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

The Saddest Reads

Today’s Booking Through Thursday carries on with the ‘recent theme’ and asks us “What’s the saddest book you’ve read recently?” I have had to really wrack my brains about this one as I don’t think I have read any particularly sad books of late. Though I will admit to having read a lot of books that I have been sad to close the final page on and could quite happily read again, but that’s not the sort of sadness we are after.

I don’t tend to hunt a sad book down. Which makes me wonder why do we read sad fiction? I think if I know a book is sad then it looses some of the effect that the author had intended, forewarned is forearmed as they say. It tends to be the books that surprise me by their sadness or shocking events that hit home the hardest.

A few books have disturbed me slightly and a few have made me ask a lot of questions about how people can behave in a negative way but nothing particularly sad. I am always banging on about this book, but the last book that actually made me cry was ‘In Cold Blood’ by Truman Capote. That was because there was one scene that was shocking but written with such directness yet filled with emotion it set me over the edge and I had a good old cry. I don’t think a chapter of a book has moved me that much in a very long time or made me feel so wrought with emotion. The one before that was ‘The Book Thief’ by Marcus Zusack back in the pre-blogging days.

I do have some sad books on the TBR though and thought that I would share those with you. I have them quite high up but because they all share the same theme (war) I think I will be reading them with quite a gap in between. They are…

   

  • Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally – The film made me cry, very recently, like I have never cried at a  film before so this could be quite the reading experience.
  • The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank – I think almost everyone knows the story and the ending of this book, I am yet to read it though which is a surprise as its been on my must read list for quite some time.
  • Sophie’s Choice by William Styron – I have no idea what happens in this one (no plot spoilers please) but have heard that it’s incredibly sad. I also have the movie at home; it was free in one of the Sunday papers once, but even though I love Meryl Streep am holding off until have read the book first.

What are your saddest reads recently? Why do we read sad books? Have you read any of the above and did they move you? Has any book actually reduced you to tears, not because it was so dire or frustrating, because it was so moving or emotional?

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This Evening, When You Read This…

…I shall be stuffing my face, full of popcorn and chocolates with the delightful Novel Insights by my side whilst we both watch this…

After reading the book recently I am actually really looking forward to the film. I also think its the perfect film for the Sensation Season and so how could I not go and see it on the big screen? I will of course be letting yuo know what I thought over the next day or three…

Has anyone else seen it (I have actually set this post to go when am sat in my seat phone off in case anyone says it was rubbish – I like you all to be honest) at the cinema yet? Is it on peoples ‘must see’ or ‘must avoid’ list of films?  Can films ever manage to be as good as the book was in your head?

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Corduroy Mansions – Alexander McCall Smith

I was delightfully recently asked to take part in the ‘online blogger book group’ for the new Alexander McCall Series (and sequel to Corduroy Mansions) in The Telegraph. Now you all know me well enough by now that I cant read a series of books a few along. I have to start with the first one. This is being delivered in the post by the lovely people who asked me to join but I needed to be up to date before Monday and so I couldn’t wait. What emerged was a slightly crazy charity shop dash (which involved buying some books that weren’t Corduroy Mansions) through South West London, people doubted I could get such a new book at a bargain price but I did! The only problem was that in said shop this was t he window display, I think its best I don’t mention what else I walked out with…

Not a good sign

So was all the chaos worth it? Would the book be any good, if not would I be able to cope with following the new series ‘The Dog Who Came in From the Cold’? Also bare in mind that I had already tried McCall’s ‘Scotland Street’ series and wasn’t too sure about it even though I loved the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series and still do, which category would this one fall into?

Corduroy Mansions is the tale of the inhabitants of…well Corduroy Mansions, and those they interact with outside of the building they reside. William lives at the top of the building with his son Eddie, though he wants Eddie out going as far as getting a vegetarian cat loving dog (the wonderful Freddie de la Hay) and then moving in the besotted Marcia as a flatmate, perfect situation for some wonderful comedy. One the floor below lives a group of flat sharing girls. Jo an Aussie fresh to the UK but loving it and possibly one of her housemates, Dee who works in vitamins and pharmaceuticals and wants to give her assistant a colonic, Caroline an Art Student who once featured in Rural Life Magazine and is now sort of infatuated with James who is worried he might be straight and the bookish Jenny who works for the odious Oedipus Snark (brilliant name) the nastiest Liberal Democrat MP you could ever wish to meet.

Not only do we get to follow these colourful characters lives we also get to meet and in some cases follow the people that they have in their lives such as Oedipus through whom we also get to follow his mother Berthea, who is writing her sons biography, and her wonderful ‘spiritual’ brother Terence Moongrove. There is also Oedipus’s long suffering girlfriend Barbara Ragg who runs a publishing company and is about to have quite a change in life. These characters are also wonderful and make you want to read more; it’s almost like wonderful character overload.

Now if you are wondering why I haven’t mentioned plot… well there isn’t a huge plot to it. It’s much more subtle than that. There are small storylines for all the characters as McCall Smith himself puts it “these stories are character-based: what interests me is what makes the characters tick rather than intricate and potentially confusing plots” and with this many characters it could get confusing but it never does. I really, really enjoyed this book and would recommend it for anyone who loved Armistead Maupin’s ‘Tales of the City’ series though it’s somewhat gentler, though there is more adult humour in this one than in 44 Scotland Street as I recall it. I would also recommend it for anyone who likes a good old nosey peep into normal characters lives, their little quirks and how they all interact. Delightful reading!

Has anyone else read this? Is anyone a fan of McCall Smith? If not could you be converted by this book? Can anyone recommend why I should try and read more of the Scotland Street series, should I start again? Are you following the new series? Does serialization work for you?

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Filed under Alexander McCall Smith, Review

What Makes A Modern Sensation?

When I first set out to originally have a ‘Sensation September’ one of the reasons it swiftly became a ‘Sensation Season’ instead was that there were not only too many sensation novels from the original era that I wanted to read, but also too many what I would deem ‘modern sensation’ novels too. But what on earth makes a modern sensation novel, I hear you cry. 

Well as I am not Wikipedia I can’t give you the official definition of a modern sensation novel because there isn’t one… as yet! However I can happily make one up instead, maybe the Savidge Reads guide for modern sensation fiction could catch on? So here are what I deem the rules for modern sensation fiction… 

  • It must be set in the Victorian era or if modern be set in a spooky old house (preferable a manor or bigger and also maybe with a spooky old wood near by).
  • There must be much secrets and intrigue.
  • There must be plenty of plot twists and quite a few red herrings.
  • There need to be a lot of coincidences.
  • It needs to contain adultery, theft, bigamy, kidnapping, insanity, forgery, abduction or murder. Or even better all of these ingredients.
  • It can have a ghost or two in it… at a push!

Now taking all this into account I think that you could actually have quite a lot of ‘modern sensation’ novels. Half of the current (and past classics, such as Agatha Christie) crime fiction could be linked back to sensation fiction with just the murder part! I think the modern sensations need to have all of the above and a little ‘sensation magic’ which isn’t easy to describe, so instead here are the first five books I could think of that have all of these elements but were written recently. I have read one, am going to re-read another and read the other three for the first time over the next few weeks…

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters – ‘We were all more or less thieves at Lant Street. But we were that kind of thief that rather eased the dodgy deed along, than did it. We could pass anything, anything at all, at speeds which would astonish you. There was only one thing, in fact, that had come and got stuck – one thing that had somehow withstood the tremendous pull of that passage – one thing that never had a price put to it. I mean of course, Me.’ Sue Trinder, orphaned at birth, is born among petty thieves – fingersmiths – in London’s Borough. From the moment she draws breath, her fate is linked to another orphan, growing up in a gloomy mansion not too many miles away.

The Observations by Jane Harris – So there I was with two pens, my two titties, Charles Dickens, two slice of bread and a blank book at the end of my first day in the middle of nowhere. Except as it turned out it wasn’t quite the end …Scotland, 1863. In an attempt to escape her not-so-innocent past in Glasgow, Bessy Buckley – the wide-eyed Irish heroine of “The Observations” – takes a job as a maid in a big house outside Edinburgh working for the beautiful Arabella. Bessy is intrigued by her new employer, but puzzled by her increasingly strange requests and her insistence that Bessy keep a journal of her most intimate thoughts. And it seems that Arabella has a few secrets of her own – including her near-obsessive affection for Nora, a former maid who died in mysterious circumstances. Then, a childish prank has drastic consequences, which throw into jeopardy all that Bessy has come to hold dear. Caught up in a tangle of madness, ghosts, sex and lies, she remains devoted to Arabella. But who is really responsible for what happened to her predecessor Nora? As her past threatens to catch up with her and complicate matters even further, Bessy begins to realise that she has not quite landed on her feet.

The Séance by John Harwood – ‘Sell the Hall unseen; burn it to the ground and plough the earth with salt, if you will; but never live there…’ London, the 1880s. A young girl grows up in a household marked by death, her father distant, her mother in perpetual mourning for the child she lost. Desperate to coax her mother back to health, Constance Langton takes her to a seance. Perhaps they will find comfort from beyond the grave. But that seance has tragic consequences.Constance is left alone, her only legacy a mysterious bequest will blight her life. So begins “The Seance”, John Harwood’s brilliant second novel, a gripping, dark mystery set in late Victorian England. It is a world of apparitions, of disappearances and unnatural phenomena, of betrayal and blackmail and black-hearted villains – and murder. For Constance’s bequest comes in two parts: a house, and a mystery. Years before a family disappeared at Wraxford Hall, a terrifying stately home near the Suffolk coast. Now Constance must find the truth behind the mystery, even at the cost of her life. Because without the truth, she is lost.

The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams – From her lookout on the first floor, Ginny watches and waits for her adored younger sister to return to the crumbling mansion that was once their idyllic childhood home. Vivien has not stepped foot in the house since she left, forty seven years ago; Ginny, the reclusive lepidopterist, has rarely ventured outside it. The remembrance of their youth, of loss, and of old rivalries plays across Ginny’s mind. Why is Vivi coming home? Ginny has been selling off the family furniture over the years, gradually shutting off each wing of the house and retreating into the precise routines and isolation that define her days. Only the attic remains untouched. There, collected over several generations, are walls lined with pinned and preserved Bordered Beauties and Rusty Waves, Feathered Footmen and Great Brocades, Purple Cloud, Angle Shades, the Gothic and the Stranger …

The Journal of Dora Damage by Belinda Starling – This work is set in Lambeth, London, in the year 1859. By the time Dora Damage discovers that there is something wrong with her husband, Peter, it is too late. His arthritic hands are crippled, putting his book-binding business into huge debt and his family in danger of entering the poorhouse. Summoning her courage, Dora proves that she is more than just a housewife and mother. Taking to the streets, she resolves to rescue her family at any price – and finds herself illegally binding expensive volumes of pornography commissioned by aristocrats. Then, when a mysterious fugitive slave arrives at her door, Dora realizes she’s entangled in a web of sex, money, deceit and the law. Now the very family she fought so hard for is under threat from a host of new, more dangerous foes. Belinda Starling’s debut novel is a startling vision of Victorian London, juxtaposing its filth and poverty with its affluence. In “Dora Damage” we meet a daring young heroine, struggling in a very modern way against the constraints of the day, and whose resourcefulness and bravery have us rooting for her all the way.

What do you think… about all of it?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Sensation Novels

The Woman In Black – Susan Hill

In taking on my own challenge to read as much sensation fiction as possible over the next few months as part of my ‘Sensation Season’ I didn’t just want to stick with the originals for out there in the never ending world of books I knew, having already read a few or bought some that are as yet to be read, that there are many modern day books that have a sensational twist and Susan Hill is one (of my favourite) authors who I would categorize as ‘modern sensation’ with her ghost stories. So I thought it was the perfect time to re-read the book…

‘The Woman in Black’ is one of my favourite books and I think would definitely classify as my very favourite ghost story. Starting on a Christmas Eve (best time for ghostly tales, that or a professor or doctors office) the children in Arthur Kipps house are all telling ghostly tales. It is however Arthur whom first hand has witnessed the events and the effects of a most terrible ghastly tale himself. As he can’t bear to tell anyone the tale for fear of the consequences he writes it down, for you dear reader to see.

Arthur Kipps is a solicitor and one day in London he receives instructions that he must sort the estate of recently departed Alice Drablow in Crythin Gifford. He takes the many hours journey to the town where at first people are friendly, however as soon as they learn of his business and hear the name ‘Alice Drablow’ people eye him suspiciously or avoid him. It isn’t until he crosses to the isolated and marsh/bog bound Eel Marsh House that he begins to learn things are much darker than he could ever imagine and also starts to witness the work of The Woman in Black.

I can’t really say more than that on the plot because I wouldn’t want to give anything away but for a relatively short book it packs a lot of chills and quite a punch or two with the twists towards the end. The whole book is covered in suspense and how Susan Hill creates such an atmosphere needs to be read to be believed. The writing is sparse and yet incredibly descriptive and shows, as all her books do, why Susan Hill is a master at her game. My only criticism would be that I could have read more, but then really would that just be over egging the scary pudding?

If you haven’t read this then do give it a go. Perfect for a night in, by the fire (if you have one – if not just curled up on the couch) where you can get lost and spooked whilst deeply ensconced in a great book. This, for me at least, holds all the glorious details of a modern sensation novel, more on those in detail tomorrow though.

Now for those of you who have read this far and fancy reading the book for yourself I have a copy that I am going to give away. I would have loved to have given away tickets for the show which is excellent but some of you live far afield and so wouldn’t be fair!! All you have to do, by Friday, is leave me a tale of something spooky that has truly happened to you (I don’t know how I will know if its true or not, but I just will) then The Converted One will pick a random name out of a hat on Saturday! Good luck!

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Filed under Give Away, Review, Susan Hill, Vintage Books

What Our Furniture Says About Us

Just a very quick reminder that the new sequel to ‘Corduroy Mansions’ Alexander McCall Smith series starts today. You can read the first chapter of the book right here.

I won’t be reading it today,even though I was lucky enough to get this weeks advance chapters, but will be properly from tomorrow (I have to be honest about these things).

I have very fortunately managed to get my mitts on a copy of the first series which I am devouring and will easily finish on the tube back home tonight, I know we are getting sent one but by now you guys know me and I have to read things in the right order. It also means will be able to give one copy away in the not too distant future.  Plus . Anyway a small reminder today for you.

There will be another “non McCall Smith related” post later today that includes a give away so do make sure you pop back then!!!

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The Law & The Lady – Wilkie Collins

And so it is already to the second of The Sensation Season novels and Wilkie Collins ‘The Law & The Lady’. Now before I do go on to discuss my ‘book I do feel a little bit of a con-man as I still have about twenty (gripping, I am sure) pages to go. I am shortly about to get a bus to Wimbledon so will no doubt finish it on there so technically I am almost done. I just wanted to say as I don’t feel quite right writing about a book I haven’t quite finish, it does feel like cheating. But if I don’t pop a post up now won’t be able to for hours. Anyway, sorry to digress, back to the book…

‘The Law & The Lady’ was Wilkie Collins 27th novel (that’s right 27th – good to know I have so many left to go) and actually came out in the middle of his sensation period, though really all of his books were sensation novels. Here we meet our narrator Valerie Brinton just as she becomes Valerie Woodville on the fateful day of her marriage. In his own way that only Wilkie Collins does he manages to set the scene in your head within the first page.

The church was in one of the dreary quarters of London, situated between the City and the West End; the day was dull; the atmosphere was heavy and damp. We were a melancholy little wedding-party, worthy of the dreary neighbourhood and the dull day. No relatives of friends of my husband’s were present; his family, as I have already hinted, disapproved of his marriage.

In a few sentences within the opening page of the book we are not only firmly in dark Victorian sensation London; we also have a hint that something isn’t quite right. Why would the family of Eustace Woodville not agree with his marriage? I found it interesting that like in his novel The Haunted Hotel we have a character whose marriage is completely disapproved of as one of the main characters and one of the big themes in the book.

The hints keep coming as Valerie looks back at their courtship, you never doubt for a minute that they are completely besotted with each other. However, friends won’t give him more than minimum references of his conduct to Valerie’s uncle (both her parents are dead) and he even at one points offers to leave her though why she is never quite sure.

I love Collins style, every chapter moves the story forward, builds your intrigue, gets slightly darker and you know you are being woven into something incredibly clever with some big twists on the horizon and a reason to read the next chapter as soon as you finished the last. I also love the use of coincidence.

A prime example of both of these is early on (I am trying not to spoil the plot though for some reason publishers give a lot away in Collins blurbs sadly) when Valerie is going through her husbands things the day after their wedding night in Ramsgate and comes across a picture of his mother. That day on the beach a woman drops a letter on the beach and who should it be? It is of course his mother who then goes on to not recognise her daughter in laws surname and when meets Eustace and finds out of his new wife the chapter ends with her walking away turning and saying ‘I pity your wife’. How can you not read on that instance?

What I wasn’t expecting is partly the change that overcomes our narrator, though to say more would spoil things, and then also the amount of Victorian law we get to see. This should have been obvious in the title ‘The Law & The Lady’ but in my mind I had a story of a female highwayman embedded in my head, not a court case of which there is one. Do not let that put you off as though yes there is some legal schpeel in this part there is of course, as ever with Wilkie Collins, some shocks and high drama. A brilliant book that managed to add sensation to law, plenty of trademark twists and has a narrator who “upturns the conventions of polite nineteenth century society” what more could you want than that?

Can you tell that I loved this, yet another brilliant sensation novel from Wilkie Collins? Next week’s sensation novel, which I think I will have to start fairly imminently, is Armadale. One of the Wilkie Collins books that I have been most looking forward to reading for a long time and for some reason (possibly to deny myself having read it and it being done, does anyone else do that?) have held off reading. Hopefully some of you will be joining in on that as its meant to be a real corker!

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Filed under Penguin Classics, Review, Sensation Novels, Wilkie Collins