Annabel's House of Books

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

Month: July 2012 (page 1 of 2)

The Glass Books Trilogy – an awfully fun adventure!

The Glass Books Trilogy by G W Dahlquist

Bantam in the USA, reputedly paid début novelist Dahlquist an advance of $2,000,000 for the first two installments in this series. Although the first was well received, apparently they lost shedloads of money on the deal. Penguin, the books’ publisher in the UK, also published the first volume with a big fanfare.

Initially it was only available on subscription, in ten limited edition weekly installments – the covers of which got darker in hue as the story progressed. The last one arrived just in time for Christmas together with a special sheet of wrapping paper. A standard hardback followed, but no prizes for guessing that I discovered it in time to get the installments! (See below).

The third volume is just out in hardback, and I’ve been immersing myself in it and its companions this summer. Having read the first when it came out, I just reminded myself of the names and places of it and how it ended. The three together total over 1900 pages of tremendous adventure and fun.

So what are the books all about?

I shall attempt to concentrate on themes and character rather than give too much of the plot away. One note before I start, despite the assertion that you can read the volumes out of order (there is a too short synopsis at the beginning of the third), you should only read them in the published order, especially to experience the adventure as our heroine Miss Celeste Temple does…

The era is Victorian, the location is an unnamed city – much like London, but in a continental sort of way – a bit Dutch, Danish, Germanic too. The story opens at the Boniface Hotel where a young plantation heiress, Miss Temple, is recently arrived pending her marriage to Roger Bascombe. When the engagement is ended with no reason given, Celeste feels the need to investigate, and ere long she gets herself into a bad crowd of debauched aristos which the boring Roger had been drawn into, known as the Cabal.

At a masked ball at Harschmort House, the home of the Cabal’s millionaire backer, Lord Vandaarif, Celeste meets the other key characters – both good and bad who play a huge part in her future. There’s the sensitive military doctor Abelard Svenson, personal physician to the Prince of Macklenburg and Cardinal Chang, a killer for hire with a natty fashion habit – and they’re the good guys!  The villains are even more colourful – we meet the Comte d’Orkancz – a classic mad scientist firmly in the steampunk mode, and the Contessa di Lacquer-Sforza, a raven-haired, lusty Venetian who is playing the Cabal at their own game; here Celeste meets the Contessa for the first time…

Miss Temple turned to see the woman in red, from Roger’s car. She no longer wore her fur-collared cloak, but she still had the lacquered cigarette holder in her hand, and her bright eyes, gazing fixedly at Miss Temple through the red leather mask, quite belied their jewelled tears. Miss Temple turned, but could not speak. The woman was astonishingly lovely – tall, strong, shapely, her powdered skin gleaming above the meager confines of the scarlet dress. Her hair was black and arranged in curls that cascaded across her bare shoulders. Miss Temple inhaled and nearly swooned from the sweet smell of frangipani flowers. She closed her mouth, swallowed, and saw the woman smile.

The Comte has invented a new drug using mineral indigo clay – something Macklenburg has in abundance. This is used to make blue glass, a means to enslave and brainwash by putting people through a alchemical Process, or via blue glass cards, which can store memories and hypnotise anyone who views them and by which you can drain memories and then someone else can experience them, and once viewed, never forgotten.

The blue glass cards are very useful to the Cabal – programmed with erotic memories, users can have an orgy in their own heads. The effects can be lasting in a receptive mind, which horrifies the prim Miss Temple when she is subjected to a card containing some of the Contessa’s erotic adventures, which adds a certain frisson to the procedures!

The Cabal are out to overthrow the existing regime, using the corrupting influence of the blue glass process and the books, sowing chaos everywhere. Celeste finds herself linking up with Svenson and Chang to stop them – three against many. Their lives changed forever, the trio embark on an adventure, which will put their lives at risk countless times and take them to the limit of their physical being.

If the first volume is about the discovery of the Cabal and their plans, the second takes them out into the wider world with the trio individually searching for the key glass book, the third finally brings them together again.

Celeste, Chang and Svenson take it in turns to tell the story. All three volumes could have done with some editing, but they certainly are pageturners – once started, I had to finish. The sheer amount of action on each page is dizzying, be it fighting, spying, scheming, and not forgetting a lot of racy moments! The plot is totally convoluted, and the cast of supporting characters so huge, that you are always in danger of totally of losing where you are. Frankly, it doesn’t matter – as long as you believe that Miss Temple, Chang and Svenson are always doing the right thing.

My favourite characters were Chang and the naughty Contessa, visualising the dandy assassin Chang as Gary Oldman, (surely a great casting suggestion). While I couldn’t see a particular actress as the resourceful Contessa, she is definitely in the mould of ‘the woman‘ from the Sherlock Holmes mystery A Scandal in Bohemia – Irene Adler.

I think I enjoyed the first book the most for its mix of sheer inventiveness and heady action. The second was naturally perhaps rather transitory but certainly darker, setting up the grand finish in volume three, for as in Harry Potter, the Dark Lord of the Cabal must be defeated.  The epilogue also leaves some intriguing possibilities open for further adventures.

If you’re tempted to embark on this journey, do start at the beginning. If you enjoy The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, you’ll likely get on with its sequels.  If you do, I hope you’ll find it as much fun as I did.

Vol 1 (8.5/10), Vol 2 (7/10), Vol 3 (8/10)

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I bought the first two, and got the third from the publisher – thank you.
To explore further at Amazon UK, please click below:
The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters – Penguin pbk 2006, 784 pages
The Dark Volume – Penguin pbk 2009, 528 pages
The Chemickal Marriage – pub July 2012, Viking Hardback, 528 pages

You shall go to the ball …

Invitation To The Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann

Florence at Miss Darcy’s Library is hosting a week of reading Rosamund Lehmann. She is another of those authors from the middle decades of the twentieth century that I’ve been meaning to read for ages – and luckily I had one of her books on my shelf.

Invitation to the Waltz, her third novel, was published in 1932.  Set in the 1920s, it is the story of Olivia Curtis’s first dance. Written in three parts: the lead up to the dance and getting her dress, the day of the dance and getting ready, then the dance itself.

It all starts on Olivia Curtis’s seventeenth birthday.  Her older sister Kate has come to wake her up, and Olivia is reluctant to get out of bed …

Another five minutes, thought Olivia, and shut her eyes. Not to fall asleep again; but to go back as it were and do the thing gradually – detach oneself softly, float up serenely from the clinging delectable fringes. Oh, heavenly sleep! Why must one cast it from one, all unprepared, unwilling? Caught out again by Kate in the very act! You’re not trying, you could wake up if you wanted to: that was their attitude. And regularly one began the day convicted of inferiority, of a sluggish voluptuous nature, seriously lacking in willpower. After I’m married I shall stay in bed as long as I want to. Girls often marry at my age. Seventeen today.

The novel is full of Olivia’s internal monologues. She discusses everything withself, analysing, trying to understand her observations, but she’s also a romantic and wants to believe the best of everyone and everything.  Today, she’d much rather stay in bed, than do breakfast with the family and be the centre of attention.

To go to one’s first dance, one needs a dress.  Luckily one’s mother gave one a bolt of flame-coloured silk for one’s birthday. Mother would have preferred a paler colour, but Kate persuaded her. So Olivia takes the cloth to the young Miss Robinson to have it made up.  Poor Miss Robinson has been left on the shelf – her family is too respectable for her to marry a farmer, and after the war, there is no-one else, so she makes dresses.

All week, anticipation builds towards the dance.  Some relief comes when mother’s godson Reginald is able join them to partner the girls. He turns out to be a bit of an odd fish, planning to take holy orders.  Neither girl thinks he will be the man for them.

Time to get ready: bathing, primping, hair-styling, and finally – the dress …

‘It simply doesn’t fit anywhere…’ The words burst from her chokingly. ‘It’s the most ghastly – It’s no good. I won’t go looking like a freak. I must simply rip it off and burn it and not go to the dance, that’s all.’ She clutched wildly at the bodice, as if to wrench it from her.
Kate cried suddenly:
‘You’ve got it on back to front!’
Olivia’s hands dropped.
‘Have I?’ she said meekly.
‘You would.’ With the asperity of relief Kate seized and reversed her hurriedly, plunged her once more through the armholes. ‘Now let’s see you. Hm. It drops at the back now, of course.’
Olivia turned away from the glass while Kate hooked, tweaked, patted her into shape.It was a comfort to look into space for a little while before having to face once more the now irrevocable and perhaps scarcely improved image.

Diaster averted, it’s off to the dance, in the longest part of the novel.

Arriving at the Spencer’s mansion, Kate is soon away dancing – her card filling up. Olivia is content to observe, but can’t be a wallflower all evening, being introduced to a wide assortment of partners and conversations – from an old gentleman with lovely hair, to a young man blinded in the war, a poet up from Oxford who refuses to dance, but also a boy she remembered from a childhood party. Olivia watches everything with a sort of wide-eyed innocence, and is unfailingly polite to all her partners and interlocutors, wishing she had some of the poise and confidence that the Spencer children and others in the hunting set have.

Such an evening is bound to have its highs and lows – the same must still be true for today’s teenagers going to their first dance or proper party.  I well remember my first visit to a dance hall – the famous Mecca Blue Orchid Ballroom in Purley – I can’t say it was a big success!

Lehmann captures the workings of Olivia’s teenage brain so well, contrasting with the more knowing Kate. The class divides between the various tiers are equally well drawn – from the aristocratic Spencers to the middle class Curtises down to Miss Robinson and beyond.  I did hope that as the Bingleys are to the Bennetts in Austen’s P&P, that there may be hope for Olivia and Kate …

We’ll find out the answers to that in the 1936 sequel Lehmann wrote, The Weather in the Streets, which continues Olivia’s story ten years later. I’m now very keen to read that, as Invitation to the Waltz was a totally charming book, I loved it. (8.5/10)

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I did a bookswap for my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Invitation To The Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann, Virago Paperback
The Weather In The Streets by Rosamond Lehmann, Virago Paperback

Scenes from a humorist’s life …

Our book group is having a short story July, concentrating on two authors renowned for their wit: Saki and Thurber.  I’m working my way through Saki, so I’ll deal with him in another post; here I’ll talk about my first experience of reading James Thurber.

My Life and Hard Timesby James Thurber

James Thurber (1894-1961), was one of America’s foremost cartoonists and humorists, most of his work being published for the New Yorker, and then collected into books.

My Life and Hard Times, which was published in 1933, is the closest thing to a memoir that he wrote.  A short selection of autobiographical stories from his youth, about growing up in the Thurber household in Columbus, Ohio, together with his unique cartoons.  In my edition, the eighty-odd pages of memoir, is sandwiched by an introduction, which puts the book into context, a Preface by Thurber himself, and at the end, Notes by Thurber, an Afterword praising the book’s brevity and jewel-like quality, and finally a brief biography of the man.

I enjoyed Thurber’s preface very much, in which he muses self-deprecatingly about reaching the age of forty and the nature of his type of writing …

I have known writers reaching this dangerous and tricky age to phone their homes from their offices, or their offices from their homes, ask for themselves in a low tone, and then, having fortunately discovered that they were “out,” to collapse in hard-breathing relief. This is particularly true of writers of light pieces running from a thousand to tow thousand words.

The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats. Afraid of losing themselves in the larger flight of the two-volume novel, or even the one-volume novel, they stick to short accounts of their misadventures because they never get so deep into them but that they feel they can get out. This type of writing is not a joyous form of self-expression but the manifestation of a twitchiness at once cosmic and mundane. Authors of such pieces have, nobody knows why, a genius for getting into minor difficulties: they walk into the wrong apartments, they drink furniture polish for stomach bitters, they drive their cars into the prize tulip beds of haughty neighbours, they playfully slap gangsters, mistaking them for old school friends. To call such persons “humorists,” a loose-fitting and ugly word, is to miss the nature of their dilemma and the dilemma of their nature. The little wheels of their invention are set in motion by the damp hand of melancholy.

That made me chuckle.  So, on to the stories themselves of which there are just nine. Each has an evocative title, the three stand-out ones being: The Night the Bed Fell, The Day the Dam Broke, and The Night the Ghost Got In.

Most of the stories share an escalating sense of farce, which reels in more and more characters before reaching a critical mass, exploding, and then everyone wonders what had actually happened.

In The Night the Bed Fell, the Thurbers have visitors staying, including Aunt Melissa who was paranoid about burglars, and each night kept a pile of shoes outside her bedroom to throw at them (left).  Odd noises lead to waking up and silly things happening – if I told you more, you wouldn’t need to read the story.

The Day the Dam Broke is like a game of Chinese whispers where a message gets passed on wrongly.  The Night the Ghost Got In is, in a way, and even sillier version of the first involving things that go bump in the night.

Some readers think these comic vignettes are the funniest things ever. I’m afraid I remain to be convinced. I found the tales just mildly amusing, although I loved his preface. The stories, although full of slapstick, are gentle; I’m certainly used to more robust humour.

Then the cartoons. There are very few smiling faces, nearly every person is in profile, and many look very cross indeed. The captions are very matter of fact. However, if you google ‘Thurber cartoons’, there are loads of funny taglines to other drawings, you can buy greetings cards with them on.

I’d like to reserve judgement until I’ve read more Thurber – some of his columns and stories from the New Yorker perhaps, and definitely The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, (which I’d always mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain, but that’s probably Danny Kaye’s fault!).  It’ll be interesting to see what the rest of our book group think.

Have you read Thurber?
What do you think of his cartoon style?
What other humorist’s writing would you recommend?

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
My Life and Hard Timesby James Thurber

Incoming …

Abingdon Fire Station held a book sale yesterday – there were literally thousands of books there and masses of bargains to be had. Given that it was just a couple of minutes walk, I went twice! The money raised goes to the Firefighters Charity.

When I first moved to Abingdon, the Fire Station Book Sale was an annual event, but then it stopped.  Now it’s back, and speaking to one of the firemen, they hope to make it an annual event again.

Kids also got a chance to clamber on the fire engines, and play fireman with a hose.  Brave souls could also don a harness and go up in the Simon Snorkell and get an aerial view of the town.  Naturally, the books were the bigger draw for me …
…and didn’t I do well for £14?! (They should charge more next time).  There are 32 books above, and yes it includes five Jilly Coopers – for times when I need a guilty pleasure type of read.  There are also two Muriel Sparks, HE Bates (Darling Buds), Miss Read, some vintage SF, Penelope Lively, Flann O’Brien, Amin Malouf, one of Michael Dibdin’s non-Zen novels, Susan Hill, assorted other crime, thrillers and adventure novels, plus Charles Saatchi, and a lovely 1949 King Penguin at the front on the history of handwriting.

It brings it all back …

I’ve waxed lyrical about my favourite musicals before – Oliver! in particular. It still is, I think, but the musical that lead me into a rockier direction was Jesus Christ Superstar. I’ve been sparked off to post about it because, belatedly, I’ve started watching Superstar – Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s current TV search for a singer to play Jesus in new production of JCS – arriving at an arena near you (if you’re lucky) this autumn. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to see the arena tour, but if it goes into the West End later, I might indulge…

It will have to be very special to beat my coach trip to London with the Girl Guides to see the original stage show in the early 1970s though. That was such an experience. I remember crying my heart out during the Crucifixion, I remember the simple staging with scaffolding and a light up chequer-board stage which bits of rose up and down as needed. We may even have seen Paul Nicholas (the original West End Jesus), but I’m not sure if that was the case.

Shortly after seeing the show, I’d acquired the sheet music and libretto, and I started to hammer it out on the piano; my favourite song ‘I only want to say’ sung by Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane being written in B flat minor was no obstacle to me!  I became near word perfect, and to this day sit me in front of the 1973 film version and I’ll sing the whole way through, with not too many errors and omissions.

Later, I discovered that JCS had its origins in a studio album which came out in 1970. I borrowed the double vinyl lp from Croydon Record Library (!) and taped it.  This album featured many rock musicians of the day, Chris Spedding on guitar for instance, and Murray Head was Judas.  But I was blown away by the sublime Ian Gillan, the lead vocalist for Deep Purple. Wow! What a pair of lungs, capable of such power, yet also tenderness, and his singing has an edge or grit to it that I find lacking in today’s contenders so far. Mind, they haven’t had to sing the big song from the actual musical for our consideration to demonstrate whether they can do it yet.

Of course the new production, which apparently will be a proper rock one (hooray!), will have its superstars for the arena tour.  Tim Minchin will be Judas, I feel his voice may be a little thin for the heavy opening number; Mel C, aka Sporty Spice, will make a fine Mary Magdalene; but Chris Moyles as Herod?  Not sure what to think there!

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew the show was on TV, but as it wasn’t on one of my usual channels, I missed the first few shows. Are there any other JCS fans out there?

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To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Jesus Christ Superstar – original studio album, remastered
Jesus Christ Superstar [DVD] starring the rather gorgeous Ted Neely as Jesus.

My Brother, a Torch Bearer

I’ve just got back to Gaskell Towers from Sevenoaks in Kent, whereupon my family all descended to cheer on my brother Mike Thorn who had his ‘Moment to Shine’ this lunchtime as a Torch Bearer.

This morning there was much debate, as none of us knew Sevenoaks well, if at all, about where to park, which resulted in my daughter and I arriving ridiculously early to bag space in a nearby sideroad. But that gave us nearly two hours to get into the spirit.  We walked the route of his section at the top of the town near the hospital (320yds so we were told), and the rest of the family joined us at the bus-stop where we’d been told the handover was happening, along with loads of his work colleagues and other friends.

Initially there was a lot of hanging around. Mike’s work colleagues from British Airways gave out lots of boom stick balloons – an opportunity to ‘Fly the flag’! We chatted to the stewards and found out he was being handed over to by a twelve year old called Georgia.  I also found out that the point at which one flame lights the other is called the ‘kissing point’ – sweet!

Mike was nominated by British Airways, where he works at Heathrow, for his addiction to marathon running, and through that fund raising for various charities, and charitable good works locally to his home. He’s a Rotarian too, and will shortly be a District Governor; some of his Rotary Colleagues were also there to cheer him on.

Then things started happening … policemen on motorcycles came down, followed by various coaches, a car with Wenlock the mascot, then some sponsor’s lorries.  

Then we realised that we’d not seen Mike yet!  We were all waiting at the official handover point that we’d been told, but it turned out that they decided to do it further up the road so the young girl before didn’t have to carry the heavy torch so far.  So several of us ran as fast as we could (that meant a slow jog for me!) up the road, to get the all important pictures…

Well done little brother!

We’re all very proud of you.

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