Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Rector and The Doctor's Family - Margaret Oliphant

A couple of years ago Desperate Reader read all of Margaret Oliphant's Chronicles of Carlingford &, ever since, I've been collecting copies of them which have, naturally, never left the tbr shelves. Eventually, I moved the first book in the series, The Rector and The Doctor's Family, from the tbr shelves to the tbr pile & now, at long last, I've read it.

This first volume is actually a short story & a novella & it sets up all the themes for the Chronicles to come. In The Rector, we're introduced to the small town of Carlingford. The new Rector is about to arrive & everyone is curious about him. Will he be Low Church like the last Rector (who scandalised polite society by preaching to the bargemen at the canal) or will he be High Church? More importantly, will he be single? There are several unmarried ladies in Carlingford & the marital status of any new arrival is of paramount importance.

Morley Proctor has been a fellow of All Souls for the last fifteen years and, if it had been left to him, he would be a Fellow of All Souls still. However, he has an elderly mother & he feels it his duty to provide a home for her so he has accepted the living at Carlingford. Mr Proctor soon discovers that he is not suited to the duties of a parochial clergyman. His sermons are stiff, but, more importantly, he doesn't know how to talk to people. He is shy and finds it difficult to relate to his parishioners. When he is called in to comfort a dying woman, he has no idea what to say & watches in embarrassed mortification as young Mr Wentworth, the curate of St Roque's, rescues the situation with practiced ease & real feeling.

Mr Proctor is also aware that he is seen as a matrimonial prize & his mother is urging him to marry. Mr Wodehouses's two daughters, the elder known only as Miss Woodhouse, is nearly forty, mild & kind. Her young half-sister, Lucy, is beautiful & wilful, & seems to have young Mr Wentworth at her feet. Mr Proctor is dazzled by her beauty but also aware that he is as much out of his depth with Lucy as he is in every other aspect of his life in Carlingford.

As The Rector sets up the ecclesiastical themes of the series, The Doctor's Family introduces us to another part of Carlingford society. Dr Edward Rider is a newcomer who lives in a less fashionable part of town. He can't rival old Dr Marjoribanks who has an iron grip on the leaders of Carlingford society so he sets up his practice at the other end of town. Dr Rider is a dissatisfied man as he has a burden, an albatross around his neck - his slovenly, drunken brother, Fred. Fred occupies an upstairs room & is a blight on the doctor's life. He has returned from Australia, with no money & no prospects. He has also neglected to tell Edward that he left behind a wife & three children. When Fred's wife, Susan, arrives in the care of her very capable sister, Nettie, Edward's first thought is horror. To have Fred around his neck is one thing but a sister-in-law & three children to provide for is just too much.

Nettie, however, has other ideas. She has a little money of her own & has spent her life looking after Susan, who is a peevish, spiteful woman. Nettie takes lodgings near St Roque's for the family & spends her life looking after the children, trying to keep up Susan's spirits & bullying Fred into better behavior. Edward is fascinated by Nettie & begins visiting, even though it means he must also see his brother & his family. Edward falls in love with Nettie but she realises that if they married, Fred & family would have to come along as well. She knows that Edward would never be able to tolerate this. He's a dissatisfied, grouchy man who is quick to take offence & jump to the wrong conclusions. Seeing Nettie walking with Mr Wentworth sends him into a paroxysm of bad temper although he has no claim on her & no right to be upset by her friendship with another man.

Nettie is such an interesting character. She is a good young woman who is very sure of herself & bears her responsibilities with fortitude. The fact that her family are less than grateful for all she does for them bothers her not at all. She tries hard to discipline & educate the unruly children & treats Fred like a hopeless invalid which he resents. Edward is grateful that she has taken the family off his hands but also feels guilty that he doesn't do more to help. Nettie's sense of herself is bound up with her sister & her family & she only begins to resent her position when her own happiness looks threatened. Mild Miss Wodehouse had tried to warn Nettie to think of herself more, but had been ignored.

But now the time predicted by Miss Wodehouse had arrived. Nettie's personal happiness had come to be at stake and had been unhesitatingly given up. But the knowledge of that renunciation dwelt with Nettie. Not all the natural generosity of her mind - not that still stronger argument which she used so often, the mere necessity and inevitableness of the case - could blind her eyes to the fact that she had given up her own happiness; and bitter flashes of thought would intervene, notwithstanding the self-contempt and reproach with which she became aware of them.

As Desperate Reader says, these books can be compared with Trollope's Barsetshire series as the themes of Church & society are common to both. The Rector and The Doctor's Family can be compared with The Warden & Barsetshire Towers in the way they set up the themes & characters of the whole series. However, Margaret Oliphant brings her own sensibility to the stories she tells. Penelope Fitzgerald wrote the Introductions to the Virago reprints in the 1980s & these are well worth reading to get an idea of the context of the novels. The essays have been reprinted in A House of Air, a wonderful collection of essays & reviews by Penelope Fitzgerald which I'd recommend to anyone who loves reading about books.

Margaret Oliphant wrote for a living. She worked to support her husband, sons, brothers & other assorted family members. I couldn't help seeing quite a lot of Oliphant in Nettie & maybe Oliphant had experienced that selfish ingratitude from her own family that Nettie experiences. Sometimes I couldn't help having a little sympathy with Fred as Nettie bullies & bosses him but, where would Fred be without her? Although as Margaret Oliphant wrote in her Autobiography, she often wondered if she did the wrong thing propping her family up all the time. Would they have saved themselves if she hadn't been there to do it for them? I had that same thought about Nettie as Edward Rider did when he tries to persuade Nettie to leave them & marry him.  It's a question that Margaret Oliphant struggled with & maybe tried to work through in her fiction. As Penelope Fitzgerald writes,

Mrs Oliphant creates a moral atmosphere of her own - warm, rueful, based on hard experience, tolerant just where we may not expect it. One might call it the Mrs Oliphant effect. In part it is the 'uncomprehended, unexplainable impulse to take the side of the opposition' which she recognized in herself and Jane Carlyle. It is the form that her wit takes, a sympathetic relish for contradictions.

I'm looking forward to reading more of the Chronicles of Carlingford.  

Anglophilebooks.com There's a copy of The Rector and The Doctor's Family available at Anglophile Books. 

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Sunday Poetry - John Keats

One of my favourite sonnets. It always makes me wonder what Keats would have done if he'd lived. It also provides the quotation for the crossword clue Fred is working on in Brief Encounter, one of my favourite movies. He asks Laura for help with the missing word in this quotation, Huge cloudy symbols of a high - something in seven letters. Laura knows it's Romance.
That might be an idea for a series of Sunday poems. Famous quotations from books & movies & the poems they came from.

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean'd my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen'd grain;
When I behold, upon the night's starr'd face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love;--then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Why I really like Why I Really Like This Book

I've recently discovered a blog & a series of podcasts that I love & I think readers of this blog would also love. Kate Macdonald has a blog called Why I Really Like This Book. Kate is a fan of forgotten fiction, as she calls it. The books that used to be well-known, that our grandparents used to read but now, no one does. Every fortnight she records a podcast about her chosen book. You can listen to the podcast from the link on the blog or you can download it to your iPad (& to other devices as well, I'm sure, but I only know about iPads) & listen to it anywhere, anytime.

Kate & I have a lot of authors & books in common. I've listened to about half a dozen of the podcasts & have downloaded a dozen more. You can see from the photo above some of the authors & books Kate has already blogged about. E M Delafield, Angela Thirkell, Stella Gibbons, John Buchan, Barbara Pym. In a way, these authors aren't as forgotten as they used to be. They've all been reprinted in recent years & they're being discovered by a new generation of readers. On the other hand, those of us who love middlebrow fiction are still a small group when you consider the many millions of people reading John Grisham, Janet Evanovich, E L James & now Robert Galbraith. Anything that promotes our favourite authors & keeps the reprints coming is wonderful.

Kate's latest podcast is about When William Came by Saki. I'd already downloaded this book a few months ago when I read Simon's review at Stuck In A Book but, of course, haven't read it. The only Saki I've read is The Unbearable Bassington although I have his Complete Stories on the tbr shelves. Kate recommended four short stories by Saki as an introduction to his style - Tobermory, The Reticence of Lady Anne, Music on the Hill & Esme. They certainly encapsulate Saki's themes of satire & wicked humour. Other books I'm now keen to read are Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill & John Buchan's The Power-House. I'm sure I'll find more as I look back through the archives of Why I Really Like This Book. On the blog there's also a link to an interview with Kate from Pod Academy where she discusses forgotten fiction & her love of browsing in secondhand bookshops (which is where the interview takes place).

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Just borrowed

I borrowed a couple of new books at work last week & I think they're so funny & true & beautifully done that I wanted to share them. Nikki McClure's How To Be A Cat is one of the loveliest picture books I've seen in ages & I buy picture books as part of my job so I see a lot of them.

Black & white drawings with a splash of blue. One word per page. There's no story as such, it's about a kitten watching his mother & learning the skills he will need to be a cat.

This book is for anyone who loves cats. You don't need to be three years old to see the truth in the observation of the cats that's gone into creating this book. I make no comment on this picture at all but there are days when I feel I do nothing but open doors for Lucky & Phoebe.

The other book is by Jen Campbell. A few years ago she published a book called Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops. It was exactly that. A collection of weird, wonderful, mad, funny, incomprehensible things that customers or patrons say when they walk into your bookshop or library. Jen works at the Ripping Yarns Bookshop in London & began collecting the odd things people said. The idea grew into the book & other booksellers & librarians began sending in their own examples. Now, she's published the sequel More Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops. Jen has a blog where she talks about her books, her poetry & more weird things that have come her way. Here are just a few of my favourite weird things from this latest book.

Customer: Pride and Prejudice was published a long time ago, right?
Bookseller: Yep.
Customer: I thought so. Colin Firth's looking really good for his age, then.

Customer: I don't like biographies. The main character pretty much always dies in the end. It's so predictable.

Customer: Can you recommend a book of spells to raise pets from the dead?
Customer: Just animals, you understand - not people. I don't want my husband coming back.

If you laughed at any or all of those examples, you will enjoy this book. The line drawings throughout are by The Brothers McLeod.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Plotting for Grown-ups - Sue Hepworth

I enjoyed Plotting for Beginners so much, I raced on to the sequel almost as soon as I'd downloaded it. Aspiring writer Sally Howe is a few years older now, about to turn 60 in fact. Her marriage to Gus is over. He decided he loved living in the wilderness so much that he's applied for permanent residency & is living in his cabin in the Rockies. Her brother, Richard, has just broken up with Pippa, although as he keeps walking her dogs & doing odd jobs for her, she may not believe the relationship is really over. Two of Sally's children live overseas & her youngest, Sam, is still popping in for home comforts & a chance to rant at his mother with his latest girlfriend, Xanthe, who takes over the kitchen & enjoys walking around in the nude. Best friend Wendy has reached the end of the line with her philandering husband, Alan, but keeps Sally amused with an endless stream of new outfits & her attempts at finding a replacement for Alan before she throws him out of home. At least the local village speed dating socials have two areas - one for those looking for a date & one for those who are already attached & just want to support the cause & chat to the locals.

Sally's writing career seems to have stalled. Her first novel sold reasonably well but her second is doing the rounds of the publishers & her agent is getting to the end of the list. Her third novel, a romantic comedy (written with the aid of Billy Mernit's Writing the Romantic Comedy) is coming along slowly as she works her way from The Chemical Equation : Setup & on to the Cute Meet & the Sexy Complication : Turning Point. When her agent, Donna, reaches the end of her list of publishers, Sally decides to publish the book herself. This involves finding a printer, organising an ISBN, investigating paper quality & font sizes as well as building her profile on Facebook & Twitter. Sally's writing group friend, Kate (aka Giovanna), helps out with a few tweets for the days when Sally can't think of anything to say in 140 characters & Sally blogs about the process of self-publishing.

Sally's love life is non-existent. It's been three years since Gus finally left but she's not ready to move on. Walking Pippa's dogs one day on the Monsal Trail, she accidentally trips up a cyclist who accuses her of criminal incompetence & rides off without giving her a chance to explain about the dodgy lead that led to the accident (I couldn't help thinking of Jane Eyre's first meeting with Mr Rochester at this point). The cyclist's bike lamp had fallen off in the crash & Sally wonders if she'll ever find out who he is so she can return it. Running into him again in a bookshop, she discovers that he's Kit Wyatt, the local printer who has been recommended to her for her book. After a few sticky moments at their first meeting in his office, she realises that he is a very professional printer with lots of good ideas for a novice publisher. That he also happens to be gorgeous & a widower doesn't escape her notice.

Kit & Sally's relationship follows the plot of her novel as she follows the chapters of Billy Mernit's writing manual from the Sexy Complication to the Hook that will bind her two romantic leads together. It's a funny, realistic look at love in middle age. Sally worries about her figure (what will Kit think of her post-mastectomy body?), the reaction of her children & his children (his daughters are incredibly jealous & over-protective of their father) & her desire to be with Kit but also have a life of her own. She spends most of her time trying to get Richard & Sam to move out so she can have her house to herself.. Sometimes only her addiction to Neighbours & Yorkshire Tea keep her sane.

I loved Plotting for Grown-ups. Sally is a very sympathetic character & I enjoyed meeting Richard, Wendy & Pippa again. It's great to see a woman in her 60s enjoying romance & getting on with her career even though there are complications with moody Kit & his horrible daughters. I especially enjoyed Sally's self-publishing journey. Sue Hepworth's own experiences were obviously great copy for this part of the plot as she self-published her novel, But I Told You Last Year That I Loved You,  a couple of years ago & wrote about the process on her blog. Plotting for Grown-ups is currently available as a Kindle book from Amazon but it will be available as a paperback later in the year.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sunday Poetry - James Leigh Hunt

Leigh Hunt was a writer & editor of radical newspapers in the early 19th century. He was a supporter & friend of Keats & Shelley. Unfortunately for his later reputation, he was immortalised as the awful scrounger Harold Skimpole in Bleak House & now that's his main claim to fame. This poem was written during a period of imprisonment in 1814 after Hunt had attacked the Prince Regent in his newspaper, The Examiner.

Winter has reached thee once again at last,
And now the rambler, whom thy groves yet please,
Feels on his house-warm lips the thin air freeze,
While in his shrugging neck the resolute blast
Comes edging; and the leaves, in heaps down cast,
He shuffles with his hastening foot, and sees
The cold sky whitening through the wiry trees,
And sighs to think his loitering noons have passed.

And do I love thee less, to paint thee so?
No. This the season is of beauty still,
Doubled at heart; of smoke, with whirling glee
Uptumbling ever from the blast below,
And home remembered most - and oh, loved hill,
The second, and the last, away from thee!

To show how admired Leigh Hunt was in his radical days, here's the poem that Keats wrote on the day he was released from prison.

What though, for showing truth to flatter’d state,   
Kind Hunt was shut in prison, yet has he,   
In his immortal spirit, been as free   
As the sky-searching lark, and as elate.   
Minion of grandeur! think you he did wait?           
Think you he nought but prison walls did see,   
Till, so unwilling, thou unturn’dst the key?   
Ah, no! far happier, nobler was his fate!   
In Spenser’s halls he strayed, and bowers fair,   
Culling enchanted flowers; and he flew           
With daring Milton through the fields of air:   
To regions of his own his genius true   
Took happy flights. Who shall his fame impair   
When thou art dead, and all thy wretched crew? 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Dead Water - Ann Cleeves

Journalist Jerry Markham returns to Shetland, telling his parents that he's on the track of a big story. A story about the future of the offshore gas & oil industry at Sullum Voe, under attack from environmentalists & locals worried about the future once the industry has gone. When Jerry is found murdered, laid out in a boat near the home of Rhona Laing, the Procurator Fiscal, the assumption is that it must be connected to his work.

Jerry left Shetland years before. His parents, Maria & Peter, own a luxury hotel on the island but Jerry had rarely returned home. He left few friends behind & he had been involved in scandal when Evie Watt, a student working at the hotel, became pregnant. Now, Evie is engaged to John Henderson, & seems to have put her unhappy relationship with Jerry behind her. Jerry had left
Evie behind without a second glance but on this trip he tries to contact her. Could Jerry's past hold the key to his death rather than his search for a story?

Inspector Jimmy Perez hasn't returned to full time work since his fiance Fran was murdered six months before. He's finding it hard to recover from the guilt he feels over Fran's death & only her daughter, Cassie, who Jimmy cares for, provides a reason to keep going. Jimmy's sergeant, Sandy Wilson, is adrift without his boss but doesn't know how to help. When Jerry Markham's body is found, D I Willow Reeves is sent from Inverness to head the investigation. Willow grew up on a commune in the Hebrides although this doesn't make her any less of an outsider on Shetland, what ever her boss might think. This is her first chance to head a murder enquiry & she's desperate to do well. Almost against his will, Jimmy is drawn into the investigation. His local knowledge is invaluable & Reeves is keen to include him in the team. Gradually Jimmy, Sandy & Willow work through the connections between the Markhams, Evie Watt & her family, drawing in Rhona Laing as well as Jerry's London life, to find his murderer.

This is a terrific book. I loved the Shetland Quartet & I was so pleased that Ann Cleeves decided to write a second quartet of which Dead Water is the first part. I love books set in Scotland & the atmosphere of Shetland & the other island communities is perfectly captured in these books. Jimmy Perez is an intriguing character, with his Spanish ancestry & his self-contained manner. His intuitive methods of investigation & his local knowledge of the people he lives among make him an excellent detective. It's interesting to see him in this book coming out of the worst of his grief over Fran's death & rejoining the world. I hope there's a chance to see more of Willow Reeves in future books too. I haven't seen the TV version of Shetland. A pilot was made & a series has now been commissioned. Much as I like Douglas Henshall, he's not my idea of dark, brooding Jimmy Perez but I'd love to see what he does with the role.

Ann Cleeves has been writing for many years but I only discovered her through the Shetland novels. Her other well-known series featuring Vera Stanhope has also been made into a TV series starring Brenda Blethyn. I've read one of the Vera books & will get to the others one of these days.  Bello have recently reissued earlier series featuring Inspector Ramsay (set in Northumbria) & bird watchers George & Molly Palmer-Jones, as e-books so most of Ann Cleeves's work must now be available again.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Margaret Finds a Future - Mabel Esther Allan

Margaret Barry is a 17 year old orphan at school in Wales. Her Aunt Gwen, who had paid her fees, has died, leaving a lot of debts & Margaret will have to leave Llanrhysydd at Christmas. Margaret is devastated to be leaving the progressive, co-educational school & all her friends & her future prospects look bleak. Another aunt, her mother's sister, Ellen Pye, has written to offer Margaret a home. Aunt Ellen is the custodian of Great Melveney Hall in Norfolk, a stately home now run by the National Trust. Margaret knows little of her aunt & nothing of Norfolk & she is apprehensive as she leaves school for the last time to spend Christmas with a friend before the long journey to Norfolk.

Margaret's aunt is a kind woman who is eager to help Margaret although her means are limited. Margaret finds Melveney strange at first. It's lonely in the middle of winter & the house is vast & cold. Gradually, as she learns more about the house & its history, she begins to settle down. Her education at Llanrhysydd had been practical as well as academic & she can cook & help her aunt with the many tasks involved in running a stately home. She soon begins to meet the locals. Ludovic Thornton, the vicar's son, is desperate to join the RAF & is impatiently waiting to be called up for National Service. Ludovic has a poor opinion of girls & Margaret realises that he has quite a bit of growing up to do.

Lucy Purdy, the daughter of the estate manager, loves the Hall & used to spend as much time as she could there devoting herself to her other great passion, drawing.  After an accident that resulted in a painting being damaged, Lucy has been banned from the Hall by Mrs Pye & she drifts miserably around the grounds. Lucy is the eldest of a big family & her parents don't see art as a viable profession. Her only encouragement comes from Andrea Barradine, a former artist who now lives in a nearby village perched precariously on crumbling cliffs overlooking the ocean. Margaret befriends Lucy & tries to find a way to convince her aunt to allow Lucy back into the Hall.

Margaret plans to continue studying languages & eventually take a stenography course & work as a secretary. She longs to travel but doesn't see how her dreams could ever come true. She soon becomes reconciled to her new circumstances but there's still sometimes a lingering regret for what might have been. Then, a meeting with a stranger opens new doors & Margaret's future suddenly looks very different.

This is a charming book with lots of atmosphere & an absorbing story. Mabel Esther Allan wrote a prodigious number of books for girls over a long career. Margaret Finds a Future was published in 1954 & is one of several books about older girls that Allan wrote. Most of her books were school stories & her schools are often like Llanrhysydd, progressive schools based on the educational theories of A S Neill. Even the little glimpse we get of the school in the opening chapter is of a school where individual talents are encouraged, boys & girls work & play together & the students take responsibility for most of the running of the school.I've never been a great reader of school stories, although I did love Enid Blyton's Naughtiest Girl books. However, I do enjoy books like this one, written by authors known for their children's books & rediscovered by publishers such as Girls Gone By & Greyladies. The Introduction to this book is very informative about Allan's career & her love of location & place when writing. I was amused to read her thoughts on the cover for this book,

The heroine looks as if she is soon to die of consumption. The book is set in Norfolk and my beautiful Tudor gatehouse, the entrance to an old manor house, was non existent. The house had become a Victorian villa, wildly Gothic, with sharp turrets, and the gate was a small iron one, with cannon balls on top of the posts. The colour was ghastly too.

What do you think? Girls Gone By have, as always, reproduced the original cover. Margaret does look ill but at least it conveys the wintry atmosphere quite well.

Mabel Esther Allan also wrote a few books for adults which have been reprinted by Greyladies. I've read Murder at the Flood, also set in Norfolk, & I have Death Goes to Italy & Return to the West on the tbr shelves. One of the strengths of both books I've read so far is the sense of place. I love books set in winter & Margaret's bicycle rides through the chill Norfolk landscape are so evocative. She visits quiet villages & explores churches & I loved the descriptions of these journeys & Margaret's thoughts as she rode, either alone or with a reluctant Ludovic. This is an absorbing read & Margaret is a sympathetic character who gets on with life even when circumstances are against her & the cast of characters around the Hall are always interesting. She even manages to sort out everyone else's problems as well without being bossy or overbearing! A really lovely book.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Sunday Poetry - William Wordsworth

The last of Wordsworth's Sonnets of 1802, in my anthology anyway. Appropriately it's a defence of the sonnet, mentioning masters of the form from Petrarch to Shakespeare & Milton.
Next week, a sonnet from the man who was the original of Mr Skimpole in Dickens's Bleak House.

Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned,
Mindless of its just honours; with this key
Shakespeare unlocked his heart; the melody
Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch's wound;
A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound;
With it Camöens soothed an exile's grief;
The Sonnet glittered a gay myrtle leaf
Amid the cypress with which Dante crowned
His visionary brow: a glow-worm lamp,
It cheered mild Spenser, called from Faery-land
To struggle through dark ways; and, when a damp
Fell round the path of Milton, in his hand
The Thing became a trumpet; whence he blew
Soul-animating strains—alas, too few!

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The temptation of bookshops

I bought two books this morning. That probably doesn't surprise anyone who reads this blog. But, I bought copies of two books that I already own several copies of (or should that be, of which I own several copies...). I'd come across the Penguin Deluxe edition of Persuasion on the internet just the other day & I'd popped it into my wishlist at The Book Depository. I have the Deluxe edition of Cold Comfort Farm & I know how beautiful they are.

This morning, I went to the Farmers Market which is in a park behind the local shops & after I bought veggies, honey, handmade soap & had a delicious coffee, I went into my local bookshop because I had time & I can never resist a look round. Even though I buy books for a living, I rarely see the actual books anymore. All my buying for the library, except children's picture books, is now done online. I read reviews & blurbs but I don't see the books, feel the paper & look at the illustrations & layout as I used to do. There are also far fewer local bookshops for me to browse in. My local bookshop is part of a chain but it's owned by the man who runs it & has a great selection of local books, bestsellers & a lovely Classics section.

I was browsing through the Classics & there it was, the Penguin Deluxe edition of Persuasion. Just along the shelf was the Penguin threads edition of Emma. Even though Emma is my least favourite Austen novel, I'd been tempted by the Threads edition before. I keep thinking that if I read it often enough, I'll warm to Emma Woodhouse eventually.  If you haven't come across the Threads editions, they have a raised design on the covers that is just like embroidery. The back of the cover even looks like the back of a piece of needlework with all the ends of the threads showing. The artist is Jillian Tamaki & you can see all the covers here. I could have bought them online for a few dollars less but there they were & there I was with the money burning a hole in my purse and Reader, I bought them! So, now I have yet another copy of both Emma & Persuasion. I've already justified my addiction to multiple copies of my favourite books. Every time I add a book to Library Thing & it helpfully tells me I already own another copy, I just think So what? There are worse addictions to have.

Next time I want to read either book, these will be the copies I reach for. I might have bought them online one day but it's such a treat to browse in a real bookshop that I'm glad I bought them this morning in my local bookshop.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Plotting for Beginners - Sue Hepworth & Jane Linfoot

Sally Howe takes her husband, Gus, to the airport as he leaves on a year long stay in a cabin in the Rocky Mountains, emulating his hero, Thoreau. Sally has refused to go with him &, after an argument at the airport, she assumes that this year apart is really a trial separation.  Sally is an unpublished (so far, she hopes) writer & a year without Gus has it's attractions.  She looks forward to uninterrupted time to work on her writing - a novel & various pieces for newspapers - & being able to watch Neighbours without snide comments from Gus. Sally decides that life really can begin at 50, menopausal hot flushes notwithstanding. Sally's feelings about Gus range from irritation at his unemotional letters home which seem to be nothing more than lists of birds seen (he's a keen birdwatcher) & moments of missing him intensely.

Unfortunately for Sally, life tends to get in the way of the best intentions. No sooner has Gus left than several men begin pursuing her. Billy Bathgate at the local store, Jeremy from her Italian class & then there's Iain, who's a more disturbingly attractive proposition. Iain is a widower, an architect who lives in Italy but is in England visiting his daughter & mother. On his regular trips between Brighton (daughter) & Edinburgh (mother), he stops off to visit Richard, Sally's brother who has invited himself to stay as he goes through a divorce. Richard is DIY mad & very useful doing all the jobs around the house that Gus never found time for. Sally would be quite pleased if it wasn't for his habit of popping his head around the door of the study asking for guidance every half hour.

Iain's interest in Sally is soon obvious but, although he's attractive, there's something about him that Sally finds unnerving. Is it his habit of droning on about architectural features at the drop of a hat or is it the fact that he has his own hairdryer & is often caught checking his appearance in the mirror? Then there's Sally's son Sam, who tends to drop in from university with a carload of washing, rant at his mother about the world's ills, complain about the environmental unsoundness of the brands she buys at the supermarket & then disappear.

Sally's career as a writer goes in fits & starts. She has a couple of pieces published in the Recorder, sends her novel to several agents, most of whom ignore her completely & spends hours deciding on the correct way to address the editor of the leisure section & then analysing her replies minutely for signs that she likes Sally's style. Sally goes to a weekly writing class with her friend, Kate, & their emails are a hoot as Kate bolsters Sally's self-esteem & offers fashion advice as Sally becomes involved in photo shoots & talkback on the local radio station.

Plotting for Beginners is a great read. Told in the form of a diary with email exchanges with Kate & Gus's letters, it's funny, witty & poignant. It's great to read a book about a woman in her 50s, complete with hot flushes & menopausal mood swings. The other characters are just as interesting, from the seriously odd members of the Deep Water writing group to Pippa, a neighbour who takes a fancy to Richard as he repairs Sally's drystone wall & Mrs Mountain, a local busybody who almost derails Sally's budding radio career when she calls in to clarify Sally's views on Christmas.

Plotting for Beginners was originally published as a paperback in 2006 & has just been relaunched as a Kindle ebook.

The sequel, Plotting for Grown-ups, is published this week & I'm looking forward to reading it. The ebook is available now from Amazon & the paperback is coming soon. More information is available on Twitter @suehepworth & on Sue's blog. Jane is on Twitter @JaneLinfoot

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Letters from Skye - Jessica Brockmole

Elspeth Dunn is a poet & crofter living on Skye in 1913. She receives a fan letter from a young American medical student, David Graham, & they begin a correspondence. Davey is unhappy studying medicine, which was his father's choice. He longs to do something more creative & he pours out his thoughts & ambitions to Elspeth who he renames Sue. They learn about each other's lives - Elspeth is married to Iain & has never left Skye, mostly because she's afraid of the sea & boats. Her poetry is the most important thing in her life. Gradually their friendship deepens into love.

When war comes in 1914, Davey & his best friend Harry become ambulance drivers with the American Ambulance Field Service. Elspeth overcomes her fears & meets Davey in London where they become lovers. Elspeth's husband has joined up along with her brother, Finlay. Although her marriage was based on companionship more than passionate love, Elspeth feels guilty for betraying Iain & Finlay is so furious with her that he refuses to speak to her & their relationship is irrevocably damaged, especially after Iain is posted missing in action. When Davey's letters suddenly stop, Elspeth has no idea what has happened to him & she retreats to Skye.

In 1940, Elspeth is living in Edinburgh with her daughter, Margaret. Margaret is working as an evacuation officer, taking children to live in the country out of the danger of bombing raids. She is engaged to a pilot, Paul, who's stationed in southern England. After a raid one night, Margaret discovers a suitcase full of letters from Davey addressed to someone called Sue. Her mother is so upset by the discovery that she disappears, leaving Margaret desperate to find the key to the mystery of her mother's life. Margaret has no memories of Skye or her mother's Skye family & Elspeth has always refused to speak of the past. Margaret makes contact with her uncle Finlay, now living in Glasgow, &, after a frosty beginning, he begins to tell Margaret of Elspeth's early life. Margaret travels to Skye & finds her grandmother who explains a little more. Margaret's search for the story of her mother & Davey will finally explain the mysteries & silences of her mother's life.

Letters from Skye is written entirely in letters. Letters between Davey & Elspeth, Margaret & Paul, Margaret & Finlay. This can be a very successful way to tell a story - it's impossible not to be reminded of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer. The downside of the epistolary method is a kind of awkwardness that this book doesn't altogether avoid. The correspondents have to retell events at which they were present so that the reader gets the information, which can be clumsy. It can also be difficult to recreate a sense of place without the descriptive passages of a more conventional narrative. I also thought that a couple of the plot twists near the end of the story were a little far-fetched so I finished the book feeling slightly let down. I wanted to love this book & it didn't live up to my high expectations.  Maybe I was comparing it to another book about Skye & WWI that I absolutely loved, Linda Gillard's The Glass Guardian.

On the whole, though, Jessica Brockmole has written a tender, romantic story with some exceptional characters. I especially loved Elspeth's mother, who comes alive in the letters Margaret writes to Paul when she travels to Skye. Davey's experiences with the Ambulance brigade in France were also beautifully done. I'll be interested to see what she writes next.

I read Letters from Skye courtesy of NetGalley.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Sunday Poetry - William Wordsworth

Another of the 1802 sonnets. As I'm about to start reading Maureen Sabine's Veiled Desires, about the portrayal of nuns in the movies, this sonnet caught my eye. It's not really about nuns. Wordsworth just uses the metaphor of nuns in their cells to describe the pleasure the poet feels at conforming to the strict form of the sonnet. Writing a sonnet rather than an epic must be like a writer producing a short story rather than a novel. Different challenges & requirements but just as satisfying to the reader or writer in the right mood.

Nuns fret not at their convent’s narrow room;
And hermits are contented with their cells;
And students with their pensive citadels;
Maids at the wheel, the weaver at this loom,
Sit blithe and happy; bees that soar for bloom,
High as the highest Peak of Furness-fells,
Will murmur by the hour in foxglove bells:
In truth the prison, into which we doom
Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Hidden Force - Louis Couperus

This is yet another excellent book that I would never have discovered if it hadn't been chosen by my 19th century bookgroup. The Hidden Force is set in late 19th century Java, part of the Dutch East Indies which is now Indonesia. It's a story of colonialism, of the essential lack of understanding between the rulers & the ruled & a story of family drama & tension.

Otto Van Oudijck is the District Commissioner of Labuwangi, a district of Java. He is a conscientious administrator, rather fond of his own importance, bur hard working. He lives with his second wife, Léonie, & the two grown-up children of his first marriage, Theo & Doddy. Léonie is a beautiful, languidly sensual woman. Younger than her husband, she lives for sensation & deceives him regularly. She spends months at a time in Surabaya or Batavia, the provincial capital, pursuing her affairs although she isn't shy of taking lovers at home, including her own stepson, Theo. Theo is an idle young man, content to allow his father to provide for him & increasingly obsessed with his affair with Léonie. Doddy is infatuated with Addy De Luce, a young man from a Eurasian family who have made their money in sugar. Addy is handsome & knows it. Every young woman in Lubuwangi is attracted to him & he takes advantage of it. He hasn't seduced Doddy because of her position as the Commissioner's daughter but Léonie is a different matter.

Van Oudijck's deputy is Onno Eldersma who, like all the Dutch in the Indies, works only for promotion. Promotion to a higher rank in a larger district will allow him to eventually retire to Holland where they all long to be. Elsersma's wife, Eva, is a cultured woman who has never grown accustomed to the Indies. The climate is unforgiving, the society is mediocre & she is bored. Only her friendship with Van Helderen, a colleague of her husband's. Léonie Van Oudijck is too lazy to carry out the social duties of her position so Eva has become the leader of their circle. She gives dinner parties that are as European as she can make them, organises charitable galas & theatrical entertainments, even agrees to a little table rapping to contact the spirit world when her guests are bored with everything else.

Van Oudijck has a cordial but patronising relationship with the former Prince of the district whose family was supplanted by the Dutch colonisers. He respected the prince's late father & the current Prince, Sunario, & his mother perform their ceremonial role with dignity. The prince's brother, however, is a disgrace. He drinks & gambles, spends the taxes he collects instead of passing the money on to the government. Tension between the Javanese & the Dutch intensifies when Van Oudijck decides that the prince's brother musty be removed from his position. This leads to an extraordinary scene where the old princess, his mother, prostrates herself before Van Oudijck, offering to become his slave if he will not dismiss her son. The loss of face she would suffer would be crushing.

This is the beginning of  a period of unrest where the delicate balance between rulers & ruled begins to disintegrate. Van Oudijck's blind adoration of  Léonie is affected by the anonymous letters he receives accusing her of having affairs. Mysterious happenings at the Commissioner's residence seem to have no logical explanation. Stones are thrown on to the roof, Léonie is attacked in her bathroom by a shower of betel juice spat all over her body but the source is never discovered. The servants leave & Van Oudijck is eventually left quite alone, growing more despairing & disaffected.

The Hidden Force is a fascinating exploration of colonial life. The rulers are determined to keep up their European standards. They dress for dinner, afraid that if they let their standards drop, they will be lost forever. The fear of "going native" is everywhere, although there are many mixed marriages, including Van Oudijck's own first marriage. The disapproval of Eurasians was, in part, a fear of the perceived taint of native blood. The Europeans never understood the people they ruled. The Javanese are polite & deferential yet their real thoughts are always hidden. There is a whole world, with its own aims & contempt for the colonisers seething underneath the surface. Couperus knew the Indies & lived there for many years. He captures the tropical intensity of the climate, the monsoon season that brings such humidity that clothes & books are covered in mould & the most correct European begins to relax their rigid standards. He also writes beautifully of the boredom of provincial society & of the tensions in relationships & families that result from living so far from what most of them think of as home. The Hidden Force  is yet another example of the richness of European literature that I would never have come across without the 19th century bookgroup. I enjoyed it very much.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Linda Gillard's Untying the Knot - now in paperback

Linda Gillard is one of the most successful indie authors around. Her books are intelligent, romantic, involving, with a great sense of place & gorgeous heroes. Linda has also shown that indie authors can use social media to great effect to build up a community of readers & her sales are a testament to her success. After publishing several books as Kindle e-books, Linda has started to produce paperback editions as well. The latest is Untying the Knot. Here's the review I wrote when it was first published a couple of years ago. Have a look at her website for more information.

I understood Magnus. I loved him. But in the end, I just couldn't live with him. A familiar story, you might think, but some friends and family saw things differently. Wives are meant to stand by their man - Army wives particularly. And I didn't. I walked away. I walked away from a war hero.

It was a long, at times agonising walk. It wasn't as if I was walking into the arms of a new love. I couldn't even persuade my teenage daughter to come with me. I felt like the loneliest woman in the world. I think I was only able to do it because Magnus understood why I was going. That was possible the hardest part. The lack of recriminations.

But Magnus knew all about The Long Walk. And feeling like the loneliest man in the world.

What do you do when you love someone but can no longer live with them? That's the dilemma facing Fay McGillivray when she leaves her husband, Magnus. Magnus has been a career soldier, working in bomb disposal. His postings have been to Northern Ireland, the Falklands, the Gulf. Fay lived with the tension of being an Army wife for years, wondering if she'd ever see Magnus again every time he went back on duty. Then, the call came that Fay had always dreaded, Magnus had been badly injured in a bomb blast in Derry. And it wasn't just the physical scars, it was the mental torment that tore them apart. Magnus suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The flashbacks, the nightmares, the blank spots where he doesn't remember where he is or what he's done.

As part of Magnus's recovery, he decides to buy Tullibardine Tower, a rundown ruin of a medieval tower house, & restore it. (The picture, courtesy of Linda, is of Balvaird, to give you an idea of what Tully would have looked like). Hard physical work & solitude begin to heal Magnus but they drive Fay to the edge. Two years in a caravan on a windswept building site is more than Fay can stand. Their daughter Emily stays with her father & Fay begins a new life.

Fay starts again. She begins working seriously as a textile artist & finds some success. Her relationship with Emily suffers but she has a warm friendship with Magnus's mother, Jessie, a woman with secrets of her own. Her relationships with men are pretty disastrous because she compares them all to Magnus - & no one can compare. Magnus is still at Tully Tower, living with Nina, a young teacher who longs for a commitment from Magnus that he's not able to give. When Magnus turns up at an exhibition of Fay's work, she has to confront her feelings about him, their marriage & the reasons why she left.

Untying the Knot is a complex novel. Fay & Magnus are both damaged people. They suffer from guilt - Magnus because he's still alive & because of the way his illness has impacted on his family. Fay because she left. She was there to look after Magnus & she couldn't do it. She was so busy trying to be the buffer between Magnus & Emily, making Magnus feel secure & shield Emily from the worst of Magnus's symptoms. In the process, she lost herself. But Fay & Magnus both discover that the physical & emotional knots that tie them together will take a lot of breaking.

This is a romantic novel in the sense that Fay & Magnus have a great love for each other & the reader wishes that they could find a way to be together. Their love is encapsulated in a letter Magnus wrote to Fay to be delivered in the event of his death. He kept it with him always as a talisman but didn't have it with him on the day of the Derry explosion. He finally reads the letter to Fay in one of the most moving scenes of the novel & that's the point where I thought there was a chance that they would be alright. But there's more than romance in the book. It's harrowing to read the descriptions of Magnus's PTSD, the terror he suffers, the flashbacks. It's also very funny. Poor Nina & her gorgon mother, pushing Magnus into an engagement that ends almost before it's begun when the engagement party descends into violent farce & recriminations.

Untying the Knot is now available from Amazon as a paperback or as an e-book.