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Five Great… Novels (C-D)

I thought that I would make a series which lists five beautifully written and thought-provoking novels.  All have been picked at random, and are sorted by the initial of the author.  For each, I have copied the official blurb.  I’m sure that everyone will find something here that interests them.

1. Wise Children by Angela Carter
“A richly comic tale of the tangled fortunes of two theatrical families, the Hazards and the Chances, Angela Carter’s witty and bawdy novel is populated with as many sets of twins, and mistaken identities as any Shakespeare comedy, and celebrates the magic of over a century of show business.”

2. The Professor’s House by Willa Cather
“A study in emotional dislocation and renewal–Professor Godfrey St. Peter, a man in his 50’s, has achieved what would seem to be remarkable success. When called on to move to a more comfortable home, something in him rebels.”

3. The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield
“Behind this rather prim title lies the hilarious fictional diary of a disaster-prone lady of the 1930s, and her attempts to keep her somewhat ramshackle household from falling into chaos: there’s her husband Robert, who, when he’s not snoozing behind The Times, does everything with grumbling recluctance; her gleefully troublesome children; and a succession of tricky sevants who invariably seem to gain the upper hand. And if her domestic trials are not enough, she must keep up appearances. Particularly with the maddeningly patronising Lady Boxe, whom our Provincial Lady eternally (and unsuccessfully) tries to compete with.”

4. The Songwriter by Beatrice Colin
“New York, 1916. Monroe Simonov, a song-plugger from Brooklyn, is in love with a Ziegfeld Follies dancer who has left him for California. Inez Kennedy, a fashion model in a department store, has just one season remaining to find a wealthy husband before she must return to the Midwest. Anna Denisova, a glamorous political exile, gives lectures and writes letters while she waits for the Russian people to overthrow their Tsar. Although the world is changing faster than they could ever have imagined, Monroe, Inez and Anna discover that they are still subject to the tyranny of the heart. In this richly atmospheric and deftly plotted novel, their paths cross and re-cross leaving a trail of passion, infidelity and betrayal, before hurtling towards an explosive climax.”

5. Jerusalem the Golden by Margaret Drabble
“Brought up in a stifling, emotionless home in the north of England, Clara finds freedom when she wins a scholarship and travels to London. There, she meets Clelia and the rest of the Denham family: brilliant and charming, they dazzle Clara with their flair for life, and Clara yearns to be part of their bohemian world. But while she will do anything to join their circle, she gives no thought to the chaos that she may cause…In this captivating story of growing up and moving on, Margaret Drabble explores what it means to leave a disregarded childhood and family behind.”

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Three Edith Olivier Novels: ‘Dwarf’s Blood’, ‘As Far As Jane’s Grandmother’s’ and ‘The Seraphim Room’ **

Bello have recently reissued a lot of Edith Olivier’s work, from her autobiographical and non-fiction accounts, to the five novels which she penned during her career.  Three of those novels – Dwarf’s Blood, As Far As Jane’s Grandmother’s, and The Seraphim Room – are those which I will be discussing in this review.

Dwarf’s Blood, published in 1930, begins with the death of Sir Henry Roxerby, whose home ‘had begun to go to rack and ruin long before he took to his bed…  In many places, the undergrowth had invaded the road, almost obliterating it, and now and again, a rotting bough lay, barring the way’.  Sir Henry, Olivier tells us, ‘had outlived most of his contemporaries, and he had never had any friends’.  Also without a wife or any offspring, the former Senior County magistrate’s estate is passed onto his young Australian nephew, Nicholas: ‘He came to England determined to find in it the purpose of his life, and the outlet for his fortune.  He turned his back upon the long misery of his youth’.  He soon – rather predictably, it could be said – marries into the local gentry when he weds a young girl named Alethea.  Until the birth of his second child, Nicholas is perfectly content.  When Hans is born, however, things take a turn for the worse for the Roxerbys.  Hans is found quite early on to have ‘dwarf’s blood’, and Nicholas is horrified; he finds himself quite unable to love a child who carries a reminder of a dark family secret.

Dwarf’s Blood has been deemed a ‘vivid work of realism’, and in some ways, it certainly is.  In her familial saga, Olivier exemplifies the cruelty which humans can have toward one another even when genetics are involved, and creates a moral tale of sorts.  She talks about the ancestry and feuds within the Roxerby family, and the entirety of the novel is very character driven.  The element of darkness and foreboding is well built, and becomes the strongest element of the story.  Whilst Dwarf’s Blood is nicely written, it does take quite a while to get going, and some of the sections of the novel seem a little superfluous to the whole as it goes on.

As Far As Jane’s Grandmother’s is quite a different novel to Dwarf’s Blood, both in its themes and style.  It is an earlier work, and was published in 1928, just one year after Olivier’s stunning The Love ChildAs Far As Jane’s Grandmother’s tells of two young girls – one is the Jane of the novel’s title, and the other is Angela Markham, who uses Jane’s grandmother’s house – ‘living, as she did, in the only other important house in the village’ – as a means of measuring distances.  The initial description of Jane is vivid: ‘She made an unforgettable picture against the sky, – a thin little figure with very long legs and very short skirts.  Her hair, the colour of honey, tossed about her face, which was always strangely pale, like a little white flame, vivid for all its pallor’.

The most interesting part of As Far As Jane’s Grandmother’s is the way in which vast differences have been shown between Jane and Angela.  Jane is ‘haughty’, often judgemental and continually putting herself first – ‘When her father came in and began to talk to her mother, she ran into the garden and lived her own life.  She was not interested in grown-up people and she knew that they were not interested in her, for in that family, children had not yet become the fashion’ – whilst Angela is kindly and always strives to do those things which are morally correct.  Jane certainly takes after her grandmother, who is rather a feisty and headstrong character: ‘there was not a trace of fragility about her…  She seemed to have made a complex scheme of life as she thought it should be lived, and into this inflexible scheme those who lived about her must fit themselves or go’.

As Far As Jane’s Grandmother’s is a quaint novel, once more very focused upon its protagonists rather than its plot.  It is filled to the brim with such things as governesses, countryside walks, the casting off of Victorian life, schoolrooms, ‘coming out’ balls, and the continual division between children and adults.  In this way, the novel is very of its time.  It is nicely written on the whole, but it is nowhere near as compelling as it could have been.  The plot – what little there often is of it – runs along quite nicely, but there is nothing overly striking or memorable within it.  As Far As Jane’s Grandmother’s echoes Jane Austen’s work in terms of its wealth of characters and their very proper personalities.  The use of the third person perspective also sadly makes the whole feel a little flat.

The Seraphim Room was Olivier’s final novel, published in 1932. Its protagonist is a Dean named Mr Chilvester.  Unlike Dwarf’s Blood and As Far As Jane’s Grandmother’s, The Seraphim Room feels almost factual in its prose style at times.  It is filled with highly matter-of-fact observations about things – for example, the properties which are owned by the Dean and Chapter, and how they are used.  It is fair to say that The Seraphim Room does not really grab the attention of the reader, being, as it is, very character-focused and quite repetitive.  Whilst the novel does take into account many elements of importance in Victorian life, it chiefly discusses money and religion.

The Seraphim Room is very of its time, to the extent that its thoughts and opinions often seem callous in the modern world.  Of Dean Chilvester’s daughter Lilian, for example, who was crippled at birth, ‘being only a girl, meant nothing to him’.  As a character, he is quite cold and cruel about remarrying after Lilian’s mother dies; he does so merely in the hope that a son would prevent his house passing away from his family after his death.  There is sadly nothing within The Seraphim Room which sets the novel apart from others of the same tone and period.  Oddly, Olivier’s talent as a writer – which was so prevalent in The Love Child - seems to have diminished as her career went on.

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Five Great… Novels (A-B)

I thought that I would make a series which lists five beautifully written and thought-provoking novels.  All have been picked at random, and are sorted by the initial of the author.  For each, I have copied the official blurb.  I’m sure that everyone will find something here that interests them.

1. Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
“The limits of fifteen-year-old Kambili’s world are defined by the high walls of her family estate and the dictates of her fanatically religious father. Her life is regulated by schedules: prayer, sleep, study, prayer. When Nigeria is shaken by a military coup, Kambili’s father, involved mysteriously in the political crisis, sends her to live with her aunt. In this house, noisy and full of laughter, she discovers life and love – and a terrible, bruising secret deep within her family.”

2. Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim
“Lucy Entwhistle’s beloved father has just died, and aged twenty-two, she finds herself alone in the world. Leaning against her garden gate, dazed and unhappy, she is disturbed by the sudden appearance of the perspiring Mr Wemyss. This middle-aged man is also in mourning – for his wife, Vera, who has died in mysterious circumstances. Before Lucy can collect herself, Mr Wemyss has taken charge: of the funeral arrangements, of her kind Aunt Dot, but most of all of Lucy herself, body and soul. “

3. The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker
“Truly Plaice – part behemoth, part witch, part Cinderella – is born larger than life into a small-minded town. Her birth rocks the pillars of tiny Aberdeen, New York, and breaks her family into smithereens. She spends a painful childhood in the shadow of her older sister Serena’s beauty, and is teased mercilessly for her enormous physique. But when Serena unexpectedly vanishes and leaves her son in Truly’s care, Truly must become mistress of a house she did not choose and the unwilling victim of her brother-in-law, Dr. Robert Morgan. Once her childhood tormentor, he now subjects her to brutal criticism and cruel medical experiments that test her endurance past breaking point – but Truly may have more power than he realises…”

4. Devil by the Sea by Nina Bawden
“‘The first time the children saw the Devil, he was sitting next to them in the second row of deckchairs in the bandstand. He was biting his nails.’ So begins the horrifying story of a madman loose in a small seaside town- his prey the very young and the very old. Seen through the eyes of Hilary- a precocious, highly imaginative, lonely child- it is a chilling story about the perceptiveness of children, the blindness of parents and the allure of strangers. As the adults carry on with their own grown-up capers, Hilary is led further and further into the twilight world of one man’s terrifyingly warped view of normal life. But will she have the sense to resist it?”

5. Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott
“When Rose Campbell, a shy orphan, arrives at “The Aunt Hill” to live with her six aunts and seven boisterous male cousins, she is quite overwhelmed. How could such a delicate young lady, used to the quiet hallways of a girls’ boarding school, exist in such a spirited home? It is the arrival of Uncle Alec that changes everything. Much to the horror of her aunts, Rose’s forward-thinking uncle insists that the child get out of the parlor and into the sunshine. And with a little courage and lots of adventures with her mischievous but loving cousins, Rose begins to bloom. Written by the beloved author of “Little Women,” “Eight Cousins” is a masterpiece of children’s literature. This endearing novel offers readers of all ages an inspiring story about growing up, making friends, and facing life with strength and kindness.”

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Short Book Recommendations (Part Two)

Following on from last week’s post, all of the following books can be read in one sitting.

1. Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi
“A single mother takes her two sons on a trip to the seaside. They stay in a hotel, drink hot chocolate and go to the funfair. She wants to protect them from a cold and uncomprehending world. She knows that it will be the last trip for her boys. This is a haunting and thought-provoking story about how a mother’s love for her children can be more dangerous than the dark world she is seeking to keep at bay. Veronique Olmi handles an aspect of motherhood we all too often deny. She depicts a woman’s fear of releasing her children into the world. The simple first person narrative achieves an extraordianry level of poetry and inner truth. “

2. The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang
“This is the story of a hen named Sprout. No longer content to lay eggs on command only to have them carted off to the market, she glimpses her future every morning through the barn doors, where the other animals roam free, and comes up with a plan to escape into the wild-and to hatch an egg of her own. An anthem for individuality and motherhood, The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly has captivated millions of readers in Korea. Now the novel is making its way around the world, where it has the potential to inspire generations of readers the way Jonathan Livingston Seagull or The Alchemist have. And with Nomoco’s evocative illustrations throughout, this first English-language edition beautifully captures the journey of an unforgettable character in world literature.”

3. The Other Woman by Colette
“This volume brings together for the first time in English a collection including a series of stories and a novella, formed of a group of linked autobiographical pieces first published posthumously in France as “Mon Amie Valentine.””

4. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
“Okonkwo is the greatest wrestler and warrior alive, and his fame spreads throughout West Africa like a bush-fire. But when he accidentally kills a clansman, things begin to fall apart. Then Okonkwo returns from exile to find missionaries and colonial governors have arrived in the village. With his world thrown radically off-balance, he can only hurtle towards tragedy. First published in 1958, Chinua Achebe’s stark, coolly ironic novel reshaped both African and world literature, and has sold over ten million copies in forty-five languages. “

5. The Case of the Late Pig by Margery Allingham
“Albert Campion is summoned to the village of Kepesake to investigate a particularly distasteful death. The body turns out to be that of Pig Peters, freshly killed five months after his own funeral. Soon other corpses start to turn up, just as Peters’s body goes missing. It takes all Campion’s coolly incisive powers of detection to unravel the crime.”

6. Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis
Time’s Arrow tells the story, backwards, of the life of Nazi war criminal, Doctor Tod T. Friendly. He dies and then feels markedly better, breaks up with his lovers as a prelude to seducing them and mangles his patients before he sends them home… Escaping from the body of the dying doctor who had worked in Nazi concentration camps, the doctor’s consciousness begins living the doctor’s life backwards.”

7. Poetics by Aristotle
“In his near-contemporary account of classical Greek tragedy, Aristotle examine the dramatic elements of plot, character, language and spectacle that combine to produce pity and fear in the audience, and asks why we derive pleasure from this apparently painful process. Taking examples from the plays of “Aeschylus”, “Sophocles” and “Euripides”, the “Poetics” introduced into literary criticism such central concepts as mimesis (‘imitation’), hamartia (‘error’) and katharsis, which have informed serious thinking about drama ever since. Aristotle explains how the most effective tragedies rely on complication and resolution, recognition and reversals, while centring on characters of heroic stature, idealised yet true to life. One of the most perceptive and influential works of criticism in Western literary history, the “Poetics” has informed serious thinking about drama ever since.”

8. Christine by Elizabeth von Arnim
“‘My daughter Christine, who wrote me these letters, died at a hospital in Stuttgart on the morning of August 8th, 1914, of acute double pneumonia. I have kept the letters private for nearly three years, because, apart from the love in them that made them sacred things in days when we each still hoarded what we had of good, they seemed to me, who did not know the Germans and thought of them, as most people in England for a long while thought, without any bitterness and with a great inclination to explain away and excuse, too extreme and sweeping in their judgments. Now, as the years have passed, and each has been more full of actions on Germany’s part difficult to explain except in one way and impossible to excuse, I feel that these letters, giving a picture of the state of mind of the German public immediately before the War, and written by some one who went there enthusiastically ready to like everything and everybody, may have a certain value in helping to put together a small corner of the great picture of Germany which it will be necessary to keep clear and naked before us in the future if the world is to be saved.'”

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