Posts Tagged ‘birthday reading challenge’

IMAG0224(Photo taken last week in Shrawley Woods – Worcestershire)

My reading for May has had a birthday theme, and I think this may become an annual event. My own birthday was on the 13th of May, a birth date I share with Daphne Du Maurier. So for almost the whole month I read books only by authors who were also born in May. This I called my birthday reading challenge – but really it wasn’t much of a challenge – as challenge suggests something that might be difficult – but in fact this was really quite a joy.

All my May babies books were really excellent but the standout books for the month would be The Pat Barker novels Life Class and Toby’s Room, and the Daphne Du Maurier books My Cousin Rachel and Jamaica Inn, another quiet little joy was William Trevor’s ‘Love and Summer’.
Having read ten books by May babies – I finished my month of birthday reading a few days early so I could read my next Hardy book and my librarything early reviewers book before June’s Pym reading week got under way. Which makes twelve book in all for May – all of them fiction – my non-fiction reading has been even worse than usual this year.

This then is the full list of May reading
47 The Sweet Shop Owner (1980) Graham Swift (F)
48 The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1908) Gaston Leroux (F)
49 A Backward Place (1965) Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (F)
50 Life Class (2007) Pat Barker (F)
51 My Cousin Rachel (1951) Daphne Du Maurier (F)
52 Jamaica Inn (1936) Daphne Du Maurier (F)
53 Toby’s Room (2012) Pat Barker (F)
54 The Sign of Four (1890) Arthur Conan Doyle (F)
55 Love and Summer (2009) William Trevor (F)
56 The Householder (1960) Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (F)
57 Wessex Tales (1888) Thomas Hardy (F)
58 Tango in Madeira (2013) Jim Williams (F)


I have some great things coming up in June. The Barbara Pym reading week is first on the agenda – and I am planning on reading ‘No Fond Return of Love’ and ‘A very Private Eye’ for that, moving on to A Quartet in Autumn later in the month. I also have my classic club spin book ‘Farewell Leicester Square’ to read, which I have heard good things off. Karen at Kaggysbookishramblings and Simon at Stuck in a book were reading ‘A Woman of My Age’ during May and I so wanted to join in, and fellow librarything member Elaine delighted me by sending me a copy – so although I’m a little late to the party I intend to read it this month. I also have a lovely proof copy of Rachel Joyce’s ‘Perfect’ to read – I’ll be reading and reviewing it at the end of the month – it’s published at the beginning of July. I’ve also added three books to my June pile that I have had TBR for ages, and another Virago book I have wanted to read for a while. All in all there’s a good pile there – and look, two non-fiction!

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Ruth Prawer Jhabvala – birthday 7th May

According to the synopsis of this novel on Goodreads – The Householder is a witty novel. There is certainly a kind of bittersweet comedic quality to some of it – but I’m not sure I’d call it witty exactly. I’m just being pedantic perhaps – for me, while The Householder is a comedy of manners – I found myself indulging in an occasional wry smile, rather than chuckling into my book. Nonetheless this is a charming touching novel which I found by turn, sad and heart-warming. Jhabvala beautifully depicts 1960’s Delhi society – particularly of the low waged educated classes. The dusty crowded streets and cramped living conditions, hoards of indolent young men, inattentive in large college classrooms – the difficulty of making ends meet, the strangeness of new responsibilities, Jhabvala captures it all perfectly.

Prem is a young teacher at a second (or even third) rate college – he knows he is not particularly good at his job and that his salary is barely sufficient to keep himself and his new wife – who is already pregnant. Life is not easy for Prem, he is shy and has no real friends in Delhi. His wife Indu is something of a mystery to him, theirs was an arranged marriage – and he is daunted by the responsibility of a wife and a home, and embarrassed by Indu’s pregnancy. When Prem’s mother announces she intends to visit her son, Indu reveals she is intending to go home to visit her mother. Prem doesn’t want her to go – but has no idea how to make her stay. Finding his salary too small, and his rent too high, Prem needs to pluck up the courage to speak to his employer and his landlord, tasks he finds himself quite unequal to. Invited to a college tea party Prem is desperate to create the right impression – the thought of a salary rise always at the back of his mind.

“He watched her drinking her tea and noticed regretfully that she was not doing so with the refinement which would be required at Mr Khanna’s tea-party. He brooded about this for a while, then got up and followed her into the bedroom. She was lovingly dusting a picture of Mother and Baby which she had recently acquired and hung up on the bedroom wall. Baby was very stout, with big fat folds in its legs, and Mother had a simpering expression and held a sunflower in one hand.
‘When you drink tea’ Prem said, ‘You must hold your little finger up in the air, like this.’ He demonstrated, and she watched him in amazement. Suddenly she gave a very strange sound and continued quickly with her dusting. ‘What is there to laugh at?’ he said crossly. “

Once a week Prem meets Raj – his one friend from his pre-Delhi life in Ankpur, Raj has been married longer than Prem, already has a child, works in a government office but lets Prem pay for their tea each time they meet. Poor Prem longs for the intimate confidential chat the two of them had enjoyed before their marriages – desperate to talk to someone about his difficulties at home and at work, but is unable to open up to Raj – who clearly has his own preoccupations. When Prem meets German tourist Hans he is embraced for his supposed Indian spirituality – and enjoys meeting the Swami that Hans has discovered.
When Indu does go to visit her mother, Prem is amazed at how he misses her, yet he seems unable to write and tell her so – embarrassed should any of her family read the letter – and having his mother around again is not quite as he had imagined either.
As Prem finds his way in his new way of life – he begins to feel differently about the bewildering array of responsibilities he has. Prem is one of life’s innocents – and for a time, in trying to please the people around him, he only serves to make himself less happy. We see Prem mature as he begins to understand his wife and the reality of his life and how to manage it. Jhabvala certainly manages to portray the lives of ordinary people in India faithfully, and in such a way that the reader instantly loves the characters.

This was the second of the Jhabvala books that Liz loaned me to read during my month of birthday reading. This charming novel then brings my birthday reading to a close. I know May has not quite finished – but I needed to get on with the next book in the Hardy reading challenge – my re-reading of Wessex Tales which I’m already enjoying very much.


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William Trevor – birthday May 24th

“Nothing happened in Rathmoye, its people said, but most of them went on living there. It was the young who left—for Dublin or Cork or Limerick, for England, sometimes for America. A lot came back. That nothing happened was an exaggeration…

‘Love and Summer’ is a quiet novel set in 1950’s rural Ireland, in which – some reviewers say – nothing much happens. I wouldn’t necessarily agree that nothing happens, in these small, sad disappointed lives – little things loom large.

When photographer Florian Kilderry is first spotted in Rathmoye taking photographs of Mrs Connulty’s funeral, Ellie Dillahan notices him as she cycles home. Miss Connulty now freed from her mother’s tyranny also notices him, and when Florian starts taking pictures at the burnt out cinema he is noticed by others too. An orphan, brought up by nuns in an institution, Ellie later married the farmer who she had been sent out to keep house for. Her husband is a good man, kindly and hardworking, but haunted by the death of his first wife and their child in a terrible accident for which he blames himself.
Florian Kilderry; alone, but for his childhood pet, since his parent’s deaths – is living in the family home, which he can no longer afford to keep up. Nursing a secret passion for his cousin Isabella, he is awaiting the sale of the house, after which he plans to leave Ireland. Living on a remote farm, going into town just once a week, Ellie is also alone. The attachment that develops between Florian and Ellie that summer is reckless and unwise, and rather one sided. For Ellie, Florian offers a whole world of other possibilities. This is a love story that the reader feels cannot end well. Watching from behind the windows of the boarding house that she is now able to run the way she wants to is Miss Connulty who knows only too well the perils of a love affair. Orpen Wren – a shambling confused old man, lives mainly in the past but also notices things that are happening around him.

“The more he asked about her childhood at Cloonhill the more Ellie loved her interrogator. No matter how strange he still sometimes seemed, she felt as if all her life she had known him. The past he talked about himself became another part of her: The games he had played alone, the untidy rooms of the house he described, the parties given, the pictures painted. Being with him in the woods at Lyre, where the air was cold and the trees imposed a gloomy darkness, or walking among the monks’ graves, or being with him anywhere, telling or listening, was for Ellie more than friendship, or living, had ever been before.”

Several of the characters in this beautifully subtle novel are isolated and haunted by the past. There is a slightly suffocating atmosphere in the small town of Rathmoye – where in a sense Ellie and Florian are both outsiders. There is a touching elegiac quality to this story of an illicit summer long romance. William Trevor’s sense of time and place is sublime – summer in rural Ireland, a small town and an isolated farm and a dilapidated house. Beautifully written, with real poignancy ‘Love and Summer’ has only served to remind me how I have not read enough novels by this excellent writer.

william trevor

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The sign of four

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – birthday May 22nd

I have loved the stories of Sherlock Holmes for years, he’s quite definitely one of my favourite literary characters. For me these stories are the kind of books that can be read again and again. I love the atmosphere of Holmes’s world, the hansom cabs, the dark foggy streets of Victorian London, the gas lit rooms at 221b Baker Street. I love the relationship between Holmes and Watson, Holmes’s arrogance and Watson’s calm good sense – what a team!
The Sign of Four – first published in 1890 – was the second novel about Sherlock Holmes that Conan Doyle published. It is in this novel that we see Holmes the addict, and Watson’s concern for his friend’s health. Although a slim volume, The Sign of Four is brilliantly intricate. I’m sure I have read it before – there were one or two things that did ring a vague bell – but as it isn’t one I have reached for, for a very long time, I had pretty much forgotten the majority of the details.

“My mind rebels from stagnation, give me problems, give me work. Give me the most abtruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my proper atmosphere.”

A dreadfully bored Sherlock Holmes has been alternately taking cocaine and opium for months when Miss Morstan – a young governess calls on him. She tells him the story of her father’s mysterious disappearance ten years earlier – and how each year for the previous six years she has been sent a single valuable pearl. Now she has been contacted by her unknown benefactor – and needs an escort to meet him.
Holmes and Waston are quick to offer their services, and by the time that night is ended they are embroiled in a complex and mysterious case. A scrap of paper with the names of four men, and the words the ‘sign of the four’, written on it, a pair of identical twins, a seemingly impossible murder inside a locked room, footprints, poisoned darts and missing treasure. In charge of the case is the marvellously named Mr Athelney Jones, but Holmes is already on the trail of the culprits.

“Now, Watson’ said Holmes, rubbing his hands, ‘we have half an hour to ourselves. Let us make good use of it. My case is, as I have told you, almost complete; but we must not err on the side of overconfidence. Simple as the case seems now, there may be something deeper underlying it.
‘Simple!’ I ejaculated.
‘Surely,’ said he with something of the air of a clinical professor expounding to his class. “

Poor old Watson is quickly smitten by the gentle Miss Morstan – and as Holmes delves deeper into the case Watson seems slightly distracted. Their investigations take them down to the wharf in search of a steam launch and its owner, aided by a mongrel dog called Toby and the Baker Street irregulars. A frantic man hunt down the Thames at night ensues.
Miss Morstan’s father had been in India till shortly before his disappearance and it is from here the missing treasure came, and from where some of the men involved seem to have come. Given the time this novel was first written – there are maybe unsurprisingly a few slightly toe-curling references to people of Indian origin, I always try to set these things into the context of the times they were written – but it is still a little uncomfortable.

I think it is testament to the greatness of Holmes that so many authors are still writing Holmes stories – he is a fictional character who has taken on almost mythical proportions. Not everyone like these books written about Holmes by other writers, but I actually do – not that I’ve read all of them – but love them or hate them, it is surely quite amazing – that a character first created so long ago, still inspires people to write new stories for him. Reading ‘The Sign of Four’ has made me want to blow the dust of the two Laurie R King books I have had TBR for ages. What is it about Sherlock Holmes that we love so much? Is it his genius? Or his vulnerabilities?

conan doyle1

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toby's room

Pat Barker – birthday 8th May

Toby’s Room is a companion novel to Life Class, I had thought it was a sequel – but it’s not really, the novel would stand alone. However I am glad I read the novels in this order. In Life Class we met Elinor Brooke, Paul Tarrant and Kit Neville and these characters are central to Toby’s Room as well. When I was reading Life Class I found Elinor a cold and elusive character and after reading Toby’s Room I find she remains just a little out of reach –I am sure this is deliberate.
Toby’s Room opens two years before the events in Life Class – Elinor and her brother Toby have had a special close relationship since they were small, they even look alike – especially once Elinor has cut off her hair. Elinor is an art student at the Slade, studying under surgeon/artist Henry Tonks – a difficult and exacting tutor – who later in the war spends his time drawing portraits of horribly disfigured men. Henry Tonks is a character taken from life – his drawings of wounded men can still be seen today. Toby is a medical student. In the suffocating atmosphere of their family home, their parents leading separate lives, their traditionally married sister rather smug and critical, Elinor and Toby’s relationship is complex, and as the lines between them blur their relationship changes forever.

“Somehow or other they had to get back to the ways things were. What had happened was not something that could be talked about, or explained, or analysed, or in any other way resolved. It could only be forgotten.”

Five years later, and the war has taken its toll on Elinor and her Slade friends. Paul back from France with a permanent limp and in constant pain is more fortunate than some. Toby – who had spent his time serving as a doctor on the front line, patching up the injured – even leaving the relative safety of his post to bring back injured men from the mud of the trenches, constantly putting himself in harm’s way – is “missing presumed dead.” Kit Neville had been part of Toby’s unit – but is now lying in a facial injuries hospital – the hospital where his old tutor Tonks draws the faces of disfigured men.
With Toby missing presumed dead, Elinor has something missing in herself, her grief is raw and terrible. Coldly refusing to have anything to do with the war, the war has finally come to her, with Toby’s death and Paul and Kit’s injuries. Still strongly committed to her art she has produced many landscape paintings of the countryside around their childhood home – in every one there is a shadow, a presence of the brother that is gone. Back in the family home – which is in the process of being broken up – is Toby’s Room, which remains a powerful reminder for Elinor.

“Lying between the sheets, she felt different; her body had turned into bread dough, dough that’s been kneaded and pounded till it’s grey, lumpen, no yeast in it, no lightness, no prospect of rising. Her arms lay stiff by her sides. When, finally, she drifted off to sleep, she dreamt she was on her knees in a corner of the room, trying to vomit without attracting the attention of the person who was asleep on the bed. Her eyes wide open in the darkness, she tried to cast off the dream, but it stayed with her till morning.”

In fact Toby is a constant haunting presence throughout the novel, although he is mainly seen through the memories of Elinor’s artist friends – especially the morphine induced hallucinations of Kit Neville.
When Paul visits Elinor and seeing the paintings she has finished, he is concerned by her apparent obsession to find out exactly what happened to Toby. Having had his belongings returned to the house, Elinor discovers part of an unfinished letter in the lining of Toby’s jacket – which puzzles her. When she writes to Kit Neville – who had served with her brother – she receives no reply. When Kit is returned to England with horrible facial injuries – Elinor insists on going to see him, despite Tonks having warned Paul to leave him alone. At the facial injuries hospital Elinor finds work to do alongside her former tutor – work that bring her into contact with Kit. There is a mystery surrounding Toby’s death, Elinor is convinced of that, and she enlists Paul’s help in finding out what that is.

Toby’s Room is a blistering account of the ravages of war on people, their relationships and – in a departure from other WW1 novels – their art. I love Pat Barker’s writing – and although Life Class and Toby’s Room are not quite as powerful as the utterly brilliant Regeneration trilogy – there are still many beautifully written passages infused with Barkers brilliant understatement, which leave the reader with a host of remarkable images to ponder on.

pat barker

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Alan Hollinghurst – birthday May 26th

I don’t often find myself setting a book aside – and am always very disappointed – and to be honest a little cross with myself when I do. Very late on Saturday – so late I only read about 10 pages – I picked up The Folding Star by Alan Hollinghurst. On Sunday I was out walking with my rambling group – and as usual I took my book to read on the coach. I tried valiantly to tell myself I was enjoying it – I wasn’t. Hollinghurst writes beautifully but there is a lot of – hmm how can I put it? Well the sexual content seems a little gratuitous at times – although it does serve to set the characters in their selfish self-absorbed context. The central character of this novel seems thoroughly unlikeable, sometimes that doesn’t matter but I found after less than 60 pages – that I really didn’t care about him and his goings on.

So on Sunday evening after getting home I tried a few more pages, and no! It just wasn’t working so I laid it aside. I have put it on the pile to bookcross – despite it being a signed copy I bought when I went to a talk by Alan Hollinghurst shortly after reading The Strangers child – a book I loved. The Stranger’s Child was the second of Hollinghurst’s books I had read, I read The Line of Beauty – which I enjoyed – although most of those characters I seem to remember were rather horrid too. I suspect that The Folding Star has put me off Hollinghurst for life – which is a shame because he really is a beautiful writer.

jamaicainnGiveaway result
Using random.com I have drawn A.M.B to receive the Virago Paperback of Jamaica Inn. Congratulations A.M.B I do hope you enjoy it.

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Daphne Du Maurier birthday 13th May

Seeing it was my birthday on Monday – the same day as dear Daphne – I am giving away a copy of Jamica Inn – note it is not the edition pictured here – see below.

What is it about tales of smugglers, wreckers and pirates that is so deliciously compelling? Even now, in a landlocked city in the 21st century, these kinds of tales are able to raise the hairs on the back of my neck. I can remember being utterly thrilled by Kipling’s poem The Smugglers Song when I first came across it in primary school – it somehow had the same exciting quality about it that those old tales of smugglers always have. Reading those lines now after all these years -it seems pretty tame – the rhythm of the lines echoing the horses trotting through the dark I still find strangely atmospheric.

If you wake at midnight, and hear a horse’s feet,
Don’t go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street,
Them that ask no questions isn’t told a lie.
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by.

Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark –
Brandy for the Parson, ‘Baccy for the Clerk.
Laces for a lady; letters for a spy,
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by!
(Rudyard Kipling)

I had read Jamaica Inn before, a very long time ago – I suspect I was in my teens – all those desolate moors and dangerous men – would have delighted me – actually they still do.

Mary Yellan is twenty three when her mother dies, having promised to do so, Mary sets out to find her Aunt Patience, who she hasn’t seen since she was a child. Mary remembers her aunt as a laughing beribboned young woman, her hair curled prettily. However Patience is no longer in Bodmin, but living with her husband on a remote road alongside the moors, in a place called Jamaica Inn. Jamaica Inn is a place whispered about in fear, a place where no coaches dare stop, where no travellers seek shelter. Jamaica Inn is not a place for the feint hearted – her Uncle Joss is a giant of a man, cruel, dangerous frequently drunk and desperate. Patience is now a shadow of her former self, nervous and cowed her hair grey and lank; she scuttles to do her husband’s bidding, twisting her hands in fear. Mary very nearly flees from the inn on her very first night there, staying only to care for her aunt, her plan to somehow get her aunt away from the man she married. Joss Merlyn warns her right from the start that she is to ignore whatever she might see and hear at Jamaica Inn, she will serve in the bar when required to do so, and keep to her room on the nights the wagons come to Jamaica Inn.

Mary soon learns to loathe her uncle, but she is a feisty and tough young woman, pushing aside her natural fear of the man, she squares up to him. Mary is brave and moral, sticking fiercely to her principles, wrestling valiantly with a group of her uncle’s associates in the dead of Christmas Eve night. Unwillingly drawn into the dark business that operates out of Jamaica Inn – Mary plans to rescue herself and her aunt from Joss Merlyn before turning him over to the law. It is quickly apparent however that this will be no easy task.
When horse thief Jem Merlyn – Joss’s younger brother, turns up at Jamaica Inn, Mary is both repelled and attracted to him. Jem is dangerous, and reminds her strongly of his older, nastier brother, she is certain she should not trust him.

There is a fantastically gothic, brooding atmosphere to this novel. Du Maurier has in no way romanticised the desperate men that haunted the coast of Cornwall during these brutal days – they are presented as cruel and ruthless criminals. Yet Jamaica Inn is a romantic novel in many ways – Mary Yellan is a fabulous heroine, sparky and determined. I loved every word of this novel, and fairly gulped it down.


jamaicainnA Giveaway

So then I have a brand new paperback copy of Jamaica Inn to give away, I received the pictured hardback copy above for my birthday, and so the new paperback copy I had TBR is now up for grabs. If you would like it – just drop me a comment below telling me why you would like it. The giveaway is open to everyone, and a winner will be selected by random, if the winner is outside of Europe the book will be sent by surface mail – which can take a while, due to the ridiculous raise of postage costs here in the UK.

I will make the draw on Wednesday the 22nd of May – : )


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