Tag Archives: Jennifer Johnston

The Highs of Hebden Bridge & Heptonstall (A Book Crawl in Yorkshire)

Before I take you on a virtual tour which includes beautiful countryside, several book shops, Sylvia Plath’s final resting place and an impressive book loot, I just want to say a huge thank you for all the comments, emails and texts I got yesterday after I told you of the latest with my health. It was lovely to have all your thoughts and meant a lot. Anyway before I get any mushier let me tell you about a wonderful day out I had on Tuesday which was something of a destination lottery as it turned out.

Wanting to do something to keep me occupied before ‘results day’ on Wednesday myself and the lovely Paul Magrs decided we would head to the train station and pick a random destination to head to for some kind of bookish adventure. And what a lovely station it was that we chose, you know how I love my Victoriana…

As soon as we stepped inside I had a good feeling that we would have a great day for books and adventure when I saw this wonderful old signage from the original station…

We decided we would get the next train which happened to take us into the Yorkshire Dales with Hebden Bridge as its destination. With a lovely M&S sandwich selection (which Paul rather took the mickey out of me for) and some nibbles we got onto a train that looked like it should be sat on a snowy peak and be taking us off to the top of the alps. Instead it took us as far as Todmorden where we sneakily got off (sometimes you need to stop and hop off along the way)…

Paul had raved about a wonderful bookshop that was housed there; unfortunately it seemed that like most of Todmorden on a Tuesday it was closed… which was rather unimpressive, did they not know we were coming? Oh no, they didn’t. We did pop into several charity shops though before both grabbing a corned beef pasty (I might also have had a gingerbread man) which we ate by the canal…

Soon enough though we headed off to Hebden Bridge which has one of the most wonderful train stations I have scene, its literally like going back in time…

Again, sadly the independent book shop here was also closed on a Tuesday (maybe we should have said we were coming) it looked a corker too…

We did visit a marvellous remainder book shop…

In which I found an absolute gem I could have walked away with about five books from this store but I was incredibly restrained, well ok I was restrained because we had visited every charity shop going in Hebden Bridge and had already got a corking seven books in my bag. Which meant rather than walk all the way to the peak point of Heptonstall I begged to get a bus, which was driven by the happiest bus driver I have ever had the pleasure of meeting – he drove us back down too rather like a taxi service), and came to the stunning derelict Heptonstall church which either got struck by lightening or was bombed, I need to look it up…

It honestly was incredibly haunting and rather spooky. It has stayed with me since and seems to have got my creative juices flowing, I have been scribbling away in my notebook ever since seeing this…

Before we left we went and, after rather a lot of searching, found the final resting place of Sylvia Plath, I was rather surprised by her grave to be honest I think I expected something more showy or extravagant. Instead was a rather understated grave in the middle of a simple hidden church yard…

Paul and I then had a rather interesting, if slightly sacrilegious, discussion on the way back down with the jolly bus driver as to whether ‘The Bell Jar’ (which is the only Plath that I have read, I am not so good with poetry) would have been quite so successful if Sylvia hadn’t died early? All in all it was an amazing bookish day. Oh of course… you will want to know what books I came away with. So without further ado…

  • Murder At The Laurels/Murder in Midwinter/Murder in Bloom by Lesley Cookman – you may have noticed in the last few hauls I have managed to get almost all the Libby Sarjeant series. I will be tucking into these soon.
  • Dewey by Vicky Myron – I am actually rather cross with myself for buying this but it’s become a rather’in’ joke with Paul and I and for 50p I couldn’t hold back. A book about a library cat, I have an awful feeling that like ‘Marley & Me’ I will love this and be ever so slightly disgusted with myself.
  • Eating For England by Nigel Slater – I almost squealed when I saw this after LOVING ‘Toast’ earlier in the year.
  • This Is Not A Novel by Jennifer Johnston – You don’t see Johnston’s books very often in second hand shops and I do like her style and prose a lot plus I loved the title, so in the bag it went.
  • The House of Mitford by Jonathan Guinness – This was the bargain I found in the discount store, it was the most expensive purchase of the day at a whopping 3.99 but it’s normally over a tenner, its about The Mitfords which is themost important factor and is normally quite hard to get hold of – hoorah!
  • Fear The Worst by Linwood Barclay – I can’t deny that I am having a real ‘Savidge Reads Crime’ phase and I really liked the first Linwood Barclay ‘No Time For Goodbye’ so even though I haven’t read the one between these I picked this up anyway.

What an ace bookish day it was. Books, Sylvia Plath, adventures in the dales, and stunning locations. No wonder we had to have a drink afterwards in central Manchester to calm ourselves down. Have you visited Heptonstall? Read any of the books that I picked up? When did you last go on a random book haul trawl and where?

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Filed under Book Spree, Book Thoughts

Truth or Fiction – Jennifer Johnston

I don’t know about all of you but I do think Sundays should be quite a restful day, maybe lots of reading in bed and pottering around? So instead of doing my book thoughts in order of what I have read, which I tend to do but might go out the window as at the moment I am reading some proofs for later in the year as well as dipping into Deborah Devonshire’s memoirs, I would discuss ‘Truth or Fiction’ by Jennifer Johnston as it could be an ideal Sunday read being initially quite gentle and easily read in a long morning in bed. And yes, I did say it’s initially a gentle read.

‘Truth or Fiction’ is really a novel that looks into just what the difference is between people’s own truths and their own fictions. Caroline Wallace is a journalist in her forties who thinks she is fairly happy in her living with her partner Herbert, an author, living in Notting Hill. That is until Herbert proposes, a scene which actually made me laugh out loud, and it brings all the things that have been bubbling under the surface of Catherine’s mind to the fore. Around the same time her editor decides to send her to Dublin to meet and interview the rather reclusive ageing author Desmond Fitzmaurice whose works seem to have been forgotten and are deserving of resurgence.

You might think ‘oh this is obvious Catherine is going to fall for Desmond and that’ll be that’ which I might possibly have thought was coming only having read Jennifer Johnston before (thanks to Kimbofo who is a Johnston connoisseur and chose ‘The Illusionist’ for the NTTVBG last year) and knowing that she is far to clever for that, and indeed far too deceptive too as you have the feeling something darker is set to come. As we read on Catherine gets more and more entangled in Desmond’s life from his current wife, ex-wife and the one that got away, to his relationships with his children and to something in his past he did and cannot quite get over.

This is where I come into some slight conflict with the book however. Whilst I liked the way Desmond was quite quirky, the fact there was more to him than met the eye and the fact that Johnston used him to look at the feelings behind old age and the modern family with divorces and estranged children. I didn’t ever feel like I got to grips with the depths of the other characters, his first wife Pamela being a slight stereotype of the woman who needed to be free, and the same with the current wife Anna being the woman who became more and more embittered as she aged. Catherine herself was another character that I never quite formed fully in my mind, but maybe that was all me?

I thought the first three quarters of the book were rather brilliant in that observational writing style where little happens but much is said and passed on to the reader, a style I am quite a fan of and always impressed by any author that can do it so well and Johnston certainly can. Yet suddenly it seemed Johnston went from a fifth gear into first and so much happened within a few pages, which of course I won’t give away, that I was thrown before suddenly it was the final page and that was that. I don’t believe an author has to tie everything up nicely; in fact I really like authors who leave the reader to do some work themselves, here however I felt a few strands had simply been dumped and it bothered me a little especially as I was left wondering what in the last 152 pages had been fiction and had been truth. Maybe though that is the idea? 7/10

It sounds a little bit like I am moaning about this book reading it back and honestly I am not. Though I came away wanting a longer book and wanting to understand more of the peripheral characters (so that I could make sense of the big character of Desmond at the forefront of it all) I did come away still wanting to read much more Johnston. I really like her prose; Johnston’s writing has an honesty, humour and darkness to it which works for me. The fact Johnston trusts you to, and possibly thinks you should, work at the novel is a quality I admire and I will definitely be picking up another of her books in due course.  

I wonder if my surprised enjoyment of ‘The Illusionist’ and its becoming such a hit with me created a certain level of expectation in this one to some degree. Have you ever had that experience where you have read and loved an author’s book and then read another one, liked it a lot, but expected more? Has anyone got any suggestions of where to turn for another Jennifer Johnston novel?

I got this book from the library where they seem to do a good line in Jennifer Johnston, I shall have to get another!

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Filed under Headline Review, Jennifer Johnston, Review

Blaming – Elizabeth Taylor

I have been told by many a friend and reader of this blog that I ‘simply must read Elizabeth Taylor’. You can call me slow on the uptake but until I had done some research the only Elizabeth Taylor that I knew of was the actress. It happened that in the library the other week they had a lovely old copy of ‘Blaming’ by Elizabeth Taylor as they were ‘digging up forgotten gems from the basement’. I liked the cover, loved the fact no one had taken it out for about a decade and thinking of all the recommendations I promptly picked it up.

Not having previously read any Elizabeth Taylor novels before I didn’t really know what to expect from ‘Blaming’ if I am honest, maybe something a little twee.  The story opens in Istanbul where Amy and Nick are taking a holiday after his recovering of an illness, what it is we are never quite sure. Here they meet the American Martha, a novelist which they don’t know initially, who is travelling alone. Slowly but surely the three start to become acquainted and before they know it, or have even really consented to it, Amy and Nick find they are sharing a holiday with someone who was until recently a stranger.

“Nick was reading her book about Byzantine art. On the flyleaf was written ‘Dear Martha, I’ll miss you. Love, Simon.’ He and Amy had discussed this, for they couldn’t place Martha, though were less occupied with her than she with them. The three of them, knowing nothing of one another, were cast together by their language and nothing else.”

As the trip continues tragedy strikes, this could be a spoiler so you might want to stop reading or skip this paragraph though it does tell you on the blurb and happens early in the novel, when Nick dies in the night. Amy is left widowed and stranded alone in a foreign country with no one to help her or comfort her than Martha who almost relishes the role especially as an observer. Once back in England Martha tries to get into Amy’s life once more, and with reluctance though as an escape from her rather irritating family (both to the reader and Amy) slowly but surely she allows this friendship to blossom even though she doesn’t want it too and the two are drawn in to each others lives through a mixture of grief, guilt and blame.

I won’t say anymore about the plot as it’s a short book and I would recommend that you gave it a whirl yourself. Taylor never quite puts us into the heads of any of the characters, including Amy’s wonderful cook/parlour man Ernie who provides some brilliant and occasionally needed light relief when he appears on the page, yet she shows us just enough of their motives to see we need to read more and that not everything might be quite as it seems.

‘Blaming’ was actually Elizabeth Taylor’s last novel, in fact having done some research it was published posthumously in 1976 a year after her death. Her writing is beautiful yet sparse, no words are used that needn’t be. Initially though there doesn’t appear to be a huge plot there is so much going on. We observe people and what they do and how they react to circumstances learning how there is much more to every action, and indeed every page, than meets the eye.  along the lines of Jennifer Johnston and Anita Brookner, whose books I have enjoyed as much, Taylor is an author who watches the world and then writes about it with a subtly and emotion that seems to capture the human condition. 8.5/10

Now that I have read Taylor I think I am going to have to delve into her back catalogue for many more of her novels, so do recommend more if you have read her. I am also itching to read another Brookner or Johnston. Which other authors have you read where subtly wins over initial storylines? Is the observational a form of fiction you enjoy?

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Filed under Elizabeth Taylor, Review, Virago Books

New Library, New Loot

I mentioned yesterday that I was on the hunt for a new library where I could actually take books out and I think a few of you (or maybe this was on twitter too) said Manchester Central Library would be best. Sadly, as I discovered yesterday, that library of such legend is closed for refurbishment until 2013 (selfish) but I did find one closer to my new abode and joined without needing any ID at all, how mad is that? What was even madder was that I was very restrained with what I took out.

Normally I would go mad and get anything and everything that takes my fancy in a slight ‘I have a library card and I am not afraid to use it’ kind of way, however I only came away with three – yes that is right, just three – books on my first visit. I am not sure what has caused such restraint in me but restrained I was and came away with my new library card (as shown below) and…

  • A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali by Gil Courtemanche – some of the lovely ladies at my new book group were saying this is one of the saddest but most moving and important books they had read on Monday and so I thought with that many people saying the same thing I should give it a whirl.
  • Truth or Fiction by Jennifer Johnston – ever since the lovely Kimbofo chose ‘The Illusionist’ by Jennifer Johnston for Not The TV Book Group earlier this year, which I really liked, I have been meaning to read another. They had loads of her books but this was the most recent and the shortest which with my current book attention span is ideal.
  • The Empty Family by Colm Toibin – you will quite possibly know that I loved ‘Brooklyn’ when I read it last year and though I have most of his books on Mount TBR, Mount TBR is currently in a lock up in slight disarray (don’t fear I did bring a few boxes and bags of books into my new abode too) and this was a collection I have begged Penguin for but never heard back about. So you can imagine that I almost let out a little squeal of joy when I saw this, a previously unborrowed copy, on the shelves. I think this might be my next read actually.

It’s a small haul but one filled with quality I think, which might be my new library loan mantra. Its not about getting loads, it’s about picking a few gems. Mind you I am saying that, the nearby library is quite small and perfectly formed, I have learnt there is a huge one a mere bus ride away! I am hoping these three are gems though, have any of you read them, any thoughts? What did you last get from the library?

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Filed under Book Thoughts

The Illusionist – Jennifer Johnston

It almost seems contrived to constantly sing the praises of book groups (be they online or face to face) and the fact that they make you read books you never normally would, yet I am going to do that again today. One of the truest  joys of  a book group can be finding an author previously unknown to you that you enjoy so much you can’t wait to read more of their work, in fact you find yourself regularly looking at their back catalogue and wanting to own it all immediately. This happened with me in reading ‘The Illusionist’ by Jennifer Johnston for the latest meeting of minds of the NTTVBG last week.

‘The Illusionist’ is an intriguing and unsettling tale of the meeting, marriage and separation of Stella (a publisher) and Martyn (an illusionist – not to be confused with a conjurer, especially not in front of the man himself) who meet as strangers on a train in the summer of 1961. Initially unimpressed by this random man who wants to befriend her Stella is soon won over by what she believes is love and accepts his swift proposal of marriage, once married though Stella is bound into a world of secrecy, not just of her husbands but also of her own, and an ominous side to her husband begins to show through.

It isn’t giving anything away to say that the book is set after Martyn’s untimely death (he is blown up along with hundreds of doves from his infamous act in an IRA bombing) and funeral as Stella’s estranged daughter Robin comes to visit her when the book opens. As the two women discuss Martyn, Stella is reminded of the past and we switch between the present and the past and discover how the couple’s relationship developed and changes over time. The mystery that initially attracts and draws Stella to Martyn soon fades becoming secrecy and a calculated, controlling and subtle bullying behaviour of his true character starts to submerge which is in some parts quite dark and disturbing for the reader. It will also make you so angry in parts that you almost can’t speak, but that to me showed me I was deeply involved with the story and the characters.

It’s hard to say anymore without ruining the book because it’s a book that slowly but surely hooks you in and leaves you wanting more even once the final page is turned. It is certainly a book that will stay with me for quite sometime. I will fully admit I had some slight trepidation with the book initially as Johnston alternates between time periods suddenly and often with the same narrative, yet with the end result its well worth muddling through the first ten pages as the book will win you over with its subtle brilliance.

I have to say from initially feeling unsure about the book I was soon completely engrossed and had finished the book in a sitting or two and I can’t imagine there are many people that couldn’t be spell bound (pun intended) by this novel. I would highly recommend this to any of you who didn’t join in the NTTVBG and a huge thanks to Kim for putting this book and indeed this author on my reading radar, I will be looking out for much more of Jennifer Johnston’s work in the future. Has anyone else read this or any of Johnston’s other works? Do you have any particular recommendations for what I should read next?

Don’t forget that the NTTVBG is having a week off so we will be back on the 11th to discuss Neil Bartlett’s ‘Skin Lane’ right here at Savidge Reads, hope to see you all then.

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Filed under Headline Review, Jennifer Johnston, Not The TV Book Group, Review