Thursday, 16 December 2010

All men are mortal (Beauvoir)

I picked up All men are mortal in the Notting Hill Books and Comics Exchange at the start of December - it is one of the newer VMCs which have only ever been published in a "modern" cover. It wasn't a book that I'd ever heard of, nor had I heard of the author, although my companion that day said that she was quite significant. When I looked her up, I realised that she was the author of the book The second sex - not something that I've read, but something which I know of.

All men are mortal was an intriguing read which I enjoyed very much - quite different to some of the Victorian and Edwardian VMCs.

It tells the story of a beautiful actress, Regina, desirous of fame and celebrity. When she encounters the man Fosca, and discovers that he is immortal, never having been able to die since his 13th century birth, she wonders whether she can make herself through her performances live forever by existing in his thoughts. This philosophical conundrum underpins the book. She then makes Fosca fall in love with her, in an attempt to get him to reveal the secret behind his immortality. But as their relationship grows and Fosca recounts his life, she learns that perhaps immortality is not what she anticipates; it has blemished Fosca's relationships and effectively isolated him. Immortality cannot live alongside the mortal. For Fosca, everything is essentially the same and insignificant now, whilst for Regina, even the trivial has meaning. It is a fascinating read which really challenges you to think about the nature of life, but it is also a very good novel.

There is also a film of the book, made in 1994, with Irene Jacob, Marianne Sagebrecht and Stephen Rea.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Please vote for the blog!

I was quite excited to see that my blog has been nominated in the category of "Best Literary Blog" for the Most Wanted Book Blogger awards. I've never been nominated for anything before, so this was quite exciting! I only found out by chance when following a link that a fellow blogger posted to vote for her blog...

Do go over and look at the list as there's a huge number of interesting blogs to have a look at, but if you felt so moved you could also vote for me! As my blog here is such a niche, I think it is unlikely that I will come especially high in the scoring, but would be nice not to come last!

Friday, 10 December 2010

I'm not complaining (Adam) 124

I forgot to write about I'm not complaining by Ruth Adam when I read it a couple of week's ago which is a shame as it was a quirky VMC which I really enjoyed reading. It's the story of Madge Brigson, a 30 something school teacher, who works in a school in the deprived town of Bronton, Nottinghamshire, an industrial town which has been hit badly by the depression. I liked her no-nonsense character and committment to the children in her charge, despite her recognition that for many of them, the education is not particularly valuable. The novel also tells the story of some of Madge's colleagues, other single women (for it was still the age when women had to leave work on marriage). It's a great book if you like strong female characters - do seek it out, it's not terribly well known, I was just attracted by the title...

Only published once, in an original green cover.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The orchid house (Allfrey)

Having had a bit of a drought of VMC acquisitions lately, due to cutting down on expenditure, it was a big treat to go to the Notting Hill books and comics exchange to sell some books, and to spend the credit gained on some new ones! Of course, I cleared them out of the VMCs that I didn't already have (you can see them in the stack of books I came home with on my other blog), and one of the ones that I came home with was The orchid house by Phyllis Shand Allfrey. It's her only VMC, and not one that I had heard of.

In this sub-zero weather here in Oxford, it was wonderful to read a book set on the Isle of Dominica in the West Indies. It tells the stories of three sisters, growing up, through the eyes of their nurse, Lally. We first meet them as children, later as adults, returning to the island after being away.

Whilst I enjoyed reading it, I wasn't sure how well it held together as a book. The stories of the sisters were more disparate than coherent story, and I wasn't quite convinced by the voice of the narrator - she seemed far more well written than you might imagine a servant of that position to be.

What I did like was the sense of place that came through - Allfrey grew up there, and it really showed in her descriptions. I loved reading about coconut milk to cool parched throats, and breadfruit - it was a long way from hot soup in an English winter.

It's just been published once by Virago, with the original green cover - the picture is from the channel 4 dramatisation which sadly doesn't seem to be available, which is a shame as it featured some fairly big names, and I think that this book would translate very well to the screen.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Crossriggs (Findlater) 203

I often wonder how it works when two people write a novel; you'd think that any sort of collaboration would be pretty obvious and you'd spot the different voices. The most recent VMC that I've read, Crossriggs, by Jane and Mary Findlater is a novel written in this way, but I certainly couldn't tell that it was written by two sisters.

Crossriggs is a small village near Edinburgh where the unmarried Alex Hope lives with her father. At the start of the book, her widowed sister Matilda returns to the family home with her 5 children. The sisters are very different - I wondered whether this might reflect the relationship that Jane and Mary had - Alex is independent, despite her spinster existence, whereas Matilda had obviously come to rely on her late husband and is rarely seen to voice her own opinions. It is a struggle to make ends meet - Mr Hope tries to instigate a vegetarian diet, but this does not go down well with the children, so Alex finds a job, reading aloud to a wealthy admiral in the village. Here she meets Van, the admiral's grandson, who takes a liking to Alex; she is oblivious however. The story that plays itself out is not predictable, and one of the things that I liked most about this book is that Alex is certainly not a typical spinster. She loves having the children around, and although it tires her out she is fully prepared to take on an additional job, teaching elocution in a school in the nearby town.

I really rather enjoyed this one - the Victorian setting was just right for this time of year. It's only been published once with an original green cover; I own a copy.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Virago cover lovers

If you're a Virago Modern Classic cover-lover, and if you're reading this, then it's likely that you are, then I just wanted to point out a lovely post by Lyn at I prefer reading on some of her favourite VMC covers (and she gives a very kind mention to this blog too)

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

An acquisition

Although I have stopped buying books online, and really tried hard over the last few months to resist buying books (in fact, resist buying anything!), I do still love looking out for Green Viragos in second hand bookshops. Luckily, one seems to see the same ones over and over again, and I have most of these, which is good for the financials, but occasionally one will spot something slightly rarer, and have to pounce. We went to Thame at the weekend, and I have picked up several VMCs in the Oxfam bookshop there before. I was very happy to spot a copy of The gypsy's baby by Rosamund Lehmann, which is a collection of her short stories. There are several VMC authors who I would love to own everything they wrote in original green, and Lehmann is one of them, although I have very few of them. I've realised that I never covered this book when I did a catch-up on Rosamund Lehmann early on in this challenge, so I can share the covers here for the first time - the original green one which I stumbled upon, and a modern green version.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Return of the soldier (West)

I was slightly surprised to recieve a new edition of The return of the soldier by Rebecca West in the mail - it is the latest Virago Modern Classic. It wasn't on the list of VMCs for 2010, but I think that the last one of 2010 has been delayed to 2011. I was also surprised when I put it on the shelf, as I already have a "modern" edition of the book (but sadly not the original green edition).

It's coming out next month, but it was timely to recieve it on Remembrance weekend. Nymeth wrote about it last week, and you can see my original post on it here. (It doesn't seem to have been given an additional VMC number though).

I am particularly looking forward to reading the new introduction by Sadie Jones, as she has written rather well on more recent conflict in Small wars.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

The wedding group (Taylor)

I haven't written too much about Elizabeth Taylor on this blog, mainly because I had worked my way through her oeuvre at the start of my interest in VMCs, which was six months before I began this blog. But also partly because I was hoping to blog about her all in one go when I had collected all of her books in the original green editions - I think the Elizabeth Taylor green VMCs are among the best as they often feature gorgeous illustrations of flowers. I've got about 2/3s of them, and although I could easily buy the rest from Amazon, I'm preferring to look out for them in bookshops - it spreads the monetary burden and adds to the thrill of the chase.

But Virago have been bringing out new editions of her books over the last couple of years - striking and colourful paperbacks, even if they don't quite rival the charm and elegance of their predecessors, and as Sophie from Virago kindly sends me the new VMC releases, I recieved the latest new one a couple of weeks ago - The wedding group. As I'm finding rereading books comforting at this dark and dismal time of year, it didn't go straight on the bookshelf but found its way into my handbag to be read.

It's a somewhat mournful read - the main character Cressidy rebels against the Catholic community of her upbringing, runs away to London and falls in love with the journalist David. It's not a happy-ever-after story, and Cressidy as the "heroine" isn't exactly always likeable - she starts off as seemingly well meaning, adventurous and sweet, but quickly becomes irritating and annoying. Nicola Beaumann, whose biography of Taylor is well-worth reading, says this is Taylor's weakest novel - I see her point but still found it well worth rereading.

Onto the covers - I own both the original green version and the newest Virago edition, but it has been published with another cover too!

Monday, 1 November 2010

The ghost stories of Edith Wharton

Another Edith Wharton - they seem to be coming in swift succession, and yet I'm still to read the House of Mirth which I was given or Custom of the Country which I've been lent. Maybe it's turning into an Edith Wharton Autumn here on the VVV.

This time it is The ghost stories of Edith Wharton and they have won me over where her previous novels have failed. I was alerted to the existence of this book by Elaine from Random Jottings, and I swiftly orderd it from the library in order to have it in time for the Halloween weekend. I've been dipping in and out of it over the last few days and have to say that the stories are spooky and chilling, particularly the more that one thinks about them, and absolutely perfect for Halloween reading. My favourite was "All Souls", a creepy tale of mystery where an old woman wakes up and finds her house absolutely deserted, without explanation. When her servants later deny this - what is the mystery that occurred?

Edith Wharton cites Henry James' Turn of the Screw as a strong influence on her writing; although I have not read this novel, I know he is considered one of the leaders of the genre of ghost stories, and I can see that this has obviously filtered down to Wharton.

I LOVED these stories - they drew me in and I cared about the characters far more than in any of her novels. It's only been published once in a modern green Virago edition, and I would certainly buy a copy if I spotted it in a second hand bookshop!

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Twilight Sleep (Wharton)

Yes, I know, I still haven't got around to reading and writing about The House of Mirth, probably Edith Wharton's most famous novel, which is particularly bad as I was given a copy by Cate from the librarything VMC group. So what was I doing reading Twilight Sleep? Well, as I explained recently, I've not got any spare money to spend on VMCs at the moment, and they are somewhat of a rarity in my local library (or if they are there, they're ones that I've read). So when I DID spot a VMC that I hadn't read, I had to take it out, and somehow library books are always more pressing than the TBR.

Like some of her other books, it's a portrayal of "society"; this time, 1920s New York Society. It tells the story of Pauline Manford, a big hostess on the scene and those close to her. Although it was published in 1927, I felt, and I've seen from other reviews, that it's really quite modern in some of the issues that it deals with - careerism, marriage difficulties, drinking issues, healthy living, spiritualism and psychoanalysis, and I found that that made it quite an interesting book to read. On the other hand, the characters didn't really draw me in, nor the plot, so it wasn't an especially enjoyable read for me (which is a bit frustrating as I don't have much time or concentration for reading at the moment).

There is an awful lot of Edith Wharton published in the VMC list, but FRUSTRATINGLY, the one that I most want to read at the moment "Summer" (because it features a librarian as one of its protagonists) isn't on the list. Edith Wharton isn't one of my favourite VMC authors, so the fact that I have another 12 of her books to go is a little daunting, but as I do have her probably most acclaimed one on my TBR, I hope that may hook me in.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Desert of the heart (Jane Rule)

Another slightly dilatory review - I mentioned a little while ago that I was very excited to have recieved the latest VMC published, direct from Virago, but that it was under embargo. Of course, I couldn't resist reading it straight away, and I should have written down my thoughts on it then, rather than waiting until I was allowed to, by which time I have lost some of the immediacy of reading it.

More akin to Valley of the dolls, or The group, or Peyton Place, than perhaps the cosier VMCs such as the Jane Austens, EH Youngs, Elizabeth Taylors or Rosamund Lehmans, this is one of the first lesbian classics. Set in the 1960s, it tells the story of Evelyn, an English professor in California who travels to Reno in order to obtain a divorce from her husband. She is required to stay for 6 weeks, and finds herself a place in a boarding house. Here, she encounters Ann, the daughter of the boarding house owner, who falls in love with her and sets about seducing her. It's a compelling story, not least because there are a number of threads going on - we learn about the nightclub where Ann works and the intricacies of the girls duties working on the betting games, we find out eventually, the reason why Evelyn wants a divorce, and we gain insight into relationships between women and what will make it work. The ending is surprising, it's difficult to say more without spoilers!

It's only £5.99 on Amazon, - I don't often suggest buying books on this blog, but I would recommend it, not least because I think that the Virago Modern Classic imprint deserves support (which it doesn't get when we collect original green editions from our second hand bookshops!). And I like the collagey cover.

(Apparently there is also a film, not sure if it would translate so well to screen - I think whilst it is the sort of book that filmmakers would enjoy making to the film, I found the book so vivid and immediate, I don't think that that could be matched on screen).

And...there's an introduction to the book on the Virago website here.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Honourable estate (Brittain)

We're in the middle of watching the TV adaption of Testament of Youth (it's getting to the remembrance time of year) and I remembered that I had Honourable Estate on my VMC TBR. It's been there a while, because it's a bit of a chunkster, and what a shame to leave it languishing as I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Owing to personal circumstances, it took me a good week to get through it, but I felt really quite satisfied when I finally put it down.

How to summarise? Well, as I said to my fiance, when he asked me what it is about, it's impossible to relate in short, 584 pages of densely written fiction. It's a book about three different generations of men and women; the women are characterised as desiring more than a traditional female role, leading them to become involved in the suffragette movement. The book culminates with one of them being elected one of the first female members of parliament.
It's not as good as The dark tide, and certainly not as good as Testament of Youth, but I loved it for its depictions of Oxford, for the writing about the First World War, and above all for the love story which develops in the second half of the book. It's a book about feminism, suffragetism and pacifism; if you're interested in any of these things, then do read this book and don't be put off by the size, it will draw you in.

It's a fairly late VMC, and as such has only been published the once with a modern cover.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

A gift of Jane Austen

More apologies for being so bad at keeping this blog up to date, which is completely unacceptable when readers are sending me their duplicates! I recieved a couple of weeks ago now, these two lovely Jane Austen Virago Modern Classics from LE at Pots and Pens (a lovely blog linking cooking to books). I was particularly excited, as I wrote about these early on in my VMC challenge as I had read them long ago, in other editions, but I'd never actually seen the green versions. They're a little different to other recognisable VMCs, but how nice to own Jane Austen Virago style.

I shall endeavour to catch up with the two reviews I have to do - I'm struggling a little bit as my work computer where the only up to date copy of my VMC master spreadsheet was saved caught a virus ten days ago, my profile had to be rebuilt and I lost EVERYTHING that was saved to my desktop and not in a network file. Thank goodness I've been tagging the blog posts so when I have a little free time, I may be able to resurrect it. Here's hoping.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Keynotes and discords (Egerton) 103

I liked the title of this VMC, it appealed to my musical sensibilities, and so, as it was one that I hadn't read, I asked to borrow it from Simon at Stuck in a book. It's a book of short stories but I have to say I couldn't really get into it. Nice title, nice cover, so I'd own it for that, but not a keeper... Just published the once with an original green cover.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Company parade (Storm Jameson)

I didn't especially enjoy my first encounter with Storm Jameson; Women without men, but as part of this challenge, I have to be willing to give some authors several chances as I plan to read all of the Virago Modern Classics, there is no escape! And this is a good thing; whilst I have yet to find a Molly Keane novel that I have really enjoyed, I'm happy to report that Company Parade was a much better read than Women without men.

This novel centres on the character of Hervey, a young woman who comes to London just after the end of the First World War to make her fortune. We learn in due course that she is married, and her husband Penn is in the airforce. We learn also that she has a young son, at home in Yorkshire with her mother, called Richard, who is one of the reasons behind her trip to London to get a job. Penn is difficult to like, seemingly unwilling to look after his wife and child.

Hervey quickly settles down into the job she finds, writing advertisements, although she has also written a novel which is about to be published. She moves out of the hotel where she first stayed into an attic room. She mades friends with Delia, the lady on the first floor, and other friends both at work and outside it.

This book was intended to be the first one in a longish series of books about the same characters under the banner title "Mirror in darkness"; in the event Jameson only wrote two more, Love in winter and None turn back, both of which are published by Virago, and I will be interested to see how she develops the characters and storylines from this volume. This one has just been published once with an original green cover, which I own.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

I'm back... and Ann Veronica (Wells)

I've been seriously dilatory of late, with writing on this blog, and also with reading my Virago Modern Classics. After the binge of last year and the early months of this year, my reading has moved into other areas (mostly childrens books and recipe books, especially cake books). And I've struggled bloggingwise. And I don't have any spare cash at the moment to either order Viragoes from Amazon or to pick them up in charity shops. But I do mean to continue with this challenge, although perhaps at not such a rate as before, and I hope people will keep checking in on it.

What prompted me to get going again was an exciting arrival from Virago; I'm 3/4 of the way through it and am desperate to write about it, but the title is under embargo until the 7th October. I am looking forward to writing about it.

Then I remembered that I had never got around to writing about Ann Veronica, by H.G. Wells, which PaperbackReader Claire had kindly passed on to me. As I mentioned when I got it, I was quite intrigued by the title as I associate HG Wells with science fiction; this book couldn't be more different, being the story of a woman's life. Ann Veronica is, when we meet her, a 20 year old girl, living at home with her father and aunt and subject very much to the conventions of her period and her father's will. Ann Veronica however is an independent sort who decides that she has had enough (this decision follows the culmination of her frustration after she is not allowed to attend a ball that she is invited too), and leaves home to try to make her own way, much to the distress of her family. She goes to London and studies biology at the Imperial College, struggling to make her own way financially. I found the first half of the book about her struggle for independence quite gripping, but the book rather "went off" for me after she falls in love with her married teacher, and suddenly, being in love seems more important than her independence. I suppose actually, I do identify with her feelings as I have become a lot less career orientated since entering a long term relationship, but it didn't feel so satisfying in terms of this book.

It's been published lots of times, but only once by Virago in an original green edition, although I'm not too enamoured by the portrait on the front - bit ugly in my opinion!

Anyway, I still have a number of other VMCs on the TBR pile, and one on loan, so I am sure I will be getting to them in the next months. Please come back and see me :)

Monday, 16 August 2010

Two new acquisitions

I've been a bit short of VMC acquisitions of late; in part that's been because I've not been so into reading my way through so many VMCs at the moment, but mainly that's because I've cut down on book buying generally.

But thanks to the kindness of two fellow VMC fans, I have acquired 2 new titles in the last week.

Firstly, Cate, who I know through the librarything VMC group, sent me The house of mirth by Edith Wharton - this is one of those books that I know I really ought to have read. And as such will certainly now be reading it.

Secondly, Claire, from the Paperback Reader blog, kindly parted with her copy of Ann Veronica by HG Wells - this intrigues me as although I've never read any Wells I associate him with science fiction rather than women's writing! I have started reading this so it will probably be my next VVV review.
Thank you ladies!!

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The blush (Taylor) 236

More equally beautiful flowers on the cover of this collection of Elizabeth Taylor's short stories, the third one that I have read (just one more to go - A dedicated man), and a book that I would happily own in both of the green editions (I have the original green cover). And the book itself is absolutely wonderful, and probably my favourite of all of the Elizabeth Taylor short story collections - having enjoyed it so much makes up for the fact that I rattled through her novels because I enjoyed them so much and don't have any more that are new to me.

I often struggle with short stories - they need to engage my attention fast enough because otherwise they are over before they have begun. And what I find is that the very best short stories have a twist at the end - this was the case with the volume of short stories that helped me to relinquish my belief that I hated short stories, The closed door and other stories, by Dorothy Whipple - and this was the case in many of the stories in this volume. And this was recognised by another one of my blogging friends, Hayley from Desperate Reader, who described herself as being "bowled over" by it when she wrote about it (I have to admit that it was Hayley's post which led to me buying it from Amazon even though I was trying to cut down on internet purchases).

My favourite story was the title story, The blush, which had an excellent twist at the end, as long as one had been reading fairly carefully. But I also enjoyed the story Summer School, about two sisters who spent their summer holidays in very different ways, neither of whom hugely satisfied by their experiences and differently prepared to admit it. There was also a poignant story about a couple on their wedding night, staying in a hotel. She goes off and gets herself ready; he is nervous and goes and gets drunk in the bar. The twist at the end is really uncomfortable; I am sure my wedding night will not be like that!

My collection of green Elizabeth Taylor novels is growing delightfully, and I'm looking forward to doing a post to show them when I have a full set (ok, that may be some time since I have been exercising restrain in my book purchasing of late) - as I don't think I'll blog about them individually having read them over 2 years ago now.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Joanna Godden (Sheila Kaye-Smith) 115

""'She forgets her distrust of the night air in all her misery of throbbing head and heart, and flung back the casement, so that the soft marsh wind came in, with rain upon it, and her tears were mingled with the tears of night. 'Oh God!' she moaned to herself - 'why didn't you make me a man?''

My latest VMC read marked a return to more familiar Virago Modern Classic territory with a saga-style story centring around a strong female lead and dealing with issues of feminism. This was Joanna Godden (Sheila Kaye Smith) (one of those titles that sits on the shelf and confuses you as to which is the author, and which is the title).

Set in Romney, Sussex, it follows the story of Joanna, recently bereaved of her father and left the family sheep-farm. It is expected that she will marry, in order to gain a man to run the estate, but Joanna refuses to follow convention and takes on the management of the farm herself. It is no easy task for a woman, and Joanna also has a constant stream of suitors. However, she would not be able to achieve professional fulfilment in running the farm if she were to accept one, since they would take over the farm. And this dilemma is the very heart of the book.

It was made into a film in 1947, entitled The loves of Joanna Godden, made by the Ealing Studios and with music by Vaughan Williams - think it would make for a wonderful rainy Sunday afternoon film. But apparently it has a very different ending to the book.

It's just got the one rather lovely original green cover. Virago also publish her novel Susan Spray, and I shall be interested to see how that compares.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Little disturbances of man (Paley)

Simon from Stuck in a book very kindly lent me The little disturbances of man by Grace Paley and over the last week or so I've been ploughing my way through the short stories contained within it. Regular readers will know that I'm not a short story afficiondo, and whilst I quite enjoyed the other Virago volume of her short stories, Enormous changes at the last minute, I think that was mainly down to the fact that the first one opened outsid a library with a woman returning some overdue library books. This collection dealt with similar themes - men and women in relationships, generally not particularly happily - but none of the stories grabbed me in the way that Want had in the first volume. Didn't hugely like the cover image either - it's just been published once in an original green edition. Another author done and dusted for this challenge anyway.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

The devastating boys (Taylor)

I had been very keen to read The devastating boys since reading about it on someone's blog last year; it may have been Darlene's but the only review I can find is one on Rachel's blog which I didn't even comment on at the time! Anyway, I finally laid my hands on a 1p copy on Amazon, and was lucky enough to recieve a pristine original green edition of the book (it's always a bit hit and miss I find with Amazon marketplace, you can never be sure quite which edition you're getting and what sort of condition it will be in when it turns up). It has proved the perfect read for my teabreaks this week - I've finally come off the medication which was preventing me from reading, but I still felt a little daunted by the Viragos I have waiting for me, the majority of which are either large, or have very small print, or are large and have small print - whilst short stories they are, they are long enough to be really absorbing.

The title story was perhaps my favourite; a couple respond to an advertisement to take children from London for a holiday, his attention was attracted by the fact that coloured children might be sent (obviously more of an issue in the 1960s!). She anticipated having two little girls, who might be surrogates for her grown up daughters who have yet to fill the gap with grandchildren. But two boys are sent. The boys are confused by their surroundings and the couple are confused by their boys, the fact that they are not easily entertained, their tantrums and destructiveness. She counts down the days until their departure right from the start. In a fairy tale or book this would have an obvious happy ending; in a short story, there isn't such a need. We witness a tiny, imperceptible change in the boys towards the end of the stay, and although she is still keen to see them go, she is surprised to feel sad when she puts them on the train.

Onto the covers! I think the pictures used for the green Elizabeth Taylor covers are among some of the best of the original green Viragos (And I'm sorry Virago, but the latest Elizabeth Taylor covers are just not a patch on them). I love the beautiful flowers on my copy (although I would quibble that they're really not much in line with the title), and the flowers on the later modern green edition are equally beautiful and reminded me of the cover to my copy of Hester Lilly. Now this is definitely something that I'd like to own both editions of, purely for the covers.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The true heart (Townsend Warner)

Townsend Warner's The true heart was kindly sent to me by Elaine from Random Jottings last month; I was looking forward to reading this, partly because I have enjoyed other of Townsend Warner's novels, but also because my experience of reading her books is that they are very diverse and I wasn't sure what to expect from this one.

The true heart tells the story of Sukey Bond - we meet her as she "graduates" from the orphanage where she has spent all of her life - she is obviously a model pupil, being presented with 5 prizes including one for good conduct. She is then sent off to a farm on the Essex Coast (in an introduction to the book Warner describes how she was motivated to write the book after finding a map of Essex in a shop which she used to inspire her writing of it) to work as a maid. She falls in love with Eric, a simple minded man, whose mother, Mrs Seabourne, keeps him hidden away on the farm. They decide to marry, but Mrs Seabourne is appalled, sacks Sukey, and whisks Eric away. What will Sukey do? Since no-one else will help she decides to seek assistance from the highest authority in the country and sets off to see Queen Victoria! The book reads like a fairy tale; its the sort of plot that would only really happen in such a setting, but it makes for a delightful read. Sukey is a wonderful character, naive, but full of charm and hilarity. My favourite episode occurs when having been sacked, she finds accommodation at a "disorderly" house (as described by the landlady). Not having come across this term before, and anxious to please the woman who may be able to give her a room, although she thinks that the house is untidy, she tells the woman that the house cannot possibly be disorderly when it has such a beautiful parrot. This sends the woman into fits of laughter, she realises that she will not be able to employ Sukey, but does decide to give her a bed for the night.

Warner's introduction also reveals that this book was loosely based on the rather obscure Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche - this is not a myth that I am familiar with, but not knowing about it did not detract from enjoying the book!

Although this was one of the earliest VMCs, it's only been published once, with an original green cover. Big thanks again to Elaine for passing this on to me.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Cullum (E Arnot Robertson) 322

Cullum was my third novel by E Arnot Robertson, but it was actually her first. It was written when Robertson was only 24 and I think that the writing and themes are characterised by a certain sort of youthful exuberance which wasn't something I recognised from reading either Ordinary Families or Four frightened people.

It's the story of obsessive love between Esther and Cullum. Esther, in her late teens, lives at home in Surrey, among a family of horsey people - while she happily partakes in hunts etc, her real love is literature and writing. When she meets Cullum, another young author, it is inevitable that she will fall in love with him and be seduced by his way of life. And the book is the telling out of what happens.

Of all of Robertson's works I enjoyed this one the most, although it wasn't by any stretch a favourite VMC. Another author completed anyway!

I like this cover image of a rather bored looking young lady - or at least I think she's bored looking. It's too much of an unpleasant expression to call it wistful. I fear it is an expression I may occasionally wear. Just the one edition, the original green cover version.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

New acqusitions

I have two batches of new acquisitions to write about this weekend. Firstly, about a week ago I recieved a huge box from Elaine at Random Jottings, a fellow Virago lover, and reader of this blog. I should have taken a picture of the box and its contents, but unfortunately I didn't get around to it! Elaine had had a clear out and very kindly offered to send me some of her unwanted books before taking them to the charity shop (I in return made a donation to Mind since Elaine asked for a donation to charity instead of paying her for postage). I was lucky enough to get copies of some books which were new to me as well as my own copy of a couple, and they were all in original green - lovely! . There were a couple of duplicates which I am passing on to fellow Virago lovers in my vicinity. Thank you Elaine - you were very kind.

Then, excitingly, I recieved the latest VMC to come out, by the author Bessie Head, not someone who I have encountered. The book actually contains two novels - When Rain Clouds Gather, and, Maru - and I shall be writing about it in due course (when I have read it rather than just admired the cover!)

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Hester Lilly (Taylor) 350

A kind present from Julia, I had hugely been anticipating these stories by Elizabeth Taylor, having greatly enjoyed her novels (which I still need to blog about as they pre-date my Venture). And they were hugely enjoyed, particularly as they arrived at a time when I was struggling to focus on reading - I could just about manage a short story. It's been published in both an original green cover and a modern green cover; I love both of the cover designs. Julia sent me the later edition, but this is a book I would happily own in both editions for the beautiful pictures! And I'm still on the look out for the other ET short story volumes if anyone spots theM!

I'm still trying to get back into reading, but I am struggling to complete anything particularly weighty, or honestly, most things other than cookery books or children's literature. So I'm planning to slow down my VVV somewhat and just post once or twice a week, thus taking off some of the pressure to keep ploughing through literature which I know I would enjoy if I had my usual concentration levels. Please do keep checking in!

Monday, 5 July 2010

Mother and son (Compton-Burnett) 394

I've never read any Ivy Compton-Burnett, and am glad to have had the chance to experience her through my Virago venture, as she is quite an eminent writer, and one whom fellow blogger Simon from Stuck-in-a-book enthuses about. In fact it was Simon who kindly lent me a Virago copy of Mother and Son. Mother and son is also one of the VMCs that won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, so seemed as good a place to start as any.

It's the story of a family, centring around the matriarch Miranda. We meet her in search of a companion, interviewing but not finding favour with one Miss Burke. Miss Burke is then dispatched by the family cook to another household, this time of two spinsters, where she may be suited. The two households become linked, and the story provides a chance for Compton-Burnett to explore questions about family relationships.

I most liked the domesticated setting of this novel - reminiscent of good Persephone books - although the book purports to be set in the late 19th century, as the introduction points out, it seems to reflect more the time in which it was written (1950s) with its emphasis on shortages and disquiet surroundinmg excessive consumption of cake. What I did not like so much was the endless stream of dialogue between family members which threatened to take over the narrative. I'm not yet won over by ICB, but since I have three more of her books to sample on my Virago reading list, I may yet be. This has been published just once, with an italic green cover.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Marcella (Humphrey Ward) 155

Marcella is a somewhat chunky VMC, but immensely readable - I was daunted by its size but was immediately gripped in following the life and dilemmas of the young woman in the 1880s. Following early years spent in a boarding school (where she wasn't exactly a model pupil; she used sometimes to be sent to bed by the teachers which was especially punishing as those in bed during the day were considered to be ill, and were not permitted to take their arms out of the bedclothes, allowing them to read!), we meet her as a 21 year old art student, living in London and trying to work out her socialist ideals. But as the book opens, her father inherits the family estate, Mellor Park, located very near to Oxford (I loved the mentions of various south Oxfordshire villages which I know!) and Marcella moves to join her family. At first this fits with her idealist views; she can work with the poor who live around the estate to try to alleviate their poverty. But then she falls in love with the Tory Aldous Raeburn who is set to inherit the nearby estate of Maxwell Court. Marcella becomes torn between wanting to live up to her principles and to marry Aldous and become mistress at Maxwell. The rest of the book describes what happens after that, so as usual, I don't want to go on and spoil the plot!

I found Marcella an extremely likeable young lady and the book gave a good insight into the world of the 1880s for privileged ladies; she seems to have been quite well done by for the period having the opportunity to pursue her own desires rather than being constrained by the period as is often a feature of this date.

It's the only novel by Mrs Humphrey Ward published by Virago; although she wrote a number of novels the rest seem to have long vanished into obscurity. And this novel was published only the once with an original green cover.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

The street (Petry) 200

I love finding VMCs which I have not heard of in a charity shop; it makes me feel like they might be particularly rare, simply because one most often sees Antonia White or Molly Keane or Rosamund Lehman. And when it's a VMC that you don't know anything about - it could be a dud, or one to struggle through, or it might be something really good. The street was a VMC that I hadn't heard of, and it turned out to be absolutely phenomenal.

Set in 1946 in Harlem, it is mainly the story of young Lutie Johnson, a woman who has escaped a broken marriage with her son (she had been working as a domestic in Conneticut, sending home money to her unemployed husband, but left the job when she found out that he had been carrying on with another woman), and finds accommodation in 3 rooms in a house in a neighbourhood in Harlem. But it is also the story of the neighbourhood, or "The street" in Harlem, and the characters who inhabit it. The street itself is extremely bleak; Lutie is nearly raped by her landlord and constantly invited to work in a brothel by another inhabitant of the house. Lutie however tries to hold onto the "American dream" and move beyond all of this; she genuinely believes that she can build a decent life within this sordid environment.

I won't say more about the plot - the ending is sudden, shocking and I found it unexpected. But the book overall was such a pacy read and gave me such a good insight into Harlem in the 1940s that I forgave the book that.

It's been published just once by Virago with an original green cover, although I see from librarything that there are a number of other editions by other publishers, and I hope that if you should happen to stumble upon a copy in a charity shop, you will remember this post and pick it up, or if you don't remember the post, you take a risk on it. Definitely worth it!

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

The wild geese (Boland)

The wild geese in the title of this Virago Modern Classic are not birds as one might imagine, but are the band of young Irish catholic boys, who, forbidden from being Catholic in Ireland in the 18th century are forced to go to Catholic schools abroad. Few return to Ireland since there are little prospects for Irish catholics.

The book tells the story of a family affected in this way, the Kinross family. The story is cleverly told through letters between the various characters. For a Virago Modern Classic, it is an astonishingly *male* book; the author is female but the cast is not. I didn't find it especially absorbing or a book that I would want to recommend; I'm not sure whether this was due to the lack of women (is it just harder to identify with a book that is mainly about members of the opposite sex?)

This is Boland's only VMC, although she wrote two other novels and was more famous as a scriptwriter and writer of plays. It's just been published once, in an original green edition.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

The Aloe (Mansfield) 174

A slim green volume caught my eye in Oxfam the other day; it was The aloe by Katherine Mansfield. I was quite pleased, as it is a book which various Katherine Mansfield fans have been looking forward to me encountering (and it was also a slim volume with normal sized type which can be somewhat of a bonus discovery on this venture). I had enjoyed dipping in and out of the two Persephone Katherine Mansfield's earlier this year, they publish her journals and her stories (although I was frustrated by the fact that many of the stories were unfinished).

This volume is a bit of a Mansfield oddity, until Virago republished it, it had only been published once by John Murray in the 1930s. This was partly because Mansfield had reworked it into her longer story, Prelude, which was published by Virginia Woolf, and which I haven't read, although I am now intrigued to go on and see how it compares.

Based on Mansfield's reflections on and attempts to write down and describe her memories of her childhood, The aloe is set in New Zealand and describes a family who have just moved into a new house, and sketches the family members. It's a book to read for the wonderful prose rather than the plot or characters, although they are beautifully drawn.

It's just been published once by Virago with an original green cover, but I found out whilst researching into the book that Capachin Classics are republishing it in October this year.

And if you're in New Zealand, you can visit the house where she lived!

Monday, 28 June 2010

The birds fall down (West) 235

I've had varied success with Rebecca West, I loved The return of the soldier, didn't get on with either Harriet Hume or The thinking reed, and wasn't hugely fussed, but found ok, her Cousin Rosamund trilogy. I was intrigued by what I read about The birds fall down and was hugely pleased to discover that I quite enjoyed reading this mix of political thriller and family story, and didn't even mind the philosophical elements (which were what I struggled with in Harriet Hume and The thinking reed) although it was very long winded and is really quite difficult to write about.

The book is based around the character of eighteen-year-old Laura. Her father is a British MP, her mother, Tania, is the daughter of an exiled Russian royalist. Laura and Tania set out for France to stay with Tania's parents. Tania's mother is ill, and so Laura is then dispatched with her grandfather to stay on the coast. Whilst they make the journey by train, their carriage is invaded by a Russian who subjects the pair to a long diatribe about Russia and suggests that the Tsar is making schemes to protect himself, getting rid of others in the process. Essentially, this is all somewhat of a precursor to the Russian revolution.

The best things about the book for me was reading about Laura; the worst things were the long bits of dialogue dealing with politics - there is a scene set on the train (which West claims was a depiction of real events) which goes on for over 100 pages!

It's been published three times by Virago, and I had the second, italic green edition, from the library. Apparently the BBC also made it into a TV serial.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Brown girl, Brownstones (Marshall)

Brown girl, brownstones is the coming of age story of Selina, a Carribean-American who lives in New York in the 1950s. Her parents emigrated from Barbados, and the book gives a fantastic insight into the experiences of the Barbadian community in the city. Selina has to deal with integrating her parent's values and attitudes based on their life in Barbados with life in New York, both the insular Barbadian community and the wider American community where racism is a problem. Her parents are very different; Silla is hardworking, and Deighton, her father is somewhat lazy, with with dreams for his daughter. Thus there is much to feed into Selina's discovery of her identity.

The book is apparently somewhat autobiographical; Marshall's own parents emigrated during the First World War and Marshall grew up in Brooklyn. I found it an interesting book because I knew very little about this group of immigrants. I enjoyed reading the novel, although I struggled with the dialect used at times and found some bits of the book overly descriptive.

It's just been published once by Virago with an original green cover.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Trooper to the southern cross (Thirkell) 171

Angela Thirkell is an author familiar to me for her Barsetshire books, wonderful, slightly satirical portrayals of English country life and middle class aspirations and folly. I was thus intrigued to see her on the VMC list, not with any of these titles, but another book - Trooper to the Southern Cross. Set in Australia, and written under the male pseudonym of Leslie Parker, this is really quite a different work. Thirkell spent 2 years living in Australia after her marriage to George Thirkell and drew on her experiences there and in particular of her horrific voyage to the continent in writing this book.

The book is told from the perspective of Major Bowen; he comes across as a bit of a character, a public school army type, complacent and very much of the time in his attitudes. In fact, Thirkell captured his identity so well that she managed to carry the pseudonym off successfully - the critics genuinely thought that it was written by a man. The book starts off by relating Bowen's role in the First World War, and how he got together with his wife Celia. But the main part of it deals with telling how he and Celia set out for Australia after the First World War, alongside other officers and their families, prisoners on board, and over 800 rioting diggers. I am sure that Celia must be a reflection of Thirkell to some extent and wondered whether how Bowen talks about her was how Thirkell felt that she must be viewed by her husband.

This book has just been published once by Virago with an original green cover. If you haven't read Thirkell, I would recommend seeking her out, although perhaps not this one which is so very different from the rest of her work. I would love to see some of her Barsetshire books back in print - one to suggest to Virago perhaps?! I've also discovered as part of writing this post that she wrote an autobiography, entitled Three houses, and will be borrowing that from the library very soon.

New acquisitions

There have been several new Virago Modern Classics additions, but today I want to highlight the kindness of two people who read my blog.

Firstly, Julia remembered that I am desperate for the Elizabeth Taylor short story collections; and kindly sent me a spare copy of Hester Lilly which she came across. I've been struggling to read recently as you'll know if you read my other blog (not that you'll have noticed as I had about a month's worth of reviews stacked up, but I'm sure you will do soon as I'll be down to a post or so a week), and it was good to have some short stories to draw on as it made me feel like I was still making some progress in my VMC challenge.

Secondly, Claire spotted a tranch of VMCs in her local second hand bookshop, sent me a list, and very kindly bought them on my behalf and posted them to me! As you can see 3 of them are whoppers so it was very good of her to go to the hassle of packing them up and posting them.

Thank you Claire and Julia!

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

The camomile (Carswell)

After I wrote about Open the door, JRSM highlighted Carswell's other novel, The camomile: "which was wonderful, about an unconventional Frankfurt-trained music student living in Glasgow in the early '20s. Great stuff.". I liked the sound of it, so got myself a cheap copy from Amazon. And I'm pleased to report that I enjoyed it just as much, if not more as Open the door.

Told through letters to her friend Ruby, and journal entries, also written for Ruby, the book is the semi-autobiographical tale of Ellen Carstairs, a young woman living in Glasgow who is a talented pianist and makes her money by teaching music. But she also has ambitions to write and a happy social life, all of which are described and reflected upon in the book. Ellen is vivid character who is considerably enlightened in her views; for example she feels sad that the wedding of one of her best friends seems more about pragmatism and practicality than driven by love. When she herself becomes engaged she is forced to really think about these issues and whether or not she wants to be bounded by convension.

It's shame Carswell didn't go on to write any more novels - she moved into biographies, writing a life of Robert Burns and then the life of DH Lawrence, who was one of her great friends.

This one has been published just the once by Virago in an original green cover, and I would definitely describe it as one of the hidden VMC gems.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Belinda (Broughton) 154

This wonderful novel, telling the story of Belinda, is set in Dresden in the 1880s (and somehow felt a little reminiscent of Elizabeth von Arnim). Belinda and her sister Sarah are on holiday with their grandmother; Sarah could be described as a bit of a man eater - at one point she declares herself "almost engaged to three men", Belinda is a little more reserved, but falls in love with a young English student David Rivers. Unfortunately, he has to return to England when his father dies, and Belinda resigns herself to having to marry a very staid Professor. It is not a success and Belinda finds very little happiness in her marriage. David Rivers reappears; in a modern novel, Belinda might have little hesitation in abandoning her marriage to go off with him. What is to be done?

There are a couple of excellent, far more extensive synopses on library thing here if you are interested.

A really wonderful novel actually, and certainly one that I would not have come across if it had not been a VMC. Anyone else come across it?

It's the only VMC by Broughton, although I see from library thing that she has written a number of other novels, and has been published just once with an original green cover.

Friday, 18 June 2010

The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rugen (Von Arnim)

I was very excited to get a copy of The adventures of Elizabeth in Rugen from ebay as I am really enjoying reading my way through Von Arnim's books at the moment. Her work falls into two types - the novels, and the more autobiographical material, the latter including Elizabeth's German Garden and The solitary summer. This book falls into that category, as

It's a book for the armchair traveller - Elizabeth makes a trip to Rugen, Germany's largest island, a popular holiday destination, and sets out to write a travel guide to it.

This doesn't quite happen:

"My itention when I began this book was to write a useful Guide to Rugen, one that should point out its best parts and least uncomfortable inns to any English or American traveller whose energy lands him on its shores. With every page I write it grows more plain that I shall not fulfil that intention. What, for instance have Charlotte and the bishop's wife of illuminating for the tourist who wants to be shown the way? As I cannot conscientiously praise the inns [Elizabeth's experiences of the inns are of constant discomfort] I will not give their names and what is the use of that to a tourist who wishes to know where to sleep and dine? I meant to describe the Jagdschloss, and find I only repeated a ghost story"...

Rather it turns into a description of her adventures with her usual characteristic wit and self-depracating humour. Although there are smatterings of advice along the way:

"A ripe experience of German pillows in country places leads me to urge the intending traveller to be sure to take his own. The native pillows are mere bags, in which feathers may have been once. There is no substance in them at all. They are of a horrid flabbiness"

Whilst I didn't enjoy this as much as her other two "autobiographical" books, it was entertaining and I think it would make a good holiday read.

It's been published three times by Virago, although the original green and italicised green editions use the same cover image. I own the original green, but rather like the new edition.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

The matriarch (Stern) 249

The Matriarch is the first of 5 books dealing with the Rakoniwitz's, a Jewish family in the 1800s. (the second, A deputy was king, (but not the rest) was also published as a Virago Modern Classic). It's essentially a family saga, detailing the lives of many generations of the family. A review I read suggested that the writing and story improved as the book progressed. Unfortunately I didn't make it that far. I am not looking forward to having to have a go at the second one, but maybe it will be better.*

This book has been published just the once with an original green cover.

* I have a new policy with my VMC reading, that I will allow myself "do not finishes" but I do at least have to try the rest of that author's works. I was feeling put off many of the books in my TBR pile because they were big and unappealing. I think it's still within the spirit of the project, but I will tag posts DNF if I did not finish them so we can see at the end how many I didn't complete and which ones they were!

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Fraulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther (Arnim)

Fraulein Schmidt and Mr Anstruther is an absolute delight of a novel. Told in a series of letters from Rose-Marie Schmidt to Mr Anstruther it follows both Rose-Marie's life and their relationship. The dashing young Englishman, Mr Anstruther had come into Rose-Marie's life just before the correspondence started; he had lodged with her and her father for a year, and the pair had fallen in love. Before he returned to England, the pair had become engaged, although it had not been formally announced. But the relationship does not progress smoothly, and Mr Anstruther is forced to break off the engagement after his father is keen for him to marry another, more eligible spinster (one of the sub-plots of the letters is the Schmidt's impoverishment and their attempts to make do on a very small income, which includes adventures into vegetarianism (unsuccessful, leaving Rose-Marie and her father extremely hungry!) and other attempts to economise, all related in a very amusing fashion). But the story does not end there. That engagement also ends, and we find that Mr Anstruther and Rose-Marie still have feelings for each other. But will it work out? The end is surprisingly ambiguous. The storyline is well paced, and the wit and humour of the letters are just wonderful.

This title has been published just once, in the original green edition.

Sadly, I've only got one more VMC Elizabeth Von Arnim to read, her autobiography, All the dogs of my life. But the good news is that she has written a number of other books which Virago haven't yet published. I recently read Princess Priscilla's Fortnight which was absolutely hilarious and I'm looking forward to discovering more of her books. Hurrah for Virago introducing me to a truly wonderful author - I think she really is one of the discoveries of this reading project.