Category Archives: Hesperus Press

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – L. Frank Baum

It always baffles people that I have never read ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’, well until now. It was without question my favourite film as a child, as my Gran (who is called Dorothy funnily enough) will vouch for as we would sit and watch it together endless amounts of times from me being three onwards, in fact when I next go I should dig it out for old times. In fact, excuse the small aside, when we were watching ‘The Girl Who Played With Fire’ Gran said ‘ooh we have come a long way from The Wizard of Oz haven’t we?’ during a particularly raunchy (verging on uncomfortably so) scene. I think because I felt I knew the story so well I didn’t see the need but as the new film is out, and I am beyond excited that I am going tonight, and Hesperus sent me their stunning new editions of the books I thought the time was right to go down the yellow brick road again.

**** Hesperus Press, paperback, 1900 (2013 edition), fiction, 142 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I imagined that I would have no need to tell you the premise of ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ because we all think we know it don’t we? Yet actually I was really surprised by just how different the story is from the story I know because of the film.

Yes, Dorothy is a young girl living in Kansas with her Aunty Em and Uncle Henry with her dog Toto. Ok, she does happen to get stuck in the house during the arrival of an unexpected cyclone and wake up in the mysterious Land of Oz, but there is so much more to the book than that. Though the ending we all know so well is pretty much the same except without the ‘what a world, what a world’ which we all know and love. Did I mention I was obsessed with the Wicked Witch of the West?

I was most surprised with how much darker the book is than the film. For example whilst the Scarecrow is really just a lovely, erm, scarecrow the Tinman and the Lion are altogether darker (though the Lion isn’t as dark as Patrick Ness has a character in his new novel ‘The Crane Wife’ make him out to be, more on how much that made me laugh, wickedly, soon) characters. The tale of how the Tinman became so was much more gruesome than I would have ever expected, like an original non-Ladybird/Disneyfied Grimm Fairy Tale, and when the Lion almost ate Toto I was practically on the edge of my seat – and that isn’t sarcasm, it’s the truth.

“Once more the tinsmith came to my help and made me a body of tin, fastening my tin arms and legs and head to it, by means of joints, so that I could move around as well as ever. But, alas! I now had no heart, so that I lost all my love for the Munchkin girl, and did not care whether I married her or not. I suppose she is still living with the old woman, waiting for me to come after her.”  

I have to admit I was never really terrified of the film, I just loved it, but I have actually met people who are petrified at the mere mention of a certain green witch, who in turn is just as wicked as you would hope but looks nothing like the Wicked Witch that I have had in my head since my youth, when the obsession – have I mentioned the obsession much – started. She might not have been in the book as much as I imagined she would but when she was she was just as I like her.

“Now the Wicked Witch of the West had but one eye, yet that was as powerful as a telescope, and could see everywhere.”

I also loved the twists on the bits I knew; such as the fact that Glinda doesn’t rescue Dorothy and her friends from the field of poppies, and also the bits that I didn’t such as; a terrifying journey down a river, a great ravine jump, the Winkies, the Golden Cap and the Kalidah’s. It was all really wonderful, no pun intended, to read and get the story I thought I knew and so much more too.

You can probably guess that I absolutely loved reading ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ for the first time, even at the age of thirty. It completely appealed to the younger me who watched the film over and over with his Gran and also the older read who likes a book with hidden darkened depths. If you haven’t read it yet then do, I am now planning on reading all fourteen of the books in order, some in print, and some on the device-of-the-devil by the bedside. Not until after I have seen the new film though, which frankly reading this has made me even more excited about. I mean come on its got the Wicked Witch in it, seriously it’s a condition this obsession (I am going to be unbearable in the cinema, the poor Beard)…

So who else has read ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ and what did you make of it as a child or as an adult? Did you see the film before you read the book? How did you find the differences? Have you read any of the other Oz books and what did you think of them?

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The School of Whoredom – Pietro Aretino

What I think is interesting with the whole phenomenon of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ is the fact that it seems to have opened up the whole debate of reading erotica amongst the masses. What I also find funny is the fact that some people think this is the first time such a book has been written. It seems D. H. Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ and the furore that caused has been long forgotten, not to mention Anais Nin or even Pietro Aretino, a name not many would say they know and yet is the man who it is believed wrote the first erotic novels back in the 1500’s. I have been reading his books for the last few years and like Nin and Lawrence yet unlike E. L. James (from the small amount I read of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ before giving it up and away) story, prose and characters are as important to the books as the erotica is.

Hesperus Press, 1535 (republished 2003), paperback, fiction, 99 pages, kindly sent by publisher

I am rather confused as to whether ‘The School of Whoredom’ is the first or the last in the series of three novella’s (the other two being ‘The Secret Life of Nuns’ and ‘The Secret Life of Wives’) featuring the wonderfully forthright, blunt and no nonsense Nanna. Either way it is a tale of Nanna advising a young woman, this time her daughter Pippa rather than Antonia (who does get a mention), in the art of whoredom and how to be the perfect courtesan.

Initially this may seem like a simple excuse for the author to write something sensational and a little bit vulgar and, if I am being honest, there is something about those qualities that make it so readable. As the book has dated it really isn’t that shocking, though I seem to remember I was a little shocked at ‘The Secret Life of Nuns’, it is more slightly titillating and then more of a fun romp than anything else as Nanna explains all the skills you need as well as all the wiles. However the more I have thought about this novella the more I think that Aretino actually depicts society and people in Italy at the time he wrote it in the 1500’s and that is what makes the book all the more interesting and more than just a bit of historical raunch.

As Nanna advises Pippa on what her clientele will want she also tells Pippa all about them. Initially there are the different ages of men, then the different walks and positions in life these men have and finally how different men from different parts of Italy will also differ and yet have things in common. This, along with her insights and experience in the world of the courtesan, really does give conjure up the atmosphere and life at the time. I found it quite fascinating.

One of the things I have always loved about the series is Nanna. As all three of these books have been told as a two woman dialogue you really feel like you are eavesdropping on a very private conversation. Nanna makes it all the more entertaining with her exaggerations, dramatics and rather saucy sense of humour. She really is one of my favourite characters in literature (and yes I would say these books are deemed literature) and one I am definitely going to miss now I have read all three.

“Nanna: Pippa, though I make people believe you are sixteen, you’re twenty clear and plain; you were born just after the end of Leo’s conclave, and when all Rome was shouting ‘Balls, balls!’ I was screaming ‘Oh God, oh God!’ And it was just as the arms of the Medici were being hung on the door of St Peter’s that I had you.”

Some people may be rather shocked or disappointed that I have chosen to include a review of a book like ‘The School of Whoredom’ on the blog, but to be honest as the whole world is discussing the Fifty Shades series I would like to send you in the direction of some erotica which has deeper characters, finer prose, a sense of irony and some historical context. You get all of those and a good titter too with this series and with each one being under 100 pages you don’t have to get to page 131 for the, erm, action to kick off as it were. Plus I am pleased Fifty Shades has got erotica out there more, I mean why should you be ashammed to read it? Go on; give them a whirl I say!

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Lesley Castle – Jane Austen

Well it has finally happened. Whilst I can’t say I have read a full Jane Austen novel, I have finished a Jane Austen book, as ‘Lesley Castle’ is actually made up of two novella’s and essays, for want of a better word. Many people have been shocked that I have missed some of the ‘literary greats’. Dickens, Hardy, Trollope and Austen, until now of course, are four prime examples. So when I came up with the idea of ‘Taking Little Novel(la) Risks’ a few weeks ago it was ‘Lesley Castle’ by Jane Austen that really sparked it off. It is not, of course, a prerequisite that every lover of books must love the greats, in fact I know Susan Hill has said she doesn’t think much of Austen herself, but guess what… I loved this collection! I think I finally get what I have been missing.

Hesperus Press, paperback, fiction, 111 pages, from library

In ‘Lesley Castle’, a collection by Hesperus Press who have lead me to some great short novels in the past, we have three pieces of Jane Austen’s (I don’t think I can get away with calling her just Jane really) earliest works. There are two stories in the form of ‘Lesley Castle’ and ‘Catherine, or The Bower’ along side ‘The History of England’ which is a parody of a piece of non fiction at the time called ‘The History of England in a Series of Letters From a Noble Man to his Sons’ and is written by ‘a partial, prejudiced and ignorant historian’ which made me smile. Jane Austen it seems had more wit than I gave her credit for.

It is this middle piece of work, or early essays, on the reigns of kings and queens of the UK that I will quickly mention as we are all taught this at school, well if we are in the UK that is as I know lots of readers of this blog are not. Jane Austen was definitely a fan of the Stewarts and so this is a very biased account, again which makes it all the funnier, as she describes Elizabeth I ‘that pest of society’. It’s just an enjoyable read and one illustrated by her sister Cassandra. See that is the effect this book has had on me, I am now talking like I know the whole family, in fact the title story ‘Lesley Castle’ was itself was dedicated to Jane’s favourite brother.

I don’t think ‘Lesley Castle’ could have been a more perfect introduction, for it starts the book, for me to Jane Austen. This novella of letters initially between two friends, Margaret Lesley and Charlotte Lutterell, is incredibly witty and full of gossip and delightful expressions such as when Charlotte compares Margaret’s unfortunate abandoned brother ‘as tender as a whipped syllabub’. Both women are in the throws of drama’s, Charlotte’s sister has lost her fiancé to death, which Charlotte seems to find most unbecomingly dramatic because of all the wedding arrangements Charlotte had made and her sister Eloise most miserable company since. Margaret’s brother has been abandoned by his wife, indeed a divorce is forthcoming, Louise who as Margaret describes her ‘was naturally ill tempered and cunning; nust she had been taught to disguise her real disposition, under the appearance of insinuating sweetness’. There is also the mystery of Margaret’s fathers new wife, who it soon becomes clear is a friend, or foe the two merge often , of Charlottes and as the tale goes on all the characters being gossiped about start writing to the two women. It is a wonderful read and executed brilliantly.

The final of the three works is ‘Catherine, or The Bower’ and this is apparently, for I wouldn’t know as yet, like a test for the novels to come. Catherine is an orphan living with her aunt and with no prospects. In fact she fears she may end up like her best friends Cecilia Wynne, who has been sent to Bengal to marry an old man she had never met and doesn’t like, or Mary Wynne who is now a ‘lady’s companion’ and rather bored and miserable. One day however Mr and Mrs Stanley and their daughter Camilla arrive to stay. Catherine, or Kitty, is thrilled at the prospect of a new best friend, only to find this isn’t going to be quite the case as Camilla it seems is one of those girls who simply likes what she is told is becoming and has no mind of her own. There are several of these what I can only describe as feminist aspects in this collection actually.

“You have read Mrs Smiths novels, I suppose?’ said she to her companion.
 ‘Oh! Yes’ replied the other, ‘and I am quite delighted with them. They are the sweetest things in the world –‘
 ‘And which do you prefer of them?’
 ‘Oh! dear, I think there is no comparison between them – Emmeline is so much better than any of the others –‘
 ‘Many people think so, I know; but there does not appear so great a disproportion in their merits to me. Do you think it is better written?’
 Oh! I do not know anything about that – but it is better in everything -. Besides Ethelinde is so long’
 ‘That is a very common objection, I believe’ said Kitty, but for my part, if a book is well written, I always find it too short.’
 ‘So do I, only I get tired of it before it is finished.’
 ‘But did you not find the story of Ethelinde very interesting? And the descriptions of Grasmere, are they not beautiful?’
 ‘Oh! I missed them all, because I was in such a hurry to know the end of it.’ Then, from an easy transition, she added, ‘we are going to the Lakes this autumn, and I am quite mad with joy; Sir Henry Devereux has promised to go with us, and that will make it so pleasant, you know.’

There is a twist or two in the tale as a stranger arrives on the night of a ball, one which Catherine looks as though she will miss due to an awful toothache, and then Jane Austen twists the tale a few times so you are never quite sure how it is going to end. I did keep thinking of the story of Cinderella when I was reading this, I wonder if that was her intent?

As I mentioned at the start I loved the collection that makes ‘Lesley Castle’ and think if there is anyone out there who hasn’t read Jane Austen yet, unlikely I know, but who wants to then this would be a wonderful place to start. I had tried and failed with her before, I had been promised so much wit and simply got endless descriptions. Now I have seen the wit distilled in these tales I think it might be time to pick up one of her novels and persevere. I am quite excited at the prospect.

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The Secret Life of Wives – Pietro Aretino

You may remember back in February that I was completely charmed by a character called Nanna in Pietro Aretino’s risqué ‘The Secret Life of Nuns’. I was then sent the whole trilogy of Nanna’s tales as an early birthday present by the publishers Hesperus Press. I was in a mini book slump the other day (I have been book juggling and it’s made me feel a little wobbly, more on that later in the week) and couldn’t decided what quick read to take on the tube and Nanna popped into my head and I knew I had to read ‘The Secret Lives of Wives’ next.

‘The Secret Life of Wives’ is the sequel to the rather wonderful Italian once banned (and now of course a classic) ‘The Secret Life of Nuns’ and though you could read them separately as they stand alone, once you hear Nanna’s voice and some of the tales she has to tell I can almost guarantee that you will want to read the whole collection. As Nanna and her friend and confident sit in the sundrenched vineyard Nanna regales her favourite partner of gossip with the tales of her marriage and what wives really get up to with their husbands away.

From a wife who took a shine to the local priest, a woman who forgets her husband and unleashes an internal demon after meeting the hermit on her new home land, two women happily married until they meet a local teacher and a prisoner (two separate tales) and Nanna herself who tells us more of her own tale you sometimes forget that this book is around 500 years old. It isn’t all just delightful romp as Aretino looks at two things that make the backdrop of the book whilst all the rogue behaviour goes on in the forefront. Antonia and Nanna do mention the state of the country and indeed Rome in several parts of the book and really Aretino is looking at the sanctity of marriage and what goes on behind closed doors of perfect looking marital homes with tongue firmly in cheek.

In its day it was deemed as erotica of the lowest order and banned. Yet now in our modern times this book reads like pure escapist entertainment, which lets face it we all need from time to time. Though its erotica/escapism (depending on your out look) its marvellously written in the form of two women speaking and having a natter. In fact you could imagine this being a rather wonderful and incredibly eye opening play or TV show as the two main characters are marvellous; Nanna for her gumption and honesty and Antonio for her pure relish of every detail. You feel you are sat with the two friends eavesdropping.

Nanna: Because anything’s better than a husband. For example, just think how nice it is to eat out.
Antonia: True enough: variety is the spice of life. Anyway, I can well believe you, since they also say anything’s better than a wife.

I honestly think that if you are ever looking for a book, or three, that you can read in a single sitting (they are each about 70 pages long) that will make you laugh out loud, possibly blush on occasion and get totally carried away with through the voice of a marvellous narrator then this is the book for you. It’s also a perfect book if you want to try something different. I am going to hold off from the third in the trilogy ‘The School of Whoredom’ for a while as I don’t like thought of not having anything new from Nanna after that, yes that’s how great I think she and this series are. 8/10

Savidge suggests some perfect prose partners:

The Secret Life of Nuns – Pietro Aretino (I always like to start at the very beginning)
Delta of Venus – Anais Nin (beautifully written classic erotica that now too reads like literature and caused interesting discussion on here when I posted about it)

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Memoirs of a Novelist – Virginia Woolf

I believe today is the final day of the wonderfully hosted Woolf in Winter challenge. Though I won’t be joining in with a discussion on The Waves because frankly I am still too wary of Woolf and anything too big I have gone on another rogue Woolfish path as I did with Flush and read a collection of her short stories instead which I managed to get from the library a while ago. I have decided I am going to take Orlando or The Waves away with me in May when I go away for a week somewhere sunny.

From the title I thought that ‘Memoirs of a Novelist’ was in fact some diaries of Virginia Woolf and so picked it up in the hope that after our bumpy relationship so far I might get to know her a little better. As I found out it is a collection of five of her earliest short works ‘Phyllis and Rosamond’, ‘The Mysterious Case of Miss V.’, ‘The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn’, ‘A Dialogue Upon Mount Penetelicus’ and ‘Memoirs of a Novelist’. Interestingly I did get to know more about Virginia through these works, what interested her from a younger age, her feelings on women and the way they have been treated and some of her passions. She also really took me on a journey of emotions with this work there is melancholic (which I was sort of expecting) to a degree and it was thought provoking but lacked some of the despair of her later writings I have encountered. She also made me have a few giggles and several wry smiles.

The two tales that most interlinked for me were ‘Phyllis and Rosamond’ and ‘The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn’ as they look at the history of marriage and women though they are to very different tales. The first is of two sisters born and bred purley to marry in the year 1906. They have no other skills apart from helping their mother (which neither really enjoys) and learning how to be a good wife and run a household and what’s more they both know it, and so looks at how life like that must have been. The latter of these two tales didn’t start the way I thought it would and actually became a tale within a tale all done in merely 40 pages. Miss Rosamond Merridew (not the Rosamond of the aforementioned tale) is a keen historian and one day comes across a forgotten manor house and pays a call to investigate meeting the inhabitants and eventually getting her hands on the diary of one of their ancestors, Joan Martyn, a young lady in the 1400’s on the cusp of marriage, in fact rather late to marriage it appears. Both of these stories I enjoyed, the latter particularly for the off beaten setting and premise of a house and diary filled with history and mystery.

The title tale ‘Memoirs of a Novelist’ also seemed to be the tales of two women told at the same time, so two parallel stories if you will. Woolf wonderfully interweaves the tale of a fiction writer Miss Willatt and also of her later biographer Miss Linsett. So much detail and almost factual writing was in this I had to google to check that these people didn’t once really exist. I also thought the ending of this tale was quite remarkable in a slightly melancholic way, I will say no more. I could definitely see shades of ‘Flush’ in this story though.

‘A Dialogue upon Mount Penetelicus’ I didn’t really get, the story is just what it says it is as British tourists climb and descend the Greek mountain. It had a feel of her multiple switching narratives of Mrs Dalloway and found, despite it only being ten pages long, I didn’t know quite where I was and didn’t want to read it a second time to find out.

The final tale, though actually the second in the book, ‘The Mysterious Case of Miss V.’ utterly blew me away. It is only three pages long yet out of the whole collection it has stuck with me and even thinking about it now brings forth some emotions very quickly. I don’t want to really say anything for fear I would give something away and ruin it for anyone who dashes off to read it (highly advisable). I shall simply say it’s the tale of an unmarried woman. I was amazed three pages could have such an effect on me.

So overall this is a great short story collection and another case of me having the grumps at giving it back to the library. It’s left me with a definite feeling that there is hope for me and Ginny after all and even though we will have a break for a few months I am looking forward to getting to know her better on holiday later in the year.

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Some Rather Early Birthday Presents…

Now I know two posts in a day when you are posting daily is a bit much but sometimes you just have to and my joy at some rather early birthday arrivals meant I couldnt hold back. Plus at the end of this you could be getting a parcel through your door very soon!

Now its not actually my birthday for over a month (March the 24th just in case you were wondering or wanted to pop it in your diary hee hee) however when I came home today there were two lovely bookish parcels waiting to greet me. I will admit that I was expecting the first as I knew The Converted One had ordered the rest of the Not The TV Book Group but knowing a parcel is coming and actually having it in front of you. Though Brodeck’s Report arrived sooner and I already owned Skin Lane and The Girl With The Glass Feet I thought I would put a picture of them all together as I think it looks quite delightful.

The other parcel was a surprise gift I got offered the other day after writing about The Secret Life of Nuns as the very kind people at Hesperus Press sent me that very book (as they new it vexed me to give it back to the library) and the rest of the trio as ‘an early birthday present’ so now I can find out what happens to Nanna’s daughters and the rest of the rompish tale.

Now I mentioned you could all own a new book and if you look here you will see why. I will also be giving away something rather special on my actual birthday as giving is just as much fun as receiving!

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The Secret Life of Nuns – Pietro Aretino

Firstly I just want to say a big thanks for everyone who joined in with the NTTVBG yesterday (follow the links), it was lovely to see the support and discussion there. I am slightly nervous about hosting in just under two weeks, how will I compete with those wonderful scones Lynne laid out for us all? Anyway I just wanted to say a big thanks before life goes back to normal for a week or so. 

Back at the start of January when I made my resolutions I said that I wanted to read some things that were ‘different’ this year. I wasn’t quite expecting what I ended up reading with ‘The Secret Life of Nuns’ by Pietro Aretino. I had picked this up from the library (last year) again in part because of the cover and also because it was a Hesperus book and after Lady Into Fox I have been keen to try and read as many Hesperus Press releases as my library stocks.

I am sure I am not alone in one of my favourite pass times. Eavesdropping! You know if you are on public transport, in a café etc and you simply cannot help but listen in on a certain subject. From the blurb it sounded like the tale of a secret gossipy conversation between two women over a dilemma. Nanna, a seasoned prostitute in roam is in a quandary over her daughter Pippa’s future, should she send her to a nunnery, marry her off or make her a courtesan? For advice on it all who better to talk to than her best friend Antonia?

What I wasn’t expecting was for Nanna to then start telling Antonia of her life in a nunnery and for it to be quite so, well… provocative and explicit (if you are of a delicate mind you might not want to read on). After having read more about Pietro Aretino and his nickname ‘the scourge of princes’ maybe I should have been. I read on however and what followed is a very funny, quite rude and fairly graphic (with hilarious metaphors) tale of how Nanna survived her time after her parents sent her to live in a convent. I won’t lie I really enjoyed it as a read. Back in the 1500’s I am sure this was possibly one of the rudest things one could read (it is claimed that Aretino was the originator of European pornography, who know if this is true or not) however by today’s standards with what we see on the telly this is more a whimsical and highly witty romp. I laughed out loud about three times.

There isn’t really too much that can be said in terms of the plot as the actual tale itself only lasts for sixty five pages. I did like the way its almost written as a script with Nanna going into long monologues and Antonia chipping in every now and again which is great in terms of comic timing. It was the context of the book that did make me wonder as in 1550 writing about sex was bad enough, setting it in a holy place was quite out there. I don’t have any religious beliefs but The Converted One does and I did get frowned upon when I explained what the book was about. Each to their own I say.

The only quibble I had with this is that Nanna doesn’t tell us what happens if you become a wife or a courtesan instead. Having now looked into it the author further I find this is the first in a trilogy of books and that we still have two more of Nana’s enlightening and eye opening tales to go…

 

I think I will be asking for this ‘The Secret Life of Wives’ and ‘The School of Whoredom’ for my birthday in March mainly for the fact that Nanna is one of the best narrators I have read in ages. I loved her, her frankness and her humour. Possibly not a series for the faint hearted but definitely one for the open minded. Has anyone else read this or the rest of the series?

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