Annabel’s Midweek Miscellany

It’s so long since I did a bits and pieces post – it’s only worth doing when you’ve the requisite bits to talk about though…

Book questionFirstly, advance warning to local quiz fans – The Mostly Bookbrains Literary Quiznight is returning in April, Friday 19th to be precise.  No further details at the moment, but all the profits will be donated to charity.  Be assured, we will cover the whole world of books in the questions!

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Secondly a link – for anyone interested in books aimed at teenagers and young adults, Simon Savidge has started a debate here about the ‘new’ genre of NA or New Adult books. Fascinating and empassioned stuff!

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Thirdly, after the success of my Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week last year, I was contemplating hosting another themed season.

I’m in a quandary however, as I know that a ‘Beryl II’ themed week would be appreciated in many quarters; I still have around half her books to read myself, but I have recently read and reviewed the latest addition to the Beryl canon – the first biography – Beryl Bainbridge: Artist, Writer, Friend by Psiche Hughes, and I don’t think I have anything more to add to supporting another Beryl week apart from reading the books.  I am still maintaining my Reading Beryl page above however, and I will continue to add links to your reviews of Beryl’s books if you let me know.

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Which finally leads me to giving some hints as to what I’m planning for mid-May instead.  I’ll just state at the outset that the choice of May is arbitrary – no anniversaries etc for this author – it just suits my schedule. Here are some clues – Maybe you can work out who it is…

  • There is an author whom I’ve read quite a few works by, but still have a good few to go. I’d also like to re-read his (yes, it’s a ‘he’) early novels. I’ve never reviewed him on this blog.
  • He’s very much alive and still writing.
  • He writes two kinds of fiction, mainstream and genre.

There I’ll leave it!  Do have a go at guessing who it is.

A life unfulfilled, funny but full of melancholy…

Mrs Bridge by Evan S Connell

Just before Christmas, I acquired a review copy of the imminent Penguin Modern Classics reissue of Mr Bridge by Evan S Connell. I knew nothing about the book at all, but the synopsis intrigued me. Finding that Connell had previously written Mrs Bridge, and that Mr Bridge was therefore a sequel of sorts, I asked twitter if I should read Mrs Bridge too? Will Rycroft replied saying I’d want to read it. So I ordered a copy, and as I prefer to read books in chronological order, started with Mrs Bridge. And by the way, Will was right – this is a wonderful book.

Mr & Mrs Bridge Penguin limited edition hardback set designed by Thomas HetherwickBefore I start telling you about the novel though, a note on the editions. Penguin have done a magnificent job with the new paperbacks reproducing the original cover artwork and with new introductions (by Joshua Ferris for Mrs Bridge); but they also went one step further, commissioning a limited edition from Thomas Heatherwick of set of interlocking hardbacks, which truly captures the relationship between the couple and their stories. The RRP is £125 (but you can get it for around a third less, see the link below).

On a further note, it was only when I looked up Connell to write this post, that I found out he died on January 10th this year, aged 89. Mrs Bridge was his first novel, published in 1959; he’d previously written a set of short stories.  Mr Bridge followed ten years later in 1969. He wrote several other novels, collections of short stories, essays and poems and was nominated for a Man Booker International Prize in 2009.


Set between the wars, Mrs Bridge is the story of a Kansas City housewife. She’s married to the well-off but workaholic Mr Bridge, and they live in a nice suburban house in a nice area of the city. They have three children each separated by a couple of years, Ruth, Carolyn and Douglas.

Her story is told in a series of 117 vignettes, which vary in length from a paragraph to a few pages. Each chapterette is perfectly structured –  like a little short story, with its introduction, development and ending.  There is much humour, particularly in her exchanges with son Douglas who is typically exasperating…

Ordinarily Mrs Bridge examined the laundry that Ingrid carried up from the basement every Tuesday afternoon in a creaking wicker basket, but when she was out shopping, or at a luncheon, the job fell to Harriet who never paid much attention to such things as missing buttons or loose elastic. Thus it was that Mrs Bridge discovered Douglas wearing a shirt with cuffs that were noticeably frayed.
“For heaven’s sake!” she exclaimed, taking hold of his sleeve. “Has a dog been chewing on this?”
He looked down at the threads as though he had never before seen them; in fact he hadn’t.
“Surely you don’t intend to wear that shirt?”
Since he was already wearing the shirt this struck him as a foolish question, but he said, “It looks perfectly okay to me.”
“Why, just look at those cuffs! Anyone would think we’ were on our way to the poorhouse.”
“So is it a disgrace to be poor?”
“No!” she cried. “But we’re not poor!”

She desperately tries to be a good housewife. Being brought up with genteel good manners, being hidebound by them and the requirements of the country club circle in which she lives. She struggles to understand her children; she struggles to understand her husband too.

During the day when the children at school, she struggles to stay busy.  They have help, so there’s no need for her to do actual housework. Thus she is enforced to live a life of leisure, and she struggles with that too. She buys a set of learn Spanish records, but only plays the first one once; she buys a painting set and enrols in an adult painting class.  ‘She attended regularly for almost a month, skipped one night, got to several more, skipped three, attended spasmodically for another month, and finally dropped out altogether.’  Mrs Bridge is not a finisher.

This situation will only get worse as the children grow up and make their own mark in the world, Ruth heading for a bohemian life in New York, Carolyn marrying beneath her, and Douglas signing up before the draft gets him for the war.  Mrs Bridge has an empty nest, and suffers in silence even more.

Things obviously don’t change overmuch during the following couple of decades for the well-off stay-at-home American housewife. Anyone who watches the wonderful series Mad Men will recognise some of Mrs Bridge’s dilemmas in lead character Don Draper’s first wife, Betty.

Right from the first line of the book, we know where we are…

Her first name was India – she was never able to get used to it.

Saddled with an unusual forename, which she never asked her own parents where they came up with it, Mrs Bridge is fated never to live up to its exotic cachet.  The irony is that she is an ordinary housewife, living an ordinary life. Life’s excitements will mostly happen to other people, and Mrs Bridge will soldier on through it.

This melancholy air pervades the whole novel, but it is never a depressing book to read, even when sad things happen.  Indeed, there is much humour as Connell rejoices in life’s absurdities. He seems to have captured her character really well, yet can’t resist giving her more and more little knocks to deal with.

I so enjoyed this novel I can’t wait to read Mr Bridge, (as soon as I’ve finished reading this month’s book group selection). It will be fascinating to read Walter’s story and see a different view of this strained but loving relationship. It’s on top of the reading pile, so I’ll let you know about that next week. Watch this space…

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

(Other editions available).

Re-reading one of my favourite books…

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

I’ve now finished my re-read of Annie Proulx’s novel The Shipping News, that I told you about a few days ago here.

When I finished the book the first time, so sure was I that I’d be re-reading, and hopefully re-loving, it that I bought myself a luxury numbered edition with specially commissioned foldout cover, (one of a number of editions celebrating publisher 4th Estate’s 25th anniversary).

I shut the covers this morning with a definite sense of relief. The memory of my first encounter had remained untarnished, so I loved it all over again.

The first time I read it back in the 1990s,  I remember devouring it, hungry for the story of the misfit Quoyle, who moves to the home of his ancestors after being a failure in New York state. I desperately wanted poor Quoyle to find himself and to find love in Newfoundland.

On the second time through, I took it at a more sedate pace, which enabled me to luxuriate in  the colourful characters, their hopes and fears – and everyone of them looking for love in one form or another.  As Quoyle’s best friend Partridge puts it, “Everything that counts is for love, Quoyle. It’s the engine of life.” 

Proulx’s descriptions of people are so evocative. Take Petal Bear, the object of Quoyle’s affections …

Then, at a meeting, Petal Bear. Thin, moist, hot. Winked at him. Quoyle had the big man’s yearning for small women. He stood next to her at the refreshment table. Grey eyes close together, curly hair, the colour of oak. The fluorescent light made her as pale as candle wax. Her eyelids gleamed with some dusky unguent. A metallic thread in her rose sweater. These faint sparks cast a shimmer on her like a spill of light. She smiled, the pearl-tinted lips wet with cider.

You just know she’s going to be bad news…

Petal Bear was crosshatched with longings, but not, after they were married, for Quoyle. Desire reversed to detestation like a rubber glove turned inside out.

The Shipping News - 1st UK paperbackSoon she runs off with a lover having sold their two daughters to a shady character, and is promptly killed in a car wreck.  His girls reclaimed, Quoyle is persuaded by his Aunt, Agnis Hamm to go with her to start again in Newfoundland, living in and doing up their family’s old home.

Quoyle, who had been an occasional journalist, uses his connections to get a job on the local rag The Gammy Bird. Jack Buggit, the owner, has strong opinions on what sells papers, and Quoyle, still raw from Petal’s demise, is given the task of reporting on car wrecks plus the shipping news.  Agnis meanwhile sets up a yacht upholstery shop.

It takes Quoyle a while to get used to the physical distances between people in Newfoundland. They may be spaced apart and there aren’t so many of them, but they do all know nearly everything about each other – news and gossip travel travel faster than motor cars.  Although their house is not ideal, they start to settle into the community, and they get used to the ever-changing seascape.

Blunt fogbows in the morning trip around the bay. Humps of color followed qualls. Billy Pretty babbled of lunar halos. Storms blew in and out. Sudden sleet changed to glowing violet rods, collapsed in rain. Two, three days of heat as though blown from a desert. Fibres of light crawling down the bay like luminous eels.

The Shipping News - current UK paperbackI spent my first years out of university living near and working in Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, where I caught the Gorleston ferry across the river estuary to work and did a lot of watching the sea.  Although, as a young woman from South London, I found it hard to fit in socially there I did like being by the sea a lot, and the working port side of the town was always exciting.  Proulx’s town of Killick-Claw sounds somewhat similar, but  more friendly, a place I’d stay in longer than twenty two months. If I’d chanced to make friends and meet some characters, maybe I’d have been tempted to reside there longer, like Nutbeem, an Englishman who drifted through and covers the home news beat.

‘I’m going to remember this place for many things,’ said Nutbeem. ‘But most of all for the inventive violence and this tearing-off-of-clothes-in-court business. Seems to be a Newfoundland speciality…’

In her acknowledgements, Proulx credits the influence of The Ashley Book of Knots, a 1944 encyclopedia of, well, knots.  It gave her hero his name, Quoyle; the first chapter is prefaced with a definition from that book of such a coil of rope:

A Flemish flake is a spiral coil of one layer only. It is made on deck, so that it may be walked on if necessary.

Oh poor Quoyle, to start off described thus, although things do improve for him of course. Further quotations and diagrams from the book are sprinkled throughout chapter headings. They are always pertinent to the pathway of that chapter, and add considerably to the novel’s charm.

My re-read of Proulx’s second novel has confirmed it for me in my pantheon of desert island books (see tab above). I love everything about this quirky book (10/10).

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, 4th Estate paperback.
The Ashley Book of Knots by Clifford W Ashley (O/P, used copies available at a price!).

Falling in love again …

The Joys of Re-reading

I don’t do much re-reading.  I have too many unread books to get through, both new shiny ones and more of those which have been languishing on the shelves for far too long. Once in a blue moon though, I will re-read a book – just a couple a year usually.

Double dog darere-readingbuttonIt so happens that Ali at Heavenali is hosting a month of re-reading for January. It’s a doubly ideal time for some re-reading given my participation in the TBR Double Dog Dare too.  Strictly, a re-read doesn’t qualify as being in one’s TBR, but … books you’ve already read but kept are still available ‘to be read’ – Pedant, moi? (tee hee!). Otherwise, I’m strictly abiding by it and my embargo pile of reading for after April 1st is already growing!

The book I’m re-reading is The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. It won the Pullitzer Prize in 1993. I discovered it when the paperback came out and I adored it. That was way before I started the blog, but I did write about it in one of my first posts where I said:

Whereas the English equivalents of novels based in small-town America often seem so claustrophobic they have an unreal quality about them, this is not true of their US counterparts for me. North America is so vast, the novels also have a quality of space about them. Sure, everyone still knows everyone else, but they’re not squashed together like sardines, they have to make an effort to interact.

This is so in The Shipping News, where one of life’s failures, Quoyle, betrayed by his wife, opts to start all over again in faraway windswept Newfoundland. The novel is all about how he starts to fit in with the local community which takes time, as they’re mostly failures of a kind too. The quirky characters are superb, both comic and sympathetic. If you liked the TV series Northern Exposure, you’ll find similarities here, but that’s where it ends, as Annie Proulx’s writing leaps off the page and makes everything seem totally real. The chapters are headed with figures from a 1944 book of knots and quotations from the Mariner’s Dictionary which add to the considerable charm of this book.

I’m still reading the book, and will write more fully about it soon, but I am overjoyed to report that it has won me over again instantly, and is totally worthy of being one of my real favourite books.

There’s nothing like a successful re-read. If you remember the essentials of the book from the first time, the second and subsequent readings let you delve a little deeper into the psyche of the book, or to analyse what it is you like about the author’s style or writing techniques.

Occasionally when you re-read a book, the experience isn’t as good as the first time. It can be hard to put your finger on why it doesn’t gel with you again. This happened to me with The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Given how many times I’ve heard the original radio show, watched the telly series, (and less so the movie, although that had its moments), it wasn’t until I re-read the book that I started to find it not as funny – it still had some great jokes, but the inbetween bits rather bored me – maybe I wasn’t reading it with the voice of Peter Jones as the Book in my head.  Can’t quite put my finger on it.

I hope to include a few more re-reads this year, particularly books that I first read a couple of decades ago. Simon’s recent post about Graham Greene has made me hanker after revisiting him for instance.

What are your favourite re-reads?
Which books didn’t work as well second time around? 
Do share …

What a stinker! But in a good way…

Mr Stink by David Walliams

mr-stink-196x300After watching the BBC’s enjoyable TV version of Mr Stink at Christmas, I was inspired to read the book to see what Walliams, who adapted his own book for the TV, and put in a cameo as the Prime Minister, was like on the page. I had read somewhere that the book was more ‘Dahlesque’, so I passed a pleasant hour in bed this morning seeing if that was so.

Ironically, on first impressions you’re immediately drawn to comparisons with Roald Dahl by Quentin Blake’s illustrations, Dahl and Blake having had a long and profitable collaboration which Walliams looks likely to repeat. But onwards to the story.

1. Scratch ‘N’ Sniff
Mr Stink stank. He also stunk. And if it is correct English to say he stinked, then he stinked as well. He was the stinkiest stinker who ever lived.
A stink is the worst type of smell. A stink is worse than a stench. And a stench is worse than a pong. And a pong is worse than a whiff. And a whiff can be enough to make your nose wrinkle.
It wasn’t Mr Stink’s fault that he stank. He was a tramp after all. He didn’t have a home and so he never had the opportunity to have a proper wash like you and me. After a while the smell just got worse and worse.

So that’s every reader hooked and already chortling from page one.

After introducing us to Stink and his dog Duchess, we meet the other main character of the story. Chloe is a lonely schoolgirl, she’s slightly pudgy and shy. She gets bullied by Rosamund at school, and ignored by her mother at home, who dotes instead on her little sister Annabelle.  Her mother, who is a candidate for parliament is so driven, even her father is scared of her.

mr stink bbc

On the way to and from school, Chloe sees Mr Stink each day, sitting on the same bench in the park. One day she does something of ‘unimaginable kindness‘ and offers him a fiver. He refuses it, but lets her bring him and Duchess some sausages another day. Their friendship forged, things get complicated when Chloe offers him their family shed to live in…

pigpenUnderneath the malodorous humour is a serious story about bullying, compassion, and learning to stand up for and believe in yourself.  For most of the book though, the Mr Stink’s personal perfume is to the forefront, and like Schulz’s Pigpen (left), he’s oblivious to it, unless he can use it to get a seat in a coffee shop. There are some great asides about stinkiness of various sorts that couldn’t be portrayed in the TV film, and there’s a great B-U-R-P!!! that takes up around a page and a half, which is guaranteed a giggle.

The TV show was well done, Hugh Bonneville as Stink the gentleman vagabond in particular was fantastic. I liked how he lived in a big pile of leaves, which wasn’t in the book. Chloe is more attractive in the film, being tall, slim, and a bit soppy. There is much to like in both book and film, and the film largely remains true to the book, the changes being in the little details mainly.  I don’t know any children who, having read them, have not enjoyed Walliams’s books. I’m counting myself in with them now too. (8/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Mr Stink by David Walliams, Harper Collins paperback

Watching the detectives …

Hawthorn and Childby Keith Ridgway

hawthorn This is one of those strange novels that is not quite what it seems; at times it insinuates itself into your being so that you almost feel part of the story, at others you’re left outside the action observing from afar, and sometimes you can’t get your head around it at all.

Since its publication in 2012, it has been championed around the blogosphere, notably by John Self, but also Simon Savidge, and Will Rycroft amongst many others. It appeared in all of aboves’ year-end best of lists. After John Self’s repeated urging us all to read it, I gave in and bought a copy some months ago – later deciding to make it my first read of 2013.

Describing it is not easy though. If I said it’s an existential drama about the lives of two police detectives told through a series of mostly linked short stories about characters that come into and out of their lives, I’d be doing it a disservice in trying to categorise it at all. I can say that although it features policemen, it is not a crime novel, but a novel in which crimes happen, and  I really enjoyed much of the writing right from the start…

He dreamed he was sleeping, and Child was driving. Driving but not moving. He was sleeping on the passenger seat and Child wrestled with the wheel, but the car was still. It was the city that was moving. It was dark. The city rushed past them like words on a screen, and he would have read them but they went too fast. He was filled with sorrow. It trickled through him and filled his eyes. He wept and he didn’t know why, and he was embarrassed by it but he could not stop. He cried so much that his face disappeared. He dreamed that the siren was on, and it was so loud that it woke him.

It’s the early hours of the morning and they are on their way to a seemingly random shooting; a young man thinks he has been shot from a vintage car. Hawthorn is still half asleep through their investigations but seems to perk up once the victim mentions the car. He and Child banter about it…

– He saw what he thought he saw.
– He’s been completely consistent.
– And vague. A low dark car. With running boards. A lovely car.
– Silver door handles.
– Silver door handles.
– It’s no more vague that descriptions we get from people who don’t know cars. We explicate.
– We what?
– Explicate?
– I don’t think that’s the right word, Hawthorn.
– We put them together.
– Extrapolate?
– Yeah.
– We work it out. But. You know. I’m not sure we have a model book that goes back to … whenever. If he insists on it the CPS will have a bit of a problem.
They wandered through the corridors. Hawthorn assumed Child knew where he was going.
– What it is, said Child, is that you don’t want to go back to Mishazzo.
Hawthorn looked at him.
– What?
– It’s a hallucination, or whatever. Rivers has it tied up. You want a loose thread so that we’re not back following that idiot all day long. Looking at windows. Going slowly insane.

It seems that Hawthorn is determined to hang on to something more interesting than surveillance which for 99.9% of the time must be the most boring thing in the world to do.  We’ll find out more about Mishazzo later, when one chapter is told through the eyes of his scared to death driver. Meanwhile having introduced the two detectives, Ridgway lets them go their own ways for most of the book, popping in and out of stories, sometimes not present at all.

Hawthorn is perhaps the more interesting of the two cops, at least initially. He’s always has his notebook at the ready, like Columbo, and takes notes – but Hawthorn doesn’t recall why he wrote the particular words down that he did. He’s also gay and in How to have fun with a fat man we cut between three Hawthorn story threads – the thrill of policing a riot, a gay orgy (not for the prudish), and the tension at a family meal with his father.

In a later chapter, Rothko Eggs, we get to know Child a bit more through his daughter who lives with her mother. Modern art is teenager Catherine’s raison d’etre, and she struggles to find people to share her passion with, until first proper boyfriend Stuart comes along. Her father tries but gets them mixed up. This was my personal favourite episode.

In between these two, it seems that all of life is present – a football referee who sees ghosts, a particularly nasty suspected suicide, a story about a society of wolves, a man who obsessed with watching people die – from the twin towers to racing drivers. It’s an eclectic mix.

On a first reading, I freely admit I didn’t get it all, not always being sure if a particular strand was significant, or if it was an interlude. I did like the way that certain characters popped in and out of the narrative along with the titular detectives. I enjoyed the style of the dialogue – very direct, no unnecessary he said, she saids. Contrasting with the snappy dialogue was the observational nature of much of the descriptive text which adds to the pervading air of mystery.

This is a novel that would benefit from a second read. The fact that I’m even contemplating it, although not immediately, recognises that it is, in words  from a song in The Sound of Music (sic) ‘something good’. The only down side for me was the cover which, although clever, I rather dislike! (8.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Hawthorn and Childby Keith Ridgway.

Losing myself in the Lymond Chronicles

The Game Of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

Dunnett Readalong

I reported on my experiences about reading the first half of The Game of Kings, the first volume in Dorothy Dunnett’s saga of 16th century life in the Scottish border country, here.  A month later I’ve finished the book and thus the first leg of my plans to read the series.  You’ll be glad to know at the outset that I plan to carry on, but first some closing  thoughts about Book 1 of the Lymond Chronicles…

dunnett 1During the first half, although I immediately enjoyed the derring-do of the errant Master of Culter, I did let myself get slightly bogged down in looking things up – all the foreign phrases, good Scottish dialect and cultural references from history, myths and legends through the ages.

I read the second half in a totally way – I just went for it, didn’t look anything up. Teresa had suggested to me that this was the best way for a first reading. You were right Teresa – total immersion made it great fun.

The second half starts with much politicking, bargaining, and plans for hostage taking and exchanging. Young Will Scott is toying with the idea of handing over Lymond to his estranged father after a falling out.

Scott’s reply was inaudible, and Lymond walked straight up to the boy. His riding clothes, swiftly tended since he had come from Tantallon, were sartorial perfection, his hair shone like glass and his voice glittered to match. He was impeccably, unpleasantly sober.
‘You have my warmest good wishes for any urgent need you may discover to injure me, personally. Just try it…’

I love the phrase ‘impeccably, unpleasantly sober’, so evocative.

Soon Lymond is again toying with the affections of his brother’s wife, Mariotta – who is promptly left by Richard and goes to the convent, from whence she is rescued by Lymond’s mother Sybilla…

There she found herself in the embarrassing position of the social suicide who wakes up after the laudanum: the skies had fallen and had done nothing but add to the general obscurity.

It’s sentences and phrases like the quotes above that I find really attractive in Dunnett’s writing.  However, sometimes I can do without the ‘listiness’ – one of my literary bugbears that makes me shout ‘Get on with it!’ in my head; take this quote for example, in which Will Scott and Lymond are arguing again …

 ‘I’m tired of a landscape with dragons,’ said Scott violently.
‘What, then? Retreat underground into hebetude; retreat under water like a swallow; retreat into a shell like a mollusc; retreat into the firmament like some erroneous dew….’

See what I mean?  By the way, I looked up ‘hebetude‘ – it means dullness or lethargy, and apparently is a word much beloved by Joseph Conrad, so there.

However, Dunnett does have a sense of humour, and a tendency to listiness and hyperbole is one of Lymond’s show-off qualities. He does it again with Gideon Somerville, an Englishman who proves invaluable to his cause…

 ‘The Scot, the Frencheman, the Pope and heresie, overcommed by Trothe have had a fall. Again yes.’
‘I wish to God,’ said Gideon with mild exasperation, ‘that you’d talk – just once – in prose like other people.’

That made me laugh!

I so enjoyed the second half of this novel, that I was really shocked when my favourite character from the first part, (apart from Lymond of course), came to an unfortunate end. (Don’t read my prior post if you don’t want to find out who it was).

The Game of Kings ends with Lymond being caught and hauled back to Edinburgh to stand trial for treason, and we finally find out why he was considered a treacherous renegade.  A fabulous court scene provides a fitting end to the book. Naturally – as there are six books in the series, you can safely assume that he gets off to live another day.  (9/10)

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dunnett 2

What’s Next?…
As you can guess from my enthusiastic reading of the first volume, I have become hooked into reading the rest of this series.  The books are densely written, and are all between four and five hundred pages, so I intend to carry on at the same rate of half a book per month which will take me up to the end of November.

So onwards with Queens Play, which sees Francis Lymond off to France to look after the young Queen at the court of Henri II.

Dunnett Readalong 2I’ll report back on the first half in mid-Feb, and the second mid-March.  I’m looking forward to it, and if any of you want to join in, you’re very welcome. I’ll make a Who’s Who bookmark again in the next few days. I found the one I made for The Game of Kings very useful.

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I inherited my copy. To explore on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Game Of Kingsand Queens’ Play by Dorothy Dunnett – Print on demand. Used and e-book formats also available.

A ‘Hardy’ Christmas for our Book Group

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

jude Our book group more often than not picks a classic to read over Christmas. This year we picked possibly the least Christmassy and most draining novel in a long time for our festive read – Jude the Obscure is not a book for the faint-hearted. So, when we met and discussed it a few days ago, it was great to find that everyone had enjoyed at least some aspects of it, and we had a great discussion.

Published as a novel in 1895 after prior serialisation, Jude caused a furore over it’s subjects of class and sex.  Its reception caused Hardy to give up writing novels, turning to poetry instead.

It tells the story of Jude Fawley, a young country lad with intellectual aspirations to somehow study at the university of Christminster (Oxford).  He buries his nose in his books after work as much as he can, but still one day manages to get trapped into marriage with Arabella, a former barmaid who hopes for betterment too. Jude’s aunt had warned him, ‘The Fawleys were not made for wedlock: it never seemed to sit well upon us.’

Arabella abandons him as soon as she realises that his books are his first love. This allows Jude to move to Christminster where he becomes a stone mason, and meets and falls for Sue Bridehead, his cousin.  Sue is studying at a training college to become a teacher, under the patronage of Mr Phillotson, her ageing suitor.  Meanwhile Jude’s ambitions are thwarted when he is rejected by academia. Sue is outraged by this:

‘It is an ignorant place, except as to the towns-people, artizans, drunkards, and paupers,’ she said, hurt still at his differing from her. ‘They see life as it is, of course; but few of the people in the colleges do. You prove it in your own person. You are one of the very men Christminster was intended for when the colleges were founded; a man with a passion for learning, but no money, or opportunities, or friends. But you were elbowed off the pavement by the millionaires’ sons.’

Jude and Sue are madly in love, but Sue insists that it is kept platonic. They set up house together, but live as brother and sister. After a lapse on Jude’s part Sue decides to marry Phillotson after all, but detests him physically so much that she jumps out of the window rather than submit to him in the marital bed!  Phillotson, realises that she’ll never be his and releases her despite it costing him his own career advancement, and Sue goes back to Jude – both of them still being married.

I won’t summarise the story further, save to say that both Phillotson, and Arabella put in further appearances, and tragedy will visit Jude and Sue with grave consequences.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles is the only other Hardy novel I have read, back in the early days of this blog (review here). I loved Tess, so I was looking forward to Jude. I must admit I struggled with it at first, finding that it took ages to get going. I was mostly reading it before going to bed, and regularly fell asleep after a handful of pages. When I started reading it in the morning, and then Sue jumped out of the window, I was finally hooked. By the time the tragedy happened I was so immersed, I immediately jumped to conclusions and had to read the page three times – before turning over and finding out that a) I’d been wrong, and b) that the reality in the book of what happened was even more sad.  I read the last 150 pages in one go, and ended up drained by it.

At book group, Sue Bridehead initially got the lion’s share of the discussion.  We tried to decide whether she was a tease, frigid, or just flighty?  Regardless of the modernity of her thoughts on marriage, she kept Jude on tenterhooks with her commitment-phobia.  In contrast, although Arabella was also an arch manipulator, she was more straight-forward – there’s a lovely passage about Arabella later in the book, as she’s described by a family friend …

 ‘Well,’ said Tinker Taylor, re-lighting his pipe at the gas-jet. ‘Take her all together, limb by limb, she’s not such a bad-looking piece – particular by candlelight. To be sure, halfpence that have been in circulation can’t be expected to look like new ones from the Mint. But for a woman that’s been knocking about the four hemispheres for some time, she’s passable enough. A little bit thick in the flitch perhaps: but I like a woman that a puff o’ wind won’t blow down.’

We also felt for Phillotson, who did make a mistake in grooming and marrying Sue originally, but redeemed himself when he realised she detested him. He let her go, against the advice of his friends, and paid the price for his equally modern gesture.

On the issue of the class divide – ’twas ever thus, the majority of places at Oxford are still taken by pupils from independent schools. Jude was fated to remain ‘obscure’, an outsider.

We all marvelled at the mechanics of getting around in the late Victorian era.  In the first sections, Jude in particular did an awful lot of walking, journeys on foot of several miles were the norm.  Later everyone goes everywhere by train – fully embracing the improved transport arising from the industrial revolution.  Likewise the postal system was super efficient with post really taking just a day, (unlike today’s!).

Finally, local colour added to the reading for the novel is set in and around Oxford, Reading and Wantage, (but not Abingdon where we’re centred sadly); some of the landmarks mentioned are identifiable today.  Hardy’s descriptions of the countryside are always lyrical – often contrasting with the actions of the country folk who live in it.

Jude was originally serialised in twelve parts. The novel is split into six parts, each anchored geographically in one of the towns or at Christminster. My one quibble is that in each of the six parts, Jude moves, restarts his career, etc etc – this aspect was a little repetitive, but that’s small beer compared with the major themes.  All in all, Jude the Obscure was a great choice for discussion, and has renewed my enthusiasm for Hardy. (8.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy – paperbacks available from Penguin Classics or Oxford World’s Classics

An unusual friendship

The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

universe vs alex woods Alex Woods is an unique young boy. It’s not that he is prime material for bullying because his single mum is a clairvoyant white witch who runs a new-age shop in Glastonbury, he has a much more bizarre claim to fame that has come to dominate his early life.

When Alex was ten, he was hit on the head by a 2.3kg meteor that came through the bathroom roof. He was in a coma for thirteen days, had brain surgery and a plate put in his head. No-one thought he would survive, but he did and was quite the celebrity for a while. It left him with epilepsy, but it didn’t dim his geekiness; and he did get a meteorite out of it. Alex has to learn coping strategies for his epilepsy, helped by his consultant, Dr Enderby…

I watched my breath. I counted to fifty. I named each of the planets and major moons in turn, starting at the sun and working my way out to the Kuiper Belt. I listed every character from The Simpsons I could think of. I remained calm and alert and banished any distractions into a separate corner of my mind and focused my attention like a laser. It was a very strange experience. I told Dr Enderby that it felt like Jedi training. Dr Enderby replied that it was like Jedi training. It was a form of mediation – a way of helping my brain to stay poised and peaceful.

Later, Alex is again running from the bullies, he hides in a greenhouse which gets smashed. It belongs to Mr Petersen, a reclusive widower and Vietnam veteran who’d settled in England. Instructed by his mother to help Mr Petersen as penance for getting the greenhouse broken, the gruff old soldier and the  teenager begin to strike up a friendship which is cemented by Mr P introducing Alex to the books of his favourite author – Kurt Vonnegut.

I don’t want to tell you any more of the story, because it’s rather brilliant, and if it sounds like a book you may like, you should discover it for yourselves.

The novel begins as a light-hearted tale of friendship – the young Alex has a slight hint of Adrian Mole about him. No prior knowledge of Kurt Vonnegut is needed, but anyone who does know him will chuckle when Alex reads Breakfast of Champions. (I too read this as a teenager from the library – had to hide it from my parents at the time, as it’s full of doodles of *ahem* ‘wide-open beavers’ amongst other more normal things. Now, decades later, I can’t remember the book – only those illustrations!)

Naturally, Mr Petersen becomes a father figure to Alex, and their relationship deepens, as does the tone of the novel. What started off as funny and quirky, takes on a serious tone as things happen. Throughout it all though, as he grows up, Alex retains his essential Alex-ness which, however heart-breaking things get, (which is very), makes him a loveable and fascinating companion.

If you enjoyed The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, you will probably like Extence’s debut novel, The Universe Vs Alex Woods, as I did. (9/10)

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I read an ARC received through Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence. Pub Jan 31st by Hodder & Stoughton
Breakfast Of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

2012 in First Lines

In my reading, I’m still straddling the years – finishing two books started in 2012.  The historical epic The Game of Kings for my Doing Dunnett readalong, and Hardy’s Jude the Obscure for book group. Once I’ve finished those, I’ll enjoy reading something totally different (from my TBR of course).

So it’s nice that a meme has turned up to straddle the years too. This came via Simon T from Jane, originating at The Indextrious Reader.

The “rules” are simple: Take the first line of each month’s post over the past year and see what it tells you about your blogging year. Clicking on the month will take you to the original post.  Here goes:

January: I am deliberately not making any Reading Resolutions this year other than to tackle my TBR in all ways – through reading and culling. Participating in the TBR Double Dare as already discussed here should get me well on the way.

February: This January has been Australian Literature Month, hosted by Kim at Reading Matters, and the interweb has been alive with Aussie Lit.

March: My daughter had to make a poster with ten facts about Abingdon where we live for her Geography homework tonight.

April: It’s April 1st, spring has sprung, and I have been released!  Freed from my self-imposed constraints of only reading books that I physically owned before January 1st 2012.

May: This beautifully illustrated novella by Dominguez, an Argentinian author, is about people who are obsessed by books, and whose houses become libraries, (much like Gaskell Towers then, but I jest).

June: Later this month I’m hosting a Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week (June 18-24). Thanks to everyone who has said they plan to join in so far.

July: Before Beryl Bainbridge Reading week, I posted about how I’d essentially bought this book on the basis of its cover alone which is rather stunning, and how it would be the first book I read after Beryl.

August: When I was little, the books I enjoyed reading the most were fairy tales.

September: I’ve taken my time reading John Saturnall’s feast, the latest novel by Lawrence Norfolk.

October: Sally Nicholls is one of the best new writers of books for older children and teens.

November: I’ve been to the pictures twice this half-term – two very different films and two gooduns.

December: You can read my review of this book here, but I thought I’d share what our book group thought of it too this month.

I enjoyed that, and actually think the results are pretty representative of my blog this year.  Lots of obsessing about the TBR; the joys of reading Beryl Bainbridge and taking part in other reading themed events;  book group; good YA/Children’s books; fairy tales; a smidgeon of non-fiction; and something to prove I do go out occasionally!

I shall leave you today with a photo of my messy bedside bookcase, which may give some hints of what is to come soon at Annabel’s House of Books…Bookcases again 008a