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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.

enter a murderer

First published in 1935 Enter a Murderer was the second novel to feature Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn. Over the last few years I have read quite a number of Marsh’s Alleyn novels, but I don’t think it matters that I haven’t been reading them in the right order. This novel finds us in Ngaio Marsh’s beloved theatre – a world she was very much at home in and which played an important part in her life. Several of Nagio Marsh’s novels have a theatrical setting; a setting I do think suits a murder mystery beautifully. Although she was the author of something like thirty detective novels, the theatre was Ngaio Marsh’s first love. As both an actress and a producer, she was instrumental in reviving the New Zealand public interest in the theatre.

“His face reflected, horribly, the surprise on Surbonadier’s. He stood looking foolishly at the gun in his hand and then let it fall to the floor. He turned, bewildered, and peering at the audience as though asking a question. He looked at the stage exits as if he meditated an escape.”

Nephew of an unsavoury theatre owner, Jacob Saint, slimy Arthur Surbonadier is a good but not especially gifted actor, he has ambition however, ambition he wants his uncle to help him realise. Already trying to manipulate his fellow cast members to his own advantage, Surbonadier now turns his hand to blackmail as he attempts to secure for himself what he considers to be a better role.

A week into the run of Jacob Saint’s production of The Rat and the Beaver at the Unicorn theatre, journalist Nigel Bathgate invites his friend Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn to accompany him to an evening at the theatre, meeting some of the cast before the show. One particular scene in the play requires some careful choreography as a shot from the wings must be heard at the exact moment a gun is apparently fired into the chest of Surbonadier’s character onstage. While backstage, before the evening’s performance, Alleyn overhears discussion about the dummy bullets, he is also witness to Surbonadier’s unpleasant drunkenness and the atmosphere between him and his fellow cast members. Playing the part of the man who holds the gun is Felix Gardener, a friend of Nigel Bathgate’s and Surbonadier’s rival for the attentions of beautiful leading lady Stephanie Vaughan. So when the shot is fired onstage at the end of the play, and Surbonadier is found to be really dead, it is Nigel’s friend, actor Felix Gardener who is holding the smoking gun. Having moments earlier been sat in the audience, Alleyn is immediately propelled into investigation, with young Bathgate riding shotgun.

“The rest of the cast followed in turn. Barclay Crammer gave a good all-round performance of a heart-broken gentleman of the old school. Janet Emerald achieved the feat known to leading ladies as ‘running through the gamut of emotions.’ Asked to account for the striking discrepancies between her statement and those of Miss Max and the stage manager, she wept unfeignedly and said her heart was broken. The coroner stared at her coldly, and told her she was an unsatisfactory witness. Miss Deamer was youthfully sincere, and used a voice with an effective little broken gasp. Her evidence was supremely irrelevant. The stage manager and Miss Max were sensible and direct. Props looked and behaved so precisely like a murderer, that he left the box in a perfect gale of suspicion. Trixie Beadle struck the ‘I was an innocent girl’ note, but was obviously frightened and was treated gently.”

There certainly appears to be a number of people with a good motive for getting rid of the odious Surbonadier, among both cast and backstage hands. Alleyn has a complex case to investigate, in which he was also a witness, Alleyn is ably assisted as ever by the marvellous Inspector Fox (who we don’t see quite enough of in this one).

Ngaio Marsh is a very good novelist, her mysteries, on the whole are excellent, and this isn’t the first of her books set in the theatre I have read, Enter a Murderer is good too, but it isn’t her best. I found myself irritated by Nigel Bathgate, more so in this one than in other novels where he has trailed along after Alleyn. The denouement is satisfactorily difficult to work out, but for me it was the brilliantly portrayed theatrical setting which remains the star in this early Marsh novel.

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ladiesoflyndon

The Ladies of Lyndon was Margaret Kennedy’s first novel, coming a year before her best known work The Constant Nymph. In this novel Margaret Kennedy explores themes she would revisit later in The Constant Nymph; unsatisfactorily matched partners within a socially conventional marriage, fidelity and artistic temperaments.

The novel opens as charming, innocent Agatha Cocks prepares to marry Sir John Clewer, a man twelve years her senior – who has satisfactorily swept the eighteen year old Agatha off her feet. The two have spent very little time together alone, and their knowledge of one another is limited. Agatha’s mother, who approves of young girls marrying early, before they have had time to form their own independent opinions, is delighted, particularly as Agatha had a brief aborted romance with her cousin, Gerald two years earlier, and whom she hasn’t entirely put behind her.

“He wished that she would not look at him so sorrowfully. Too intolerably reminiscent, she was, of the woman he had lost. He must either fly from her or challenge her. If he held his ground an instant longer he must attempt some master word which would bring this ghost to life.”

In marrying John, Agatha will become Lady Clewer, and mistress of the great country house of Lyndon. She will also become part of a large and complex extended family, which includes John’s stepmother Lady Clewer, his brother James, stepsister Lois and half-sister Cynthia. Before meeting James, Agatha has been told how difficult to manage John’s brother is. Both Agatha and the reader is given to understand that James is dreadfully ugly, of limited intelligence and unpredictable behaviour, that the family have to manage him the best they can, and that Lady Clewer has been an angel at ministering to the needs of her poor unfortunate stepson. However it is soon apparent that though James may not be particularly good looking, there is nothing wrong with him barring a certain unconventional, eccentricity, and his sometimes unpredictable behaviour stems from his artistic temperament and the treatment he is subjected to by his family. (Today I suspect James may be seen as suffering from Asperger’s syndrome).

“Too tired to think, she smoked several cigarettes and fell into a sort of chilly doze. Her childish mind, straying unhappily through the void like a lost bird, circled inevitably towards the thought of Lyndon. It was an ark, a shelter of comfort and solace. “

Three years after her marriage to John, Agatha finds she loves her home of Lyndon, but following the death of her baby becomes less and less able to settle into her role as a conventional aristocratic wife. John is simply the wrong husband for Agatha, he is not an unkind or unpleasant man, he is a little reserved, and like several minor characters we don’t get to know him all that well. Overall though it is the characters and their stories that are absolutely at the heart of this novel, I particularly liked James and Dolly as well as Agatha herself, who is portrayed with great sympathy. The two matriarchs Mrs Cocks and (the dowager) Lady Clewer are also brilliantly portrayed, their societal expectations, snobberies and competitiveness are wonderfully drawn.

Lyndon, with its beautiful, indolent mistress, is a favourite haunt of several society people, among them, the man Agatha’s sister-in-law Lois will marry, James, and even Agatha’s cousin, Gerald. Agatha and Gerald’s friendship is re-kindled, and they spend a lot of time together during Gerald’s visits. James meanwhile sets his sights on Dolly, a housemaid, the niece of the woman who had helped care for him, and with whom he had played when he was a child at Lyndon, he now can’t see why society should keep them apart.

James and Dolly marry and set up home in a cottage, with a studio for James in a small workshop, but with Agatha and John not having had any more children James remains John’s heir. Agatha flouts convention by making a friend of Dolly and under the influence of Gerald’s left wing principles enjoys visiting the couple in their simple, happy home. After the war, Agatha’s friendship with Gerald has become the subject of much family gossip and speculation, with a visit to Cynthia and her husband Sir Thomas’s home bringing everything to a head.

Margaret Kennedy skilfully brings the Edwardian aristocratic world to life with acute observation, some humour and superbly realistic dialogue. As a first novel; The Ladies of Lyndon is very impressive indeed.

Following Jane’s wonderful Margaret Kennedy reading week, I am definitely ripe for more, how lovely it is to discover a new author.

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booksdofurnisharoom

Books Do Furnish a Room, is the first book in the last movement of Anthony Powell’s twelve novel sequence, the tenth book overall. As we enter the dance’s winter movement; Nick Jenkins  is now a middle aged man. In this fabulously titled novel, Anthony Powell explores the literary world of the mid to late 1940’s.

One of the things I noticed about this novel is due perhaps to the time in which Powell was writing. The first novel, A Question of Upbringing was published in 1951, this novel published twenty years later. In those early novels, Powell sometimes masks some aspects of his characters behaviour in a slight fog of ambiguity. In this novel, although Anthony Powell’s superb style remains largely unchanged, there is a slightly more modern feel in how Anthony Powell refers to matters of a slightly unsavoury or sexual nature.

The novel opens very soon after the end of the war – the last novel ended with Nick Jenkins’ demobilisation. Nick at the age of forty, returns to his university library to do some research for a biography he is writing. Here he meets Sillery again; the manipulative old don who Jenkins and his friends all encountered as young men.

“To enter Sillery’s sitting room after twenty years was to drive a relatively deep fissure through variegated seams of Time. The faintly laundry-cupboard odour, as one came through the door, generated in turn the taste of the rock-buns dispensed at those tea parties, their gritty indeterminate flavour once more dehydrating the palate. The props round about designed for Sillery’s nightly performance remained almost entirely unaltered. Eroded loose-covers of immemorially springless armchairs still precariously endured; wide perforations frayed long since in the stretch of carpet before the door, only a trifle more hazardous to the unwary walker. As might be expected, the framed photographs of jaunty young men had appreciably increased, several of the new arrivals in uniform, one in a turban, two or three American.”

Sillery is now nearing eighty and has a new secretary, Ada Leintwardine who has been tasked with writing up Sillery’s diaries. Ada however has her own literary ambitions. Quiggin, a former writer, has now set up his own publishing house with Howard Craggs. The rather fabulous title of this book, is taken from the character of Bagshaw, nicknamed ‘books do furnish a room Bagshaw’ sometimes merely referred to as ‘books’. Bagshaw is to be the editor of Fission a new literary magazine to be brought out by publishers Craggs and Quiggin.

Jenkins brother in law Erridge dies suddenly and at Erridge’s funeral – to which Widmerpool and his unlikely wife arrive late in company of Lady Craggs; who turns out to be none other than Gypsy Jones – Quiggin offers Nick a position at the magazine. Pamela Widmerpool causes some disturbance by apparently becoming unwell, which causes a fair bit of speculation. At the party to launch the new magazine, Jenkins meets the writer X Trapnel, the Widmerpools are also in attendance, and Trapnel obviously dislikes Widmerpool although is immediately taken with Pamela.

Trapnel wanted, among other things, to be a writer, a dandy, a lover, a comrade, an eccentric, a sage, a virtuoso, a good chap, a man of honour, a hard case, a spendthrift, an opportunist, a raisonneur; to be very rich, to be very poor, to possess a thousand mistresses, to win the heart of one love to whom he was ever faithful, to be on the best of terms with all men, to avenge savagely the lightest affront, to live to a hundred full of years and honour, to die young and unknown but recognized the following day as the most neglected genius of the age.”

Trapnel, a wonderful Powell creation, has been writing a novel for two years, frequently reviews books for Fission, and it is during this period that Jenkins is drawn into his world. Ada, Sillery’s secretary is involved with the magazine too, and Widmerpool is one of the investors, as ever the world in which Jenkins moves is one in which old friends and lovers are never far away.

Widmerpool’s relationship with Pamela remains every bit as unlikely as it seemed at the end of the last novel when the two became unexpectedly engaged. Widmerpool seems to have a determination to keep hold of Pamela, no matter what she does, and she certainly gives him cause to regret his marriage, this determination of Widmerpool’s is quite unnerving. I think the older Widmerpool gets the more repellent he becomes. Widmerpool is now an M.P – as is another of Jenkins’ brothers-in law- Roddy Cutts married to Susan Tolland. At a lunch with Roddy at the House of Commons, Nick and Roddy run into Widmerpool, and return with him to the flat he shares with Pamela. Here the break down in the Widmerpool marriage becomes all too apparent as someone comes to the door with a message that Pamela has left her husband for Trapnel. Pamela is portrayed by Powell as flighty certainly – her behaviour is often exasperating, but also rather oddly (and perhaps typically for the times) as frigid. I’m not sure what if anything this says about Powell’s attitude to promiscuous women, maybe nothing; however it seems a shame that Pamela can’t simply be a bit of a tart, without also having ‘sexual issues’.

Widmerpool initially reacts oddly, pretending unconcern and that Pamela’s eccentricity in wandering off from time to time is well known, that she will soon be back, it is a performance that those who really know the couple don’t believe for a minute. Pamela’s relationship with Trapnel is no more convincing than her relationship with her husband. However Widmerpool’s confidence that she will return to him is borne out by the end of the novel. Trapnel is soon also abandoned by Pamela, but not before she takes her anger out on his precious manuscript – (reason enough for the reader to loathe her).

As the novel ends, Nick travels to his old school to enrol his own son, and here meets his old house-master Le Bas – who is even older than Sillery, and seeing out his retirement in the school library.

So only two of these left, goodness how time flies.

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20141010_175425There’s a small but growing group over on Facebook that I am very glad to be a member of – Undervalued Mid-20th Century British Women Writers – it does what it says on the tin really. Another place where I can celebrate the writers I love and find out about ones I have yet to read. Recently – Nick – who started the group suggested that we hold a group read in November. After some discussion we hit upon Elizabeth Bowen’s The Hotel – Bowen is an author many of us want to read more of, and The Hotel being her first novel it seemed a good place to start. Our read of The Hotel will begin on November 10th – and naturally anyone is welcome to join us. Elizabeth Bowen is probably not really undervalued – however she is exactly the kind of author members of the group love.

 

 

From the back cover:

These were the balmy days of the 1920s. The English, liberated from one long war and not yet faced with the next had – at least when well-off- a confident kind of vitality. The Hotel was a comfortable hotel on the Italian Riviera, run for prosperous English visitors. It was a closed world of wealth and a setting for the inexhaustible comedy of casual personal relationships among a variety of ‘nice’ people, all English, all wittily reflected with characteristic vivacity. Elizabeth Bowen’s wit, and her exact eye for social detail has often been compared to that of Jane Austen, and the similarity is perfectly captured in this, Elizabeth Bowen’s first novel.

I am looking forward to discussing the novel with the other group members, and of course I will review the novel here too.

 

That brings me onto my next reading challenge.

 

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This year I undertook two main reading challenges: The Great War theme read – with members of the Librarything Virago group ( I have run out of steam a bit, but intend to pick it up again next month) and the 12 novel sequence of Dance to the Music of Time. So having just finished book ten of that twelve I already have my sights set on a new challenge for next year. Karen (from Kaggsy’s bookish ramblings) and I have decided to read the entire nine novels that make up The Forsyte Saga Chronicles.

The Forsyte Saga complete nine novels are available in three volumes:

Volume 1

The Man of Property
In Chancery
To Let

Volume 2

The White Monkey
The Silver Spoon
Swan Song

Volume 3

Maid in Waiting
Flowering Wilderness
Over the River

I recklessly ordered the three volumes from ebay – and I am all set For January. I know January sounds like a long way off but time flies – and it will soon be here. If anyone would like to keep Karen and I company we would love you join us.
Oh and while I have your attention – don’t forget Willa Cather reading week December 7th – 14th – phew!

the constant nymph

The Constant Nymph was Margaret Kennedy’s second novel, and probably her most successful and well known. I absolutely loved it, at once fully involving myself with the characters, as I became immersed in the world of ‘Sanger’s Circus’. I think Margaret Kennedy might be an author whose work I will have to read much more of.

As the novel opens Lewis Dodd a gifted English musician arrives in the Tyrol to stay at the home of unconventional bohemian composer Albert Sanger and his unusual family. Lewis is already an old friend of the family, a family known as ‘Sanger’s Circus’ by their many friends and acquaintances across Europe, whose hospitality they frequently take advantage of. The family consist of six of Sanger’s seven children – the fruit of several marriages and mistresses, – and Sanger’s current mistress Linda. The Sanger family living in a rambling chalet high in the Austrian mountains is a retreat for all sorts of people who land on them with little or no notice.

“Few people could recollect quite how many children Sanger was supposed to have got, but there always seemed to be a good many and they were most shockingly brought up. They were, in their own orbit, known collectively as ‘Sanger’s Circus,’ a nickname earned for them by their conspicuous brilliance, the noise they made, and the kind of naptha-flare genius which illuminated everything they said or did.”

Teresa, the fourteen year old second daughter of Albert’s second marriage, is Lewis’s particular little friend – her devotion to him constant and unwavering. Tessa never questions her love for Lewis, she awaits the day when she will be old enough to take her place at his side. Lewis is all too aware of this, and although neither of them ever speaks of Teresa’s feelings it is an excepted thing within the whole family.

Teresa’s older sister Antonia has already entered into a relationship with a business man friend of her father’s, despite only being sixteen, happy that her future will be that of the wife she feels destined to be. Teresa is delicate, warm and irrepressibly untaught, there are moments when like her sister Toni, she seems older than her years, and at other times fragile and childlike. Teresa spends much of her time with her younger sister Paulina, the two looking out for one another amid the chaos of their home. At just ten Sebastian is the youngest of Teresa’s full siblings, another gifted musician of the future. Sanger’s eldest two grown up children are Caryl and Kate, Caryl about to find his own way in the world, and Kate who capably and quietly runs the household while Linda lies around not doing very much, while her child Suzanne spies on her half siblings and runs telling tales at the least excuse.

Very shortly Albert Sanger dies unexpectedly, leaving no money for his family to live on. Florence Churchill, the children’s cousin, and her Uncle Robert travel to the Sanger’s high Austrian home, and begin to make arrangements to take the family home to England. Florence is twenty eight, beautiful and pretty certain of what she wants, and that very soon turns out to be Lewis. Florence is captivated by Lewis, and Lewis is quickly drawn to her too. Florence has little understanding of Lewis and his ways, she fails to see that the two of them are really not very well suited. Their rapid engagement and marriage is greeted with some shock by everyone, and Teresa is particularly pained, though her love for Lewis remains undimmed. The Sanger children, feel drawn to their beautiful graceful cousin, wanting to impress her, and with prompting from Lewis, agree to go to England and be sent to school.

After a honeymoon in Europe, Florence and Lewis settle down to life in a house that Florence had set her mind on in London. Cracks appear, Florence and Lewis begin to argue over family matters, and the marriage is soon seen to be in some trouble. Meanwhile, Toni married now to Jacob Birnbaum, is living in London too, but her younger siblings are not so happy. Teresa and Paulina run away from their school and Sebastian flees his own school – the three turning up, inevitably on Lewis’s doorstep while Florence is away visiting her father. This begins the trouble between Teresa and Florence, Teresa so certain of her right to feel the way she does, and Florence, suspicious and jealous, soon finds herself hating her young cousin and never really trying to hide it. A s Florence starts to feel more and more excluded from the world of ‘Sanger’s Circus’ and Lewis draws further away from her – Teresa, although still only fifteen is made to feel her rightful place is with Lewis. Like Albert Sanger before him, Lewis is a creative genius, and a man not always easy to live with, Florence has not had time to learn how to handle him, whereas Teresa it seems has always known.

“[Teresa] was, probably, the only woman in the world who could manage this man; she would respect his humours without taking them too seriously, she would never require him to behave correctly, and if annoyed her, she would reprove him good-humouredly in the strong terms which he deserved and understood.”

The stage is set for drama, and Margaret Kennedy certainly gives us that, quite unexpectedly, although I had a funny feeling which direction we were headed. However I wondered if Margaret Kennedy’s choice of ending reflects perhaps the times in which the novel was written, I doubt we would have such an ending written today. (I am being quite deliberately vague; I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone)

Margaret Kennedy week coming along has given me the perfect opportunity to read the work of an author I feel I really should have encountered before. The writing is superb, Kennedy handles her characters with understanding and skill, their world is perfectly drawn. I am hoping, to get to read The Ladies of Lyndon after my current read, it looks very good too.

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SNB issue 3 –

SNB

I was very pleased to review a couple of books for SNB’s latest edition. If you have yet to discover the wonder that is Shiny New Books – then you are missing out. SNB is an online, independent book recommendation magazine and was put together by a group of amazing bloggers, who as editors pull everything together arrange review copies for reviewers, and keep us organised and they do a fantastic job. The finished product is brilliant, with loads of fabulous reviews from a host of book bloggers. I haven’t had much time to do anything but dip fleetingly into the latest issue, but there are lots of reviews I am going back to, to read soon.

hewantsI reviewed He Wants by Alison Moore – her novel The Lighthouse was short listed for the Man Booker Prize and I also thoroughly enjoyed her collection of short stories The Pre-War House. This is a brilliant second novel from Alison Moore – I love her writing, and already look forward to what comes next. Read my review of it here at SNB.

 

 

 

jeevesandwbThe second novel I reviewed for SNB was Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks. I know there are some Wodehouse purists who hate the very thought of anyone else writing Jeeves and Wooster, but I think he has done a more than creditable job. You can read my SNB review of it here.

 

 

 

 

Thank you to all the SNB editors for asking me to join the SNB party – it’s lovely to be a small part of such a brilliant team.

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