Category Archives: Virago Books

The Dark Circle – Linda Grant

One of the joys for me with reading the Baileys Women’s Prize is the books that it makes you discover. There are some on the list, mainly the horsey ones and Barkskins, which I am slightly nervous about, there are also all the books and authors I have been meaning to read for quite some time. Linda Grant is one such author. I actually own almost all her books because she is an author I have always felt I would really like and every time I go into Waterstones in Liverpool and see her writing by the escalators, reading as I ascend or descend, I think ‘ooh, I really must finally pick up one of her books’. Well now I have…

Virago Press, hardback, 2016, fiction, 312 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

London. Big black old place, falling down, hardly any colour apart from a woman’s red hat going into the chemist with her string bag, and if you looked carefully, bottle-green leather shoes on that girl, but mostly grey and beige and black and mud-coloured people with dirty hair and unwashed shirt collars, because everything is short, soap is short, joy is short, sex is short, and no one on the street is laughing so jokes must be short too. Four years after the war and still everything is up shit creek.

I have mentioned the infamous ‘book tingle’ on the blog before. That feeling you get very early on in a book where you know that you are just going to love the journey ahead of you, wherever the author decides to take you. You just know, simple as that. That is what happened to me within about two or three pages of The Dark Circle, well in fact probably from the first paragraph and the tingle lasted throughout and has since because I simply will not forget this book or the wonderful cast of characters that inhabit it. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Four years after the Second World War has ended, Lenny and his sister Miriam are being driven to a sanatorium in the Kent countryside. Ironically, after their uncle paid for the powers that be to say Lenny was unfit to be a soldier, it turns out that Lenny has TB and has passed it on to his sister or vice versa, so the pair are packed off to recuperate. To Lenny and Miriam, who we discover very early on like to live life to the full and often rebel against it, this is going to be torturously dull. However once they arrive and start to get to know the other characters there, and in their minds see it as a grand free hotel thanks to the newly created National Health Service, they begin to see this as a holiday from the cares of the world. Yet as we follow them both, and those around them, we discover behind these facades darkness and fear reside.

This place, Gwendo, was all about plate glass, calm light blue paint, the stillness, the paths through the woods, the bells that rang to punctuate your day, the reading of books, the playing of cards, and above all the ceaseless measuring of temperature, saliva in the spittoons and the mysterious darkness inside your chest which the machine could see and you couldn’t. Your skeleton which held you up and would be what was left of you when the worms had finished chomping at your insides.

What I loved about Linda Grant’s writing in The Dark Circle most initially was its warmth and humour, from the off it brims with life and all the quirky wonders of it. This somewhat lead me in to a false sense of security though as the more I read on the more bittersweet the humour becomes, after all the power with dark comedy is that it verges so close to the edge of tragedy the two can become entwined and the effect of that can be incredibly emotionally potent. If I am sounding a little cloak and dagger here it is because I don’t want to spoil an iota of this book for any of you who go onto read it, which I want every single one of you to do. Suffice to say each of the characters knows they are dicing with death, though the longer they stay and life at The Gwendo becomes routine, the more they are inclined to forget.

Weeks pass. The reading group on the veranda is making its way through the sanatorium’s library and attempting to expand the dimensions of incarceration. Lenny has been enjoying exotic foreign voyages in the company of Joseph Conrad. There has been an unsuccessful foray into Jane Austen. Miriam throws Pride and Prejudice off the veranda where it lands on a rhododendron bush. ‘Them girls should just get bleeding jobs instead of hanging around fluttering their eyelashes at rich fellers.’ Valerie agrees to give up on Middlemarch when she sees it is sending them to sleep.
And reading is not enough, Valerie admits to herself. I used to think it was everything, it isn’t. I’m so bloody bored. The hands of the clocks seem to have stopped altogether. What day is it, what month? Stupor.
To Lenny, too, the days seem mouse-coloured. The officers still in their old battledress jackets have become mouse-like creatures, timid and grey.
No one is discharged well, they leave secretly without goodbyes. New arrivals disappear onto the verandas. Stuck.
Lenny wonders if he died under the pneumothorax needle.

Valerie, who shares a veranda with Miriam, puts into words the other element that I loved about The Dark Circle and Linda Grant’s writing and the world she created when she says ‘When you approach a story, it’s not necessarily just about one thing.’ I know this is the case with every story, however I don’t think I have read a book that says so much about the world then and the world now so compactly, succinctly and (enjoyably isn’t the right word but I want to say it) with so much spirit and heart.

She looks at tolerance of all kinds. There is race and heritage; at the start we learn that Miriam has to change her name at work because it is “a little too Hebrew for our clientele”, we also have Hannah who is a German resident and left ignored by most of the other patients. We later, without spoilers, have themes around disability and also deformity. Then there is class. When they arrive at the sanatorium Lenny and Miriam are not only the first Jews but also some of the earliest of the ‘common folk’ getting their health care for free, up until then it has been the privileged or those who have served for our country. In doing so she also looks at the NHS and, through another link I don’t want to give away, the political state of the country and how Labour strived to do good and yet failed at the election. Remind you of the present at all? This is of course, I think, all meant to highlight that too us, we haven’t come as far as we think but where we have, acceptance and some of the medicines now etc, we should be thankful but never complaisant. Bad things happen when we do, though we are also shown that bad things happen to good people with the best intentions. Again I don’t want to say more. Ooh this is a tricky book to try and encapsulate and talk about.

Suffice to say, as I think I have made it pretty clear, I thought that The Dark Circle  was an utterly wonderful book. It has a real vibrancy, in all of its shades from bright to dark and back again – believe me it takes us through them. I was utterly bereft when it finished, I felt like I had lived with these wonderful characters, through good times and bad, and the stories they share with each other and the ones they don’t yet we get to discover. Go and read it, now.

If you have read The Dark Circle I would love to know your thoughts on it. If you haven’t read it then please do, you can get it here. Have you read any of Linda Grant’s other novels and if so what did you make of them, which of her other works should I be heading to? I now want to read them all.

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Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Books of 2017, Linda Grant, Review, Virago Books

This Sweet Sickness – Patricia Highsmith

I am quite superstitious about the first book that I read of any year. However after possibly one of my ropiest reading years back in 2016, I was feeling it even more. (Ironically I started 2016 with a brilliant book which frankly puts my superstitious theories to pot, but anyway.) So the big question came of what I should start 2017 with. I wanted something that would hook me in, be well written, have characters that delighted me be they villainous or heroic and be a little dark. Basically I wanted a book that infuses all of the elements which give me a good old book tingle.

So after much mulling I settled on Patricia Highsmith’s This Sweet Sickness, after all none other than Marieke Hardy had recommended it on The ABC Book Show (alas not personally over a cocktail or two) selling it in all its twisted glory. Plus I read and absolutely bloody loved Deep Water in 2015 and was smitten, before also loving Highsmith’s very different but also fantastic Carol – which I am ashamed to say I have not reviewed from last year, 2016 really was a pesky pest. So with rather a lot of pressure I opened up the first page…

9780349006284

Virago Modern Classics, paperback, 1960 (2016 edition), fiction, 320 pages, bought by myself for myself

It was jealousy that kept David from sleeping, drove him from a tussled bed out of the dark and silent boarding house to walk the streets.
He had so longed lived with his jealousy, however, that the usual images and words, with their direct and obvious impact on the heart, no longer came to the surface of his mind. It was now just the Situation. The Situation was the way it was and had been for nearly two years.  No use bothering with details. The Situation was like a rock, say a five-pound rock, that he carried around his chest day and night. The evenings and the nights, when he wasn’t working, were a little bit worse that the daytime, that was all.

Seriously, how could anyone fail to be hooked from the opening paragraphs of This Sweet Sickness? Without meaning to come over all English Professor on you all, let us dissect that opener. A man, David, is overcome with jealousy. Instantly I am intrigued, jealousy being a fascinating and wicked subject and emotion. He lives in a dark and silent boarding house, gothic setting instantly ticked. Then comes ‘the Situation’ but what on earth is it, what on earth is going on? You simply have to read more don’t you, you can’t not. Well, I couldn’t anyway.

What transpires after this opening, and it transpires quickly so this is by no means a spoiler, is that David is in love with Annabelle. Annabelle is a woman who merely a few years ago, back in their home town, he had pondered asking to marry – and many people believed would have said yes – that is until another man asked and she said yes to him. However, despite the fact that they have a child together, it is David’s belief that Annabelle will leave her husband and their true love will soon run smooth, okay so there might be a slightly annoying child involved, but he would still have Annabelle wouldn’t he?

Yes, this is when you realise that David might be slightly unhinged, further confirmed when you realise that despite his pretty decent job, David is living economically in that slightly gothic boarding house because he has bought (and decorated, just to add another level of madness) a house for himself and Annabelle for when she sees sense and leaves everything for him. Yes, David is deluded and possibly a bit bonkers. Gripping stuff right?

The leaves fell, brown and yellow, and others turned red and clung for weeks longer. It was the first of November, and still Annabelle has not answered his letter. Should he send her another letter, or had she gotten into trouble with one letter and was Gerald now pouncing on all the mail that came in?

What I loved so much about This Sweet Sickness is also what I loved about Deep Water, though delivered just as originally whilst very differently… The way she goes inside the mind of someone who has quite possibly lost theirs. Not only is it a fascinating portrait into the mind of someone quite sick (she referred to many of her creations as her beloved little psychopaths) yet she does so in a way that humanises them and some of the deeds that they may or may not commit. As we follow David, slightly ironically following Annabelle, we feel for him even though we know what he is doing is creepy and even when he goes too far.

In a small part this is also because Annabelle quite frankly is a bit of a psycho-tease. As the novel went on I found her wet and insipid responses quite pathetic and questioned if actually it was adding some spice to her and her husband’s relationships. Anyway, I digress. If I was her I would have told him to absolutely do one, but that wouldn’t have made for novel, more a piece of flash fiction. Yet the main reason for us feeling for David when we probably (ha, definitely) shouldn’t, is that Highsmith somehow manages to make us empathise with him. After all haven’t we readers all fallen for someone who we thought loved us back but didn’t? Erm, yes. Haven’t we all become slightly besotted with someone we shouldn’t? Erm, yes. Haven’t we all deluded ourselves that the one doesn’t know they are the one and so we buy a house we don’t live in but decorate how we imagine the one would want us to even though they don’t know about it and might not want to live in their too? Erm… just David then. But in other ways many of the things David has done we have done too, just slightly less extremely and I think that is where Highsmith’s true power lies.

She can also write a downright gripping and addictive plot. Chapters just long enough. As sense of impending dread that gets larger as you read on. Twists coming when you least expect them. And the ear, or eye, for a great main character who is flawed, nuts and yet you can’t get enough of and even sometimes like. She also knows how to add extra meat to the bone with a thriller, the plot and the main character aren’t enough and in This Sweet Sickness that comes in the form of an interesting friendship between David, his colleague Wes and Effie, a slightly lost young woman who I loved and felt deeply sorry for, which also becomes a slightly warped and strange love triangle all of its own.

I cannot recommend This Sweet Sickness enough; it is a thriller that should be up there with so many of the infamous classics it is quite remiss that it is not. As with Deep Water, which I also urge you to read, it has all the elements of a gripping thriller whilst being a fascinating insight into the darker parts of the human psyche. I know we get into the heads of some really warped characters in crime fiction right now, but never in the way or on the same level as we do in a Highsmith, all the more eerie as we sometimes empathise with it. Simply writing this review has made me want to run and take another of the shelves.

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Filed under Books of 2017, Patricia Highsmith, Review, Virago Books, Virago Modern Classics

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

There is a sad truth that sometimes it can take the death of an author to remind you that you have always meant to read them. This was very much the case when Maya Angelou died last year and I was reminded that I had still not attempted to read any of her many volumes of autobiography. These books also happen to be some of my mother’s favourite books and on many occasion she has told me I really must read. So when I saw the first four of them pristine in a charity shop last autumn I snapped them up, it took my friend Rachael choosing I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings for book group earlier this year for me to finally get around to reading it.

Virago Books, 1984, paperback, memoir, 320 pages, kindly bought by me for me

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings covers the first year of Maya Angelou’s life, opening in the small segregated town of Stamps we soon learn that Maya and her brother were sent there to live with family after their parents marriage failed. What breaks your heart early on, and indeed sets a tone to this memoir, is the fact that they had tag attached to them labelled ‘To whom it may concern.’ The landscape and times of Maya’s childhood are not easy. Whilst Stamps is segregated that doesn’t mean that it is safe from racism or other evils of the world and nor is living with her grandmother really an exactly happy or enriching experience especially once she is sent away again to live with her mother having only just got used to almost calling one place home.

In Stamps the segregation was so complete that most Black children didn’t really, absolutely know what whites looked like. Other than that they were different, to be dreaded, and in that dread was included the hostility of the powerless against the powerful, the poor against the rich, the worker against the worked for and the ragged against the well dressed.
I remember never believing that whites were really real.

From here things swiftly go downhill as Maya where she is sexually abused by her mother’s partner and once this is discovered he is soon found dead having been murdered, Maya becomes a mute. What then follows from here is a tale of how a young woman who has already faced so much difficulty must not only try to make her way with that mental and physical scaring, but also in a world set against her firstly because she is black and secondly because she is female.

If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.
It is an unnecessary insult.

There were several things that I found fascinating about I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. First and foremost was its look at the plight of black people during a horrendous time in America’s history, though scarily you see moments of the past in the present when you watch the news, when racial tensions were incredibly heightened. Black people were simply considered second rate, if that, and what adds such an impact to Angelou’s writing is that everything she encounters is fact not fiction. Big moments such as having to help hide her uncle from the Klu Klux Klan, how an employee of hers simply changes her name to Mary (partly because it is easier but also because it is whiter) to smaller yet just as awful moments like simply being unable to see a dentist when she has toothache as he only deals with white girls. Yet amongst all this, we read, there remainded hope.

Champion of the world. A Black boy. Some Black mother’s son. He was the strongest man in the world. People drank Coca-Colas like ambrosia and ate candy bars like Christmas. Some of the men went behind the Store and poured white lightening in their soft-drink bottles, and a few of the bigger boys followed them. Those who were not chased away came back blowing their breath in front of themselves like proud smokers.

 As I read on I both admired Angelou for the things she accomplished (which I will not spoil) before she even turns twenty, as the book ends when she is seventeen, and also because of all the things she encompasses in writing  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings later in her life. It is interesting that in some ways you get the older and younger writer all at once, if that makes sense. I found her honesty, forgiveness, humour and acceptance both humbling and fascinating. I also found her passion for literature wonderful (there was a bit about The Well of Loneliness which I found very funny) and I loved how she talked about and looked at class, family and identity.

Bailey persisted in calling her Mother Dear until the circumstance of proximity softened the phrase’s formality to ‘Muh Dear,’ and finally to ‘M’Deah.’ I could never put my finger on her realness. She was so pretty and so quick that even when she had just awakened, her eyes full of sleep and hair tousled, I thought she looked just like the Virgin Mary. But what mother and daughter understand each other, or even have the sympathy for each other’s lack of understanding?

There is a small but for me, my mother will be reading this and raising an eyebrow sorry Mum, which that is that I actually wish I had read it back in my teens. Whilst I totally understood it is an incredibly important piece of work, one which should frankly be on the syllabus around the world especially in the US and UK, I did feel that coming to it now it did have a slight less impact that I wanted it to. This might be because so many people have told me how fantastic and important it is, which can add a lot of hype and pressure to a book, yet I think it is because I have read a lot of other works that look at this time period and the horrendousness of it all, albeit through fiction.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that you only have to have read a few books on a subject to understand it (far from it, on some parts of history we can never know enough no matter how difficult) and you can’t really compare fiction to fact. I was often very moved by the book; I just didn’t really gel with it until about two thirds/three quarters of the way through, I wondered if this was because Maya’s memories of her early childhood might not be as strong until her early teens and hence why sometimes I felt rather distant and confused with what was going on. However as Maya grew up and became more independent, I became hooked and was very disappointed when it then soon ended, meaning I will have to get to the second in due course. I have a feeling the further I read on with Maya Angelou and her story the more and more effect it will have on me.

What I found interesting was that Tracy, Rachael and Barbara, who I am in my book group with, all felt very similar. Have you read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and what did you make of it? Have your read the following six volumes and how was your journey, no spoilers, with Maya as you went on? Do you think how old we are, or where we are in our life affects the responses we have to books along with what we have read before?

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Filed under Maya Angelou, Non Fiction, Review, Virago Books, Virago Modern Classics

The Woman Upstairs – Claire Messud

As of next week on Monday’s something slightly different is coming to Savidge Reads. I had planned to start it today however I wanted to get my thoughts on Clare Messud’s ‘The Woman Upstairs’ out into the ether before it is talked about on my favourite book show, Australia’s ‘The Book Club’, tomorrow. It is a book I am somewhat confused about, so I really can’t wait for the show.

Virago Books, 2013, hardback, 301 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

From the very first line of ‘The Woman Upstairs’ we are taken into the head of Nora Eldridge. From the outside she is one of life’s good people who everyone thinks is lovely, she is a teacher after all and she cared for her mother through her terminal illness, yet no one really takes the time to actually befriend her. Once we are inside her head, as the reader is, it becomes clear that still waters run deep and Nora is a woman who has been good but had also spent years of her life getting very, very angry.

“How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.”

Why is Nora so angry? Well to tell you that would give quite a lot away, but I will say that in part it is because she is aware she has naturally become one of life’s wallflowers but also when the Shadid family come into her life, when Reza becomes one of her students, Nora experiences a side of life she gas never seen before, she becomes useful and a trusted friend to both his father, Skandar, and also his mother, Sirena, who is an artist something Nora only ever got to the point she teaches it rather than exhibits it. It is through this friendship that Nora at once flowers and strangely starts to unravel.

Yet like with Nora and her complexities and the fact she is really at odds with herself and those around her, becoming something of a contradiction, so is ‘The Woman Upstairs’ as a book itself. It is one that I found utterly compelling and fascinating, then rather timid and (I hate to say it) a bit dull and boring in parts. In fact very like Nora all over, so maybe that was the point and I missed it, which could easily be the case.

“Don’t all women feel the same? The only difference is how much we know we feel it, how in touch we are with our fury. We’re all furies, except the ones that are too damn foolish, and my worry now is that we’re brainwashing them from the cradle, and in the end the ones who are smart will be too damned foolish. What do I mean? I mean the second graders at Appleton Elementary, sometimes the first graders even, and by the time they get too my classroom, to the third grade, they’re well and truly gone – they’re full of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry and French manicures and how their hair looks! In the third grade. The care more about their hair or their shoes than about galaxies or caterpillars or hieroglyphics.”

The rage and anger that Nora expresses in the first chapter made the book utterly compelling and I thought ‘ooh this is going to be a great dark outpouring here’, yet every great first chapter really needs the rest of the book to live up to it and keep the momentum and as I read on the book held its own for the first third and then I just found the middle section really, really monotonous. I felt like Messud had lost the fire of Nora and the passion she had to put this voice out there and so started to use Nora and Sirena to talk about art and what it means to the individual and the masses. None of which I could really have given a toss about, and with the right voice I should have, I just found myself wanting Nora to get bloody furious again and do something with all that fury.

“You’re thinking, how would I know whether I was romantically in love, I whose apparently nonexistent love life would suggest a prudish vacancy, uterus shrivelled like a corn husk and withered dugs for breasts? You’re thinking that whatever else she does, the Woman Upstairs with her cats and her pots of tea and her Sex and the City reruns and her goddamn Garnet Hill catalog, the woman with her class of third graders and her carefully pearly smile – whatever else she manages, she doesn’t have a love life to speak of.”  

Instead what happened seemed to be a concoction of what I had read before. Nora is very, very like Barbara from ‘Notes on a Scandal’ and I have read the ‘lonely spinster befriends the family’ routine before, Messud even throws in a clichéd twist that you might spot from the start yet hope the author won’t use and then does. Yet then oddly in the final third of the book things start to pick up again as the menace that brims through the first third looks like it might come to fruition. Only it doesn’t and whilst I sort of liked the twist at the end I felt like really it was how we left Nora and what she might do next that would have made an even better story, if that makes sense?

It felt a bit like all the promise, in the form of the anger, that had been in the beginning of the book sort of died out in the explanation of it and yet the anger that I found so utterly refreshing only came back at the end and then… well, who knows. I guess I was a bit disappointed. I also wonder if I simply expected more drama or something darker because that is what most authors do and that, like many reviews I have since read, I should actually embrace the fact the book encapsulated the reality of the situation instead.

Either way, as you can probably tell, there are lots of elements that make ‘The Woman Upstairs’ a really interesting read. You may find yourself like me, someone who loved the rage and got a bit bogged down in the middle, or be someone who marvels at the realities the book gives you. It is one book that I am almost 100% certain would make a brilliant book club choice, hence why I am so excited about seeing tomorrows ‘The Book Club’ and particularly what Marieke Hardy makes of it, and one that will cause much debate which is always a good thing.

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Filed under Claire Messud, Review, Virago Books

The Ponder Heart – Eudora Welty

A big Happy 40th Birthday to Virago today! I wonder if Carmen Callil knew forty years ago Virago books would be being read by all walks of life all around the world? It seems almost rude to say, yet I am going to say it anyway, that Virago is actually that young as in my head it has been going much, much longer. Giving it some thought this is probably because with Virago Modern Classics it publishes books from pre-1973, indeed in some cases pre-1900. One such book is ‘The Ponder Heart’ by Eudora Welty, an author I have been recommended several times, which was first published in a magazine 1953 (so it could be its 60th birthday) and I decided that I would read to celebrate today.

How could I not have cake on Virago's 40th Birthday?

How could I not have cake on Virago’s 40th Birthday?

Edna Earle’s Uncle, David Ponder, is one of the richest, nicest and possibly simplest people in the Mississippi town of Clay. He has become renowned for his almost stupidly kind levels of generosity; he simply cannot stop giving things to people. Edna is an example of this herself when he gives her a hotel on one of his many whims. He even tried to give away his own cemetery lot. His whims lead him to being confined to an asylum by his own father, though he never stays there long as he is so lovely to the staff and can’t be certified, and also to rash ‘possible’ marriages. His first with local widower, Miss ‘Teacake’ Magee, leaves them both unscathed, however when there is a new arrival in town far beneath the Ponder families social circles you know everything is about to change.

“Meantime! Here traipsed into town a little thing from away off down in the country. Near Polk: you won’t have heard of Polk – I hadn’t. Bonnie Dee Peacock. A little thing with yellow, fluffy hair.
The Peacocks are the kind of people keep the mirror outside on the front porch, and go out and pick railroad lilies to bring inside the house, and wave at trains till the day they die. The most they probably hoped for was that somebody’d come find oil in the front yard and fly in the house and tell them about it. Bonnie Dee was one of nine or ten, and no bigger than a minute. A good gust of wind might have carried her off any day.”

Alas she isn’t carried off by the wind but something does indeed happen, what that is of course I cannot say as it was a twist I wasn’t expecting. So what to say of ‘The Ponder Heart’ as it is a tricky one as I was often as bemused by it as I was entertained and I think this might all be down to the voice of Edna herself.

You know when you are having a bit of a conflab/gossip with one of your closest friends and you wander off on various tangents which make the story you are telling them break up, restart, skip bits and go back again? Well this is exactly what Welty does with Edna as she tells you of her Uncle’s tale first hand, almost, often going off on tangents about something completely different though related in some slight way.

“Intrepid Elsie Fleming rode a motor-cycle around the Wall of Death – which let her do, if she wants to ride a motor-cycle that bad. It was the time she wasn’t riding I objected to – when she was out front on the platform warming up her motor. That was nearly the whole time. You could hear her day and night in the remotest parts of this hotel and with the sheet over your head, clear over the sound of the Merry-Go-Round and all. She dressed in pants.”

I was actually wondering during the book if I was one of her friends who had popped in for a coffee at Edna’s hotel, one of the staff she gossiped with or indeed one of the clientele, though as she doesn’t think too highly of them it is unlikely to be the latter. This is the other clever, but also slightly alienating thing that Welty does with Edna, sometimes you really don’t like her thoughts on the world. To the modern ear any mention of the ‘Negroes’ that she hires and thinks she is doing a favour will make you wince a little, yet Welty’s background was from Mississippi and you know she is retelling you people’s actual thoughts at the time from those places. Edna, or someone like her, would have existed. This for me slightly took away the element of comedy in the book, and some parts are very funny and farcical, and also strangely aged it. Yet Edna couldn’t help but win me over with her frankness and the sense of her confiding in you so makes you almost feel like a really special confident. I don’t think any book, or rather narrator has done this in such a realistic way and I really admired Welty’s prose for that.

‘The Ponder Heart’ is a curiously unusual, quirky and odd novella. In some ways I thought it was absolutely genius and in other ways I thought it was a rather bonkers and confusing, if delightfully so, telling of a family and town that said a lot about class and society at the time yet didn’t really know where it was meant to be going. I was baffled by it on occasion but I couldn’t help being charmed so much by Edna’s gossipy tone no matter how much I wanted to tell her to stop being such a snob. A real mixed bag of a book all in all, yet one worth spending a few hours with nonetheless should you end up with a copy. I wonder if all Welty’s books have this unusual tone, I will have to try more to find out.

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Filed under Eudora Welty, Review, Virago Books, Virago Modern Classics

The Third Miss Symons – F.M. Mayor

And so here is the first review of the year and aptly it is for the first book read in 2013, even if I have got a small backlog of books to tell you about from last year. I have mentioned before that I am very superstitious about the first book of the year as it seems to me it will reflect, or predict, the reading experience that I will have in the year ahead. Odd I know, yet true. Aptly I have whim (my main reading resolution of 2013) to thank for my first read being F.M. Mayor’s ‘The Third Miss Symons’ as I had started a few books and not been quite taken with any of them. However on a trip to Shrewsbury last week I spotted this in the Oxfam bookshop, bought it and then spent a few hours in a cafe not long after, while waiting for The Beard to finish a meeting, reading it from cover to cover – before you think I am some super reader it is only 144 pages of rather large print.

**** Virago Modern Classics, paperback, 1913 (1980 edition), fiction, 144 pages, from my personal TBR

Henrietta, or Etta, Symons is the ‘Third Miss Symons’ of the title and this book is really the tale of her life. As the third daughter, and fifth child, of seven she becomes the ‘middle child’, true at a yojng age she does have her time as everyone’s favourite, yet from then onwards she becomes a rather plain and unremarkable woman and we see how this unintentionally effects the rest of her life and her circumstances.

 It is also F.M. Mayors way of talking about a large amount of women who found themselves in a very similar situation at the end of the Victorian era leading into the suffragette movement. A group of women who seemed to somehow be out of kilter with the world though for no fault of their own, even if it might have made them bitter towards the ends of their lives. We still know some people like this I am sure, as youngsters I am sure we were all aware of a ‘local witch’ or ‘crazy cat lady’ somewhere down the road or in the area that we lived. Did we ever try and understand them? No, yet here in ‘The Third Miss Symons’ Flora MacDonald Mayor tries to do just that and explain it all in the life of Henrietta.

“It was clear she was to be lonely at school and lonely at home. Where was she to find relief? There was a supply of innocuous story-books for the perusal of Mrs. Marston’s pupils on Saturday half-holidays, innocuous, that is to say, but the fact that they gave a completely erroneous view of life, and from them Henrietta discovered that heroines after their sixteenth birthday are likely to be pestered with adorers. The heroines, it is true, were exquisitely beautiful, which Henrietta knew she was not, but form a study of ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Villette’ in the holidays, Charlotte Bronte was forbidden at school owing to her excess of passion, Henrietta realized that the plain may e adored too, so she had a modest hope that when the magic season of young ladyhood arrived, a Prince Charming would come and fall in love with her. This hope filled more and more of her thoughts, and all her last term, when other girls were crying at the thought of leaving, she was counting her days to her departure.”

It is not the easiest of reads in part because Henrietta is going to be a victim of circumstance, you pretty much know this from the start, and also because she is never really that likeable mainly as the product of her situation. Often there is a tone to the novel which is rather melancholy, which made me wonder if was the reason for the fact it verges on a novella in terms of length. I should add here that I didn’t find the book depressing in itself, more the society of the time and how it treated women who did end up as spinsters and how this even reflected the way a family might choose to interact with one in their own midst. I make single women sound like lepers here but in some ways that is how families seemed to feel about them, unless of course they could be good for money or should the lady of the house day and a replacement be needed or someone to use for their own gains or motives as they got older, otherwise they were really seen rather as a burden.

“Her aunt’s life was the sweetest and happiest for old age, but could she at twenty settle down to devising treats for other people’s children, or sewing garments for the poor? It made her feel sick and dismal to think of it. Besides, there circumstances were not similar. Her aunt, fortified by the spirit of self-sacrifice, had resigned what she loved, but she had the reward of being the most necessary member of her circle. Henrietta had no scope for self-sacrifice, for she had never had anything to give up.”

I found ‘The Third Miss Symons’ an utterly fascinating and rather different read. Partly this was because of the insight into that period of British history and how women were treated, or ill treated, in that time and partly because of the character of Henrietta which Mayor has created. I am hard pushed to think of another female character I have encountered quite like her. I was thinking of Harriet in ‘Gillespie and I’, Mrs Danvers in ‘Rebecca’ or Miss Havisham in ‘Great Expectations’ yet Harriet is not as unreliable, bitter, warped or feisty as any of them she is ordinary, yet that is what makes her tale all the more extraordinary. It’s an unusual perspective and an unusual read yet brilliantly so. I was also impressed with how Mayor wrote a whole life, and its ups and downs, in such a short book. If my reading year is to be filled with quirky, unusual and such vividly character filled and prose lead as this book then I am in for a very good reading year.

This shows the joys of whim reading, and turning to more golden oldies, instantly doesn’t it? I hope that the rest of my reading year carries on like this. Anyway, who else has read this book and what did you think? I know Susan Hill loves it as she wrote the introduction in my Virago edition, she is also a huge fan of F.M. Mayors ‘The Rectors Daughter’ which is somewhere in my TBR, have any of you read that one at all and if so what did you think of it?

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Filed under F.M. Mayor, Review, Virago Books, Virago Modern Classics

Give Away… The Lifeboat – Charlotte Rogan

I don’t only like to share books I love with you by writing about them, when I can I also really like to give you the chance to win some of them too (don’t forget I am giving you the chance to get a parcel of books in the post here). Well, thanks to the lovely people at Virago I have five copies of ‘The Lifeboat’ by Charlotte Rogan to give away to you lucky lot.

All five copies are kindly available internationally so wherever you are in the world (as I am aware you Savidge Readers come from all over the shop) you have a chance to get this fabulous book. If you love a really good gripping story and wonderful writing you are in for a real treat.

All you have to do is tell me of a subject in books that you really don’t think you like (like me and books set on boats) and then an example of a book which bowled you over despite yourself (like me and ‘The Lifeboat’) and why it blew you away. You have until midnight GMT on Saturday and then The Beard will pick you out of a hat at random. Good luck.

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Filed under Charlotte Rogan, Give Away, Virago Books

The Lifeboat – Charlotte Rogan

If you are a long time follower of this blog, or listen to The Readers Podcast, then you will know that there is one thing in books I really don’t like, and that is boats. I don’t like them off the page, it’s all that expanse and silence – it irks me plus all the space below you fills me with a nervous dread, and in my head a book on a boat can’t really do very much. You sail along, possibly something awful happens and you sail on again till you sink, reach a shore or get saved. Boats to my mind equal boredom, and I don’t want that in a book. Yet occasionally a book comes along that completely flips your thoughts on your own book bias and you are enthralled. Charlotte Rogan’s debut novel ‘The Lifeboat’ is such a book and joins Carol Birch’s ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’ as a book I utterly loved set on a boat, though they are quite different stories.

Virago Books, hardback, 2012, fiction, 288 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

In 1914 the Empress Alexandra, one of the world’s most desirable transatlantic liners suffers some kind of explosion and sinks. Somehow some of the passengers make it onto ‘Lifeboat 14’ and against all odds some of these people survive. Yet no sooner are they saved than they are put on trial for the culpability of the deaths of those passengers who didn’t make it. One such woman is recently married and now recently widowed Grace Winter, and through her trial, and her diary of the 21 days lost at sea, we are discover what really happened on that boat (so I haven’t given away any spoilers there), or at least we think we might.

The very things that I think make books set on boats a bore actually become some of the things that I liked so much about ‘The Lifeboat’. Grace and her fellow passengers, with so much expanse on the horizon and so much endless depth below them, are fearful, vulnerable, hungry and bored – this leads to an incredibly enclosed setting and as the hunger, fear and boredom rise so do the mental strains and characters change, or in some cases true characters show through. You start with unity, but then someone must divide and rule.

‘We were in similar circumstances, after all, and an unspoken etiquette was arising where we would not look the beast of physical necessity in the eye. We would ignore it, we would dare it to claw apart our sense of decorum, we would preserve civility even in the face of a disaster that had almost killed us and that might kill us yet.’

I think ‘The Lifeboat’ is one of the most brilliant fictional takes on ‘mental warfare’ and how people change under certain circumstances that I have come across in a very long time, especially from a modern writer. Dare I say there was something rather Daphne Du Maurier-like about the darkness that develops? What I won’t say is anything about the other characters (apart from the fact I was scared of Mrs Grant) because I don’t want to give anything away, but Rogan creates a fascinating psychological game with them all, and with Grace herself Rogan pulls the trump card.

One of the things that I most enjoyed about ‘The Lifeboat’ was Grace’s voice; she is at once incredibly innocent and yet will suddenly come out with statements that make you wonder if there is a much more cunning streak lying in the depths of her persona. Rogan uses this device masterfully, as we read on and see how Grace reacts to everything you start to wonder how responsible for all that follows she may or may not be. There is also the fact that as Rogan weaves some of Grace’s life before embarking on the Empress Alexandra but nothing really before her marriage, there is an ambiguity there. I like a good unreliable narrator and Grace is certainly up there with Harriet Baxter in ‘Gillespie and I’ by Jane Harris in terms of a character you like because she’s slightly barbed and yet you are never sure you really trust. A glimpse of something dark appears and yet is immediately erased and you question yourself as well as your protagonist. Just how did Grace survive, luck or something else?

‘I am trying to be honest. In memory, I can feel a tug at my heartstrings as I think of Mary Ann. She was frail and beautiful. Her engagement diamond slipped uselessly around on her thin finger. The indigo veins on her wrist looked like delicate calligraphy on the white parchment of her skin. In other circumstances we might have been real friends, but there in the boat, I had no sympathy for her. She was weak, unlikely to survive or to be of use in prolonging the lives of others.’

I was completely won over by ‘The Lifeboat’, enthralled in fact, so much so that would you believe it… I wanted more! At a deceptive 288 pages Rogan manages to pack in so much in terms of plot, back story, twists, turns and red herrings it is amazing that the book isn’t another few hundred pages long. Yet I think to be left wanting more of a book is always a good sign no matter what the length of it. If you are looking for a literary novel, because the prose is superb, that will have you utterly gripped and guessing along the way then I do urge you to give ‘The Lifeboat’ a whirl, I thought it was fantastic.

So I think you can tell that’s a rather hearty recommendation from me. Watch out for more Charlotte Rogan on the blog tomorrow. Until then… who else has read ‘The Lifeboat’ and what did you think? Any other recommendations for books set on boats I might be missing?

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Filed under Books of 2012, Charlotte Rogan, Review, Virago Books

In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination – Margaret Atwood

I am quite surprised that I have not seen more mention here there and everywhere, though I could have been looking in the wrong places, about Margaret Atwood’s latest book ‘In Other Worlds’. Those of you who visit Savidge Reads will know that I am a huge fan of Atwood’s (indeed with both my mother and Gran loving her it was only time really until I would feel the same) both for her ‘literary fiction’ and for her ‘speculative fiction’ so I was instantly looking forward to this as a read, especially with its subject matter.

Virago Press, hardback, 2011, non-fiction, 272 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

It’s this very thing that lies at the heart of ‘In Other Worlds’ I can’t think of anyone or anything, apart from possibly the Man Booker, which causes such debate about science fiction and ‘literature’ and the divides or lack thereof. I know some people who love her writing and yet feel slightly disappointed she has gone off into these speculative worlds like ‘The Handmaids Tale’ and that she is writing a follow up to ‘Oryx and Crake’ and ‘The Year of the Flood’.

 I remember reading a very negative piece somewhere that claimed Margaret Atwood didn’t want to be labelled as a science fiction writer and thought ‘that’s a bit snobby’ but this was taken out of context. Then came the Ursula K. Le Guin review of Atwood’s last novel ‘The Year of the Flood’ in which she quoted from (are you keeping up) Atwood’s essays ‘Moving Targets’, which I now really want to read, saying that Atwood didn’t believe her books were science fiction because the things in them were possible and may be happening, therefore they are speculative. Longer story shorter, ‘In Other Worlds’ is Margaret Atwood’s response to this and is even dedicated to Le Guin. It is so much more than a simple SFF vs. the rest of the literary world book though.

The book is set into three sections. In the first ‘In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination’ we are treated to three long essays. The first of which Margaret Atwood discusses her love of science fiction, based on the fact that growing up in rural Canada she would read anything and everything and this meant a lot of her father’s science fiction, comic books, pulp, noir, you name it. She went on to draw and create stories of her own superhero’s… flying rabbits, and looks at the myth of the superhero and compares it to science fiction. The second looks at the myths and religions that make up science fiction in varying ways and the third how Margaret Atwood created ‘ustopia’s’ based on merging utopias and dystopias. I loved this section, in part because the way Atwood writes makes it feel like you are sat having a conversation about these things with her (if only), there is a humour and knowingness as you go along, secondly because it shows the forming of a writer which I always find fascinating and thirdly because it made me think. A lot. This isn’t writing you can rush, you need to read it, pause, think a bit, make some mental notes, read on, have a bigger pause, think more. I loved that this was the effect it had on me.

The second section entitled ‘Other Deliberations’ is a selection of reviews and essays about novels or writing that people see is either definitely science fiction, definitely literary fiction with a science fiction twist or seen as speculative fiction. One of the books she covers is ‘Never Let Me Go’ by Kazuo Ishiguro (another book I love) and it’s here I think she shows that really does it matter what genre or pigeon hole books are pushed, good and thought provoking writing is what matters. “Ishiguro isn’t much interested in the practicalities of cloning and organ donation… Nor is this a novel about future horrors: it’s set not in a Britain-yet-to-come but a Britain-off-to-the-side.” Not only did I want to rush and read that again, I found all the books she discussed which i hadn’t read such as H. Rider Haggard’s ‘She’ and ‘Brave New World’ by Aldous Huxley are going to be racing up the TBR and being borrowed from the library.

The final main section of the book ’Five Tributes’ are works of Atwoood’s which she believes are truly SF works of fiction, they are all slight but all wonderful, I loved everyone of these. I also thought it was particularly clever of her to choose ‘The Peach Women of Aa’A’ from ‘The Blind Assassin’ as the final one. This is a fictional tale written inside her fictional tale at the heart of ‘The Blind Assassin’ and not only reminded me of what an incredible writer she is but how diverse, I smiled to myself that a book which won the Booker does indeed have a science fictional twist in it’s heart and then felt a little cross people forget that. It also reminds the reader that reading shouldn’t be about boundaries people confine them to, in fact all literature should celebrate the fact that the boundaries are endless full stop, so why are we so obsessed with defining it?

I hope that you come away from this long ramble that forms a ‘review’ or set of ‘book thoughts’ with an inclination to pick up this book when you can. It’s a book for book lovers in the fact that it’s overall theme is the celebration of writing, and then looking at the way we take writing in and pass on our thoughts. It also shows once again what a wonderful writer Margaret Atwood is regardless of whatever genre of writer you might feel the need to put her in. ‘In Other Worlds’ is certainly one of my books of the year without a doubt.

So where do you sit on the Margaret Atwood Speculative vs. Science vs. Literary fiction debate and why do we feel the need to pigeon hole and then get defensive over those pigeon holes?

P.S Small note to say this was a hot topic between myself and Gavin on this weeks The Readers podcast which you can listen to here.

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Filed under Books of 2011, Margaret Atwood, Non Fiction, Review, Virago Books

My Cousin Rachel – Daphne Du Maurier

There are some books which you finish and feel a mixture of utter joy that you read something so wonderful, swiftly followed by that lurch in your chest when you realise that these books come few and far between and that you won’t have this exact experience ever again, even if you were to re-read the book from the start… something which you invariably want to do in these situations. This was the exact set of feelings that I had after I had read the very last line, and oh what a closer it was too (no spoilers coming though I promise), of ‘My Cousin Rachel’ by Daphne Du Maurier.

Virago Books, paperback, 1951, fiction, 304 pages, from my personal TBR

Philip Ashley is the narrator of ‘My Cousin Rachel’ he is a rather naïve young man who has grown up under the care of his elder cousin Ambrose, who owns a large estate, and has become like a mixture of father, brother and best friend. He is also being lined up as Ambrose’s heir and replacement as manager of the estate which often means when Ambrose has to go away to avoid the winters Philip is left in charge. On one such trip to Italy Ambrose writes to Philip that he has met ‘our cousin Rachel’ a woman who slowly looms larger in letters before Ambrose announces they have married, only soon after Ambrose suddenly dies after sending Philip some much more ominous correspondence and soon Rachel herself descends upon Philip’s life.

The story so far does sound a relatively simple one; however I have only really given you the gist of the very first parts of the book. As it goes on, and what sets it apart, the psychological intensity Du Maurier weaves through the pages along with the constant sense that she could pull the rug from under you at any given moment is incredible. Before Rachel even appears herself, around 80 pages in, she is quite the presence and the reader has quite possibly made up their mind about her through Philip’s utter jealously and then suspicion of this woman. Daphne then brings in a character quite unlike the one we would imagine. It is this game of Rachel being a misunderstood sweet if tragic innocent or magnificently manipulative calculating monster that makes you turn the page, are you right about her or utterly wrong?

“Since my journey to the villa she had become a monster, larger than life itself. Her eyes were as black as sloes, her features aquiline like Rainaldi’s, and she moved about those musty villa rooms sinuous and silent, like a snake.”

As with all of Daphne’s novels this is also a book about the human psyche generally, again this is often the case, the much darker sides of it. Jealousy is at the heart of this novel (I occasionally wondered about the nature of obsession too in terms of Philip and his attachment to Ambrose, or was there something other that dared not speak its name?), Philip makes all his initial opinions on Rachel on nothing more than that one pure emotion, after Ambrose’s death comes grief and anger and here too Rachel becomes the focal point for this. We also have to ask ourselves if Philip is an incredibly perceptive young man despite his almost closeted childhood, or is he possibly just as unreliable and possibly as innocently beguiling as Rachel herself? Something on every page makes you question yourself, it is quite incredible.

The atmosphere of the book is also utterly brilliant. In fact ‘My Cousin Rachel’ rather reminded me of the sensation stories of the late 1800’s, which I think is when this novel is meant to be set though we never officially know the time period. From the very opening sentence ‘They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.’ we know we are in for a dark and brooding tale, and Du Maurier certainly doesn’t disappoint.

Many people claim this is like a sister novel to Du Maurier’s most famous work ‘Rebecca’ and I think to say that does do ‘My Cousin Rachel’ an injustice. Yes there is the gothic feel and uneasy atmosphere of both novels, they both feature large estates, we also have a mystery at the heart of each tale and a woman who takes over every page even though she may not be in the book that often. I grant the fact they do both also look at dark human traits but in very, very different ways and though ‘Rebecca’ will always be my favourite Du Maurier novel I am not sure that ‘My Cousin Rachel’ could be beaten for it’s sense of never knowing the truth, in fact I would say Daphne leaves much more to the reader in this novel than she did in ‘Rebecca’ and I loved that.

I had always been told to leave ‘My Cousin Rachel’ as one of the last of Daphne Du Maurier’s novels because it was one of the best. I would heartily recommend people read this as their first Du Maurier novel because once you have read it I can almost guarantee you will want to go off and discover more of her works, I really envy you joy you have ahead of you if you haven’t read this novel before. This will easily be a contender for my book of the year almost exactly fifty years after it was originally published.

I should actually thank Ruth (and I think Jeanette) for making me read ‘My Cousin Rachel’ much sooner than I had ever intended, this was going to be one of those ‘save it for a rainy day’ reads that would languish on my TBR forever. I had also not anticipated reading Daphne so soon after ‘Discovering Daphne’ with Polly. I am thrilled I read it and it’s another reminder that I need to stop putting off the books I really want to read and just get on and read them as I mentioned a week ago.

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Filed under Books of 2011, Daphne Du Maurier, Review, Virago Books

All The Nice Girls – Joan Bakewell

Joan Bakewell’s debut novel has lingered on my TBR for quite some time. I have always liked Joan Bakewell when I have heard her on the radio or seen her on the telly, in the UK she is well known as a journalist and broadcaster, and I had a strange notion that I would therefore like whatever she wrote. For some strange reason though I didn’t read Joan’s debut novel ‘All The Nice Girls’ though and as it was languishing I passed it onto Granny Savidge Reads as I thought she would like it and if I fancied reading it at any point I could pinch it back. Well as I am ‘in conversation’ with her next Thursday evening I decided the time was definitely right to read it, but would I like it?

Virago, paperback, 2009, fiction, 352 pages, from the library

‘All The Nice Girls’ is set in part during 1942 when WWII is not going well for the British. As part of the war effort an all girl’s grammar school in Stockport becomes one of the many that decide to sign up for the Merchant Navy’s Ship Adoption Scheme. The idea, as headmistress Cynthia Maitland sees it (who was bereaved in the previous war)is to make ‘her girls’ aware of what is going on in the world out there and of course to do there bit. The reality is a little bit different as this is, of course, is going to mix a group of young girls, all excitement and hormones, with a group of sailors.

Now with the premise of a group of young girls in the war, and Joan focuses on sixth formers Polly (also called Margaret) and Jen, you kind of know what is on the horizon – both the good and the bad. This is where Joan Bakewell throws in another thread into it all with a story set in 2003 where we find Millie, whose daughter is suffering from kidney failure to which Millie is debating helping with or not, has been left her mothers belongings. I won’t say more as the reader is left wondering how the two are entwined and I don’t want to spoil anything.

I have to admit I struggled with this novel to start with. I didn’t feel I could keep up as Bakewell introduces several school girls, teachers and then an endless cast of officers etc in 1942 before then switching to 2003 when your still just grasping the past, however the ‘voice’ she writes with carried me on.

I think it is Bakewell’s storytelling (and this is a proper war story) rather than just the era that left me in mind of the authors of both the 1930s and the 1960s. I am aware that this might sound rather odd but that’s the flavour that the book and indeed Bakewell left me with. It wasn’t the narratives of the characters, which added to the experience as all characters and everything they go through are all vividly drawn, it was Bakewells writing voice and sounded very different from the one she broadcasts with. Both are charming.

My only slight issue with All the Nice Girls is that whilst I liked hearing a very different side to the war effort of WWII, which this undoubtedly is, I found the book a little predictable. I could sort of see where each relationship was headed and what might be coming around. That said there was something rather reassuring spending time with a book like that.

If you are a fan of books set during WWII and want a different take on it, and one based on fact as Bakewell herself went to a school in Stockport that sponsored a boat during that period, and has the atmosphere or are a fan of Bakewells already you will love this book, as would you if you want to get lost in a book you know where you are with. I enjoyed myself as I read and found some of it very poignant indeed.

If you are in Manchester on Thursday and fancy something a bit different, or want to come and talk about this or any of Joan Bakewell’s other books, the I will be ‘in conversation’ with her at 7pm at Waterstones Deansgate, do pop by. Sorry for the mini plug but I would love to see some of you there, have you any questions for Joan if you can’t make it? Have you read ‘All The Nice Girls’ or any of her other books and if so what did you think?

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Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier; Discovering Daphne Readalong #5

So to end this years ‘Discovering Daphne’ season I begged and begged Polly to let us finish with ‘Rebecca’ as it is my favourite read of Daphne’s and indeed, I think, of all time so far. It was a toss up between this and Polly’s favourite ‘Jamaica Inn’ and Polly, being the lovely person she is, caved in. The thing was though, once I knew a ‘’Rebecca re-read’ was lined up I started to get really nervous. What happened if the book I loved suddenly felt flawed, what if I didn’t like the unnamed narrator this time or feel any empathy for her, what if Mrs Danvers left me cold, what if I didn’t find it as atmospheric and haunting? I started to get a little panicked.

9781844080380

Virago Books, paperback, 1938, fiction, 448 pages, from my bookshelves

After closing the final page of ‘Rebecca’ a few days ago it was a struggle not to head straight back to the start… yet again. If I could physically get lost in a book then ‘Rebecca’, and of course Manderley, would be the place I would be happy to be stuck in forever. From the very moment of those first immortal lines “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” to the final pages and THAT ending (no spoilers here don’t worry) I was hooked line and sinker and in for the long haul, and how it has made these long dark nights all the more bearable, and all the more haunting.

For those of you who don’t know the book, or its rather infamous plot, ‘Rebecca’ is a tale of ‘the other woman’ only in this case the other woman is dead – amazing, and clever, that she is one of the most formidable characters in the book and the lives of all those living who we join. The unnamed narrator tells her tale of how, when accompanying a rich American lady Mrs Van Hopper (who is a fabulous small character) on holiday, she meets Maxim de Winter and after a whirl wind romance marries him and finds herself back in England and the new lady of Manderlay, a wonderful gothic mansion. Yet once back in Maxim’s home his past, and indeed his previous wife Rebecca (and her mysterious death) come to haunt them, quite literally, along with a little help from the housekeeper Mrs Danvers.

Here I shall leave the story, for if you haven’t read it yet I don’t want to give anything further away, especially as this is a book which has some wonderful, and equally dreadful, twists and turns as it develops. I can say that on a re-read the unnamed narrator (who I once insisted was called Caroline after one re-reading) did annoy me a lot more than she usually does initially, not to the point where it affected the book, but I did think ‘oh get a grip love’ but then because of the psychological aspect of the book and indeed her situation as usual I did once more start to feel for her and could understand how some one like Mrs Danvers could so easily manipulate and scare a woman like her, she scares me.

One of my very favourite things about ‘Rebecca’ is undoubtedly Mrs Danvers, she’s psychotically obsessed with her former mistress and clearly has a dark background which we only get the vaguest notions of. She’s just wonderfully wicked and deliciously, dangerously demented. I have always thought because of her complexity and nature she is one of my favourite characters in fiction, unnervingly stealing the limelight on any page she appears. I have often pondered that I would love to write a fictional account of her life, I could never do it justice though I am sure.

Back to ‘Rebecca’ and along with its wonderful twists and turns, its atmosphere (which is incredible, you feel like you are there with these characters in this gothic, dark, spooky time and place which always, no matter how sunny or lovely come with a darkness in the corners) the one thing that I think makes it such an incredible story is what it says about people, the reasons they do things, the real motives and emotions both the dark and the light of the human condition. That probably sounds grand, but it’s true. There are lots of depths to a novel like this that lie behind what initially may seem a dark and gothic love story, which it also is yet is really so, so, so much more. In fact I would dare to suggest that this could be the perfect book, even if only for me.

As you have probably guessed by now I could easily ramble on about ‘Rebecca’ for hours and hours, I just hope if you haven’t read the book you might read this and pick it up/run for the nearest open book shop. If you have read it, maybe you will be tempted to pluck it off the shelves (because if you have read it I doubt very much you could have given it away) once more, and if you have re-read it for ‘Discovering Daphne’ I cant wait to see what you thought…

Actually I also can’t wait to see what Polly thought either, as she has been rather secretive about it until today.

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Filed under Books of 2011, Daphne Du Maurier, Review, Virago Books

The House on the Strand – Daphne Du Maurier; Discovering Daphne Readalong #3

Sorry for the delay with my thoughts on ‘The House on the Strand’ the third in the Discovering Daphne readalongs. This was a book that I didn’t struggle with exactly but one which needed patience and some effort (no bad thing) for me as a reader to work through. No book should be rushed but some books ask so many questions that you need the odd break to let your head catch up with it all. This is a prime example of such a novel and Daphne taxed me and tested me with this book and I admire her all the more for it, even if I didn’t come away from the book loving it I certainly appreciated it.

Virago Books, paperback, 1969, fiction, 352 pages, taken from my personal TBR

Dick Young is a man who finds himself caught between two times in ‘The House on the Strand’, and I mean that literally. As he stays in his old friends house, a scientist called Magnus Lane, he starts taking a drug Magnus has created which transports him to the same place only in the 1300s. I have to admit I was instantly really drawn in initially. I was excited by where Du Maurier would take this concept and therefore me along with her.

As the novel goes on Dick almost becomes addicted to this travelling. Even though as his body stays in the present he ends up hurting himself or getting stuck as some walls didn’t exist back then. (I was surprised Daphne didn’t make more use of this for the darkly comical actually having read her other works.) As his wife Vita and her children join him from America they take him away from this addiction, yet is it in fact escapism from a marriage that might be failing and even unwanted along with the person he is in the present?

Whilst I loved the idea behind the book it’s main flaw for me was not the idea of time travel but the setting in the 1300s. I wasn’t really interested in his time travelling or the people he met, a sometimes too wide cast of charcters including Lady Isolda and a man servant called Roger. I was much more interested in the why. So weirdly the hopping back and forth started to slightly frustrate me as, to my mind at least, the main crux of the novel was very much in the present.

I do find whatever Daphne writes you know there will be both the twists and turns (which arrive just in time in this book thankfully) and also the deeper and yet subtle undertones. For me this book had a lot to say about sexuality and acceptance of the self. Maybe that sounds a bit grand? I didn’t think Dick wanted to be married and in fact thought the closeness he shared with Magnus when younger and the reverberating remnants of all that said a lot without ever been overtly written about or forced in the reader too much. Sometimes it is what Daphne doesn’t say… Or could I just have been looking for it?

I was strangely reminded of my dabblings with Iris Murdoch in this book. She too dealt with sexuality, philosophical themes and the metaphysical, all which also run through ‘The House on the Strand’. It tested me, but so it should. I also liked the slight gothic scientific elements of the book. Was it me or are there hints of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ and ‘Frankenstein’ here?

I cannot pretend this is my favourite Daphne Du Maurier ‘story’ because I think there is so much more going on in this book (not that there isn’t in all her books, this one just seems more overt and blatant) indeed partly because of where she found her life at the point she wrote this and how she dealt with it explains alot and that to me this novel is almost like a look into the exorcising of her mind and that fascinated me. I felt I got to know her a little more through the complexity of this book, is that odd?

‘The House on the Strand’ is a real mixture and not just because of the questions it raises, or the themes it looks at, it’s also a mix of historical, philosophical and borders on the edges of science fiction. It’s quite unlike any books of hers, or indeed in general, that I have read so far. It might not be a book to curl up with and get lost in (which was the expectation I had set, so I could be at fault for that assumption hence finding the book all the more difficult in parts) it’s a book to sit down with and get you thinking, it just needs some patience and mutual hard work. Some of the best books do that though don’t they? Even if we don’t enjoy them as the escapism we hoped for, we enjoy them for the experience they give us and the questions we have to look at. I will be thinking about this book, and all it raised, for quite some time.

You can see Polly of Novel Insights thoughts on it here.

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Mary Anne – Daphne Du Maurier

Sometimes there is a special magical feeling that can take over you as you start a book. The writing has you, the characters have you, it is all just working and you know within between five and ten pages that this is going to be a book that you are going to love. I had this tingling sensation from the very start of ‘Mary Anne’, a novel  by Daphne Du Maurier that I have to admit I simply thought was going to be her ‘having a crack at the historical genre’. I wasn’t sure I would be convinced, even though it was Daphers at the helm, I was (of course) promptly and utterly bowled over by it. In fact I loved it so much that I lingered over it and almost didnt finish it in time for today’s planned post. Oops.

Virago, paperback, 1954, fiction, 320 pages, from my personal TBR

‘Mary Anne’ is a historical novel set in the Regency period. I was not familiar with this period, which is a period in British history from 1811 – 1820, before I started the book now however I am desperate to know much more. Daphne Du Maurier steeps the book in atmosphere from the very first pages which had me hooked as they were told from the death beds, and last memories of the four main men in Mary Anne’s life. After this we begin with her poor start in life in the grotty streets of London as she learns her charms and how to use them for her ascent, for that is really the initial part of the story, and how, after a rather disastrous marriage, Mary Anne becomes a prostitute (though a rather exclusive one) and the lover and mistress of the Duke of York. That isn’t the end of the story though, and doesn’t really cover the start if I am honest. I am just highlighting the tale but there is so much more to read it for, honest.

In attempt to avoid any spoilers I will say that once she becomes the lover of the Duke of York she gets rather overly used to the life of a rich woman and all its spoils, yet soon she wants more and more and so starts to do some rather underhand dealings in the name of the Duke which leads to a huge scandal. There is also that saying of ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ and when the Duke decides that he is finished with Mary Anne, she isn’t so sure she is finished with him.

What makes this story all the more fascinating is that it is based on Daphne’s own great-great Grandmother, Mary Anne Clarke. Some might say ‘well where is the originality or plot design in that, writing about your own family history’ or indeed people might say ‘if it is about her own family isn’t she going to be biased’. With regard to the first point I would say a lot of authors write what they know and there was a great deal of time between Daphne writing this novel in 1954 and her great-great Grandmothers scandal. Plus the story is only part of the book, the atmosphere is incredible and I went from feeling like I wasn’t bothered about the era to now wanting to throw myself into more of it.

I do think that the fact Daphne was clearly fond of Mary Anne, in part because she was fascinating and also because she was part of the family, I did feel that there was a slight biased angle to the novel. I loved the character of Mary Anne, she is forthright, intelligent, ballsy, saucy and very witty (in fact I kept thinking it must have run in the family) and I loved spending time with her. I found the way she used her looks and charms to get what she wanted gave you that ‘tart with a heart’ twist which has made novels like ‘Moll Flanders’ etc so successful. However when the ‘scandal’ breaks she almost becomes a victim and I found myself thinking ‘hang on, this might not quite have been the case’. I then shrugged this off and got lost in the tale again.

I really enjoyed ‘Mary Anne’, my only criticism (or warning) would be that there is rather a lot of ‘courtroom drama’ towards the end of the book and I did find this a little wooden and research filled, but then I think all things courtroom based are quite dull (I was a legal secretary for a while in my early twenties and used to hate the court case work), its rare an author makes them exciting it’s a shame this was towards the end of the novel as it did slightly, though only very slightly, dull the books overall charm, though thankfully it didn’t become the lasting or lingering impression the book has on you.

I can’t hide the fact that I am thoroughly enjoying this Daphne-a-thon and cannot wait to get into ‘The House on the Strand’ for next weeks ‘Discovering Daphne Read-along’ on Sunday the 16th. In fact as it is so gloomy, foreboding, chilly and rather windily auntumnal outside today, I think the timing is perfect to pick it up right now.

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Filed under Daphne Du Maurier, Discovering Daphne, Review, Virago Books