Monthly Archives: September 2009

Henrietta’s War – Joyce Dennys

Do you ever have the inkling that a book might just be so completely and utterly ‘you’ that you actually put off reading it for quite some time as you are scared of being right? Now I know that sounds a little bit crazy but once you have read that book there are two outcomes. You may either hate it and end up being deflated and forlorn possibly never wanting to open a book again… ever! Or there is the possibility you will love the book so much you wish that you could un-read it and have the pleasure of that first read all over again? Joyce Dennys ‘Henrietta’s War’ is definitely the latter for me, utterly delightful. I think that any book that has the line “Dear Robert, I have a great urge to knit something for you” with in the first chapter (or letter in this case) is going to be a hit with me

Henrietta’s War actually started out as columns in Sketch. Dennys was an artist who has many successful collections though once married and a mother in the late 1920’s her life became a domestic one in the English countryside and so needed something to take her frustrations out on. Out came Henrietta’s wartime letters to her ‘childhood friend’ Robert who is ‘out on the front’ and eventually became published as a collection and a novel in the form of this wonderful book.

Henrietta is a ‘doctors wife’ (which all the local women think is very important in a slightly unconvinced way) to Charles and mother to Bill and Linnet living in Devon. As we meet her World War II is raging though where she lives the only real way that war is effecting them is the rations and ‘people are talking cockney up and down the high street’. Having home help she spends most of her time trying to join in the War Effort, joining local clubs, doing good, gossiping with her friends (wonderful characters like the bossy Lady B and Mrs Savernake and the flirty Faith who ‘The Conductor’ is in love with) sunbathing on her roof, writing letters to Robert and getting a lot of bed rest.

To have visitors during a Day in Bed is a grave error. It means getting out to do your hair, make up your face, and have your bed made. A little talk on the telephone with a sympathetic friend who is really interested in your symptoms is the only social intercourse that should be allowed. A good deal of pleasure can be derived from asking for your fountain-pen and notepaper, and then not write any letters…

For some people the war wasn’t all bombs and terror, for some in the middle of nowhere it must have felt somewhat removed in many ways and Dennys addresses this. She also looks at how these people lived, admittedly in a comical tongue in cheek way, when the greatest crisis they had was not having enough sugar to make marmalade for the villages ‘Marmalade Week’. We see how the villagers coped and in some ways continued as normal, or as normally as they could, having jumble sales to raise money, joining drama clubs and even at one point getting arrested as Henrietta does.

Most war novels focus on the awful things that happened during that time, what Dennys does with these fictional letters is try and see the light in these dark times and to look for a way to entertain people during the difficulties with laughter.

But now such is Hitler’s power, this evil influence has begun to effect even the residents, and it keeps breaking out in the most unlikely quarters. Miss Piper, the girl in the greengrocers, has gone into jodhpurs; Faith, our friend, looks quite superb in a pair of pin stripped flannels; Mrs Savernack, though I can hardly expect you to believe this, saw fit to appear in a pair of khaki shorts (we all consider her excuse she is digging her way to victory a poor one); and I tell you frankly, Robert, only my love for Charles has kept me out of a pair of green corduroy dungarees.

I haven’t smirked, giggled and laughed out loud at a book so much in quite sometime. A perfect and delightful book and if that wasn’t enough there is more… the lovely illustrations that Dennys also put into the letters.  

Images & Words of Dennys

If you love books by Nancy Mitford, or that show WWII from a different view point, or have you laughing out loud on public transport, or like books set in villages that house wonderful quirky characters (or all of these) then this is most definitely a book for you. I was also in many ways reminded of Good Evening, Mrs Craven by Mollie Panter Downes which I loved earlier in the year. I am so pleased that this gem has been brought back by Bloomsbury and into the mainstream for people to enjoy. I can think of three people instantly I will be buying copies for. I am only hoping, with everything crossed, that Bloomsbury decides to release ‘Henrietta Sees It Through’ which would just be wonderful.

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Filed under Bloomsbury Group, Bloomsbury Publishing, Books of 2009, Joyce Dennys, Review

This Just Goes To Show…

You know what I was saying earlier about too many books? Well not long after that post had ‘gone live’ in fact once I was at work and being very busy and important and in fact had been being very busy and very important for some time I went off to make a cup of tea for myself and the team I am in (see there can be an I in team). At the kitchenette on our floor what does someone go and tell me about as I am “reading sensation novels aren’t you?” These little perfect gems of Victorian life, I could weep…

 

The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed – The best-selling social history of Victorian domestic life, told through the letters, diaries, journals and novels of 19th century men and women. The Victorian age is both recent and unimaginably distant. In the most prosperous and technologically advanced nation in the world, people carried slops up and down stairs; buried meat in fresh earth to prevent mould forming; wrung sheets out in boiling water with their bare hands. This drudgery was routinely performed by the parents of people still living, but the knowledge of it has passed as if it had never been. Running water, stoves, flush lavatories — even lavatory paper — arrived slowly throughout the century, and most were luxuries available only to the prosperous. The book itself is laid out like a house, following the story of daily life from room to room: from childbirth in the master bedroom, through the scullery, kitchen and dining room — cleaning, dining, entertaining — on upwards, ending in the sickroom and death. Through a collage of diaries, letters, advice books, magazines and paintings, Flanders shows how social history is built up out of tiny domestic details. Through these we can understand the desires, motivations and thoughts of the age. Many people today live in Victorian terraces, and so the houses themselves are familiar, but the lives are not. The Victorian House will change all that.

Consuming Passions: Leisure & Pleasure in Victorian Britain – Imagine a world where only one in five people owns a book, where just one in ten has a knife or a fork – a world where five people out of every six do not own a cup to hold a hot drink. That was what England was like in the early eighteenth century. Yet by the close of the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution had brought with it not just factories, railways, mines and machines but also brought fashion, travel, leisure and pleasure. Leisure became an industry, a cornucopia of excitement for the masses. And it was spread by newspapers, by advertising, by promotions and publicity – all eighteenth, not twentieth century creations. It was Josiah Wedgwood and his colleagues who invented money-back guarantees, free delivery, and celebrity endorsements. nNew technology such as the railways brought audiences to ever-more-elaborate extravaganzas, whether it was theatrical spectaculars with breathtaking pyrotechnics and hundreds of extras, ‘hippodramas’ recreating the battle of Waterloo, or the Great Exhibition itself, proudly displaying ‘the products of all quarters of the globe’ under twenty-two acres of a sparkling ‘Crystal Palace’. In “Consuming Passions”, the bestselling author of “The Victorian House” explores this dramatic revolution in science, technology and industry – and how a world of thrilling sensation, lavish spectacle and unimaginable theatricality was born.

I need them now, I want them, I must have them… anyways I think that’s enough for now. Sorry! You must have been in this situation haven’t you, it’s not just me? What books did you ‘simply have to have’ after you had not long said ‘oh I think I might own too many books’? And if you are very like me… how often does this happen? Has anyone read any Judith Flanders?

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Book Guilt… A Short Solution

With the never ending influx of books (which I love) arriving in the post from you lovely people, from publishers or through my own excessive book shopping spree’s every now and again I need a good book sort. The next Great Book Sort will be happening over the next few evening and will combine this with a ‘Sensation Search’ where I go a-hunting for some modern sensations that I am well aware I own… I am just not sure quite where. You see there are negatives to having so many books** (I just tend to blank them mentally) well a few.

For example I know I own ‘Meaning of the Night’ and ‘Silent in the Grave’ which some of you kindly recommended, they are just in one of six boxes brimming with books, actually they could be on one of the eight TBR shelves, or even just on the various TBR piles around the house (which I frankly dare not even take a picture of). The Converted One commented the other day that “other book bloggers have a TBR pile… so why do you have about twelve and boxes full?’ Hmmm… no comment.

The other issue I get is…  guilt. Partly to people who have bought me books/sent me books and when I say that beam ‘have you read **** by **** **** yet?’ to which I reply with a guilty gulp ‘erm… no… but I will… soon’. I love the fact my friends, readers and all the publishers will see a book and think ‘oh I know who would like that’ I just always feel bad if I don’t read it then and there. Does anyone else get this? Or am I just being a bit over dramatic?

Worst of all however, is the guilt I feel for all the books that sit on my shelves, on any free surface to hand or get popped in a box. These books that I know are waiting with the promise of some sort of adventure that only the two of us can share, this could be a good, bad or indifferent adventure but it’s an adventure all the same. So I thought right how can I get through more of them and still keep on with the tomes of the Sensation Season, and I had an idea involving all of these…

A few short novels...

  • Henrietta’s War – Joyce Dennys (already read – hilarious more tomorrow)
  • Love – Toni Morrison
  • The Girls of Slender Means – Muriel Spark
  • Fire in the Blood – Irene Nemirovsky
  • Cover Her Face – P.D. James (I am in need of some crime)
  • King Kong Theory – Virginie Despentes
  • The Tin Can Tree – Anne Tyler
  • The Daydreamer – Ian McEwan
  • Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson
  • The Bronte’s Went To Woolworths – Rachel Ferguson (very late reading this)
  • Tuck Everlasting – Natalie Babbitt
  • A Pale View of the Hills – Kazuo Ishiguro (have had mixed past experiences with Ishiguro)
  • The Swallows of Kabul – Yasmina Khadra
  • Shuck – Daniel Allen Cox
  • True Murder – Yaba Badoe (looks thicker than it is big writing)

What do they all have in common apart from the fact I have been meaning to read them all for ages (apart from Love by Toni Morrison which Claire at Kiss A Cloud is to blame for my purchase of)? They are all short! I thought a short book each week plus one other random and a Sensation Novel is exactly what my reading week can handle. How do you think I will fair? Does anyone else ever get sudden book guilt at the pile they have accrued?

**Note – This post is not a whinge and the more books the merrier are welcomed at Savidge Reads Towers, just so you know!

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Armadale – Wilkie Collins

Oops… I know, I know this is a day later than it should have been. As I mentioned yesterday I have no excuses for not finishing this book in time for one on my ‘Sensation Season Sunday’s’ apart from the fact that Armadale is very long, actually Wilkie Collins longest novel of all, and it just took me much longer than anticipated to devour frankly. Here though, one day late, I can finally give you my thoughts on Armadale for what they are worth ha. It’s going to be interesting because this book is incredibly complex and goes through generations, don’t let that put you off though. 

I have always wanted to read Wilkie Collins ‘Armadale’ partly because I think he is a genius and I love the sensational fiction he writes. I also wanted to read this because I had heard so much about the villainess (am not giving anything away its on the blurb of the book) Lydia Gwilt “flame-haired temptress, bigamist, laudanum addict and husband poisoner” in fact so malicious and evil that publishers were incredibly shocked and refused to believe that women could behave in such a manner and the book was almost never published, I think people also tried to ban it. So imagine my surprise when 150 pages in she still had yet to even show up. Hang on I have gotten ahead of myself…

The book opens as a dying man arrives in the German town of Wildbad (Collins as ever is a genius with names in this book) where the water is said to restore ones health, sadly for Allan Armadale it is too late, as he dies he has one wish and that is for someone to write his young son a letter. As the only English writing person on site Mr Neal becomes embroiled in the telling of a shocking murderous tale. All this and we are only in chapter one of ‘book the first’. What does become apparent is the misuse of identity which has led to two young Allan Armadale’s and the end of the letter states…

And, more than all avoid the man who bears the same name as your own. Offend your best benefactor, if that benefactor’s influence has connected you one with the other. Desert the woman who loves you, if that woman is a link between you and him. Hide yourself from him, under an assumed name. Put the mountains and the seas between you; be ungrateful; be unforgiving; be all that is most repellent to your own gentler nature, rather than live under the same roof, and breathe the same air with that man. Never let the two Allan Armadale’s meet in this world; never, never, never!

Of course through endless Collins-like coincidences, which if you have read him you will know and love, the two do meet. What happens I cannot tell you, see this could be very rubbish ‘review’; I just so do not want to give any of the magic away. I did find this part of the book the hardest going, once Lydia appears everything sort of speeds up, but with a novel like this you need the background information and eventually the prose and characters won me round. I also think that actually without the very cleverly weaved plot and history between the two Allan’s meeting the book wouldn’t end up having the same effect, and so its much needed and I am glad I bared with it all. A small qualm to be honest, and actually you get delayed gratification once Lydia does suddenly appear.

It is however after the two have met that Lydia appears and becomes in some way a catalyst to chaos and devious doings. Initially she appears through letters with another despicable woman, which make for some very, very wicked and very, very amusing (if you have a dark sense of humour) reading. Is she as wicked as the blurb promises? Absolutely! She is also incredibly complex and a truly fascinating character full of hidden depths, darkness and desires. I found her utterly enthralling. In fact I am amazed this hasn’t been turned into a film as I would imagine many actors would give their right arms to play her. I naturally loved her despite everything and revelled in the melodrama and the cunning. A must read, possibly my favourite Wilkie Collins read yet (and I have read The Woman in White which is marvellous) and also possibly the most sensational.

Though this s of course fabulous it leaves me in a slight quandary… no not quandary, it leaves me with a slight worry. What if all the other Wilkie Collins novels don’t match up? What if I have so early on read the most sensational of sensation novels? I am trying to calm the palpitations am sure its all going to be fine. Please tell me its going to be fine, ha!

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Filed under Books of 2009, Penguin Classics, Review, Sensation Novels, Wilkie Collins

Armadale Admition…

Well I have always said that I will be 100% honest with this blog and so I need to fess up. I havent come close to finishing Armadale… well am only 240 pages off, but I simply can’t give you my book thoughts with that much left to go, it’s just not the way that I like to do the blog.

Now I do feel that I am allowed to be a bit behind as it is the longest Wilkie Collins of the lot and I think I can also say that it’s actually, for me at least, been the hardest one to get into. I am now gripped so I know that I will have finished it after today (have lots of tube rides ahead to various Victorian Cemeteries and Jack The Ripper walks – or the cinema for Dorian Gray again if it rains) and so should have something delightful later this evening when have finished it and can compile all my thoughts and cannot wait to hear all yours? I also blame Catharine Arnold and her wonderful book ‘Necropolis‘ which I forgot I had and found on a ‘sensation search’ (more on that Monday or Tuesday) this weekend and now can’t put down, it was only meant to be along-side reading!!! It’s just brilliant and perfect timing for the weekends events and all things sensational really.

So for now I thought would ask you all a non book question. I am celebrating my 10th anniversary with London (it’s now been a decade since I moved here aged 17 this very week) and am having some dates with London of places in ten years I really should have been and am appalled I have neglected. Funnily enough they all have a late 1800’s vibe/link to them, can’t think why? So what are you all up to this weekend, or what have you been doing that doesnt involve reading at all? It’s like a getting to know you exercise, do let me know.

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Dorian Gray – The Movie

I mentioned the other day that myself and the delightful Novel Insights were off to see the movie Dorian Gray which I was quite shocked so few of you had heard was out, maybe just for once they have released a movie in Britain before anywhere else? Why is it we always get the movies last over here? So off we pootled to the cinema with brimming bags of popcorn and sweets (or in Novel Insights case cheese twists) and prepared ourselves to be whisked away in Victorian times through the medium of cinema. I thought this would be additional visual back ground for The Sensation Season.

I have to admit, before I go any further, that though we were both excited to be going to the cinema together and to see the movie; we had also heard that it had received some quite harsh reviews from certain ‘literary quarters’ and yet also been raved about by some of the movie magazines, I don’t read them it just says so on the posters ‘a terrific gothic romp’ etc. So we were both excited but slightly dubious all in one. We decided to just sit back and let the movie take over.

The first thing that I will say is that though this film ‘is inspired by’ The Picture of Dorian Gray and isn’t actually an exact retelling which is why when Dorian arrives in London having inherited a huge mansion and looking very innocent and knowing no one I was a bit confused. “That’s not how it started in the book” I almost grumped, but these are film adaptations and you have to simply not compare them to the book however hard it is.

Though I liked the book, I utterly loved the movie. Maybe it was my current obsession with all things sensational and the era of 1870 – 1900? Maybe it’s the fact I have immersed myself in all things Victorian and this embodied it all. It’s a very dark film, the way I would actually describe it (sorry of this sounds poncey) is like a rich decadent yet dark velvety thriller. But enough of that lets get back to the movie and the story… 

After the success of the showing of his newly found friend Basil’s portrait of him Dorian becomes the talk and desire of London.  One minute you are thrown into the glitz and glamour of society as Dorian (a brilliant Ben Barnes) makes his way first innocently and then falls into the path of Lord Henry and everything gets seedier and much, much darker. From then on its all about ‘youth and beauty’, getting what you want in life and a dark pact made with the devil inspired by Lord Henry that takes the tale into the darkest parts of Victorian east end (which of course I loved) and the darkest parts of the mind. I don’t want to give too much away in case you haven’t read the book or seen the film. If you have read the book I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the movies ending.  

I thought the acting by Ben Barnes was superb, after seeing him as Prince Caspian I have to admit that I was quite dubious he could pull it off. As innocent Dorian on arrival in London I thought ‘no this won’t work’ but as the darkness of the character crept in I was so impressed with the way he played it, some could say he was near on a perfect Dorian in fact. For me though, no offense Ben, but Colin Firths portrayal of Lord Henry Wotton was utterly superb and any scene in which he was simply got stolen from who he was playing against. He had the leer, the gluttony, the rapacious appeal and the beguiling nature of Henry down to a fine art and you cannot stop yourself watching him.

Sadly the girls let the film down a bit for me. I wouldn’t go as far as to say wooden, that would be slightly unfair, maybe the way the plot was devised they just weren’t given enough time but the whole Sybil Vane affair was done too quickly and neither leading lady had enough time to grow on you or show you why Dorian, who could have anyone, would want them.

The costumes were wonderful (I need a cape for winter and a long sweeping velvet coat, I currently have the shaped beard and some new boots so am almost dressing Victorian already ha) and had slight modern twists of the Victorian era in terms of making the film real but unreal which I liked, it in some ways felt slightly Tim Burton-esque. The sets were wonderful Victorian London at its finest, most lavish and darkest. Highgate Cemetery (the star of Audrey Niffenegger’s new book) made a guest appearance which has only made me more desperate to visit. The film was also surprisingly scary!

All in all a wonderful way to spend a few hours of your evening deeply embroiled in the Victorian underworld with a few spooky happenings along the way. I utterly loved it. If you want to see more you can go to the website here, see if that wets your appetites any further. I do think I might get Dorian’d out though as The Converted One after not wanting to see it now is desperate to (and I will happily see it twice) and also soon I am off to see this in a few weeks too!

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Books To Film

Her Fearful Symmetry – Audrey Niffenegger

I don’t normally review books before they come out officially as though I like to get people excited about a book I always think if you do it too far in advance people will forget or you may just alienate your audience. However if your audience is like I believe my readers might just be then you will be chomping at the bit for the next Audrey Niffenegger book and me reviewing it now won’t matter. In fact I imagine if you had received this book a few weeks ago you may find it very difficult to hold back from reading it, I know I have and it is perfect for my Sensation Season and so I have to give in.

It would be very hard when starting this book not to compare it to Niffenegger’s cult classic ‘The Time Travellers Wife’ which is one of my very favourite books. However sometimes over hyping a book before you have even turned the first page can lead to its downfall and so I tried with my maximum effort when reading ‘Her Fearful Symmetry’ not to think of the other book, even if the sticker on the cover reminded me whenever I picked it up.

Her Fearful Symmetry is primarily a tale of twins. We have Edie and Elspeth and we have Julia and Valentina who are Edie’s daughters. From the opening of the book we witness the last days of Elspeth’s life as she succumbs to her terminal illness. Meanwhile across the pond in America the sister she has not spoke to for many years knows nothing of her death until her daughters receive a letter in which the aunt that they have never met leaves them all her money and a flat in Highgate. There is one condition, the girls must live there for a year under the promise that Edie and her husband Jack are never to enter the flat.

Despite their mothers reservations the promise of intrigue (and freedom) draws the girls straight over the day after their twenty first birthday. Once arriving in a foreign country and the foreign place that is Highgate they fall into the lives of Robert the aunts ex-toy boy lover and Martin, possibly my favourite human character, a recluse who cannot leave the house for fear of germs yet whose wife has just left him, The Little Kitten of Death and the biggest character of all Highgate Cemetery which is just over the wall in the back garden. Oh and did I mention that Elspeth may be dead but she definitely hasn’t left her flat but why? With the mystery as to why Elspeth and Edie never saw each other for years and just what she didn’t want the twins to find out slowly uncurling with Highgate Cemetery in the back ground this becomes a supernatural tale with more than one twist and an ending that I never saw coming and couldn’t have predicted.

I really enjoyed it the book, as well as being dark and gothic it looks at humans and how we react to growing up, loss, death and control. The girls becoming independent creates quite a rift between the two of them that wasn’t there before. Robert has to deal with the loss of his lover while he finds a new one and becomes ever so slightly addicted to the cemetery and late night wanderings. Martin has to work out if he loves the wife who has abandoned him enough to let go of his phobias and control issues and actually leave the house. It’s all here along with a ghost story, that in part three was just so gloriously sensationalist and creepy and very twisty (am I making sense still?) that I couldn’t put it down.

If I had any slight reservations, and they would be tiny, some of it was a little contrived such as the girls finding out they had inherited money just before their 21st and leaving the moment they literally turned 21. But then who am I to comment isn’t that the basis of all the great sensation novels and I love those! I also found the last 100 pages were a sudden rush of secrets revealed a few complex twists and suddenly it was over, I could have happily read that in another 50 pages more with great pleasure. All in all a wonderful romp that is so far away from its predecessor you couldn’t compare the two at all apart from the fact they are both brilliant.

Ok so I still love The Time Traveller’s Wife the most but this book could see itself creeping (in a creepy way) into my top books of all time. I just need to give it some more time to linger in my mind and also to catch my breath from the ending. If you want to see another review of the book pop to Rachel’s blog here at Book Snob, she was even more impressed than me. I will tell you something for nothing though, I (and possibly The Converted One… if I can drag them, and its nice enough weather) definitely have a date with Highgate Cemetery this weekend. I imagine with the current autumnal air it’s got a very special and ‘sensational’ feeling about it…

Are you excited about this book? Will you be comparing it to The Time Traveller’s Wife? Do you think its all hype? Do you ever worry after a corking book by an author that the next one will be a flop, or do you over hype authors and books and end up disappointed?

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Filed under Audrey Niffenegger, Books of 2009, Jonathan Cape Publishers, Random House Publishing, Review