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‘The Great Lover’ by Jill Dawson ***

The Great Lover is the first of Jill Dawson’s novels which I have read.  All of her stories interest me, but I plumped for The Great Lover is a starting point for two reasons; it is set close to where I grew up, and features poet Rupert Brooke, whose writing I admire, as a character.  It also takes place in a time period which I love to read about.

The Great Lover begins in the summer of 1909 in Grantchester, Cambridgeshire, a place much famed as a hangout spot for a lot of famous Cambridge-educated writers and artists.  Seventeen-year-old Nell Golightly, a fictional creation of Dawson’s, has just been employed to waitress at the Orchard Tea Gardens.  Soon after she begins her new job, Rupert Brooke arrives as a lodger, hoping that being away from his University halls at King’s College will enable him to complete a lot of projects without distractions. 9780340935668

Brooke is something of a talking point immediately.  He is ‘famed for his good looks and flouting of convention’, and ‘captures the hearts of men and women alike, yet his own seems to stay intact.’  Despite her ‘good sense’, Nell too begins to fall for Brooke, and he for her.  Told from two perspectives, the novel ‘gives voice to Rupert Brooke himself in a tale of mutual fascination and inner turmoil, set at a time of great social unrest.’  Dawson weaves together extracts from Brooke’s own letters with the imagined voice which she has created for him; she builds her narrative around his own.  The other voice we hear within the novel is Nell’s.

One gets a feel for Nell immediately.  She has been recently orphaned, losing her mother in girlhood, and her father quite recently.  She takes the job away from her Fenland home in order to support her younger siblings.  She describes herself as a ‘good, sensible girl’, with ‘many faults: I am feverishly curious, some would say nosy; I have no compunction about reading other people’s letters; I’m proud and full of vanity; I’ve a quick tempter although I forgive just as easily; I am not fond of horses and I am wont to be impatient with bees; and, worse of all, I am a girl who is incapable of being romanced because I don’t have a sentimental bone in my body.  Moons and Junes mean nothing to be, unless it is to signify good conditions for bees.’

When Nell first meets Brooke, ‘he appears at the door, tall and sunny, loose-limbed and lanky, with his high forehead and mane of hair…  he grins a glorious grin at me and the sun blazes through the floor, warming my face to scarlet.  He wears grey flannels and a soft collar with no tie, and his face is rather innocent and babyish and, at the same time, inspired with a fierce life.’  The narrative using Brooke’s voice, which uses flowery, poetic prose, provides much of the humour in the novel.  In the first of his entries, when he has moved into the Orchard Tea Rooms, he writes: ‘My bedroom looks as though it hasn’t been cleaned since Thomas Hardy was first weaned and the beam above my head sheds little flakes of rotting wood like a shower of chocolate on the sheets in the morning.’

A high level of description, and the engaging, rich prose in which it is written, threads through the entire novel, and helps to create a vivid sense of place.  The Great Lover has clearly been so well researched, and the atmosphere of the time really comes alive.  The social and cultural climate of the time is always there; socialism, suffragism, and the like beat on in the background, sometimes being discussed by the protagonists too.  Added to this is the way in which Dawson has introduced real-life figures, who interact mainly with Rupert.  We meet, amongst others, Bohemians like Augustus John and ‘peacock’-like Ottoline Morrell, and Virginia Woolf even makes a cameo.

In her acknowledgements-cum-afterword, Dawson notes: ‘Of course I made Rupert [as well as Nell] up… and he is ‘my’ Rupert Brooke, a figure from my imagination, fused from his poetry, his letters, his travel writing and essays, photographs, guesswork, the things I know about his life blended with my own dreams of him, and impressions.’  Brooke’s character adds a tongue in cheek, playful element to the novel.  I must say, however, that his voice did not always feel authentic to me, and I largely preferred Nell’s section of the narrative.

The element of Brooke’s inner turmoil has not been explored in as much detail here as I was expecting.  His nervous breakdown, which offered so much room for investigation, has been almost glossed over.  Whilst many of the reviews point to the depth which Dawson has given her characters in The Great Lover, I do not feel as though Brooke has quite been developed as well as he could have been.  The narrative voices, which switch between one another throughout, are not always as distinctive as they could have been; on a couple of occasions, it did feel a little confusing to differentiate between the speakers.  I was expecting a heady, sensual novel, and do not quite feel as though this element was realised.  There are some very well executed parts to The Great Lover, but Brooke unfortunately felt little more than a caricature at times.

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‘A Love Like Blood’ by Marcus Sedgwick ****

A Love Like Blood is Marcus Sedgwick’s first novel for adults.  He is acclaimed as a young adult author, and has turned his hand to a varied range of subjects within his fiction.  The prologue of his newest offering opens in Sextanio in Italy in 1968, and its beginning is certainly intriguing: ‘Dogs are barking in the night.  He’s somewhere in the broken village on the hilltop opposite me’.  Using such prose, Sedgwick is able to set the scene within A Love Like Blood immediately.

‘A Love Like Blood’ by Marcus Sedgwick

In the first chapter, which begins in Paris in 1944, the reader is taken into the narrator’s memories.  ‘Paris,’ Charles Jackson explains, ‘was free, and I was one of the very few Englishmen to see it’.  Our narrator is twenty five years old at this point in time, and is a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, an experience which he explains threw him straight into adulthood.  It is an interesting technique to begin a book close to the end of the Second World War rather than at its beginning, and it does work well here.  Sedgwick puts across the point that the city is so changed from one week to the next, and the way in which he portrays this information contributes to the strong sense of history which the novel holds.

On a trip to a chateau just outside Paris to view some artefacts with his CO, one of the items which Charles is shown is said to be one of the earliest known depictions of vampires.  He is startled and has to hurtle outside to get some fresh air.  He finds himself wandering into a bunker and there, he witnesses a man ‘drinking’ from a wound upon the body of a young woman.

Throughout, the sense of place and its importance in the grand scheme of things has been well thought out.  The book moves from Paris to Cambridge and back again.  On his second trip to Paris, Charles finds the couple whom he saw in the bunker eating in a busy brasserie, and he decides to follow them.  He is an honest narrator, but there are times at the start of the book in which he seems too preoccupied with himself and his own problems.  Just at the point that this begins to become a little wearing, it stops altogether.

Elements of mystery are tied up with those of horror in the novel, and the way in which the plot unfolds does not feel too dissimilar to that of Dracula at times.  Blood is, of course, a central theme – Charles becomes an expert in haemotology, and there is also the presence of the vampire, for example.  Although some of the elements of the plot are quite other-worldly, it is still, oddly, eminently believable.  Foreboding drips in here and there, and whilst things are able to be presupposed to a point by the reader, there are many surprising moments which aim to throw us off the track.  Sedgwick’s writing is easy to get into, and is not stylistically complex in any way.  Indeed, it does not feel too dissimilar to the style in which he writes for his younger audience.  In A Love Like Blood, he has crafted a great novel, and the plot points have been well placed into the whole so that there is not a dull moment.

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Flash Reviews (14th March 2014)

‘Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe’ by Fannie Flagg (Vintage)

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg ****
I had heard such great things about this novel that when I spotted it in Fopp, I just had to purchase a copy.  I am probably one of the few people who has not seen the film, which seems to be very popular, but after reading the book I can definitely see why it is.  The novel was first published in 1987, and is the first of Flagg’s works which I have read.  Harper Lee (one of my most treasured authors) calls it ‘a richly comic, poignant narrative’, and from the moment at which I spotted this upon the book’s lovely cover, I was almost entirely convinced that I would very much enjoy it.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe begins in Alabama in June 1929, a period and literary setting which I adore. The parallel story which runs alongside it begins in December 1985, in the Rose Terrace Nursing Home in the same state.   Both present and past stories are interspersed with weekly news bulletins from 1929.  This mixed narrative works well; it gives a real feel for the place in which the story is set, and its history, almost immediately.  It is clear that the notion of community is so important to Flagg, and it really comes across in the story which she has created. There was a real sense of warmth within some of the characters, and it was made entirely clear that those like Idgie – one of the main protagonists, and the co-owner of the Whistle Stop Cafe – were both revered and respected within their community.  I loved how headstrong she in particular was.

It looks rather a chunky book – indeed, the Vintage edition which I read runs to just over five hundred pages – but it is a surprisingly quick read.   Flagg’s style is very easy to get into, and the novel itself is sweet and rather heartwarming.  I would certainly recommend it to fans of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, the novel which I was reminded of throughout.

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The Big Sleep
by Raymond Chandler ***
I decided to read this hardboiled crime novel purely because it is one of Mark Hoppus of Blink 182’s favourites.  I can tell why he likes it, as throughout it felt like an incredibly masculine book.  The novel, first published in 1939, tells of a detective who often seems rather detached from the cases in which he dabbles.  Oddly, I found it devoid of emotion at times, and the behaviour which the characters demonstrated sometimes felt bizarre and inconsistent.  The protagonist, Philip Marlowe, reminded me somewhat of Dexter from Jeff Lindsay’s novels.  The most interesting aspect of The Big Sleep for me was its storyline.  It is quite unlike much of the crime literature which I have been reading of late, so in that respect I am glad that I can add  a Chandler novel to my read list.  The prose was so sparse throughout, however, that I do not think I will rush to read more of  Chandler’s work, but I would like to view the film of the same name to see how it compares.

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One of Gwen Raverat’s illustrations from ‘Period Piece’

Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood by Gwen Raverat ***
Cambridge is my local city, and it is one which I absolutely adore.  I will happily read anything which is set within it.  This was recommended to me by Lucy (thank you, Lucy!), who told me that it was an absolutely lovely book, and one which was well worth a read.

Gwen Raverat is the granddaughter of Charles Darwin, so along with the setting, the anthropological aspect interested me too.  The places which she describes throughout are familiar to me, and I loved being able to picture the scenes exactly as they are and, in most cases, how they have remained for centuries.  Throughout, lovely illustrations can be found, all of them by Raverat herself.

On reflection, Period Piece was not as I had expected before I began it.  I thought that it would be quaint and would focus more upon growing up in Cambridge than upon Raverat’s multitudinous collection of relatives, some of whom were wonderfully eccentric, but others whom were rather dull.  It was rather more of a familial than a geographical memoir, I suppose.  The book is certainly interesting with regard to the scenes which it paints, but I cannot help but feel a little disappointed by it, feeling as it did a tiny bit lacklustre at times.  Its charm was not quite consistent enough to make this a stand-out memoir.  Period Piece is certainly of worth to the modern reader in the sense that one can see how social attitudes have altered, but not as much more in the case of this reviewer.  Still, I certainly did not dislike it, so it receives a wholesome three stars.

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Book Haul

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Top to bottom:- Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg
Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Sula by Toni Morrison
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
Elegy for Eddie by Jacqueline Winspear
Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey
The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark
The Lost Estate by Alain-Fournier
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
A Midsummer Tights Dream by Louise Rennison

I spent a day shopping in Cambridge last week, and came back with a lovely haul of books to celebrate the fact that I’m no longer on a book buying ban.  Have you read any of these books?  What did you think of them?

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Flash Reviews (8th August 2013)

Henry VIII by William Shakespeare
This year, I have been reading my way through The Collected Works of William Shakespeare. My second scheduled play for July was Henry VIII. I was rather skeptical about beginning it, as I had to read Richard III for my studies at school and very much disliked the experience. However, I was pleasantly surprised here. Whilst it isn’t my favourite Shakespearean work by any means, Henry VIII is very well written, as Shakespeare’s plays invariably are. I must admit that I was expecting more to happen, but it was entertaining enough to fill a couple of hours.

The Return of The Soldier by Rebecca West
I very much enjoyed The Fountain Overflows when I read it last year, and couldn’t wait to read more of West’s fiction. I loved the way in which The Return of The Soldier launched straight into the story, and the fact that questions were raised in my mind from the very first page. I adore West’s descriptions, particularly those of her surroundings. She really does use colour and light magnificently. The sense of place and time has been captured wonderfully, as has the passing of years for the characters. She portrays the horrors of war with such startling starkness, and these passages act as a wonderful if horrid contrast to her descriptions. Shell shock and memory loss were captured sensitively, and with such care. Jenny’s narrative voice in this lovely novella was wonderful, and it matched the unfolding story so well. The relationships between characters, and the way in which they shift and adapt with time, have been deftly and believably portrayed. A beautiful novella, and one of the loveliest I’ve ever read.

Peacock Pie: A Book of Rhymes by Walter de la Mare
April’s love for de la Mare’s poetry has made me consider him amongst my favourite poets, a high accolade indeed. Peacock Pie is an adorable collection, and I wish I had known about it when I was younger, as I imagine that it would have been a firm favourite of mine. De la Mare writes beautifully, and it is clear that he had such admiration for and love of the English language. I love his plays on words and rhyme schemes.

Beatrix Potter: A Holiday Diary, edited by Judy Taylor
My boyfriend and I visited a marvellous bookshop in Cambridge for the first time last Monday. We have been coveting a visit to it for ages, but each time we’ve woven down the little side alley to go there, it has been closed. Imagine my delight last week when we found that not only was it open, and crammed from floor to ceiling with all wonders of new, secondhand and antiquarian books, but that it had an entire shelf of beautiful books by and about Beatrix Potter. This was one of the Potterish purchases I made, the other being a gorgeous hardback of her collected letters. I could happily have bought them all, but I doubt I would have been able to carry them out of the shop, let alone to Jamie Oliver’s restaurant where we had lunch, and then back to the car after more shops had been visited. This volume is slight but extremely sweet, and I love the many pictures throughout. It is a real shame that nobody had thought to edit out the spelling mistakes though – Norman Warne’s name was, in one instance, ‘Normal’, for example. Regardless, I would certainly buy more books published by the Beatrix Potter Society. Even their lovely pastel colours just ooze charm.