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Three Spotlight Books: ‘Cora Vincent’, ‘Crumbs’, and ‘The Haunting of Strawberry Water’

Spotlight Books have recently published a series of six attractive short volumes, three of them poetry collections, and three of which consist of a single story.  It is the latter – Cora Vincent by Georgina Aboud, Crumbs by Ana Tewson-Božić, and The Haunting of Strawberry Water by Tara Gould – which I am reviewing.  I have chosen to collect my thoughts on these stories together in one review, as I imagine that readers interested in one will want to collect them all.  In these volumes, Spotlight, which is a collaboration between Creative Future, Myriad Editions, and New Writing South, has essentially brought six different underrepresented voices to the fore.

 

Cora Vincent by Georgina Aboud **** 9781912408443

Cora Vincent is essentially a character study, in which a ‘derailed actress’ living in Hove is offered a break, quite by chance, with a role in a West End theatre.  This offers her the opportunity to leave her past behind. The story is, says its blurb, ‘set in a country split by politics and disjointed through lives that are increasingly isolated and lonely’.  Indeed, the tale is set amongst the turmoil of Brexit, and examines – although not always in the greatest of detail, given the story’s length – the things which divide us.

Aboud is an award-winning short story writer, whose work, whilst underrepresented, garners a lot of praise.  Cathy Galvin calls Cora Vincent ‘startling and considered’, and notes Aboud as an ‘important new voice’ in literature.  Other reviewers of the story concur.  Susannah Waters writes that ‘very few people put words together on the page as beautifully as this’, and Tom Lee that ‘Georgina Aboud has a voice and vision all her own’.

Cora Vincent opens vividly, on the advent of a new year: ‘Ten.  Nine.  Eight.  The old pier stands undressed, but defiant still, and there’s a boy in fingerless gloves who does a cartwheel, and a girl with a face punctured by piercings and a glittering in her eyes…  And the dog wears one of those jackets that I hope stops her being scared, and I have a whisky tang on my tongue and a brine wash through my hair…’.

We are catapulted into Cora’s narrative, and soon understand quite how aware she is of her own physicality, and the space which she takes up in the world.  She goes on to say: ‘Peel back my skin though, and the truth idles everywhere: in glistening leg muscles and shoulder blades that could, if I say so myself, belong in an anatomy textbook.  There’s a truth in my never-inhabited uterus.  In my fists.  In a jagged crack that runs across my forearm, in a missing tooth lost at a disco, and a lost appendix, dug out from the abyss.’

We move back and forth from 2019 to pivotal moments in Cora’s life.  In her present day, she is taking up the first theatre role which she has been given in years; she says that she owes her newfound job to her ‘totally fudged’ CV.  When she receives the phonecall to say that another actor has broken her arm, and could she stand in, Cora feels ‘a prickle of something, maybe hope, growing inside me.’

Aboud’s prose is both richly layered and easy to read.  Her descriptions feel original; on Cora’s first day of rehearsal, for instance, Aboud writes: ‘And we stand in this thin-skinned room, with tooth-coloured walls, making childlike sounds, and the strip lighting buzzes with homecoming.’  I found parts of Aboud’s writing startling: ‘Fancying someone feels like ulcers, of being trapped in a falling lift.  It’s an acceleration where nerves eat each other and hearts are held in teeth.’

Cora Vincent feels very thoroughly done, and encompasses what feels like a highly realistic protagonist.  There is a lot of consideration which has been given to both plot and protagonist, and Aboud writes believably of how and why Cora has turned out the way she is.  There are thoughtful passages, and a lot of focus upon a past relationship which Cora had with a man named Kit: ‘We are tethered to each other by weighted strings that are snipped and hastily re-tied back together and snipped again, by one or both of us’.  The non-chronological structure, and the way in which Aboud flits back and forth in time, worked really well here.  Cora Vincent is a really satisfying story, and I very much look forward to reading more of Aboud’s work in future.

 

9781912408405Crumbs by Ana Tewson-Božić **

I must admit that Ana Tewson-Božić’s Crumbs did not sound appealing to me as a reader, as I tend to avoid everything science-fiction.  However, I was keen to read all of the Spotlight stories, in part to see how they differ.  The protagonist of this short story is a teenage girl named Julja, whose ‘games take a serious turn as she becomes inducted into a computer cult.  The surge of dopamine in her brain connects her with psychic aliens and chemical conspiracies, sordid and secret.’

On the whole, the plot sounded strange to me, but I did admire the way in which the author uses it as a frame to explore psychosis. Tewson-Božić herself has spent ‘significant time in mental institutions’, and has been diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder.  She explores the darker side of mental health, says reviewer John O’Donoghue, ‘in a kind of distressed, demented prose which from time to time lets in shafts of reality…’.

Tewson-Božić’s writing, indeed, is strange, and quite beguiling.  At the outset of the story, she writes: ‘In this place, I see heaven.  I am buoyed by the souls of the relatives in their homes around me, buoyed by the fact that they’d known and liked me.  With these powers, I see fragile bodies rise through a church steeple and crumble into ash against the ceiling.  I see great alien eyes and tongues of steely poison poised to greet us at our deaths.  They see me back and I never felt so much terror.’

Throughout Crumbs, the prose follows a similar structure, and I found that a lot of elements of the story – as well as the plot as a whole – made little sense.  There is barely any cohesion within it, and at points I had no idea what was happening.  This may be a good representation of what one feels when suffering with psychosis, but it alienated me as a reader.

Crumbs has been split into very short sections.  As I have mentioned above, these are rather abstract.  Tewson-Božić certainly plays on different literary forms throughout her story, but these are not tied together at all.  Part of the story is narrated from a bed on a psychiatric ward; other sections seem to deal with Julja’s absorption into the cult: ‘At some point the sleep deprivation and the journey into a world beyond my means, blew out my brains and I was taken.’

I am sure that Crumbs will find its audience, but for me the story felt a little too fragmented to make any sense.  When the story moves from Earth into space, I was lost completely.  At no point did I feel connected to the story, or to its protagonist.  Whilst some of the prose did intrigue me – for instance, ‘I woke up standing in the middle of the park clutching a Jack of Hearts with an eye scrawled on it in marker.  I was looking at the stars and spinning.’ – these sections ended abruptly, were not elaborated upon, and I was still left none the wiser.  Crumbs is well written, but the plot felt chaotic at times.  I suppose that Tewson-Božić’s story could be seen as illuminating in its way, providing a window into mental illness, but I would have preferred something a little more cohesive and connected.

 

The Haunting of Strawberry Water by Tara Gould **** 9781912408504

In The Haunting of Strawberry Water, short story writer and playwright Tara Gould focuses upon a new mother ‘in the throes of post-natal depression’.  The protagonist’s pregnancy has thrown up past turmoil, in which she is trying to understand why she herself was abandoned as a baby ‘by the mother she never knew’.  Gould’s story sounded wonderfully mysterious; it is set in a 1920s bungalow in the countryside, in which ‘supernatural forces begin to take hold in this gripping and heartrending tale of the uncanny.’

The Haunting of Strawberry Water has been well reviewed, and the following comments made the story appeal to me even more.  Jeff Noon believes that ‘Tara Gould knows an essential truth, that ghosts exist in the darkness of the mind.  And that sometimes those ghosts can exit the mind and take up residence in the world…’.  Hannah Vincent notes Gould’s ‘elegant and profound’ story, which she sees as much of a piece of nature writing as ‘a compelling ghost story, and an expertly handled meditation on the prickly nature of intimate relationships.’

The unnamed narrator’s childhood bungalow home is named Strawberry Water, after a phenomenon which occurs in certain weathers ‘in late spring and summer’ to the river which runs along the bottom of the garden.  In an odd twist of fate, the house comes up for sale, and she and her husband decide to move there from their cramped city apartment with their baby daughter, Freya.  This throws up a lot of memories for the narrator.  When they first move there, she relates the following: ‘In the woods on the other side of the river, I looked at the grey collection of shapes between the black silhouettes of the trees and I thought I saw a dark form flitting chaotically between them.  No doubt a fox or a deer, but it sent an unpleasant shiver through me.’

The story opens with the single Polaroid picture which the narrator has of her mother: ‘All that’s visible is a section of leg where the knee pushes forward, the point of a black, shiny shoe protruding at the base of the wooden door, and three slim fingers clutching the door half way up.  The rest is simply the vague impression of the form and presence of a person.’  She has never seen her mother’s face, even in a photograph.  As a child, she touchingly collects pebbles from the river, which ‘represented a piece of information about my mother that I’d gleaned over the years.’  She goes on to say: ‘I needed desperately to believe that she was decent.  She had left her husband and her baby daughter, but perhaps she had secret reasons.’

We are led from the narrator’s motherless childhood into the more stable period of her twenties, in which she married and fell pregnant: ‘During the whole of my pregnancy,’ she tells us, ‘I was unquestioningly happy – a deep contentment I had never before experienced…  I felt connected.  I felt… never alone.’  After a difficult birth, in which she states ‘nature revealed her true unmodified self to me’, she visualises herself as follows: ‘… I saw myself putting on a bathrobe and slippers and escaping out of that window, and down the fire escape and away from my baby and the impossible job of being a perfect mother.’

Gould successfully uses a series of short vignettes to weave the story together.  The narrative is interconnected, as one vignette leads into the next.  Gould’s prose is beautiful, and her story feels like such an honest one, as she relates the everyday struggles of motherhood.  Once the more sinister elements start to creep into the narrative – strange noises heard around the house, the baby being unable to settle – I was absolutely invested in the story.  By this point, I felt as though I really knew what moved and motivated the bewildered protagonist, and the fear she had surrounding her baby.  The inclusion of herself being motherless added an interesting element to the story, and I felt as though it was well explored by Gould.

The Haunting of Strawberry Water is a highly successful short story, which does and says a lot.  It is an enjoyable piece of prose, which is beguiling from start to finish; I only wish it had been longer.

 

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The Book Trail: From Tangerines to Sugar

This edition of the Book Trail takes us from a thriller set in Tangier, to a ghost story which takes place on the English and Welsh border.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads to generate this list.

 

1. Tangerine by Christine Mangan 35255712
‘The last person Alice Shipley expected to see since arriving in Tangier with her new husband was Lucy Mason. After the accident at Bennington, the two friends—once inseparable roommates—haven’t spoken in over a year. But there Lucy was, trying to make things right and return to their old rhythms. Perhaps Alice should be happy. She has not adjusted to life in Morocco, too afraid to venture out into the bustling medinas and oppressive heat. Lucy—always fearless and independent—helps Alice emerge from her flat and explore the country. But soon a familiar feeling starts to overtake Alice—she feels controlled and stifled by Lucy at every turn. Then Alice’s husband, John, goes missing, and Alice starts to question everything around her: her relationship with her enigmatic friend, her decision to ever come to Tangier, and her very own state of mind.  Tangerine is a sharp dagger of a book—a debut so tightly wound, so replete with exotic imagery and charm, so full of precise details and extraordinary craftsmanship, it will leave you absolutely breathless.’

 

2. The Night Visitor by Lucy Atkins
‘Professor Olivia Sweetman has worked hard to achieve the life she loves, with a high-flying career as a TV presenter and historian, three children and a talented husband. But as she stands before a crowd at the launch of her new bestseller she can barely pretend to smile. Her life has spiralled into deceit and if the truth comes out, she will lose everything.  Only one person knows what Olivia has done. Vivian Tester is the socially awkward sixty-year-old housekeeper of a Sussex manor who found the Victorian diary on which Olivia’s book is based. She has now become Olivia’s unofficial research assistant. And Vivian has secrets of her own.  As events move between London, Sussex and the idyllic South of France, the relationship between these two women grows more entangled and complex. Then a bizarre act of violence changes everything.’

 

187618763. Touched by Joanna Briscoe
‘Rowena Crale and her family have moved from London.  They now live in a small English village in a cottage which seems to be resisting all attempts at renovation.  Walls ooze damp, stains come through layers of wallpaper, celings sag.  And strange noises – voices – emanate from empty rooms.  As Rowena struggles with the upheaval of builders while trying to be a dutiful wife and a good mother to her young children, her life starts to disintegrate.  And then, one by one, her daughters go missing …’

 

4. As She Left It by Catriona McPherson
‘When she was twelve years old, Opal Jones escaped her mother’s endless drinking. Now, returning to their small Leeds cottage after her mum’s death, Opal feels like she’s gone back in time. Nosey Mrs. Pickess is still polishing her windows to a sparkle. Fishbo, Opal’s ancient music teacher, still plays trumpet with his band. And much to Opal’s delight, her favorite neighbor, Margaret Reid, still keeps an eye on things from the walk in front of her house.  But a tragedy has struck Mote Street. Margaret’s grandson, Craig, disappeared some ten years ago, and every day he’s not found, shame and sorrow settle deeper into the neighborhood’s forgotten corners. As the door she closed on her own dark past begins to open, Opal uncovers more secrets than she can bear about the people who were once her friends.’

 

5. The Art of Drowning by Frances Fyfield 544517
‘Rachel Doe is a shy accountant at a low ebb in life when she meets charismatic Ivy Schneider, nee Wiseman, at her evening class and her life changes for the better. Ivy is her polar oppositte: strong, six years her senior and the romantic survivor of drug addiction, homelessness and the death of her child. Ivy does menial shift work, beholden to no one, and she inspires life; as do her farming parents, with their ramshackle house and its swan- filled lake, the lake where Ivy’s daughter drowned. As Rachel grows closer to them all she learns how Ivy came to be married to Carl, the son of a WWII prisoner, as well as the true nature of that marriage to a bullying and ambitious lawyer who has become a judge and who denies her access to her surviving child. Rachel wants justice for Ivy, but Ivy has another agenda and Rachel’s naive sense of fair play is no match for the manipulative qualities in the Wisemen women.’

 

6. What Lies Within by Tom Vowler
‘Living in a remote Devon farmhouse, Anna and her family have always been close to nature, surrounded by the haunting beauty of the moor. But when a convict escapes from nearby Dartmoor prison, their isolation suddenly begins to feel more claustrophobic than free. Fearing for her children’s safety, Anna’s behaviour becomes increasingly irrational. But why is she so distant from her kind husband Robert, and why does she suspect something sinister of her son Paul? All teenagers have their difficult phases…  Meanwhile, a young idealistic teacher has just started her first job, determined to ‘make a difference’. But when she is brutally attacked by one of her students, her version of events is doubted by even those closest to her. Struggling to deal with the terrible consequences, she does what she can to move on and start afresh.  As the two narratives converge, the tension builds to a devastating denouement, shattering everything you thought you believed about nature, nurture and the true meaning of family.’

 

130824497. When Nights Were Cold by Susanna Jones
‘As Queen Victoria’s reign reaches its end, Grace Farringdon dreams of polar explorations and of escape from her stifling home with her protective parents and eccentric, agoraphobic sister. But when Grace secretly applies to Candlin, a women’s college filled with intelligent women, she finally feels her ambitions beginning to take shape.’

 

8. Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray
‘Easter 1955. As Lilia Sugar scrapes the ice from the inside of the windows and the rust from the locks in Sugar Hall, she knows there are pasts she cannot erase. On the very edge of the English/Welsh border, the red gardens of Sugar Hall hold a secret, and as Britain prepares for its last hanging, Lilia and her children must confront a history that has been buried but not forgotten. Based on the stories of the Black Boy that surround Littledean Hall in the Forest of Dean, this is a superbly chilling ghost story from Tiffany Murray.’

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which pique your interest?

Purchase from The Book Depository

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The Book Trail: From ‘Fair Play’ to ‘The Queen of Persia’

I am beginning this edition of The Book Trail with a short novel by one of my favourite authors of all time.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.

1. Fair Play by Tove Jansson 8915857
Fair Play is the type of love story that is rarely told, a revelatory depiction of contentment, hard-won and exhilarating.  Mari is a writer and Jonna is an artist, and they live at opposite ends of a big apartment building, their studios connected by a long attic passageway. They have argued, worked, and laughed together for decades. Yet they’ve never really stopped taking each other by surprise. Fair Play shows us Mari and Jona’s intertwined lives as they watch Fassbinder films and Westerns, critique each other’s work, spend time on a solitary island (recognizable to readers of Jansson’s The Summer Book), travel through the American Southwest, and turn life into nothing less than art. ‘

 

2. Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner
‘Sophia Willoughby, a young Englishwoman from an aristocratic family and a person of strong opinions and even stronger will, has packed her cheating husband off to Paris. He can have his tawdry mistress. She intends to devote herself to the serious business of raising her two children in proper Tory fashion.  Then tragedy strikes: the children die, and Sophia, in despair, finds her way to Paris, arriving just in time for the revolution of 1848. Before long she has formed the unlikeliest of close relations with Minna, her husband’s sometime mistress, whose dramatic recitations, based on her hair-raising childhood in czarist Russia, electrify audiences in drawing rooms and on the street alike. Minna, “magnanimous and unscrupulous, fickle, ardent, and interfering,” leads Sophia on a wild adventure through bohemian and revolutionary Paris, in a story that reaches an unforgettable conclusion amidst the bullets, bloodshed, and hope of the barricades.  Sylvia Townsend Warner was one of the most original and inventive of twentieth-century English novelists. At once an adventure story, a love story, and a novel of ideas, Summer Will Show is a brilliant reimagining of the possibilities of historical fiction.’

 

899153. Eustace and Hilda by L.P. Hartley
‘The three books gathered together as Eustace and Hilda explore a brother and sister’s lifelong relationship. Hilda, the older child, is both self-sacrificing and domineering, as puritanical as she is gorgeous; Eustace is a gentle, dreamy, pleasure-loving boy: the two siblings could hardly be more different, but they are also deeply devoted. And yet as Eustace and Hilda grow up and seek to go their separate ways in a world of power and position, money and love, their relationship is marked by increasing pain.  L. P. Hartley’s much-loved novel, the magnum opus of one of twentieth-century England’s best writers, is a complex and spellbinding work: a comedy of upper-class manners; a study in the subtlest nuances of feeling; a poignant reckoning with the ironies of character and fate. Above all, it is about two people who cannot live together or apart, about the ties that bind—and break.’

 

4. The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irene Nemirovsky by Her Daughter by Elisabeth Gille
‘Élisabeth Gille was only five when the Gestapo arrested her mother, and she grew up remembering next to nothing of her. Her mother was a figure, a name, Irène Némirovsky, a once popular novelist, a Russian émigré from an immensely rich family, a Jew who didn’t consider herself one and who even contributed to collaborationist periodicals, and a woman who died in Auschwitz because she was a Jew. To her daughter she was a tragic enigma and a stranger.  It was to come to terms with that stranger that Gille wrote, in The Mirador, her mother’s memoirs. The first part of the book, dated 1929, the year David Golder made Némirovsky famous, takes us back to her difficult childhood in Kiev and St. Petersburg. Her father is doting, her mother a beautiful monster, while Irene herself is bookish and self-absorbed. There are pogroms and riots, parties and excursions, then revolution, from which the family flees to France, a country of “moderation, freedom, and generosity,” where at last she is happy.  Some thirteen years later Irène picks up her pen again. Everything has changed. Abandoned by friends and colleagues, she lives in the countryside and waits for the knock on the door. Written a decade before the publication of Suite Française made Irène Némirovsky famous once more (something Gille did not live to see), The Mirador is a haunted and a haunting book, an unflinching reckoning with the tragic past, and a triumph not only of the imagination but of love.’

 

5. The World As I Found It by Bruce Duffy 776609
‘This novel centers around Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most powerfully magnetic philosophers of our time–brilliant, tortured, mercurial, forging his own solitary path while leaving a permanent mark on all around him.’

 

6. Indian Summer by William Dean Howells
‘One of the most charming and memorable romantic comedies in American literature, William Dean Howells’s Indian Summer tells of a season in the life of Theodore Colville. Colville, just turned forty, has spent years as a successful midwestern newspaper publisher. Now he sells his business and heads for Italy, where as a young man he had dreamed of a career as an architect and fallen hopelessly in love. In Florence, Colville runs into Lina Bowen, sometime best friend of the woman who jilted him and the vivacious survivor of an unhappy marriage. He also meets her young visitor, twenty-year-old Imogene Graham—lovely, earnest to a fault, and brimming with the excitement of her first encounter with the great world.  The drama that plays out among these three gifted and well-meaning people against the backdrop of Florence, the brilliance of their repartee, and the accumulating burden of their mutual misunderstandings make for a comedy of errors that is as winning as it is wise.’

 

18508567. Testing the Current by William McPherson
‘Growing up in a small upper Midwestern town in the late 1930s, young Tommy MacAllister is scarcely aware of the Depression, much less the rumblings of war in Europe. For his parents and their set, life seems to revolve around dinners and dancing at the country club, tennis dates and rounds of golf, holiday parties, summers on The Island, and the many sparkling occasions full of people and drinks and food and laughter. With his curiosity and impatience to grow up, however, Tommy will soon come to glimpse something darker beneath the genteel complacency: the embarrassment of poor relations; the subtle (and not so subtle) slighting of the black or American Indian “help”; the discovery that not everybody in the club was Episcopalian; the mockery of President Roosevelt; the messy mechanics of sex and death; and “the commandment they talked least about in Sunday school,” adultery.  In this remarkable 1984 debut novel, the Pulitzer Prize–winning book critic William McPherson subtly leavens his wide-eyed protagonist’s perspective with mature reflection and wry humor and surrounds him with a sizable cast of vibrant characters, creating a scrupulously observed, kaleidoscopic portrait that will shimmer in readers’ minds long after the final page is turned.’

 

8. During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase
‘A story of 20th-century womanhood, of Gram, the Queen of Persia herself, who rules a house where five daughters and four granddaughters spin out the tragedies and triumphs of rural life in the 1950s.’

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which have piqued your interest?

Purchase from The Book Depository

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TBR Tracker Update: September

I made great strides with condensing my TBR further in September, and am hoping that by the end of October, I will have zero books on my to-read pile.  I am aiming to get down to zero so that any books which I acquire can be read immediately.

At present, the tomes which are on my TBR pile have been languishing there for around two to three years, which seems ridiculous to me.  I know that a lot of readers have huge TBRs, filled with books which they acquired ten years ago and haven’t yet got to, but I’m keen to rekindle the fizzy feelings which I get upon acquiring a new book and reading it immediately, whilst I’m still incredibly interested in it.

During September, I added no books to my TBR, and I am very proud of myself for this.  There are a few new releases which I am keen to get to, but I’m going to either request them from the library, or add them to my Christmas list and hope for the best.

As with last month’s TBR tracker, you can find reviews of the books which I read during September, as well as an updated to-read list, below.

 

Thomas Hardy by Claire Tomalin hardy1
I am currently reading, and very much enjoying, this tome.  I started it before going on a long weekend to Pisa, and have decided that dipping in and out of it whilst I have another book on the go is probably the best way to read it.

 

9781444707762Cold Light by Jenn Ashworth ***
I have read a lot of Jenn Ashworth’s work in the past, and have really enjoyed it. I was thus keen to get to her debut novel, Cold Light. Although the story held my interest throughout, I never felt entirely gripped by it. I guessed what were supposed to be the major plot points very early on, and found that the novel sadly did not meet my expectations.

 

The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean 9780008165703Voyagers by Adam Nicolson *****
I received Adam Nicolson’s The Seabird’s Cry: The Lives and Loves of Puffins, Gannets and Other Ocean Voyagers for Christmas, and although it took me some months to read, I was keen to get to it. I adore nature writing, and have wanted to read Nicolson’s work for a long time, and this seemed like the perfect introduction to it. I found The Seabird’s Cry utterly fascinating, and learnt so much from it. Beautifully descriptive, and with a wealth of wonderful research, this is a must-read for any nature lover.

 

9780099594024Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood ****
I had wanted to read Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, her interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, for such a long time. I decided not to write a full-length review of the novel as there are so many around, but wanted to record a few thoughts, at least.  I imagined that a retelling written by Atwood would be very clever, and it is. She retains enough of the original story for it to be recognisable, but certainly puts her own spin onto the plot. Its protagonist is believable, as are, indeed, its secondary characters. The prose throughout is engaging, and the elements of witty humour augment the more maudlin parts of the story. There are some great ideas within Hag-Seed, and the whole thing comes together splendidly.

 

The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather *** 9780241338162
I ended up reading Willa Cather’s Great Plains trilogy out of order, but found that it did not actually matter.  The Song of the Lark is the second novel in the series, and the final one which I got to. Cather’s novel is so well written, and is filled with exquisite prose, but the story feels rather thin on the ground in places, and did not really hold my attention. Whilst I found Thea Kronborg quite intriguing at first, I became less and less interested in the protagonist as the novel went on. I love Cather’s writing style, but from my experience, feel that her novellas and short stories are far more successful than her longer books.

 

Travellers in the Third Reich by Julia Boyd and The Priory by Dorothy Whipple were both five star reads for me.  Full-length reviews of both will be published early next year.

 

My current TBR stands as follows:

  1. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann 9780141198927
  2. The Diviners by Margaret Laurence
  3. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
  4. Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved and Died in the 1940s by Anne Sebba
  5. Sweet Caress by William Boyd (Kindle)

 

Current total: 5
Goal for the end of October: 0

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The Book Trail: From Rosamond Lehmann to F. Tennyson Jesse

This particular edition of The Book Trail begins with a wonderful sequel by Rosamond Lehmann, printed by Virago Modern Classics.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to put this list together.

 

1. The Weather in the Streets by Rosamond Lehmann 1768393
‘Taking up where Invitation to the Waltz left off, The Weather in the Streets shows us Olivia Curtis ten years older, a failed marriage behind her, thinner, sadder, and apprently not much wiser. A chance encounter on a train with a man who enchanted her as a teenager leads to a forbidden love affair and a new world of secret meetings, brief phone calls, and snatched liaisons in anonymous hotel rooms. Years ahead of its time when first published, this subtle and powerful novel shocked even the most stalwart Lehmann fans with its searing honesty and passionate portrayal of clandestine love.’

 

5481462. Love for Lydia by H.E. Bates
Love for Lydia was the first novel with an English setting that H.E. Bates wrote after the second world war, and it was his own favourite among his Northamptonshire novels. The Northants setting becomes the background both ugly and beautiful for the story of a young girl, the daughter of a decaying aristocratic household, and her lovers, of which the most important is the narrator himself.  Published in 1952, it is essentially an autobiographical novel, and, though much of his fiction reflects his own life and background, this probably contains more than in any other piece of fiction – That may explain why it is such a satisfying book. Bates spent a brief time as a reporter on the Northamptonshire Chronicle, and there are other echoes of the author’s personal experiences here in the character of the narrator, Richardson. Lydia, it seems, is based on, or was inspired by, a young lady he once glimpsed on Rushden railway station – “a tallish, dark, proud, aloof young girl in a black cloak lined with scarlet”. Lydia in the story is the sheltered and selfish Aspen daughter, and the novel chronicles her affairs with Richardson and two of the other young men. It has been described as a novel of “a young man’s struggle to understand and resolve himself to a formidable world of change and uncertainty”, and the novel ends in his committing himself to Lydia in a much more mature and lasting way than he could have done at the beginning of the story.’

 

3. The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen 195987
‘In The Heat of the Day, Elizabeth Bowen brilliantly recreates the tense and dangerous atmosphere of London during the bombing raids of World War II.  Many people have fled the city, and those who stayed behind find themselves thrown together in an odd intimacy born of crisis. Stella Rodney is one of those who chose to stay. But for her, the sense of impending catastrophe becomes acutely personal when she discovers that her lover, Robert, is suspected of selling secrets to the enemy, and that the man who is following him wants Stella herself as the price of his silence. Caught between these two men, not sure whom to believe, Stella finds her world crumbling as she learns how little we can truly know of those around us.’

 

17769934. One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes
‘It’s a summer’s day in 1946. The English village of Wealding is no longer troubled by distant sirens, yet the rustling coils of barbed wire are a reminder that something, some quality of life, has evaporated. Together again after years of separation, Laura and Stephen Marshall and their daughter Victoria are forced to manage without “those anonymous caps and aprons who lived out of sight and pulled the strings.” Their rambling garden refuses to be tamed, the house seems perceptibly to crumble. But alone on a hillside, as evening falls, Laura comes to see what it would have meant if the war had been lost, and looks to the future with a new hope and optimism. First published in 1947, this subtle, finely wrought novel presents a memorable portrait of the aftermath of war, its effect upon a marriage, and the gradual but significant change in the nature of English middle-class life.’

 

5. The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor 1707951
‘”Here I am!” Flora called to Richard as she went downstairs. For a second, Meg felt disloyalty. It occurred to her of a sudden that Flora was always saying that, and that it was in the tone of one giving a lovely present. She was bestowing herself.’ The soul of kindness is what Flora believes herself to be. Tall, blonde and beautiful, she appears to have everything under control — her home, her baby, her husband Richard, her friend Meg, Kit, Meg’s brother, who has always adored Flora, and Patrick the novelist and domestic pet. Only the bohemian painter Liz refuses to become a worshipper at the shrine. Flora entrances them all, dangling visions of happiness and success before their spellbound eyes. All are bewitched by this golden tyrant, all conspire to protect her from what she really is. All, that is, except the clear-eyed Liz: it is left to her to show them that Flora’s kindness is the sweetest poison of them all.’

 

3971136. A Compass Error by Sybille Bedford
‘In this sequel to The Favourite of the Gods, seventeen-year-old Flavia, on her own in the south of France in the late 1930s, lives with the confidence and ardor of youth. She knows her destiny-it lies at Oxford, where she will begin a great career of public service. But this view of herself is at odds with reality; it springs from ideas she has of her idolized English father and of her blessed Italian mother, Constanza. Only when she is caught up in an intrigue that is to determine the fate of those she most loves does she begins to discover her own true nature-even as she loses the bearings of her moral compass.’

 

7. The Shutter of Snow by Emily Holmes Coleman 1393098
‘In a prose form as startling as its content, “The Shutter of Snow” portrays the post-partum psychosis of Marthe Gail, who after giving birth to her son, is committed to an insane asylum. Believing herself to be God, she maneuvers through an institutional world that is both sad and terrifying, echoing the worlds of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Snake Pit.”  Based upon the author’s own experience after the birth of her son in 1924, “The Shutter of Snow” retains all the energy it had when first published in 1930.’

 

1396478. A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse
‘A Pin to See the Peepshow is a fictionalized account of the life of Edith Thompson, one of the three main players in the “Ilford murder” case of 1922.’

 

Which of these books have you read?  Do any pique your interest?

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3

Penguin Moderns: Vladimir Nabokov and Wendell Berry

Lance by Vladimir Nabokov **** (#49) 9780241339527
I will begin this review by saying that of the work of Nabokov’s which I have read in the past, I have not enjoyed it anywhere near as much as most people seem to.  I had never encountered his short stories before picking up Lance.  All of these ‘dazzling stories of obsession, mania and an extra-terrestrial nightmare feature all of the wit, dexterity and inventiveness that are the hallmarks of Nabokov’s genius’, and were published between 1931 and 1951.  ‘The Aurelian’ was originally written in Russian, and appears in translation here by Peter Pertzov in collaboration with the author.  The other two stories – ‘Signs and Symbols’ and ‘Lance’ – were first written in English.

The three tales collected here are all rather sad.  ‘The Aurelian’ follows protagonist Paul Pilgram, who has taken over the running of his parents’ shop in Berlin.  Of Pilgram, Nabokov writes: ‘… as a boy he already feverishly swapped specimens with collectors, and after his parents died butterflies reigned supreme in the dim little shop.’  He is an entomologist, who knows so much about species all around the world, but has never travelled farther than Berlin’s suburbs.  His wish is to see butterflies living in their natural habitat.  I will say no more lest I give any of the story away, but suffice to say, I very much enjoyed reading it.  It is the first time in which  I have ever felt fully engaged with Nabokov’s work.

The second haunting story, ‘Signs and Symbols’, takes as its focus a suicidal young man living in a sanatorium, and the effects which he has upon his family: ‘The last time their son had tried to take his life, his method had been, in the doctor’s words, a masterpiece of inventiveness; he would have succeeded, had not an envious fellow patient thought he was learning to fly – and stopped him.  What he really wanted to do was to tear a hole in his world and escape.’  I found such descriptions touching and evocative, and indeed, this style of writing and character reveal threads through all three tales in Lance.  The stories are very human, and I now have an interest to read more of Nabokov’s work in the near future.

The third titular story was the only one in this collection which I did not much enjoy.  However, that may be because it is so firmly rooted in science fiction, something which I am not at all a fan of.  I found it interesting enough to read, but it was certainly peculiar.  Had this surprising collection featured only the first two stories, I certainly would have given it a five star rating.

 

9780241337561Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer by Wendell Berry ***
The fiftieth, and final, Penguin Modern is Wendell Berry’s Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer, which features two essays.  The title essay was published for the first time in Harper’s magazine in 1987, and the second – ‘Feminism, the Body and the Machine’, which provides a reflection upon it – in 1990.

In the first essay, as is evident in its title, Berry argues his case for writing ‘in the day time, without electric light’, and with only paper and a pencil.  He says, of his decision: ‘I do not see that computers are bringing us one step nearer to anything that does matter to me: peace, economic justice, ecological health, political honesty, family and community stability, good work.’  He also points out that he very much enjoys the collaborative experience which he shares with his wife, who types up his work on a Royal Standard typewriter: ‘Thus (and I think this is typical of present-day technological innovation), what would be superseded would be not only something, but somebody.  In order to be technologically up-to-date as a writer, I would have to sacrifice an association that I am dependent upon and that I treasure.’

This first essay ends with a transcription of several responses received after its publication, and Berry’s quite witty response.  In the second, and more extended response essay, Berry writes in a measured way of those who chose to send letters to him, and the overriding view that he was both exploiting and oppressing his wife by getting her to type his work.  Here, he reflects: ‘That feminists or any other advocates of human liberty and dignity should resort to insult and injustice is regrettable.  It is also regrettable that all of the feminist attacks on my essay implicitly deny the validity of two decent and probably necessary possibilities: marriage as a state of mutual help, and the household as an economy.’

I found this short collection easy to read, and found that Berry argues his various points succinctly, although perhaps a little briefly at times, throughout.  His reasoning, in some ways, feels quite ahead of its time.  He touches upon many themes here, from materialism and relationships to technology and values.  Berry’s essays have such a nice message at their heart: ‘My wish simply is to live my life as fully as I can.  In both our work and our leisure, I think, we should be so employed.  And in our time this means that we must save ourselves from the products that we are asked to buy in order, ultimately, to replace ourselves.’

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1

Penguin Moderns: Andy Warhol and Primo Levi

Fame by Andy Warhol ** (#47) 9780241339800
Andy Warhol’s Fame is the forty-seventh book on the Penguin Moderns list.  I read a little book by Warhol about cats several months ago, and didn’t much like it.  Whilst Fame is very different in what it set out to do, I was not much looking forward to reading it.  In this book, ‘the legendary pop artist Andy Warhol’s hilarious, gossipy vignettes and aphorisms on the topics of love, fame and beauty’ can be found.  The pieces collected here were selected by the editors of The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (1975).

Fame consists of three sections – ‘Love (Senility)’, ‘Beauty’, and ‘Fame’.  Each section is made up of fragments of various pieces which Warhol wrote.  From the beginning, I must admit that I did not enjoy his prose style; I found it a little too matter-of-fact and bitty.  The prose also felt rather repetitive, more so due to the distinct subject groupings used here.  Some of the fragments have very little to say, and there is barely any flesh on many of his utterances; rather, there is only a kind of skeleton structure to the book.  It feels as though scores of random ideas and sentences have been jotted down in a notebook, and were not revised in any way before being published.

I found Fame rather jarring to read.  Much of the content verged on odd, and the entirety was very dated.  There is no sense that it has transferred well to the twenty-first century.  I found this collection shallow and superficial, and Warhol sometimes crosses lines.  For instance, Warhol writes: ‘Sometimes people having nervous breakdown problems can look very beautiful because they have that fragile something to the way they move or walk.  They put out a mood that makes them more beautiful.’  Fame was not particularly interesting in any way to me, and it is one of a handful of Penguin Moderns which I have finished solely because it is short.

 

9780241339411The Survivor by Primo Levi **** (#48)
I have read some of Levi’s non-fiction in the past, but had no idea that he had written any poetry until I picked up The Survivor, the forty-eighth book on the Penguin Moderns list.  The blurb notes: ‘From the writer who bore witness to the twentieth century’s darkest days, these verses of beauty and horror include the poem that inspired the title of his memoir, If This is a Man.’  All of the poetry collected in The Survivor has been taken from Collected Poems, which was first published in 1988, one year after Levi’s death, and have been translated from their original Italian by Jonathan Galassi.

I imagined, quite rightly, that the poetry collected here would be rather hard-hitting.  The majority of these poems are haunted by Levi’s experiences of the Holocaust, and his imprisonment in Auschwitz.  Throughout, Levi’s words and imagery are evocative and heartfelt, and there is a questioning and searching element to each of his poems.  The collection is poignant and incredibly dark.  Much of the imagery here is chilling; in ‘Shema’, for instance, he writes:

‘Consider if this is a woman,
With no hair and no name
With no more strength to remember
With empty eyes and a womb as cold
As a frog in winter.’

There is an overarching sense throughout the collection, however, of looking forward rather than back, and of not losing hope.  I found Levi’s spirit remarkable; even in his darkest days, he is able to picture his future.  In ‘After R.M. Rilke’, he says:

‘We’ll spend the hours at our books,
Or writing letters to far away,
Long letters from our solitude;
And we’ll pace up and down the avenues,
Restless, while the leaves fall.’

The Survivor is an incredibly memorable collection, and one which I will certainly revisit in future.

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0

Penguin Moderns: Carson McCullers and Jorge Luis Borges

The Haunted Boy by Carson McCullers ***** (#45) 9780241339503
The forty-fifth publication on the Penguin Moderns list is one which I was particularly looking forward to – The Haunted Boy by Carson McCullers.  Whilst a huge fan of her fiction, and of the Southern Gothic genre in which she wrote, I have only read a handful of her short stories to date.  The blurb states that ‘these moving stories portray love, sorrow and our search for happiness and understanding.’  All of the tales here – ‘The Haunted Boy’, ‘The Sojourner’, and ‘A Domestic Dilemma’ – were published between 1950 and 1955.

As with her longer works, McCullers’ writing is fantastic – multilayered, perceptive, and admirable.  She captures moods particularly so well in the first story, ‘The Haunted Boy’: ‘It was then, in the unanswering silence as they stood in the empty, wax-floored hall, that Hugh felt there was something wrong’.  McCullers also marvellously explores her characters and their psyches.  From the same story, she writes of young protagonist Hugh: ‘Confession, the first deep-rooted words, opened the festered secrecy of the boy’s heart, and he continued more rapidly, urgent and finding unforeseen relief.’

McCullers also fantastically captures the essence of memory; from ‘The Sojourner’, for instance: ‘The twilight border between sleep and waking was a Roman one this morning, splashing fountains and arched, narrow streets, the golden lavish city of blossoms and age-soft stone.  Sometimes in this semi-consciousness he sojourned again in Paris, or war German rubble, or Swiss ski-ing and a snow hotel.  Sometimes, also, in a fallow Georgia field at hunting dawn.  Rome it was this morning in the fearless region of dreams.’

McCullers writes of some very dark topics in this selection of her work, and contrasts this darkness with a series of glorious descriptions.  Her character portraits are always sharp and varied.  All three stories here are rich, thoughtful, and searching, and I enjoyed every single word of them.  I am very excited to read the rest of McCullers’ short work at some point very soon.

 

9780241339053The Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges ** (#46)
I do not think I had ever read any of Argentinian author Borges’ work before picking up the forty-sixth Penguin Modern, The Garden of Forking Paths.  I was not entirely sure, from other reviews which I have seen of various pieces of Borges’ work, whether this would be for me.  Collected here are several ‘fantastical tales of mazes, puzzles, lost labyrinths and bookish mysteries, from the unique imagination of a literary magician’, and all were first published during the 1940s.  They have been variously translated by Donald A. Yates, Andrew Hurley, and James E. Irby.

The stories in this collection are the title story, alongside ‘The Book of Sand’, ‘The Circular Ruins’, ‘On Exactitude in Science’, and ‘Death and the Compass’.  All are very short, and ‘On Exactitude in Science’ covers just a single page.  There are some interesting ideas at play throughout, and I found the collection strange and unusual.  I could never quite guess where the stories were going to end up.

Whilst I found The Garden of Forking Paths interesting enough to read, and enjoyed some of the quite beguiling descriptions in its pages, it has not sparked an interest within me to pick up any more of Borges’ work.  I can see why other readers would really enjoy this collection, but it was not really my style.  The tales were a little obscure for my particular taste at times, and I found that they sometimes ended a little abruptly.

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4

Penguin Moderns: Yuko Tsushima and Javier Marias

9780241339787Of Dogs and Walls by Yuko Tsushima *** (#43)
I must admit that I find Japanese fiction a little hit or miss.  A lot of the stories which I have read have been a little too obscure for my taste, and even sometimes when I have enjoyed a particular plot, I find the writing, or the translation of it, rather too simplistic.  Regardless, I came to the forty-third Penguin Modern with an open mind.  These are described as ‘luminous, tender stories from one of Japan’s greatest twentieth-century writers, showing how childhood memories, dreams and fleeting encounters shape our lives.’

This collection is made up of two short stories, ‘The Watery Realm’, and ‘Of Dogs and Walls’.  The first was published in 1982, and the second in 2014, and this is the first time in which both tales have been translated into English, by Geraldine Harcourt.  ‘The Watery Realm’ begins in rather an intriguing manner: ‘It was in the middle of the summer he turned five, as I recall, that my son discovered the Western-style castle in the window of the goldfish shop in our neighbourhood.’  I found this tale engaging throughout, and the narrator and her son both felt like realistic creations.  I didn’t enjoy ‘Of Dogs and Walls’ anywhere near as much, unfortunately.  Whilst on the whole both stories were interesting and kept me guessing, and neither was overly obscure, I do not feel inspired to read the rest of Tsushima’s work.

 

Madame du Deffand and the Idiots by Javier Marias **** (#44) 9780241339480
Javier Marias’ Madame du Deffand and the Idiots sounded like such an interesting concept.  This volume presents ‘five sparkling, irreverent brief portraits of famous literary figures (including libertines, eccentrics and rogues) from Spain’s greatest living writer’.  All of these sketches are taken from Written Lives, which was published in Spain in 2009, and all have been translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

The essays here are written variously about Madame du Deffand, Vladimir Nabokov, Djuna Barnes, Oscar Wilde, and Emily Bronte.  I was particularly interested to read the final three, all writers whom I adore.  This is the first time which I have read Marias’ work, and I found it rather amusing and intriguing.  The first essay, for instance, begins: ‘Madame du Deffand’s life was clearly far too long for someone who considered that her greatest misfortune was to have been for at all.’  On discussing the unusual names used in Djuna Barnes’ family, ‘which, in many cases, do not even give a clue as to the gender of the person bearing them’ he writes: ‘Perhaps it is understandable that, on reaching adulthood, some members of the Barnes family adopted banal nicknames like Bud or Charlie.’  All of these pieces are rather short, and quite fascinating – and sometimes enlightening – to read.  Marias seems to really capture his subjects throughout, and shines a spotlight on a handful of quite unusual people.  Madame du Deffand and the Idiots has certainly piqued my interest to read more of Marias’ work, and soon.

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0

Penguin Moderns: ‘The Dialogue of Two Snails’ by Federico Garcia Lorca ***

9780241340400I was looking forward to trying a selection of Federico Garcia Lorca’s poetry, having never read any of his work before.  The 42nd Penguin Modern, The Dialogue of Two Snails, is described as ‘a dazzling selection of the beautiful, brutal and darkly brilliant work of Spain’s greatest twentieth-century poet.’

The collection, which has been translated by Tyler Fisher, contains work which appears in English for the first time, and presents a ‘representative sampling of [his] poetry, dialogues, and short prose.’  The poems collected here also appear with the dates in which they were written, which I think is a useful touch.

Other reviewers have commented that the placing of poems here feels disjointed, and that the quality of the translation renders the poems stilted.  I have no reference points with which to compare Garcia Lorca’s work, and so I did not let this affect my reading of The Dialogue of Two Snails.

As I find with many collections, there were poems here which I didn’t much like, and others which I thought were great.  Some of Garcia Lorca’s ideas are a little bizarre and offbeat, but I am definitely intrigued enough to read more of his work, and to see how the translations compare.  Some of what he captures here is lovely, and so vivid, and I enjoyed the diversity of the collection.  As ever, I will finish this poetry review by collecting together a few fragments which I particularly enjoyed.

From ‘The Encounters of an Adventurous Snail’:
There is a childlike sweetness
in the still morning.
The trees stretch
their arms to the earth.

From ‘Knell’:
The wind and dust
Make silver prows.

‘Seashell’:
They’ve brought me a seashell.

It’s depths sing an atlas
of seascapes downriver.
My hear
brims with billows
and minnows
of shadows and silver.

They’ve brought me a seashell.

 

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