Category Archives: Penguin Books

Artful – Ali Smith

Ali Smith is one of my favourite contemporary writers. She is one of those writers who, and I am hoping that we all feel this way about a few authors, I love reading even when occasionally something goes completely over my head or I am not quite sure what she means, another one of these I have is Nicola Barker. I have read quite a few of Ali’s novels and There But For The and Girl Meets Boy are two of my favourite books released in the last decade. That said I have to admit that her latest work Artful, being a mixture of fiction and four lectures she gave was one I was worried I wouldn’t ‘get’. So I chose it for the Hear…Read This! so that I could chat to Gav, Rob and Kate about it. Turns out though, despite the discussion being wonderful, I didn’t need the back up, I got exactly what Ali Smith was trying to do with this one… I think.

Penguin Books, paperback, 2013, fiction 240 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Imagine one day, not long after their death, your partner suddenly returns from the dead. Is this a figment of your imagination? Could it be that you are being haunted by a real ghost? Is it grief playing a cruel trick on you? Could you be going mad? This is one of the many themes which Artful looks at in one of its many strands as Artful is a book that has as many layers as it does ways you could take the story and read it.

You see Artful is a very unusual hybrid of a book, originally taken from four lectures that Ali Smith delivered in Oxford back in 2013. These lectures (On Time, On Form, On Edge and On Offer and on Reflection) look at books, words, language, pictures, poems, basically all forms of art and how we as people take them in, react to them or sometimes don’t. If it sounds like it is going to be dry it really isn’t, it is a warm narrative that will (if you are anything like me) often feel like Smith has the same thoughts as you, only you couldn’t quite put it into words before and need to go and have a think about it. It will make you rethink how you read, and maybe even how you treat, books. For example it has certainly left me wondering if I appreciate books enough and if I give them the time that they deserve and was one of the reasons I decided to slow down with all my reading this year.

Books themselves take time, more time than most of us are used to giving them. Books demand time. Sometimes they take and demand more time than we’re ready or yet know how to grant them; they go at their own speed regardless of the cultural speed or slowness of their readers zeitgeists. Plus, they’re tangible pieces of time in our hands. We hold them for the time it takes to read them and we move through them and measure time passing by how far through them we’ve got, what the page-edge correlation (or percentage, if we’re using a digital reader) between the beginning and the end is. Also, they travel with us, they accompany through from our pasts into our futures, always with their present-tense ability, there as soon as they’re opened, for words to act like the notes heard in music do, marking from word to word the present moment always in reference to what went before, what’s on its way, in a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, a section, a chapter.

What also stops the book from making your head explode from the cleverness of Smith (never smugly clever let me add) is the way the lectures are interwoven as we join an unnamed narrator after the death of their unnamed partner whose ghost suddenly turns up. The lectures we read, though in a few cases not the whole lecture which I thought was interesting, were written by the recently departed and have not long been found by the grieving one left behind (neither character is given a gender, I felt it was two women though I can’t say exactly why). What is also a ghost story is indeed a very intimate and often incredibly moving picture of grief.

It was you except for at the eyes. Where they’d been, a blue like no one else’s, there were now black spaces. It looked like your whole eyes had become a pupil. You stepped into the room like you were blind. Leaving a trail of rubbly stuff very like what I’d had in my hand when we all stood round  and I threw the urnful of you up the Roman road in the wood on the path that’s lined with beech trees, you went through and stood in front of your old desk, all the papers piled on it pretty much the way you left them.

What is also a ghost story is indeed a very intimate and often incredibly moving picture of grief mixed up with a wonderful sense of being a love letter to that person and also Smith’s own love letter to all art forms, though there is a sense of words and language being at the very heart of this book.

Look at its curves, though, its lovely jerky slopes. Look at your y’s and your g’s. Look at the way you ran ing at the end of representing into a pencilled line with no discernable letters in it at all. No one had handwriting like it. It could only be your hand.

Artful is definitely a book for book lovers but, as Ali Smith seems to point out throughout, it is not a book that is designed to simply be read and forgotten about. There is work to do here and when you work at it the rewards, like all good things in life, are great. I started off trying to read it as a novel, then finding the lectures slowing everything down while my brain tried to process it all. That isn’t the way to read it, you need to re-read paragraphs here and there. You need to go off and look things up on the internet, grab the dictionary or reserve a few books in from the library. You need to have space from the intelligence and the questions it asks you, you need to have some space to contemplate the grief.

It is a book that requires time and yet makes you make time for it and around it. It is quite unlike anything I have read before and left me thinking, which is of course what I love most about all of Ali Smith’s work. I have also come away with so much more to read in the future, always the gift of a wonderful book. I only hope I have done it justice.

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Bonkers – Jennifer Saunders

I don’t know about all of you but I am a much bigger fan of Boxing Day than Christmas Day, you still get all the food, chocolates and see relatives but it all feels calmer and less pressurised and you don’t have to worry about offending anyone if you go off into a corner and read a book. If you are anything like me the festive season is all about reading old favourites (some of the Armistead Maupin Tales of the City series), a good gripping crime or two (next read for me), and the celebrity memoir (I am just about to start Angelica Huston, or Jelly Who-who as I like to call her). One celebrity book that I can heartily recommend, and I do have rather a penchant for them on the sly, is Bonkers by Jennifer Saunders who I think gets it spot on.

Penguin Viking, 2013, hardback, autobiography, 292 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Unless you have been living in a cave or been on the moon since the 1980’s it is very unlikely you don’t know who Jennifer Saunders is. She was part of the Comic Strip before French and Saunders took over the telly box for many, many years. There has been Absolutely Fabulous (which The Beard is obsessed with, occasionally spending the day channelling Edina Monsoon – I know, I know), the Fairy Godmother in Shrek and my very favourite Jam & Jerusalem. Through all these we have come across a lot of Jennifer’s wonderful writing and yet she has always remained rather an enigma, this of course adds to the delight of wanting to read Bonkers. From the start you know you are going to enjoy what is to come.

I have been told that publishers these days like a particular type of memoir. They like a little bit of misery. They like a ‘mis mem’.
Well I am afraid I have had very little ‘mis’ in my life, and nowadays I have even less ‘mem’. So we can knock that one on the head.

Really Bonkers’ tagline gives it all away for you – ‘my life in laughs’ and as a reader you will spend many, many chapters just chortling away. Saunders seems to have chosen to write the funniest moments in her life as sketches that could be in a comedy show, or with subjects like cancer where she became ‘Brave Jen’ to the world she looks for the humour in even the darker parts of her life. She also knows what we ‘the reader’ really want to read about.

If you are standing in a bookshop and have accidentally picked me up (as it were), I can guess what you might be thinking. Oh no! Not another celebrity autobiog by someone cashing in on TV fame!
But let me tell you…
Yes! That is exactly what this is.
I realize they’re everywhere nowadays. Like a disease. But a lot of books out there are by babies. Biebers and Tulisas. They’ve only been awake a couple of years. Next we’ll have tiny foetuses writing books.
The thing that this one has going for it is that I am really quite old. I have also met quite a few celebs, which is always a good sales point. I was told to stuff it with celebs and royalty and a touch of sadness.

 So unlike some memoirs  that I can think of, where the writer spends at least a chapter on every audition they tried and failed at from the age of three until fame came a knocking, or how they spent seventy pages picking the perfect dress to wear for a party when they went to their first celeb bash etc, we get an insight into Jennifer’s childhood, some of her first trips away (one which has a link with Ernest Hemmingway and inspired Edina Monsoon), how she met Dawn French and how that initially didn’t go as we might expect, how she felt about making shows on her own, her dealing with fame, dealing with cancer, dealing with children getting older, all with some lovely celeby stories and lots and lots of giggling along the way.

I also felt I got to know her a little bit better, and as she has said herself these are the sort of stories you tell at dinner parties, they aren’t the most intimate of moments but stories you share with people you are getting to know. Interestingly her letters to Joanna ‘Jack’ Lumley, or faxes, and her thoughts on cancer and on the Spice Girls musical closing (not to compare the two) show her at her most natural and funny and honest and rather vulnerable, in both cases letting us in all the more.

So a big recommendation for Bonkers, which I think is the most suiting of titles, if you are a fan then you will have already got your mitts on a copy, or found it in your stocking a few days ago maybe? If not then when you next head to your local bookshop, which of course we all do with our book tokens (I got some woo-hoo) after Christmas, then you might want to add this to the ‘pile of joyous books to read over the festive period’ that I am sure we all have on our bedside tables at the moment.

If you want to hear more about the book, and have a few more giggles, then you can hear Jennifer and I having a pre-Christmas natter on the latest episode of You Wrote The Book here.

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Mr Loverman – Bernadine Evaristo

Joining a new book group is always a little nerve-wracking however your first choice for a book club I think even more so. By then everyone has got to know you but not necessarily what your book taste is. I decided to take an educated gamble with my first choice and choose Mr Loverman, the latest of Bernadine Evaristo’s novels, after having heard her read from it back in February at a Penguin Bloggers Night where she had everyone laughing – a lot. Throw in the fact that several people whose opinions I trust had loved it. Oh and I thought the subject matter would cause some interesting discussion after I read someone somewhere calling it a geriatric Caribbean Brokeback Mountain set in Stoke Newington…

Hamish Hamilton, 2013, paperback, fiction, 320 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Mr Barrington Jedediah Walker, Esq is a character. He is a smart dressing, rum drinking, well off property developing 74 year old, the father of two daughter, husband to Carmel and owner of a decent house. He has also been in a secret relationship with his best friend Morris, and has been since there teenage years in Antigua. Now as his marriage seems to be bringing him more and more unhappiness, his daughters having fled the nest, he is wondering if it is time to come clean with his wife, who thinks he is out most nights womanising, and tell everyone the truth – can he actually do it though?

My first thoughts, well after initially thinking it was sweet that at 74 he was so in love before then thinking ‘hang on, he is cheating on his wife and lying to everyone around him’, was just how on earth Barry had got into this situation, then why he hadn’t left his wife sooner. The latter is something wondered by Morris who at one point in their past, which we get revealed slowly but surely in flashbacks, after his wife leaves him after discovering their secret before her eyes and he wants Barry and himself to be together, Barry refuses and a major bump ensues. Now it seems things might be different, though Barry has a slight issue with everyone knowing that he is a ‘buggerer of men’ as he puts it. As for how this all started, we soon learn that the Caribbean is not a place where homosexuality is responded to well and it is this background to the story that creates the situation they all find themselves in.

I’d been under such pressure back home. A young man showing no interest in girls, when he could have any one of them? I was twenty-four when I married Carmel, and I’d almost left it too late for some. They was talking, and I was afraid I’d be up before a judge on some trumped-up charge of indecent exposure; or end up lying on an operating table with a bar of wood between my teeth and electric volts destroying parts of my brain forever; or in a crazy house pumped full of drugs that would eventually drive a sane man mad.

What I thought was wonderfully done by Evaristo is how fully realised her characters are, with the exception of Barry’s daughters, one stereotypically spiky, the other so camp you know what will happen there. Barry is a charmer and quite loveable, he is also a man who has big secrets and even with the most carefully constructed life the pressure is mounting, cracks are showing and can’t be covered up no matter how big a smile you put on your face. He is also a bit of a swine, the way he treats Carmel, even if sometimes she asks for it, is often harsh and also incredibly chauvinistic admittedly in part due to his social upbringing. Yet you like him and feel for him, even if you don’t always agree with how he handles his issues.

Carmel is also a very interesting character. Initially I really disliked this woman who came across as a controlling harridan, always demanding to know everything and berating her husband no matter what he did good or bad. However as the book went on I really felt for her. This is a woman who longed for love, way back when she was a girl and one of the most handsome men around took an interest in her. Yet really she is a smoke screen for Barry and all the more saddening as it is unwittingly so, which really hit me and I think Evaristo has done this purposefully, if the society of Barry and Carmel’s upbringing had been more tolerant then these people wouldn’t be in this mess. Of course Carmel doesn’t know all of this or why Barry is so distant, and can only guess – wrongly, the result is the same though, she is unloved and turns, with the addition of post natal depression after baby two, to bitterness.

…on your own again, isn’t it, Carmel?
late this night, praying up against your bed, waiting for him to come home, knowing he might not come home at all, but you can’t help yourself, can you, acting like a right mug as the English people say…
waiting, waiting, always waiting…

If this all sounds thoroughly depressing, trust me it isn’t. Mr Loverman is brimming with humour which makes all the sad parts all the more heartbreaking. I don’t often belly laugh out loud but I did often and (very) loudly thanks to Evaristo’s humour which always comes along just at the right moment. There are several wonderful set pieces based around Morris’ observations or Carmel’s coven of friends who live in fear of the homosicksickals their Pastor George forewarns them of. Small minds can make big laughter, which also leaves poignancy in the air.

Merty’s getting into her stride now; plays her trump card.
‘And another thing, I hear from very good authority on the grapevine that Melissa is one of those women who lies down with women.’
Yes, you go-wan Merty. All roads in  your dutty mind lead back to sex.
‘Yes , I think I heard that too… er…’ Drusilla says unconvincingly, glancing nervously at Merty but determined to continue her id for power. ‘What I always say is, if woman was meant to lie with woman, God would have given woman penis.’

As you may have guessed I really, really loved Mr Loverman (what’s more so did my book group, I think it is one of the highest scoring books in a while) and found it a funny, touching and thoughtful book on a subject which I don’t think many authors would write about, there is still a huge stereotyping and homophobia towards black gay men which makes this book all the more important. One of my books of the year, and an end of year surprise rather like My Policeman at the end of last year, and one which has also introduced me to an author I have been meaning to read since Blonde Roots and now will definitely read much, much more of. Highly, highly recommended reading!

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Filed under Bernadine Evaristo, Books of 2013, Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books, Review

Beautiful Ruins – Jess Walter

Each and every summer the press always give us lists of the books that will be the perfect beach read. One which kept coming up time and time again, and had the most striking cover, was Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, deemed as this summer’s ‘literary’ beach read. This put it on my list of books I must read along with all the acclaim it had received in America. It was however ABC’s The Book Club over in Australia that finally gave me the push to read it when they announced it as one of their titles for October and so I decided I would read it whilst having some delusions of grandeur that I was technically reading along with Jason Steger, Jennifer Byrne and Marieke Hardy.

Penguin Books, 2013, paperback, fiction, 337 pages, kindly sent by publisher

It is initially another quiet summer in the life of Pasquale Tursi, the owner of a floundering Italian coastal hotel with big dreams called The Hotel Adequate View, until the arrival of an actress as his latest guest. This actress Dee Moray has been sent away from the set of Cleopatra, which is filming over the waters, by one of its producers and is under the impression she is terminally ill. Her arrival changes things for Pasquale who has been too long stuck with his widowed mother and batty battle axe of an aunt.

We then switch to the (roughly) present day and Hollywood, where life is fast, furious and pretty materialistic and forgetful. Claire Silver is assistant to one of LA’s biggest producers, Michael Dean, having always wanted to produce her own shows this should be a dream but she is bored and stuck in a rut both work wise and personally. However on what looks to be another dull day of dreadful pitches, with the likes of struggling writer Shane, when an Italian elderly man called Pasquale turns up looking for her boss. As we find out why, Walter strings all the stories together and unfinished events unfold.

Beautiful Ruins is an interesting book in part because it has so much to say, almost too much. If the setting of filming Cleopatra and all the gossip and commotion from the set, possible love story at the hotel and how it all links into modern day, we also end up following many, many, many sub characters and plots that take us as far as a community theatre in Idaho to Edinburgh festival.

Unfortunately this subsequently stretches the book and its main story to capacity and the tale of Pasquale and Dee is the heart of the book and yet I didn’t feel the book concentrated them enough. For example I could easily have done away with the link to modern Hollywood where Michael Deane might initially create a few laughs (his amazing show ‘Hookbook’ for one) but soon a much darker side appears that I really disliked, and not in a good way. Also any laughter from/at Michael is swiftly killed every time Claire appears. Her misery with her pretty fantastic job and gorgeous boyfriend mixed with her one dimensional character make her feel like a part of the set used just for the sake of adding an occasional twist (Shane is also equally one dimensional) which is a shame as Walter’s can write characters brilliantly.

The first impression one gets of Michael Deane is of a man constructed of wax, or perhaps prematurely embalmed. After all these years, it may be impossible to trace the sequence of facials, spa treatments, mud baths, cosmetic procedures, lifts and staples, collagen implants, outpatient touch ups, tannings, Botox injections, cyst and growth removals, and stem-cell injections that have caused a seventy-two-year-old man to have the face of a nine-year-old Filipino girl.

It is in Italy where the book really comes alive with all the heady atmosphere of a summer on the coast, the almost deserted villages wonderful quirky inhabitants and the glamour and fascination of everything on the set of Cleopatra, I adored all of it. This sadly meant that when we switched to the modern section I would find myself inwardly groaning and looking at how many pages I had to read through before I got to the good bit again. If we had stayed in Italy for most of the book and switched to America in the final quarter (or maybe less) for the purposes of the storyline I would have been so much happier and enjoyed the book so much more.

“Leave before this place kills you like it killed your father.”
“I would never leave you.”
“Don’t worry about me. I will die soon enough and go to your father and poor brothers.”
“You’re not dying,” Pasquale said.
“I am already dead inside,” she said. “You should push me out into the sea and drown me like that old sick cat of yours.”
Pasquale straightened. “You said my cat ran away. While I was at University.”
She shot him a glance from the corner of her eye. “It is a saying.”
“No. It’s not a saying. There is no such saying such as that. Did you and Papa drown my cat while I was in Florence?.”
“I’m sick, Pasqo! Why do you torment me?”

There are some fabulous set pieces in Beautiful Ruins along with some truly wonderful characters. Walter does some very interesting things in terms of the text too. We have the two stories in the different times coming together yet we also get snippets of Shanes film pitch, an unpublished chapter of Michael’s autobiography and the first chapter of a book written by a guest whilst at Pasquale’s hotel. Sadly, for me, these additional ‘forms of media’, whilst interesting like all the additional storylines, detracted from the main heart and soul of the book. I also didn’t really like how everything finished up, though I will say the last chapter of the book is one of the best, and most clever, pieces of writing and executed stunningly. Which made it all the more frustrating because when Walter is good he is amazing. I just wish all the book had been like that, oh and that it had all been about the Italy storyline really, that could have been one of my reads of the year.

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Mrs Bridge – Evan S. Connell

Whilst I find that if I see reviews over and over of the same ‘current hype’ title I find myself, if I have a copy, distancing myself from it more and more I do find that the opposite happens with classics or modern classics. I have also noticed of late that I like, and this could be a whole new genre of books seeing as publishers are creating new ones left right and centre, ‘domestic housewife tales from pre 1960’s’. So when I started seeing glowing reviews from people whose opinions I trust (here, here and here) of a 1959 novel by the name of ‘Mrs Bridge’ and it fell into that category of fiction I like so much – maybe I was a housewife in a past life – I decided that I simply had to give it a read.

*** Penguin Modern Classics, paperback, 1959 (2012 edition), fiction, 187 pages, borrowed from the library

The lady of the title ‘Mrs Bridge’, who is our protagonist throughout, has the life that many women of her time did.  She married early, had children and became a housewife while her husband works all hours, though in a rather affluent area and easily able to have a maid. After having had her children and having watched them slowly distance themselves as they leave school we join her as she goes along with the life she has found herself in Kansas City. In the main she spends her time shopping, going to the theatre or cinema, playing bridge and giving or going to dinners. As the children spend more time away from their mother in the day and her husband, Walter, continues working like a maniac we watch as India finds with more free time she slowly starts to look at the life around her and questions it, is she actually fulfilled? Dare she even ask herself if she is happy?

“Her first name was India – she was never able to get used to it. It seemed to her that her parents must have been thinking of someone else when they named her. Or were they hoping for another sort of daughter? As a child she was often on the point of inquiring, but time passed, and she never did.”

I found the character of Mrs Bridge a mixture of utterly fascinating on the one hand a rather annoying in her ineffectual nature by the other. Oddly, that isn’t a major criticism of the novel as I think Evan S. Connell writes her, and indeed the whole book, incredibly. As the book goes on Mrs Bridge starts to ask questions about her life, initially small then looking at her life in a wider view. She might think things aren’t as she would wish and she might be bored, yet we as readers can see that she is clearly very unhappy and out of touch with her world. All this was done utterly masterfully, yet it did make me feel rather disconnected with her in some ways slightly too. She wasn’t likeable, yet she wasn’t unlikeable either. You felt sorry for her, but from afar and sometimes she came across rather bigoted and snobbish. I couldn’t work out if she was a victim of circumstance and the social restraints of the time, or if she was a victim because she asked questions, was scared by their answers and so brushed them under the carpet, as it were.

“Dr Leacock, like the majority of husbands, was seldom seen in the daytime, but Mrs Leacock and Tarquin liked to visit the neighbourhood, and within a few weeks of their arrival it had become evident that for some reason they had chosen Mrs Bridge as a special friend. Mrs Bridge, somewhat disconcerted by Lucienne Leacock’s progressive ideas and a little frightened by Tarquin’s self-possession, nevertheless felt vaguely flattered at being the object of so much attention.”

I am possibly making it sound like ‘Mrs Bridge’ is a really miserable and melancholic read and, though there is a melancholic edge to a lot of it, it is actually also a very funny book. Connell chooses to tell the story in 100 fairly short vignettes and amongst them are some wonderful set pieces, often on set piece will re-emerge in a the next vignette or two or three along which I really liked. There is Mrs Bridges’ initial disapproval with an infamous touring play ‘Tobacco Road’ which starts to become a worrying obsession for her affecting her for days after. There is an issue with another neighbour trying to steal her maid, Harriet, and when seeing the neighbour in church almost leading to the faints. Or dinner parties she feels she has to give and invite people she doesn’t really like or approve of. I did laugh aloud a few times as I read.

“Mr and Mrs Bridge were giving a party, not because they wanted to, but because it was time. Like dinner with the Van Metres, once you accepted an invitation you were obligated to reciprocate, or, as Mr Bridge had once expressed it, retaliate.”

The same applied with the melancholic tone of the book. There was a really, for me, sad story about the friendship between Mrs Bridge’s daughter Carolyn and the daughter of their black gardener, Alice. There was the slightly sinister tale of her son Douglas decided to build a tower of rubbish that becomes a well known landmark, perfectly mixing the funny and the dark which I love in books and I thought Connell did marvellously.

There is so much to enjoy and admire in ‘Mrs Bridge’ and Connell’s writing that I would definitely recommend that you all give it a whirl. I feel it is patronising to say that Connell wrote a woman so well, but I did, and I did think his prose was sublime. However, I am not going to finish off by saying that it will be one of the best books you will have read in ages, because I did feel it was a little long and over egged the pudding, though the ending was poignant and surprisingly done, well if what I think happened actually happened (don’t ask, spoilers). Yet I think because I have read a few Persephone Classics  recently I feel I have seen this done, and written around the same time, a little better. Had I not then I think this would have bowled me over far more than it did and indeed I think I was expecting it to seriously blow me away, instead I just thought it was very good. That probably sounds harsh and like I am damning it with faint praise, I promise I am not because I can see why many people have been so impressed by it too.

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The Abbess of Crewe – Muriel Spark

As I mentioned last week whilst visiting Gran’s I always pack far too many books for the length of time I am there. I also have to plan which ones to take which sort of defeats my aim of reading by whim on the whole this year. However Gran has a vast selection of books in her house and perusing this actual gave me some short treats to read while I was there, one of which was ‘The Abbess of Crewe’ by the wonderful Muriel Spark, subtitled ‘a wicked satire on Watergate’. How could I not read this when it so explicitly mixed Muriel Spark and wickedness?

**** Penguin Books, paperback, 1975, fiction, 104 pages, nabbed from Gran’s bookshelves

‘The Abbess of Crewe’ is told in a rather strange way, as the book opens we find the Abbess and one of her nuns Sister Winifrede deep in a hinted discussion that they may have done something untoward which, as we read on, might relate to the reason that policemen and police dogs are patrolling the grounds of the abbey. You aren’t sure what is going on but then you flit back between now and the repercussions and what actually happened.

As we read on, though I don’t want to give too much away, it turns out that the whole abbey has been under observations with phones tapped along with hidden video cameras and microphones (even in the fur trees in the grounds) and which have been discovered around the recent election of the new abbess herself against her rival Sister Felicity.

‘What is wrong, Sister Winifrede,’ says the Abbess, clear and loud to the receptive air, ‘with the traditional keyhole method?’
Sister Winifrede says, in her whine of bewilderment, that voice of the very stupid, the mind where no dawn breaks, ‘But, Lady Abbess, we discussed right from the start –‘
‘Silence!’ says the Abbess.  ‘We observe silence, now, and meditate.’ She looks at the tall poplars of the avenue where they walk, as if the trees are listening.’

Here I am sure a more intellectual blogger might allude to, or indeed inform you of, how this all relates to the Watergate Scandal. I admit, partly because I felt that I should, I did go and read a bit about the whole affair though I then decided against it as I found myself trying to work out which characters in the book were in the real political scandal, and it started to take the fun out of reading about these barmy nuns instead. So I stopped. This does show that you don’t need to know of the Watergate Scandal to enjoy the book as Spark creates one of her most Machiavellian female leads in ‘The Abbess of Crewe’ and a wonderful cast of cloaked characters around her.

I thought Felicity, the Abbesses main rival initially, was a wonderful character. Some people would say she was a ‘new nun’ in the fact that she is devoted in depth to God and also to free love, the latter of which she is having with a Jesuit monk called Thomas around the grounds as often as she can. This of course causes talk, I laughed very loudly when one of the nuns said she didn’t understand why on earth she didn’t do it in the linen closet where it’s warmer, and threatens to change the vision of the convent and abbey that many people, mainly the abbess, have for it. If one nun turns bad and gets away with it surely others may to and there could be a revolt.

‘Nobody knows where Felicity has been all day and half the night, for she was not present at Matins at midnight nor Lauds at three in the morning, nor at breakfast at five, Prime at six, Terce at nine; nor was she present in the refectory at eleven for lunch, which comprised barley broth and a perfectly nourishing and tasty, although uncommon, dish of something unnamed on toast, that something being in fact a cat-food by the name of Mew, bought cheaply and in bulk. Felicity had not been there to partake of it, nor was she in the chapel singing the Hour of Sext at noon.’

I also loved Mildred and Winifrede who remain hard done by and a little bit ditzy throughout. There was also the wonderful Sister Gertrude who phoned often from one of her many missions around the world, such as trying to unite cannibals and vegetarian tribes on either side of a Himalayan mountain, to talk philosophical gibberish which never made sense and yet seemed to make the other sisters suddenly do very rash things. There are also some wonderful set pieces like a meeting of a nun to pay a bribe in a Selfridge’s toilet and much, much more.

It seems a shame then that ‘The Abbess of Crewe’ is out of print. I do wonder if it is because people might think it has aged or will seem aged being a satire of Watergate. It seems a real same if that is the case as for a little book, at just 104 pages, it gives a lot, I ended up wishing it was a lot longer though. There was a lot of very wicked laughter for me throughout ‘The Abbess of Crewe’ and it had some of my most favourite characters Spark has created so far in my reading of her. I also think it is one where her wicked sense of humour, which I love so much, shines through most devilishly.

Who else has read ‘The Abbess of Crewe’ and if so what did you think? Did you find you had to read all about Watergate or like me did you just enjoy it regardless? Which of Sparks’s books have you read and enjoyed? Oh and if you haven’t as yet one of her most famous ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ (which oddly isn’t my favourite though it is deemed her classic) is current Book at Bedtime on Radio 4.

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Filed under Muriel Spark, Penguin Books, Review

In Search of a Character – Graham Greene

You are all probably going to get most bored of the expression ‘this reading by whim malarkey throws books you weren’t expecting in your direction’, yet it is proving to be the case and I am sure will remain so throughout the year. As usual I have completely over packed, in terms of books, for a week at Gran’s. I brought four thinking that a) as the journey is 4 – 5 hours each way so that is really a book each way, roughly b) I will have plenty of time to read with her or when she is asleep. Well in truth a) I tend to end up watching all the beautiful scenery and listening to peoples conversations, don’t pretend you don’t b) it is just non stop at Gran’s. I am only managing to write this as she has been sent to bed, well sort of sent, ha. The other thing I had forgotten was whim and Gran’s bookshelves have proved too tempting in the hunt for some short reads to gobble down when I can. That is how I came to Graham Greene’s ‘In Search of a Character’ a book I didn’t even know existed until I spotted it yesterday whilst having a nosey.

*** Penguin Books, paperback, 1961 (1981 edition), non fiction, 106 pages, from my Gran's own personal library

*** Penguin Books, paperback, 1961 (1981 edition), non fiction, 106 pages, from my Gran’s own personal library

‘In Search of a Character’ was never really meant to be published as it is a (very short) volume of two sets of his journals that he kept on two visits to western Africa. The first, a trip to the Congo in 1959, was the setting, researching and seed sowing of ideas for his novel ‘A Burnt Out Case’ (which I haven’t read), the second in 1941 on a convoy which inspired ‘The Heart of the Matter’ (which I also haven’t read, oh dear). As he keeps his journals he interweaves them with the ideas he is having about the books he has in the periphery of his mind and so really we are shown the internal workings of Graham Greene’s writing mind. He puts it best in the introduction…

“Neither of these journals was kept for publication but they may have some interest as an indication of the kind of raw material a novelist accumulates. He goes through life discarding more than he retains, but the points he notes are what he considers of creative interest at the moment of occurrence.”

Regardless of whether you have read the novels that the period Greene describes in these journals they do make for interesting reading. Firstly there is the way that such a famous authors, though I am sure it is similar to less well known/budding authors too, mind works. He tells of overhearing the case of a man who spied his wife having an affair with his clerk, saved up enough to buy a old car that he used to run the clerk down before then deciding full of remorse to kill himself – he then later puts this into ‘A Burnt Out Case’ as a small side story that manages to solve another gap in plot strands. It also shows how much doubt goes through his head as he writes, and indeed how little he really knows and how slowly his own story reveals itself to its author. As someone who loves books and the crafting of them I found all of this fascinating.

“Perhaps the first argument concerning X will be whether he should be classed as a leprophil. At the moment X stands still in my mind: he has hardly progressed at all. I know only a little bit more about his surroundings. Perhaps it will be necessary to name him – and yet I am unwilling to give him a definite nationality. Perhaps – for ostensible reasons of discretion – he should remain a letter. Unfortunately, as I learnt before, if one uses an initial for ones principal character, people begin to talk about Kafka.”

The other thing that I found equally fascinating was the subject of leprosy in the novel. Greene doesn’t just watch from afar by any means. He finds himself working closely with a specialist doctor of leprosy and indeed living amongst the lepers himself, which at the time many people thought was sheer madness as they didn’t understand how contagious or not it was. Occasionally it is not for the queasy reader but it highlights a period in history that I knew very little about, and one that wasn’t that many moons ago. Here, through Greene overhearing tales he doesn’t use, we discover how infected men will drag their wives with them regardless of the fact their wives may catch the disease yet how if a wife catches it she is abandoned, unless she takes a lover and all hell breaks loose. We also learn how people started to figure out how the disease worked and how they might be able to cure it, which also lead to the novel Greene was writing’s title.

“Leprosy cases whose disease has been arrested  and cured only after the loss of fingers or toes are known as burnt-out cases. This is the parallel I have been seeking between my character X and the lepers. Psychologically and morally he has been burnt-out. Is it at that point that the cure is effected? Perhaps the novel should begin not at the leproserie but on the mission-boat.”

It might seem odd to have read ‘In Search of a Character’ before reading the books that it inspired, though it has made me want to read ‘A Burnt Out Case’ (which I think I have somewhere in the TBR) before the year is out. It might also seem an odd choice as my fourth ever Greene read, my first being ‘The End of The Affair’ followed by ‘Our Man in Havana’ and then ‘Brighton Rock’. Yet it worked for me. I found getting inside the authors head, learning about him and seeing how it all came to fruition really, really interesting. Maybe I missed a few things I wouldn’t have if I had read the books first but I can always come to this one again afterwards at some point can’t I? If you have ever wondered how an authors mind works and where they get their ideas (if that doesn’t make them sound like a rare endangered breed of beast, oops) then I would recommend you give this a whirl, of course if you are a firm Greene fan already it will be a no brainer to pick this up.

Weirdly it seems apt that I dropped reading ‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet as it has the same sort of duality as this one, and I think Binet’s is even more fascinating. I will be reading that again when I leave Gran’s and reporting back in due course. Back to Greene though… Which of his novels would you really recommend? Should I read ‘A Burnt Out Case’ next or something else?

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Filed under Graham Greene, Non Fiction, Penguin Books, Review

Grimm Tales – Philip Pullman

I mentioned that it was the 200th anniversary of the Brothers Grimm last week and one book which seems to have made the most of this timing is Philip Pullman’s ‘Grimm Tales’. This is a book that I have to admit I didn’t hear about until it was out, I would have expected more fanfare to be honest, and as soon as I heard about it I simply had to get my hands on it. It also seemed the perfect time of year, just before Christmas and just after the anniversary, to talk about it when there is that little sense of nostalgia and magic in the air and these tales are just the sort of thing to turn to either between the festive franticness or indeed if you need to escape from your family at any point. Oh… none of you feel the need to do the latter, how awkward.

Penguin Classics, hardback, 2012, fiction, 406 pages, from my personal TBR

I thought, before embarking upon reading them, that ‘Grimm Tales – For Young and Old’ would be Philip Pullman completely retelling the tales of the Brothers Grimm. In a way it is, though Pullman admits himself that he has only lightly retold them, yet in a way it sort of isn’t. That’s a helpful explanation from me isn’t it?

What Pullman really does is tell the stories as they were originally, basically before they were Disney-fied or Ladybird-ily made brighter and more chipper, putting back in all the darker details and the twists and turns that have strangely been forgotten, or maybe airbrushed is a better expression. He also gives the language a little tweak here and there and modernises it for the new younger reader too. In modernising them it seems Pullman is making them more relevant for the youth of today, he also adds referential relevance for adult readers in the part of the book that I almost enjoyed as the tales themselves. How does he do this? Each story finds itself with end notes which tell you the ‘type’ of story it is, where the Brothers Grimm heard it, where else worldwide it’s been told, how the Brothers changed it and how he has changed it, modernised it or made it work better (in his opinion) too.

Notes on Cinderella

Notes on Cinderella

In doing this, and in fact with the wonderful introduction to the true history of the tales which of course I left to read till last, we are almost given double the delight of the fifty (the Brothers Grimm actually recorded over 200 tales) as not only do we have the joy of reading them, with their full uncut endings, we also have the joy of discovering more about them. I really loved this aspect of the book and found on occasion I preferred the stories behind the stories to some of the stories themselves – not all the time, only once or twice.

As to the collection of tales themselves, well with favourites like ‘Snow White’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Rumplestiltskin’, ‘Hansel and Gretel’, etc I was always going to be pleased. I was more so by the inclusion of lots and lots of tales that I hadn’t heard of before. New favourites such as ‘Little Brother and Little Sister’, which has the most boring title but is a tale of wicked stepmothers, witches, murder and even ghosts, are going to become favourites to re-read. Even if I wasn’t bowled over by a couple of them I enjoyed reading them for the fact they were new to me.

As for my old favourites, well of course I was thrilled to read them. I was delighted when I read Perrault’s original tales a few years ago by the darkness and the endings that my Ladybird classics certainly didn’t have, and this happened again with Pullman’s ‘Grimm Tales’. You will probably know that my very favourite as a child was ‘Rapunzel’ (so much so that is what I named my pet duck, no really) and I was quite horrified and thrilled when I discovered – spoiler alert – the twist was that Rapunzel not only got her haircut off, sent away and the prince blinded, but that she was actually pregnant (before marriage!!!!!) and became a homeless mother of twins before being reunited with her prince. Well I never!  They didn’t put that twist in ‘Tangled’ did they?

“The witch was lying in wait. She had tied Rapunzel’s hair to the window hook, and when she heard him call, she threw it down as the girl had done. The prince climbed up, but instead of his beloved Rapunzel, at the window he found an ugly old woman, demented with anger, whose eyes flashed with fury as she railed at him:
  ‘You’re her fancy-boy, are you? You worm your way into the tower, you worm your way into her affections, you worm your way into her bed, you rogue, you leech, you lounge-lizard, you high-born mongrel! Well, the bird’s not in her nest anymore! The cat got her. What d’you think of that, eh? And the cat’ll scratch your pretty eyes out too before she’s finished. Rapunzel’s gone, you understand? You’ll never see her again!’”

Overall I really enjoyed Pullman’s ‘Grimm Tales’, occasionally there was the odd dud and the language sometimes felt too current, which I don’t think fairy or folk tales should ever do really, but I loved the favourites and the wealth of information that you learn about the Brothers Grimm’s and the tales themselves. I have heard some people miser about the fact Pullman hasn’t really done anything original with this collection just retold the tales, but 200 years ago that is exactly what the Brothers Grimm were doing wasn’t it?

Has anyone else given this collection a whirl? Which other collections of folk and fairy tales would you recommend? I have to admit I am quite keen to try Italo Calvino’s ‘Italian Folktales’, which is mentioned a lot by Pullman in this book. Finally, what is your very favourite fairy tale and why?

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Filed under Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, Philip Pullman, Review

Kiss Kiss – Roald Dahl

For years and years and years and years and years and years (you are getting the picture I am sure) people have been saying to me that I “simply must read some of the adult short stories by Roald Dahl”. For years and years and years and years and years and years I have been ignoring them. Why? Well I am not too sure. As a child I absolutely loved his stories and so in some weird way I think I had assumed that any adult fiction he had written might have a childish edge to it, oh how I am kicking myself now. It was after an episode of the Readers where I was waffling on, as usual, about a story I read as a kid that freaked me out about a man living in a house smelling of almonds that I got an email from a listener telling me it was probably ‘The Landlady’ by Roald Dahl from his collection of short stories ‘Kiss Kiss’. I looked it up and saw it was a collection of dark, disturbing, macabre and haunting tales and whoops I had clicked and bought it. I am so, so pleased that I did.

Penguin Books, paperback, 1960 (2011 edition), fiction, short stories, 303 pages, from my own personal TBR pile

‘Kiss Kiss’ is a collection of eleven of Roald Dahl’s tales, the only thing that really links them is that they are all really rather dark and have twists, some gory, some jaw drooping, some shocking, at the end that even if you loathe the main character will leave you wanting them not to get whatever awful comeuppance is coming to them, yes even when they might actually deserve it. What I wasn’t expecting, and what I really loved about them all, was just how dark they would be.

In a collection of eleven short stories you might, well if you are a bit of a cynic like me, expect there to be maybe one or two that you don’t like as much or ‘get’. I thought that pretty much every single story in ‘Kiss Kiss’ was a corker. Now I just have the mission of explaining why without giving anything away so that if you haven’t read them you will go and do so.

For me the best stories in the collection are the ones that I started reading with an initial sense of ‘hmmm this doesn’t seem new’. I won’t mention specific names as that might spoil them. There were tales, for example, starting with cheating wives, or doormat wives who lead meek lives under their husbands watchful gaze (which comes up in a few of the tales actually) yet what Dahl does is take these familiar tales or characters and completely turn them on their heads. I have discovered with a book or two this year is something I really enjoy and must find more books that do this for the wonderful surprise they give you.

I should really mention, before we go any further, the fact that after about three stories I had a strange feeling of déjà vu. I knew I had read ‘The Landlady’ at school in my first year of secondary school, and it was a memory of this tale that made me get the collection, and felt like ‘William and Mary’ was very familiar when an old school friend reminded me that we had in fact studied the lot. Somewhat understandably between the ages of eleven and almost thirty-one I had forgotten them all pretty much and so it was nice to have the twists still waiting for me and I could see why I would have loved them so much at that age as that sense of the macabre is clearly something I simply like and always have done. And what twisted endings these tales do have…

‘Pig’ left me feeling a little nauseous and also with my jaw placed firmly on the floor, simply never saw that coming. ‘Royal Jelly’ really surprised me with its twist, and oddly fascinated me with all the facts about bees Dahl threw in, and I was left wondering what happened next. I cheered for the comeuppance of some very naughty/underhand people in ‘Parson’s Pleasure’ and ‘The Way Up To Heaven’ despite how unpleasant it might have been.

I will admit that ‘Edward the Conqueror’ left me a little cold until the last paragraph, but that might have been the point though it seemed a lot of work for little reward unlike the others, and ‘The Champion of the World’ (which is indeed the original idea for the kids classic ‘Danny, The Champion of the World’) didn’t really set me racing through them like the others, but I did enjoy them.

I have to say in terms of favourites ‘The Landlady’ remains up there, even if it is not the very best tale, just for the nostalgic feeling and creeps it continues to give me in a slightly delicious way. I also thought that ‘Georgy Porgy’ (which is what we used to call a next door neighbour, now I know why) was one of the funniest tales and had a wry sense of humour that made me laugh out loud, and then giggle a lot. It was also another tale that made a joke of spinsters and men of the cloth which seemed a theme along with down trodden wives in this collection throughout. My very favourite though for the fact it is pure genius was ‘Genesis and Catastrophe – A True Story’; a tale of a woman whose babies all die but one survives and the twist blew my mind. Brilliant!

“The next day it was Miss Unwin. Now Miss Unwin happened to be a close friend of Miss Elphinstone’s and of Miss Prattley’s, and this of course should have been enough to make me very cautious. Yet who would have thought that she of all people, Miss Unwin, that quiet gentle little mouse who only a few weeks before had presented me with a new hassock exquisitely worked in needle point with her own hands, who would have thought that she would ever have taken a liberty with anyone? So when she asked me to accompany her down to the crypt to show her the Saxon murals, it never entered my head that there was devilry afoot. But there was.”

I think ‘Kiss Kiss’ will undoubtedly remain one of my favourite short story collections, and one that I will happily dip in and out of again and again in the future. It has that delightfully dark, yet awfully darkly funny, essence to it that I just really enjoy. It has made me want to go out and read all of Dahl’s other adult work (especially with the covers in this new series by Penguin) and also dig out my old childhood favourites which I am sure I will now see in a whole new light. I would definitely recommend that you read this collection if you haven’t, they are mini macabre masterpieces.

Who else has read ‘Kiss Kiss’ and what did you think? Which of his other collections or adult novels would you recommend I try next?

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Filed under Books of 2012, Penguin Books, Review, Roald Dahl, Short Stories

The Colour of Milk – Nell Leyshon

Every so often you meet a character in fiction that you will remember for the rest of your life. These don’t always have to be the narrators of a book nor do they have to be likeable, I am thinking of Mrs Danvers now in ‘Rebecca’, yet when they are it makes a book very, very difficult to put down. In ‘The Colour of Milk’ by Nell Leyshon, an author I hadn’t come across until this book which is her fourth, with Mary and the story she tells I found one of those exact books and (cliché alert) I simply could not put the book down.

*****, Fig Tree/Penguin Books, 2012, hardback, fiction, 172 pages, kindly sent by publisher

It is 1831 when we meet Mary, or as she writes ‘in this year of lord eighteen hundred and thirty one i am reached the age of fifteen’, a young girl and one of four daughters living on a farm where you work, sleep and eat before doing it all over again the next day. The family isn’t a particularly happy one, particularly as it is led by an angry and unpredictable father who will even beat his own father if he dare cross him. Mary herself is rather unruly and some what the black sheep (farm pun not intended) of the family, this could be all from the fact she was born with a crippled leg at birth, and soon is forced to move away, yet oddly doesn’t want to leave, to the vicarage to care for the vicars invalid wife.

‘he ain’t lazy, i said. he ain’t got no choice but to sit there. ain’t like his legs’d take him anywhere.
might as well be dead for all the use he is, she said.
wish i were dead, grandfather said, having to listen to you going on like that.’  

Before you all think I have lost the plot (and the use of spell check on my lovely new laptop) the way the novel is written is one of the things that make it so special, alongside Mary’s narration which as a device it also underlines, because it isn’t your usual fare. You see the tale of an unhappy farm girl who moves to the big house, where good or bad things might happen to her, is not really an original one. However with Mary’s character and the fact the novel is written as she talks, and sometimes almost phonetically ‘straw berry’, really adds to the voice of the novel and makes it stand out. It also somehow gives it that feel of being a classic novel even though it is a contemporary novel, the last time I read a book like this was Jane Harris’ ‘The Observations’ narrated by the ever swearing and gutsy Bessy Buckley, and I loved Mary just as much.

‘my leg is my leg and i ain’t never known another leg. it’s the way i always been and the way i always walked, mother says it was like that when i come out into the world. i was some scrap if a thing with hair like milk and i was covered in some hair like i was an animal and my nails was long. and she says i took one look around me and i opened my mouth and i yelled and some say i ain’t never shut it since.’

Really Mary is the reason that you end up loving the book so much, well it was for me. She is a heroine of teh first degree; gutsy, funny and tells it like it is, occasionally she almost breaks your heart too. The book is a story of a girl who leaves an unhappy home, yet we figure that out as we read on because really Mary is quite happy with her life on the whole thank you very much. The fact the story is reminiscent of a Victorian classic also works in the books favour because it feels comfortable and yet different, does that make sense? I have to admit that i did hazard a guess at ending that seems to have shocked other people I know who have read it, which I will not spoil or even hint at, not that it stopped me loving the book because I was being taken along by Mary who I could have read for another few hundred pages or more.

There are certain books that you instantly take to aren’t there. Books which coax you into the heart of their tale and just have you hooked. ‘The Colour of Milk’ by Nell Leyshon is one such book, for me it is one of those books that is pretty much perfect, in fact so much so I would dare any of you to read it and not do it in one reading gulp. Seriously, I dare you to prove me wrong. And if you don’t believe me then check out reviews from bloggers I trust, and who agree, here and here, one of my books of the year without a doubt. Now who has read any of Nell Leyshon’s other novels?

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Filed under Books of 2012, Fig Tree, Nell Leyshon, Penguin Books, Review

Noblesse Oblige – Nancy Mitford (Editor)

I am rather a fan of the Mitford sisters, I have made it my mission to at some point have read every book they have published, be they fictional, essays, memoirs, investigative pieces or letters etc. One book I didn’t think I would get to read until I had saved up some serious cash was ‘Noblesse Oblige’ an edited collection by Nancy Mitford. This is a book which is rather expensive second hand and being a series of essays about class I wasn’t sure I was that fussed spending oodles of money on now. However a while back one of my friends was making an art installation of books for a hospital and had bought over 4ft of old Penguin classics and invited me to peruse it and pilfer from it as he had too many. This was one of the gems inside, one of those ‘oh my god’ book moments you sometimes have when your bookish excitement runneth over. Well actually it would have been worth the money because ‘Noblesse Oblige’ is a fascinating look not only into class and social history but also into how language evolves.

Penguin Books, paperback, 1956, non fiction, 109 pages, from my own personal TBR

I do think that the subtitle of ‘Noblesse Oblige’ is a rather off putting and misleading one. It states it is ‘An Enquiry into the Identifiable Characteristics of the English Aristocracy’ which both sounds like it could be rather irritating and also potentially rather dull, actually it is neither. It does look at the distinctions of class, through essays and response essays and letters from various sources, but it looks at a lot more than that too, and is really rather funny both on occasion with intent but also with the hindsight of a modern reader.

In 1954 Professor Alan Ross of Birmingham University published an paper called ‘U and Non-U, an Essay in Social Linguistics’ all about class, the upper (U) and lower (Non-U) and how you could tell them apart in times where “a member of the upper class is, for instance, not necessarily better educated, cleaner or richer than someone not of his class’. This didn’t produce much outrage in Helsinki where it was published until Nancy Mitford’s beady eyes spotted it (possibly because her book ‘The Pursuit of Love’ was mentioned in it) and used it to discuss her love of the British aristocracy in an article in Encounter which then did cause a huge level of controversy, debate and some absolute fury and ill will throughout the UK and even in Paris and New York. This piece, ‘The English Aristocracy’ is the second section of the book.

What follows are further reactions to Nancy’s own essay. One looks at the future of class in ‘What U-Future?’ which is the last full essay before John Betjeman’s poem ‘How To Get on in Society’ and sadly is rather a damp squib to end upon as it is a little dull. The other two essays are fascinating, one, ‘Posh Lingo’ by ‘Strix’, looks at how language evolves and changes naturally but also with ‘fashion’, I found the history and stories behind words like ‘cinema’ and who the lower classes got it correct quicker when it arrived, plus tales of how ‘wizard’ and ‘cheers’ came in (and in the former case out) of fashion utterly fascinating.

My favourite response though was ‘An Open Letter’ to Nancy from her own well known friend Evelyn Waugh. Renowned for being a wit but also rather acerbic and occasionally spiteful he does indeed seem to have his claws out for his very own friend as he adds his own thoughts to the class debate and points out that Nancy is a delightful trouble maker to write such a thing but also someone who only just managed to be upper class and now resides in another country, so who is she really to even bring it all up?

“That way lay madness and I fear that if you are taken too seriously you and Professor Ross may well drive your readers into the bin. When in your novel you made ‘Uncle Matthew’ utter his catalogue of irrational prohibitions, you were accurately recording a typical conversational extravagance. When you emerge in propria persona as the guide to Doric youth, you are more mischievous.’

There is this dry and often sly wit running through the whole of ‘Noblesse Oblige’, in fact at the time many people thought (or hoped) it was a satire and now in the modern day the preposterous nature of it is often rather laughable. Really though ‘Noblesse Oblige’ is, as I mentioned earlier, a thoroughly interesting and insightful look at both class in social history and of the late 1940’s to early 1950’s in the UK but also as a record and look into how language and words change their importance and usage. I really rather enjoyed it, how could you not enjoy any book that brings in the word ‘primogeniture’ to argue a case? I do hope someone reprints it again one day.

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Filed under Nancy Mitford, Non Fiction, Penguin Books, Review

Me Before You – Jojo Moyes

Assumptions can be dangerous things; you are probably making one about me reviewing this book right now be it good, bad or indifferent. I admit I make them all the time despite the fact that I know I shouldn’t. One such bookish assumption that I know I make often is about books with too much pink on them, I just assume that they will be my cup of tea. Jojo Moyes latest novel ‘Me Before You’ is one such book I had been intrigued by but avoided due to the cover, yet thanks to a roundabout recommendation of it by Damian Barr (and the podcast of his literary salon featuring Jojo Moyes reading from the novel and discussing it) I gave it a whirl! I am so glad I did as it was a wonderful, funny, touching and emotional read and one much darker and deeper than the cover (which I don’t really think has any relation to the book to be honest) would suggest.

Penguin Books, paperback, 2012, fiction, 512 pages, borrowed from the library

As ‘Me Before You’ opens we meet Will Traynor, a young, ruthless and successful high flying business man. He makes mega bucks during the week in his office and spends the weekend’s mountain climbing, skiing or biking. That is until, in the opening chapter so I am not giving anything away, he is involved in a tragic accident. Skip forward a few years and we meet Louisa Clarke, your average kind of girl who it still living at home in her mid twenties and who has no aspirations to leave happily working in the local cafe, that is until its closed. She becomes jobless and the prospects are slim, until she takes on a job as the daytime carer/companion for a quadriplegic, Will Traynor.

It could so easily fall into the clichéd story at which you may all be assuming will take a certain twist. Louisa is hapless, clumsy and unsure and Will is edgy, offensive and incredibly frustrated. Neither really wants to be there but that is the way it is and so they both meet in the middle with slightly awkward humour. It is this humour, which had me laughing out loud, that makes the book rather special, you laugh at what you shouldn’t but not in a callous way, because as a reader you really care and you really feel the frustration and anger Will must feel being in his situation and the frustration and emotions of those dealing with Will dealing with himself.

The second genius stroke, which was also quite a risk, is the way the story develops and it might not be the one you would hazard a guess at because Moyes throws in a very big, and controversial, subject as we go on and that is the right to die. How it all works out I will not divulge, I would just urge you to read on and discover as it, I think, is handled beautifully. I should state here that I never felt that Moyes had used the subject to ‘shift copies’ and I think that is something that should be mentioned as I can think of some authors, who will remain nameless, who have happily cashed in on ‘moral dilemmas’ – this is not such a book in case the thought had fleetingly crossed your minds and you are a bit cynical like me.

There are few books which you read where the characters walk off the page and you genuinely feel like you have been spending time with them because they are as real as your mates, the last book I read where I felt like that was ‘One Day’ by David Nicholls. There are also relatively few books which deal with a tough subject or subjects in a truly honest fashion, which encompasses the light and dark, the funny and the heartbreaking, and here Moyes excels again (this interestingly reminded me of ‘When God Was A Rabbit’ by Sarah Winman). The two combined just make for a really enjoyable, emotional and rewarding read. There are also some slight twists and the like thrown in for good measure but it is the relative normality of the characters and the way they interact, good and bad, which also sets this book apart.

Having listened to Jojo Moyes talking about ‘Me Before You’ she said that it could be ‘a career breaker’ and ‘not an easy sell’ as the subject matter which it covers is a delicate one and, in the wrong writers hands, could offend or patronise people. Thank goodness for Jojo Moyes taking the subject under her wing as with a deft hand she makes this a very human story, one which will have you laughing on one page and quite possibly crying the next (have tissues to hand, advice from someone who didn’t). Ignore the cover, read the book. I did in one sitting.

Who else has read ‘Me Before You’ and what did you think? Has anyone read any of Moyes other books? I know my mother has some of them on her shelves but we have never discussed them, should I be secretly pilfering them next time I visit?

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Filed under Books of 2012, Jojo Moyes, Michael Joseph Publishing, Penguin Books, Review

The Diary of a Young Girl – Anne Frank

I think the reason that I had left reading ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ by Anne Frank for such a long time, or certainly put off by it for so long, was the fact I worried that I wouldn’t be moved by it and what that would say about me. The story behind the story, well true story behind the true story, of Anne Frank is probably as famous as the book itself, indeed it is why it is so well known. What would people think of me, and indeed what would I think of myself, if I read these diary entries and came away feeling nothing? Fortunately I haven’t had to ask myself those questions because whilst it didn’t have me weeping these diary entries have left an impression on me.

Penguin Books, paperback, 1947, reprint 2000, non fiction, 368 pages, borrowed from a friend

It seems slightly unnecessary to give any background to the story of ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ by Anne Frank because I think most of us know it. Forced into hiding from the SS in 1942 as Jewish family in Amsterdam the Frank family move into the hidden annexe of a warehouse in order to escape the Nazi’s and the concentration camps of World War Two. Whilst in hiding the youngest daughter of the family, Anne, kept a diary of her life there until they were unfortunately found out – and I don’t think that is a spoiler considering the fact that Anne died in one of the concentration camps and that is what has made this story become so well known.

When I started the book I have to admit I didn’t think I was going to get on with it, which roughly translates to me not getting on with Anne Frank, people will be up in arms about that but bear with me. Anne Frank was a thirteen year old girl when she wrote what were her personal diaries and ones I am sure she had no intention of becoming read the way they are today, so they are going to be filled with flights of fancy, gossip about the girls at school she doesn’t like and the boys she does. I did feel so sad when I read that the reason she wanted a diary as she didn’t feel she had a true friend, though initially I thought I knew why that might be. As soon as I got my head accustomed to that, and the fact that (and she admits this herself in her diaries) she was rather a precocious young girl it all started to work and by about fifty pages in I started to really like Anne and was enjoying being party to her inner thoughts. I can see why this would be a very effective read for younger people of Anne’s age.

Anne was definitely wiser than her years. As the book goes on she matures, in part due to age and in part the situation and her insights into people is quite fascinating. I had no idea that the Frank family lived in such a large annexe, in my head it has always been that Anne and her family lived in a tiny box room rather than the two story annexe she describes, I also had no idea that they lived with another family, the van Daans, and a single man, Albert Dussel. The way Anne describes how they interact, the highs and lows of living with so many people in such small a space with no escape and how you never really know people until you live with them is fascinating, it’s also very claustrophobic.  It’s her blunt young personality and way of describing her observations that do almost make you feel you are there with them all.

The second thing I didn’t expect was how funny ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ would be. Her observations and way of writing about her co-habitants, in particular berating and criticising Mrs van Daan who spends all her time criticising everyone else, are superb. These also make the darker moments, such as her fear during the bombing of Amsterdam and when they hear people in the warehouse below when no one should be there, become all the darker. I did get a little bit bored in the middle, but that is the whole point, Anne was bored to bits stuck with the same people and same routine day after day. It completes the picture of what it must have been like even if I was tempted to skim read – but I didn’t.

Obviously when you read what happened to the family that you have spent the time with its a very difficult thing to take on board. Something which I don’t think, no matter how great a fictional version of these events might be can ever truly captured like they are in a book like this. One of the saddest things for me about ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ for me was that Anne Frank clearly had a talent for writing; the way at such a young age she managed to make me almost feel I was with her in the annexe only shows what great talent could have been ahead. I think actually that might have been the most poignant thing for me about the whole experience of reading it. That mixed in with feeling like you really get to know Anne because it is such an open and honest account does leave you with a feeling of melancholy, but we need that don’t we, so we don’t forget what happened.

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Filed under Anne Frank, Non Fiction, Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, Review

The Pleasures of Men – Kate Williams

I have dragged my heels about sharing my thoughts about Katie Williams’ debut novel ‘The Pleasures of Men’ and have kept putting it off. I first became aware of the book when it caught my eye in a book shop window. The cover alone suggested this would be a very ‘me’ book; it looked Victorian, gothic and murderous – lovely. The more I found out about it the more I thought I would like it, a neo-Victorian novel written by a historian on the field and with a serial killer. Should have been my perfect read shouldn’t it? Sadly, not so.

Michael Joseph, trade paperback, 2012, fiction, 400 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Catherine Sorgeuil has moved from the delights of Richmond to London’s East End to live with her uncle under some mysterious circumstances. As she does a series of murders by ‘The Man of Crows’ starts occurring in the East End. As the story goes on the murders become more frequent and more bloody thirsty and Catherine starts to believe, while starting to write her own crime novel, that she has some connection to the murderer and may be able to catch him. We also start to learn bit by bit why Catherine is living with her uncle and her own dark past starts to come to light.

Before I go any further I should stipulate that I wanted to absolutely love this book. It had all the elements that would make a ‘cracking read’ for me. Whilst it did have some moments of brilliance I found myself left very cold by it. I pondered initially if it was the fact that because Catherine as a narrator was so mysterious, and Williams slowly showing and telling all Catherine’s secrets, I didn’t really connect with her, and that I do think was part of it. I also couldn’t initially, and was still left a little non plussed at the end, as to why she became so obsessed with ‘The Man of Crows’ apart from it being Williams way of linking the story of a serial killer with a woman in the Victorian times and discussing the society and women’s place in it at the time.

This leads to Kate Williams main strengths. As a historian she knows the Victorian period and so London during that period does live and breathe. She has chosen the darker seedier side of it which is always fascinating and titillating to read, though it’s also rather disturbing as some of the book is incredibly graphic – a small warning should you avoid books like this. There are some brilliant set pieces with theatres and magicians that are wonderfully realised. Yet there are some pieces, such as a visit to a home for foundlings which seem to simply be there for the sake of showing more society issues, it’s all well and good but haven’t we read this before?

Kate Williams has been compared to Sarah Waters, possibly for the aspect of the story which involves lesbianism in the Victorian period. That to me is where the similarities end. Kate Williams can clearly write, and she is an extremely successful biographer, but ‘The Pleasures of Men’ can fall into over writing. I saw the intent was to make the book have a claustrophobic feel and yet the fact chapters started with ‘my hands were cold, as if they had been buried in damp soil’ or ‘that night my mind burnt with plans and I could not sleep’ and ‘I slammed the door of Princess Street as if I had been chased there by demons’ became overkill. Maybe Williams felt that as Catherine starts to write her own book in the book, or notes of deduction, she felt that Catherine must be a wordy narrator, or maybe as a debut novel she was trying to prove something.

Interestingly though, and to make sure this is a fair assessment of my thoughts on the novel, when Kate writes about the victims of ‘The Man of Crows’ the book excels. These are intermittent chapters in each victim’s life before she meets her untimely end and yet in that single chapter Williams wonderfully evokes their circumstances, thoughts and their back story. I wanted more of this.

Whilst I didn’t love ‘The Pleasures of Men’ I liked some of it and I will be interested to see what Kate Williams does next. With her knowledge of the era I wonder if I should read some of her non-fiction and see how I get along with that. In many ways this book has elements of a very unusual neo-Victorian novel, sadly it didn’t quite grip me but that could be because I had over hyped the book in my head and was so excited about it maybe? If you like novels of this genre, or in that era I would say give it a try, lots of people (like Fleur Fisher, whose review tantalised me all the more) have really enjoyed this. I am still in two minds about it, but I did finish it which says something. I still think the cover is utterly stunning.

Phew, there that’s out there, hopefully if a little negative I have backed my feelings up. Who else has read this and what did you think? Which books have you been really excited about and then have fallen flat, and why? Do you think, as readers, we can over hype a book we are excited about in our heads and therefore almost ruin the experience for ourselves a little? As ever I am interested in your thoughts on all the above questions.

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Filed under Kate Williams, Michael Joseph Publishing, Penguin Books, Review