Monday 31 March 2014

Shiny New Books

At last, dear blog readers, I can announce what I've been surreptitiously up to for the past couple of months (and why there have been relatively few blog reviews here during that time) - Shiny New Books!

Let me explain - next Monday a new online quarterly magazine Shiny New Books will launch at It's a recommendations site, looking at the best books published in each quarter - fiction, non-fiction, and (my section) reprints, as well including author interviews, behind-the-scenes pieces by publishers, and other bonus material.  We're hoping that you'll dip in and out of the site throughout each quarter, to see (as our tagline suggests) 'what to read next and why'.

And who is this 'we'?  You may have noticed coy mentions of something exciting coming on other blogs - and I can now tell you that Annabel, Victoria, and Harriet are my co-editors. I'm sure you know all their blogs - you can click on their names to take you to them - and I feel very honoured to be working on this alongside them, given their talents and brilliant blogs.  Not to mention how fun it's all been!

The reviews haven't only been written by the four of us, of course, although we have been beavering away at them - some of our favourite bloggers have been quietly writing reviews for us (and keeping nice and quiet about it, thanks everyone!) and we're hoping to have many more on board for next time.  Opportunities to write will come when we launch, of course.

Monday 7 April is when we go live - at the moment there is very little visible on the site, but feel free to go and check it out, or bookmark it ready for launch.  And for now, you can follow us on Twitter, like our Facebook page, and (most importantly) sign up for the newsletter in the box below.  This will have bonus material, and come out more frequently than the quarterly magazine issues.

We're all very excited about this venture - I hope you don't mind us whetting your appetite with a week still to go before launch, but I will (of course) give another announcement when Shiny New Books is really and truly launched.

Sunday 30 March 2014

Song for a Sunday

A lot of people turn their nose up at singers on reality shows, but you might quite like Sally Barker... she toured with Bob Dylan and the like, but had to quit when her husband died and she had to raise her children.  Well, thank The Voice that she's back; I've rarely heard a singer who can put this much emotion in a song.  She reminds me a bit of Joni Mitchell - appropriately, since she was in a band called the Joni Mitchell Project.

Saturday 29 March 2014

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Another busy weekend coming up for me - I really must arrange one where I just lie around reading books - so I'll leave you with a quick trio!

1.) The blog post - it's been ages since I read a Richmal Crompton book, and Leadon Hill isn't one of the 26 I have read (not including the William series), but Claire's review has whetted my appetite for more.

2.) The link - I watched Twenty-Twelve long after everyone else (the BBC sitcom about a committee preparing for the Olympics), but I'm on board with W1A.  It's a sort-of sequel, with Hugh Bonneville and Jessica Stevenson reprising their roles, set at the BBC - Bonneville's character has become 'Head of Values'. It's just as brilliantly believable as before, with lots of verbal ticks (tics?) offering the most comedy. Watch here on iPlayer, if you can.

3.) The poll results - a slight change from the usual miscellany! Thank you for so many results; I found it really interesting to see how the different Penelopes fared (and loved the comment from Jill, on the poll, that her favourite was Penelope!)  The results are above - so far, anyway; the poll is still open - and I will report back on The Pumpkin Eater when I've finished it.

Wednesday 26 March 2014

Some Penelopes...

Thank you for your comments on yesterday's post, to those of you who did - I always get anxious posting fiction, in a way I don't at all with reviews, so feedback and encouragement means a lot!

Now, onto something entirely different.  I quite often get my Penelopes in a muddle - Lively, Fitzgerald, and Mortimer - and I don't think I can be the only one who does.  I've read three or four novels by Penelope Fitzgerald, whom I very much like, and I'm currently reading one by Penelope Mortimer (The Pumpkin Eater), so I'm hoping to disentangle them soon.

I thought I'd use this opportunity to experiment with a poll.  Possibly there are better uses of them, but this was a quick and easy way to see how works!

I'm just intrigued to discover how popular the Penelopes are respectively.  Do pop any particular recommendations (or anti-recommendations) in the comments.

Which Penelopes have you read? free polls 

Monday 24 March 2014

The Museum (short fiction)

Sometimes the mood takes me to write some fiction... This one, again, is a bit different from the others - I'm enjoying experimenting.  I shan't say any more about it, although part of me is itching to say more.  Instead... here is 'The Museum'.

Sylvia Hawthorn often answered the door with something in her hand and today it was a blue and gold teapot, which had once been a gift from a friend of her father’s who might have become Prime Minister, if he had ever successfully stood for election.  Luckily the teapot was empty, albeit slightly soapy.

“Miss Hawthorn?” said the lady in uniform on the doorstep.  The uniform was navy and neat, with a stripe of gold on the pocket, but Sylvia did not recognise it.  A man in the same uniform (a little less neat) stood behind.  Both of them looked young, but a lot of people looked young to Sylvia – who was, herself, 78, but (as people often put it) ‘still living alone’.  It was that ‘still’ that Sylvia hated to hear.  The word implied that things might, perhaps should, soon change – that, frankly, some person or persons unknown had slipped up by letting the situation continue for so long.  The lady in uniform smiled patiently, and waited for an answer.

“Yes, I’m Miss Hawthorn.  Can I help you?”

“We’re here for the museum.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“The museum.  We’re here regarding the museum.  Would you mind if we stepped in for a moment?”

Sylvia was not used to saying no to people.  Indeed, she was not used to be consulted on any matter.  Having been brought up to respect uniforms, whatever they might signify, she stepped back to allow the lady and the man to walk past her down the hall.

“I think it will do nicely,” said the lady.

“Perhaps the corridor could be widened?” murmured the man.

“Oh, well, of course – the corridor could hardly stay as it is.  Think of wheelchair access, for one thing.”

“I’m sorry?” Sylvia said, but they were in the living room now.  She wished that she had vacuumed, or at least tidied in there, but she always started her weekly clean in the kitchen.  It certainly wasn’t tidy in the living room, she knew; a pile of books were on the sofa, a jigsaw puzzle was half completed on the coffee table, and there might well be – she blushed to remember – the remnants of a cup of cocoa on the sideboard.  Still, she couldn’t stand in the hallway all evening.  She put down the teapot on the stairs, and followed.

In the living room, the man and the lady were walking slowly around the coffee table, looking closely at the mess of objects.  Sylvia trotted quickly to the sofa and started picking up books.

“Excuse me, Miss Hawthorn,” said the lady sharply, “I’m going to have to ask you not to touch the exhibits.”

The man hurried across the room, and firmly took the books from Sylvia’s hands. 

Anne of Green Gables,” he read, “and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.”  The lady produced a tiny notebook from somewhere within the uniform, and scribbled some notes.

“They’re from a sale at the library,” Sylvia said, the blush returning to her cheeks – it was never far from them. “I promise I didn’t steal them.  I paid £1 for each.  The suggested donation was only fifty pence, but I like to support charity when I can.”  She paused, wondering what other relevant information she could possibly provide.  “I don’t recall the exact charity.  I have a feeling it might have been something to do with parrots.”

“Just put them back where they ought to be, thank you.  I’m sorry, Miss Hawthorn, the exhibits really must be left as they are.”

“I’m afraid I don’t really understand – ”

“Proper signage will be in place in due course, obviously.  Now, if you could take us through to the kitchen...?”

The lady spoke considerably more than her companion, but he made up for his silence with the level of attention he paid to all of Sylvia’s possessions, frequently writing things in his own tiny notebook.  It was a little officious, Sylvia thought, not to say nosey.  If the man who might have become Prime Minister were there, he’d have known what to do.  He’d been so clever about the situation with the village hall plumbing, and had once given her a pair of warm suede gloves, sensible man.  Not many gentlemen would have thought of that.  Sylvia took the only course of action she could think of.

“Would either of you like a cup of tea?”

“Oh, certainly.” The lady in uniform nodded to her partner, whose own uniform, it transpired, held takeaway cups filled with tea.  “Of course, we can’t use the cups and mugs you have here.”

Sylvia tried not to look offended, which was the certain method of making her look her most offended. “The crockery was a gift from my parents.  I believe the mayor has a similar set.”

“Write that down,” said the lady to her companion. “The current mayor? Yes? But you understand that we can’t use the exhibits in such a manner.”

“Goodness, no!” said the man.

“I’m terribly sorry,” said Sylvia, feeling reluctantly that the time had come to be direct, “I really don’t understand.  Are you from the council?  Is this – ” (an advert she had seen on television came dimly to her mind) “– is this at all connected with my TV licence?”

“I thought I’d explained.  We’re from the museum.  We are members of the Museum Committee.”

The man in uniform, who was examining the shelf of teacups, looked over his shoulder and added: “The subcommittee for pre-launch evaluation and itemisation.”

“But – I really am most terribly sorry – what is this museum?  And what has it to do with my home?”

The lady laughed – quite kindly, it seemed to Sylvia.  She smiled uncertainly in response.  There remained a faint hope that a few words would make everything clear again.

“Why, the museum of you, of course!  The Sylvia Hawthorn Museum.”

Before Sylvia could respond, the man had beckoned to his partner.

“A teapot.  A teapot is missing.”

The lady strode across the room, friendliness lost in a moment of businesslike concern.  She flipped through her notebook, frowning.  Sylvia stared across the room, hoping that standing still and not speaking would somehow provide a solution to her confusion.  They muttered to each other for a minute or two, until Sylvia wondered if they had forgotten about her entirely.  Eventually the lady addressed her.

“Miss Hawthorn, my colleague cannot find the teapot.  A blue and gold teapot.”

“I’m afraid I – no – no, it’s usually on that shelf.  I don’t know where it is.”

“Miss Hawthorn, this is quite a serious matter.  Any theft will be prosecuted.  That is our policy, however large or small the item or items taken.”

“But – but it’s mine.  The teapot is mine.  Everything in this house is mine!”  Even in a moment of confrontation, though, Sylvia was scrupulously honest, and felt compelled to acknowledge an exception: “There is a library book by my bed.  I don’t own that.  It isn’t especially good.  I would describe the characterisation as lacklustre.”

The man wrote this down quickly, but the lady’s eyes did not drop from Sylvia’s face.  “I don’t wish to upset you, Miss Hawthorn, but the museum simply can’t permit exhibits to be tampered with.”

“I wish you’d explain to me what this museum is.”

“I believe you’re being deliberately difficult, Miss Hawthorn, and the committee had so hoped that pre-launch evaluation and itemisation would run smoothly.  We only have a week until opening, as you know.”

“But I don’t know.  I really and truly don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“The Sylvia Hawthorn Museum, of course. I have already made that quite clear.”

Sylvia stood with her mouth a little open.  They had reached, she realised, what her father would have called an impasse.

The man shook his head with obvious disappointment. “We can come back to assess the kitchen later,” he said. “It’s almost three; we’d better make a start upstairs soon.” He turned back to the shelf.

The stairs!  Sylvia suddenly remembered where she’d left the teapot.  In amidst the confusion, that seemed to be a bright light of elucidation.  Perhaps, somehow, if she clung onto that information, the rest would fall into place.

The lady and the man had now both turned away from her, apparently giving her up as a lost cause.  They were counting mugs and cups, ticking them off a list in their notebooks.  Sylvia watched them for a moment, and quickly made up her mind.  Suddenly, hoping they wouldn’t follow, she hurried out of the kitchen.  Her pace increased as she got to the hallway. They hadn’t noticed her leave.  She knew what she had to do.  Without pausing to put on a coat or a hat, without even putting on the gloves that had been a gift from the friend of her father’s who might have become Prime Minister, she pulled open the front door, grabbed the teapot from the stairs, and ran, ran as quickly as she could, away from the door, away from the museum, and away, away into the fog.

Sunday 23 March 2014

A couple of meet-ups

I've had a very busy week, and a very lovely one.  Not only did I get to go to the Bookbarn and buy oodles of books (thanks for all your comments and thoughts, much appreciated, I will reply soooon) but I went to a couple of meet-ups.  Well, one was more official than the other - this Wednesday saw the annual Penguin Bloggers' Night at Foyle's, which is now a much-loved fixture in the blogging calendar.  Hats off to Lija and her team for organising another wonderful event.

It was lovely to see old friends, some of whom I'd not seen since the previous year's event, and especially nice to meet Claire for the first time. And of course, we got to hear from some authors. It was great to have a quick chat with Rebecca Hunt after meeting her at a previous event - her new novel Everland is out soon.  The extract that appealed most was a very funny reading by Nina Stibbe.  Annoyingly I can't remember the name of the novel, or find info online.  But, er, look out for that.

Nina Stibbe

Rebecca Hunt

Oh, and there was Will Self, reading from Shark.  Not a novel that appeals to me, but it was intriguing to see the stance and approach of a man who must - surely - feel he has to live up to his reputation.  He said nothing at all directly to the audience, stood some distance from the microphone, and walked off as soon as he'd finished.  Hmm.  Maybe he's shy...
Will Self

On Saturday I was off to London again - off to Foyle's again, indeed - for a meet-up of the Virago Modern Classics group on LibraryThing.  This lovely group of ladies and gentlemen (mostly ladies) are great fun, and we had a lark descending on various Charing Cross Road bookshops, as well as an Oxfam, the London Review of Books shop, and Persephone.

It was fab to see various old friends again, and to meet some folk in person for the first time.  It was particularly wonderful to meet Karen/Kaggsy, as I love her blog and we've chatted a lot online, but never met.  It was such fun to chat away about books in person.  But the guest of honour, and the reason for us grouping together, was Laura - who used to blog at Laura's Musings - who was over from the US of A.  What a fun and funny lady!  We all laughed a lot on Saturday, and I have to put in another word for Julie, who isn't a blogger but is extremely funny.  And there I shall stop naming people, because everyone there was a joy!  As were the Dutch pancakes we ate for lunch.

I was relatively restrained (memories of the Bookbarn not being far behind me) and bought three books.  Two more - The Amateur Marriage and The Hare With Amber Eyes - were a kind gift from Luci, who brought bagfuls to share.

I bought Colin II by E.F. Benson, because I always like adding to my Benson shelf, and because 'Colin 2' is basically a nickname I could have had growing up.  But I must read Colin before I get onto the sequel.  Also Abbie, which I recently borrowed from a friend and very much enjoyed.  And finally The Basilisk of St. James by Elizabeth Myers, whose letters I so loved reading in 2005 or 2006.

But I made up for my restraint by forcing encouraging others to buy whenever possible - including some gems, like Nothing Is Safe by E.M. Delafield, and a couple of scarce Barbara Comyns.  Never let it be said that I discourage book buying...

So I need a weekend to get over my weekend, but what fun it was!

Friday 21 March 2014

A Trip to the Bookbarn...

While I was in Somerset, having a lovely time with Our Vicar, Our Vicar's Wife, and little Sherpa, we managed to fit in a trip to the Bookbarn.  If you've not heard about it, it's an enormous secondhand bookshop in north Somerset, claiming to have a million books.  Many of these are online, and you have to search for those in the shop on the world's slowest computer, but thousands of others are available for browsing - at £1 each!  I never come away empty-handed, and on Tuesday I came away with twenty books.  That includes four which I bought in a charity shop in Wells, which we went to afterwards.  Never let it be said that I keep my purchases silent - here they are!  Please do let me know if you've read any, got any, would like any, or have any thoughts at all!

I'll go through them from the bottom of the left pile upwards...

Remembering Leacock: an oral history
A book about Stephen Leacock that I didn't know about?  Yes please!  This one seems to be interviews with people that knew the great Canadian humorist.

42nd Street
I'm off to see the musical on the 30th, and I stumbled across the screenplay.

Two by Two by David Garnett
I've read surprisingly little by David Garnett, considering Lady Into Fox was a fundamental book for my doctoral thesis, but now I can add another title to the pile - I couldn't resist Noah's Ark for a theme.

Our Stage and Its Critics by E.F.S.
I can never resist an early twentieth-century book about the theatre... This one was published in 1910, so is unlikely to include anything about authors I know and love, but I'm still excited.

The Oliviers by Felix Barker
See above... but this time about Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh!

A Cornish Childhood by A.L. Rowse
Slightly Foxed Editions have made me fall in love with childhood memoirs, particularly those which take place in beautiful locations.  Enough said.

Tobit Transplanted by Stella Benson
I ummed and ahhed over an expensive copy of this a while ago, so a £1 copy was a lovely find!  After loving I Pose earlier in the year, it's nice to have another Benson ready and waiting.

What Next? by Denis Mackail
Every bookshopping trip should have one best find, shouldn't it?  The one you grab and feel like the whole thing was worthwhile.  And this was mine - like everyone else, I love Greenery Street, and I'm eager to read some more Mackail and see what else he has up his sleeve.

Mysterious book...
This one is a gift, which I have cunningly doctored to hide the title...

(from the bottom of the right-hand pile)

Awakenings by Oliver Sacks
I lost my copy of this at some point - either lent to someone and forgotten, or under some floorboards somewhere.  So, hurrah for finding a copy in a charity shop!

Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
It's almost odd that I haven't bought this before, since I enjoy Bryson's writing. Couldn't say no to a 30p copy.

Pilgrimage I by Dorothy Richardson
To be honest, I can't say I'm super excited about embarking on those notoriously difficult stream-of-consciousness novel (there are 12 or so more volumes after this one), but... well, it feels like the right sort of thing to have on the shelf.

Bindle by Herbert Jenkins
Some nice serendipity - it's no secret that I adored Patricia Brent, Spinster, and a few of you said Bindle was just as great.  Now it's mine, all mine!

The Story of My Life by Helen Keller
I thought The World I Live In was brilliant and revelatory, and have been meaning to read her earlier, more famous, book about living without sight or sound.

Every Good Dead by Dorothy Whipple
How could I resist a copy of a Whipple novel with a cover as gloriously awful as this?

Strange Gardens by Michael Quint
One day I will read a French book that I like.  Will it be this one?  Maybe...

The Setons by O. Douglas
I thought Pink Sugar was great, so... well, you're probably sensing a theme in this post!

From A College Window by A.C. Benson
One of the Benson dynasty (E.F. and all that, though no relation to Stella, so far as I'm aware) wrote a book of essays about life, while looking out of a window at Magdalen College.  Another no-brainer, so far as I'm concerned.

So, there you have it!  And would you believe it... I'm off book buying tomorrow too.  A long fast has been broken.  Over to you - thoughts?

Wednesday 19 March 2014

Mr. Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

This is another one where I'm sending you off to Vulpes Libris!  We've inaugurated Shelf of Shame week, where five of us pick an author or book we've been meaning to read for ages, and see how we find them.  (I'll pre-empt anybody saying that there's no need to be ashamed of having left something unread by saying... it's a fun idea for a themed week, enjoy!)

I picked Christopher Isherwood, as I felt I ought to know more about such an important interwar writer. And I own this copy because it's got a beautiful cover!  It's a Folio edition, but had lost its slipcover before it found its way to my hands.

Follow the link to find out what I thought...

The last Sherpa/book combo, I'm afraid...

Monday 17 March 2014

Mr. Fox by Barbara Comyns

One of the many lovely things about being at home in Somerset is that most of my books are down here. Although I have several hundred unread books in Oxford, I have many more in Somerset that I don't get to run my eyes over everyday - and so there are some fun surprises on the shelves here.  Not so much books I'd forgotten about, but certainly books I hadn't expected to be able to read soon.  Saturday was so sunny and lovely that I wanted to pick up something that perfectly matched my mood.  And what better than to treat myself with a long-awaited Barbara Comyns?

Oh, how did you get into the picture, Sherpa?

I've read nearly all of Comyns' novels now (saving just A Touch of Mistletoe) and I'd thought that the styles divided neatly into two - the seven novels of the 1940s-'60s, and the three which she published in the 1980s after being rediscovered by those bastions of rediscovery, Virago Modern Classics.  Well, if I'd read Mr. Fox blindfolded ( it were) then I would have placed it in the first group.  Which is a very good thing, in my book - Mr. Fox (1987) is up there with Comyns' best books, in terms of tone, character, and sheer calm madness.

The setting is World War Two, and the heroine (of sorts) is typically Comyns territory - Caroline Seymore has a young daughter (Jenny) but is quite like a child herself.  As she narrates her life - running from flat to house to flat, avoiding bombs, selling pianos, cleaning for a neurotic vegetarian - she is that wonderfully Comynsian combination of naive and fatalistic and optimistic:
I still had a feeling something wonderful was going to happen, although it was taking a long time.  Perhaps it was just as well to get all the sad part of my life over at one go and have all the good things to look forward to.
I don't think any sentence could encapsulate the outlook of a Comyns heroine better than that.  As always, we have the surreal told in a matter-of-fact way, and the novel reminded me most of The Skin Chairs.  It is like someone telling their life story in one long breath, slightly muddled, with emphasis falling equally on the significant and insignificant.  It makes reading the novel a bit disorientating, but in a lovely way - you just go along for the ride, and wait to see what will happen.  And it makes it all feel so believable, because surely no novelist could craft something so detailed and yet so arbitrary?

And the Mr. Fox of the title?  He is that wartime speciality, the spiv.  There never seems to be any romance between Caroline and Mr. Fox, but they live together to save money and conduct their curious operations together - whether on the black market or, as mentioned, selling grand pianos.  He is a charming man, and Caroline seems curiously drawn to his ginger beard, but he also has a ferocious temper - and Caroline is often happier when he's not around.  The pairing is bizarre - a marriage of convenience that isn't actually a marriage.  It adds to the surreality of the novel, and I can't really work out why he gets the title to himself, since Mr. Fox seems to be so much more about Caroline.  Or even, indeed, about the Second World War.  With air raids and rationing and evacuees, Comyns uses the recognisable elements of every wartime novel or memoir, but distorts them with her unusual style and choice of focus.  How many times have we seen films or read novels with a scene of anxious villagers gathered in church to hear war declared?  Compare that with the way in which Comyns shows it:
On Sunday I could stay at home because the men from the Council took a holiday; so the Sunday following my visit to Straws I was washing and ironing all the curtains so that they would be fresh for the new house.  I listened to the wireless as I ironed, but I was thinking of other things and was not listening very carefully; then suddenly I heard Mr Chamberlain telling everyone the war had come, it was really here although outside the sun was shining.  It didn't seem suitable to iron now the war had really come, so I disconnected the iron and stood by the window biting my nails and wondering what to do next.
Mr. Fox, like all her novels, is also very funny.  Mostly that is because of the naive but unshockable voice which is cumulatively built up, but I also loved lines like this:
I hoped they liked warmth, because I had an idea vegetarians thought it unhealthy to be warm or comfortable and usually lived in a howling draught
The novel has such an authenticity that I wonder if Comyns kept it in a drawer for decades.  I wish somebody would hurry up and write a biography of her, because I'd dearly love to know more about her life - if it is a tenth as bizarre and captivating as her novels, then it'd make for a splendid biography.

If you've never read any of Barbara Comyns' work before, I'd still recommend starting with Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead or The Vet's Daughter (and probably not Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, which is her most well-known and my least favourite), but you wouldn't be doing badly if Mr. Fox was your first encounter with her.  And if you already know and love Comyns, make sure you find yourself a copy of this one - you're in for a treat.

Friday 14 March 2014

Hangsaman - Shirley Jackson

I've been on a mini Shirley Jackson binge (can two books be a binge?) which I'll be giving more details about in good time, but I had to share this.  I read Hangsaman and The Sundial, and whilst browsing reviews came across this cover on The Rumpus.

In the fine tradition of schlocky covers, it's got almost nothing to do with the plot - and nothing at all to do with the tone - of the novel.  But it caught my eye, because surely... that's Magdalen College on the front! Whoever crafted the cover to this American novel about an American college decided that the best thing for the cover was an English university college... wonderful.

This picture was nabbed from here.

Thursday 13 March 2014

The Innocents

I've mentioned it a few times over the years, but my favourite cinema in Oxford (actually, in the world, based on my limited experience) is the Ultimate Picture Palace on Cowley Road.  I happen to live about 10-15 minutes walk from it, which is very handy, and even closer is my friend Andrea (who writes the surplus spinster blog).  We set up a two person film club a year or so ago, and have a great time meeting up once a fortnight to watch a DVD and give marks out of ten.

Last Monday we varied the theme a little by having a film club outing to the Ultimate Picture Palace.  As well as showing slightly artier films slightly after the other cinemas in Oxford, the UPP (wonderfully) show classic films, and do series devoted to certain directors/actors/countries/themes etc. And so we went to see Deborah Kerr in The Innocents (1961).

It wasn't until I got there that I discovered that The Innocents is an adaptation of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, which I read a few years ago and didn't love.  On the one hand, that did mean that I already knew everything that would happen in the film (at least to the extent that anybody can know what happens!), but on the other hand that meant I could sit back and enjoy seeing how they did it...

First things first, nobody is going to buy forty-year-old Deborah Kerr as a young governess - but she is certainly a pretty one.  She is not so pretty as the house, though - Sheffield Park in Sussex - which is such a brilliant setting for the story.  The grounds are expansive and beautiful, with the requisite lake, and the house itself is both lovely and intimidating to look at.  I don't know how many of the interior rooms were actually on location, but the corridors and staircases are perfectly haunting - yet with a light, bright sitting room at the beginning of the film, filled with flowers.  The move from bright cheerfulness to fear and darkness is done extremely well, presumably courtesy of the director, Jack Clayton.

Here I am, assuming you know what happens in The Turn of the Screw.  Briefly, in case you don't, a young governess (Miss Giddens in the film - nameless in the book?) goes to look after a young girl (Flora) at the country estate of her uncle - who does not live there, and does not wish to be contacted under any circumstances.  All seems to be well, until Flora's brother Miles is expelled and sent to join them... but doesn't want to talk about why.  As the children start to display unusual behaviour, Miss Giddens learns more about the governess who used to be there, and the cruel man she had a relationship with - both of whom are dead - but she begins to believe they aren't wholly gone...

The Turn of the Screw is a classic text for open-interpretation - you finish not knowing whether the governess is delusional, or the children are being possessed by ghosts.  I also finished it not having a clue what was going on, because Henry James is incapable of writing a comprehensible sentence.  But it was interesting to see how a film could convey this sort of ambiguity...

Very well, it turns out.  Through lighting, music, focus, and use of perspective, The Innocents makes the viewer feel Miss Giddens' paranoia and fear - how this is a 12A rating beats me, but I am a huge coward - without giving any concrete evidence one way or the other.  And huge credit has got to go to Deborah Kerr.  It's a very good cast - the children (including Pamela Franklin in her first role) are exceptional - but Deborah Kerr, unsurprisingly, has to take the crown.  It's a psychologically fascinating performance, and certainly adds to the terror of the whole thing - but a hundred miles away from Hammer Horror territory.

All in all, another big success for the Ultimate Picture Palace - AND you can buy a cup of tea to drink while watching the film.  My next trip there will be on 30 March to see a 1930s musical called 42nd Street, which should be fun.  If you're ever in Oxford when they're showing a classic film, make sure you get there.

Tuesday 11 March 2014

Working titles

Our discussion of retitled books the other day segues neatly into a quiz I wrote for the Oxford Dictionaries blog - can you identify the early titles of famous novels?  It's HARD.  Come back and let me know how you did!  The quiz is here.

Sunday 9 March 2014

Tea By The Nursery Fire - Noel Streatfeild

Picture nabbed from
Hayley's review...
I seem to be on a little run of lovely books at the moment, although Tea by the Nursery Fire: A Children's Nanny at the Turn of the Century (1976) by Noel Streatfeild doesn't have quite the same feel as Patricia Brent, Spinster.  It's not as funny - indeed, it's not trying to be funny.  But it's another book that is so enjoyable and cosy that you'd be forgiven for mistaking it for a duvet.

Noel Streatfeild will be known to many of you as the author of Ballet Shoes and other books of that ilk.  Indeed, she is known to me as that, but I haven't actually read any of them - the only Streatfeild I have read is the Persephone (Saplings) which I don't remember having very strong feelings about, but finding racier than I'd expected.  Well, as you'd imagine, Tea by the Nursery Fire isn't remotely racey. It's the complete opposite of racey, even if there is the odd bit of illegitimacy and out-of-wedlock liaisons going on along the way.

It's difficult to say whether Tea by the Nursery Fire is fact or fiction, and the blurb has cautiously opted for calling it a blend of the two.  Noel Streatfeild is writing about her father's nanny, from childhood in the 1870s until her death.  Streatfeild never identifies which of the child characters is her father, so I couldn't work out whether one of the last generation was Noel herself under a pseudonym, but I think it's fair to assume that Noel either never met Emily Huckwell, or at least never spoke with her to any meaningful extent.  Thus every detail of this many-detailed story comes either from passed-on memories of her father, or from her own head.

Everything progresses as you might expect - we start with scenes of a poor and big family, where boys are expected to become labourers at 14, and girls head off at the same age to find a 'position' somewhere.  Emily is given the lowest rung at the local squire's - basically the maid of a maid of a maid.  Only a chance comment at family prayer's, where she offers to mend the dress of a visiting family member, gives her the opportunity to move up the ranks (and escape the watchful eye of the house's unpleasant housekeeper).  She goes to the much smaller residence of the woman in question, and aids the friendly and wise nanny there.

And on it progresses - scenes full of nannies and their charges, maids and their duties, mistresses and their ways.  It's a late-Victorian world which is chiefly familiar to me through the eyes of Ivy Compton-Burnett.  Of course, the tone Streatfeild takes could scarcely be more different.

I loved reading Tea by the Nursery Fire, it was heartwarming and sweet, but I think I might have really loved it if Streatfeild had taken the heartwaming down a notch.  Emily is basically perfect, and never puts a foot wrong.  She is very wise, very kind, and very forgiving.  There are a few moments of tragedy in her life, and while it is true that she deals with these calmly, rather than with the semi-histrionic heroism so beloved to 1940s cinema, she also doesn't seem to be impeded in her path of virtuous goodness.

All of which makes her a nice, rather than lovable, character.  But it is understandable - she is the sort of paragon that you can imagine a child believing his nanny to be. Still more, the sort of person that son's daughter would wish to believe in.

Yes, it's lovely.  Perhaps it is only the cynic in me that would have loved it rather more if Emily had let loose with an acerbic aside now and then.

Saturday 8 March 2014

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Hope you're having a nice weekend - in the UK we finally have SUN!  It's amazing.

1.) The book - have you read any of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky's short stories? NYRB Classics have brought out a few with lovely covers (as per) and I'm currently reading The Autobiography of a Corpse, and finding it... interesting. Jury's out at the moment. Anybody know anything more about his writing?

2.) The review - one of my biggest surprises in recent years was when Claire/Captive Reader didn't love the (oh-so-lovely) Guard Your Daughters by Diana Tutton. So she's moved down to my second favourite book read in 2012 - although I suspect that is a coincidence - and did end up loving the equally-lovely Blue Remembered Hills by Rosemary Sutcliff. Go and enjoy her review here. And then make sure you read the book.

3.) The link - this one has been doing the rounds in various places, so this is just the most recent place I've seen it. First brought to my attention by my friend Hannah, there is an app which will cleverly scroll through words, enabling you to read a book much more quickly than you would moving your eyes across a page.  Now, when it comes to reading novels I remain a technophobe, and I certainly shan't be getting one, but I'm still impressed by the idea...

Wednesday 5 March 2014

Changing titles

Reading Boel Westin's biography of Tove Jansson, I'm struck by the significance (and flexibility) of titles - especially for a much-translated author.  It's interesting to see how Jansson's choices of titles were changed by her publishers, and then changed again for reprints and translations and the like.  It's a bit haphazard, and sometimes misleading... in Jansson's case it seems to be quite a lot of the publishers being keen to get 'Moomin' somewhere in the title. Understandable.

I love publishers - not just the one I work for at the moment! - but there have been a few name-changing culprits along the years.  Here are some of the examples I've come across; I'd love to know ones you've heard about...

  • Agatha Christie's American publishers had a bit of a field day I think.  We're not talking the necessary retitling to And Then There Were None, but retitling where they want to make the theme more prominent... so Hickory Dickory Dock became the oh-so-subtle Hickory Dickory Death.  I love that...
  • Whoever reprinted Noel Streatfeild's children's books was really keen to capitalise on the success of Ballet Shoes. I was reading her Wikipedia page the other day, and saw that The Circus is Coming became Circus Shoes; Curtain Up became Theater Shoes; Party Frock became Party Shoes, The Painted Garden became Movie Shoes, The Bell Family became Family Shoes (ugh); Wintle's Wonders became Dancing Shoes; Apple Bough became Traveling Shoes.  Even White Boots wasn't considered on-message enough, and became Skating Shoes.
  • The one that makes me crossest... E.M. Delafield's Straw Without Bricks: I Visit Soviet Russia hasn't appeared under that title for a while... Someone decided at some point that it would be a good idea to call it The Provincial Lady in Russia, which is incredibly misleading because (1) it doesn't feature the Provincial Lady, and (2) it's a very different sort of book.  It's quite funny, but it's not a comic book - it's not even a fictional one.  Tut tut, somebody, tut tut.

Over to you, as usual!  Come across any retitling horrors?

Monday 3 March 2014

Patricia Brent, Spinster - Herbert Jenkins

Although I love all the books on my 50 Books You Must Read list, I freely admit that some are better than others, as regards literary merit.  Some are simply on there because they are incredibly fun and a delight to read - and Herbert Jenkins' 1918 novel Patricia Brent, Spinster is among that number.

One of the things I love most about literary discussion online - be it on blogs or email groups or whatever - is that occasionally an unlikely novel will take centre stage.  As I read in a sage review somewhere (I forget where), somebody in the blogosphere always seems to be discovering Barbara Comyns.  Ditto with Shirley Jackson, and similar unexpected enthusiasms have been launched for books like Saki's The Unbearable Bassington, Diana Tutton's Guard Your Daughters, and (of course) Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker. I don't remember quite where I first heard of Patricia Brent, Spinster, but I do know that last year lots of people in my Yahoo group were reading it, and that Thomas compared it to Miss Hargreaves. So it was one of them.  Right, let's get onto the book itself, shall we?

Although officially I disapprove of lying, I love it when characters lie in books and TV shows - especially when they do it badly, or it leads to all sorts of unintended consequences.  It's such a great device, perhaps because, rather than dealing with an enemy or antagonist, the victim has caused their own chaos - and thus must steer things back onto the right path.  It's the starting point of Miss Hargreaves, and it is the starting point of Patricia Brent, Spinster.

I had assumed that Patricia Brent would be in her dotage - such are the connotations of 'spinster' - but in actual fact she is only in her early 20s.  Thus she is rather outraged when she overhears the older residents of her boarding-house talk pityingly about her being 27 and alone.  As Jenkins writes later in the novel:
A book could be written on the boarding-house mind, I think.  It moves in a vicious circle.  If someone would only break out and give the poor dears something to talk about.
Well, this is precisely what Patricia does.  Without giving it much thought, beyond the triumph of the moment, she announces to the assembled ladies and gents that she is off for dinner with her fiancée.  Her plan is simple - she will take a taxi to a fancy restaurant, eat alone, and return having scored a point.  Of course, she couldn't have predicted that two of the women would find out where she would be eating, and follow her there...

Unable to admit to the lie, Patricia takes a different step - one which severs any attachment the novel might have had to real life - and plonks herself down at the table of a man eating alone, whispering to him to play along.  Rather than look startled or call the manager (as you or I might do), he is game - and they have rather a fun evening.

Peter Bowen is the man in question, an officer and a gentleman (or something like that), and - would you believe it? - he falls in love with her.  The rest of Patricia Brent, Spinster follows her reluctant realisation that she loves him too, and... well, you can probably guess everything that happens.

Not a moment of it is plausible from beginning to end - and, because it is consistently absurd, it is a total delight.  A likely incident would have ruined the whole thing, just as a moment of pathos deflates a farce.  Nobody seems to speak or behave as anybody outside a novel would, but Jenkins has created a masterpiece, in his own way.

You might not expect to love something of this ilk, but I defy you not to be charmed by it.  Along the way we meet Patricia's aunt, her oft-stated 'sole surviving relative', who is every bit as interfering as you'd hope.  Bowen has a kind, wise, witty sister of the sort which cheerfully cluttered up the Edwardian era; Patricia's political employer (she is a secretary) has a simple-but-honest father.  Nothing here is too original, but all is wonderful - and the writing is just as fun.  This sort of thing:
Mr. Cordal grunted, which may have meant anything, but in all probability meant nothing.
Oh, I loved it.  It's a breath of fresh air, and as abundantly silly and heart-warming as you could possibly desire.  There are quite a few secondhand copies available (I got mine, with its bizarre dustjacket, for £1 in Felixstowe) but it's also free on Kindle.  I'm not the first to cry the joys of Patricia et al, but I am among its most vociferous supporters.

Saturday 1 March 2014

A surprise on the shelf

Do you ever just go and look along your bookshelves, reminding yourself of the exciting and interesting books you've been meaning to read?  It generally fills me half with joy that they're there, and despair that I don't have time to read them immediately.  But it's also fun to pull things off the shelf, re-read the blurb, remember where you bought, ponder on how good they might end up being...

Today I did that with an author I've intended to read more of for ages - Janet Frame. I read a collection of her short stories four years ago, and have bought a fair few over the years.  One of the most intriguing was The Adaptable Man, with this blurb:
Electricity is coming to Little Burgelstatham, cottages are being modernised and the Overspill from London is starting to encroach on the village.  While some would rather live in the past, Muriel Baldry welcomes the coming of electricity, as she can now hang her Venini Chandelier and organise a dinner party to celebrate it.  But does adapting to the twentieth century demand darker deeds?
This is a vividly portrayed and poetic novel with a beautifully balanced sense of the ridiculous.
That sounds wonderfully up my street - odd and quirky, but still domestic and parochial.  I moved it to my 'must read soonish' pile. In fact, I think I'll read it for Kim's ANZ Reading Week (extended to include New Zealand this year.)  And then I spotted this...

Well, that was a nice surprise!