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Five Disappointing Books

Every so often, I pick up a book which I have been so excited about, and find it doesn’t appeal to me as much as I expected. It’s always a disappointment when this happens, and a lot of the time, I will read the first fifty pages, and if it isn’t for me, I just move on to the next tome on my enormous to-read list. However, occasionally I pick up something by an author I have previously enjoyed a great deal, and read it through to the end, despite not enjoying it. This is a habit which I’m struggling to break, sadly.

I thought I would gather together five such disappointing books by authors whose other novels I have loved. These were not quite my style for various reasons, but on the whole, I found myself getting bored rather early on. I should have put them down far earlier, but I will hopefully live and learn for the future.

1 and 2. The Good Listener and A Bonfire by Pamela Hansford Johnson

I adored Pamela Hansford Johnson’s An Impossible Marriage, and also really enjoyed The Holiday Friend, novels which I read very close to one another. I thought I’d found an author whose thrillers I would love going forward, but these two proved real gems compared to the two duds which I followed them with.

The Good Listener, published in 1975, focuses on Toby Roberts. As he is about to leave Cambridge University, he forms a relationship with a girl named Maisie. She adores him; he appears largely indifferent to her. As time goes on, he runs away from her, and perpetuates cruelties with everyone he meets. He is horrid. I know that a lot of readers do not feel as though it’s pivotal to like a character, but Toby was something else. I could not bear to read about him, but I dutifully finished the novel, thinking it might get better. It did not.

Similarly, A Bonfire came nowhere close to meeting my expectations. It was Hansford Johnson’s final novel, published in 1981, the year of her death. The fact that this was a coming-of-age novel really appealed to me, but I was never pulled into the story. I did not find that the writing had the insight of An Impossible Marriage and The Holiday Friend, and for me, it also lacked much of the intrigue which I had come to expect from Hansford Johnson’s books. I remember very little about the plot or characters, I must admit, as this one just did not stick in my head at all.

3. Still Life by Sarah Winman

I was so impressed with each of Sarah Winman’s first three novels. When God Was a Rabbit, her 2011 debut, is a coming-of-age story set amongst a very interesting and flawed family. A Year of Marvellous Ways, published in 2015, is set in Cornwall, and focuses upon a wonderful elderly character named Marvellous Ways. 2017’s Tin Man is a beautiful meditation upon love and friendship, with two young boys at its centre.

I was, understandably, looking forward to reading her newest effort, Still Life, and was so excited when I received a galley of it. That it was set toward the end of the Second World War only piqued my interest further. However, as I started to read, I began to feel very disappointed. The writing felt rather lacklustre to me, and I did not feel as though I got to know any of the characters properly. To me, they felt rather like caricatures. I just could not engage my attention fully with Still Life; something was holding me back. I will pick up Winman’s books in future, and will hope that this is just a blip in an otherwise wonderful array of novels.

4. The Wild Air by Rebecca Mascull

I liked Rebeca Mascull’s The Visitors when I read it quite a few years ago, but hadn’t picked up any of her other books. I received a galley of The Wild Air, and eventually picked it up months after its actual publication date – oops… Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres, and I was excited to read something a little different – about a female Edwardian pilot in the United States.

Sadly, The Wild Air was a disappointment. It sounded promising, but from the beginning, I did not find it engagging. The story was incredibly slow-going, and did not pick up. I must admit that I didn’t see this one through to the end, as it felt a bit like wading through treacle. Regardless, what could have been an exciting story completely failed to pull me in, and its heroine – supposed to be plucky and daring – I found dull.

5. The Feast by Margaret Kennedy

I have read a few of Kennedy’s books to date, and have reviewed rather a lot of those on the blog, if you care to search for them. I have struggled somewhat with the fact that everyone else seems to love them, but I don’t. I was still, however, really excited to pick up The Feast, which I reviewed in full in July, as it seems to be her most loved book. I thought, that of all of Kennedy’s work, I really might love this one.

The story appealed to me greatly. The novel opens with the collapse of a cliffside hotel in Cornwall, before moving backwards in time to the week before, and allowing us insights into all of the characters. I generally really enjoy novels like this, which hold a tragedy which we know about, but link a lot of mysteries in too. However, something about The Feast did not quite come together for me, and the ending felt rushed.

Have you read any of these books, and did you like them more than I did? Which has been the most disappointing book which you have picked up of late?

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‘The Feast’ by Margaret Kennedy ***

I have been meaning to read a lot more of Margaret Kennedy’s work for quite some years now, ever since the lovely Jane launched her Margaret Kennedy Day, to celebrate the author’s work. I only managed to participate a couple of times, but thoroughly enjoyed the experience of tracking down a couple of out-of-print tomes, one of which I had to stumble through online.

The Feast has always been on my radar, particularly as I know the novel is so well-loved by Kennedy’s fans. Thankfully, it has been recently republished by Faber, and I was able to pick up a copy far more easily on this occasion. The novel, which has been described as ‘magic’ by The Guardian, and as having ‘the miniature charm of a baby Austen’ by the Observer, was first published in 1950. The Faber edition also contains a new introduction written by Cathy Rentzenbrink.

The Feast is set in Cornwall during the summer of 1947. Pendizack Manor, which overlooked the coast, has just been buried after a cliff collapse, and we are made aware from the outset that seven of the guests ‘have perished, but what brought this strange assembly together for a moonlit feast before this act of God – or Man?’ This is what we, dear reader, learn as the narrative shifts back to one week before the collapse. Over the course of this week, which has been split into separate days, we learn about each character.

Those staying in Pendizack Manor are certainly rather eclectic: ‘the hotel guests in all their eccentric glory: the selfish aristocrat; slothful hotelier; snooping housekeeper; bereaved couple; bohemian authoress; and poverty-stricken children.’ They form friendships and even romances with one another over the course of this week, but Kennedy is also clear about revealing their many sins, and those things which they would surely prefer to keep hidden.

Each character has a personal tragedy of some sort. Mr and Mrs Paley have lost their daughter. Lady Eirene Gifford can only eat a very specific diet, her doctor tells her, filled with such things as ‘Poultry, game… fresh vegetables, green salads, fresh eggs, milk, butter’, but ‘Nothing out of a tin i.e. no powdered eggs, dried milk, etc., and no corned beef.’ In a time of shortages due to postwar rationing, this proves rather difficult to provide. The three impoverished Cove children make friends with the well-to-do Gifford offspring, and are soon initiated into their ‘secret society’, named the Noble Covenant of Spartans.

Kennedy is quick to expose the rifts between characters, and what can be hidden within the family unit. Whilst in church, for instance, Sir Henry Gifford reflects of his children: ‘They meant very little to him. They were Eirene’s affair. Only one of them was his, and she was the least attractive.’ A young woman named Evangeline, as another example, dreams of killing her difficult father by putting ground up glass in his food.

The novel is loosely based upon the seven deadly sins – pride, gluttony, covetousness, lechery, wrath, envy, and sloth – and there are characters which correspond to each of these. It opens with the Reverend Bott – in his ‘late fifties, Anglo-Catholic, celibate, and disconcertingly sincere’ – in September 1947. Bott has been tasked with looking back at the disaster, in order to write the funeral sermon. In quite a vivid scene, he goes to visit the site with his friend, Reverend Seddon: ‘There was a choking pall of dust which met them as they came down the hill to the cliffs, and they could see little. The hotel drive plunged downwards in steep zigzags, through trees and shrubs beside a little ravine. The silence below had already begun to chill his heart before he turned the second bend… A hill rose in front of him. There was no road down any more.’

We learn not only about the guests, and all of their many foibles, but also about those who work at the hotel. The discerning Dorothy Ellis is one such character. A week before the disaster, she writes to a friend: ‘Well, this is not a hotel at all, only a boarding-house – all falling down and the roof leaking, you can see there has been nothing spent on it for years… They have lost all their money, so she [the proprietor, Mrs Siddal] got the bright idea to turn this into a boarding house because of course her darling boys have got to go to posh schools, just the same…’. Mrs Siddal is firmly in charge, and her husband is forced to ‘live on his wife’s labour – accept bread at her hands. He has no position here. He receives no respect.’

Rentzenbrink writes that Kennedy is ‘clever to name the victim and let us know there are lots more, but also survivors with stories to tell’ at the outset. She goes on to say that The Feast is set up as something rather akin to a crime novel; we wonder who has survived, and who has not lived to tell their tale. She also mentions the many devices which Kennedy uses to explore her characters, from letters and diaries, to monologues delivered to other characters, which results, for her, in a novel with ‘such immediacy and texture’. I was interested in what Rentzenbrink had to say, but I must admit that I found her introduction rather too brief.

The Feast is described both as ‘a glorious portrait of a seaside holiday in post-war Britain and a wise, witty fable.’ There is comedy here, but I was struck that it was so well-balanced with the more serious aspects of the plot. The structure which Kennedy has chosen to use, with its use of more personal artifacts such as diary entries, proves to be highly revealing of her characters from the outset. I liked the way in which I knew what was going to happen, but not whom it would affect the most.

The omniscient narrative which occurs in every other chapter is another device which works well here, particularly alongside the other narrative techniques which Kennedy explores. Despite the many characters who are introduced in quick succession, the narrative is well controlled, and the story never feels overwhelming. The more serious elements of the story are peppered with amusing details, as well as a valuable commentary on postwar politics, and what it is like to live in a world which is trying to get back to what it was before.

Whilst I liked The Feast well enough, and was drawn to Kennedy’s writing, I did not find the novel’s ending particularly satisfactory. There was a lot of interest here to me as a reader, but I must say that I felt a little underwhelmed when I closed the final page. I expected that I would enjoy The Feast more than I did, and I have had this feeling with Kennedy’s other books in the past, too. Many readers seem to adore her stories, but there is just something about them that does not quite come together for me. The Feast certainly has an intelligent idea at its heart, but I do not feel as though it quite sustained my interest.

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Margaret Kennedy Day: ‘Lucy Carmichael’ ***

The wonderful Jane at Beyond Eden Rock has decided to host another Margaret Kennedy Day, and I jumped at the chance to take part.  I was initially unsure as to which Sharp book I would try, as my county library system only stocks paperbacks of hers which I have already read.  Thankfully, Jane took the time to type out all of Kennedy’s publications, so I had a wonderful list to work from.  The first title which caught my interest was Lucy Carmichael, Kennedy’s tenth novel, which was first published in 1951.  As soon as I started to read the blurb, I knew that Lucy Carmichael was the one for me.  I was surprised to find a hardback first edition on AbeBooks for less than £3, and three days later, it was added to my collection.

To date, I have enjoyed Kennedy’s writing, but have found that a couple of the plots which I have encountered did not quite suit my reading interests, despite appealing to me on the face of it.  From the very beginning, though, Lucy Carmichael felt different.  Kennedy’s wit and dry humour appealed to me, and I found myself very much invested within Lucy’s story.Lucy-Carmichael1

The novel is split into seven distinct parts, and opens with a quote from Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles.  The first chapter proper deals with a couple, John and Melissa, who have just become engaged.  Whilst sitting in Kensington Gardens, Kennedy writes of them: ‘John Beauclere had only just learnt that he was to have a father-in-law.  He had always supposed that Mr. Hallam, whose name was never mentioned, must be dead.  But it appeared that he had merely left his family, and was living by himself in a hotel at Budleigh Salterton’.  Melissa’s mother, too, is drawn in rather an interesting manner when the couple first speak of her, and it is made clear that there will be no objections to her choice of husband: ‘My mother believes that life ought to be tense and dramatic.  She would prefer one’s choice to be disastrous.  If you had been born in the gutter, or were tubercular and couldn’t support one, she would be most sympathetic’.  Of her relationship with he parents, Melissa goes on to disclose that, ‘For years I’ve been so perfectly exasperated with both of them that I might say I’m usually fondest of the one I’m not with’.

Lucy Carmichael is Melissa’s friend, and the initial description of her which Kennedy gives is marvellously exuberant: ‘I wouldn’t call her pretty.  When she is well and happy she is extremely beautiful.  When she is out of sorts or depressed she is all nose, and flashes about like an intelligent greyhound after an electric hare’.  The pair met at Oxford, and of this, Melissa says, ‘I thought she was the only female in sight who didn’t remind me of an earwig.  She thought the same of me’.  Lucy herself springs into the tale a day before her wedding, to explorer Patrick Reilly, is due to take place.  Opinions about her impending marriage come from all sides; Lucy’s mother, for instance, states that, ‘she may be sorry she married him, but she will never be sorry that she loved’.

Margaret_Moore_Kennedy_(1896-1967)

Margaret Kennedy

When she is jilted at the altar – a perhaps inevitable plot device in a mid-twentieth century story about a woman who is determined to remain independent in a male-dominated world? – Lucy faces the situation with courage and determination.  She tells her mother: ‘I shall be all right…  I shall get over it.  People seem to get over things, don’t they?  I don’t know how, but they do – ordinary people…  I’m very ordinary, so I expect I shall do what they do’.

Along with our protagonist and her friends, Lucy’s teenage brother, Stephen, is rather an endearing character – perhaps the most so in the novel.  When asked to open a bottle of champagne which had been reserved for the wedding party, the following occurs: ‘A little champagne had lodged upon the ceiling but on the whole he had acquitted himself very manfully’.

Almost, perhaps, another inevitability, Lucy decides to give up her life with her family, and moves to the countryside for a job at a mysterious drama school, the Ravonsbridge Institute.  The man who recommends her as a suitable candidate for the job tells her, in his customary slightly-camp manner, ‘My dear, it’s no use asking [what they do there], for I don’t know…’.  The second part of the novel is consequently comprised of letters written by Lucy to those at home.  This simple technique effectively builds a marvellously three-dimensional picture of our protagonist.

Whilst I very much enjoyed the first two segments of Lucy Carmichael, I found that Lucy became far less compelling as a character as soon as she got into the swing of her job.  She seemed to lose her individuality, and the plot soon became saturated with repetitive details, which I felt rather let the whole down.  The second half of the novel was sadly rather underwhelming – indeed, it felt as though two entirely different books had been sandwiched together at times – and I came away from my read feeling a little disappointed.  The plot never regained my full interest, which was a real shame, as I was very much expecting to give it a four – or perhaps even a five – star review, and then to recommend it to every reader I know.  Whilst there is a lot to like in Lucy Carmichael, it perhaps was not as well plotted or constructed as it could have been, and for a tenth novel by such a formidable author, this surprises me somewhat.

My reviews of other Kennedy books can be found here: The Constant Nymph, The Ladies of Lyndon, The Forgotten Smile, and Together and Apart.

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‘The Ladies of Lyndon’ by Margaret Kennedy **

Read as part of Fleur Fisher’s Margaret Kennedy Reading Week.

The Ladies of Lyndon, first published in 1923, was Margaret Kennedy’s first novel.  The protagonist of the piece is Agatha Cocks, who, despite her impending marriage, can think of nothing but her brief love affair with her cousin Gerald.  The novel begins as follows: ‘In the first decades of the twentieth centry, London contained quite a number of distinguished grey-hheaded bachelors who owed their celibacy to Mrs Varden Cocks’, Agatha’s mother.

The Ladies of Lyndon is highly involved with the family dynamic, and thus we find that many characters are introduced in just a few pages.  It can consequently be a little difficult to keep up with the relationships forged between everyone.  We encounter the Cocks both as individuals and a familial unit, which is an interesting technique.  Despite this, they float around; they are largely self-obsessed and do not seem to be tethered to reality.  This does render them less realistic as beings, too.  The third person narrative perspective which Kennedy has used does mean that whilst due attention has been paid to the novel in terms of its plot and characters, it does have the effect of creating distance between the reader and everything which goes on.

As one might expect, The Ladies of Lyndon is very of its time, and old-fashioned turns of phrase and vocabulary abound throughout.  This can cause some of the sentences to feel a little dense when viewed as a whole – ‘the fatigued erudition of her husband set off her animation with an especial piquancy’, for example.  The people whom Agatha meets and converses with are generally ‘tolerably well off’, and a young girl’s wardrobe is ‘a perpetual testimony to a mother’s taste’.   As in Kennedy’s most famous novel, The Constant Nymph, the themes of incest and forbidden love are prevalent throughout.

Whilst The Ladies of Lyndon is nicely written on the whole, it does feel rather dated, and it does not seem to have translated to the modern world as well as the work of some of Kennedy’s contemporaries – Katherine Mansfield’s, for example, or Virginia Woolf’s.  Whilst the novel is well crafted, of the stories from the 1920s which are currently being reprinted by major publishing house, The Ladies of Lyndon is certainly not amongst the strongest.

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‘Together and Apart’ by Margaret Kennedy ***

Read as part of Fleur Fisher’s Margaret Kennedy Reading Week.

Together and Apart, which has just been reissued by Vintage Books, was first published in 1936.  Margaret Kennedy dedicated this, her seventh novel, to fellow author Rose Macaulay.

Together and Apart begins with a letter, written from protagonist Betsy Cannon, residing in Pandy Madoc in Wales, to her mother.  This technique ensures that we learn about our protagonist from the very beginning of the story, and serves to immediately announce the main thread of plot.  It also wonderfully sets the scene and tone for the rest of the novel.

In the letter, Betsy informs her mother that she and her husband Alec are ‘parting company’ and seeking a divorce: ‘… we have been quite miserable, both of us.  We simply are unsuited to one another and unable to get on.’  She tells of the way in which she finds her husband’s writing of operettas ‘vulgar’, and does not feel that doing so is a ‘worthwhile profession for an educated man like Alec’.  The pair have decided to separate for the sake of their children: ‘I now think that they would be happier if Alec and I gave up this miserable attempt…  I don’t want the children to grow up with a distorted idea of marriage, got from the spectacle of parents who can’t get on’.

Divorcing during the 1920s was, of course, a scandal, and Kennedy addresses this fact well in the third person narrative perspective, which she utilises for much of the book.  She demonstrates the way in which the divorce affects all of those around Betsy and Alec, from their children to their outraged parents.  Despite this, Betsy remains hopeful about her own future: ‘Very much happier was how she had imagined it…  Of course she would marry again some time.  And the other man, whoever he was, would love her better than Alec ever had, would worship and cherish her’.

Kennedy discusses familial relationships and their breakdown throughout the novel, and everything which she touches upon is shown in mind of the impending divorce.  Together and Apart, even all these years later, is still an important novel, just as relevant to our society today as it was upon its publication.

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‘The Forgotten Smile’ by Margaret Kennedy **

The Forgotten Smile, Margaret Kennedy’s final novel, was published in 1961.  As many of her stories tend to, The Forgotten Smile deals with separation.  The protagonist of the piece, Kate, is ‘bored with being overlooked by her grown-up children’, and decides to go on an Aegean cruise. Kate subsequently finds herself on a secluded Greek island named Keritha, which seems to have been ‘all but forgotten’ by the rest of the world. One gets an idea as to what Keritha is like before the protagonists have even stepped foot upon the island: on the boat going over, for example, ‘the cargo included several crates of Coca-Cola and a tempestuous billy goat’.

On Keritha, she encounters both old friends and strangers. Selwyn Potter, already known to Kate’s childhood friends – who call Keritha their homeland – has the biggest effect upon her life.  Selwyn is intelligent with regard to languages and history, and we learn about his character immediately: ‘He had but a hazy notion of his own effect upon others.  That his waistline was abnormal he knew because he found it difficult, in England, to buy trousers off the peg.  He also knew that his hair was stiff and curly since hats had a way of balancing off it as though recoiling from a nest of springs’.  Selwyn is the most vivid character in the book, and it does feel as though Kate pales in comparison with him at times.  Partially, her character may have been hindered with regard to her entrance into the novel; whilst she is, in effect, the book’s central protagonist, we meet other characters first, and see her only in relation to them.

The real strength in the book lies in Kennedy’s descriptions, particularly those which relate to the natural world.  She sets the scene marvellously throughout by weaving together sentences such as this: ‘The sky was dazzling and the sea was a very dark blue shot through with streaks of green and bronze like a peacock’s tail.  The distant islands, scattered about the horizon, were pale lilac and pink in the triumphant light’.

Whilst the story in The Forgotten Smile is interesting, there is nothing about it which causes it to be an overly memorable novel.  There is a definite sense of detachment created between reader and characters, and whilst the writing style is nice on the whole, it does not work well enough to pull the book to a higher, less predictable level.

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‘The Constant Nymph’ by Margaret Kennedy **

Upon its publication in 1924, Margaret Kennedy’s second novel, The Constant Nymph, leapt straight to the top of the bestseller list.  Despite its subsequent fall from popularity, it has been made into three films and a play, and consequently took its place upon the Virago Modern Classics list.  The novel has recently been reissued by Vintage Books, along with several of Kennedy’s other novels.

In this, its newest volume, The Constant Nymph has been introduced by Joanna Briscoe.  She believes that whilst the novel has ‘aged notably well’, it has certainly ‘suffered from neglect’ since its publication, ‘as its author has fallen perilously out of fashion’.  She goes on to say that the novel is ‘startlingly modern in its outlook’.  Whilst Briscoe’s introduction is interesting, it does give rather a lot of the plot away, which is a real shame.  One cannot help but think that an afterword would have been more fitting in this case.

The premise of the novel is intriguing: ‘Avant-garde composer Albert Sanger lives in a ramshackle chalet in the Swiss Alps, surrounded by his “circus” of assorted children, admirers and slatternly mistress… When Sanger dies, his circus must break up and each find a more conventional way of life.  But fourteen-year-old Teresa is already deeply in love: for her, the outside world holds nothing but tragedy.’  The object of Teresa’s love is a man twice her age, a friend of her father’s whom she has known since her early childhood, and whom she decides to elope with.  This earns inevitable comparisons to Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial Lolita.  Whilst The Constant Nymph is not as startling as the aforementioned for the mostpart, some sections of the story do prove rather unsettling.

In terms of Kennedy’s writing, whilst her descriptions are nice, the majority of her writing feels quite flat.  The third person perspective which is used throughout creates a curious detachment from both characters and plot. Before I began the novel, I believed that Kennedy’s prose would be perfectly sculpted, but in reality, it felt rather disappointing.  The whole of the novel is rendered two-dimensional in consequence, and it does not serve to grab the reader as it really should.

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