Friday 18 December 2009

The Salzburg Tales (Stead)

We are off on holiday today, and as we will be flying into Salzburg airport, it seemed appropriate to get out The Salzburg Tales by Christina Stead.

It is a book of stories about a set of characters who arrive in Salzburg in August 1930 for the festival. The back of the book compares it to The Canterbury Tales. So I hope it will keep me occupied if we have a delay on the way home.

I'll be back in the New Year reading more Viragos - I plan to read Nightingale Wood over the holidays, but otherwise to have a bit of a break from the green covers. Hope you'll continue to join me on

Thursday 17 December 2009

No signposts in the sea (Sackville-West) 175

Sackville-West is someone I have come across this year whose books I have really enjoyed, and I was not disappointed by No signposts in the sea. It is quite a slight book, a mere 156 pages, but that is ample to do justice to the story.

Having heard that he does not have very long to live, Edmund has embarked on a long cruise. We learn in due course, that he found out that Laura, a woman who he has loved passively for some time, was going on this trip, and Edmund decided to go to so that he can spend his remaining time with her. The book is a wonderful account of a man coming to terms with his impending death and trying to work out his love for Laura, believing her to be in love with someone else. It was a beautiful read.

I apologise for the blurry covers, but there are four of them. I particularly like the original top one, which really evokes the relationship between Laura and Edmund. My copy is the most recent bottom one.

Wednesday 16 December 2009

The ladies of Lyndon, The constant nymph (Kennedy) 63

Earlier this year, I read The constant nymph by Kennedy, which I thought I had written about here, but apparently haven't, and I have had The ladies of Lyndon waiting for a while. This latter title particularly appealed, being set in Oxfordshire, and having enjoyed The constant nymph, I thought I would probably enjoy this. Which I did.

The Ladies of Lyndon was Kennedy's first novel, and it tells the story of Agatha, who gets married, and becomes Lady Clewer. The novel is not however just about Agatha, but rather a portrait of all of the Clewer family, particularly the women, and paints a picture of unconventional aristocratic life in the Edwardian period. Over the course of the novel we discover that Agatha's did not marry the right man, and we follow her love affair with another man, and her attempt to work out what to do. I thought that Kennedy's characters are wonderful and really brought to life.

The constant nymph is Kennedy's most famous novel, and is the tale of fourteen year old Teresa, who lives in the alps, who falls in love with a visiting composer. Unfortunately, while waiting to be old enough to marry him, he falls in love with someone else and they are married. I thought this was a wonderful coming of age novel, and as someone on librarything suggests, almost a Chalet School book for adults.

After that I'm definitely looking forward to the other Margaret Kennedy VMC, Together and apart.

I couldn't find a picture of the Green Ladies of Lyndon, but here are the Virago covers for The constant nymph, which they have published three times (my copy is the original green one)

Tuesday 15 December 2009

Mary Olivier : a life (Sinclair) 25

From one Mary to another. Mary Olivier : a life was also languishing in my TBR. Another "biographical" story, it tells of the life of Mary Olivier from her early childhood to middle age. The novel is set in the Georgican period, and was my first VMC to deal with these times, an age that I am not too familiar with.

Mary is born into a household with 3 sons, and one of the main themes of the book is the disparity between the education and upbringing of the boys, and that of Mary. Her mother tries hard to impose traditional and religious values on Mary. Ultimately, Mary rejects this - she refuses to follow the Catholic faith, she becomes a poet and she declines to marry the series of eligible bachelors brought for her approval. It is an absolutely fascinating insight into family relationships and family life of that period.

Originally this was published as a serial in The little review, at the same time as Ulysses was also serialised.

I could only find the above cover picture, but there is an earlier one with the traditional green design - I know because I have it (but lack access to a scanner...)

Monday 14 December 2009

Mary O'Grady (Lavin) 209

Mary O'Grady has been waiting for some time since I picked it up in a charity shop as being a lovely old green VMC whose author I had not come across before. What a wonderful treat I had in store. This was the story of Mary and her family, who live in Dublin at the start of the 20th century. Mary longs to keep her family close to her, because they are the pivot around which her life turns, but as they grow up, they seek their freedom. One son goes abroad to America, another to a seminary to train as a priest, two daughters die tragically young, and Mary has to come to terms with the fact that she cannot hold onto her family.

A simply told domestic drama with a number of storylines, this was a gem that I definitely would not have come across had it not been for its green spine.

Just the one green-spined cover above.

Saturday 12 December 2009

New acquisition

Well, the book buying ban is over, and although I have well and truly broken it, I have yet to buy another Virago Modern Classic. However, I do have an acquisition to share with you, as Catherine, who reads this blog, very kindly sent me a spare copy of The passion of New Eve by Angela Carter. I read my first Angela Carter book earlier this year and look forward to reading this, probably in early 2010.

Thank you very much Catherine!

Thursday 10 December 2009

The willow cabin (Frankau) 293

The willow cabin was a VMC that I acquired without knowing anything about, and thus did not expect high things from (it's weird what makes you anticipate some books more than others). I can't even remember where I got it from. But it turned out to be a hidden gem.

The book is divided into three sections, telling the story of Caroline. In the first section, she seems set for a promising stage career - we see her perform as Viola (a speech of whom's provides the title for this book). She then meets, and falls in love with Michael Knowle, a surgeon, and her career takes second place to spending time with him and trying to evade the spectre of his first marriage and his ex-wife Mercedes. The Second World War then breaks out, and Michael is called up, and Caroline decides also to undertake war service as being the best way of trying to stay close to Michael. Unfortunately, Michael is killed in action. In the third section, we meet Mercedes, and we go back in time to when she first met Michael, and track the course of their relationship. The two stories then come together, when Caroline seeks out Mercedes as part of her attempt to come to terms with Michael's death.

I loved the story, and the period details (am always a fan of wartime fiction and this as particularly well done) and liked Frankau's style of writing very much.

Only published the once by Virago. However, they have published two other novels by Frankau - The winged horse, and A wreath for the enemy - which I shall be keenly looking out for.

Wednesday 9 December 2009

Taking chances (Keane) 255

I'm not quite sure why I picked up Taking chances in a charity shop, except that it was a VMC for my collection and it was cheap. My previous experience with Molly Keane hadn't been hugely enjoyable, but I'm glad that I did get this one as it gave me the chance to give her another go, and I quite liked this one.

The book is set in Ireland in Sorristown, a large country house in the early 20th century where the siblings Roguey, Maeve and Jer have lived together since the death of their parents. We meet them a week before Maeve is due to marry Rowley, a neighbouring squire, and leave the home. The situation is unsettled when Jer's friend Mary arrives to be Maeve's bridesmaid and quite literally turns the lives of the other four upside down over the next week, with consequences rippling into the next year.

Two Virago copies - my charity shop purchase was the second more recent one.

Tuesday 8 December 2009

No place on earth (Wolf) 398

Whilst I have encountered some wonderful books along the way, there have been others that I have just struggled to get into (such as The lifted veil). I'm afraid No place on earth fell into that category.

It is the tale of an encounter in 1804 between the poet Karoline von Gunderrode and writer Heinrich von Kleist, utilising letters which they wrote. But, I just couldn't identify with it - I didn't really like the writing style, and just wasn't absorbed by the plot. Thank goodness it was a skinny one!

This title was just published the once by Virago. There are three more Christa Wolf VMCs, and I own A model childhood, but I have to say I'm not looking forward to reading them very much. Perhaps some of the others are better - has anyone else read any Christa Wolf?

A very great profession (Beauman) 406

I wrote about A very great profession over on my other blog yesterday; although I read it in a Persephone edition, it was actually originally published as a VMC in the 1980s, hence it needs a mention here. Do go and read the post!

Monday 7 December 2009

The love-child (Olivier) 46

I came across The love child through one of the students at the college where I work; he requested that a copy be bought for the library, and I had a sneaky look at it before I passed it over.

This is a delightful tale, albeit with a slightly surreal edge. We meet Agatha Bodenham, aged 32, shortly after her mother has died. On her own now for the first time in her life, she lacks friends or other acquaintances, and resurrects her childhood imaginery friend Clarissa. At first Clarissa exists solely in Agatha's imagination, but soon "others too can see her" and she becomes a very real person in Agatha's life. Asked by a policeman to fill in a form to file for adoption, she explains that Clarissa is a love-child; the policeman understands this to mean that Clarissa was an illegitimate child, but the reader knows that Clarissa exists through Agatha's love.

As Clarissa grows up it is difficult for her relationship with Agatha to remain the same. Agatha is powerless to control Clarissa, although she continues to attempt to protect the girl and this leads to a sad ending.

Definitely a VMC to read, especially as it is very short (200p with spaced out type!). I think it is a shame that it has only been published once.

Friday 4 December 2009

Circles of deceit (Bawden) 444

I picked up Circles of deceit by Nina Bawden from the library withdrawals for 20p a while ago - definitely good value for a book! It took me a little while to get around to reading it, and I'm glad that I didn't hurry to read it as although it was an interesting read, I didn't enjoy it as much as many of her other books.

Like Bawden's other novels, it is essentially a story about ordinary people and ordinary every day life. We learn about people close to the narrator, such as his ex wife Helen, his Aunt Maud, his new, rather flaky, girlfriend Clio and her son Barnaby, and his schizophrenic son Tim. All of these characters are intertwined into the narrator's life. I found that the thread of the story was a little difficult to follow as it was broken up into chapters about each of those people, and at the same time I wanted to know more about the narrator rather than the narrator in relationship to these people.

I was a little surprised to learn that this was shortlisted for the Booker in 1987. It is an accomplished novel but I certainly think that some of her other books are better.

Two VMC covers; my copy is the later one.

Thursday 3 December 2009

The group (MacCarthy)

One of the wonderful things about book blogging is the way that bloggers can enthuse you to read a certain title. One of the books that I have been longing to read since I read a review by Paperback Reader back in July is The group by Mary McCarthy. As I had just embarked on my Virago Venture, I decided to wait until it had been reissued by Virago, so that I could read it as part of the challenge. Sophie at Virago kindly offered to supply me with a copy, which I was lucky enough to recieve before the release date (which is today!), although it was under embargo until then. I'm actually writing this review the week before (to be posted on the day), as I devoured the book last night, and wanted to get my thoughts down while it was still fresh.

Described on the back cover as a 1930s Sex in the city (with foreword appropriately written by Candace Bushnell), the book follows the lives of eight friends who have just graduated from Vassar, and was one of the first books to openly portray the experiences of marriage, motherhood, friendship, and contraception in the 1930s. We meet Kay, who has just got married to her college sweetheart, Harald, and follow her through starting work, and learning to cook. Libby tries to gain a career in publishing, and starts out by reviewing books, only taking the reviews so seriously that they are too long to be of use. Dottie falls in love with a man who is only interested in sex, and not a relationship, and ends up enagaged, even though she recognises that she would rather be with the other man. Lakey goes travelling around Europe, while Priss struggles with motherhood. Several of the girls have stressful experiences trying to be fitted with the cap to give them some control over pregnancy.

I thought this was a wonderful portrait of 1930s New York. I enjoyed the way that the chapters tended to focus on a single girl, whilst interleaving the stories of the others, which made me feel that I was really getting to know the individuals. But most of all I loved the feminism of the book; it discusses so many important issues which would have remained unsaid at the time. Published in 1963, it was extremely popular when published, staying on the New York Times bestseller list for 2 years, and has now featured in the Guardian's list of 1000 books that you really must read.

There was an interesting article about the impact of The Group in the Guardian at the weekend which you can read here.

Just the one Virago edition therefore, above. I am really excited that Virago have republished and urge you all to add this to your Christmas lists!

Wednesday 2 December 2009

The bondwoman's narrative (Crafts) 483

I was intrigued by The bondwoman's narrative when it arrived (I can't remember where from). The format of the book was different to any of the other VMCs, being a large trade paperback - indeed the cover design was not at all reminiscent of a VMC. Secondly, the blurb on the back of the book informed me that this was believed to be the earliest manuscript by a black woman.

The bondwoman narrative tells the story of the literate houseslave Hannah Crafts and provides a detailed account of the life of a slave. We learn about how slaves are treated and mistreated and episodes in her life.

The book as edited by Henry Louis Gates who discovered the manuscript, and there is a very long introduction which describes how he found it and puts it in context. I didn't really like the way that he had edited the volume however; he left in the strikeouts/corrections/mistakes which made it more difficult to read and follow (there were a lot of these). Whilst I could see the reasoning, I found that it was a less smooth read.

Just the one Virago edition, which I own, above.

Tuesday 1 December 2009

The professor's house (Cather) 57

I read my first Cather novel a few weeks ago, and it was time for another from my TBR pile. Reading The professor's house seemed apt when I was about to visit my father later that day.

The book is the story of Professor St. Peter; he has just published his magnum opus and is about to move into a new house built with the profits made from this work. We meet him sitting in the study of his old house, reluctant to leave the place where he has worked so hard and gained so much enjoyment from doing research. He and his family move house, but St. Peter continues to rent the old house in order to escape back to somewhere he feels comfortable.

The book is divided into three sections. The first entitled The family introduces us to St. Peter and his family and we learn about the characters and what is going on in their lives. In the second section, Tom Outland's Story, we meet Tom, an old student of the Professor and family friend, who was killed during the First World War an invention that led to great wealth for one of the St. Peter's daughters. Finally, the third, shortest section is entitled The professor, and deals with St. Peter's reflections on Tom Outland.

I thought this was a lovely book - the Professor was in many ways reminiscent of my own father, being both committed to his family, to his teaching, but really consumed by his research.

Three times published by Virago, I own the middle cover.

Monday 30 November 2009

A touch of mistletoe (Comyns) 308

Another book, kindly lent to me by Simon, was A touch of Mistletoe, and I have to say that it was an incredibly good read. It lacks the surrealism of some of her early books but is a wonderful "coming of age"/"story of a life" tale.

It tells the story of two girls, Blanche and Vicky, in the days after their grandfather dies. Left a small legacy they are able to escape their alcoholic mother and her frenetic housework. Blanche goes to London to train as a model, and Vicky goes to Holland to be an au pair. Neither works out successfully, and they end up living in London in one room together. Vicky attends art school, but then their money runs out and they live a hand-to-mouth existence subsisting on cabbage and cheap biscuits. A procession of husbands and lovers ensure as we follow the girls through their lives and experiences.

Just the one Virago cover above - I am definitely adding this to my wishlist!

Saturday 28 November 2009

New acquisition

One new acquisition of late, it actually arrived a few weeks ago but I didn't get around to mentioning it. I can't actually say anything else as it was kindly sent to me by Virago and is under embargo until the middle of next week.

Intrigued?! Come back on Thursday 3rd and you'll be able to see my review!

Friday 27 November 2009

Sleepless nights (Hardwick) 41

I was pleased to be offered a lend of one of Simon's recent purchases Sleepless nights by Elizabeth Hardwick because at the time I was suffering from dreadful insomnia! Unfortunately I was sleeping better by the time that I started reading it as it would have been a good cure for insomnia. I struggled to get into it.

The book was essential a series of reflections on a woman's life. I think this quote which I took from library thing sums up how I felt:

"Sleepless Nights feels as if someone had written the most vivid and witty of diaries for several decades, then ripped out all the pages and tossed them into the air. The reader wanders into this experiment in Dada with Hardwick, picking up a moment here, an encounter there, trying to make meaning out of seemingly random conjunctions."

I'm intrigued by the title of one of her other books The Ghostly Lover, but I have to say I won't be rushing to read it.

Two Virago editions of this work - Simon lent me the earlier one.

Thursday 26 November 2009

The skin chairs (Comyns) 224

I was especially excited to be lent The skin chairs by Barbara Comyns by Simon (from Stuck in a book) because Comyns has been one of my great finds of this year and I have hugely enjoyed her other VMCs.

The skin chairs did not disappoint me. It was not as surreal as some of Comyns work, and unlike her early books, it was properly spelt and punctuated, so it turned out to be a really good read. Like some of her other books it gives a wonderful insight into the world of adults.

It tells the story of 10-year-old Frances and her mother and siblings after her father dies and they undergo a huge change in their circumstances. Initially, they are taken in by relations, but then move to a much smaller house and struggle to live on a tiny income without the maids and help that they are accustomed to. Much of the book describes the episodes resulting from their new life.

And what of the skin chairs?

' "Could I see the chairs, please?" . . . "Chairs, chairs. What does the child mean?" . . . Oh, she means the chairs in your hall, the ones your husband had covered with skin. I'm afraid she is a morbid little thing." She giggled and bounced about on her rickety chair'

One of France's neighbours owns a set of chairs which are covered with human skin - one from a white man, and the rest from black men. Frances is absolutely horrified but also fascinated by this, and later brings back a friend to see them. The chairs recurr throughout the book - when the neighbour dies and his house is sold, the contents are also sold to the new owner, Mr Blackwell. The chairs are banished to the loft. France's mother eventually marries Mr Blackwell and Frances moves to the house containing the chairs. She decides to deal with them ad the book closes with her giving the chairs a funeral.

Just the one Virago edition above.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Tea at four o'clock (McNeil) 275

Tea at four o'clock was kindly lent to me by Simon from Stuck-in-a-book and was an unexpectedly delightful read.

We meet Laura, the main protagonist just after her sister Mildred has died. Laura has nursed Mildred for many years, and even after death remains under the shadow. The book tells the story of both Laura's life and of what she will do next; the former being strongly influential on the latter. Laura's estranged brother George, the black sheep of the family, materialises and offers Laura hospitality, but turns out to be predominantly interested in Laura's money. We learn quite why Laura spent so long nursing a sister whom she didn't especially care for - a huge sense of guilt, over what is revealed by George to have been a completely mistaken belief.

And why the title? Until Mildred's death Laura was bound by the ritual of Mildred liking tea at 4. She used to have to rush home from an outing to town or cut short domestic chores in order to be there to pour the tea. With Mildred dead, Laura's freedom is symbolised by the fact that she is no longer constrained by this.

I know Janet McNeill as the author of the children's book The battle of St George without, which my Mum read as a little girl. This is the only book of hers published as a VMC, but I must have a look to see if she has written any more adult fiction.

Just the one VMC edition above.

Tuesday 24 November 2009

Plagued by the nightingale (Boyle) 47

I'm using the Teaser Tuesday format to blog about this book:

"The feeling of relinquishment in here was foul as a rat-trap and stiff and relentless there like a dried bouquet. This is what becomes of idleness, she thought in anger. She wanted the whole summer back again to make it all anew. Why am I having these bunches of old lavender, these dried knots of garlic infecting the thoughts I have? Why this chop suey mess of uncertainty in me?"

Written originally in 1930, this was published by Virago in 1981, and the same cover has been used for two different editions. I own the earlier one (top)

Monday 23 November 2009

Winter Sonata (Edwards) 205

I wish I had managed to restrain myself from starting Winter Sonata so soon, as set over the months November to March with a Christmas interlude, this would have made perfect Christmas reading fodder. However, the weather when I read it was cold and wet and definitely wintry, so the book fitted the bill perfectly. And I would strongly recommend this book for a winter-time read.

To me, this book felt like a mixture of Jane Austen and Cranford, only brought into the 1920s. Set in a village with a wonderful cast of characters, I could just imagine this being filmed by the BBC. The book tells the stories of a number of the village's inhabitants, centring around Mr Nettles, who has recently moved into the village with his cello and works at the Post Office. One day he sees the beautiful Olivia from the window. Her family invite him for tea and he makes friends with Olivia and her sister Eleanor and their cousin George. Mr Nettles falls in love with Olivia. At the same time we follow the story of the family with whom Mr Nettles lodges with, particularly the teenage daughter of the family Pauline who is the despair of her mother, with a keen interest in boys although she also sings beautifully. It is a book about loneliness and the importance of relationships and attempts to form relationships in order to overcome loneliness.

I was sad to read that this was the only novel published by Edwards. Rhapsody, a collection of short stories, is also published as a Virago Modern Classic, but Edwards committed suicide at the early age of 33 due to struggles with her writing. Very sad indeed.

Just the one Virago edition, above.

Saturday 21 November 2009

Hunt the slipper (Trefusis) 122

Hunt the slipper was one of the titles lent to me by Simon.

This was a short novel, almost a romantic comedy, telling of the entanglements and relationships of various people. Nigel lives with his sister Molly, and one day meets his new neighbour Anthony who has just married Caroline, a girl many years his junior. When Nigel ends up crossing paths with the pair again in Paris, Nigel falls in love with Caroline, and they begin an affair. The remainder of the book is about the affair; Nigel's obsession with Caroline and determination to get her for himself, and Caroline's struggle between her loyalty for Anthony and her desire to be with Nigel as well as with the fact that divorce would be scandalous.

"I want to make sacrifices for you, Nigel. I want to throw everything away for your sake.........I wish we had to work, work hard. I wish I could have a child by you. You think that the lover has the romantic part. You're wrong: a lover, the sort of lover you'd be if I let you is a convention. But what is not a convention is a husband who is a lover. You would be that kind of husband. Oh, can't you see that it's your duty towards yourself, towards me, to run away with me and marry me".

Trefusis was famous apparently (I didn't know this!) for her love affair with Vita Sackville West so it is appropriate that Virago also publish some of her work. Finding this out reminded me that I would love to learn more about V SW so I am on the lookout for a biography which will hopefully enable me to find out some more about Trefusis too. Apparently the relationship between Nigel and Caroline in the book can be seen also as the relationship between Violet and Vita.

Just the one Virago cover above. Virago also publish Trefusis' novel Pirates at play (sounds like a fun title!).

Some titles on loan

As you all know, I have given up book-buying for 6 months (and dare I say, I'm doing rather well). of course this is helped immensely by the library, gifts from publishers, and items on loan from friends. Simon from Stuck-in-a-book, has lent me a clutch of lovely VMCs which will be featuring on my blog over the next month (because 1. I don't really have any space to keep them and 2. It would be churlish and ungrateful not to read them as soon as possible and 3. They are all titles that I'm keen to read).

Simon has kindly lent me:
Tea at four o'clock (Janet McNeill)
Sleepless nights (Elizabeth Hardwick)
A touch of mistletoe (Comyns)
The skin chairs (Comyns)
Hunt the slipper (Violet Trefusis)

As you can see they are all in lovely original green editions, so this is a real treat - thanks Simon!

Friday 20 November 2009

The comforters (Spark) 542

The comforters is Spark's first novel, and it certainly sets the scene for the rather post-modernist novels which followed. Apparently very much based on Spark's own life and experiences it tells the story of Caroline Rose who is plagued by hearing voices and the sound of typewriter keys, and believes that she is actually in a novel :'it is as if a writer on another plane of existence was writing a story about us'. There is a wonderful cast of other characters, such as Laurence, her former lover, who is the grandson mentioned in the Tuesday teaser , who lives with his grandmouth and wonders whether she might be a smuggler after discovering diamonds in a loaf of bed. Like many of Spark's other novels, the plot is not the central element - rather it is the opportunity to explore the meaning of writing and what it is to be written about - and it is the way in which Spark describes her characters which make it so memorable.

I hope you enjoyed the Muriel Spark themed posts this week, and big thanks to Virago for sending me the copies which I have written about. One thing that has been mentioned in the comments is the hope for Virago to republish more of Sparks works - I would concur with this sentiment, but I suspect that Virago do not have the rights to all of the books. Another thing that I have been asked is which Spark novel is my favourite; unfortunately my two favourite Sparks novels are ones which I have not mentioned this week because they have not been published by Virago - they are The prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The girls of slender means.

Thursday 19 November 2009

Loitering with intent (Spark) 527

Loitering with intent was the other VMC Spark title that was new to me this week, and it was another very typical Spark novel, although I didn't quite enjoy it as much as A far cry from Kensington. It is the story of Fleur Talbot, who works as a secretary for the Autobiographical Association (a body which collects people's memoirs as they are written, and keeps them for 70 years until the people mentioned in the memoirs have all died and can be safely published). At the same time Fleur is trying to get her own book, Warrender Chase, published. Like other Spark books this combines both comedy and mystery - after Fleur's manuscript is stolen, events in her life and at the Autobiographical Association start to mirror the novel surprisingly closely.

I enjoyed the story, and as usual Spark's depiction of the characters, but I can't help feeling that some of the subtleties of the novel may have been lost on me; it made me think about the process of fiction and wonder whether the novel was imitating life, or life was imitating the novel, but I never really came to a conclusion on that. However, it did offer an insight into the mind of an author, and I wondered if this perhaps was giving me an insight into the mind of Muriel Spark.

Have any of you read this? And what thoughts did you have about it?

Wednesday 18 November 2009

Symposium (Spark) 526

One of Spark's later novels, this was written in 1991. The title, and the book itself is a nod to the title of the same name by Plato, written 1600 years earlier, which involves a series of discourses by characters, telling a number of stories within stories. In contrast to Plato's novel however, which dealt predominantly with love, Spark's Symposium deals with the more negative emotion of malice and the issue of motive.

You can read an extract from the novel here.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

The comforters (Spark) 542

A Tuesday teaser:

"I'll have a large wholemeal. I've got my grandson stopping for a week who's on the BBC...he won't eat white bread, one of his fads".

Monday 16 November 2009

A far cry from Kensington (Spark)

I had not previously read A far cry from Kensington so I was delighted to be reading a new Muriel Spark, and I wasn't disappointed. In fact, I would concur with Kimbofo's review here that:

"To say I was utterly charmed by it would probably be an understatement. This is a deliciously enjoyable story that is so perfectly constructed it's almost impossible to find fault with it -- on any level. The prose is simple, the characters believable and the plot expertly drawn, so that you're never quite sure where it's going to take you and then feel overwhelmingly satisfied when you arrive at its destination."

The book tells the story of Mrs Hawkins, looking back 30 years to her life in South Kensington in the 1950s, as a young widow of 28, and the people and incidents in it. Living in a "rooming house" (a large house divided between landlady and lodgers), she encountered a number of interesting characters. About half of the book is devoted to description of this part of her life; we meet Wanda, the polish dressmaker who is being blackmailed and later commits suicide, Isabel, her younger neighbour who becomes pregnant and whose father tries to pursue Mrs Hawkins. the landlady Milly. The other half of the book concerns Mrs Hawkin's career in publishing and gives a witty insight into the industry; we see her dealing with manuscripts, undertaking editing and then proof reading.

I loved Spark's descriptions of the characters, and the episodic format of the plot and truly this was a hugely enjoyable read. I am very glad that Virago obtained the rights to re-publish this, especially as it also came out in one of the lovely hardback editions (see below), which I would love to lay my hands on to accompany my paperback.

Muriel Spark week

As you may remember, Sophie from Virago very kindly sent me a set of the Sparknovels which have been republished recently as Modern Classics, and I decided that it would be nice to have a Muriel Spark week on the blog.

So, do stop by this week when I will be re-reading Symposium and The Comforters and reading A far cry from Kensington and Loitering with intent.

I would also recommend the new biography of Muriel Spark by Martin Stannard which gives an excellent account of her life and an insight into the woman behind her writing.

Saturday 14 November 2009

New acquisition

Thanks to Sophie from Virago for sending me the latest Barbara Pym. I wrote about Pym earlier in the year and am excited that there has been another addition to the set. I've already read this one, but it was one of my favourites and I am looking forward to rereading it.

I believe that Virago will be bringing out Less than angels in April to add to the collection.

Friday 13 November 2009

The brimming cup (Canfield) 254

After discussing Canfield's The home-maker, published by Persephone books, with a friend yesterday, and talking about Her Son's wife (a VMC Canfield), I couldn't resist grabbing The brimming cup from the VMC TBRs to see what that was like. I loved The home-maker, and enjoyed Her son's wife (though not quite as much), so I had high hopes for this title.

The book is the narrative of the life of Marise, a wife and mother living in Vermont. We meet her first in a prologue as she has just become engaged to her husband, and then officially several years later when she is sending off her youngest child for his first day of school. This event, as for many mothers, causes her to reassess her life. The book progresses through the next year, witnessing the changing seasons in their small town, and describing the outlook of Marise and various other characters - children, husband, neighbours. We learn that Marise thinks life in a small town is better than in the cities and the book explains her reasons why.

Unfortunately for me this title didn't live up to the two other Canfield's that I have read. I was certainly in the mood for her gentle writing style, but I think I found that the book was a bit too heavy on description and a lot lighter on plot than the two previous books.

Only one Virago edition, an original green cover, above, which I own. (Intriguingly, when I googled it to look for pictures I found that it is available for download onto Kindle! I'm not sure if this is the VMC edition though, and it certainly wouldn't come with a green cover).

Thursday 12 November 2009

Their eyes were watching God (Hurston) 199

I first came across Their eyes were watching God earlier in the year, when I was eye-ing up the gorgeous 30-year anniversary hardbacks produced by Virago - they'd been out a little while but had only just caught my attention. This was one of the only ones I hadn't read, but looking at it, I was intimidated by the dialect used by Hurston which I thought would make it difficult to read. I later obtained a copy of the first green edition through a bundle of books bought on ebay, but I put it on one side to read later. The other week I read and greatly enjoyed Daddy was a number runner fitting into a genre of books about the Harlem renaissance about which I knew very little and Claire, from Paperback reader pointed out that the forerunner to these books was the title I had on one side.

Once I started it, I felt sorry that I had been putting it off for so long. Far from making it difficult to read, the use of "Ebonics" (thanks again to Claire for introducing me to this concept, which refers to vernacular language used by African Americans) added an extra dimension to the writing and made the prose look extremely lyrical, as this passage where Janie talks about love demonstrates:

"Love ain't somethin' lak uh grindstone dat's de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It's uh movin' thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it's different with every shore"

The book tells the story of Janie, raised by her grandmother in Florida just after the end of slavery but before the start of the civil rights movement. Her grandmother marries her off at an early age, believing that this is the only way to avoid trouble with boys and to keep her "chaste". But this first marriage is loveless and soon her husband stops treating her well. So when her grandmother dies, she runs off with another man, Joe Sparks. He takes her away to a new town, inhabited only by blacks, and sets up a store and becomes the town mayor. He gives Janie everything that she wants, but as Joe Sparks becomes more and more involved in the running of the town he has less and less time for Janie. He becomes ill, and whilst Janie at first nurses him, he gradually refuses to allow her into his sickroom, and dies. For a time, Janie runs the store herself, adjusting to life alone, with little interest in meeting another man. But then "Tea cake" comes into her life and she finally has a fulfilling relationship which does not diminish her self-worth.

It is a hugely intriguing read dealing with all sorts of issues; the role and status of women, the issue of race (Janie is a fair-skinned black woman), and the whole culture of the period - so absolutely fascinating as well as a beautifully written and enthralling story.

Anyway, there are three Virago editions, two in green, and one in Anniversary hardback, which I am now coveting... I see that Virago have published Jonah's Gourd Vine by Hurston as well, so I look forward to encountering that.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Harriet Hume (West) 34

Last week I went to London for the day, so I picked up some London-themed reading from my VMC pile. Harriet Hume by Rebecca West is set predominantly in Kensington and is subtitled "A London fantasy".

The book is about two characters, Harriet, a pianist with powers of intiution, and Arnold, an ambitious and aspiring politician who is effectively Harriet's opposite. We first meet them after they have been making love in Harriet's flat, which provided a delightful start to the novel. However, Harriet's power to read Arnold's mind means that she discovers that even though they have just had a wonderful time together, his career is far more important to him, and reluctantly she lets him walk out of her life. The pair meet again several times, 6 years later, and 20 years later. Arnold's career is now in ruins, and he blames Harriet for not sharing any intuitive knowledge of his downfall with him; he sets out to kill her...

While I quite enjoyed her Cousin Rosamund trilogy which I wrote about yesterday, I did not enjoy this one so much. The plot sounds interesting but the writing was not for me; there were many long "speeches" by the principle characters which went on for pages and pages, which just bored me. Harriet started to irritate me, and Arnold's thoughts on politics just annoyed me.

Just the one cover, above, which I rather liked as not only was it a nice painting, but it evoked the feeling of Harriet's rather haphazard living arrangements.

Tuesday 10 November 2009

Rebecca West catch-up 143, 270, 303

Earlier in the year I read a trilogy of books by Rebecca West, known informally as The cousin Rosamund trilogy. It consists of The fountain overflows (probably one of the most well known of West's work), This real night and Cousin Rosamund.

It is a while since I read them so I shall content myself with showing you the covers, and asking if anyone has read any other Rebecca West novels as there are a number published as VMCs.

The fountain overflows has been published four times:
This real night, published three times:
and Cousin Rosamund (which only seems to have been published twice in original green and more modern photograph):