Tag Archives: Books of 2009

Howards End is on the Landing – Susan Hill

I don’t think that I have seen a book so written about on so many blogs in the space of a week or two as I have with Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill. This should be, if everyone who goes and reads book blogs then goes out and buys it, a huge hit and rightly so. As soon as I saw it and read about the premise I knew it would be a book that I simply HAD to read. Mind you as a fan of the works of Susan Hill  I would have bought it regardless (knowing she would divulge her Top 40 books and give me more “reading musts” pushed me over the edge – don’t tell my bank manager) of what was inside it, the fact it’s a book about books would only go and make me want it even more. Then there is the wonderful title, and then there is the cover! Ok Simon get on with it…

When one day Susan Hill was searching for a book she knew she owned and wanted to read she realised that she couldn’t find it and instead found lots of books that she owned but hadn’t read. From this spawned the book Howards End is on the landing. After that small event Susan Hill decided that for one year she would give up buying any new books and simply read the books that she already owned in her house and what a collection that turns out to be. She also gave up blogging and limited her time on the internet in order to be further away from distraction. The only clause to was the arrival of books for reviewing and ones for research purposes.

However the journey wasn’t just finding books she hadn’t read and wondering why, it also took her through all the books she had read and some of the memories those books brought back and so we also get in a way Susan Hill’s literary memoirs. Whilst she is talking about some of the great reads and authors through her life we are occasionally given snippets of how her life has changed as her career has progressed and some of the famous authors that she has met and interacted with, if not face to face through letters etc, so far. It’s an insightful and very interesting look into all things literary be they behind closed literary doors or just on the shelves in her Small Dark Den.

What the book also did for me was make me think a lot. I didn’t whizz through the book like I thought I would, it actually made my head buzz with so many rich book thoughts I had to put it down on several occasions and digest everything that I had just read. How could Susan have not read 1984, how could she not love Jane Austen (though I myself have had trouble – isn’t it the law of reading to love Jane?), how can you dip in and out of multiple books? How could I have not read Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Jane Howard or Elizabeth Bowen? It frustrated me I didn’t have Susan sat opposite me so I could ask her lots of questions and debate all the answers over some tea and cakes for a few hours. Oh to dream!

So where is the negative? There isn’t really any… two sections that didn’t agree with me so much were the parts on Sebald and poetry, which I read of course, though not being a fan of either subject they didn’t set me alight like the rest of the book did. I loved hearing about Iris Murdoch though didn’t agree with the comment that Murdoch has currently been forgotten, I have read a few of her books in the last few years and I know of others of my generation (am not being ageist) that have. However disagreeing is different from disliking.

In fact there were a few things that I disagreed with Susan on such as girls reading more than boys, not this boy they don’t and not likely another Simon I can think of…  maybe is it a Simon thing, ha? That statement doesn’t mean we read more than any girl out there but we both read fairly prolifically. I also cannot bare the idea of writing in a book, getting one signed for myself or my Gran maybe, but writing in one is like spine cracking and page corner turning (dog earring?), and makes me wince at the sacrilege. This isn’t negative though the fact that I didn’t agree with Susan (we are now on first name terms in my head because of this book just so you know) actually what it showed was that I was thinking and not falling under the illusion some people may have, that this is some sort of guide on how to read or what to read. It’s not. It’s a book by a prolific and, in my opinion, wonderful author… that doesn’t mean because I love all her books I will love all her views.  

Indeed a comment the delightful Claire of Paperback Reader left yesterday highlights this exact thing. She said when thinking that this would be one of my top books of the year, which it is, “then you are probably not going to like my blog post” but why not? I like Claire’s blog, and having met her in person at book group I like her too, but we aren’t always going to agree on certain books after all that would be be a bit dull wouldn’t it? 

If people have a different opinion that’s great, have you noticed book groups flounder when everyone feels the same way about a book? As long as people can back up with the whys behind them not liking a book rather than just ‘I hated it’ then I am happy to debate, thats what comes with blogging. The debate makes it more interesting and I had this, only one way, between myself and this book. In fact I used Susan’s opinions whether I agreed with them or not to think about mine, so a thought provoking read too.

This is this just the sort of debate that we have on blogs in fact you will see from the picture below that I made many, many notes (there are two more pages I didn’t get a snap of). In fact maybe this is why the blogosphere is so full of chatter about this book, in a way its like a collection of exceptionally well written blog posts (I am not sure if Susan would approve of that or not – though am glad her blog is back) that are already inspiring some posts and hopefully some debates for the future on this blog.

Notes on HEiotL

Now that I have read it I haven’t put it on my shelves instead its sat on my bedside table as I think this is a book that I may ‘dip in and out of’ it (something until this book would have seemed wrong but am giving it a go – am also taking more of Susan’s advice as you will see in tomorrow’s post) in the future weeks and months. I think it’s a book that as my reading life goes on and changes, so will my thought to it and relation ship with it. This book certainly won’t be going on my shelves and being lost and forgotten. I only have one question left… just what book was Susan Hill originally looking for?

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Filed under Books About Books, Books of 2009, Profile Books, Review, Susan Hill

The Brontes Went To Woolworths – Rachel Ferguson

Now I mentioned earlier that I would be popping up a post of one of the books that has been one of my favourite books of the year so far. Now by favourite I don’t mean “best literary read” of the year in this case, though that’s starting to sound negative and I couldn’t be negative about this book if I tried, what I mean by favourite is that its been one of the most funny and barmy reads that I think, as yet, I may ever have read… seriously its just cuckoo but in an utterly brilliant way.

The Bronte’s Went to Woolworths, originally published in the early 1930’s and now brought back by The Bloomsbury Group, isn’t a book about the Bronte sisters being whisked in a time machine to the 1990’s and ending up working for the now defunct chain of shops. What a good premise though, maybe I should write that book myself? It is however a quite brilliantly bizarre tale of the three Carnes sisters, even if the first line in the book is one of them saying they hate books about sisters – its that sort of book.

Katrine is studying to be an actress though for the main ends up playing characters who invariably mislay their virtues. Deirdre, who narrates part of the tale, is a journalist and is now trying to become a novelist. The youngest of the sisters is Sheil who is still studying though seems to have her head in the clouds. These girls along with their mother seem to be living in a world that is half made up with talking nursery teddy bears and dolls accompanying them wherever they go or inventing characters based on people they read about in the newspaper and having them around the dinner. This is all under the watchful and long suffering eyes of Agatha Martin who also narrates the tale and helps you see the fact from the fiction.

However one day at a charity function Deirdre meets the wife of Judge Torrington someone Deirdre read about and has made an imaginary best friend of. What happens when the character she has created genuinely becomes a friend and therefore needs to fit in with the life that has been fictionally created for him? If not it may shatter the fantasy illusions that these sisters seem to have created since the death of their father with their mother playing along. It’s a surreal, very funny in parts and quirky book that if you give it patience will pay of in dividends.

I mention patience as at the start I was worried (oddly after discussing this yesterday) that I wasn’t going to gel with this book at all. The line between what is fantasy and reality can be quite confusing and it did take me about thirty pages or so until I worked out what was what, who was real and who wasn’t. If you don’t like books that need some hard work for great reward or aren’t a fan or the surreal then maybe skip this one. If like me you enjoy both those things, the era of the 1930’s and the writings of Nancy Mitford then you will lap this all up once you have set it straight in your mind and be carried away with it all. Brilliant.

Rachel Ferguson’s not a novelist that I had heard of until I started reading The Bloomsbury Group’s reissued classics but she is definitely be intrigued to read much more of. I have seen that one of her novels ‘Alas, Poor Lady’ has been published by the lovely Persephone and so I think that will be my next port of call for all things Ferguson. Have you read The Brontes Went to Woolworths, if so, what did you make of it? If you haven’t would the slight craziness put you off? Whats the most barmy book that you have read? Do you think we sometimes have to put hard work in as the reader (I do) or should the author make it plain sailing?

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Filed under Bloomsbury Group, Bloomsbury Publishing, Rachel Ferguson, Review

Miss Garnet’s Angel – Salley Vickers

I will discuss the sudden turnaround of my going from starting Cover Her Face by P.D James to reading Miss Garnet’s Angel in more detail tomorrow when I will be asking you your thoughts on a certain subject that it has brought to light. For now though I thought I would get on with reviewing a book that completely took me by surprise and one that I have actually owned before decided wouldn’t be for me and so gave away only to the purchase it recently once more.

Miss Garnet’s Angel firstly it should be said is utterly wonderful. For me it had a real mixture of the quirky heroine of a 1930’s – 1950’s book you would think Virago would have published (they don’t publish this book) and also has the setting and prose of a classic that E.M. Forster could have penned, a combination which makes it highly and delightfully readable. I think all of this contributed to it being an utter hit with me.

We meet our narrator Julia Garnet just after she decides to rent out her home after the death of her house mate and fellow teacher Harriet who “she hated that people assumed they were lesbians” which shows the slight humour in the writing of Salley Vickers from the start. Taking the death as a sign she needs to be more daring in life so she decides to take an extended holiday to Venice. This isn’t a tale about loss and grief even though it is very much part of the book, it also doesn’t darken or make the book depressive, what the book is essentially about is a middle aged woman finding herself and facing her past through the people she meets the situations she gets into and the sights and discoveries she takes in. She is a very interesting character still a virgin and still incredibly repressed we watch as she emerges out of herself after a long time being so unsure who she is.  

Some of the wonderful characters she meets are a pair of holidaying Canadians, the young and slightly unruly Nicco who becomes a student, her incredibly interfering (in a wonderful way) the charming Carlo who seems to be the first man to have ever make her heart truly flutter and the mysterious twins Toby and Sarah the later of who are working on the restoration of Chapel of the Plague. In fact meeting the later three leads her to finding a painting that seems to call out to her and tells the story of Tobias and the Archangel Raphael. These stories are then interwoven by Vickers as Julia unravels the tale she herself unravels, it’s wonderfully worked.

I thought this was an utterly wonderful novel and it has only taken one book to make me fairly sure that Vickers will soon become a favourite. Though are the rest of her books tinged quite so much with the religious? I don’t like books that preach and this one never did but there were a few moments when I was slightly concerned but how could you depict Venice without the religious symbols and stories and it works just right with the ongoing story of Julia’s self discovery. It’s an unstated and yet thought provoking tale that says so much so subtly. Beautiful prose, delightful characters and a sprinkling of mystery and history just what you need when you want to get lost in a book. To think this was Vickers debut novel is quite astounding I hope that the rest of her books are as good as this one? What of Vickers have you read and loved and which Vickers novel should I read next?

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Filed under Books of 2009, Harper Collins, Review, Salley Vickers

The Daydreamer – Ian McEwan

After the joy of reading the ‘cross-over’ book Tuck Everlasting I had been wanting to try another one and see if it got to me in the same way. I am not talking Twilight which I know is all the rage, I am talking crossover books that take me back to my childhood favourites such a Roald Dahl. I had turned for another one of the short reads I have been reading amongst the sensation season novels of late and saw that not only was one of them by one of my favourite authors it was also another ‘cross-over’ book and had the quote, by Vogue, “as far fetched and funny as anything by Roald Dahl” so I thought ‘well, why not?’

The Daydreamer is actually Peter Fortune a young boy who though people might see as quite and a little bit subdued, dull and distant is actually a boy who has such an over active imagination he often vanishes off into the land of daydreaming. In fact Peter does this so often that he tends to forget everything around him, what the time is, what day it might be or even who he actually is. In fact it is this part of his personality that makes people label him difficult when really what he is harbouring is actually quite a talent.

After being introduced to Peter which is a comic little opener to the book we then in the following chapters, which read like individual short stories, get to see just how his imagination goes off with him in some wonderfully surreal tales. One day his sister Katie’s evil dolls one day turn on him and try and make him one of them when he gets his own room. One day he swaps places with his very old cat and goes around showing the local cats just who is boss. One day he manages to get rid of all of his family. One day he manages to catch the local burglar causing a suburban wave of fear during a crime spree down The Fortunes road.

In fact what the book is also looking at is things from the eyes of children for adults that read it and through the eyes of others for children that read it. For example The Cat looks at loss and mortality (it is quite sad be warned), The Baby looks at things through a babies eyes and tries to deal with jealousy of older children and The Grown Up looks at the future and sort of touches on puberty and trying to understand adults a bit more which for a child must be a mystery. You could call these modern fables in a way but all done with a human angle whilst being sometimes quirky, sometimes surreal, sometimes humorous, sometimes sad, sometimes disturbing and yet always very entertaining.  

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would actually recommend that you all give this a go especially if you think you don’t really like McEwan, he appears to be a bit of a marmite author I personally am yet to read anything by him I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed. It shows just how much thought McEwan puts into all of his works in terms of getting into differing characters heads.

This book is actually now ten years old but seems incredibly fresh and undated and was a work of his that I hadn’t heard of before and so has been a delightful little find. Which in a way links with my post from the other day about all works by an author… isn’t it lovely when you discover that they have published a book that a) you didn’t own b) hadn’t read and c) had never even heard of? Lovely stuff! Has this ever happened to you with one of you favourite authors? How do you rate cross-over fiction and indeed the author Ian McEwan?

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Filed under Books of 2009, Ian McEwan, Review, Vintage Books

Lady Audley’s Secret – Mary Elizabeth Braddon

So now we are already onto the fifth of the sensation season (a page I really need to redo along with my favourite reads as Waterstones selfishly revamped their site and my pictures have all gone wrong) reads and this week it was Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon a book that I read five years ago and almost instantly became one of my very favourite books of all time. I don’t often re-read books and so there was the worry that five years on a very different me is reading the book, would I like it so much second time round or could this shatter my illusions of the book for good?

Lady Audley’s Secret caused a lot of controversy when it was first published amid the Sensation period in the Victorian times. Initially scorned by reviewers, critics and the press at the time the public disagreed and it became a huge success despite being labelled immoral. The book opens with the poverty stricken but incredibly beautiful governess of a small town doctor, Lucy Graham, marries the wealthy widower Sir Michael Audley.

All is well and happy until the arrival of Sir Audley’s nephew Robert and his friend George Talboys. The later who has not long come back from Australia where he has made his fortune hunting for gold though once back finds the wife he left behind has died. However the new Lady Audley refuses to see Robert and his friend and then suddenly George vanishes from the house leaving a mystery as to why.

Robert being the good and true friend that he is decides he must find out what has happened to his friend and becomes amateur detective discovering more about his friends past and that events and people at Audley Court may have some connection to the mystery. That’s all I shall say on the plot as to give any more away would ruin the book (makes giving book thoughts on sensational fiction so difficult).

I do think, and if you have read it or once you have you will also hopefully agree, that the plotting is just incredible. Ok so there are some moments when you have to suspend disbelief, could a letter actually travel slower than a person one year and faster the next to suit the tale its sensation fiction. I do think this book does have one of the most thrilling and gripping chase scenes as the villainess and the hero race to get to the same destination, brilliant. It thoroughly pleases me that the public opinion over rode the critics opinions of this absolutely wonderful book or it could easily have been lost forever and that simply wouldn’t do!

Did I love the book as much the second time round? Yes of course I did, I don’t see how anyone could fail to love what I think is one of the most sensational of sensationalist novels. I did notice I was much more critical second time around and for a while wasn’t sure the motives in the book were quite explained or made sense (without giving a huge part of the book away I cant comment on that further) and yet in some ways I was even more lost in the book than I was the first time round especially in the chase scenes which I wasn’t expecting and found very interesting.

I do wonder if as I get older I get more cynical? As everything being tied up just so and so delightfully, though a wonderful ending, left me wanting something a little darker but still for me one of my all time favourites. I wonder if the same will be said for The Woman in White when that gets a re-read in a few weeks time!

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Filed under Books of 2009, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Penguin Classics, Review, Sensation Novels

Notwithstanding – Louis De Bernieres

Some books people tell you that you simply must read and yet you simply don’t. One book that my Gran has always enthused about and even my mother has always said I must read (both are book obsessed, the later less so at the moment) is Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. I don’t know if it’s the fact so many people have said that it is wonderful that has made me hold off (overhype can be a terrible thing) or the fact that Nicholas Cage is in the film, which I haven’t seen, and therefore I sadly associate the book with an actor I cant stand, either way I have held off from the book and the author. However when the lovely people at Harvill Secker sent me the new Louis De Bernieres book which is about a village filled with unusual crazy characters I couldn’t hold myself back from reading it almost instantly.

Notwithstanding is not only the title of Louis De Bernieres latest book it is also really the biggest character in the book. Notwithstanding is a fictional village somewhere in Surrey, England not too far away from the very real Haslemere and Godalming. What the book actually entails is some of the unusual and interesting characters and the stories of what they get up to. It is in fact based on an English village that the author actually lived in when he was younger though this isn’t a memoir it’s a fictionalised version. It brings to life those English idylls that are very much still out there and celebrates the quirkiness of village life.

It was a day in middle March, of the kind that for early risers begins sunny and uplifting, but which for late risers has already degenerated into the nondescript gloom that causes England to be deprecated by foreigners. The rooks were breaking off the ends of willow twigs and building their nests with raucous incompetence, most of the twigs ended up on the ground below, whence the birds could never bother to retrieve them. The box hedges were in blossom, causing some people to ring the gas board, and others to wonder what feline had pissed so copiously as to make the whole village smell of cat piss. Out on the roads, squashed baby rabbits were being dismantled by magpies, and frogs migrating to their breeding ponds were being flattened into very large and thin batrachian medallions that would, once dried out, have made excellent beer mats.

The characters are all marvellous in the novel. I say novel but in many ways it reads like a collection of short stories which is what it also is I suppose though characters intertwine with stories and so it comes together as a novel. You have the marvellous mother and son who communicate to each other via walkie talkie… in the same house, Polly Wantage who dresses like a man and spends most of her time out shooting squirrels, several mad dogs, a general who spends most of his time naked, a spiritualist who lives with her sister and ghost of her dead husband and people who confide their biggest secrets with spiders in their garden sheds. It is a huge amount of fun.

Though this isn’t just a funny throw away book. Though there is endless humour the book has a real heart, celebrating the ordinary and delighting in the quirky nature of us English folk. The prose is beautiful and makes everything very vivid so in no time I felt like I had newly moved into the village and was ‘getting to know the neighbours’ as it were. I could happily have moved there tomorrow. De Bernieres also experiments in less than 300 pages with various genre’s of fiction, there is the comic side but we also have a historical tale of the village of old, a ghost story and a mystery.

There are also some tales which on the outside seem to be fun and light but read on and they become much darker and deeper. Two of the stories moved me greatly and one was incredibly sad. The one which hit me most was that of the naked general who ends up in Waitrose with no pants on, at first I was laughing away and then realised that this isn’t a tale of a nudist but a tale of a widowed man who only has his dog for company and is undergoing the onset of Alzheimers. Not so funny then is it, yet in earlier tales its hilarious.

The tale that actually nearly made me cry on two levels was ‘Rabbit’, which also appeared in a collection of shorts by Picador in 2001. This is the tale of friends walking through the fields to find a rabbit with myxomatosis which is described in detail (and is just upsetting) so one of the party decides to go get his gun and put it out of its misery. In doing so the act itself is so horrid to the elderly man it brings back all the killings he endured during his time in the war and even the mercy killing of a friend. A very clever, breathtaking and emotional tale told in just ten pages.

I thought this book was fantastic, it made me laugh out loud, had me on the verge of tears and everything in between. It has also made me want to pack up my London flat and move off into some small random village somewhere and embrace myself in all village life has to offer, maybe not now though, something to look forward to in my retirement. I have noticed I do love a good village based read Joyce Dennys ‘Henrietta’s War’ had me entranced, and I have two more on my bedside table that are village based. ‘Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield as recommended by Elaine of Random Jottings and P.D James ‘Cover Her Face’ the latter being a slightly morbid take on village life after someone is murdered at a village fete. What other village based quirky fiction is out there?

I think I may have to give in to the charms of De Bernieres words more often now and may have to get my hands on a copy of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin finally. Has anyone else out there read it? What did you make of it (no spoilers please)? Oh and how could I forget if you would like to win a copy of the book do pop by tomorrow before the Sensation Season Sunday post (its Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon this weekend) as there will be a little village based competition and giveaway. Now your thoughts on village fiction and Louise De Bernieres please!

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Filed under Harvill Secker Books, Louis De Bernieres, Random House Publishing, Review

Tuck Everlasting – Natalie Babbitt

Sorry… this should have gone up yesterday but as wordpress drafted it rather than scheduled it didn’t show up and as I was working a 15 hour day for a charity fashion show I could do nothing about it, its all here now though.

Have you ever been in a bookshop and seen a novel with the quote “the worldwide bestselling classic” only to then think to yourself “I have never heard of this book before in my life”? Well that is exactly what happened with me when I saw Tuck Everlasting one a shelf a few weeks ago. I honestly had not heard of it before however I have mentioned it to a few people in passing and they have got all excitable about it and so the other afternoon I decided to sit down and have a look at the first few pages. Two hours later the book was finished…

Tuck Everlasting is the tale of both the Tuck family and Winnie Forster. Winnie Forster is a very precocious ten year old girl who is slightly fed up of being at home and is starting to test her freedom. In fact she is resolute that she will runaway as she is always telling the toad at the bottom of the garden and yet inevitably putting the event off. One day after a man in a yellow coat comes to the house they hear what Winnie’s Grandmother says is elf music and the next day a highly dubious Winnie goes off into the woods her family own, but are out of bound to Winnie, to try and find the source of the music. I utterly loved Winnie as a character and could have happily read much more of her than the 140 pages of this book.

Winnie did not believe in fairytales. She had never longed for a magic wand, did not expect to marry a prince, and was scornful – most of the time – of her grandmother’s elves. So now she sat, mouth open, wide-eyed, not knowing what to make of this extraordinary story. It couldn’t – not a bit of it – be true.

What she finds are not elves but instead a young boy, Jesse Tuck, who is drinking from a stream hidden in the wood. When a thirsty Winnie goes to drink from the stream he won’t let her and once his family arrive so worried are they that Winnie has seen the stream they kidnap her. The reason is she now knows of the stream that once you drink from makes you live and stay the same age forever and never die. Once Winnie knows the truth she thinks it would be wonderful, however as the Tuck family show her living forever has its dark and downsides too.

This book is actually a children’s classic, it is one that is definitely is a cross over book though. I am unashamed to add that I was completely and utterly spellbound by the book. It has all the makings of a modern fable and fairytale; you have the inquisitive young girl, the water of eternal life, a boy who can live forever, a very good-in-a-dark-way baddie (beware men in yellow), a few twists and of course a toad.

I really liked Natalie Babbitt’s writing style from the line “the house was so proud of itself that you wanted to make a lot of noise as you passed and maybe even throw a rock or two” it just made me chuckle. Though there are a few laughs in the book, generally with the wonderful Mae Tuck of Winnie, there are some very dark and very sad moments. In fact how children cope with the ending I don’t know as I will admit it left me shocked and with a tear in my eye, I will say no more. This is a wonderful book and will take you on a wonderful journey, not only into the magical and fictional but back to the wonderful fables and fairytales of your youth.

It took me back to when reading for me was a lot more “magical”. I know that sounds corny and I don’t mean that now books I read don’t keep me spell bound but this brought out my inner child I guess. Back when I was young books seemed much more gentle in terms of magic than the full on style that a Harry Potter (I like Harry Potter just so you know) can deliver. I suppose the best way to describe this would be ‘simply spellbinding’ there’s no gimmicks just wonderful story telling. For a small book it also certainly packs one heck of a punch!

Its made me wonder if I have now missed a huge amount of children’s classics that are considered cross-over’s as I never read books like this when I was younger as I really went off reading during school and am now wondering if I am too old for Five Children and It, The Wizard of Oz and children’s classics of old though I did read Alice in Wonderland earlier in the year and really enjoy it. Maybe it’s too late now? Maybe I am too old now to play catch up; hmm it’s a difficult thought that one and a slightly depressing one too! Have any of you read this? What other children’s classics would you recommend? Is there an age where we just shouldn’t be reading children’s books anymore?

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Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Books of 2009, Natalie Babbit, Review

Henrietta’s War – Joyce Dennys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images & Words of Dennys

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

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

Armadale – Wilkie Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her Fearful Symmetry – Audrey Niffenegger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Haunted Hotel – Wilkie Collins

Hoorah it’s the first ‘Sensation Sunday’, I have to admit that I was slightly worried that having not read The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins or Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon that my love for the ‘sensation novel’ might have passed, which would be slightly concerning as with The Sensation Season I have until just after Christmas to read a lot of sensation fiction. So I slightly warily opened the first few pages of ‘The Haunted Hotel’ it didn’t take long until I was completely immersed.

The Haunted Hotel opens in quite a typical ‘sensation novel’ fashion. Doctor Wybrow is about to go on his rounds when his servant announces a young lady has come needing to see him straight away. With other patients to see he tries to sneak out but is caught by the young woman who demands he sees her now as she fears she is going mad. From then she tells him the tale of her husband to be and the woman she usurped unintentionally from her fiancé Lord Montbarry, Agnes Lockwood, whom she recently met and had the fear of death put into her. Unable to help the woman she flea’s unhappily but something causes the Doctor to have her followed and he finds out she is Countess Narona who when he asks at the men’s club he discovers has a reputation of “being a person who produces a sensation wherever she goes, this noble lady is naturally made the subject of all sorts of scandalous reports” she is also, apparently, evil.

From then on we leave the Doctor behind and follow the story of Agnes Lockwood the jilted lover of Lord Montbarry whose maid’s husband who mysteriously goes missing working for Lord Montbarry and his new wife Countess Narona and her brother the Baron. Not long after Lord Montbarry dies of pneumonia in Venice though his family believe something suspicious has been going on as the Countess is now worth ten thousand pounds. Soon enough Agnes Lockwood and Countess Narona’s lives become entangled in a dark mystery.

I loved this book, I thought from start to end it was brilliant. I had never thought how sensation novels might have inspired today’s crime fiction as Wilkie Collins leaves you with a cliff hanger at the end of every chapter as the great plot driven crime novels of today do. In fact if I had to complain about the book in any way it’s the fact that you get very grumpy when you have to put it down to go to work and such evil things as what I really wanted to do was curl up and read it from cover to cover without stopping. When these novels where serialised in the late Victorian era I don’t know how people could wait for the next instalment. I wouldn’t have been able to as I was gripped and just completely became involved in the excellent plot, you do have to suspend your beliefs somewhat at coincidences but this is ‘sensation’ fiction after all, and the brilliant characters some who are wonderfully wicked.

I love books with ghosts, mystery, suspicion, dastardly characters, possible murder and foul play and shocks in them (get used to those words as I think they will be appearing a lot on this blog over the next few weeks) and this book has all of that in it and possibly more. I did wonder just how on earth Wilkie Collins could manage this in under 250 pages, and what’s more how does he do it for over another ten books? The first sensation novel in the Sensation Season was… well… sensational. I hope they all carry on like this.

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

Good Evening, Mrs Craven – Mollie Panter Downes

I have taken a small ‘Booker Break’ in honour of the delightful Persephone Week which I mentioned earlier in the week that Claire of Paperback Reader and Verity of The B Files have been running. Sadly with Man Booker madness, going away this weekend and then flying away on holiday on Monday its been a bit manic at Savidge Reads Towers and so I have only so far managed one Persephone read (though I am taking some up north this weekend) what a delightful read my first Persephone has been though.

“Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories” by Mollie Panter Downes is pretty much as it says, a collection of short stories Mollie Panter Downes wrote in the War which was a period of intense writing for her as she had several newspaper columns and wrote a mass f short stories. This collection contains 21 (yes, 21 in less than 200 pages) of her short stories from the late 1930’s to early 1940’s.

These are not stories of doom and gloom though, in fact on several occasions with some of the wonderful things that the characters came out with I was laughing with glee. This is very much a book that manages to sum up ‘the Blitz Spirit’ whilst observing people and how they cope during times of trial and tribulation. I can’t really describe all the 21 stories as they are a very diverse collection and some are so short if I reviewed them one by one you wouldn’t need to read the collection and I think that people should. They do all have a theme along side ‘blitz spirit’ and that is that they all feature strong women, even in tales such as “Lunch With Mr Biddle” which is actually about a group of women who luncheon with said Mr Biddle, and really this is a book about how women coped and dealt with war.

We see laughter in most of the stories, and believe me the dry wit is wonderful. There were in fact so many great quotes in this novel that I think I will have to do a separate post tomorrow so you can capture some of the joy in the book. Whilst there is a jovial side to the novel of course the War brought dark times. Women’s houses were invaded by evacuee’s some who ruined their lodgings as we see in one tale and of course there was death and the loss of loved ones. Also relations in groups such as ‘The Red Cross Stitching Committee’ became strained, tensions mounted in times of pressure and people even became competitive in the war between themselves, their tragedies and who’s husband/father was better at fighting than who. ‘The Battle of the Greeks’ is a story that completely sums this up.

This is a wonderful and evocative collection that portrays the war not only as a time of trouble but as a time of communities pulling together. (You will also love this is if you like fiction about strong women, groups of gossiping women or women who think everything can be solved ‘with a nice cup of tea’ – just my sort of book.) I will definitely be reading more of Mollie Panter Downes work and much more of the Persephone Books.

I have to thank Claire and Verity as without them and this week this delightful book would have been unlikely to be picked up by me. I am only cross mow I have to give the book back to the library, tut! Have you read any of Mollie Panter Downes work? Is it all as wonderful as this? What other of her works should I read? Which other Persephone author must I get hold of?

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Filed under Books of 2009, Mollie Panter Downes, Persephone Books, Review, Short Stories

Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel

I will be the first to admit that this wasn’t one of the Man Booker Long List that I was looking forward to the most. I think the size and subject, despite lots and lots of rave reviews online and in the press, were what were making me feel that this book was going to be too much for me. It wasn’t the fact it was historical fiction, in fact The Tudors, The Victorian era and the 1930’s are eras books can cover that I can read about until the cows come home. It was more who the book was about, was I really interested in a book all about Thomas Cromwell? You know the saying ‘never judge a book by its cover’ this might be my first case of ‘never judge a book by its subject’.

Reading the blurb I was lead to believe that ‘Wolf Hall’ would be the ‘fictional account of the first half of Thomas Cromwell’s life’ which considering I didn’t really know and wasn’t sure that I was all too bothered about. However ‘Wolf Hall’ isn’t just about Thomas Cromwell, though he is the main character and the book covers his youth and leads up to the height of his power to merely call it a ‘fictionalisation of Thomas Cromwell’s life’ doesn’t actually do the book justice whatsoever.

What Hilary Mantel manages to actually conjure up is 35 years of Tudor Britain and focusing especially the pivotal time in England’s history when Henry VIII decided Katherine was not the Queen for him and Anne Boleyn certainly was, thus changing the religious situation of England forever and creating one of its most tempestuous political climates. This isn’t told through the eyes of the King or off any of the Boleyn’s, this is all through the eyes of the man who would struggle and fight to become Henry’s right hand man from his beginnings as the son of an alcoholic abusive butcher.

Though what happens to him between 1500 and 1529 remains quite a mystery Mantel has clearly done a huge amount of research (you couldn’t make the Tudor world seem so very real without putting in huge amounts of time, effort and research) and does give us occasional glimpses when Cromwell reflects which he does now and again. What does come to light is he becomes Cardinal Wolsey’s right hand man and Cardinal Wolsey was of course Henry’s right hand man. Not only do we get to see the lavish lifestyles of the rich such as the king, the lavish like Wolsey and the comfortable like Cromwell. We also get to see, through Cromwell’s work with law, his time amongst the public and poor and time through plagues, how the poor lived and I honestly felt I was walking the streets with him.

Mantel never overdoes it though, her prose is descriptive but tight, she doesn’t wander off into endless flowery paragraphs of descriptions of one castle front, or one of Anne Boleyn’s dresses. The details are there they just happen to be precise and to the point yet vivid and scene setting. So if she is so precise how can this book be over 650 pages? Not because it is filled with endless political or religious terminology if that’s what you are worried about. Mantel spends time building all her characters and their back stories as Cromwell becomes aware of them or takes them into his household. Some of the cast of characters include as Wolsey, Henry VIII, Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn as mentioned but also Mary Boleyn, Mary Tudor and Jane Seymour all fascinating historical characters.

I completely fell into the world of this book. I actually couldn’t put it down (which at its size in hardback is quite an effort on the arms) and rushed to read it at any given opportunity. Mantel may or may not win the Man Booker with this but what I think she has done is create an epic novel that will one day be considered a modern classic. I have found it to be one of the most compelling, interesting and complete joy to read novels of the year, and I don’t say that often or lightly. I think the fact it’s the longest of the Man Booker long list and I have read it in the shortest space of time of all of them should speak volumes.

I also think it’s a book that’s accessible to anyone. I don’t think everyone will like it, in fact I didn’t think I would at the start I just immersed myself and was ‘there’, well I felt I was. It seems inevitable that people will compare this to some of Philippa Gregory’s work, ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’ springs to mind instantly. While I did enjoy that book (sadly the one about one of my favourite women in history Bess of Hardwick ‘The Other Queen’ left me slightly cold) I do think Mantel takes the era an extra step though how is hard to put my finger on. No we will never know if these conversations ever happened but it does seem to be based much more on fact and less on what might possibly have happened. Having said that if you like Gregory (and I do – I just think this takes historical fiction further) then you will love this, if you love literary fiction I can imagine you loving this.

Can you tell I loved it yet? I will stop now, I could go on and on about this book for hours. I have given it straight to ‘The Converted One’ who is a Tudor-holic. I will just add that I do think going to Hampton Court Palace last week was the push I needed to read this and it came just at the right time.

Has anyone else been daunted by this book before reading it like I was? What are your thoughts on it being the favourite for the Man Booker at the moment? What do you think of historical fiction, can it be literary or is it just escapist romps in corsets? What’s the best historical novel you have read?

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Filed under Books of 2009, Fourth Estate Books, Hilary Mantel, Man Booker, Review

Brooklyn – Colm Toibin

One thing that I particularly like about reading this year’s Man Booker long list is that it is giving me the opportunity to read for the first time some authors that I have always wanted to try but never quite managed, or possibly been slightly daunted by. A.S Byatt is one of them and that is still going slowly but surely (enjoyably so), Coetzee I will be starting today and is someone I have always been intrigued by. However its Colm Toibin who I pretty much own the back catalogue of works by but haven’t read a page… until I started ‘Brooklyn’ that was.

9780141041742

I am not going to hold back I loved ‘Brooklyn’. I thought Toibin’s style of prose and narrative was simple and beautiful and throughout the whole book I was totally and utterly engaged. I liked and believed in all the characters and I loved the subtle simple plot. In fact ‘subtle and simple’ are possibly the perfect two words to sum this book up for me. Yet at the same time it’s quite an epic novel and one that covers a huge amount in fewer than 250 pages.

‘Brooklyn’ is a tale of Eilis, a young girl in Ireland after the Second World War where the economy is a disaster and jobs are scarce. Overjoyed simply to find a Sunday and occasional evening job when you can expect little more Eilis is suddenly offered a job and life in Brooklyn where work is easier to find and so is money and more importantly prospects. Eilis soon realises that this isn’t a sudden offer and in fact her mother, sister and brothers (in England) have been well meaningly plotting this for quite some time and really she has no choice.  After following her nightmare journey across the ocean we watch as Eilis settles into a new life with new people and new cultures in an unknown environment. We also watch as she grows from girl to woman and falls in love. It is eventually though a trip home that leads to the climax and a huge decision for Eilis… I wont say any more than that, I will say I bet the ending will either seal the deal for people or possibly put them off the book completely.

The plot brings us some wonderful, wonderful surroundings. I loved the Ireland we briefly got to see at the start and especially when Eilis ends up working in the local shop where supplies are low and people get special treatment, well bread that’s not off, if the owner likes them. When Eilie moves to Brooklyn you could vividly see the streets of shops and as Eilis works in one of these ‘Bartocci’s’ we get to see how everything runs and I could just envisage it so clearly. I will admit it; I ended up wanting to be there in Eilis’ house share in 1950’s Brooklyn!

The plot also brings up many subjects. The first is poverty and how the Second World War left countries like Ireland and all the people who survived the horrors of war behind. It looks at women’s roles and how they changed and strangely gained independence further during these times, they could go and work in other countries and start new lives even if the job opportunities were limited. It also discussed racism at the time as the colour of customers in Bartocci’s changes; this isn’t a subject at the heart of the book I did like its inclusion though as it would have happened at the time. In fact looking back with Eilis’ love interest being from an Italian family and Eilis not being an American in America different cultures is in a way a theme.

For me out of everything it was the prose and also the characters that really made the book the complete joy to read I found it. I liked Eilis though for me she was in a way a ‘nice and intrigued’ pair of eyes to watch a story through. It was characters like the scary domineering and gossiping Mrs Kelly who owned the corner shop and the fabulous Georgina, who I adored, and is Eilie’s partner in illness on one of the most horrendous boat crossings I have read… I did laugh though. With characters, plot and backdrops like this I would be amazed if you could fail to love this book.

In fact actually this is just the book I have been craving to read, and haven’t quite been able to find (not even in Samantha Harvey’s The Wilderness but almost) for quite a while something I would rush to read the next bit of and get lost in all over again. I can’t wait to read more Toibin after the Man Booker long list, the only question is… where to start, what should I read of his next?

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Filed under Books of 2009, Colm Toibin, Man Booker, Penguin Books, Review, Viking Books