Posts Tagged ‘#ReadingMuriel2018’

The end of June had rather crept up on me, and I will have two round-up posts back to back again – which might be a bit dull – for some – apologies. Today is my #ReadingMuriel2018 phase 3 round up in which I try to capture a flavour of the what’s gone on over the last two months. Tomorrow or Monday will be my round up of June reading. Then back to reviews.


I try not to miss anyone, but not everyone uses the hashtag quite as liberally as I do, so some things do slip past me.

Phase 3 has been all about the 1970s novels of Muriel Spark, there were six novels to choose from. The Driver’s Seat I read last year, and from the five that were left I chose The Hothouse by the East River and The Takeover. I enjoyed both for different reasons, in both novels Spark shows her versatility, bringing her unique storytelling up to date (for the 70s) writing about death, religion, corruption and money.

Of The Driver’s Seat (1970) Mary said “odd, fun, wonderful language. Love her occasional unusual ordering of adjectives.” It certainly struck a powerful note with me when I read it last year, it has an unforgettable quality. Michael from Librarything – who is reading all the novels of Muriel Spark this year I believe gave The Driver’s Seat 5 stars, saying its absurdism reminded him of Shirley Jackson.

Jennifer read Not To Disturb (1971) calling it “a glorious fever dream of a novel which I suspect like ‘The Driver’s Seat’ will only get better on rereading.” This is certainly one I really want to read, and I may sneak it in to this weekend, I have it on my kindle but have run out of time this phase. Monica from Monica’s Bookish Thoughts reviewed this slight novel saying it packed a mighty punch. Michael also enjoyed this “spoofing of servants, the upper classes and mystery novels” giving it a very good 4-star rating. Edited to add: Isabel also read Not to Disturb calling it quite odd, and with six hours of phase 3 left I have just begun reading it myself.

I haven’t seen many people reading The Hothouse by the East River (1973) Like me, Michael from LT thought this a weird novel – I must say I did really like it and it has stayed with me, although I don’t know if I am any clearer on Spark’s intentions in writing it. Edited to add, Grier read and enjoyed this one too.

Annabel from Annabookbel; read and reviewed The Abbess of Crewe (1974) calling it possibly the most fascinating Spark novel that she has read. Caroline from Book Word also reviewed this novel, saying that “Watergate was not so colourful. But Muriel Spark brings out the farcical, as well as the shocking corruption that comes with reckless pursuit of power.” Another reader, Christine gave The Abbess of Crewe 5 stars on Good reads. Blogger The Dowager Bride has also been reading The Abbess of Crewe – which does seem to have been a popular choice as my bookcrossing friend Sam also chose to read it calling the novel a pithy read packed with political intrigue.

So far mine is the only review of The Takeover (1976) that I have seen – if anyone else has read it let me know. I know LT Michael has read it previously.

Again, I haven’t spotted anyone reading Territorial Rights (1979), so if anyone can give me any thoughts on that late 70s novel I would be grateful.


So on to Phase 4 – which is simply any of the poetry, short stories and essays written by Muriel Spark. I already know I won’t read as much for this phase I am afraid. My summer reading is likely to be a mix of ACOB #WITmonth and All Virago All August – juggling, juggling! I do have the collected short stories which look marvellous, I am a big fan of short stories, but I shall probably only read and write about some. I also have The Golden Fleece book of essays, bought on ebay, when it arrived I was slightly dismayed by the small print – I know I won’t get all these read either. The book is divided up into sections; art and literature, religion, philosophy, autobiography and travel etc some of these appeal to me rather less than others. I certainly hope to read a few essays from the autobiographical section.

Thank you as always to those who have joined in and shared their thoughts with me – a year long reading challenge is gruelling! Let me know if I have missed you – keeping track gets harder I find.

I hope some of you join me for Phase 4 – please let me know what you’ll be reading – I certainly don’t expect anyone to get through entire collections unless of course you want to – as they are all quite large. Happy reading.

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Like The Hothouse on the East River – the last Muriel Spark novel I read – in The Takeover we find ourselves far from our more familiar London setting of many earlier Spark novels. The Driver’s Seat, another 1970s Spark novel that I read last year – was also set abroad, I wonder if this was a deliberate departure for Muriel Spark at this time, perhaps she had tired a little of writing about London and wanted to do something different. Wherever she was writing about, her sense of place is so good – her ability to create an atmosphere no doubt due to her knowledge of the places she was writing about, and she knew Italy well having lived in Rome and Tuscany. For in The Takeover we are in Italy, the shores of Lake Nemi, the resting place of the spirit of the Goddess Diana.As you can see above, I was a long way from Italy while I was reading The Takeover, but I was able to spend a bit of time in the sun.

The Takeover is a novel of some subtlety, and one that is hard to pin down – what exactly was Spark saying with this novel? It is a novel about money – among other things – it is rich in absurdity and cynicism, and the characters are all pretty horrible – and yet it is still an enjoyable read.

“How do you know when you’re in love?’ she said.
‘The traffic improves and the cost of living seems to be very low.”

Overlooking Lake Nemi, are three villas, owned by wealthy American Maggie Radcliffe, who has recently married for a third time. One Villa is occupied by Maggie’s son Michael and his young wife Mary. The second villa is rented by a rich Italian, Bernardini, his girlfriend Nancy Cowan, his son’s tutor. His son Pietro, his daughter Letizia, also live here, and the family have spent a lot of their own money on improvements to the villa. The third villa, the one with the best view, is inhabited by Englishman Hubert Mallindaine, and his secretary Pauline Thin. Maggie has loaned Hubert the Villa, he hasn’t paid a penny to her in rent – and is now refusing to leave. It is Hubert and this third villa that is the centre of all the trouble. Hubert is a sneaky, crook, self-serving and completely without conscience.

“Hubert had been uneasy about his position, really, for many years more than he now admitted when he thought or spoke of Maggie. ‘Like any other spoilt moneybags she used me when she needed me and then suddenly told me to go, to clear out of her house and her life. All my projects were based on her promises. We had an understanding…’ So he dramatised it in a nutshell, first to himself, then later, to Pauline Thin.”

However, it seems that Maggie is surrounded by people who want to swindle her or steal from her.

Maggie and her husband – leave Nemi, travelling to various glamorous sounding locations – Maggie leaves Hubert in no doubt though that she expects him to leave her property – even giving him a date by which she expects him to vacate. Hubert has other ideas.


Having grown up with some rather odd ideas from a couple of aunts, Hubert seems to be perfectly convinced that he is directly descended from the Goddess Diana. I got the feeling that this belief – like so much about Hubert is entirely bogus – and merely serves to get him what he wants. He establishes a religious cult, surrounding himself with people looking for free love. Hubert claims he has a divine right to the house because of its location. As well as Pauline, Hubert is visited by several gay, former secretaries – and two Jesuit priests who seems always to go everywhere as a pair.

We see Maggie, living in various other locations, with her husband who appears to be a fairly weak character, he tells Maggie to get rid of Hubert but does nothing himself to help her achieve this. Hubert is quite clearly hanging on in there, the absurdly complicated Italian property laws seems to be on his side. Unknown to Maggie, Hubert is busy having her Louis XVI chairs and Gaugin painting copied – pocketing the money he makes from the sales. Meanwhile Lauro, is a servant of Maggie’s – he previously worked for Hubert – but he too is after what he can get. Both Maggie and her daughter-in-law Mary are drawn into sexual intrigue with Lauro – and everything begins to get very complicated. Maggie suffers the loss of her jewels, and in time the battle to get her villa back begins to cost her a huge amount of money. Money, she must find a way of getting back. All this is set to a back drop of the changing economic climate of the 1970s, – the action taking place between 1973 and 1975.

This is a strange, sophisticated novel with a very 70s feel to it. There are so many layers to it, with themes of fakery, wealth, religion and corruption. It is as ever very readable.

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I am finding that I rather enjoy having a tbr spreadsheet, it doesn’t stop me buying/acquiring books and adding to it, but it has until now stopped me going mad. Don’t let the moderately modest book pile in the picture fool you – it is only a part of the story.

So, in January when I began doing A Century of Books which I am happily obsessed by – I had 280 books on my spreadsheet once I had added in all those pesky kindle books. I am currently reading book 51 of the year – which is ok for me at this point in the year – however … as of a few minutes ago when I updated it – the spreadsheet stands at 261 (there are several books I am eyeing up to cull – random kindle buys particularly but they still stand for now). Oopsy, so I have been clearly buying books. Now you can all see what a hopeless book buyer I am, and there was me blithely thinking I had done better this year.

As for A Century of Books –I do love this challenge and can imagine doing it again too. I had said I was trying to do it in two years – though completing it in a year would be amazing and I am now wondering if I can manage it. However, I think I am reading too many duplicates (with several more lined up that I have to get to) that I suspect I will get to December and find myself frustratingly close but just out of reach. Currently I have got 43 years ticked off, as long as I don’t duplicate too many years I could just do it – but I think it will be tight.


So, the books above are some of my recent acquisitions – four Persephone books are ordered and winging their way to me, I assume they will arrive Tuesday because of the bank holiday. Did I need four more Persephone books right now? No, to be frank I didn’t, I already have five tbr, but what has need ever had to do with it? There is a  Mini Persephone readathon coming up next weekend, hosted by Jessie, but I may well extend that to most of next week, and several of my Persephone tbr – are annoying duplicate years in my ACOB (I know, I did say I was obsessed!).

My new lovelies are:

Heartburn by Nora Ephron – which I am looking forward to – I have heard very good reports of it. These VMC40 editions are so pretty.

The Collected stories by Grace Paley (huge admission, I arrived home with this to discover I already had a copy. I hadn’t realised because the other book had been missed off my spreadsheet and was physically so different it didn’t ring a bell).

The Takeover by Muriel Spark, the Spark I will be reading in June for Phase three of #ReadingMuriel2018.

The book underneath that is the latest arrival from the Asymptote book club, book six for me. It looks brilliant, but not everyone who subscribes will have received it yet – so I can’t reveal it. Some of you may remember I expressed doubts about book five when it arrived. Well I finished it a few days ago, and really enjoyed it – so sometimes first impressions are entirely wrong.

The book at the bottom of the pile was what I spent a left-over book voucher on, The Last of the Greenwoods by Clare Morrall. A Birmingham set book by a Birmingham author, I haven’t actually read that many books by Clare Morrall, and not all her books are set in Birmingham. Having loved Astonishing Splashes of Colour, I was so disappointed by The Man Who Disappeared that it put me off her other novels, until I read When the Floods Came, which I thought was fantastic.

The four Persephone books I have ordered are: Consequences by E M Delafield (1919) The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme (1965), The Despised and Rejected by Rose Allatini (1918) and Tory Heaven by Marghanita Laski (1948). Those are added to my Persephone page (you knew I had a Persephone page, didn’t you?) – where I keep track of what I own, and I now have over 100. I shall probably try and read two back to back this next week – I have nine to choose from. This pleases me.

So, the numbers may not be moving by much, but I am having fun! Is anyone else joining in the mini Persephone readathon?

minipersephone readalong



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The Hothouse by the East River is a strange little novel, at once oddly unsettling and other worldly. Written in the present tense – a style Muriel Spark had already employed to great effect in The Driver’s Seat, lending her story an immediacy that works well here.

As with that earlier novel The Girls of Slender Means, here Spark concerns herself with the fall out from the Second World War and has used her own experiences to do so. However, The Hothouse from the East River is entirely different with a very sixties/seventies feel to it – the war is viewed in retrospect, from the distance of 1970s New York society. This society immediately feels slightly off kilter, this is deliberate of course, and in time will make absolute sense.

In their New York apartment, overlooking the East River, live Elsa and Paul Hazlett, it is a long way from where they started. Paul; originally from Montenegro met Elsa during the Second World War when they were both working for British intelligence at the Compound deep in the English countryside. These sections recreating life at the compound in 1944 are the most real parts of the story (again this is deliberate and will make sense to the reader who realises what is actually going on.) Muriel Spark worked in a similar environment during the war, and in writing these sections of this novel was drawing heavily on her own experience.

Here they worked alongside former German POWs – including Helmut Kiel. Now Elsa insists that she has seen Helmut Kiel working at a shoe store on Madison Avenue, looking just as he always did. Paul points out that Kiel died in prison back in Germany and anyway he would have aged, as they both have, yet Elsa insists it is the same man.

Paul has noticed there is something odd about his wife – her shadow falls the wrong way, which once he has noticed it, he really can’t stop seeing.

“He sees her shadow cast on the curtain, not on the floor where it should be according to the position of the setting sun from the window bay behind her, crosstown to the West Side. He sees her shadow, as he has seen it many times before, cast once more unnaturally. Although he has expected it, he turns away his head at the sight.”

What is it, that Elsa stares at all the time from their window over the East River? The household is peculiar too, Garven, Elsa’s analyst has moved in, playing the part of the couple’s butler so he can better observe his client. Absurdity looms large throughout this short novel; an overheated apartment with a heating system which seems unable to be regulated, a maid who threatens to jump from the window, and Paul wrestling the shoes from his wife’s feet as he believes the soles have a secret code written on them. Elsa’s best friend Princess Xavier, visits often, breeds silkworms in her bosom. All the time, Paul and Elsa appear to exist in a society of their own making.

“But Princess Xavier is not about to be perplexed on any point whatsoever. She is now interested in something else, far away in her thoughts, probably Long Island, where her farm of sheep and silkworms will be shivering for want of her presence and, of course, the cold. She opens one of the folds revealing a pink bulge of bosom. She puts her hand within the crease; her eggs are safe. She is in the habit of keeping the eggs of her silkworms warm between and under her folds of breasts; she also takes new-born lambs to her huge ancestral bed, laying them at her feet early in the cold spring-time, and she does many such things. She now folds herself back into her coverings and starts the process of rising from the sofa.”

Nearby lives Pierre; Paul and Elsa’s son, he is getting ready to produce a production of Peter Pan, with all the roles taken by people over sixty – Pierre considers this twist will be its selling point. Of course, one can’t help but be reminded of that scene where Wendy starts to sew Peter Pan’s shadow back on – in that famous story of the boy who doesn’t grow up. Elsa’s shadow causes much disquiet among members of her family.

The most interesting aspect of the story is the one aspect I really can’t discuss – but it is what makes this novel so memorable. It is the twist which lies right at the heart of this novel, and which I feel I should have figured out much earlier than I did.

In his excellent introduction (which opens with a warning to new readers to read it after the novel – I heartily approve this practice) to this Polygon edition, Ian Rankin tells us; that Spark had …

“…journeyed a long way from her childhood Edinburgh and wartime England, but she had more travelling still to do.”

The Hothouse by the East River is a surreal little novel which leaves the reader with several questions – I can imagine it making a good book group read – it will certainly divide readers. I found it compelling and bizarre, but still enjoyable for all that.

muriel spark

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the ballad of peckham rye

I am rather behind in my reviews at the moment hence this one popping up now at a time I don’t usually post reviews.

The Ballad of Peckham Rye was my last read of phase two of #ReadingMuriel2018. I didn’t connect with this one quite as much as some of the others, and I found the last part of it rather confusing. Still there is a lot that is interesting about this slight novel and in the central character of Dougal Douglas Spark has created a memorable – if not entirely likeable – character.

Spark creates the feeling of the ballad of the title in the opening chapter – in which we are introduced to Dixie and her fiancé Humphrey Place. This first chapter tells the story of Dixie’s and Humphrey’s wedding – a wedding that never happens. At the critical moment – Humphrey says ‘I won’t’ bringing everything crashing down around, Dixie, her mother Mavis, and Humphrey’s best man Trevor. Everyone it seems is convinced that it would never have happened had it not been for Dougal Douglas. Here Spark’s use of language is particularly clever – ending this first strong chapter with a couple of prose lines which have a real musical quality to them, reminding us again of the title – that this story is the ballad of Peckham Rye.

“It is sometimes told that the bride died of grief and the groom shot himself on the Rye. It is generally agreed that he answered ‘no’ at this wedding, that he went away alone on his wedding day and turned up again later.”

From here Spark tells the story of Dougal Douglas, who arrived in Peckham Rye and rather set the cat among the pigeons. The Ballad of Peckham Rye is a comedy and its absurdities are well observed, Spark’s comedy isn’t always comfortable however. The Peckham Rye of Spark’s novel like her London boroughs in The Bachelors have a very sixties feel to it. The world of employment is changing – and Dougal Douglas takes advantage of that.

Dougal Douglas has come to Peckham Rye from Scotland – he is devilish and beguiling – and soon insinuates himself into the lives of a group of Peckham Rye residents.

“If you look inexperienced or young and go shopping for food in the by-streets of Peckham it as different from shopping in the main streets of Peckham as it is from shopping in Kensington or the West End. In the little shops in the Peckham by-streets, the other customers take a deep interest in what you are buying. They concern themselves lest you are cheated. Sometimes they ask you questions of a civil nature, such as: Where do you work? Is it a good position? Where are stopping? What rent do they take off you? And according to your answer they may comment that the money you get is good or the rent you have to pay is wicked, as the case may be.”

He is interviewed by Mr Druce; the boss of a textile manufacturer, Dougal is employed to bring the arts into the world of industry. He wastes no time in befriending Merle Coverdale, who is conducting an affair with married Mr Druce, and young Humphrey Place; an engineer. Dougal Douglas with his deformed shoulder – is someone soon noticed, and remarked upon, rather rudely, by the girls in the canteen. Yet, Dougal seems to enjoy the attention. He wastes no time in befriending Merle Coverdale, who is conducting an affair with married Mr Druce, and young Humphrey Place; an engineer.

“ ‘ What d’ you mean by different?’ Mavis said.
‘I don’t know. He’s just different. Says funny things. You have to laugh,’ Dixie said.
‘He’s just an ordinary chap,’ Humphrey said. ‘Nice chap. Ordinary.’
Humphrey did not mean it. Humphrey knew that Douglas was different. Humphrey has been talking a good deal about Douglas during the past fortnight and how they sat up talking late at Miss Frierne’s”

Dougal finds himself lodgings in the house of Miss Belle Frierne, where Humphrey is also living. From here Dougal begins his campaign of disruption, among his colleagues and neighbours. He is a sinister presence – appearing almost to shape shift – into how he most wishes to appear to others. While working for Mr Druce’s company he also gets himself employed by his great rivals, on the other side of the Rye – using the name Douglas Dougal. Dougal spends his time doing ‘human research’ which obliges him to absent himself from both his employers much of the time. Additionally, Dougal is ghost-writer to Maria Cheeseman a former actress and singer.

Dougal manipulates and deceives until finally he is driven out of Peckham Rye, though not before he has caused untold carnage. Though there is comedy here, it is pretty dark comedy. The novel shows Muriel Spark to be a constantly entertaining novelist, painting memorable and quirky portraits of people and places.


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Phase 2 of #ReadingMuriel2018 was all about the 1960s novels written by Muriel Spark. We had six books to choose from this time – and as I had already read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie several years ago, so, I opted for The Girls of Slender Means, The Bachelors and The Ballad of Peckham Rye.

The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960) was my final read of phase 2 – and the one I liked least of the three, I have still to write up my review. Lisa at Bluestalking Journal reviewed it towards the beginning of March. She thought it her favourite Spark novel to date, calling it a wickedly delightful novel, and very funny in a dark way. In her review of this novel Monica focuses a lot on the character of Dougal Douglas – a brilliantly drawn character and in my opinion the best thing about the book. Chrystyna reviewed Peckham Rye on Goodreads rating 4 stars and describing how Dougal Douglas sets the people of Peckham against one another. Mary also rated it 4 stars saying it was a social satire, with wonderful character sketches and masterful use of adjectives. Michael from LT is reading all of Spark this year, and he found the conclusion of this novel confusing (I agree Michael). Madamebibliophile has written a wonderful post on three Spark novels including The Ballad of Peckham Rye which she describes as a funny, odd novella.

A Twitter conversation revealed that several readers found The Bachelors (1960) rather a slow burn, That was certainly my experience of it, though once I had got into it, I began to really enjoy it, and ended up enjoying it more than Peckham Rye. Jennifer started reading The Bachelors and found herself having to set it aside for the time being, but I believe intends to go back to it one day. Grant of 1stReading’s Blog also found the start of this novel a bit off putting, calling it perhaps Spark’s most naturalistic novel and seeing it as rather limited compared to Spark’s other novels. Chrystyna also read The Bachelors, but found it tough going too. Michael rated this one with 4 stars seeing it a a satire of human hypocrisy.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) Janet of From First Page to Last reviewed The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – and had me wishing I had had time to re-read it. Janet calls it a novel that is read quickly but which stays with the reader for much longer. Fictionfan also enjoyed The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie calling the eponymous character a wonderfully realised unconventional woman. Christine found re-reading the novel for the umpteenth time an absolute delight. Michael says this one is probably Sparks greatest novel, though his own preference lies with Memento Mori.

The Girls of Slender Means (1963) was the first of my 1960s Spark reads, I had persuaded my very small book group to read it too. I absolutely loved this novel – hugely memorable with a setting that reminded me of A Far Cry from Kensington that I read and loved so much last year. Caroline from Bookword enjoyed reading The Girls of Slender Means every bit as much as I did. She depicts the atmosphere of the book perfectly. Michael found that knowing the ending of this did not spoil his re-read of this novel and he loved it every bit as much as he did the first time. Jacqui shared her review of The Girls of Slender Means from last year. In her review, Jacqui talks about the social hierarchy at the May of Teck club. FictionFan listened to the audio book read by Juliet Stevenson, but was left a little underwhelmed.

Michael also read The Mandlebaum Gate (1965) , – I think it is Spark’s longest book – which he describes as reminding him of Graham Greene and saying it won’t be his favourite.

Michael from LT read The Public Image (1968) – which I must say I think sounds great and I am sure I will read it one day although probably not this year now. Michael describes it as being told in a flat, vapid narration that matches the theme. A husband’s revenge – with a superb ending. Madamebibliophile describes The Public Image as a wonderfully pithy satire on fame, celebrity and how women are forced into certain roles. Kirsty from literary sisters also reviewed The Public Image.

So, thank you very much to everyone who has joined in again with #readingMuriel2018 and it isn’t over yet. Phase 3 is just about to begin. This time it is all about the 1970s and we have another six books to choose from.

The Driver’s Seat (1970)
Not To Disturb (1971)
The Hothouse by the East River (1973)
The Abbess of Crewe (1974)
The Takeover (1976)
Territorial Rights (1979)

I would of course love to hear what you are planning to read for phase 3 if you are joining in.

Of course if you have posted something somewhere and I have missed you, I am very sorry. It is quite hard keeping track of everyone, please let me know and I will edit you in.

For the moment I have chosen to read two titles during phase 3 – there’s always time for me to add to these. I have chosen The Hothouse by the East River – mainly for the title – and The Takeover. I read The Driver’s Seat – last year, a hugely memorable dark little novella I loved it, but I can imagine it dividing people. I shall be very interested in seeing what other readers think of it.

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Published three years before my last read for #ReadingMuriel2018 The Bachelors has a very different feel from The Girls of Slender Means. Here is a London of the 1950s, of bedsitting rooms, public bars and spiritualist meetings.

Certainly, it is a novel with London very much at its heart – the novel opens with several London place names – and the whole novel has a very London feel to it.

“In Queen’s Gate, Kensington, in Harrington Road, The Boltons, Holland Park, and in King’s Road, Chelsea, and its backwaters, the bachelors stirred between their sheets, reached for their wound watches, and with waking intelligences noted the time; then, remembering it was Saturday morning turned over on their pillows. But soon, since it was Saturday, most would be out on the streets shopping for their bacon and eggs, their week’s supplies of breakfasts and occasional suppers; and these bachelors would set out early, before a quarter past ten, in order to avoid being jostled by the women, the legitimate shoppers.”

Despite the promising opening, The Bachelors is something of a slow burn – and lacks the compelling nature of some other Muriel Spark novels. I was worried I wasn’t going to get on with the novel at all – then suddenly around seventy pages in I realised I was gripped and I ended up finishing rather quickly. Thinking about the novel now in retrospect I actually really like it – so it is a shame that the beginning is a bit of a let-down – a couple of conversations on Twitter suggest I’m not the only reader to feel like this. Spark creates such an authentic community of London bachelors that – considering she uses relatively little description, and quite a lot of dialogue – there is still a lot that is very visual in this novel.

The Bachelors of the title include: a handwriting expert, a lawyer, a priest, a policeman and a spiritual medium. Patrick Seton; the medium is the malevolent presence throughout the novel – he is a truly brilliant Spark villain. Patrick is due to appear in court – charged with defrauding a widow; Freda Flower of her savings. Things however, are not straight forward, as the widow concerned – part of the spiritualist circle – keeps changing her evidence. Like all groups, this spiritualist circle is split into dividing factions – those who think Patrick Seton is innocent and those who see him as a fraud and a criminal. However, even those who believe Patrick defrauded Mrs Flower of her savings – tend to think he is a good medium. Patrick is very confident of being acquitted – and he has a few loyal acolytes who are vocal in their support of him.

However, the reader quickly begins to see Patrick as a really nasty character and potentially a dangerous one. Patrick has a girlfriend – Alice – who is in the early stages of pregnancy – something Patrick is clearly irritated by – thinking of it as ‘her disgusting baby’. Alice wants Patrick to marry her – Patrick tells her, his divorce will be granted soon. Other characters in the novel are surprised to hear that Patrick is married as they had understood him to be single. Alice is an insulin dependent diabetic – and it is quickly apparent that Patrick has a dreadful plan up his sleeve. Not averse to a bit of blackmail – Patrick manages to draw his doctor into the plans for when the ‘unfortunate occurrence’ should be over and he safely acquitted. Patrick is confident he can make everything go his way.

Ronald Bridges is a graphologist; due to give evidence on a note supposedly written by Mrs Flower – though said to have been forged by Patrick Seton – in the up coming trial. Ronald suffers from epilepsy, he is very conscious of his condition, which he seems to feel has blighted his life, and practices using his memory whenever he can. He is a slightly sad discontented man, who wants desperately to be taken seriously. It is Ronald ultimately who is the novel’s rather unlikely hero.

“Ronald was filled with a great melancholy boredom from which he suffered periodically. It was not merely this affair which seemed to suffocate him, but the whole of life – people, small-time criminals, outrage housekeepers, and all his acquaintance from the beginning of time.”

Several of the novel’s other bachelors are concerned with Patrick’s case and the spiritualist group he is part of. Detective Inspector Fergusson is the policeman responsible for Patrick’s appearance in court, while Martin Bowles is the prosecuting barrister. Matthew another of Ronald’s friends has designs on Alice, wanting to get her away from Patrick, watches from the public gallery as the trial gets underway. Alice however is devoted to Patrick despite her friend Elsie’s interference to try and prove his guilt.

While this novel won’t be my favourite Muriel Spark novel, I am glad I have read it, I very much enjoyed hating Patrick Seton – and waiting to see what happened to him made the second half of the book much more compelling.


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the girls of slender means

The Girls of Slender Means is a novel of taut perfection – a wonderful precursor to A Far Cry from Kensington. Told in flash back from the present (1963) looking back at the summer of 1945, and those months between VE day and VJ day. The London streets are scarred by bomb damage and rationing bites those who have put up with it so long already.

“The May of Teck Club exists for the pecuniary convenience of and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means, below the age of Thirty years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London.”

The May of Teck Club has had its windows shattered three times since 1940. It is a hostel for young ladies under thirty. Spark herself lived in a very similar establishment, and she recreates the community perfectly. That atmosphere of everyone being in it together – endless chatter, borrowing and swapping belongings, young men visiting, careers just beginning. The upper floors look down over Kensington gardens, the Albert Memorial just around the corner, it’s a rather nice area of London to be residing in, even in 1945.

“Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions. The streets of cities were lined with buildings in bad repair or in no repair at all, bomb-sites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out, leaving only the cavity. Some bomb-ripped buildings looked like the ruins of ancient castles until, at a closer view, the wallpapers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed, as on a stage, with one wall missing; sometimes a lavatory chain would dangle over nothing from a fourth- or fifth-floor ceiling; most of all the staircases survived, like a new art-form, leading up and up to an unspecified destination that made unusual demands on the mind’s eye. All the nice people were poor; at least that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit”

Despite being over fifty, three middle aged spinsters have been allowed to stay at the club since before the First World War, and though one of them insists that one of the bombs that dropped into the garden of the May of Teck Club is still there, no one listens. These three older women hold something of a privileged position at the Club and are generally tolerated by the younger women.

The younger women are an interesting mix, there is Jane Wright, an overweight young woman who requires extra food for her brain work. Some of this work is writing letters to famous writers, on behalf of  Rudi Bittesch – who Jane thoroughly dislikes. During the day Jane works in publishing. Joanna Childe gives elocution lessons from her room, her beautiful voice ringing out through the house. ‘Mad’ Pauline Fox frequently goes out to dinner with her imaginary companion; well-known actor Jack Buchanan. Beautiful, Selina Redwood, who daily recites an incantation to maintain her well-practised poise. Dorothy Markham is the impoverished niece of Lady Julia Markham, who is a member of the club’s management committee. Then there is the worldly Anne, who owns the coveted taffeta Schiaparelli dress. The dress is shared between the girls slender enough to wear it, swapped for little pieces of soap or coupons.

In the back ground of all this there is a sense of darker goings on, largely ignored by those girls of slender means, but nevertheless there. The reality of war is everywhere, in the landscape all around and the coupons they trade for the right to wear the Schiaparelli dress. Whispers of another great bomb being prepared, remind us that the world was on the brink of frightening great change.

It is important to be very slim at the May of Teck Club, not only so girls can fit into the Schiaparelli dress, but because girls who are slender enough are able to squeeze through the lavatory window to the flat roof. Here girls can sunbathe unseen or meet lovers who climb over from the building next door.

Selina is quite the expert in getting through that window, while Jane of course can only stand and watch. This ability, or not to get through the tiny aperture of the window to the roof beyond becomes very important as the novel progresses.
Into this all female world that runs smoothly enough, comes Nicholas Farringdon an aspiring writer to unwittingly unsettle the status quo.

“We come now to Nicholas Farringdon in his thirty-third year. He was said to be an anarchist. No one at the May of Teck Club took this seriously as he looked quite normal; that is to say, he looked slightly dissipated, like the disappointing son of a good English family that he was.”

As the novel opens in the present time of 1963, former residents of the May of Teck Club pass along the news of Nicholas’s death in Haiti where he had worked as a missionary. In those former days he had made great friends of several of the young women from the May of Teck Club, and becomes a regular visitor. He decides he would like to do nice things for Jane (though not sleep with her) he takes her to parties and poetry readings, introducing her to other writers, but it is Selina who really turns his head. Many hot summer nights are spent with Selina out on the roof of the May of Teck Club.

Nothing lasts forever, and the days of the May of Teck Club are sadly numbered. In typical Spark fashion the conclusion of the novel is shockingly dramatic. The Girls of Slender Means is a slight novel, in which not a word is wasted – Spark re-creates the atmosphere of a hostel for young ladies, in 1945 with absolute perfection. Who wouldn’t want to be one of the nice poor people in 1945 who live at the May of Teck Club across the road from Kensington Gardens and have a share in a taffeta Schiaparelli dress.

I persuaded my very small book group to join in #ReadingMuriel2018 and pick this for our March read. We meet on Wednesday to discuss it.


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The first phase of #ReadingMuriel2018 is over – all bar the shouting – and what has been heartening for me is just how many people have joined in and showed their enthusiasm. Before January I had only read three Muriel Spark novels – so I am enjoying learning more about Muriel Spark and her work as I go along. This post is really just to try and draw everyone together – give a brief snapshot of some thoughts and reactions – and links to other reviews. Of course, many people are reading Muriel Spark at the moment in celebration of her centenary – so it is a little difficult for me sometimes to know who exactly has joined in my little read-a-long – and who are just reading a Muriel Spark novel.

Apologies to anyone who I don’t acknowledge, I am trying my best not to miss anyone out – please nudge me if I have. Use of the hashtag on Twitter does help me find you.

Anyway Phase 1 was all about Muriel Spark’s 1950s novels; The Comforters, Robinson and Memento Mori. I hadn’t originally planned to read all three, but I did, and thoroughly enjoyed them all. However, I have already posted my reviews of them, so I’m handing over to the rest of you.

the comforters2

Grant shared his review of The Comforters from 2010, which he called “a delicately-iced, bite-sized, bitter-sweet tart.” Vikki said: “I love how Sparkian devices/themes are set out from the off, like her famous flash forwards.” Jennifer said:”she wrote about everyday things that fascinated her but from such a unique angle its as if she’s revealing something new to us each time we enter Spark World.” Yvonne also read The Comforters, finding it superb and it was a re-read for Gill who called it “an extraordinary debut.” Lisa from Bluestalking Journal reviewed The Comforters her review highlighting the eccentric nature of the characters. Chrystyna was able to find a copy of The Comforters in her local library. Mike from the Librarything Virago group – is on a Spark reading marathon, and said of The Comforters that “this greater complexity is a bit of a weakness, but nevertheless and especially for a first novel The Comforters is a definite 4****.” Christine from the BookTrunk and says that “Spark’s witty, elegant prose is second to none.” Karen from Bookertalk had less success with The Comforters, although she enjoyed the light comedy of the opening, and is hoping to do better with one of her later works. Monica has been reading all three of Spark’s early novels, and found The Comforters might be deserving of a re-read. Christine of Bride of the book god, has also read all three novels, and her post brings together her thoughts on all three novels by one of her favourite writers.

Robinson, Muriel Spark’s second novel also proved a hit with those who read it. I was enthralled by it, as was Chrystyna who was able to see patterns between it and The Comforters. Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings reviewed Robinson calling it “a work that really is immensely readable and yet very thought-provoking as well.” Jennifer said she loved January for throwing that bowl of soup over Tom – I can’t help but agree. Like many of us Yvonne also moved from reading The Comforters to Robinson. Leaves and Pages reviewed Robinson too calling it clever and strangely engaging. Vikki called Robinson an intriguing novel saying: “The air of mystery surrounding Robinson is so deftly done.” Mike, however called Robinson not that great a novel but worth reading.Lizzy of Lizzy’s Literary Life reviewed Robinson saying “Spark’s Robinson isn’t good, it is excellent. Although not perfect. There are too many conflicts regarding Catholic doctrine for me.” Mary called Robinson “quirky, sharp, clever writing.” This was Monica’s favourite of the three early novels.
momento mori2

Memento Mori is a Spark novel that many people consider to be among her best. Lady Fanciful reviewed Memento Mori calling it “a blackly comedic, sometimes savage, sometimes tender journey towards death, following a group of aged upper middle class intellectuals, their servants and companions, towards their final breaths.” I know Cathy from WhatCathyReadNext blog was planning on reading Memento Mori – I’ll edit in a review when I see it pop up. Caroline from book word reviewed Memento Mori calling it “short, bizarre, almost macabre,” going on to say that: “Every character is at the mercy of the physical manifestations of ageing.” For Mike Memento Mori was a definite 5 star read, which he says he loves even more every time he reads it. Annabel reviewed Memento Mori remarking that “Spark’s style which even in her earlier work takes no prisoners and wastes few words – requiring a little concentration to keep up with her!” When Yvonne began reading Memento Mori she was taken aback by the irony,and hindsight. Monica found the ending of this novel a bit of a let down but loved the characters.

Wow, well I hadn’t realised just how many people were joining in until I started looking through all the #ReadingMuriel2018 traffic. It’s been fabulous seeing so much enthusiasm for the project.

March/April is all about the 1960s novels. You can find the full schedule on my #ReadingMuriel2018 page. I have manged to get three novels for the next phase – whether I find time to read that many again remains to be seen. There is a much longer list to choose from for Phase 2 and no one is expected to read them all – although if you are undertaking a marathon reading of Spark well done, and good luck. I think three in two months will be the most I can manage, though one book every two months is plenty too. No obligation to join in again though if you are planning on joining me, let me know what you’re hoping to read.

Incidentally did anyone watch the Muriel Spark documentary currently on BBC I-player? – I think it must be finishing any day now – so if you haven’t seen it, and if it is still available – I highly recommend it.

Thank you to everyone who have helped to make this first phase such a success. Here’s to the next phase.


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Well. #ReadingMuriel2018 continues apace and although there is no need to read more than one book every two months I shall be reading more than that, during this first phase certainly.

With The Comforters, I felt that Muriel Spark really set out her stall so to speak, her debut novel giving us a real taste of what was to come. However, with her second novel Robinson, she shows we might not want to be too quick to pigeon hole her work. As if a writer like Muriel Spark could ever be accurately pigeon holed anyway.

There are layers to Robinson, which make the whole – reasonably slight – novel, deceptively complex. However, it is very readable and gloriously compelling. In this novel, Spark plays homage to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, often said to have been the first novel. However, as Candia McWilliam points out in her introduction to my Polygon edition, we can also be reminded of another island Robinson – the Swiss Family Robinson (they made me want a tree house). Muriel Spark’s son was called Robin – he lived with her parents and the two appear to have spent most of his life estranged. Layers, of fascinating possibilities to what might have inspired or driven Muriel Spark to write this extraordinary novel.

Religion plays a big part, Spark’s conversion to Catholicism which was in such evidence in The Comforters is present here too in the character of January Marlow, and in the arguments and discussions between her and other characters.
The plot premise is what made me want to read the book – which of us hasn’t wondered about being marooned on a remote island? (ok just me then).


January Marlow, a young widow, has been sent to research a group of islands, and on a flight from the Azores the plane she is on crashes on a tiny, isolated island in the North Atlantic. January is one of just three survivors; Jimmie Waterford and Tom Wells, are her fellow survivors.

“We were a thousand miles from anywhere. I think the effects of the concussion were still upon me when I got up, the fourth morning after the crash. It was some time before I took in the details of Robinson’s establishment, and not till a week later that I began to wonder at his curious isolation.”

January comes to, finding herself attended by a man named Miles Mary Robinson, on a remote island also called Robinson after its owner – with a ping-pong playing cat, and a young boy named Miguel. Miguel is Robinson’s adopted son, the offspring of one of the pomegranate men who come to the island every few months, who Robinson took on after his natural father died. January has a young son at home, who she realises, will believe her to be dead. She records her experiences in a note book journal given to her by Robinson, with the instruction to write the facts.

“To teach a cat to play ping-pong you have first to win the confidence and approval of the cat. Bluebell was the second cat I had undertaken to teach; I found her more amenable than the first, which had been a male.
Ping-pong with a cat is a simplified and more individualistic form of the proper game. You play it close to the ground, and you imagine the net.”

Soon January meets Jimmie Waterford and Tom Wells, the latter a man still recovering from his injuries, she takes an instant dislike to, Jimmie she recognises from the plane. Robinson tells them they have no way of communicating with the rest of the world, and they will have to sit tight till the pomegranate men arrive in three months’ time. Robinson advises January not to waste time staring out to sea hoping to see a boat – that there won’t be any boats coming their way. In flashback we start to learn something of January and her past, she has begun to see parallels in the personalities of her fellow island inhabitants and her two brothers-in-law back in London.

Robinson has a nineteenth century house in a Spanish style, within sight of a lake. He boasts a well-stocked library – containing many uncut first editions – and has provisions to last till his friends the pomegranate men come again. He and Miguel know the small, man shaped island inside and out – and Miguel particularly proves himself a useful guide. However, Robinson strongly objects to January’s Catholicism and it soon becomes a point of conflict between them as he forbids her from teaching Miguel about the rosary.

Dutchman; Jimmie Waterford, with whom January allies herself – turns out to be related to Robinson, he was on his way to the island anyway – sent by members of the family to persuade him home, to take charge of the family business. Tom Wells is a bit of dubious character, a seller of charms, he runs a funny little magazine, and avoids helping around the island whenever he can. Quick to dish out the snide remarks, which make January feel uncomfortable, there is something quite unlikable about him. While the talkative, Jimmie with his eccentric way of speaking, is a breath of fresh air by comparison.

“In the evenings, however, we did not bicker quite so much. The evening after turning out the storehouse, when we were settled in Robinson’s room, some drinking rum, some brandy, we were tired and relaxed with each other so far as to speculate how it would be when were rescued, how surprised everyone would be.”

Tensions rise between the inhabitants, the weeks before that expected boat stretch out before them. Things take a darker turn when Robinson disappears, no trace of him can be found, but there is a trail of blood all over the island, and poor Miguel is utterly inconsolable. Each of the plane survivors begin to suspect one of the others of being a murderer. With everyone wondering about everybody else’s motivations, the pomegranate men and their boat seem further away than ever. Who – if anyone – can be trusted – and what happened to Robinson?

This is a rollicking good read, proof should it be needed (it isn’t) that a page turner and a literary novel are not mutually exclusive. Honestly, I am going to enjoy reading more by Muriel Spark this year. There is something about her quirkiness and slight darkness that appeals to me.


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