Monday 28 February 2011

My Life in Books

I was intending to finish another Persephone book today, but that was wildly ambitious, since I have over 200pp left to read of it still... so another Persephone review will be turning up at some point, and for now I'll just thank Claire and Verity for their stirling work. (Thanks, ladies!) Persephone Reading Week[end] seems to get bigger every year, even if the number of days have shrunk - and I'm sure lots of us have added potential reads to our real or imaginary tbrs. I realised I still ahve 26 unread Persephones on my shelf, so I shan't be buying any more for a while (though have my fingers crossed for winning one of the competitions I entered.)

So, instead of a review, I'll mention My Life in Books. Has anyone been watching this? Anne Robinson almost succeeds in putting away her steely glare, and asks authors and other famous people to talk about the books they have loved throughout their lives, and a bit of biographical info thrown in. I think it's a great idea, and has led to some interesting programmes. There's one on every night for two weeks, and we're in the middle of 'em now - all so far available to watch here, if you like in the UK (and maybe if you don't - I'm never sure about these things.)

So far, I think I most enjoyed the programme with Sue Perkins and Giles Coren - both pretty funny people, with interesting choices. Perkins' mention of The Queen of Whale Cay by Kate Summerscale, about a rich, eccentric playgirl Joe Carstairs, was especially intriguing. Also one of the few surprising choices - my only criticism is that most of the guests seem to have loved a diet only of classics. Truly fanatical readers have to find their own niches in the libraries of the world, surely, rather than simply love received wisdom. But perhaps the BBC persuaded them to pick books they had video clips of?

Some great pairings so far - I wouldn't have expected PD James and 'disgraced ex-Blue Peter presenter' Richard Bacon to have much in common, but they actually had a lovely conversation. I can't wait for Debo Devonshire's episode, coming up this week. Jeanette Winterson and smarmy-spin-doctor Alastair Campbell could be interesting... What is wonderful, though, is how enthusiastic the guests are about books - they really do love reading. They discuss re-reading, or the merits/demerits of adaptations, to the manner born; they chat about Austen, Dickens, Melville, Dostoevsky with affection and knowledge. I can't believe a programme this bookish and, yes, intelligent is being shown on a terrestrial TV channel - this NEVER happens. Much as I genuinely enjoy the TV Book Club and their presenters (more on't next week), the content - outside of the author interview and the actual book discussion amongst the delightfully literature-lovin' presenters - often dumbs down a little. I saw an episode the other day in which the first thing the guest said was "I've never been much of a reader." Indeed.

So, head over and have a watch, if you can. You (like me) will doubtless come away wishing that you and other bloggers could be taking the place of the guests... well, if so, watch this space...

Saturday 26 February 2011

From Tiny Acorns

I've been looking forward to Persephone Reading Weekend for ages, so apologies that I'm joining in quite late in the day - yesterday I was so tired that I went to bed at 8.30pm. The fact that I was still awake at 2am was not fun... nor did I read much of this book during those hours (my eyes always give up before the rest of my mind/body does) but it was a quiet day today, so read the rest of it - 'it' being Saplings by Noel Streatfeild. (And aren't the endpapers beautiful?)

I bought Saplings (1947) in 2004, I think, and somehow it has languished on my shelves since then. It even came on holiday with me once, but didn't get as far as being read - no real reason for this neglect. Perhaps because I haven't read any of Streatfeild's books for children? Perhaps simply because it came in over my 300pp bench-mark for ideal reads. But it finally came down from my bookcase, and I can report back.

I've got to confess - the first few pages didn't win me over. It would be nice to be completely positive during an Appreciation Weekend, but I'm afraid I'm going to pick a few holes in Streatfeild's work - although overall I was very impressed. Let's get that out there now, so that this doesn't feel too complainy a review. But those first few pages - we're on a beach with the Wiltshire family. Laurel, Tony, Kim, and Tuesday (yes, Tuesday - has this ever been a name?) are messing about, playing, and doing things like this:
Kim was singing to a tune of his own, 'The sea, the sea, the lovely sea.' His happiness was given a sharp edge by fright. The day was going to be very scrumptious. Dad and Mum were here, and there was going to be a picnic and prawning; but first there'd be the bathe and Dad would make him swim to the raft.
Oh. This felt very much like Streatfeild hadn't taken off her children's-writer hat, and was merely giving adult novel writing a go. My heart sank a little.

When the focus switches around to their parents Alex and Lena, however, things started to improve. Alex is a hands-on father, always conscious of what his children might be feeling, and doing his best to help them grow up properly and well-disciplined without being thwarted or unhappy. He is one of the best fathers I've come across in literature - rather better than E.H. Young's William, I'd say - and still fairly convincing. His major fault, in my eyes, is sending the children to boarding school. Lena, on the other hand, is not of a maternal disposition, and misses being her husband's sole object of affection. Through the eyes of the holiday governess Ruth, this is how Lena comes across:
On other counts Lena was not so good. She never even pretended the children came first. But did that matter? Was that not out-balanced by the perfect love always before the children's eyes? Ruth, helping herself to peas, knew one of her more noticeably amused flicks was crossing her eyes. Was it perfect love the children saw? Certainly Lena loved Alex, but perfect love in her philosophy was an ill-balanced affair, almost all body, the merest whiff of soul.
It is in her allusions to Lena's various, ahem, appetites that Streatfeild most prominently demonstrates that this is not a children's book. (P.134 made me gasp a little...) But alongside this we do get the bread and butter of children's lives - the four children are well-drawn, and certainly have formed and individual characters. Kim the show-off, who craves attention but can't control the way in which he seeks it; Laurel the dependable eldest sibling, but fraught on her own; Tuesday who wishes only to have her family around her; Tony who asks such pertinent questions, and worries too much. All painted convincingly with Streatfeild's brush - but still it feels a little like one is reading a children's book with longer words... There's even a Nanny of the indomitable variety.

But things are about to change. I shan't spoil the big event which changes the course of the novel, but suffice to say that a tragedy occurs to alter the lives of all concerned. And it's from here that Streatfeild comes into her own - we follow the children to their various schools as they cope with this tragedy in their various ways. They come home for holidays, and we see the reunions then. In the background is always the war - rarely creeping nearer than the background, but certainly getting no further away.

Somewhere towards the last third of the novel Laurel, Tony, Kim, and Tuesday are split up for the holiday and must each spend time with a different Aunt. There were definite overtones of Richmal Crompton's Matty and the Dearingroydes here - snapshots of various intriguing or eccentric family units. It should have been a different novel, really - they just came flitting past, and were gone before you could grasp hold of them. I'd happily read many more chapters, for instance, about the vicarage family where loving vicar's wife Sylvia lovingly makes up holy reasons to excuse her children doing things their father might find worrying. Since Streatfeild is, like me, a vicarage child, it would be fascinating. Structure isn't Streatfeild's strong suit - Saplings seems to explode somewhat, proliferating with characters and going off at tangents, right until the final pages.

Structure may not be her trump card, but there is still a lot to love in the novel. Chief amongst these is the way in which she demonstrates the damage done to families and children by war. A lot of this damage would have been done by separating them from each other and their parents in their schooling, but war still has its undeniable effects. There is a rather silly Afterword from Dr. Jeremy Holmes, a Psychiatrist who reads Saplings through the lens of child psychology. In doing so, he completely ignores the fun that Streatfeild pokes at this field - it is no coincidence that the Aunt who makes generalisations about child psychology is the only one who has no children of her own. Despite this misreading, it is true that Streatfeild is insightful into the child's mindset - although she would never, I am sure, have labelled this insight psychology.

Perhaps it is unfortunate for Saplings' sake that I have read so many good books this year. One can't help think how much better E.H. Young creates family dynamics; how much more insightfully Barbara Comyns gives the voice and mind of children; how much more poignant Marilynne Robinson can be. Comparisons, as Mrs. Malaprop intended to say, are odious - and on its own merits, Saplings is a fantastic read. It's engaging, occasionally moving, and certainly enjoyable. Maybe seven years on my shelf had built up its potential too greatly for me? I shall learn not to lament the novel Saplings was not, and heartily enjoy the novel that it is.

Thursday 24 February 2011

More William

Do keep popping over to Darlene's review and the discussion of William - it's here, and kicked off a bit early to compensate for all our differing timezones.

And over here, it's time for a giveaway: I picked up a copy of William while in Edinburgh, and thought I'd pop it in the post to someone who hadn't had luck in tracking it down. If you've been intrigued by the various reviews popping up, then just put your name in the comments (open worldwide). Actually, that's too easy - I want to know your favourite book with a person's name for its title! Let me know that, and a random entrant will be picked sometime next week.

Mine - don't know if you've heard it mentioned - is Miss Hargreaves...

Wednesday 23 February 2011



34. William - E.H. Young

I hope some of you have been able to get hold of
William (1925) by E.H. Young (sorry for doing readalongs of out-of-print books... there is one coming up for an in-print book, which will be revealed soon!) - today I'm posting my review, and tomorrow you can - nay, must! - head over to Darlene's blog for a discussion of William. I'm not great at understanding time differences etc., so I'm not sure when people will be awake or asleep across the globe, but pop in when you can - it will be a rolling discussion, as it were. For my part, I'll be collecting links to reviews underneath this review - there are some already there, from past blog reviews, and I'm delighted to add Karyn's as the first for this readalong. Pop back here tomorrow for your chance to win a copy.

I've got to start by saying that William is an exceptionally good, rich novel. You'll see that it's entered my 50 Books You Must Read list. I'd enjoyed Miss Mole a lot, but that was mostly for the exuberant and delightful central character. In William Young has exchanged a blazing light for a gentler, more even flame (albeit that William came first). Her cast of characters in William's family are drawn beautifully and fully: William is the ex-sailor patriarch of a large family of children and grandchildren, and happy, loyal husband to Kate. Despite being a sensible business, he often speaks fancifully and at tangents, with a 'trick of saying disturbing things in a cheerful manner', to which Kate responds with good-natured logic. They're a lovely married couple (although my opinions of William as a character - which differ from a few I've seen posted on blogs - will be explored below.)
"You never know. Things pop up unexpectedly. Life's a long road. It looks safe enough: you jog along, with nice trim hedges at each side and fields all buttercups and daisies, and suddenly you come to a dark place where there's a man with a gun." "You talk a great deal of nonsense, William."

In Kate and William, Young has created a realistically happy couple who are still interesting to the reader, because they are not wholly of one accord, and do not completely understand one another.
"Why are you looking at me like that?" she asked.

"I was thinking how pretty you are. None of the girls can hold a candle to you."

"Oh, William, absurd," she said, pleased but restive under his puzzling regard.

'The girls' are the majority of their offspring. There is reliable Dora, whose life may not be as picture-perfect as her mother believes; grumbling Mabel who is forever making unnecessary savings and complaining about her illusory poverty; Lydia who is married to a man who cannot hold her attentions, and quiet, contemplative Janet, still living at home. Besides these is a solitary brother - Walter - heir to William's business.

I'm quoting a lot from this novel, but it's worth seeing what William thinks of his children.
He saw their children and their children's children as so many by-roads on their own highway of life and from all those roads there lurked the possibility of assault. He saw Mabel as a dusty path, Walter as a plain country road with neat, low hedges and fields beyond, Dora as a lane rich with flowers on the banks and overshadowed by splendid trees, and Lydia came to him like a winding footway across a stormy moor, Janet like a stiled path across a meadow, and all those roads were capable of producing tramps, highwaymen, snakes and pitfalls. He shook his head in dismay. "One's own fault for having children," he said.
It is impossible to tidy up William's family with these brief character sketches, for they are far more fully realised than that. Harriet, in her review (link at the bottom) mentions that William could be compared to Pride and Prejudice, and I definitely agree. These are two authors par excellence when it comes to observing family dynamics, and the myriad relations between parents and children in a large family.

You are led into believing that Young has simply written an observant, often funny, always intriguing, family drama. And then, about ninety pages in...
This was at the end of June and it was in September that Mrs. Nesbitt learnt to look back at her past happiness and see that it had been almost perfect. The little frets and worries which had oppressed her had been no more than summer waves, breaking with hardly a sound on a sandy shore; and suddenly a storm had risen, not with splendour, not with a call to fight the elements and emerge gloriously victorious, salt on the face and mighty wind in the soul, but one that rose with a dull, threatening rumble and a lowering of clouds which hung and would not break. They hung, ponderous, black, immovable, edge with angry colours, and the world was darkened.
Isn't that simply beautiful writing? This is the sort of prose which fills every page of Young's novel, and makes it so rewarding to read slowly and carefully. The passages I've picked are probably more imagery-based than the majority of the novel, but at all times Young's choice of words is obviously pain-staking.

But I shan't leave you wondering what the twist is (unless you don't want to know - in which case, stop reading now!) Most of the reviews I'll link to mention it, and it would be difficult to write properly about William without doing so. After all, the event is not as important as the ways in which people react. Ok, I'll stop teasing - it is no coincidence that Lydia shares a name with one particular Bennett sister, as like Lizzie's troublesome younger sister, Lydia Nesbitt runs off with another man. The difference being she has no intention of getting divorced; she is committing adultery.

As with all the greatest novels, what happens is less significant than the way in which it happens, and the way in which it is described. Young is primarily concerned with the fall-out of Lydia's actions, as they ripple through the family and in-laws. The responses are all very nuanced, and make for some wonderful dialogue. In fact, the dialogue throughout William reminded me of the wonderful Ivy Compton-Burnett. ICB has few admirers throughout the blogosphere, it must be said, and William is rather more likely to find favour - but in Young's precise and patterned use of dialogue, I couldn't avoid thinking of ICB's brilliant novels (which are almost entirely dialogue.) Both authors use conversations to reveal huge amounts about the characters, in what is said and unsaid, and make for captivating reading.

Back to William. William himself is sympathetic with Lydia, and refuses to hear a bad word against her. Kate is aghast. Each character responds differently... but... I couldn't work out quite what was ringing untrue, for a while, and then I realised it. Despite appearing to offer a spectrum of opinion in a sensitive manner, Young actually paints all those who think Lydia's adultery wrong as near-hysterical and unsympathetic. Even wise Kate is shown to be the victim of societal pressures rather than her own moral conclusions - and her upset at her daughter's actions is evinced through wild absenteeing and impassioned statements. How much richer this rich novel could have been if there had been at least one character who could see sympathetically, and yet conclude that Lydia's actions were wrong. I don't mind a novel being didactic, but it rankles a bit when one is didactic under the guise of open-mindedness.

And so we come to William himself. Many reviews I've read see him as a wonderful character and inspiring father. I'm afraid I disagreed. He is a spectacular character, and further evidence that Young can create strikingly original people - but I do not see him as unflawed at all. William considers himself so wise and so subtle in his responses to events - but he is as guilty as any of considering his subjective views to be objectively the only reasonable ones. He is also incredibly manipulative of his children, always seeming (to me) far more concerned with being able to second-guess their thoughts than with their happiness. Kate is spot on in analysing her husband here: "Yes, you are very sympathetic," she said slowly, "when I do as you please."

But - the mark of a great novel is that the characters are this complex and this open to debate. And that is the conclusion I hope is obvious throughout this winding review: William is a great novel. It is subtle, human, beautifully and intelligently written, and compelling. If, like William himself, it is not without its flaws, that is a small quibble in the face of its many qualities. For it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single reader, in possession of a good taste, must be in want of a book.

I hope you can join in this readalong - let me know if you've reviewed it, and I'll add your link to this list. And do remember to join in the discussion over at Darlene's!

Other (great!) reviews:

Roses Over A Cottage Door (Darlene) - also discussion in the comments

Harriet Devine's Blog
I Prefer Reading (Lyn)
A Penguin A Week (Karyn)
Life Must Be Filled Up
Verity's Virago Venture

Tuesday 22 February 2011

What's Milne is...

Back in the dim and distant past, I offered up a couple of A.A. Milne titles - well, I've finally done the draw! Congratulations to... Gypsy Rose Creations and Meg!

Gypsy Rose Creations will be getting AAM's wonderful autobiography, all the way off to Australia. And I'll be handing Not That It Matters over to Meg personally, as she lives in Oxford.

Thanks for all the entrants - I hope some of the not-so-lucky folks will also be inspired to track down something by AAM now. I'll keep an eye out for anything else to give away...

Monday 21 February 2011

Is there no balm in...


Has there ever been a more convincing review than Rachel's post on Gilead by Marilynne Robinson? Seriously, schoolchildren should analyse it as a piece of persuasive writing. Even so, my reading demands and tbr piles meant it took a month or two before the copy I already owned (bought at a church fair in Middle Chinnock, Somerset) worked its way to the top of my pile. And thank goodness it did. Gilead has probably got the most perfectly rendered 'voice' of any novel I've ever read. Actually, before I go any further, I'm simply going to give you the opening paragraph:
I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you said, I don't think you're old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren't very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you've had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life. And you said, Mama already told me that. And then you said, Don't laugh! because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face beside your mother's. It's a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I'm always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsinged after I've suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.

And so it begins. Gilead is in the form of one long letter, written in Iowa in 1956, from Reverend John Ames to his young son, for his son to read when he is an adult and Ames is dead. For Ames is a very old father, and one with a weak, dying heart. This letter is his attempt to put down all he would ever want to tell his son - stories; history; wisdom; love.

In the hands of a lesser writer, that would be a ruthlessly maudlin concept, but from that first paragraph onwards the reader is swept along by the gentle, lilting, genuine voice of Ames. His story starts with the histories of his father and grandfather - both, like him, clergymen, but with clashing ideals and tempestuous disagreements. He tells of his youthful memories of travelling with his father, to find the place his grandfather died. He tells of the pain his brother caused to the family, and of forgiveness. Throughout the letter he skips about with chronology - as we all do when thinking - and often returns to the events of present day. His son's voice is rarely heard, but his actions are mentioned - with the deep affection of a father who waited long to become one:
I'd never have believed I'd see a wife of mine doting on a child of mine. It still amazes me every time I think of it. I'm writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you've done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God's grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.
For a long time, Gilead doesn't seem to have much plot. It is a mark of a great author that they can captivate you solely with characters and words, rather than events - Robinson certainly does that. But when the reader has settled into assuming that little will unsettle the memories and emotions of an old man, he turns to his oldest friend Robert Broughton - and, more particularly, John (Jack) Ames Broughton. Ames' namesake is Broughton's prodigal son, who returns to Gilead after bringing disgrace on the family. The nature of his wrongdoing is held a mystery from the reader, as Ames debates whether or not it is right to disclose it to his son - and so Robinson artfully adds yet another reason to read on.

But that is not the main reason. What makes Gilead so compelling is Ames himself. His voice is gentle, wise, kind, and sad. He is desperate at the idea of losing the opportunity to watch his son grow up, but he is equally amazed that God has granted him a son at all. Wonder fills him so often. Ames writes lovingly of his wife, and deprecatingly of his own failings. He is unfailingly honest and thoughtful - an utterly, utterly good man, and an incredibly lovable one. If Robinson were not a 60 year old woman (when this was written), I'd have assumed it was autobiographical - so convincing and enveloping is the voice of the narration.

is also an inspiring book to read as a Christian. I am surprised that it has been so successful, since it is such a deeply faith-filled book. I wasn't sure whether it would appeal to a non-Christian - for, to me, so much of the novel's richness lies in its incredible depiction of the beauty and depth of a life lived for God - but it seems I was wrong. A reader I met who was affirmedly atheist said she loved Gilead nonetheless. Robinson certainly doesn't preach, except by example, and I suspect the honesty and accuracy of Ames' letter would appeal to anybody - although perhaps some of the Biblical allusions would be lost. I especially liked his reference to himself as 'one of the righteous for whom the rejoicing in heaven will be comparatively restrained' - a reference to Luke 15:7: 'I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.' If you're not a Christian, please, please don't let that put you off reading this beautiful novel - any lover of great writing will still love Gilead, I am sure.

I shan't spoil the end of the novel, except to say that there is no real twist or change; just something simple, beautiful, and sad. I cried a tiny little bit, in the library, as I turned the final page. Gilead is truly one of the best pieces of writing I've ever encountered. Perhaps I shan't remember all the details of the story, or the characters, but I doubt I'll ever forget Ames, or the feeling of being submerged in his life and his words. It's certainly a novel to which I will return - and it seems only fitting to leave you with his voice rather than my own, with another excerpt which touched me.
When you are an old man like I am, you might think of writing some sort of account of yourself, as I am doing. In my experience of it, age has a tendency to make one's sense of oneself harder to maintain, less robust in some ways.

Why do I love the thought of you old? That first twinge of arthritis in your knee is a thing I imagine with all the tenderness I felt when you showed me your loose tooth. Be diligent in your prayers, old man. I hope you will have seen more of the world than I ever got around to seeing - only myself to blame. And I hope you will have read some of my books. And God bless your eyes, and your hearing also, and of course your heart. I wish I could help you carry the weight of many years. But the Lord will have that fatherly satisfaction.

Sunday 20 February 2011

Song for a Sunday

We've missed a few weekends, and of course next weekend will be filled with Persephone excitement, so it seemed time for another Sunday Song. This isn't a particularly un-well-known band, but perhaps you won't have come across this lovely little song: 'Communication' by The Cardigans.

For all previous Sunday Songs, click here.

Saturday 19 February 2011

Stuck in a Book's Weekend Miscellany

Happy weekend one and all! Hope you have a fun couple of days, and what better way to kick off the party than with some links and suchlike...

1.) The blog post - is courtesy of everyone's favourite literary foxes, those good folks at Vulpes Libris. They've done a great interview with Theresa Breslin, one of the brains behind the Save Our Libraries protest in Edinburgh. Click here to read it - and feel a little inspired for the cause. If you do feel inspired, here's the protest statement you can sign.

2.) The link - is to Short Fire Press. They publish short stories for e-readers at 99p a pop - having looked at
Penguin's Mini Modern Classics yesterday, this seems an appropriate time to bring to light another publisher behind the short story cause. Their catalogue is very much hand-picked, with exciting debut authors as well as better known ones. Something to investigate for those of you with electronic devices.

3.) The book - is The Novel in the Viola by Natasha Solomons. This is something of an advance warning, since it isn't published til April - but I'm excited about it. I don't think I've yet mentioned the Sceptre Books lunch event which I attended last Thursday - a few bloggers, authors, and publishing folk hob-nobbed, and it was a pleasure to meet lots of lovely people. Especially great to meet were Jenn Ashworth and Natasha Solomons, two authors for whom I have great admiration. I have even more admiration for Natasha now that I know she wrote her delightful first novel Mr. Rosenblum's List (review here) whilst studying for a PhD (how?!) and am looking forward to reading The Novel in the Viola. This is what the publisher has to say:
When they started coming for people like us, I was forced to swap my life of champagne and glittering parties in bohemian Vienna for the cap and apron of a parlour maid in a country house on the Dorset coast.

I knew nothing about England, except that I wouldn't like it. But then, clutching a copy of Mrs Beeton`s Household management that I could barely read, I saw Tyneford for the first time. That great house on the bay, where servants polished the silver and served drinks on the lawn, where Kit caused an outrage by dancing with me, where Mr Rivers read the letter on the beach that changed everything.

And now the house and that world is gone. All that remains is my story of the sea, of love lost and found, and of a novel hidden inside a viola.

Friday 18 February 2011


Just thought I'd mention that I've set up a Facebook page for Stuck in a Book - here. Not sure exactly what I'll use it for at the mo, but perhaps something will come to me...

I've also moved things around a bit on the sidebars, mostly because I wanted my links to other blogs to be higher up. Hope you can find the things you need! Also, I've added 'Followers' down on the right-hand side - didn't realise I had so many; thanks guys!


The good people at Penguin seem to specialise in making boxsets with the express purpose of making them impossible for me to resist. Books with near-identical designs, in a box, cry out to me and find a home waiting for them on my shelves - even if I rarely get around to reading all or many of them.

Well, they've done it again. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Penguin Modern Classics, they've created the Penguin Mini Modern Classics. As you'll know, I love me some short books - and this selection of reasonably priced short books just hits the spot. Penguin asked 25 different bloggers to write about two of the 50 books - thus covering all fifty, and I was lucky enough to be one of those bloggers. So you'll hopefully see reviews of them pop up everywhere across the blogosphere this week...

First things first - click here and then here for the rather spectacular Penguin websites for the Mini Modern Classics - you'll come away hankering for the lot, I'll wager. I've shamelessly stolen this picture from them.

You'll be wanting to know what I got sent, won't you? Wait no longer....

The Machine Stops & The Celestial Omnibus - E.M. Forster

I must get around to reviewing Howards End soon, but suffice it to say that I thought it was brilliant. Another case of Third Time Lucky (so encouraging for keeping trying with authors) and I was keen to read more. Well, none of the three novels I've read of Forster's could have prepared me for these two stories. I think (and this is an incentive to have a gander through the Mini Modern Classics) a lot of authors are more experimental or playful when they turn their hand to short stories. Perhaps they feel they have less to lose?

Anyway, Forster is certainly playful in these stories, originally published in 1928 and 1911 respectively. Perhaps playful isn't the right word, as there are menacing tones to his fantasies. 'The Machine Stops' envisages a world where people live in isolated rooms, performing all communication and receiving all their needs through an international machine:
There were buttons and switches everywhere - buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing. There were the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. And there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.

It is a truism when writing of past dystopic (or is this utopic?) literature to suggest that the prophecies have come true. Obviously these have not, to the extent Forster writes - nor do I think much can be profited by worrying too much about it. Instead, I think Forster's imaginative vision should be appreciated for what it is, and read as a fascinating tale - and a forerunner of Orwellian literature. For this world is crumbling; dissenters are punished - there is much to ponder on in this short, vivid tale.

'The Celestial Omnibus' is more lighthearted, but equally enjoyable - I shan't write much, as the joy in this story comes from seeing how Forster treats the idea of a bus that travels to Heaven. And I'm in danger of the ironic failing of writing too much about short stories... I'll just conclude by saying that this pairing was a brilliant idea from Penguin, and has opened my eyes to facets of Forster which I'd never have expected.

The Magic Paint and other stories - Primo Levi

I'm afraid I've only read the first two stories from this collection of eight - each of which is only around 5-10 pages. I will certainly finish it, possibly later tonight, but I wanted to write this post out before I went to bed. The title story concerns a paint which has miraculous properties (I love how Penguin have somehow correctly guessed my love of fantastic stories!) This is told with a wonderful matter-of-factness, and even within a few pages manages to incorporate a twist and a denouement. Impressive, Mr. Levi. I think I'm going to value this mini collection...

All in all, Penguin seem to have got off to a good start! I'm looking forward to seeing what other Mini Reviews appear, and (let's face it) to getting some of the stories. The only others I've read are Katherine Mansfield's astonishingly good 'Bliss', and Virginia Woolf's beautiful 'The Lady in the Looking-Glass' - all so very promising as a great collection of international short stories. Thanks, Penguin!

EDIT: David is creating a list of Mini Modern Classic reviews as they appear, which is very kind of him - click here to see it (scroll to the bottom - once you've been enticed by Saki, that is!)

Wednesday 16 February 2011

Edinburgh Books

Those of you who thought I'd buy myself more than 20 books in Edinburgh - well, sorry, but you lose. I did buy myself 19... and I did buy four for other people. That includes two copies of William by EH Young - one of which I gave to Karen (aka Cornflower - lovely to see her again!) and the other will be up for grabs when my review is posted. Enough about that... I'm sure you want to see the haul that (somehow) accompanied me home in the train.

Bernard Shaw and Mrs. Patrick Campbell - Their Correspondence
This was perfect for my recent piqued interest in theatrical history and so forth - Mrs. Patrick Campbell seems such a fascinating character, and I can't wait to dip into this one. In another shop I held a book signed by Mrs. PC - but it was £75. (Which reminds me; today at work I held a book signed by Vita Sackville-West!)

The Grasshoppers Come - David Garnett
You probably know that I love Lady Into Fox; this one was on my 'should probably read' list, although I don't remember why I chose this title in particular for that list...

Moor Fires - E.H. Young
I hadn't heard of this one, and have since found it is incredibly scarce (if you don't want a nasty POD copy) - so my £2 purchase was a bit of a find! Critics do say her early novels aren't as good as her later ones, though...

The Loved and Envied - Enid Bagnold
I do believe that Carol's review of this was awarded Best Review of Virago Reading Week by Rachel - it certainly led to me picking up a copy when I spotted it.

Thunder on the Left - Christopher Morley
After loving Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop, I'm keen to try more Morley - and this one has an encouraging introduction from Hugh Walpole.

Designs for a Happy Home - Matthew Reynolds
I read about this on Karen's blog ages ago, so it was appropriate that I finally snared myself a copy whilst on my way to visit her.

A Model Childhood - Christa Wolf
The first of several VMCs, I have a feeling I left this in the bookshop when I was last in Edinburgh, 16 months ago. This time I was tempted enough to pick up an account of a childhood under Nazi Germany.

A View of the Harbour - Elizabeth Taylor
LibraryThing tells me I already have this... but I certainly don't have this beautiful edition. I've already promised to send my duplicate up to the friend with whom I was staying... once I find it. Also, when I bought it (in a charity bookshop) the sales assistant was a very friendly, knowledgeable man who'd read all Taylor's novels and said this was his favourite!

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths - Barbara Comyns
Ok, I knew I already owned this, but not with this cover - I love Stanley Spencer's paintings so much (and they're so Comyns-appropriate) that I couldn't leave this on the shelf.

Fraulein Schmidt and Mr. Anstruther - Elizabeth von Arnim
One day I will read another E von A, after loving The Enchanted April... here is more fodder, when that moment comes.

The Caravaners - Elizabeth von Arnim
And here's a bit more...

Three Came Unarmed - E. Arnot Robertson
Do you ever find, even when you've not read a word an author's written, that you're so sure you'll enjoy them that you fill your shelves with their novels? This is the fourth or fifth EAR novel to be waiting in the wings... (Picture is of McNaughtan's Bookshop, from which this and several other books came.)

William: the Pirate - Richmal Crompton
One of my ambitions this year was to accumulate as many old William books as I could, if they were a reasonable price. One down, so far!

Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary - Ruby Ferguson
Yes, I have the Persephone edition of this pleasing tale, but I couldn't resist this beautiful, interesting old edition. And the money from it went to charity... so, basically, I did good.

Maurice - E.M. Forster
Having loved Howards End (oops, still haven't written about it) I thought I'd see which EMFs I loved and which I didn't by adding more to my arsenal.

Apricots at Midnight - Adele Geras
I know little about this, but Clare (the friend whose flat I was staying in) bought it for me as she loves it and wanted me to have a copy - thanks Clare!

How Can You Bear to be Human? - Nicholas Bentley
Need I even say that I bought this entirely for the title?

Joy and Josephine - Monica Dickens
I have plenty Monica Dickens waiting to be read, but someone told me the other day that this novel is about twins - and you know how I can't resist those.

Violet to Vita - the Letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West
More Bloomsbury stuff to read one day...

I was going to list the books I bought a week or two ago in London, but that'll have to wait for another day, as there's more than enough to be going on with for now!

You know the drill - read any? Want any? Thoughts, please!

Monday 14 February 2011

Back from Edinburgh...

...and going to bed. I saw lots of lovely people, bought lots of lovely books, and even read the two I set out to read. More on all of that anon.

I just wanted to say, re: William by E.H. Young - feel free to put up reviews any time you like, and I'll do a round-up post next week. I'll be putting mine up then too - but ALSO head on over to Darlene's blog on 24th February to discuss William there, whether you've read it as part of our little readalong or have read it at any time in the past. It's an either/or/and/both situation - if you just want to join in the discussion, that's great - or post your review and let us know - or both! (More on the discussion at Darlene's here.)

I'm not going to reveal too much yet, but will just say... it's gonna be a very positive review when it comes!

Saturday 12 February 2011

Quickly, from Edinburgh...

Sneaking onto my friend's laptop to say THANKS for all your feedback re:dots! Lots of thoughts in both directions, but the majority of you either like the dots or don't mind either way, so I'm gonna keep them - I like the idea of having a fixed identity as a blog, and naturally steer away from change in every facet of my life... (!) so I'll keep 'em there. Sorry for those of you who wanted to eighty-six them (never heard of this expression before, Thomas, and I might get addicted to using it - once someone explains it to me) - hope you'll still visit!

And now to the more important question - keep those guesses coming for the number of books I'll buy in Edinburgh! Clare and I had a good five hour spree today, and my advice is... double the number you're thinking of. In my defence, two of them were for other people... (one of those other people being - maybe - you! Keep a look-out later this week....)

To Dot or Not To Dot

This post will pop up as I am sauntering around Edinburgh, having all manner of larks, I suspect... how many books do you think I've bought by now?

Anyway, I was just musing on the layout of my blog.... I'm not one of those who likes to change things often (as you'll probably have noticed) but I was thinking about making a small change - I was pondering over getting rid of the background dots! Instead, it would be plain white... but I'm not sure. Being as friendly and nice as you can be, let's put this to a vote! (Which, of course, I might not follow... being a contrary fellow.)

Do you like the dots, or should they go??

Friday 11 February 2011

Off to Scotland...

I'm off to Scotland for a long weekend, with William by E.H. Young and Gay Life by E.M. Delafield in tow - hope you've been able to track down one or other of them if you're planning to join in a readalong. Not entirely sure about the schedule for them, but keep an eye out on Darlene's blog for more info about reading William. I have a feeling it might just be Danielle and I who have managed to track down Gay Life...

I anticipate coming back with armfuls of books - see you next week! (Except for a little post which will appear tomorrow...)

Thursday 10 February 2011

Book Aid International / World Book Day

If you live in the UK, I hope it won't have escaped your attention that World Book Day is coming up on March 3rd - and for once the BBC seems, for one, to be taking notice. There are all sorts of bookish programmes coming up - Sebastian Faulks presenting on various aspects of the novel through history; Anne Robinson interviewing people about My Life in Books (I saw one being recorded - it should be a great series) etc. - details about their programmes here.

Even better, though - Book Aid International have got a whole variety of things going on, and they got in touch with me this week. They're suggesting that people engage with Meet, Talk, Give which does what it says on the tin. Why not organise a get-together of like-minded readers, hold a book group, and donate something to Book Aid International. Did you know that £2 will send a new book to a school library, public library, refugee camp, prison or rural community in sub-Saharan Africa? For info on Meet, Talk, Give click here. If you're already in a Book Group, why not turn your next meeting into a Meet, Talk, Give event?

There's more info, as well as videos etc., on their blog. Have fun!

Wednesday 9 February 2011

What's Milne is Yours

Happy Wednesday one and all, and to celebrate this momentous occasion (which, lest we forget, happens only a seventh of the time) I've got a couple of books by A.A. Milne to give away. Much as I love to spread Milne's works amongst as many as possible (and he is an author I love dearly, and wish more people read), I'll confess that the pun-derful title to this post was a definite incentive.

The books are Milne's autobiography called It's Too Late Now, and a collection of humorous essays under the title Not That It Matters. Both are duplicates that I felt should pour some sunshine into someone else's life.

It's Too Late Now (1939) is one of my favourite books. To be honest, only a fairly small segment is devoted to his life as an author, and only four pages are given over to Winnie the Pooh et al. Instead, he talks of life during childhood; at university; as a soldier in WW1; as assitant editor of Punch, and so on and so forth. I love Milne's whimsical but perceptive tone wherever I encounter it, but probably no more so than in this brilliant and diverting account.

Not That It Matters (1920) is representative of his humorous, light-hearted work at the beginning of his writing career. The essays are collected from various newspapers and magazines, and cover a miscellany of amusing topics - perfect for dipping into as and when. For a taste (or, if you so wish, to read the whole thing) click here.

I'm happy to send these off anywhere in the world - just put which one you would prefer in the comments (if you'd be happy with either, that's fine too) and I'll do a draw sometime next week.

Tuesday 8 February 2011

From the mouths of babes...

My book group met tonight to discuss Bonjour Tristesse (1954) by Francoise Sagan (as usual, imagine the cedilla), translated from French by Irene Ash. I hadn't heard of it, or the author (whom I'd wrongly assumed was a man) and so I went away to the internet to find a copy... and when the images came on the screen, I realised that I already owned it. Bonjour Tristesse was one of the 20 short books collected in my Penguin Great Loves boxset - hurrah! Each one comes with its own tagline 'Love can be ----' on the back; this one has 'Love can be complicated'.

Sagan (not her real name, but we'll roll with it) was only 18 when
Bonjour Tristesse was published, which is rather sickening for those of us who are only just coming to terms with the fact that we won't ever be infant prodigies. It concerns 17 year old Cecile (imagine the accent) and I must confess my heart sank at this point. I had a horror of it being a female version of The Catcher in the Rye, a novel I thought hugely irritating and very overrated. If I had to sit through the meanderings of a lovesick, self-indulgent teenage girl... well... I'll read the first paragraph, anyway:

A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness. In the past the idea of sadness always appealed to me, now I am almost ashamed of its complete egoism. I had known boredom, regret, and at times remorse, but never sadness. Today something envelops me like a silken web, enervating and soft, which isolates me.

This was actually quite promising. True, it is dominated by the introspection so beloved and teenagers (and probably everyone else too, only we learn to mask it better once we pass 19... although I was only 21 when I started this blog, so...) but there is a beauty to the expression of worn sentiments; 'what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed' as Pope said of 'wit', fulfilling his own criterion.

Sagan continues in similar style throughout. Her constant introspection, and detailed observation of everyone around her, never irked me because the prose was often so beautiful, and the thoughts so striking. But perhaps I should mention the plot, and that complicated love.

Cecile lives with her young widower father Raymond, a hedonistic man with a revolving door of mistresses. They are on a holiday in the South of France with Raymond's latest mistress, a rather stupid young woman called Elsa; they are all enjoying frivolity and (in Cecile's case) the throes of a first love - when Anne turns up on the scene. Easily the most skillfully drawn character of the novel, Anne is a friend of Cecile's late mother, the same sort of age as Raymond, and gently, elegantly insinuates herself into their lives.
When exactly did my father begin to treat Anne with a new familiarity? Was it the day he reproached her for her indifference, while pretending to laugh at it? Or the time he grimly compared her subtlety with Elsa's semi-imbecility? My peace of mind was based on the stupid idea that they had known each other for fifteen years, and that if they had been going to fall in love, they would have done so earlier. And I thought also that if it had to happen, the affair would last at the most three months, and Anne would be left with her memories and perhaps a slight feeling of humiliation. Yet all the time I knew in my heart that Anne was not a woman who could be lightly abandoned.
Cecile doesn't like the way things are going, and hatches a plot to remove Anne from her life and that of her father. Anne is far from an archetypal wicked stepmother, but Cecile sees her as destroying their extant way of life, and unsettling the equilibrium of a superficial but contented life. Anne is, in fact, a determined, kind, ever-so-very-slightly desperate character; in polished control of herself, but aware that it will not be many years before her chances of settling down dwindle away.

As the narrative continues - how much is packed in! - Cecile gradually has a change of heart, and has to choose between derailing her plan or watching it carry itself out. Sagan's cleverness is in her unreliable narrator. One starts reading the novel assuming that Cecile's perspective is accurate, or at least the one that a young author wants us to accept. It becomes clear, however, that Sagan is fully aware of Cecile's blind-spots and limitations; Raymond, Elsa and especially Anne become distinctive characters outside of the peripheries of Cecile's flawed judgement. Even while we continue to see events through Cecile's eyes, the reader can look back upon Cecile and discover her deficiencies and incomplete self-awareness. If Sagan isn't quite so successful with the male characters (Cecile's beau Cyril is a one-dimensional besotted fool; Raymond has few hidden depths) then that should not diminish from the clever and sophisticated characters she has created in Cecile and Anne.

Ultimately, this summer is a coming-of-age (how I loathe that phrase, but I can think of no other) for more than just Cecile. Anne and Raymond also change over the course of the summer's events. Elsa might. Cyril probably does, off-stage, as it were. They all have glimpses of futures they could have, and futures they want to avoid; whether or not they succeed in altering their courses - that's the path we take with them. Bonjour Tristesse is a rich novella which would bear future re-reading. It would be an impressive work for any author, not simply an eighteen year old - but it is especially sickening that an eighteen year old should achieve it.

Books to get Stuck into:

I Capture the Castle - Dodie Smith
: I've mentioned it in this section for another review, but it really is the coming-of-age novel par excellence. A lot of similarities with Bonjour Tristesse, albeit rather more amusing and less philosophical.

Brother of the More Famous Jack - Barbara Trapido: another bright young girl, growing up amongst unconventional types, this novel extends the scope beyond a dizzying summer to many years of after-effects.

Monday 7 February 2011

The Rivals

I saw Sheridan's The Rivals (1775) at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket in London on Saturday, as I mentioned I would, and it was very, very good. To be honest, although the acting was great, I think it would be difficult to do the play badly. It might be up there with The Importance of Being Earnest of an actor-proof play, out of which even the most amateur of groups could wring many laughs.

Even if you think you know nothing about this play, chances are you do - for it is from The Rivals, and more precisely the character Mrs. Malaprop, that we get the malapropism. This maiden aunt (played on Saturday by the incredibly wonderful Penelope Keith, one of my heroines) speaks with 'words so ingeniously misapplied, without being mispronounced' - leading to all kinds of amusing mishaps, which have little impact on the plot, but are richly enjoyable. For example: 'He is the very pineapple of politeness'; 'Promise to forget this fellow - to illiterate him, I say, quite from your memory' and so on and so forth.

Although it is Mrs. Malaprop whose fame has lived longest, The Rivals is really mostly concerned with the complex love polygon (for triangle would be too simple) taking place with almost every character on stage. Chief amongst them is Captain Jack Absolute (played with saucy and energetic panache by Tam Williams) and Lydia Languish. They love each other, but he is under an assumed name, since she considers love more romantic if with one from another caste (shades of Love on the Supertax here?) His father (Peter Bowles, making a To The Manor Born reunion which made my little dreams come true) has arranged with Mrs. Malaprop (Lydia's aunt) for the two to be married - but Lydia doesn't know they are one and the same. All very confusing, and that's just for starters. It's all the most wonderful tangled web, of the variety beloved by late-18th century playwrights and P.G. Wodehouse alike. And that's not even mentioning the less important characters, all of whom are embroiled somehow.

It's such a fun play, and plotted so skillfully. Laughter rang throughout the theatre - which was shamefully nowhere near full, but that does mean you might still be able to secure tickets before it closes on 26th February. I agree with everything Charles Spencer says in his Telegraph review, from compliments about Simon Higlett's beautiful set design, to Spencer's relief that they haven't tried to make the play 'relevant' by needlessly updating or meddling with it. I love that a play from 1775 can still cause such joy and levity - and the chance to see Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles reunited was a delightful added bonus. I'd love to see more Sheridan plays now, especially School for Scandal... I wrote on these for finals back in 2007, but they have drifted from my mind.

If only the theatre weren't so hideously expensive...

Sunday 6 February 2011

Song for a Sunday

This is probably the oldest song I've included in the Sunday Songs, and it's very lovely. Tells a story more than most songs seem to. Over to Nanci Griffith and Love at the Five and Dime. (I couldn't embed the version I like most; this one.)

For previous Sunday Songs, click here.

Saturday 5 February 2011

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Happy weekend, everyone. Hope you've got something fun planned - I'm off to London later on Saturday to see Sheridan's The Rivals, with Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles. Something of a To The Manor Born reunion... pl
us, I've never seen a Sheridan play, and this one was fun to read. But, in my absence, enjoy this little miscellany of links and posts.

1.) Three Percent, a resource for international literature at the University of Rochester, have announced the 25 books on the longlist for 2011 Best Translated Book Award. Here's the list. Do go and check it out - it's something a little different from the usual literary awards. I've only read one of them - being honest, I've only heard of one of them - but it is The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson (oddly, for it was translated in 2009). If the others are up to that novel's incredible standard, then this is a list worth watching.

2.) Speaking of which, do go and read Danielle's lovely review of The Summer Book, also by Tove Jansson.

3.) More neat segues (that's segues, Colin... heehee) - Danielle and Darlene have both agreed to take part in two mini-readalongs this month (that's one each). Both sprung from Virago Reading Week and surrounding discussions, which is lovely.

Darlene and I will be reading William by E.H. Young - I've been meaning to read more Young for a while, and have had William for five years or so.

Danielle and I will be reading Gay Life by E.M. Delafield. You'll note that my copy is signed! This novel is rather more difficult to get hold of, so participants would have to search hard. Try your library catalogues? And Danielle's little introductory post will definitely entice you...

Do join in with either or both, if you can. One day I'll head up a readalong of a book that's actually in print! Anyway, we're reading about the middle of February, so over the next couple of weeks.

4.) I give up on being seamless... I found this link to the books which Harold Bloom considered fitted into his study The Western Canon. It covers more or less all time... and is enormous. I have no idea how he managed to read all these books, let alone all the ones which (presumably) didn't make the cut. Once you've got a subsection for modern Catalonian literature, you know you mean business. BUT, it definitely makes for interesting reading.

5.) And, finally, Wikio have released their latest literary blog rankings. Off I slip, down the charts... but I'm clinging on! As usual, silly but fun. - February Literature Ranking

1Bad Conscience
2Crooked Timber
3Charlie's Diary
4Making it up
5Book Chick City
6Savidge Reads
7Other Stories
8A Don's Life - Times Online WBLG
9My Favourite Books
11Stuck In A Book
12Reading Matters
13An Awfully Big Blog Adventure
15The Book Smugglers
18Pepys' Diary

Ranking made by

Friday 4 February 2011

A Little More Than Kin

You know how I love novellas - the shorter and punchier the better - and might have noticed that I was impressed by Susan Hill's The Beacon. Indeed, it's my Bloggers' Book of the Month choice for February, at the Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green.

That made me pretty excited when Hill announced that her latest novella was coming out - A Kind Man is obviously being marketed in a similar style to The Beacon (although, tut tut Chatto and/or Windus for putting an apostrophe in Howards End is on the Landing on the dustjacket. You win back some of those points for Mark McEvoy's cover image. And for sending me a review copy - thanks!) If it could be as good as The Beacon, then I was very keen to read it. Also, fact fans, A Kind Man was published fifty years to the day after Hill's debut novel. Gosh!

A Kind Man is something of a deceptive title, for most of the novella, as we actually see the world through the eyes of that man's wife, Eve. In fact, the narrative opens with Eve making a solitary trip to an isolated graveyard - as the reader soon suspects, to visit the grave of her daughter, who died at three years old. We then move back to Eve's family, and her courtship with Tommy - the kind man of the title - is outlined, as is their marriage. Tommy's kindness is almost his only attribute, and certainly the most distinctive. He is made almost characterless in his ordinariness - rarely do we see anything from his perspective. This, of course, makes it all the more striking when we do; for instance, this excerpt from towards the end of the novel, retelling an event we had already seen from Eve's perspective very early on:

As he had grown up he had watched the young men around him find girls and make them wives and start families and had naturally felt that he would do so too but not understood how to choose. He had looked at some and they were pretty, at others and they were pert, at the ones with kind faces and the hard ones, the laughing ones, the sad and those old before they had had time to be young, but walking by the canal he had seen Eve and she was different. How she was and why and what made him know it, he had wondered every day since.

I do not want to spoil this novella. Too many reviews give too much away. Plot is not the only reason to read fiction, far from it, but the novella which spins on an axis around a central point should not have that point disclosed from the outset; it tips the story off-balance. Suffice to say that is outside of the ordinary, although Hill wisely does not allow it to change the style or genre of the work. If the event would have performed better in a novel by Barbara Comyns (oh, how I would love to have read Comyns' take on it!) then that is not Hill's fault; I can't think of any novelist who can approach the outlandish in so calm and involving a way as Comyns. Hill, however, finds the moral dilemmas caused by the strange and unusual (a thing Comyns would never do) and these form a central force of this beautifully forceful book.

Although this strange event would dominate most novels, and lingers longest in the mind, I think Hill is actually rather stronger at the more simple depictions of grief and mourning. These are emotions she dealt with brilliantly in In the Springtime of the Year, and in A Kind Man they play central roles, and are again shown convincingly and movingly - although (as is right) with a different slant from that previous novella. Everyday life and the dynamics of Eve being a wife, a sister, a daughter, a villager - these are the bread-and-butter of any work of fiction, and Hill is expert at them. I love Hill's appreciation of the countryside, which comes through in occasional unusual and evocative phrases.

As she rounded the peak, she looked up and ahead to the far slope where the sheep were with their lambs, dozens of them scattered about the hillside like scraps of paper thrown up in the air and allowed to settle anywhere.
If these strengths fade into the background once the twist of the novella arrives, that is to be expected - but we should not forget how rare it is to find a novelist who excels at both unexpected, and more predictable, narrative events. Far too rare.

A Kind Man
is sombre and wise; it is almost delicate in its subtlety, but at its depth is a fable as sturdy as they come. Sorry to be vague about it, but you'll thank me once you've read it. No other pen but Susan Hill's could have written this novella in this way - and I hope there will be more in the same mould.

Thursday 3 February 2011

The Deb Ball

I couldn't resist kicking off with a picture of a debutante (source) but that's actually not got much to do with today's post. Simon S. wrote a post a little while ago about debut novels - whether we were drawn to them or not. Read it here, if you so wish. He was mostly discussing (I think I'm right in saying) reading choices from among recently published books - the latest Margaret Atwood being his example of a rival to an unknown author's firts novel. Now, I'd probably choose a great deal of books over Atwood, but that's by the by.

His post got me thinking, but more about debut novels in general. I buy far, far more second-hand books than new ones, and I can't remember the last time I bought a new book without having had it recommended - either by a friend or an e-friend! So it's unlikely that I would buy a debut novel published in 2011, unless someone had told me about it.

But, following on from our discussion the other day about authors' timelines
(thanks again for your fascinating replies - it was so interesting to have responses from people all along the scale on this topic) I've been thinking about the debut works of favourite authors.

Some - like A.A. Milne (Lovers in London) and Ivy Compton-Burnett (Dolores) tried to distance themselves from their first novels. Milne even went so far as to buy back the copyright to prevent it being reprinted. (That work I have read, and while it's not up to his later stuff, it's still pretty good, and I can't see why he was so ashamed of it.)

But thinking through some authors I love, I haven't read their first books. E.M. Delafield (Zella Sees Herself); Rose Macaulay (Abbots Verney); Charles Dickens (Pickwick Papers).

There are some whose first works weren't up to their later ones (I'd put forward Virginia Woolf with The Voyage Out, and definitely Shakespeare's early comedies; Katherine Mansfield's early stories, and Richmal Crompton's The Innermost Room.)

Others peaked with their first books - Edith Olivier's other novels aren't close to as good as The Love Child; my limited experience of Monica Dickens suggests One Pair of Hands is far from her worst (and the best of the three I've read); Lynne Reid Banks got off to a brilliant start with The L-Shaped Room.

And some seemed to start off just as well as they continued - for my money, Jane Austen was brilliant from her Juvenilia onwards; Decline and Fall is as good as any of the other Waugh novels I've read; Stephen Leacock's wonderful, recognisable style kicked off in his debut, Literary Lapses - if you discount Elements of Political Science and two similar works, which were actually his first three publications.

All of which goes to show that there appears to be little rhyme or reason to where a debut work fits in an author's canon. But it's an interesting topic, and one we've already sort of touched upon - but I'd love to hear incidences from you of debut works which are much better, or much worse, than those that followed. And if you disagree with any of my assertions, then let me know!