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octreads

October has been a fairly good reading month, finished off as it has been by a week’s half term holiday I spent in Devon with my family. I became frustrated during the month with the pressure I had put on myself to read books I felt I should be reading, and have pledged to do better at simply reading what I want (as much as possible). I didn’t manage to read my book group’s October choice, despite thinking it looked interesting, I knew I wouldn’t be at the meeting, and so the book got forgotten.

Here’s the list:
99 The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher (2014) Hilary Mantel (F)
100 The Constant Nymph (1924) Margaret Kennedy (F)
101 Books do Furnish a Room (1971) Anthony Powell (F)
102 The Ladies of Lyndon (1923) Margaret Kennedy (F)
103 Enter a Murderer (1935) Ngaio Marsh (F)
104 The Tortoise and the Hare (1954) Elizabeth Jenkins (F)
105 The Pierced Heart (2014) Lynn Shepherd (F)
106 Books (2013) Charlie Hill (F)
107 Operation Heartbreak (1950) Duff Cooper (F)
108 The Visioning (1911) Susan Glaspell (F)
109 Moriarty (2014) Anthony Horowitz (F)

As you can see – still not reading Non-fiction – my worst year ever for non-fiction – and I never read much. Reviews of those last two books I read will be along soon.

My stand out reads for October:

The Constant Nymph – the first read for Margaret Kennedy reading week and my first book by her ever – what joy to discover a new author.
The Tortoise and the Hare – Elizabeth Jenkins – a wonderful novel, really rather masterful it’s quite Elizabeth Taylor like, a novel of domestic disharmony.
Operation Heartbreak – Duff Cooper, a poignant little Persephone novel, with an unforgettable central character and an ending that was inspired by true events.

So then on to November,  as the year draws nearer its end, the nights get darker and here in England we huddle by our fires or radiators looking for the kinds of books that always seem to suit long winter evenings. I may just crack open something of the sort.
20141024_220431On November 10th begins the group read of Elizabeth Bowen’s The Hotel, which I talked about here, this is a novel I am really looking forward to, and also looking forward to talking about it with fellow readers. My book group read for November is The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, those of you who know my reading preferences, won’t be surprised to hear I’ve not read him before. I am looking forward to it though, it looks rather good. I will of course be reading my eleventh Anthony Powell novel; Temporary Kings. What else I read remains to be seen.

Please let me know what you will be reading, I always love to know.

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Operation Heartbreak is one of Persephone book’s older titles; book number 51, a slim little volume,  gloriously written, it is quietly and unforgettably poignant, its title very apt indeed, as I finished with a little lump in my throat.

Willie Maryngton is a man with the heart and soul of a soldier. Born in 1900, he is just too young to fight in WW1 – having eventually received his commission, he is ready to go to France just as the armistice is signed – and too old for WW2. Willie was born into a military family, his father, a soldier, was killed when Willie was just fourteen.

Willie’s father had made his best friend, Willie’s guardian, however he too is killed in that first terrible war that took Willie’s father. The widow of Willie’s guardian, however, takes Willie into her home, and brings him up alongside her two sons and daughter. It is a happy home; Willie enjoys a close friendship with Garnet, Horry and Felicity, that will survive into middle-age.

“That afternoon Horry accompanied Willie to London. The sorrows of youth, like the sorrows of childhood, although they may leave deep wounds and lasting scars, can be quickly, if only temporarily banished by other distractions. Among the crowds that thronged the streets that day, waving flags and cheering vociferously, there were few who waved more enthusiastically or cheered louder than Willie, who had felt a few hours earlier that there was nothing left to live for on earth.”

Willie is utterly devastated to have his military ambitions thwarted by the end of the First World War, and this sets the young man off on the road to a lifetime of disappointment. Despite the end of the war, Willie remains in the regiment he joined just before hostilities ended. Willie is a romantic about warfare, almost pitifully so, having missed out on one war, he spends the next twenty-one years longing for another chance to honour his father and serve his country. This is an idea that many people (especially today) will find difficult to reconcile. Yet somehow Willie remains a sympathetic character, his romanticism however misplaced never wavers, he is a career soldier, who never goes into battle. As a young officer Willie is a popular and cheerful member of the regiment, a keen horseman, who shudders at the idea of a mechanised army of tanks – the future according to many of his colleagues.

As the years pass, Willie enjoys a few years of service in India, where he also experiences his first doomed love affair. Following a shorter period of service in Egypt, Willie heads home to continue his service in England. Here he meets up again after several years’ absence with Horry and Felicity, and later Garnet, his foster family. Felicity and her brother Horry are both on the stage, and this bohemian and free lifestyle suits Felicity rather more than marriage is ever likely to. So although Felicity remains a constant though unreliable presence in his life, Willie is destined to be disappointed even in his love for her. Poor Willie is forced to endure service alongside men just a few years older than him, who saw action in the First World War, who having risen above the rank of major (Willie stuck at Captain) get to command units overseas when the Second World War eventually comes. Willie’s life is a series of deep and hurting disappointments, these do take their toll and he gradually becomes a sadder man, kept in London during the Second World War – retaining still his rank of captain.

“When he awoke next morning to a dark December day and found himself in his bleak, ill-kept bachelor flat, with no very clear recollection of how he had got there, he felt that he had reached the lowest rung on the ladder of depression. There was even a moment when he contemplated putting an end to his life, but he remembered having once heard his father say that to commit suicide was the act of a coward, and therefore whatever fate might befall him, he knew he must face it rather than run away.”

I don’t want to say anything much about the ending of this novel, however – whatever you do, if you are reading this book don’t read the last twenty – twenty five pages or so on the bus. It is gloriously; beautifully poignant, based upon some true events of the Second World War. The ending alone, means I will not forget Willie Maryngton in a hurry, and I will, almost certainly read this book again one day.

duffcooper

books

I love books about books, I love books about bookshops and I love books set in my city of Birmingham, so with this book ticking all of these boxes I was delighted to be contacted by the author with the offer of a review copy.

The premise of this satire on literary culture is that mediocrity kills; bad art in other words really is very bad for you.

Books is very well written, sharply, satirically clever and brilliantly imagined, however the style is also a little outside my comfort zone. I am not very good with this kind of voice, a cynical, urban, modern male. I also don’t really read modern satire, I realise now that is just not my bag. I actually enjoyed the book initially, but eventually the narrative voice got on my nerves. There is really nothing wrong with this novel at all, and I am unsurprised by the number of glowing reviews I have found of it elsewhere, it is a book which will have wide appeal. I am just not sure that I am the right audience for it, and so probably not the right person to be reviewing. I will do my best however as I am sure other people will enjoy it more than I did.

“The book looked doomed, assailed on all sides by those who’d see it superseded by the synthetic-new and those who didn’t give two shiny ones. With the recession forging ahead with renewed vigour, bookselling too was going the way of papyrus, taking with it what was left of Richard’s self-esteem, his beer money and his comedic persona.”

Richard Anger is a Birmingham bookseller, the owner of Back Street Books, a frustrated short story writer verging on the alcoholic. When Richard takes a holiday to Corfu, he is witness to the sudden death of a tourist who dies of a mysterious brain condition, the first death in a series of similar incidents. Here Richard meets Lauren Furrows, a neurologist also from Birmingham. Lauren is immediately interested in the cause of the tourist’s death and upon her return to the University of Birmingham begins her investigations. Having originally been fairly underwhelmed in her first impressions of Richard while in Corfu, Lauren now finds him to be of unexpected help to her. Lauren’s research concerns a brain condition SNAPS (Spontaneous Neural Atrophy Syndrome) that has recently become more prevalent, a condition which seems just like those that occurred in Corfu.

One clue they have is that the holiday maker who died was reading a manuscript of best-selling author Gary Sayles, his first three, long, mediocre novels now recently re-issued in an omnibus edition in preparation of his new release. It is Richard who first comes up with the theory that mediocre books are responsible, bad books literally killing people. Richard decides that Gary Sayles must be stopped, his new book is just days from release, and his publicity machine is in over drive, Sayles is sure of a monster hit. It is then a race against time to stop Sayles, alert the unsuspecting reading public, and prevent the deaths that must surely follow.

“Three days later review copies of The Grass is Greener began to arrive at newspaper offices, bookshops and the homes of bloggers. Within twelve hours the reviewers began to die.
A pointlessly detailed passage in Chapter 3, in which the hero of the piece argues with his wife during a Bank Holiday trip to IKEA, accounted for a part-time-critic-about-town on the Bristol Evening Star; Chapter 4’s barely credible description of a drunken seduction and one-night-stand did for a contributor to Beach Reads R Us!; and the Books Editor of the Glasgow Chronicle passed away after becoming cognitively becalmed during the course of a particularly laborious pun in Chapter 5.”

Meanwhile conceptual London artists Pippa and Zeke also have Gary Sayles on their radar, as part of an audacious undercover project involving assumed names and a camera inside a holdall. Their objective is to completely destroy Sayles’ reputation and change the face of art in the process.

It is through Richard’s weary and slightly jaundiced eye, however, that the reader sees various aspects of the book industry, the publicity, the book blogger, the independent bookseller struggling against the might of the internet. Sayles is the worst kind of self-promotional moron, believing his own hype, yet really not that clever himself. Richard, on the other hand, is a book snob, his own short stories so experimental as to be utterly unreadable.

charliehillCharlie Hill has written a very acutely observed novel which pokes a pretty sharp stick at aspects of the book industry, which when you think about it, is a pretty brave thing to do. Hill is quite obviously a book lover, one who I can only assume has had reason to become frustrated with the way his industry has developed, and I think there are probably a lot of book lovers out there who have felt similarly.

 

drowninginbooks
Don’t panic, yes of course I’m reading, it’s just I feel as if I’m not reading fast enough, and not reading the right books. The right books? Don’t you ever have a little list of books in your head – that list of books that really should be up next – they are the books I mean. I suppose I feel I keep getting drawn to books that I have had on my bookcase a while, books that let’s face it are really not going anywhere. These are the books which take me away from what I feel duty bound to read; review copies, books from friends, books I have borrowed from the library and really shouldn’t just keep renewing. It seems I have a little book devil sitting on my shoulder, who jumps up and runs along my bookshelves squealing “read this next, read this next.” Sometimes spontaneity feels a bit naughty, but it shouldn’t be should it?

As a huge book lover, I think I sometimes put myself under a bit of pressure. I join reading events, I host my own reading events, I occasionally accept review copies, I want to keep this blog regularly updated, and read and comment on other blogs – phew, well there are only so many hours in a day, and I’ve not even mentioned reading yet. Don’t misunderstand me, I am still as enthusiastic as ever about my bookish activities, but I really need to learn not to put too much pressure on myself. I recently took the decision to cull a few review copies, having had them for months and not read, I feel terrible for accepting them in the first place, but on skimming over the first few pages, I find I really don’t want to read them. I could force myself, but do publishers and authors really want reviews of books I have read under sufferance? – Probably not. I’m not going to list titles, not sure that would be entirely fair. Is this a terrible thing to do? Incidently they are books from a large publisher, I am sure one review less will make no earthly difference to anyone.

Is it just me? Or do you all find it hard to keep all those bookish plates spinning? I think I might have blogged about many of these issues before, it certainly feels as if I’ve said all this before. Sorry if I’m repeating myself.

20141023_202041One recent problem that has reared its head is my reaction to some modern novels, I feel as if I am becoming less tolerant of modern fiction – maybe a certain kind of middle of the road modern fiction, I have found myself mildly disappointed in books that I was looking forward to. This is particularly worrying as I have several very new books – both review copies, and ones I have bought that I am really looking forward to; I can’t bear to think I may be disappointed in them too. I find that I retreat gratefully to the books I have faith in, the books of the 1930’s the 1950’s, they often come in dove grey and vintage dark green jackets, so often the voices of these books resonate most strongly with me.

 

Still I am going to read some of these over the next few weeks, fingers crossed they are as wonderful as I want them to be. I probably just need to recognise when I am not in a modern novel mood, and not try to read a modern novel. Bookish appetites need to be adhered to.

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Although I read more old books than new books, I do like to keep abreast of at least some of what’s new. So far this year, I have actually read about twenty eight books published in the last two years – out of a total of a hundred and six books read so far, with another handful published a few years before that, which is quite a lot of modern books for me I think.

Do you ever feel that you’re drowning in books, events, reviews, juggling time and commitments? How do you prioritise? – or do you read strictly by mood?

piercedheart

With thanks to the publishers for providing me with an ebook review copy via NetGalley.

Lynn Shepherd fans will already know that each of her novels have as their inspiration a classic work of literature. Murder at Mansfield Park fairly obviously Mansfield Park, Tom-All-Alone’s; Bleak House, A Treacherous Likeness, took as its inspiration Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the lives of those concerned with that infamous Swiss holiday . Now The Pierced Heart plays homage to Dracula, Bram Stoker’s classic gothic novel while also drawing on the real life story of a mysterious scientist.

As the novel opens in 1851, Charles Maddox; thief taker is on his way to Austria, to the remote castle of the mysterious Baron Von Reisenberg. Maddox’s simple seeming mission is to verify the antecedents of the Baron, following his offer of a large donation towards the upkeep of the Bodleian Library. The custodians not wishing to turn down a donation nevertheless need to be sure of where exactly it has come from. Maddox is saddened and depressed man, following the tragic death of his lover, and welcomes the chance to escape from London for a short time.

“That night the nightmares return, and brutally. Charles wakes before dawn to the sound of his own voice crying and bed sheets sodden with sweat. He lurches up, wiping the tears from his face, and sits a moment breathing heavily. “

The Baron’s castle is a very forbidding place, where the Baron a reclusive scientist conducts research into sleepwalking. It isn’t long before Maddox discovers that there is a very dark side to the Baron, who has secrets he hadn’t wanted Maddox to discover, when Charles finds his way into a private chamber momentarily left unlocked, his difficulties with the Baron really begin. The locals are superstitious and Maddox comes to hear some of the tales told in whispers about the Baron, and of a local girl found dead beneath the high castle walls. These stories concern the legend of Nosferatu, the strigoi, the Undead, stories Charles Maddox treats with amused condescension. Maddox’s stay at the castle ends with Charles being mauled by a terrifying dog before being carted off to an asylum.

“I am becoming a thing of darkness. My eyes are too weak to bear even the dim glow that comes when he opens the door, and I recoil from it in pain, as I recoil from his touch. I can no longer even see his face, as the light streams in behind him and he seems monstrous, like a fiend of some half-forgotten myth…”

Interspersed with the story of Maddox’s ill-fated trip to Austria (and his eventual return to London) is Lucy’s story told in the form of her journal entries. Lucy is the daughter of an illusionist; the two have been living on the continent for much of Lucy’s life, making their living from a Phantasmagoria show. Now they are on their way back to England, for Lucy is suffering from a mysterious malady, for which her father wishes her only to recover. Lucy and her father return to Whitby, where Lucy’s mother is buried, and where Lucy makes her first real friend. One day, Lucy’s father brings a man to their home, who claims he can help Lucy finally recover from her strange illness. Lucy’s story is naturally caught up with that of the Baron, and events that take place in London a couple of months later. (Readers of the other books in the Maddox series will be left gaping at the end, desperate no doubt for the next instalment).

Back in London and meeting up again with his old friend Sam (now sergeant) Wheeler, Maddox finds himself drawn into the investigation for a brutal killer, a killer who is mutilating the bodies of young women in a very particular way. The investigation takes Maddox into the halls of the Great Exhibition, as the murders begin to look as if they may have a connection with Baron Von Reisenberg, who is now also in London.

The Pierced Heart is a must for fans of gothic stories, particularly Dracula, in this novel Lynn shepherd weaves together stories of gothic superstition and scientific discovery. As with her previous novels Lynn Shepherd has put her own spin on the classic novel that inspired it, with The Pierced Heart she has given a lovely, sharp little twist to the myth that surrounds Dracula and the gothic vampire tale. Perfect reading for these late October evenings, The Pierced Heart is an atmospheric page turner, that fans of those earlier Maddox novels will enjoy.

lynnshepherd

Thetortoiseandthehare

The Tortoise and the Hare was Elizabeth Jenkin’s sixth novel, one which was described to me recently as a forgotten masterpiece. I have had a copy for a while so I absolutely had to read it right away. My only other experience of Elizabeth Jenkins was in the novel Harriet – published by Persephone books. Of her writing Hilary Mantel – in her introduction to this edition says:

“…she is like Jane Austen: formal, nuanced, acid. She surveys a room as if she were perched on the mantelpiece: an unruffled owl of Minerva, a recording angel”

The Tortoise and the Hare is a subtle, beautifully written novel of psychological depth and great insight. It is the story of a marriage – and its decline.

Evelyn and Imogen Gresham are a conventional upper middle class married couple, they live comfortably in the country with their eleven year old son, and Evelyn, a successful lawyer spends most of his week up in London. Imogen is quite a bit younger than her fifty two year old husband; she’s beautiful and gentle, quick to tears and her ignorance of country pursuits and her love of pretty things over valuable things have begun to irritate Evelyn. Within her marriage Imogen has become a pacifier, a keeper of the peace, deferring to Evelyn in everything. Evelyn has very definite expectations of his domestic life, comforts he feels are his due, at work everything runs to his exacting standards – he wants nothing less than that at home. Young Gavin, the Gresham’s son, soon off to prep school, is a pretty vile child; he has shown his mother on several occasions that he considers her to be pretty useless. He has the arrogant contempt of a male child, who has learned a lot of bad habits from its father; Imogen almost seems to accept her son’s view of her with very little resistance. Gavin’s friend Tim Leeper is the only person to fully appreciate Imogen; he is a sad little scrap, a sensitive child of a chaotic bohemian household, who spend little time ensuring the well-being of their offspring. Tim spends more and more time at the Gresham home, and even after Gavin goes off to school, Tim spends part of each day with Imogen.

“Imogen went into the house. From the end window of her bedroom she looked out on the drive, a yellow gravelled circus surrounded by evergreens. The gate was pushed back against a box hedge, and standing with one hand on it, Evelyn was talking to Blanche Silcox, a neighbour who lived behind the hanger. She was on the way to the post in the village, it seemed, for she held several envelopes in her leather-gauntleted hand. The tweed suit, expensive but of singular cut, increased the breadth of her middle-aged figure. She appeared kind and unassuming, which made it the more strange that her hats should be so very intimidating.”

The Gresham’s nearest neighbour is Blanche Silcox, a spinster of about fifty, very comfortably off, she understands the countryside and its sports, she does voluntary work, and is a pillar of the local community. Blanche is a tweedy, lumpish woman, viewed as elderly by the beautiful, graceful Imogen; Miss Silcox with her masculine voice, wears odd hats and gloves like gauntlets, she is certainly not an obvious threat. Between Evelyn and Blanche there has over time developed a close friendship, Blanche enjoys giving Evelyn lifts to and from the station, in her Rolls Royce – as Imogen doesn’t drive, they both appreciate the same things and Blanche proves to know exactly how to make Evelyn comfortable.

“Imogen,” he said with forced patience, “you have plenty of occupations of your own, and you don’t care to do the things that give a great deal of pleasure to me – when I have time to do them. You don’t want to fish or shoot and you can’t drive my car, which would be a help to me sometimes. Am I to understand that you object to my having the companionship of another woman who can do these things?”

One of Imogen’s closest friends is Paul Nugent is also a middle aged man married to a much younger woman, only his wife Primrose – quickly decided she had made a bad bargain, and shuns her husband, largely living her own life. Paul tentatively suggests to Imogen who has always had her beauty to rely upon, that she might not understand what it is that men fall in love with. It is some time before Imogen fully realises what it was her friend was trying to tell her. Imogen’s other friend, Cecil ( a woman) is certain that Evelyn has taken Blanche as his mistress, and with Cecil’s help, Imogen discovers that Blanche has a flat in London, not far from Evelyn’s chambers.

As Blanche comes to mean more and more to Evelyn, assisting Gavin with his riding lessons, hosting glamorous lunches for Evelyn in London and even making subtle changes in her own home that will please him, Imogen has to wake up to what is happening. However Imogen’s self-esteem has taken an almighty battering and she is no match for the newly energised sexually assured Blanche Silcox.

The Tortoise and the Hare – is a superbly written novel of 1950’s domestic disharmony, and female sensuality. Jenkins’ characters are brilliantly explored, and the erosion of Imogen’s self-belief is quite heart-breaking. Alongside Imogen’s childlike sensuality, and Blanche’s determined aggressive sexuality is Tim Leeper’s aunt; Zenobia and her siren like sensuality a woman who believes all men will fall in love with her.

Hilary Mantel compares Jenkins to Austen, and also to Sybille Bedford and Rebecca West, possibly, but this novel is certainly very Elizabeth Taylor, acutely observed, quietly devastating and absolutely brilliant.

ELIZABETHjENKINS

thebooker2014The Booker Prize has been a source of fascination to me for a number of years, and I have enjoyed reading some of the nominated books each year and speculating on who would win. I don’t know why the Booker above all other prizes fascinated me so much (I do also enjoy the buzz that surrounds the Women’s Prize), but something about it captured my imagination.

This year was different however. First they changed the rules of writers eligible to win– and I couldn’t decide what I thought about that. Certainly I’m all for equality and opening things up to everyone – generally in life, but I felt like they had changed the Booker suddenly. I couldn’t explain why, but I didn’t like it. It’s like allowing American competitors to take part in the Commonwealth Games, the competition would fundamentally change. Then later when the long list was announced there was a lot of justifiable comment on social media about how few women were nominated, and the complicated submission rules. I think all the grumbling and controversy put me off the whole thing rather. Determined to take my usual interest (I don’t usually try to read the whole long or short list – but I generally read two or three) I downloaded to my kindle, The Blazing Word by Siri Hustvedt and We are all Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler – two of the American authors long listed. I didn’t get on with Hustvedt at all- giving up at 18% and have yet to try the Karen Joy Fowler, of which I have heard mixed reports. After that I rather grumpily ignored the whole thing.

thenarrowroad tothe deepnorthOn the night the winner was announced I was watching the new series of The Apprentice, and not really thinking about the imminent announcement. Usually I would have watched/listened live if the announcement was being broadcast, and joined in the excited speculation on Twitter. As it happens just minutes after the announcement was made, I glanced at my Twitter feed and saw the winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize was Richard Flanagan for The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Something about that poetic title piqued my interest. I looked the book up, and downloaded it to my kindle  minutes later. Last year I read the Booker winner over half term, and I may do that this year though I am juggling a few review copies that I really need and want to read soon.

So it seems I have got over my little tantrum, and I may after all complete my Booker project which I began quite a number of years ago. The challenge: merely to read everything that had ever won. I still have several of the unread Booker winners on my TBR bookcase, but I don’t think I have read any Booker winning novels since I laid aside the glorious The Luminaries last October.

As well as this year’s winner – I still have these nine to read: four of which I have had on my shelves for a long time.

1994 – James Kelman, How Late It Was, How Late
1986 – Kingsley Amis, The Old Devils
1980 – William Golding, Rites of Passage
1976 – David Storey, Saville
1974 – Nadine Gordimer, The Conservationist
1974 – Stanley Middleton, Holiday (joint winners)
1972 – John Berger, G
1970 – Bernice Rubens, The Elected Member
1969 – P H Newby, Something to Answer For20141019_102143

Maybe I’ll do it one day, but some of those titles rather intimidate me. And still I can’t explain what it is about the booker that has interested for so long; I haven’t even liked all the books. Considering how many ‘old books’ I read the Booker shouldn’t be something that I’m all that bothered about, but it seems I am after all, not entirely cured of my fascination of the Booker Prize.

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