I shall begin this review by saying that I am an enormous admirer of Sylvia Plath’s work. I was utterly spellbound by The Bell Jar and her poetry as a teenager, and never wanted her diaries and Letters Home to end. I have read a fair amount of biographical criticism relating to Plath, but interestingly, Mad Girl’s Love Song is the only one which I have come across that deals solely with her early life; as Plath deemed it, ‘the complex mosaic of my childhood’. A wealth of information has been contained here about her childhood, some from ‘previously unavailable archives’. Wilson has chosen to draw on primary materials rather than other biographies; thus, any conclusions which he draws are essentially his own.
Wilson has linked almost every single one of Plath’s childhood memories to one or more of her poems; here, he writes particularly intelligently. Throughout, his prose style is enjoyable. A strength in Mad Girl’s Love Song lies in the psychological standpoint, which is both strong and fascinating. I loved reading about the effects which certain books had upon Plath, and the criticism of The Bell Jar, much of which I hadn’t come across before. As always, I very much enjoyed the accounts of Plath’s life in Cambridge, my home city.
I have a slight issue with the way in which Wilson categorically states that he will take no other Plath biographies into account. Surely to create a full picture of the author in his mind, he must have read at least a handful of her biographies in the past, and one surely cannot part with the conclusions of other experts so easily as he claims to do. In terms of Plath scholarship, I do not feel as though the book adds a great deal of new or previously unknown information. There are many anecdotes included within the pages of Mad Girl’s Love Song which I have read before, which takes a certain freshness away from his endeavour.
Still, one cannot argue with the fact that the scope here is vast, and that Wilson has been respectful in his handling of the material. Ultimately, Plath was a fascinating woman, and no account of her could really be dull. I cannot help but compare it to my favourite Plath biography to date, Bitter Fame by Anne Stevenson, which I feel is incredibly thorough and invigorating, and also takes the whole of Plath’s life into account. Whilst Wilson’s approach is interesting, I do not feel as though the sheer depth of Plath has been reached. I must take issue with the afterword though; at only two pages long, I honestly feel as though the book would have been far better had Wilson not skipped over so many important details and ‘neatly’ summed up her suicide.
I have almost entirely moved away from creating BookTube videos, and haven’t written a traditional book haul post in rather a while! Going forward, I will endeavour to post one of these at the end of each month, so you can see both what I’ve bought and borrowed. For now, allow me to show you the wonderful books which I received for Christmas!
As I’ve only read two of them so far (the fantastic Speaking in Tongues, and The Little Paris Bookshop, which I read last year and reviewed here), I shall copy the official blurb. As always, if you’d like full reviews of any of them once I’ve read them, please do let me know.
The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood
Winner of Best Fiction and Overall Book of the Year at the Independent Bookseller Awards / Shortlisted for the Stella Prize and the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award / Longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award
‘She hears her own thick voice deep inside her ears when she says, ‘I need to know where I am.’ The man stands there, tall and narrow, hand still on the doorknob, surprised. He says, almost in sympathy, ‘Oh, sweetie. You need to know what you are.’ Two women awaken from a drugged sleep to find themselves imprisoned in a broken-down property in the middle of a desert. Strangers to each other, they have no idea where they are or how they came to be there with eight other girls, forced to wear strange uniforms, their heads shaved, guarded by two inept yet vicious armed jailers and a ‘nurse’. The girls all have something in common, but what is it? What crime has brought them here from the city? Who is the mysterious security company responsible for this desolate place with its brutal rules, its total isolation from the contemporary world? Doing hard labour under a sweltering sun, the prisoners soon learn what links them: in each girl’s past is a sexual scandal with a powerful man. They pray for rescue – but when the food starts running out it becomes clear that the jailers have also become the jailed. The girls can only rescue themselves.’
Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame by Mara Wilson
‘Mara Wilson has always felt a little young and a little out of place: as the only child on a film set full of adults, the first daughter in a house full of boys, the sole clinically depressed member of the cheerleading squad, a valley girl in New York and a neurotic in California, and one of the few former child actors who has never been in jail or rehab. Tackling everything from how she first learned about sex on the set of Melrose Place, to losing her mother at a young age, to getting her first kiss (or was it kisses?) on a celebrity canoe trip, to not being cute enough to make it in Hollywood, these essays tell the story of one young womans journey from accidental fame to relative (but happy) obscurity. But they also illuminate a universal struggle: learning to accept yourself, and figuring out who you are and where you belong. Exquisitely crafted, revelatory, and full of the crack comic timing that has made Mara Wilson a sought-after live storyteller and Twitter star, Where Am I Now? introduces a witty, perceptive, and refreshingly candid new literary voice.
Tru & Nelle by G. Neri
‘Long before they became famous writers, Truman Capote (In Cold Blood) and Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) were childhood friends in Monroeville, Alabama. This fictionalized account of their time together opens at the beginning of the Great Depression, when Tru is seven and Nelle is six. They love playing pirates, but they like playing Sherlock and Watson-style detectives even more. It s their pursuit of a case of drugstore theft that lands the daring duo in real trouble. Humor and heartache intermingle in this lively look at two budding writers in the 1930s South.’
Speaking in Tongues: Curious Expressions from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders
‘Ever feel like you are pedalling in the choucroute? Been caught with your beard in the mailbox again? Or maybe you just wish everyone would stop ironing your head? Speaking in Tongues brings the weird, wonderful and surprising nuanced beauty of language to life with over fifty gorgeous watercolour and ink illustrations. Here you will find the perfect romantic expression, such as the Spanish tu eres mi media naranja, or ‘you are the love of my life, my soulmate’, and the bizarre, including dancing bears and broken pots, feeding donkeys sponge cake, a head full of crickets, and clouds and radishes. All encourage new ways of thinking about the world around us, and breathe magnificent life into the everyday. These phrases from across the world are ageless and endlessly enchanting, passed down through generations. Now they are yours.’
The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg
‘From the author who brought you The Encyclopedia of Early Earth comes another Epic Tale of Derring-Do. Prepare to be dazzled once more by the overwhelming power of stories and see Love prevail in the face of Terrible Adversity! You will read of betrayal, loyalty, madness, bad husbands, lovers both faithful and unfaithful, wise old crones, moons who come out of the sky, musical instruments that won’t stay quiet, friends and brothers and fathers and mothers and above all, many, many sisters.’
Madame Solario by Gladys Huntington
‘Set at Cadenabbia on Lake Como in September 1906, Madame Solario (1956) evokes the leisure of the pre-1914 world and the sensuous delights of Italy: the chestnut woods, the shuttered villas, the garden paths encroached by oleanders: ‘the almost excessive beauty of the winding lake surrounded by mountains, the shores gemmed with golden-yellow villages and classical villas standing among cypress trees.’ When the mysterious Natalia Solario arrives at the Belle Vue Hotel, there are disquieting rumours about her past life and about her excessively close relationship to her brother.’
The River King by Alice Hoffman
‘For more than a century, the small town of Haddan, Massachusetts, has been divided, as if by a line drawn down the centre of Main Street, separating those born and bred in the ‘village’ from those who attend the prestigious Haddan School. But one October night the two worlds are thrust together by an inexplicable death and the town’s divided history is revealed in all its complexity. The lives of everyone involved are unravelled: from Carlin Leander, the fifteen-year-old scholarship girl who is as loyal as she is proud, to Betsy Chase, a woman running from her own destiny; from August Pierce, a loner and a misfit at school who unexpectedly finds courage in his darkest hour, to Abel Grey, the police officer who refuses to let unspeakable actions – both past and present – slide by without notice.’
The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George
‘Monsieur Perdu can prescribe the perfect book for a broken heart. But can he fix his own? Monsieur Perdu calls himself a literary apothecary. From his floating bookstore in a barge on the Seine, he prescribes novels for the hardships of life. Using his intuitive feel for the exact book a reader needs, Perdu mends broken hearts and souls. The only person he can’t seem to heal through literature is himself; he’s still haunted by heartbreak after his great love disappeared. She left him with only a letter, which he has never opened. After Perdu is finally tempted to read the letter, he hauls anchor and departs on a mission to the south of France, hoping to make peace with his loss and discover the end of the story. Joined by a bestselling but blocked author and a lovelorn Italian chef, Perdu travels along the country s rivers, dispensing his wisdom and his books, showing that the literary world can take the human soul on a journey to heal itself. Internationally bestselling and filled with warmth and adventure, The Little Paris Bookshop is a love letter to books, meant for anyone who believes in the power of stories to shape people’s lives. ‘
Unless by Carol Shields
‘Reta Winters has a loving family, good friends, and growing success as a writer of light fiction. Then her eldest daughter suddenly withdraws from the world, abandoning university to sit on a street corner, wearing a sign that reads only ‘Goodness’. As Reta seeks the causes of her daughter’s retreat, her enquiry turns into an unflinching, often very funny meditation on society and where we find meaning and hope. ‘Unless’ is a dazzling and daring novel from the undisputed master of extraordinary fictions about so-called ‘ordinary’ lives.’
The Girl on the Stairs by Louise Welsh
‘Jane and Petra have been together for six years and after deciding to have a child, they move to Petra’s hometown, Berlin. But things do not quite go according to plan. Jane, at six months pregnant, finds herself increasingly isolated and preoccupied with the monuments and reminders of the Holocaust which echo around the city – imagining the horrors that happened in the spaces around her. She becomes uneasy in the apartment and conceives a dread of the derelict backhouse across the courtyard. She also begins to suspect their neighbour, Alban Mann, of sexually assaulting his daughter, and places a phone call to the police which holds more significance than she can ever have known …’
The Philosophy of Beards by Thomas S. Gowing
”The absence of Beard is usually a sign of physical and moral weakness.’ ‘Take two drawings of the head of a lion, one with and the other without the mane. You will see how much of the majesty of the king of the woods, as well as that of the lord of the earth, dwells in this free-flowing appendage.’ ‘There is scarcely a more naturally disgusting object than a beardless old man. The Beard keeps gradually covering, varying and beautifying, and imparts new graces even to decay, by heightening all that is still pleasing, veiling all that is repulsive.’ This eccentric Victorian book argues a strong case for the universal wearing of a beard – that essential symbol of manly distinction since ancient times. Thomas S. Gowing contrasts the vigour and daring of bearded men through history with the undeniable effeminacy of the clean-shaven. He reminds the modern man that ‘ladies, by their very nature, like everything manly’, and cannot fail to be charmed by a ‘fine flow of curling comeliness’. Gowing’s book is now republished for the first time since 1850, accompanied by illustrations of impressive beards from history.’
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
‘Yeong-hye and her husband are ordinary people. He is an office worker with moderate ambitions and mild manners; she is an uninspired but dutiful wife. The acceptable flatline of their marriage is interrupted when Yeong-hye, seeking a more ‘plant-like’ existence, decides to become a vegetarian, prompted by grotesque recurring nightmares. In South Korea, where vegetarianism is almost unheard-of and societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision is a shocking act of subversion. Her passive rebellion manifests in ever more bizarre and frightening forms, leading her bland husband to self-justified acts of sexual sadism. His cruelties drive her towards attempted suicide and hospitalisation. She unknowingly captivates her sister’s husband, a video artist. She becomes the focus of his increasingly erotic and unhinged artworks, while spiralling further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison and becoming – impossibly, ecstatically – a tree. Fraught, disturbing and beautiful, The Vegetarian is a novel about modern day South Korea, but also a novel about shame, desire and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another.’
A fantastic haul, I’m sure you’ll agree! Thanks so much to everyone who gifted me a book this year. Have you read any of these?
We shall begin with an intense psychological character study which I read back in September, and work our way through some wonderfully weird sounding, and important, tomes.
1. Harriet Said… by Beryl Bainbridge
‘Beryl Bainbridge’s evocation of childhood in a rundown northern holiday resort. A girl returns from boarding school to her sleepy Merseyside hometown and waits to be reunited with her childhood friend, Harriet, chief architect of all their past mischief. She roams listlessly along the shoreline and the woods still pitted with wartime trenches, and encounters ‘the Tsar’ – almost old, unhappily married, both dangerously fascinating and repulsive. Pretty, malevolent Harriet finally arrives – and over the course of the long holidays draws her friend into a scheme to beguile then humiliate the Tsar, with disastrous, shocking consequences. A gripping portrayal of adolescent transgression, Beryl Bainbridge’s classic first novel remains as subversive today as when it was written.’
2. The Phantom Carriage by Selma Lagerlof
‘Written in 1912, Selma Lagerlof’s The Phantom Carriage is a powerful combination of ghost story and social realism, partly played out among the slums and partly in the transitional sphere between life and death. The vengeful and alcoholic David Holm is led to atonement and salvation by the love of a dying Salvation Army slum sister under the guidance of the driver of the death-cart that gathers in the souls of the dying poor. Inspired by Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, The Phantom Carriage remained one of Lagerlof’s own favourites, and Victor Sjostrom’s 1921 film version of the story is one of the greatest achievements of the Swedish silent cinema.’
3. One Matchless Time: A Life of William Faulkner by Jay Parini
‘William Faulkner was a literary genius, and one of America’s most important and influential writers. Drawing on previously unavailable sources — including letters, memoirs, and interviews with Faulkner’s daughter and lovers — Jay Parini has crafted a biography that delves into the mystery of this gifted and troubled writer. His Faulkner is an extremely talented, obsessive artist plagued by alcoholism and a bad marriage who somehow transcends his limitations. Parini weaves the tragedies and triumphs of Faulkner’s life in with his novels, serving up a biography that’s as engaging as it is insightful.’
4. Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World by Claudia Roth Pierpont
‘With a masterful ability to connect their social contexts to well-chosen and telling details of their personal lives, Claudia Roth Pierpont gives us portraits of twelve amazingly diverse and influential literary women of the twentieth century, women who remade themselves and the world through their art. Gertrude Stein, Mae West, Margaret Mitchell, Eudora Welty, Ayn Rand, Doris Lessing, Anais Nin, Zora Neale Hurston, Marina Tsvetaeva, Hannah Arendt and Mary Mccarthy, and Olive Schreiner: Pierpont is clear-eyed in her examination of each member of this varied group, connectng her subjects firmly to the issues of sexual freedom, race, and politics that bound them to their times, even as she exposes the roots of their uniqueness’
5. Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson
‘In a hilariously charming domestic memoir, America s celebrated master of terror turns to a different kind of fright: raising children In her celebrated fiction, Shirley Jackson explored the darkness lurking beneath the surface of small-town America. But in Life Among the Savages, she takes on the lighter side of small-town life. In this witty and warm memoir of her family s life in rural Vermont, she delightfully exposes a domestic side in cheerful contrast to her quietly terrifying fiction. With a novelist s gift for character, an unfailing maternal instinct, and her signature humor, Jackson turns everyday family experiences into brilliant adventures.’
6. A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx by Elaine Showalter
‘A Jury of Her Peers is an unprecedented literary landmark: the first comprehensive history of American women writers from 1650 to 2000. In a narrative of immense scope and fascination—brimming with Elaine Showalter’s characteristic wit and incisive opinions—we are introduced to more than 250 female writers. These include not only famous and expected names (Harriet Beecher Stowe, Willa Cather, Dorothy Parker, Flannery O’Connor, Gwendolyn Brooks, Grace Paley, Toni Morrison, and Jodi Picoult among them), but also many who were once successful and acclaimed yet now are little known, from the early American best-selling novelist Catherine Sedgwick to the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Susan Glaspell. Showalter shows how these writers—both the enduring stars and the ones left behind by the canon—were connected to one another and to their times. She believes it is high time to fully integrate the contributions of women into our American literary heritage, and she undertakes the task with brilliance and flair, making the case for the unfairly overlooked and putting the overrated firmly in their place. Whether or not readers agree with the book’s roster of writers, A Jury of Her Peers is an irresistible invitation to join the debate, to discover long-lost great writers, and to return to familiar titles with a deeper appreciation. It is a monumental work that will greatly enrich our understanding of American literary history and culture.’
7. Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature by Elizabeth Hardwick
‘The novelist and essayist Elizabeth Hardwick is one of contemporary America’s most brilliant writers, and Seduction and Betrayal, in which she considers the careers of women writers as well as the larger question of the presence of women in literature, is her most passionate and concentrated work of criticism. A gallery of unforgettable portraits – of Virginia Woolf and Zelda Fitzgerald, Dorothy Wordsworth and Jane Carlyle – as well as a provocative reading of such works as Wuthering Heights, Hedda Gabler, and the poems of Sylvia Plath, Seduction and Betrayal is a virtuoso performance, a major writer’s reckoning with the relations between men and women, women and writing, writing and life.’
8. Pitch Dark by Renata Adler
‘Pitch Dark is the story of the end of a love affair—a story that, in Renata Adler’s brilliant telling, becomes a richly diffracted, illuminating, investigation of an exceptional woman. After a nine-year affair with Jake, a married man, Kate Ennis decides to escape. She takes off, looking for something beautiful and quiet by the sea, but finds herself in a pitch dark and driving rain on a lonely Irish road. It is only months later that she learns that she may have committed a crime, but by then she is home, once more negotiating with Jake for time, for attention, and for love.’
It is said,’ states the blurb of this book, ‘that Charles Dickens invented Christmas, and within these pages you’ll certainly find all the elements of a traditional Christmas brought to vivid life: snowy rooftops, gleaming shop windows, steaming bowls of punch, plum puddings like speckled cannon balls, sage and onion stuffing, magic, charity and goodwill’. Sounds marvellous, doesn’t it? Thankfully, ‘marvellous’ is an adjective which can be applied in good measure to this lovely book.
Dickens at Christmas contains many extracts from his seasonal writings, some of which are short novellas (‘A Christmas Carol’, which takes pride of place as the second story in the collection, and ‘The Cricket on the Hearth’, for example), and others which number just a few pages. All of Dickens’ Christmas books are included, along with a standalone story from The Pickwick Papers and those from various short story collections.
Dickens’ wit and love of Christmas shine through on each and every page. All of the many elements of this time of year have been presented by the master himself, and encompass both the rich and the poor, the merry and the miserly, the ghostly and the real. The religious aspects are mentioned in some detail, along with the importance of the family dynamic over the Christmas period. Each scene is wonderfully written and beautifully evoked. Only Dickens could write so meticulously and creatively about a rainy day: ‘the cold, damp, clammy wet, that wrapped him up like a moist great-coat… when the rain came slowly, thickly, obstinately down; when the street’s throat, like his own, was choked with mist; when smoking umbrellas passed and repassed, spinning round and round like so many teetotums…’
I cannot write a review of Dickens at Christmas without mentioning how beautiful this edition is. The cover sparkles, and Emily Sutton’s illustrations, both on the cover and before each story, have been wonderfully drawn. It is truly an object of beauty, and is sure to delight many people this Christmas – a perfect gift to show you care, or simply one with which to adorn your own bookshelves.
Dickens at Christmas is wonderful for already established fans of Dickens’ work, but it also provides a lovely introduction to his stories and style of writing. The volume can be easily dipped in and out of, and the stories themselves are so rich in detail that they can be read again and again. Their sheer timelessness makes them suitable Christmas fare for many years to come.
When Akylina and I met up in Edinburgh at the end of November, we decided to purchase two copies of Murder Under the Christmas Tree to read together. With essay deadlines and the like, our collaboration didn’t quite go to plan, but I thought I’d post my review of the book regardless. I decided to open it on the first of December and read one of the ten stories per day, as a kind of constructive advent treat.
With regard to crime novels, cosy crime is definitely my favourite sub-genre; I adore authors such as Agatha Christie and Edmund Crispin, and will always seek them out over contemporary thrillers (much as I’ll admit that I tend to enjoy these too, I’m generally not that surprised by the plot twists, as I feel that a lot of them follow the same – or at least very similar – guidelines). Whilst I had heard of a lot of the authors in this collection, there were a couple who were on my radar but whom I was not familiar with, and one (Carter Dickson) whom I hadn’t even heard of before.
I feel that the best way in which to approach such a collection is to give a mini review of each tale. Murder Under the Christmas Tree begins with Dorothy L. Sayers’ ‘The Necklace of Pearls’, a clever tale in which a very rich, and not very well liked, man named Septimus Shale’s daughter has her precious pearl necklace stolen during a holiday gathering. Lord Peter Wimsey makes an appearance (of course), just happening as he does to be part of the festivities. The way in which Sayers writes is enjoyable, and she sets the scene perfectly throughout. The second story in the collection is Edmund Crispin’s ‘The Name on the Window’, which I very much enjoyed. In this Boxing Day mystery, which centres upon his famous creation of Oxford Don-cum-detective Gervase Fen, a recent murder is investigated. The locked-room variety of plot which has been used here is clever; not the best Fen story, but its workings and conclusion certainly suited the length of the piece.
Val McDermid’s ‘A Traditional Christmas’ catapults one from past decades to the present, and its opening sentence was reminiscent to me of Daphne du Maurier’s wonderful Rebecca: ‘Last night, I dreamed I went to Amberley’. This is where our female narrator’s wife was brought up in luxury. Again, the story deals with a murder. McDermid’s prose style is rather matter-of-fact at points, but it has flashes of great humour within it, and any oddness which the tale holds is made up by the fact that it has been so well done. Next comes a classic, Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’. I have read this before on numerous occasions, and still find it wonderfully clever. For those of you unfamiliar with this particular Sherlock Holmes story, a rare and precious stone – the blue carbuncle of the title – has been placed within a goose, and subsequently lost.
‘The Invisible Man’ by G.K. Chesterton and ‘Cinders’ by Ian Rankin both have merit. The tales are very different from one another, but the contrast provided by their placing in the collection is memorable. In the former, which provided my first taste of Chesterton’s work, a spectre appears, and a mysterious note consequently shows itself upon the window of a shop in Camden Town. Chesterton’s prose is rich, and stylistically rather original. This Father Brown story takes on many issues about the perils of the modern world, and is entertaining from start to finish. In Rankin’s effort, the crux of the problem is immediately shown to the reader: ‘The Fairy Godmother was dead’. At an Edinburgh pantomime, the body is found, and Rebus is sent to investigate. The manner of the murder is simple, yet it demonstrates Rankin’s intelligence and clever plot twists, struck as she is by Cinderella’s slipper: ‘Not that it was a glass slipper. It was Perspex or something. And it wasn’t the one from the performance. The production kept two spares.’
‘Death on the Air’ provided my first glimpse into Ngaio Marsh’s work, and I very much enjoyed it. She immediately sets the scene, and I was reminded a little of Harry Potter: ‘On the 25th of December at 7:30am our Septimus Tonks was found dead beside his wireless set’. His body is discovered by the under-housemaid, and the investigation comes about when it is found that he was not accidentally electrocuted as first thought. After Marsh’s crafty tale, we come to ‘Persons or Things Unknown’ by Carter Dickson, which I must admit I didn’t much enjoy. The new owner of an old house in Sussex is convinced that it is haunted; he then tells a story from the 1660s which supposedly happened on the site. Whilst Dickson’s story marks a differentiation in the collection in some ways, I did not personally find it immediately interesting or engaging, and could have happily skipped past it. There was a curious distancing and framing here, and the monologue structure makes it rather dull and plodding.
Margery Allingham’s ‘The Case is Altered’ picked up the pace once more; as a penultimate tale, it fits perfectly. This particular Campion tale is wonderfully crafted, from its initial sentence – ‘Mr Albert Campion, sitting in a first-class smoking compartment, was just reflecting sadly that an atmosphere of stultifying decency could make even Christmas something of a stuffed-owl occasion, when a new hogskin suitcase of distinctive design hit him on the knees’ – to its plot, in which his contemporary, Lance, receives an anonymous letter instructing him to wait in the grounds one night. True to form, Campion is immediately suspicious. This is one of the only stories in the collection which does not deal with a murder, and it feels refreshing in consequence. The final tale, Ellis Peters’ ‘The Price of Light’, was a bit of a letdown in consequence. It does not feel overly grounded historically, despite the necessity of such a thing, being set in 1135 as it is. Whilst Peters’ story was well written, I did not find it captivating by any means, and am of the opinion that it jarred the whole collection; it did not fit with anything else within Murder Under the Christmas Tree, aside from the general theme of murder.
To conclude, Murder Under the Christmas Tree would have been utterly fantastic had it consisted solely of festive Golden Age crime fiction. As it is, the book is enjoyable enough, but a couple of the entries do tend to make the whole feel a touch disjointed. Regardless, it has finally given me the push I needed to incorporate Ngaio Marsh into my 2017 reading.
The Robber Bridegroom by Eudora Welty ****
‘Legendary figures of Mississippi s past-flatboatman Mike Fink and the dreaded Harp brothers-mingle with characters from Eudora Welty s own imagination in an exuberant fantasy set along the Natchez Trace. Berry-stained bandit of the woods Jamie Lockhart steals Rosamond, the beautiful daughter of pioneer planter Clement Musgrove, to set in motion this frontier fairy tale. For all her wild, rich fancy, Welty writes prose that is as disciplined as it is beautiful.’
There is nothing quite like a Southern Gothic fairytale, and there is also nothing quite like Eudora Welty’s writing. After reading the fabulous correspondence between Welty and William Maxwell, I sought out a couple of her volumes from my personal collection, and spent a morning with The Robber Bridegroom. From the beginning, there are elements of the Brothers Grimm – as one might expect, I suppose, given its title. In fact, the novel (novella?) begins almost like a bedtime story, in that it is set in a place far, far away some centuries past, and the narrative voice is lilting and lovely. Welty’s writing is sometimes simple but always intelligent, and her story builds marvellously. Her character descriptions also ensure that vivid beings spring to life from the page.
The Robber Bridegroom is one of the most inventive and original novels which I believe I have ever read. Welty has such a hold over her characters and settings, and everything is beautifully evoked.
Girl Number One by Jane Holland *
‘As a young child, Eleanor Blackwood witnessed her mother’s murder in woods near their farm. The killer was never found. Now an adult, Eleanor discovers a woman’s body in the same spot in the Cornish woods where her mother was strangled eighteen years before. But when the police get there, the body has disappeared. Is Eleanor’s disturbed mind playing tricks on her again, or has her mother’s killer resurfaced? And what does the number on the dead woman’s forehead signify?’
I am getting more and more into thrillers of late, and downloaded this from Netgalley as the premise sounded interesting. Alas and lackaday. I found it cliched from the very beginning. It had the usual girl-with-traumatic-past-goes-running-excessively-in-order-to-try-to-put-said-traumatic-past-behind-her. It doesn’t work, obviously. The ‘thrilling’ part of the book ensues once excessive running and whiny narrative voice has been established (which takes far longer than it should, let’s be honest), which is predictable enough to not be thrilling at all. Not that well written, and honestly, if you’ve read Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood, you probably don’t ever need to pick this up. It seems to follow the same style, just without the wedding party in the woods thing, and is a lot less enjoyable to boot.
Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror by Chris Priestley ***
‘Uncle Montague lives alone in a big house and his regular visits from his nephew give him the opportunity to retell some of the most frightening stories he knows. But as the stories unfold, another even more spine-tingling narrative emerges, one that is perhaps the most frightening of all. Uncle Montague’s tales of terror, it transpires, are not so much works of imagination as dreadful, lurking memories. Memories of an earlier time in which Uncle Montague lived a very different life to his present solitary existence.’
Chris Priestley’s work appeals to me, even though I’m a grownup and should probably have left the realm of children’s books behind me when I left my teens. Saying that, children’s literature is magical and wondrous and unpredictable, and I don’t want to lose those qualities; they are just as important for grownups, in my opinion. If I therefore want to read a children’s book I will do so, and I will do so proudly; hence my wish to pick up Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror.
I love Gothic fiction, and from the beginning I was reminded of Neil Gaiman and Colin Meloy’s Wildwood series. The scope of the tales here is broad; I admired the way in which one could not quite guess where the story was going. It perhaps goes without saying that these stories are beautifully illustrated too.
My three-star rating is the result of two things; firstly, that some of the stories were better than others, but I expected as much to be the case when I began; and secondly, that it lost quite a bit of momentum as it progressed. Even though the stories were different, and contained different people, the characters had shared attributes on the whole, and were presented in quite similar ways. Perhaps due to the format of the novel, the sections featuring Edgar and Uncle Montague seemed very samey too. A good book, but perhaps a little long; not a series I will be continuing with, I’m afraid.
The Vet’s Daughter, which has been turned into both a play and a musical, has just been reissued by Virago, along with two of Comyns’ other novels, Sisters by a River and Our Spoons Came From Woolworths. The novel was first published in 1959, and as well as featuring an introduction written by Comyns herself, this new edition contains an introduction by Jane Gardam, who sets the scene of both the author and her work very nicely indeed. Gardam calls this, Comyns’ fourth work, her ‘most startling novel… the first in which she shows mastery of the structures of a fast-moving narrative… [It] is not about “enchantment”, it is about evil, the evil that can exist in the most humdrum people’.
The opening line alone is intriguing: ‘A man with small eyes and a ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else’. Our narrator, Alice Rowlands, lives in ‘a vet’s house with a lamp outside… It was my home and it smelt of animals’. Her father’s tyrannical cruelty is present from the first page. When describing her mother, Alice says, ‘She looked at me with her sad eyes… Her bones were small and her shoulders sloped; her teeth were not straight either; so if she had been a dog, my father would have destroyed her’. In fact, many of the similes throughout are related to animals – for example, ‘holding up her little hands like kitten’s paws’, and ‘her lifeless hair… was more like a donkey’s tail’. An unsettling sense of foreboding is built up almost immediately, and much of this too has some relation to the animals which fill the house and surgery: ‘Before the fireplace was a rug made from a skinned Great Dane dog, and on the curved mantelpiece there was a monkey’s skull with a double set of teeth’, and ‘The door was propped open by a horse’s hoof without a horse joined to it’.
Alice is seventeen years old, and her present life in ‘the hot, ugly streets of red and yellow houses’ in London is interspersed with memories of her mother’s upbringing on a secluded farm in Wales. Alice’s dreams, which far surpass her sad reality, consist of the following: ‘Some day I’ll have a baby with frilly pillows and men much grander than my father will open shop doors to me – both doors at once, perhaps’. Alice and her mother are both terrified of her father – her mother tells her daughter that ‘He was a great and clever young man, but I was always afraid of him’ – and his presence fills the novel even when he is away from home: ‘We heard Father leave the house and it became a peaceful evening, except that we had a mongoose in the kitchen’. The fact that her father is even mentioned in the book’s title demonstrates the level of control he has over her. To add to their troubles, Alice’s mother becomes ill. Desperate Alice laments somewhat over her fading life, telling us that, ‘I felt a great sorrow for her and knew that she would soon die’, and ‘Autumn came and Mother was still dying in her room’. Her father, as is to be expected, exhibits his usual cruelty when faced with the news; he sends a man in to measure his wife for her coffin whilst she is still alive.
Throughout, Alice is an incredibly honest narrator. One gets the sense that we as readers see her world exactly as she does, and that nothing has been altered before it reaches the page. All of the characters throughout feel so real, and Comyns has built them up steadily and believably. Their actions do not feel forced, which demonstrates Comyns’ deftness of touch. Whilst The Vet’s Daughter is a sad novel – well, a novella, really – what sadness there is is interspersed with humour and wit. The balance between the two has been met beautifully. For example, just after Alice’s mother’s death, Comyns describes the way in which ‘Already the parrot had been banished to the downstairs lavatory, and in its boredom had eaten huge holes in the floor’.
Tumultuous relationships between characters are portrayed with such clarity of the human condition throughout the book, and the story is both powerful and memorable in its tale and its telling. Alice faces more challenges than the average teenager, but her strength of mind and the way in which she always tries to make the best out of a bad situation endear her to the reader. Her honesty shines through, particularly as her story progresses: ‘I wrote a letter to Blinkers. Although it wasn’t very long, it took me two weeks to write because it was the first one I’d ever written – there had been no one to write to before’. The Vet’s Daughter is a beautifully and sympathetically written book, which takes many unexpected twists and turns, and presents the reader with a story which is likely to stay with them for an awfully long time.
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman *****
I was having a bit of a rereading kick during September (largely due to the fact that my TBR shelves were almost exhausted), and decided to pick up Anne Fadiman’s charming little volume of essays, Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. Throughout, Fadiman’s scope is broad. Whilst all of the essays are about books (no sh*t, Sherlock…), she writes about such things as the value of books as objects and how we treat them, to the art of writing sonnets, a skill she feels she has never quite mastered.
The entire collection is lively, and when read (or reread) from cover to cover, it feels like a breath of fresh air. Fadiman’s writing is intelligent and appreciative. I very much admire the chronological placement of essays too; with the exception of the final two, which have been juxtaposed to improve the flow of the piece, all are presented in the order in which Fadiman wrote them. The chapter about proofreading particularly tickled me, having worked as one myself. Ex Libris is an absolutely lovely book, which makes me feel privileged to be a bookworm.
Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene ****
I am a very lucky human. My mother procured the gorgeous Folio Society edition of Graham Greene’s Travels With My Aunt in a raffle, actually swapping her original prize with this one just for me. (Three cheers for Mums!) I have wanted to read it for ages, despite not being that well acquainted with Greene’s work. (I mean, I’ve read Our Man in Havana, and watched Brighton Rock, but that’s about it). For some reason, I was under the impression that Travels With My Aunt was a non-fiction account, with semi-autobiographical undertones. Apparently not; it turns out that this is a novel. I have no idea what formed my misapprehension. Any ideas, readers?
Travels With My Aunt is a romp. It’s kinda like Jeeves and Wooster, without the butler and with a wild old lady thrown into the mix. Despite the title’s emphasis of travelling, the novel definitely feels more like a character- rather than a plot-driven piece. Our narrator, Henry, and his Aunt Augusta, are the stars of the show, if you like; the latter certainly more so. Henry is a retired bank manager, and seems to have donned the stereotypical shroud of being a bit dull, and a bit of a goody two-shoes. No matter. He just makes Aunt Augusta seem more vibrant, surprising, and larger than life, which is hardly a bad thing when faced with an eccentric.
Travels With My Aunt is an entertaining and unpredictable read, which does feature some travels. My only qualm was that I found the character of pot-smoking (and smuggling) Wordsworth rather ridiculous, and his accent overexaggerated to the extreme. The ending was most peculiar too, but perhaps that’s a trademark of Greene’s novels. Who knows? Well, hopefully me when I read more of them…
I’m always conscious of making The Literary Sisters as good and inviting a place for the similarly bookish to visit as is possible. I’m up against time a little at the moment, what with my PhD studies, but I’m determined to implement the things you want to see on the blog in the New Year.
Is there a particular genre which you don’t think is covered enough here? Would you like author showcases, where one particular author whom I enjoy is chosen and profiled? Are you interested in another ‘Neglected Women Writers’ month, or something similar? Is there an author you want me to read and report back on?
Would you like to see some book hauls? Since having some wonderful libraries at my disposal I’ve been lucky enough to borrow huge stacks of tomes, but I am quite aware that since I no longer post BookTube videos, hauls are being missed out on here.
Any ideas are very welcome, and I will do my best to ensure that everything suggested which I can possibly get around to will be on the blog in the near future.