Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Month: April 2012 (page 1 of 3)

Anyone for Beryl?

I’ve been inspired by a question that Simon asked his discussion post during Muriel Spark Reading Week which he co-hosted with Harriet. Simon asked “Which other authors would you recommend to the Spark fan?” and my immediate response was Beryl Bainbridge!

I’ve read just four of Bainbridge’s fifteen novels, but each one has been a joy. They are:

  • The Bottle Factory Outing – read just the other month – her 4th novel set in early 1970s London;
  • The Birthday Boys – one of her historical novels from 1991 about Scott of the Antarctic;
  • Every man for himself about the Titanic;
  • and pre-blog, An awfully big adventure, about a provincial theatre production of Peter Pan.

In my view, she is Spark’s natural inheritor, coming into her own a decade after Muriel.  She is renowned for being the most nominated author never to have won the Booker prize, having been nominated five times. In 2011, the Booker Prize Committee held a posthumous ‘Best of Beryl’ celebration, won by her novel Master Georgie, her novel set during the Crimean War.

There are loads of cracking good Bainbridge novels I’ve still to read, and I’d like to re-read some of the above too.

So – is there anyone for Beryl?
Who would like to join me in a week celebrating this brilliant British author?  

We’re going to be celebrating all things British with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee at the start of June, and London 2012 from the end of July.  I’d like to tap into that and pick a week in between.  How about Monday June 18th to Sunday June 24th.

Muriel Spark Reading Week – The Girls of Slender Means

 It’s Muriel Spark Reading Week, hosted by Simon and Harriet. Do visit their blogs to see a plethora of reviews and links to what we’ve all been reading.

I’ve not read a Spark novel since 2008 when I really enjoyed The Ballad Of Peckham Rye.  I chose another of her 1960s novels for MSRW…

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The Girls Of Slender Means(1963)

Set mainly between VE and VJ days in 1945 at the end of WWII, TGoSM follows the lives and loves of a group of young women who live in a hostel in Kensington called the ‘May of Teck Club’ after Queen Mary, the wife of George V. The story flits back and forth to before and after something big happens (which I am not going to give away, unlike some of the alternative book covers out there!). Let’s meet the main girls…

There’s Jane – a publisher’s assistant who puts great store by her ‘brain-work’ not being as thin or attractive as the others. Her boss sets her to work on potential authors to find out their weaknesses, so he can exploit them in their contracts.

Joanna is a rector’s daughter, who has moved to London to avoid her propensity for falling for curates. She gives elocution lessons in the Club, and the air is often full of her declaiming poems as she teaches.

Selina, is beautiful and, well, slender; qualities which give her many ardent admirers, whom she happily strings along and sleeps with,  with ne’er a thought about morals going through her pretty head. Indeed Selina is so slender that she is one of the few girls who can fit through the tiny window in the attic washroom to sneak out onto the roof – a secret place for assignations.

The other inhabitants of the Club are also real characters. From the three ladies in their 50s who’ve lived there forever, despite it be a Club for young ladies under thirty. There’s the warden who ‘drove a car as she would have driven a man had she possessed one.’ And there’s Dorothy …

Dorothy could emit, at any hour of the day or night, a waterfall of débutante chatter, which rightly gave the impression that on any occasion between talking, eating and sleeping, she did not think, except in terms of these phrase-ripples of hers: ‘Filthy lunch.’ ‘The most gorgeous wedding.’ ‘He actually raped her, she was amazed.’ ‘Ghastly film.’ ‘I’m desperately well, thanks, how are you?’ …
… It was some months before she was to put her hed around Jane’s door and announce, ‘Filthy luck. I’m preggers. Come to the wedding.’

I love the Sparkian bon-mot, ‘phrase ripples’.

The Club is very lively. The girls have lots of visitors in to dine, and get taken out all the time, hiring a designer dress one of the other residents in return for ration coupons, although the haggling can get a bit petty:

You can’t wear it to the Milroy. It’s been twice to the Milroy… it’s been to Quaglino’s, Selina wore it to Quags, it’s getting known all over London.

I haven’t mentioned any of the men yet. There are boyfriends, suitors and colleagues, but only one is important to the story. Nicholas Farringdon, a self-styled anarchist intellectual and poet, is trying to get published. Jane is working on him, and brings him to the Club where he falls for Selina.

The above is all told as flash-back. At the beginning of the book, Jane, who is now a journalist, is ringing round to tell everyone that Nicholas is dead, murdered in Haiti. No-one understands quite what he was doing there, as they all remember him rather differently from before ‘it’ happened. This foreshadowing brings a very dark edge to this comedy about frivolous young women trying to escape the privations enforced on them by the war.

It’s not a long novel, 142 pages in my edition. Although full of descriptive passages and dialogue, Spark is sparing in what she tells us, meting out the story in small sections, flashing back between Jane’s later conversations. There are many interjections of poetry from Joanna which punctuate the Club’s activities, all of which keep you on your toes to concentrate on where you are and with whom at any one time. I must say, I didn’t really warm to any of the characters other than Jane who does have some gumption; Spark satirises all the silly girls perfectly. Joanna, the curate’s daughter, retains an air of mystique, mainly being present as a soundtrack of poetry in the background. Having stayed in a YWCA hostel myself when I started my first job, I could understand the goings-on in the club perfectly, (’twas ever thus!).

I enjoyed but couldn’t quite love this book with its sombre undertones, unlike The Ballad of Peckham Rye which I adored and found more wickedly funny. I realise I still haven’t read her most famous book that comes between these two yet either – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – something to rectify, especially as I have a Folio edition.  (7.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

The Girls Of Slender Means by Muriel Spark. Penguin paperback.
The Ballad of Peckham Rye
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

World Book Night in Abingdon with Rachel Joyce


I spent the evening of World Book Night at Abingdon Library in the company of Rachel Joyce – the bestselling author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. I read this book at the end of March and loved it – my review is here.

After reading from the novel, Rachel then talked in conversation with Alison from Transworld Books before opening up the floor to questions.

Although this is her first novel, Rachel has honed her art on radio, writing plays and adapting novels for Woman’s hour and the afternoon play on BBC Radio 4.  It was fascinating to hear her talk about writing for radio and the differences between that and writing a novel.

Her novel started out as a 45 minute radio play that she wrote for her father who was dying of cancer; sadly he never got to hear it, but it went on to win an award.

Radio plays have around 7000 words in their 45 minutes, compared with say 90,000 in a typical novel.  Each scene has to have an essential plot point to it – otherwise it’s superfluous, and each episode has to end on a hook. She kept this structure in the novel, but of course gained the freedom to expand and describe all the background and landscape that can’t be included in a short play.

The novel has a large cast of supporting characters, and Rachel explained a little about some of them from the Girl in the Garage – the catalyst for Harold’s journey who has faith, but is grounded serving burgers.  Then there are the various people who talk to Harold on his journey – you can confide in someone who’s passing through. Rachel confessed that her children and one of her dogs also appear in the book.  Later in the book, Harold becomes a bit of a cause célèbre, and a band of other pilgrims gather around him, and he has to confront things, whereas before he has been very British and polite about everything.

Then there’s Maureen, Harold’s closed-in wife, who has as hard a journey as Harold – harder even, as she is left at home.  Harold has the physical aspects of his trek as well as the emotional one, and Maureen who starts off as a rather sharp woman has a hard time coming to terms with her life, but she does ultimately soften.

When asked about how she planned the route of Harold’s journey, she chose the starting point of Kingsbridge in South Devon as that’s where her husband was brought up and they knew the area really well. As for the rest of the route up to Berwick-upon-Tweed, some of it is detailed, other sections less so, but Rachel had a roll of paper charting Harold’s daily progress in detail.

It wasn’t all serious though, Rachel recounted some great things her children had said whilst she was writing the book, and how she used them to take notes when she had inspirations while on the school run.

This all made for a delightful evening, and I got my proof copy of the book signed. So that was what I did on World Book Night 2012. How about you?

A gem of a historical romance out of Africa.

The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh

You know how sometimes you’re just in the mood for a sprawling romance, a continent-crossing historical epic, that sort of book.  That was me last week, and The Fever Tree is such a book.

The novel opens in 1880. Frances Irvine is left destitute upon the sudden death of her father. He had been a self-made man, and he and Frances lived in comfort in London; however one last bad investment lost his fortune.  Frances is left with a choice: either to go as a nurse/governess to her cousins in Manchester, or to emigrate to the Cape to marry Edwin Matthews, a young doctor that had lodged with them some time ago. Frances doesn’t really know Edwin, but what choice does she have?

The next chapters tell of her journey to Africa as a second class passenger, travelling with a group of young women emigrating to become  nurses. It is on board ship that she meets William Westbrook – charming and so handsome… He notices her too, and soon she is itching to be released from her vows – enough said!

William is a rogue though, and arriving in the Cape, she discovers that he’s not what she’d hoped for.  She also finds that Edwin has not set up a practice there, but instead is working for William’s boss at a station in the Karoo – some way even from mining town Kimberley. She marries Edwin, but being a doctor’s wife up-country is not what she expected either.  Edwin meanwhile, is concerned about cases of smallpox, and the mine owners will do anything to discredit him.

Their relationship faltering, Frances goes to Kimberley – where she will experience the grabbing world of the diamond mines and see for herself the exploitation of the native workers … and see William again. Rashly, she makes some further poor decisions which will have disastrous consequences.

This was a novel of great contrasts.  Between the first and second class passengers on the ship; the hard-working settler farmers and the nouveaux riches in the African cities; and particularly the greedy mine owners and their casual mistreatment of the native Africans they employed in horrific conditions. The contrasts in the landscape too, the anything goes pioneer town feel of Kimberley, compared with the “austere beauty of the Karoo” which inspired the author to write the novel.

It was hard to dislike Frances, however silly she was.  She threw her heart into most things except, initially, Edwin. When things went wrong, I was rooting for her all the way.  Edwin, as a doctor and scientist, is married on two fronts – he’s precise, restrained and strongly principled, and finds it hard to let go, but he’s a good man, (unlike William).  I admired Edwin, and grew to really like him too for his inner strength.

Impeccably well-researched, this novel was full of detail and made the differences between the lives of the haves and have-nots very clear, as it did too the effects of smallpox, the epidemic and its attempted cover-up, (a true event, I gather).  This attention was never at the expense of the central romance which swept me away and kept me reading, captivated, to the end.

As I read The Fever Tree, I was reminded of another epic romance that I read back in January – Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (review here). O&L too featured a voyage with passengers in first and second classes, episodes in the outback, and a central faltering relationship.  Although I loved O&L, its slow-burn and sheer bulk did require concentration and time to read and appreciate. The Fever Tree encompassed a similar scope in a simpler style that is crying out to be made into a film or TV series, and less pages.  A brilliant debut novel – I loved it too. (9/10).

For another take – read Fleur Fisher’s review here.

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My copy was kindly supplied by the publisher – thank you.

To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:
The Fever Treeby Jennifer McVeigh. Pub 29 March 2012 by Penguin Viking, Trade Paperback, 343 pages.
Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey.

I was manipulated but didn’t mind, for it was done with kindness …

Wonder by R J Palacio

  • A ten year old boy starts at a new school in the fifth grade…
  • It’s a good prep school, he passed the exam with flying colours…
  • It’ll be the first time he’s been to school, ever…
  • He’s been home-schooled by his Mom…
  • Auggie (short for August) is clever, funny and loves Star Wars…
  • He doesn’t have many friends, but his sister Via, and Daisy the dog make up for that…
  • Why?  Because people stare, then look away quickly…
  • Auggie’s face takes some getting used to…
  • He was born with multiple facial problems including a cleft palate…
  • But underneath it he’s a normal boy, who just wants to be loved …
  • It’s going to be a hard year…

That is the essence of this book in a nutshell, which follows Auggie’s first year in school. I’m not going to say much more about the plot, as you can work out what will happen. This brave youngster is putting himself (and us) on a roller-coaster that will have huge ups and downs, many twists and turns before it pulls back in to the station for the summer recess.

Yes, we readers are manipulated. Yes, it’s a bit sentimental, designed to tug at your heart-strings. But, I couldn’t put the book down. I smiled when Auggie won battles, I got cross when he struggled, and at one point I did cry. I didn’t mind all this though, for it was done with kindness.

Written for children, this book illustrates the issues of living with deformity really well. We start off with Auggie telling his own story, but in later chapters the tale is handed over to his sister and his friends, interspersed with more of Auggie’s voice. We hear both sides, including what it’s like being the sister or friend of someone like Auggie.

There are many, many valuable points about bullying and friendship to be gleaned from Auggie and his classmates. Underlying it all though, as set out by their English teacher Mr Browne, in his ‘Precepts’ for life, is the quality of being kind. He tells them, “When given the choice between being right or being kind. Be Kind.

I hope this book achieves a wide readership among boys and girls. They’ll find that  Auggie is actually great company – he’s very self-deprecating and funny. The author captures the personalities of all the children brilliantly, as she does Auggie’s parents.

Speaking of parents, I also hope that enough of them read it too – there is one event later in the book that should be a lesson to all grown-ups about snobbishness and tolerance. It got me really cross!

It may have been predictable reading it as an adult, but I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. I laughed, I cried and I couldn’t put it down.  (8/10)

P.S.  The book is prefaced by a lyrics quote from Natalie Merchant’s song ‘Wonder‘ (from the album ‘Tigerlily‘).  You can see her performing the track live below.

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My copy was supplied courtesy of Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), click below:
Wonder by R J Palacio. Pub Bodley Head, 1 March 2012. Hardback 320 pages.
Tigerlily by Natalie Merchant (CD)

Knit one, purl one and all that …

I haven’t done one of my ephemera posts on old papers and clippings found in my late Mum’s hoard for ages, but came across these two knitting patterns recently which piqued my interest…

A knitted swimsuit – hard to conceive of in these days of stretchy fabrics that hold everything in.  However, what amused me was the caveat at the top of the instructions overleaf …

As woollen fabric expands a little when wet, a Swimming Suit must fit the figure firmly before it is worn in the water, otherwise it will be liable to sag. The sizes given in the recipe are, therefore, not those of the finished garment, but such as will stretch in wear to the required dimensions.

Glad that’s clear then!  I also like the way the instructions are referred to as recipes. There’s no date on this pattern, but I’m guessing early 1950s?

The second one is a pattern sent off for from the Daily Mail. The reverse of the clipping gives the date – Feb 1941. The clipping invites you to write in enclosing an large SAE plus 2d in penny stamps to the Editor of the Women’s Page.

The instructions are on three and a half sides of typed foolscap – not an error to be spotted.  Meanwhile, the clipping gives suggestions for colours – “Make it up in cowslip yellow wool for a grey or navy suit, or turf green with ******, or, very Parisian, clerical grey with black.”  The asterisks indicate a shade that I can’t possibly repeat these days, don’t ask. Look at those shoulder pads though.

There’s something fascinating about old knitting patterns isn’t there?

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