families’ ties to Nazism that led to Unity’s death and Diana’s imprisonment. Meanwhile Jessica breaks ties with her privileged upbringing and lives by her values as a Communist, whilst Deborah sails into the life she was born to and Nancy becomes a famous and well respected author. Pamela spends her time focused on chickens. It also takes a good look at how the phenomenon of the Mitford sisters developed and how the family felt about their depiction.
The main reason I had wanted to go to Malaysia was after reading 14 years ago The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh, a wonderful book set in India, Burma and Malaysia covering a one hundred year period from the late 1800s to the recent history of Burma and India (see my blog Amitav Ghosh). I had been saving re-reading this as a treat when I finally made it to Malaysia and it was great to be in Penang reading about Georgetown on the island and Butterworth just across on the mainland. It depicts so well life in the rubber plantations of Malaysia between the wars and the fleeing of the population from the Japanese who successfully swept through Malaysia at great speed before taking Singapore (which we also visited, including the Changi prison, the war cemetery at Kranji and the battlebox at Fort Canning where the British decided to surrender).
For the long journey home I read the latest book by one of my favourite authors Tracy Chevalier (see my blog on The Last Runaway) – At the Edge of the Orchard. It’s another well researched and expertly written historical novel, this time set in the Black Swamp of Ohio in the settler period of the 1830s and in gold rush era California. As it’s title suggests it starts with an apple orchard and an extremely dysfunctional family trying to grow apples in the most difficult of circumstances. After extreme disaster strikes the family Robert escapes, working his way ever westward across America until he reaches California and bumps into the plant collector and agent William Lobb.
This is Robert’s big break – he gets to work for Lobb collecting seedlings and seeds of Redwoods and giant Sequoias, gathered to send back to England to Kew Gardens and to gentlemen collectors setting up their grand English landscaped gardens, incomplete without a Pinetum and collection of exotic trees. This aspect of the book was particularly fascinating to me having walked through the Redwood groves north of San Francisco, having been through the Sierra Nevada by train and having been to many of the great British gardens that contain these trees thanks to the endeavours of the tree agents back in the 1800s. It was a part of history that I knew nothing about and is highly recommended holiday reading.