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More Abandoned Books

The three novels which I will be talking about in this abandoned books post were all surprises to me.  I expected to adore Their Eyes Were Watching God, and to very much enjoy Mr Fortune’s Maggot.  I was also anticipating great things from Anna Quindlen’s fiction after reading her lovely introduction to my beautiful Madeline compendium.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ by Zora Neale Hurston

I decided not to read the foreword or introduction to this book lest it give too much away.  I knew virtually nothing about what was likely to happen, and preferred to be swept away with the plot rather than to know about it all beforehand.  Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of Janie, a child of rape.  Throughout, the scene was set well and I was surprised at how easy the dialect of the characters was to get used to.  I did find that the dialect was incredibly overdone however, and some sections had to be waded through in consequence.  Hurston’s writing was beautiful at first, but I did not find that it was consistent throughout.

I fully expected to love Their Eyes Were Watching God, but honestly, I didn’t even enjoy it very much.  The plot was not in depth enough to suit a book of its length, and I could not muster enough interest in its storyline or its characters to read the novel in its entirety.  So far, I definitely prefer Hurston’s non-fiction to her fiction, and have in consequence crossed off the other novel of hers which appears on the Virago Modern Classics list.

Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen
It seems that very few positive reviews exist for this novel.  I knew nothing about its storyline before beginning, so I read some of the random thoughts which had been posted about it on Amazon to gain an overview, and then wished I hadn’t.  I saw words and phrases like ‘dumbed down’, ‘unintelligent’ and ‘tedious’, which really put me off beginning to read.  It started incredibly slowly and was incredibly monotonous.  I had no interest in any of the characters, and did not even make it to the fifty page mark.  I would like to read more of Quindlen’s fiction as she does still seem to be a firm favourite with a lot of readers, but I will look for those novels of hers which have more positive reviews.

Mr Fortune’s Maggot by Sylvia Townsend Warner
I really enjoy Townsend Warner’s writing, but I was a little disappointed with Summer Will Show when I read it a few months ago.  I was hoping that I would enjoy Mr Fortune’s Maggot as much as I did Lolly Willowes.  The preface to the NYRB edition of this book is lovely, detailing as it does Townsend Warner’s reasons for writing, and her inspiration for this particular novel.  Mr Fortune’s Maggot tells the story of Reverend Timothy Fortune, who has spent three years as a missionary on the island of Fanua somewhere in the Pacific, but has ‘made but one convert’.  This storyline did not appeal to me personally, but as it was on the Virago Modern Classics list which I am working through, I began it regardless.

Townsend Warner crafts her stories so beautifully, and her writing works well, particularly with regard to her descriptions of people and places.  This was my favourite element of the novel.  I was not overly enamoured with the storyline or the protagonists.  The entirety just seemed a little flat to me, and quite drawn out in terms of the little that happened throughout.  I did not like Mr Fortune at all – he was rather cruel at times, and did not show much ‘Christian charity’, as he was supposed to in his position.  I was unable to muster any real interest within the story by around a fifth of the way through, and so I gave up.

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‘Summer Will Show’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner ***

I read and very much enjoyed Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman earlier this year as part of my now defunct online book group’s reading schedule.  I hoped that Summer Will Show would be just as enjoyable, but alas, I was rather disappointed with it overall.

Claire Harman’s introduction to the lovingly produced NYRB edition of Summer Will Show is wonderful.  I liked the way in which she set out the social context of the story, and of Townsend Warner’s own life in respect to it.  Let us begin with the aforementioned social elements, then.  Sophia Willoughby, Townsend Warner’s protagonist, is a modern woman in many respects, particularly with regard to when this story is set and when it was written.  She has decided to separate from her husband, who quickly moves to Paris, run a household complete with staff, bring her children up almost single-handedly, look after her Uncle Julius’ illegitimate son, and going out on male dominated hunts, for example.

'Summer Will Show' by Sylvia Townsend Warner

‘Summer Will Show’ by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Despite her strength and independence, Sophia is difficult to like, or to feel sympathy for.  She is an interesting character on many levels, but her lack of compassion and overriding coldness, particularly at the more pivotal points in the novel, is difficult for a modern reader – at least, this modern reader – to stomach.

I write about descriptions a lot in my reviews, but Townsend Warner’s are truly sublime.  The sense of place she crafts is always so well realised, and this, for me, was the real strength of the novel.  I loved the monologue at the start of Part II as well, due to the beautiful writing and the amount of contrasts and comparisons which Townsend Warner inserted.  The majority of the similes and metaphors in this monologue are lovely and inventive – for example, the similarities she draws between a cluster of dark fir trees and Hebrew lettering.

The first part of Summer Will Show, despite the darkness it included, was wonderful, but it did tail off a little afterwards.  The middle of the novel particularly dragged, and in consequence I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would.

Suggested accompanying playlist:
– ‘Please Please Please, Let Me Get What I Want’ by The Smiths
– ‘Lightness’ by Death Cab for Cutie
– ‘Hospital’ by Tellison

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Sunday Snapshot: Five Authors

For today’s Sunday Snapshot, I have chosen to write a list of five authors, whose work you may not have read.  I have listed my favourite of their books beside their names for your perusal.

1. Elizabeth McCracken
I read the marvellous The Giant’s House whilst I was still a teenager, and have read it many more times since.  McCracken’s writing is truly lovely, and the characters she crafts stay with the reader long after the last page has been read.

2. Tove Jansson
Jansson is best known as the creator of The Moomins, but her adult fiction is just as wonderful.  To fit the season, I would recommend The Summer Book, which is a glorious musing on life on a tiny Scandinavian island.

3. Jon McGregor
I first read McGregor a good few years ago, when my Dad recommended the stunning If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things to me.  It is a novel which challenges your perceptions, and its storyline and characters, whilst not named, are so very memorable.

4. Sylvia Townsend Warner
Despite only having read one of her novels (Lolly Willowes, or the Loving Huntsman) and one of her short story collections (The Doll’s House and Other Stories), Townsend Warner is one of my favourite authors on the Virago list.  She creates such atmosphere, and her characters are wonderfully crafted.  The majority of her stories contain unexpected twists, and her writing is very lovely indeed.  I would recommend beginning with either of the titles listed above in order to get a real sense of her style.

5. Stella Benson
For some reason unbeknownst to me, Stella Benson is rather a neglected twentieth century author.  Her writing is glorious, and the way in which she uses magical realism against the ordinary aspects of the lives of her characters is marvellous.  I would recommend the lovely Living Alone, set during the First World War.  Who cannot fail to be charmed by the following author introduction?

This is not a real book. It does not deal with real people, nor should it be read by real people. But there are in the world so many real books already written for the benefit of real people, and there are still so many to be written, that I cannot believe that a little alien book such as this, written for the magically-inclined minority, can be considered too assertive a trespasser.

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Flash Reviews (31st July 2013)

The Doll’s House and Other Stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner
I hadn’t even known of the existence of these newly discovered tales before I spotted them quite by chance whilst searching for Virago books on the Kindle store.  I so enjoyed Lolly Willowes which I read earlier this year that I couldn’t pass up the chance of purchasing the collection and then starting it almost immediately.  What I was greeted with was a short book, but an incredibly good one in terms of the quality of its tales.  I love Townsend Warner’s writing, and she strikes a perfect balance between loveliness and expertly building up an atmosphere.  The lasting quality of these stories and the way they linger in the mind is marvellous.  My favourites were ‘The Doll’s House’ and ‘Haig’.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

'Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit' by Jeanette Winterson

‘Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit’ by Jeanette Winterson

I wasn’t at all sure what to expect from this novel, but I know that it is much loved and well respected in the literary world.  I had read one of Winterson’s books previous to this (The Passion, a quirky book which I very much enjoyed), and when I spotted it on a crammed shelf in Black Gull Books in Camden, I added it to the (surprisingly) small pile which I was carrying.  The blurb utterly intrigued me.  I found the story incredibly absorbing, and the child narrator Jeanette makes it even more so.  Aspects of the novel were so very sad – for example, Jeanette’s lack of friends, and her classmates and teachers shunning her at school for being so religious – but it was also so witty and amusing.  The balance between the two was expertly done.  Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is an incredibly powerful and unexpected novel.  At one point, it felt as though my heart had been ripped out and stamped over, due to the power of just one sentence.

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories by Carson McCullers
I adore McCullers’ writing, and after reading the beautiful The Heart is a Lonely Hunter earlier this year, I vowed to work my way through her books sooner rather than later.  Whilst the main story in this collection was a relatively interesting one, I do not feel that it or its themes had been quite developed enough.  The characters were not realistic on the whole, and I felt that some of their actions did not at all match McCullers’ initial descriptions of their characters.  I feel as though the length of this story and the mere fact that it was a novella worked against it from the first.  Nothing was quite developed enough.  My favourite part of the story was the stifling and oppressive small town atmosphere which was built up.  After having relatively mixed feelings about The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, I began the short stories with some trepidation.  I was interested to see how McCullers would tackle the often restrictive genre of the short story.  I was beginning to think that these tales were all rather commonplace, and then I reached ‘A Domestic Dilemma’, which proved to be one of the most powerful short stories I’ve read in a long while.  In it, McCullers builds up the atmosphere perfectly, and the musings which the protagonist provides about memory are subtly written and very well woven together.

Candyfloss by Jacqueline Wilson
Yes, I suppose that I am too old to be reading Jacqueline Wilson’s books, but they were such a big part of my

'Candyfloss' by Jacqueline Wilson

‘Candyfloss’ by Jacqueline Wilson

childhood that I still look out for her new publications and will happily read them.  With regard to the storyline in Candyfloss, it was not my favourite of Wilson’s creations, but it tackles issues faced by a worrying amount of children – one parent deciding to move to Australia with her new partner and baby, and the other staying in England.  Whilst the conversation seems a little outdated throughout, the story is sweet, and Floss is a nice little narrator for such a tale.

Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
I so enjoyed the first book which I read in the Canongate Myths series (the glorious and inventive The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood), and I also so enjoy Smith’s writing in the other books of hers which I’ve read, that I jumped at the chance to read Girl Meets Boy.  On the whole, the tale which she crafted was an imaginative one, and she used the foundations of her chosen myth very well indeed.  Smith presented an interesting blend of modernity and antiquity here, and injected interesting musings on life, society, rights and morals too.  I love the intertwined stories and the use of different narrative voices, all of which were distinct.  The entirety of Girl Meets Boy is tied together so well, and is so intelligent in its tale and its telling.