Wednesday, 30 December 2009

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

December 25th. - Last Christmas I was a bride, with a heart overflowing with present bliss, and full of ardent hopes for the future - though not unmingled with foreboding fears.
Thus writes Helen Huntingdon in her diary entry of 1822. Helen's foreboding fears are justified as her handsome husband emerges as a debt-ridden alcoholic who chased every woman 'aged between fifteen and forty-five.' Helen's strong Christian faith sees her through his humiliating affair with Lady Lowborough and his long drunken sojourns in London, but when he tries to install another of his women in their home as governess to their young son, Helen decides to take her child and run. Discovering her plan by reading her diary her husband destroys all of her art materials - her only means of earning a living - and cuts off all of her access to money and keys. Eventually Helen does escape with her son to a village many miles away and excites local gossip as the mysterious tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Many of the conventions of the Victorian novel can be observed in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The story is relayed through letters and diary entries. The good are rewarded and the wicked are punished, but Anne Bronte pulls no punches and the dissipation of Arthur Huntingdon is almost certainly a fictional portrayal of the troubled Branwell Bronte. Charlotte Bronte thought it a step too far, but Anne's interest in social justice and the lowly position of women in Victorian society is evident in both her published novels.

There is humour, too. Anne Bronte displays a taste for satirical comedy which seems to owe more to Austen than typical Bronte which raises an interesting question. Is it possible that Anne could have read and been influenced by Austen?

Happy new year!

Sunday, 13 December 2009


She knew how to recognise the good girls and the diligent boys, the rebels and fuck-ups, the artsy kids who knew nothing about art and the ones who had art burning inside them.
38-year old Portia Nathan is an admissions officer for Princeton. Her life revolves around recruiting potential students and careful consideration of application folders. At home, at work, in transit she is surrounded by piles of orange folders containing the (sometimes heartbreaking) life stories of the brightest and best 17-year olds.

All is not well with Portia. She has a fractious relationship with her feminist activist mother, a stagnant relationship with her long-term partner and immerses herself in work to blank out events from her own teenage years at Dartmouth.

Fascinating though the admissions process is I was more interested in Portia's relationships. When her partner Mark invites the ghastly Oxbridge academic, Helen, to their dinner party Portia tries not to be irritated by her rudeness, her affected Virginia Woolf hairstyle and her expensive T-strap leather shoes. A lesser writer would have made Helen a caricature, but Jean Hanff Korelitz is much more subtle than that. Similarly, when Portia later learns that Helen is pregnant the truth begins to dawn on her the way all truths emerge:

She was thinking of something, or trying to think of something. Just beyond her grasp, her ken, flittering away.
Admission is amusing, perceptive and clever. You must read it.

Monday, 7 December 2009

The Lacuna

Slightly frustrating when you pay £14.99 for a book, struggle to page 150 before realising you really don't care that much about the central character or his mother or anyone else in the novel and shove it back on your shelf with a vague plan of returning to it someday (knowing you never will). But that's the chance you take with fiction.

The Poisonwood Bible is one of my favourite novels and I was hoping The Lacuna would work some of the same magic. Set in Mexico in the early part of the twentieth century it is a coming of age story and combines fictional characters with historical characters of the era, for example, the artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. I don't think it works. Barbara Kingsolver is a wonderful writer but this novel struck me as over-researched.

However, I'm reading Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz right now. It is so good I've been reading into the early hours and suffering for it the next day as articulated in this blog post by Louise Erdrich. 'Severe maternal inertia' indeed!

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Agnes Grey

Anne Bronte drew on her own experiences as a governess in her portrayal of Agnes Grey who battles with spoilt brats, pushy mothers and fashion-obsessed young ladies. There are no plot twists and turns in this novel, but a straightforward narrative which begins with Agnes Grey's strong desire for independence. Like Jane Eyre, she places an advertisement for work in a newspaper which leads to a position attempting to teach three unbelievably spoilt children (one of them spits in her workbag!) while facing constant criticism from their doting mama. When she is unceremoniously sacked, Agnes goes on to a position as governess to three older children and faces a different problem, namely that sixteen-year old Rosalie chases any man who crosses her path including one that Agnes rather likes herself ...

Anne Bronte created a little gem of a novel in Agnes Grey and the final chapter where Mr Weston comes looking for Agnes on Scarborough beach is as romantic as anything written by her sisters.

Sunday, 15 November 2009


There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. Jane Eyre

Dark winter evenings lend themselves to hefty gothic novels and I'm spoilt for choice. My mother-in-law very kindly bought me the new Audrey Niffenegger for my birthday and I'm well overdue for a re-read of Jane Eyre. Remember the stunning opening paragraph where the child Jane sits in the window seat looking out over the frosty landscape?

The Bronte sisters have been my on my mind since I went to the National Portrait Gallery in the summer and saw the haunting portrait painted by their brother Branwell who appears to have painted himself out of the picture. I'm also very fond of Anne's novel, Agnes Grey which I'd like to re-read. Many years ago I visited Anne's grave in a churchyard in Scarborough which overlooks the sea. I'd like to go back one day. Actually I'm still only half way through The Poisonwood Bible but us readaholics like to have their schedule sorted!

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Beloved Books

Man oh man, are we in for it now, was my thinking about the Congo from the instant we first set foot.
Thus speaks Rachel Rebekah Price the 'extreme blonde' in The Poisonwood Bible. Fifteen-years old and completely self-centred she unwillingly spends a year in a remote village in Africa with her missionary father, mother and three sisters, Adah, Leah and Ruth May. Pretty tough for a girl 'whose only hopes for the year were a sweet sixteen party and a pink mohair twin set.'

The Poisonwood Bible is a fabulous novel. I loved Methuselah, the African Grey parrot, who has learned to swear from the previous missionary ('Piss off, Methuselah!') and the early scene where Nathan tries to cultivate the African soil. Arrogantly chopping down orchids to make way for beans and tomatoes he falls foul of the poisonwood tree which brings him out in a weeping, welted rash.

In her introduction to this edition Barbara Kingsolver says that she waited nearly 30 years for the wisdom and maturity to write this novel. It's a beautiful evocation of Africa.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Sense and Sensibility

... that sanguine expectation of happiness which is happiness itself.
I adore Elinor Dashwood. Self-possessed and dignified, she does not allow the ghastly Lucy Steele to make a fool of her. Warm and affectionate, she supports Marianne through the bitter blow of Willoughby's betrayal. Perceptive and elegant, she never actually tells her mother to reign it in, but guides her away from her wilder extravagances. Whether the drippy Edward Ferrars deserves Elinor is another question.

I've been out of action with a sickness bug over the weekend. By the time I felt well enough to read again I knew exactly what I wanted. Sometimes, only Jane will do!

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Autumnal reading

I decided to save The Plague of Doves for half-term when I have a week off work and can give it the time and attention it deserves.

Just before my book group got kicked out of the pub at our last meeting (we usually overstay our welcome) we selected A S Byatt's Possession so I need to read that before mid-November. I was also intrigued by this review. I love novels set in academia so I'm going to look for a copy of Admission.

My newly teenage daughters want to see the Twilight movies and I thought I'd read the book to find out what all the fuss is about. It seems the right time of year to read a vampire novel! I'm about half-way through and have mixed feelings so far. I'm not keen on the narrator, Bella Swan, and the writing is a little uneven, but I like the portrayal of the native American Indians and I do want to find out what happens. Anyone read it? I'd love to know your thoughts.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

The Plague of Doves

Death Comes for the Archbishop is an extraordinary narrative about a French Catholic priest and a French bishop who travel throughout Mexico in the nineteenth century promoting the Catholic faith. Encountering unimaginable hardship and hostility the two men gain confidence and resilience from their friendship amidst a landscape of stunning rivers, canyons, sandstorms and tamarisk trees.

Death Comes for the Archbishop reminded me a little of a Louise Erdrich novel Last Report on the Miracle at Little No Horse which I read a few years ago and this in turn reminded me that I still haven't read The Plague of Doves. So I'm re-joining the 21st century with one of my favourite contemporary writers.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Death Comes for the Archbishop

Flowers in brown paper and a new Willa Cather novel. What could be nicer?

I find that recently I've been moving away from 'cosy reads.' You know, the kind of middlebrow comfort novels you read with tea and toast on winter evenings. Not that there is anything wrong with comfort reading but at the moment I want to read novels about life and art and poetry. Which is why I find Willa Cather so satisfying. Death Comes for the Archbishop is about two Catholic priests who ride the Santa Fe trail in the nineteenth century. Cather can write of a masculine, brutal world yet still retain a feminine quality to her prose.

The Willa Cather Foundation site has a link to the stunning flowers and grasses of the prairie. Thanks to the excellent Frisbee: A Book Journal for alerting me to the existence of this site.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

My Mortal Enemy

Their talk quite took my breath away; they said such exciting, such fantastic things about people, books, music - anything; they seemed to speak together a kind of highly flavoured special language. Willa Cather
Published in 1926 My Mortal Enemy is a short novel - more like a novella. The central theme of conspicuous consumption reminded me of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. It examines the story of Myra, a local beauty in her southern home town who is set to inherit a fortune. She elopes with a young man she falls in love with and they move to New York where they live in an elegant apartment and entertain the artistic community. Unsatisfied that she can't move in the highest circles of society because her husband isn't wealthy enough she begins to resent him and eventually refers to him as 'my mortal enemy.'

In one chapter, Cather describes a party at Myra's apartment where an opera singer goes to the piano to sing Casta Diva from Bellini's opera Norma. She describes the the beginning of the aria as 'like the quivering of moonbeams on the water.' Intrigued to hear this I found a youtube clip of Maria Callas singing Casta Diva and it is as beautiful as Cather describes it.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Taylor and Howard

The hydrangea by the front door faded through innumerable shades of blue.

There are some similarities between Elizabeth Taylor's A Game of Hide and Seek and Elizabeth Jane Howard's Love All. Both feature upper middle-class families who live in a kind of genteel poverty, both have characters who are fond of reading Jane Austen and both examine the hopelessness of unrequited love.

In A Game of Hide and Seek, Harriet falls in love with Vesey one summer when she is just eighteen. She continues to love him when she goes to work in a department store, meets the wealthy but dull Charles, marries him and has a daughter. Flippant and overconfident, Vesey is seemingly uninterested in Harriet and his life spirals downward. He is expelled from Oxford and becomes a poverty stricken actor. He and Harriet meet again in middle age and try to re-ignite their relationship. I was less interested in the strange relationship between Vesey and Harriet than the minor characters in this novel - Harriet's wonderful mother who went to prison for women's rights and Julia, the mother of Charles, a former actress who retains her theatrical affectations well into old age.

The focus in Love All switches between different characters, but my favourites were Persephone Plover - known as Percy - who is abandoned by her parents and bought up by her Aunt Floy and her beloved black cat, Marvell. When Aunt Floy, who designs gardens, is commissioned to restore the gardens of a country house Persephone goes with her and takes on the organisation of an arts festival in the village. There she receives two proposals of marriage and accepts neither! At 450 pages this novel briefly flagged a little for me about half-way through and then I got interested again and read straight through to the end.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Elizabeth Jane Howard

Ah, lovely September sunshine. I decided to give Elizabeth Jane Howard a whirl as I've had some positive comments about her novels on my blog. Rather than commit to the four volume Cazalet series I thought I'd start with Love All. How can you not love a novel with a central character called Persephone Plover?! Her writing reminds me a little of Jilly Cooper - a large cast of upper-class characters and a pervading Englishness. I'll let you know how I get on.

Talking of Jilly Cooper, has anyone ever read her 'girl' series - Harriet, Emily, Octavia, Bella and Imogen? My sister and I loved them when we were younger.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Willa Sibert Cather

Willa Cather

In Haverford on the Platte the townspeople still talk of Lucy Gayheart. They do not talk of her a great deal, to be sure; life goes on and we live in the present.

The opening sentences of Lucy Gayheart hint of tragedy but you are lulled into a false sense of security by cheerful scenes of Lucy and her childhood sweetheart, Harry Gordon, skating on the frozen river Platte. Lucy is not satisfied with life in a small town and leaves to study and teach the piano in Chicago. There she falls in love with an older married man, a classical singer who sharpens her perceptions of art and beauty. Harry visits Lucy in Chicago and proposes to her. Refusing to marry Harry and unable to marry the singer Lucy returns to her home town and
tragedy strikes as she skates alone on the frozen river ...

This novel drew me in completely and I read on and on oblivious to time passing. Consequently I'm a little behind on housework and ironing this week! Willa Cather is a great, great writer.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Lucy Gayheart

Much as I admire Elizabeth Taylor's writing I can only spend so long in her world before longing to escape to the plains and prairies of America with a Willa Cather novel. I've been wanting to read Lucy Gayheart for a long time. There's nothing quite like starting a new novel is there?

I'm feeling all the L M Montgomery love and I particularly liked the anonymous comment from a lady who has a copy of the novel which belonged to her mother. That's what Vintage Reads is all about. Beloved books that are passed down through the generations.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Holiday reading

Aunt Alberta, to save her dinner, plunged into an account of how a dog had bitten her recently, Uncle James, to back her up, asked where the dog had bitten her.

"Just a little below the Catholic Church," said Aunt Alberta.

At that point Valancy laughed. Nobody else laughed. What was there to laugh at?

"Is that a vital part?" asked Valancy?

The Blue Castle is funny, irreverent, romantic and more than a little far-fetched. I loved it. It's difficult to review without spoilers, so no peeking if you're planning to read it!


Valancy is 29, unmarried, and treated as a joke and a failure by her extended family. After suffering pain in her chest she visits her doctor who tells her she has one year to live. She decides to make the most of her final year and rejects her family, leaves home to nurse a sick school-friend and proposes to the local bad boy, Barney Snaith. Marriage to Barney brings her happiness - her own 'blue castle' - until she starts to wonder about the diagnosis from her doctor ...


Lucy Maud Montgomery did not set The Blue Castle on Prince Edward Island. It is set in Muskoka in Ontario, Canada, where Montgomery spent a holiday which inspired the novel.

I also read Elizabeth Taylor's A Game of Hide and Seek in Brighton last week. It is a beautifully written novel and I couldn't put it down, but I think Blaming is still my favourite. This Virago Modern Classics edition has an introduction by the novelist, Elizabeth Jane Howard. Anybody read her?

Sunday, 23 August 2009

At last ...

... it's arrived! My local independent bookshop has managed to get a copy of L M Montgomery's adult novel The Blue Castle. I've only been waiting 5 years! I first heard about this novel on the chicklit forums where it has quite a following. I'm going to take it to Brighton with me next week and I hope to read it on the beach.

Nightingale Wood is a sweet fairy tale about thwarted love with a cast of female lead characters, Viola, named by her Shakespearean father, Hetty, bookish and rebellious, Madge whose whole life revolves around her dog and Tina, my favourite, who married her father's chauffeur. Set in the late 1930's there are lots of references to Lyons Corner House and Woolworths but Gibbons never lets us forget the horrors of wartime England and the rise of Communism.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Nightingale Wood

I fully understand J K Rowling's fondness for writing in a cafe. While I have no ambition (or talent) to write I do love to read in a cafe. On Saturday while one daughter was at her gymnastics class and the other one was looking at technical gizmos in the Apple shop with my husband I spent some time reading Nightingale Wood outside a cafe in the sunshine with an iced coffee.

Villette got difficult towards the end. So much of the dialogue was in French I had to keep turning to the notes at the end of the book for a translation and began to feel that I was back on my degree course. I'm done with academia so it was quite a relief to finish it.

Comic novels must surely be among the most difficult to do well and the early twentieth century boasts some of the finest female writers of the genre. Thank goodness for Stella Gibbons, E M Delafield and Nancy Mitford.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Stella Dorothea Gibbons

I've read about two-thirds of the beautifully written Villette. The sombre tone of this autobiographical novel is hardly surprising as it was written after Charlotte had lost both Emily and Anne. Lucy Snowe has something of the resilience of Jane Eyre, but a more melancholy, reflective nature and I'm intrigued as to how this will end.

I'm going to read Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons next and I'm hoping for an enjoyable novel with nothing nasty in the woodshed! In Sunday's You magazine there was an interesting piece on the origins of The Lady magazine. Apparently Stella Gibbons wrote Cold Comfort Farm while working in the editorial department in the early 1930's. There was also a nice long article on Persephone Books.

Sunday, 2 August 2009


And my pormanteau, with my few clothes and the little pocket-book enclasping the remnant of my fifteen pounds, where were they?
Poor Lucy Snowe. Newly arrived alone in Villette (Bronte's fictional name for Brussels) and facing that eternal traveller's nightmare. Lost luggage. As she watches each bag and box being unloaded from the stage-coach she searches in vain for the piece of green ribbon she'd tied to her bag.

I usually prefer to read long Victorian novels in the autumn and winter months, but I've been thinking about the Bronte sisters since I saw their painting in the National Portrait Gallery last month and you have to go with the flow. I do like the spirit of Lucy Snowe. On her first day teaching at Madame Beck's school for girls she pushes a troublesome student into a cupboard, locks the door, pockets the key and calmly continues with the lesson ...

Saturday, 18 July 2009

The Professor's House

At times the wire lady was most convincing in her pose as a woman of light behaviour, but she never fooled St Peter. He had his blind spots, but he had never been taken in by one of her kind!
Remember Miss Blossom, the dressmaker's dummy in I Capture The Castle who offers womanly advice such as 'Well dearie, that's what men are like' to the unworldly Rose and Cassandra? Interestingly, there is also a well-developed female form in a wire skirt in the professor's study which doubles as a family sewing room in The Professor's House. This form, too, acts as a kind of substitute for real relationships. Dismayed, as his wife and daughters are drawn into a life of consumerism and acquisition, the professor increasingly prefers the company of the dressmaker's dummy.

My Antonia is generally considered to be Willa Cather's finest novel but I think for sheer enjoyment The Professor's House, originally published in 1925, is my favourite. Take a look here and here for a beautifully written account of a visit to Willa Cather's home town, Red Cloud, in Nebraska.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Irene Dische

Funny how books suddenly attract your attention. I first heard about The Empress of Weehawken on that excellent but now sadly defunct site Readerville where it was getting some good reviews. I saw it again on Caustic Cover Critic which reminded me to put it on my tbr list. I finally got around to ordering it last week and started reading it at the weekend.

But ... I can't get into it. Not that it's a bad book but I still have a head full of The House of Mirth and Lily Bart is following me around. I need to read more Edith Wharton. Having exhausted my book budget (currently one paperback per month) I made a quick trip to the library after work yesterday evening and picked up Ethan Frome and Hermione Lee's Wharton biography.
The Empress of Weehawken is temporarily on hold.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Edith Wharton

I loved this novel from its opening sentence where Lawrence Selden runs into his friend Lily Bart at Grand Central Station and notices that her bloom is slightly diminished after 'eleven years of late hours and indefatigable dancing.'

At twenty-nine, Lily Bart, a poor girl whose beauty enables her to move in the best American society, is aware of the pressing need to marry a rich man because time is passing and this is echoed in the 'glitter of the American autumn' of the first chapters.

On a deeper level, Lily knows she is better than that and her friendship with Lawrence Selden a young lawyer of integrity who maintains a certain aloofness from the vicissitudes of fashionable society often verges on love. But Lily has a self-destructive streak and as her debts mount and her reputation suffers she finds that society rejects her.

Despite - or perhaps because of - her failings I adored Lily Bart. I now want to read everything Edith Wharton has written.

Friday, 3 July 2009

The Colour Purple

I must confess that I really did not want to drag myself away from my beloved Austen to read The Colour Purple for book club. However, I'm glad I did because it's a very good book. I did think that Celie's first person narration was much more convincing than the epistolary form of Nettie's story. I liked the way that Celie worked through her troubles creatively by sewing and quilting which then became a source of income.

In Alice Walker's introduction to the tenth anniversary edition she talks of the colour purple, how 'this colour is always a surprise, but is everywhere in nature.' So true.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

House of Mirth

On a visit to London with friends yesterday I was struck by a painting of the glamorous Lady Colin Campbell in the National Portrait Gallery. I popped into Waterstone's to buy some of the books on my tbr list and the very same painting was on the cover of Edith Wharton's House of Mirth! There are some excellent Edith Wharton posts here and here.
Also saw a stunning arrangement of hydrangeas in a huge square cut glass vase in a London restaurant. Who would have thought of cutting hydrangeas for indoors?

Thursday, 25 June 2009


2 February 1947-25 June 2009

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Summer reading

I think it's safe to say that I'm going through an Austen phase right now! I really want to re-read Sense and Sensibility after Emma but book group is looming and I only have a week to read Alice Walker's The Colour Purple.

I heard Kate Mosse reviewing Stephanie Meyer's Twilight on Radio 4 today and as I like teen/adult crossover fiction this is going on my tbr list. I've also ordered Irene Dische's novel The Empress of Weekhawken which I can't wait to read.

Can't decide whether I want to read Claire Harman's Jane's Fame or not. I heard some interesting extracts on Radio 4 but I think I'd rather read books by Austen than books about Austen.
Anyone planned their summer reading?

Sunday, 21 June 2009


?December 1815-January 1816

My dear Anna

As I wish very much to see your Jemima, I am sure you will like to see my Emma, & have therefore great pleasure in sending it for your perusal. Keep it as long as you chuse, it has been read by all here.-
I'm re-reading Emma and also dipping into Deidre Le Fayes's collection of Austen's letters for references to Emma. I like the letter to Anna Lefroy (quoted above) in which Austen looks forward to seeing Anna's new baby, Jemima, and sends 'my Emma' for Anna to read.

Austen's affection for her new novel is justified. Written at the peak of her literary prowess you get the sense she is having great fun with Emma. I loved the Christmas Eve dinner party at Mr Weston's where it begins to snow and 'everybody was either surprised or not surprised' and the arrival of Mrs Elton and visits which must be paid to decide whether she 'were very pretty indeed, or only rather pretty, or not pretty at all.'

Can't wait for the strawberry party ...

Monday, 8 June 2009

Northanger Abbey

"Friendship is the finest balm for the pangs of despised love."
This is my favourite Austen quote but I'd forgotten which novel it comes from. Of course, it's Northanger Abbey.

Well that's the hardback budget blown for the year! I have now completed my collection of the handsome Everyman's Library Austen titles. There are seven in all - the six novels and Sanditon and Other Stories. A couple of years ago I visited Bath so I can now visualise the Pump Room and the streets as Catherine walks through them with Isabella. Anyone else fond of Northanger Abbey?

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Virago Modern Classics

First published in 1918 The Return of the Soldier demonstrates Rebecca West's gift for writing. Chris Baldry, charming, handsome and wealthy, returns from the war with amnesia caused by shell-shock. He has forgotten about his beautiful, spoilt wife Kitty, and devoted young cousin, Jenny. Instead his memory resides 15 years ago with his first love, Margery Allington, a woman now grown shabby, tired and poverty-stricken. Told from the perspective of Jenny, this is a brilliant short novel. If you are new to Rebecca West I also recommend The Fountain Overflows. After reading it this novel will haunt you for days - in a good way!

I wasn't sure whether I liked Elizabeth Von Arnim's Elizabeth and her German Garden at first. It seemed a lot like a gardening manual and I'd been hoping for a novel. However, as it progressed I started to enjoy it. A little like Diary of a Provincial Lady without quite the same wit and warmth.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Katherine Mansfield's Journal

Before I read Katherine Mansfield's Journal, published by Persephone, I thought it would mainly be of interest to those who admire her short stories. Now that I have read it I think it would also be a perfect book for those who want to write and are interested in the writing life.

Mansfield appears never to be completely satisfied with what she has written and constantly strives for truth and clarity in her work:

October 16 1921. Another radiant day. J. is typing my last story, The Garden Party, which I finished on my birthday [October 14]. It took me nearly a month to 'recover' from At the Bay. I made a least three false starts.
Mansfield suffered terribly from consumptive illness and died at the age of just 34. It is clear from her journal that she knew her time was limited. We will never know what she could have written in maturity but her finest short stories are literary masterpieces.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Saturday morning reading

I picked up Rebecca West's Return of the Soldier this morning with the intention of reading just one chapter before loading the dishwasher, unloading the washing machine, hanging the washing out and popping to Sainsbury's. Of course, I got drawn into the story and West's luscious prose.

Two hours and several cups of tea later household chores were resumed.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Katherine Mansfield (part 3)

I've been reading David Mitchell's Black Swan Green for book group and it is an enjoyable read. Mitchell can certainly write, but the constant stream of media references and brand names carefully placed to remind us that this novel is set in 1982 is slightly irritating. Yes! I get it. The novel is set in 1982. No need to keep going on about butterscotch Angel Delight, Findus Crispy Pancakes and Simon Le Bon.

As a respite from commercial and media saturation I'm looking forward to reading Persephone's Katherine Mansfield's Journal which has just arrived. This entry made me smile:

Journal 1917. Living Alone. Even if I should, by some awful chance find a hair upon my bread and honey - at any rate it is my own hair.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

White Boots (2)

I finished White Boots. An enjoyable read but I don't think it's quite as good as Ballet Shoes or my favourite, Party Shoes (Party Frock). There's a nice postscript by Noel Streatfeild's nephew, William Streatfeild, in this edition. He explains how his aunt told him she spent hours on her knees studying the tracings made by skaters in the ice to ensure accuracy in her books. I particularly liked Lalla's comforting Nana, a stock character in most Streatfeild books, Goldie, Lalla's clever tutor and Harriet's sweet little brother, Edward. This would be an ideal Christmas present for an aspiring skater.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

White Boots

I'm delighted that White Boots has been re-issued. I'm less than thrilled with the cover, though. The loopy white writing is nice but that shade of blue sets my teeth on edge and I'm not keen on the skating silhouette. Doesn't convey anything about the story.

I've not read White Boots before and the style is unmistakeably Streatfeild. She describes poor Harriet who has been very ill as feeling 'cotton-woolish and all-overish' and you know exactly what she means. Harriet's doctor advises skating lessons to build up the strength in her legs. Harriet's family cannot afford skates so her brother takes on a paper round to earn the two shillings necessary to hire them. Unfortunately these are hideous standard issue clumpy brown skates with a green circle of paint around the top to stop them from being stolen.

At the rink, Harriet meets Lalla, a girl of her own age who has an unlimited wardrobe, a Nanny, a Governess, a wealthy aunt fostering her skating career, private skating lessons and best of all, a pair of white boots! Lalla, although wealthy, is lonely and envies Harriet's large loving family. A close friendship develops between the two girls.

That's all I've read so far, I'll let you know how I get on. Reading Noel Streatfeild and L M Montgomery and Susan Coolidge lately has made me want to resurrect my shelved MA in Children's Literature and Culture but I'm not sure I can justify the expense.

Saturday, 9 May 2009


Amy organises a cruise holiday to help her husband recover from major surgery. While sight-seeing in Istanbul, Amy is bored with the domes and minarets, fed up with the dust and heat and irritable because Nick lingers so long they are always late back to the coach. The final straw for Amy is when her sandal breaks forcing her to shuffle along behind everyone else for the rest of the day. Nick and Amy are befriended by a younger American woman who writes novels and loves all things English. While Nick finds her good company, Amy is not so keen and this causes a furious row ending in a passionate reconciliation. In the night Nick dies and Amy is left devastated. The American woman, Martha, takes control and flies Amy back to England. While Amy is coming to terms with the loss of her husband an unlikely friendship develops between the two women.

I think this is Taylor's finest novel. Although the theme of love and loss is sad, Amy's internal monologue is wickedly funny. Many things irritate or bore her. She doesn't pretend to enjoy babysitting for her spoilt five-year old granddaughter and goes to great lengths to avoid it. Although this doesn't make Amy a necessarily likeable character she is always true to herself which is immensely appealing.

Published in 1976, Blaming was Elizabeth Taylor's last novel and she knew it. There is a nice afterword by her daughter in this edition. Don't make the mistake I did and read it before the novel because it gives away a shocking event which happens towards the end.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Girl Guides Jumble Sale

Last week I was helping my daughters to run a stall at the annual Girl Guides Jumble Sale. Usually I insist on running the book stall but I was beaten to it this year. Guess what somebody donated to the book stall. Ten brand new Virago paperbacks still wrapped in polythene! Must've been part of some competition prize or promotion. Of course, I bought them and when I unwrapped them found I actually already owned seven of the titles so I just kept the three I hadn't got. I couldn't have wished for a better selection, Rebecca West, Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Von Arnim.

I started Blaming at the weekend and I think this is the first time I've truly appreciated Taylor's gift for comedy. I'll post a review as soon as I can put it down.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Katherine Mansfield (part 2)

Has Katherine Mansfield gone out of fashion? I couldn't find her in Waterstones or W H Smith. Not on the literary shelves. Not on the 20th century fiction shelves. Nothing in the library. Unless it was all out on loan, which I doubt. I finally found this collection in an academic bookshop. When I first discovered Mansfield back in the 80's she was always well-stocked in bookshops and there were quite a lot of articles about her in the media, too. After all, this was a young woman whose writing was not only admired and fostered but envied by Virgina Woolf.

I've now finished reading this collection and I would recommend The Daughters of the Late Colonel a bleakly comic tale about two delightful sisters, Josephine and Constantia, who have been so oppressed and bullied by their late father they still feel the need to defer to him even after his funeral has taken place. I also liked Marriage a la Mode in which a man's wife is heavily influenced by her pretentious literary and artistic friends who lounge around his house, eat all his food and sneer at him for working for a living. The Woman at the Store is a great, if disturbing, tale set in New Zealand which reminded me a little of the contemporary stories of Annie Proulx.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Katherine Mansfield (part 1)

Short stories have to be good to drag me away from my beloved novels and Katherine Mansfield's short stories are very good indeed. This collection of selected stories includes some set in Europe and others set in Mansfield's native New Zealand. I particularly like the New Zealand stories and these include The Garden Party, Her First Ball, The Doll's House and Prelude.

In The Garden Party, Jose, Laura and Meg Sheridan are assisting their mother to prepare for a lavish party. Workmen arrive to set up a marquee, the gardener is preparing the lawn, the cook is taking deliveries of pastries and pots of pink canna lilies are arriving from the florist. Amidst the preparations a workman is thrown from his horse and killed in the lane outside their house. Laura feels it is no longer appropriate to hold the party but her mother and sisters insist on going ahead ...

Mansfield's style is to show and not tell and many of her stories have a dark or ominous twist which left this reader longing to know more.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Lady Chatterley's Lover

Library book club is coming up and the selection for this month is Lady Chatterley's Lover. Re-written three times before D H Lawrence died in 1930 and the subject of an obscenity trial the book was finally published in 1960. Although quite explicit there is not much that would shock any reader of contemporary fiction now but I can see how it caused a stir in its day!

Lady Constance Chatterley begins an affair with her invalid husband's gamekeeper, Mellors, and many passionate trysts take place in the grounds of Wragby Hall. There are some beautiful descriptions of an English woodland spring and I rather liked the acid wit of Clifford Chatterley, but ultimately all the characters in this novel are so selfish and unpleasant that I didn't care much what happened to any of them.

When I got home from work today my Persephone Biannually with matching floral bookmark was on the mat. How nice!

Friday, 17 April 2009

Susan Coolidge

Both my daughters have been quite poorly this week. Last-minute appointments with the GP, several trips to the chemist and late-night phone calls to NHS Direct have meant abandoning my tbr list, but I have been reading to the girls amidst boxes of tissues, Strepsils, antihistamines, Olbas oil, Nurofen, and (sorry) a bowl waiting in case anybody was sick.

Although my daughters are not especially interested in classic children's books, preferring the social realism of Jean Ure and Jacqueline Wilson, they have really enjoyed Susan Coolidge's What Katy Did. I'd forgotten how funny it is. We particularly liked the extract from Dorry's journal.

March 25 - Forgit what did,

March 27 - Forgit what did.

March 29 - Played.

March 31- Forgit what did.

April 1 - Have dissided not to kepe a jurnal enny more.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Green hair and puffed sleeves

'Well', said Marilla sarcastically, 'if I'd decided it was worth while to dye my hair I'd have dyed it a decent colour at least. I wouldn't have dyed it green.'
You can almost smell the tang of the fir and spruce trees in the air of Prince Edward Island as you read Anne of Green Gables. I do like novels which give a strong sense of place and time. There were lots of regional expressions in this book which interested me. I didn't know that a Christmas where it doesn't snow is known as a 'green Christmas' or that there is a dress fabric called 'glory' and I loved the fact that at Anne's school they kept their milk cold by standing it in a stream all morning!

The juxtaposition of Anne's imaginative flights of fancy and Marilla's dour put-downs make this a delightful read. Some of Anne's escapades, such as putting liniment instead of vanilla into a sponge cake and accepting a dare from arch-rival Josie Pye to walk across the gable roof reminded me of Little Women and What Katy Did. I'd love to find a copy of The Blue Castle an adult novel by Montgomery which is now out of print.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Reading plans

Shall I just re-name this the Willa Cather blog and be done with it? I'm planning to re-read an old favourite The Professor's House over the Easter break. Bit of a fuzzy photo but I'm not faffing around with the camera any more - cuts into valuable reading time! I've almost finished Anne of Green Gables. Why did I leave it so long to discover the wonderful Lucy Maud Montgomery? I'm also thinking of reading some Katherine Mansfield short stories, too. It's many years since I've read Mansfield.

Have a lovely Easter break everyone and remember that reading is a sedentary activity so go easy on the chocolate eggs;-)

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

More Olivia Manning

Somebody seems to be donating all their Olivia Manning Virago Modern Classics to my local second hand bookshop. Keep them coming please! After the completion of The Balkan Trilogy Manning wanted to write a contemporary novel which captured the spirit of the 1960's. The Play Room was published in 1969. The cover shows the painting Daisy Fairy by Peter Blake.

Fifteen-year old Laura is bullied at school, deeply insecure about the way she looks and worships her classmate, the beautiful Vicky. When Vicky's best friend Gilda goes abroad for the summer Laura becomes close to Vicky and the two of them spend Saturday nights at the local disco where they enjoy their power to attract local men until Vicky takes things too far.

I do like coming-of-age stories and Manning has drawn on her own adolescent experiences to create a convincing portrayal of teen angst. There are some disturbing sexual elements to this story but it is sometimes good to read outside of your comfort zone. I like this extract, where Laura goes shopping for clothes with her mother:

They went on a Thursday to a South Camperlea chain store where dresses of metallic brilliance hung on a line marked 'STRAIGHT FROM CARNABY STREET', Laura went behind a screen and came out wearing a shift made of polyvinylchloride treated to look like gold. It had trimmings of yellow, purple and pink, and it looked to Mrs Fletcher like a cruel joke played on youth.

Friday, 3 April 2009

The Lorax and more Jane Austen

I am the Lorax who speaks for the trees which you seem to be chopping as fast as you please.

When my daughters were little they liked Dr Seuss books because of the brightly coloured illustrations and deceptively simple rhyme schemes. At 13 they are now old enough to appreciate the environmental message of The Lorax. Simply the best ever book about the effects of conspicuous consumption on the environment.

Caustic Cover Critic posted an unusual illustration of Pride and Prejudice by the artist Ruben Toledo here which I think is strangely beautiful and a nice antidote to all those chicklit covers they seem to be using to illustrate Austen now. I very much like the cover of Sanditon up on the excellent girlebooks who have been kind enough to publish my review. I'm going to treat myself to this book next month. Great review on Each Little World. I've also read a couple of interesting reviews of Persuasion recently. One of them here and I can't for the life of me remember where I read the other one even though I commented on it!

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Persuasion (part 2)

Anne Elliot is forced to witness the blossoming relationship between Captain Wentworth and Louisa Musgrove when she reluctantly joins them on a chilly November walk. You can't help wondering if Anne's melancholy autumnal musings echo Austen's own state of mind as she fought declining health to complete the novel.

Yet Persuasion is not a sombre book. Regrets, misunderstandings and a gap of eight and a half years means that the eventual reunion between Wentworth and Anne is so much sweeter and I love his final letter to her 'For you alone I think and plan.'

My edition also includes an intriguing cancelled chapter which I'd never read before.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Persuasion (part 1)

Poor Anne Elliot. Lost her bloom at the ripe old age of 27(!), imposed upon by her sisters, Elizabeth (bully) and Mary (hypochondriac), made to suffer various indignities by her vain father, overshadowed by the youth and spirits of Louisa and Henrietta, her only living advocate is her mother's old friend Lady Russell. (Anne lost her mother when she was 14). Just when she thinks that Captain Wentworth can no longer care for her he gallantly removes the troublesome two-year old nephew pinning her neck down and clinging to her back in one of the most electrically-charged episodes in fiction.

Nobody does satire quite like Jane Austen. I loved her description of the relationship between Mary and her husband Charles
... they might pass for a happy couple. They were always perfectly agreed in the want of more money ...

Saturday, 21 March 2009

The Blue Jay's Dance

Just managed to squeeze in another old favourite before I begin re-reading Jane Austen. For some reason I always get the urge to re-read an Austen novel in the spring. The Blue Jay's Dance by Louise Erdrich is a kind of diary of a birth year in New Hampshire. The book contains accounts of bonding with a new baby, recipes for steamed fiddleheads and anise apples, anecdotes about the wildlife and plants around the house and musings on the conflicts between motherhood and the writing life.

I loved the story of the wild calico kitten who hides in the crawl space underneath the house, the planting of morning glory seeds around the doorway and imagining the ropes of 'celestial' blue flowers to come, the little daughter who sleeps with a beloved caterpillar on her pillow, the punctual woodchuck who stops for her lunch of clover at exactly the same time each day and the purple finches - state birds of New Hampshire - who look like 'sparrows held by the feet and dipped into raspberry juice.'

My Bridal Crown white narcissus bulbs (in the photo) have produced flowers which appear to resemble crumpled white tissues. Most peculiar although not unattractive.

Friday, 20 March 2009


I've finished Dee Brown's Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee. A completely absorbing book that had me engrossed from the beginning. I really don't know how to begin to review it, so I'll just dedicate a post to all those American Indian warriors who fought to protect their families, their culture and the natural resources of their land.

This is Dull Knife a chief of the Northern Cheyennes.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

More Austen

Look what I found in my local second-hand book shop. A perfect edition of Jane Austen's Letters collected and edited by Deidre Le Faye. Although it was priced at £8 the nice man in the shop said I could have it for £6. They don't do that in Waterstone's! He also told me an interesting anecdote about the time someone donated an extremely valuable early edition of an Austen novel to the shop without quite realising its value. He did the right thing and told them. I'm afraid I would have been tempted to keep quiet.

The full quotation on my cup is from Pride and Prejudice:

Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.