17

Books for Summertime

I have always been a seasonal reader to an extent – particularly, it must be said, when it comes to Christmas-themed books – but I feel that my reading choices have been aligned more with the seasons in the last tumultuous year. Connecting my reading with the natural world around me has given me a sense of calm whilst the world has reached such a point of crisis, and picking up a seasonally themed book has become rather a soothing task. With this in mind, I wanted to collect together eight books which I feel will be perfect picks for summer, and which I hope you will want to include in your own reading journeys.

These books are best enjoyed with a deckchair in the shade, vivid wildflowers, and a tall glass of something cool

1. Let Us Now Praise Famous Gardens by Vita Sackville-West

‘In this unique gardening chronicle Vita Sackville-West weaves together simple, honest accounts of her horticultural experiences throughout the year with exquisite writing and poetic description. Whether singing the praises of sweet-briar, cyclamen, Indian pinks and the Strawberry grape, or giving practical advice on pruning roses, planting bulbs, overcoming frosts and making the most of a small space, her writings on the art of good gardening are both instructive and delightful. Generations of inhabitants have helped shape the English countryside – but it has profoundly shaped us too. It has provoked a huge variety of responses from artists, writers, musicians and people who live and work on the land – as well as those who are travelling through it.English Journeys celebrates this long tradition with a series of twenty books on all aspects of the countryside, from stargazey pie and country churches, to man’s relationship with nature and songs celebrating the patterns of the countryside (as well as ghosts and love-struck soldiers).’

2. A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

‘A raucous comedy that thrusts a quartet of reckless young lovers headfirst into a world of magic and fantasy, William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is edited by Stanley Wells with an introduction by Helen Hackett in Penguin Shakespeare. ‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend More than cool reason ever comprehends’ Lovers Lysander and Hermia flee Athens to escape the authority of their parents, only to be pursued by Hermia’s betrothed Demetrius, and her friend Helena. Unwittingly, all four find themselves in an enchanted forest where Oberon, the king of the fairies, and Titania, his queen, soon take an interest in human affairs, dispensing magical love potions and casting mischievous spells. In this dazzling comedy, confusion ends in harmony, as love is transformed, misplaced, and – ultimately – restored.’

3. The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

‘A foundling, an old book of dark fairy tales, a secret garden, an aristocratic family, a love denied, and a mystery. The Forgotten Garden is a captivating, atmospheric and compulsively readable story of the past, secrets, family and memory from the international best-selling author Kate Morton. Cassandra is lost, alone and grieving. Her much loved grandmother, Nell, has just died and Cassandra, her life already shaken by a tragic accident ten years ago, feels like she has lost everything dear to her. But an unexpected and mysterious bequest from Nell turns Cassandra’s life upside down and ends up challenging everything she thought she knew about herself and her family. Inheriting a book of dark and intriguing fairytales written by Eliza Makepeace—the Victorian authoress who disappeared mysteriously in the early twentieth century—Cassandra takes her courage in both hands to follow in the footsteps of Nell on a quest to find out the truth about their history, their family and their past; little knowing that in the process, she will also discover a new life for herself.’

4. Summer and Smoke by Tennessee Williams

‘The play is a simple love story of a somewhat puritanical Southern girl and an unpuritanical young doctor. Each is basically attracted to the other but because of their divergent attitudes toward life, each over the course of years is driven away from the other. Not until toward the end does the doctor realize that the girl’s high idealism is basically right, and while she is still in love with him, it turns out that neither time nor circumstances will allow the two ultimately to come together.’

5. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

‘Meet little Mole, willful Ratty, Badger the perennial bachelor, and petulant Toad. In the almost one hundred years since their first appearance in 1908, they’ve become emblematic archetypes of eccentricity, folly, and friendship. And their misadventures-in gypsy caravans, stolen sports cars, and their Wild Wood-continue to capture readers’ imaginations and warm their hearts long after they grow up. Begun as a series of letters from Kenneth Grahame to his son, The Wind in the Willows is a timeless tale of animal cunning and human camaraderie.’

6. Florida by Lauren Groff

‘The stories in this collection span characters, towns, decades, even centuries, but Florida—its landscape, climate, history, and state of mind—becomes its gravitational center: an energy, a mood, as much as a place of residence. Groff transports the reader, then jolts us alert with a crackle of wit, a wave of sadness, a flash of cruelty, as she writes about loneliness, rage, family, and the passage of time. With shocking accuracy and effect, she pinpoints the moments and decisions and connections behind human pleasure and pain, hope and despair, love and fury—the moments that make us alive.’

7. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

‘An elderly artist and her six-year-old granddaughter while away a summer together on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland. Gradually, the two learn to adjust to each other’s fears, whims and yearnings for independence, and a fierce yet understated love emerges – one that encompasses not only the summer inhabitants but the island itself, with its mossy rocks, windswept firs and unpredictable seas. Full of brusque humour and wisdom, The Summer Book is a profoundly life-affirming story. Tove Jansson captured much of her own experience and spirit in the book, which was her favourite of the novels she wrote for adults. This new edition sees the return of a European literary gem – fresh, authentic and deeply humane.’

8. 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.’

Please stay tuned for subsequent autumn and winter recommendation posts, which will be published at the beginning of each new season. Also, let me know if you have any seasonal reads to recommend!

13

‘Vita & Virginia: A Double Life’ by Sarah Gristwood ****

I have carried out a great deal of research on Virginia Woolf over the last few years, but had not read anything about her for quite a while.  When I spotted the gorgeous National Trust published hardback of Sarah Gristwood’s Vita & Virginia: A Double Life in my local library, then, I picked it up and borrowed it immediately.

The premise of the book is an examination of the brief love affair which Virginia Woolf and 9781911358381fellow author Vita Sackville-West embarked upon in the ‘heady days of the 1920s’, and their friendship which endured until Woolf’s tragic death in 1941.  Gristwood presents quite extensive biographies of both women, particularly given that her biography is a relatively slim volume.  Vita & Virginia has been split into three distinct sections – ‘1882-1922 Moments of Being’, ‘1922-1930 Orlando’, and ‘All Passion Spent’.  These sections are sandwiched between an introduction and a short piece entitled ‘Afterlife’, in which Gristwood examines the legacy left by both women.

In her introduction, Gristwood writes: ‘… Virginia told a friend, just months before her death, that apart from her husband Leonard and her sister Vanessa, Vita was the only person she really loved.’  She goes on to note: ‘The bond that endured between those two women was predominantly, though not exclusively, one of the heart, and of the mind.’  The two found solace in having similar professions, and also in how much admiration they held for one another.

Firstly, Gristwood details Vita’s rather unconventional childhood, before moving onto Woolf’s, which was shaken with many tragedies.  She examines the writing careers of both women, and the personal struggles which they faced at various points.  Also mentioned are Woolf and Sackville-West’s other affairs and infatuations.  The detail which has been included is rich, and there is certainly no lack of amusement.  Gristwood writes, for example, that ‘When Leonard was away, a playful contract required Virginia… that she would rest for a full half hour after lunch, be in bed by 10.25 every night, have her breakfast in bed and drink a whole glass of milk in the mornings.’

Of course, Gristwood devotes a whole chapter to how the two women met, and how their relationship went on to develop: ‘Vita would encourage her to be a little more adventurous on even the most practical levels – to dress more smartly and spend money.  Later in her friendship with Vita, Virginia would acknowledge how Vita opened new horizons for her.’  The start of their relationship appears to have been a real period of growth for them both.

Throughout, Gristwood quotes extensively from Virginia’s diary, and from the correspondence between the two women.  Contextually, too, Vita & Virginia is very well placed; Gristwood writes about the political climate, the growing fear of war, and the preparations made for this by both families.

Vita & Virginia is essentially part biography, part guidebook to the National Trust protected properties which both Woolf and Sackville-West inhabited throughout their lifetimes.  Of Knole in Kent, passed down through the male generations of the Sackville-West family, for instance, Gristwood understands that the property ‘was a whole world, a small village in itself’ to the young Vita.  Vita & Virginia is filled to the brim with beautiful photographs and illustrations, many of their various dwellings and glorious gardens, which are lovely to linger over.

Vita & Virginia is fascinating.  As something of a Woolf scholar, I did already know a lot of the information which Gristwood relays, but there were elements here that proved to be refreshingly new to me.  I found the biography a delight to read.  Vita & Virginia provides a wonderful introduction to the lives of both Woolf and Sackville-West, and the way in which their relationship evolved over time.  Despite running to less than 200 pages, Gristwood’s well written book feels thorough.  Her omniscient, almost neutral tone suits the book so well, and she gives so much for the reader to consider.

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‘Pepita’ by Vita Sackville-West **

Vita Sackville-West was a prolific author indeed, writing fiction (novels and short stories), poetry, biographical works, travel literature, and a column on gardening, amongst other things.  Vita Sackville-West’s Pepita, a biography which portrays the lives of both her grandmother, Josefa, whom she never met, and her mother Victoria, was first published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s The Hogarth Press in 1937.  The edition which I read was sadly not an original, but it did include rather a lovely introduction written by Alison Hennegan.

Josefa, lovingly known as Pepita to those around her, was ‘the half-gypsy daughter of an 9781784871161old-clothes pedlar from Malaga’, who made her fortune as a dancer, first in Madrid, and then as the ‘toast of all Europe’.  In May 1852, when she was just twenty-two years old, she arrived in London, already having been married and separated.  She soon met and became the ‘contented though severely ostracized mistress of Lionel Sackville-West, an English aristocrat and diplomat’. and bore him five illegitimate children, of whom Sackville-West’s mother was the second eldest.

After Pepita’s death, her nine-year-old daughter Victoria was sent to live in a convent, where she stayed until she was eighteen.  At this juncture, she was summoned to Washington to become ‘mistress’ of her diplomat father’s household.  She goes on to find herself ‘the volatile and wayward mistress of Knole’ in what is termed in Pepita‘s blurb as an ‘unlikely inheritance’.

In her introduction, Hennegan states: ‘For what appears to be a straightforward joint biography of her grandmother and mother becomes the means whereby Vita explores and makes sense for herself of those warring elements in her own past and temperament which most exercised and perplexed her.’  She goes on to say that for Vita, it was her ‘”Spanishness” which enabled her to accept her lesbianism comparatively easily, her “Englishness” which forbade anything as “vulgar” as a public acknowledgement of it.’  Sackville-West herself saw Pepita as a ‘gift to herself of the mother she almost had… [and] an extended love letter to the woman she wanted her mother to be.’  She writes: ‘Pepita, can I re-create you?  Come to me.  Make yourself alive again.  Vitality such as yours cannot perish.  I know so much about you: I have talked to old men who knew you, and they have all told me the same legend of your beauty’ of the section on her grandmother.  She extends this rule of exploration, and the hearsay she has been told, when she writes about, and tries to understand, her mother.

Despite Sackville-West’s proclamation in her own introduction to the book that everything which she has written is true, it seems rather fanciful and unrealistic at times.  Due to the style which Sackville-West has adopted, Pepita reads more like a novel than a work of biography.  The historical context has been used well, and does give one a feel for the backdrop which both Pepita and Victoria lived against.  Sackville-West does recognise that her portrayal of both her mother and grandmother are heavily biased as, of course, one would expect: ‘The one person who never speaks in this whole history, is Pepita herself.  We see her always objectively, never subjectively…  Pepita herself is never explicit.  In order to understand her at all, we have to find a piece from a different part of the puzzle, and fit it in.’

What I found most interesting about this account was the effect which Pepita had upon Lionel.  Sackville-West writes: ‘I mean no disrespect to my grandfather, but I do not think he was the man ever to enjoy dealing with a difficult situation: he far preferred to go away if he decently could and leave it to somebody else.  Hitherto, Pepita had ordered his life, and now [after her death] there was to be an uncomfortable period of transition until Pepita’s eldest daughter was of an age to assume the same responsibility.’  The psychological effects of the First World War which Sackville-West presents are also fascinating.

There is a lot of Vita herself within the book, and not just in the fact that she is writing about her ancestry.   She measures herself against her mother and grandmother at junctures, and is always passing her own opinion about their characters, or the decisions which they made.  Of course she has a strong connection with both of her subjects, but there is nothing objective about this biography; there is not the level of detachment and feeling of truthfulness which I expect of works of this kind.  Sackville-West does not remove her own self from the book enough for it to be anything like a full and far-reaching biography.

Pepita is a relatively entertaining book, but I feel as though it pales in comparison to much of Sackville-West’s other work.  It is difficult to take Pepita at face value, and it lacks that engagement which I have come to expect from Sackville-West’s books.  It is clear that her relationship with her mother was turbulent, but it feels at times as though episodes have been suppressed, or skimmed over.  There is no real explanation as to their relationship which lasts long enough to be entirely satisfying.  Overall, Pepita did not quite live up to my expectations.

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One From the Archive: ‘Challenge’ by Vita Sackville-West **

First published in June 2012.

Intended as ‘a romantic adventure story’, Challenge was Vita Sackville-West’s second work of fiction and was completed in 1920.  It follows her first novel, Heritage, which had ‘met with unusual acclaim’ according to her son.  Due to personal turmoil – the author’s affair with Violet Trefusis reaching its ‘peak’ – however, Challenge was not published in the United Kingdom until 1974, ‘for fear of the scandal it would cause’.  It has recently been reprinted by Virago.

The novel itself is semi-autobiographical.  Echoes of both Violet and Vita are realised in the characters of Eve and Julian respectively.  Challenge, according to Vera’s son, Nigel Nicolson, was essentially Sackville-West’s ‘declaration of defiance…  She wished to publish it as a memorial to what she had endured, as her statement of what love could and should be’.

The novel takes place upon a fictional Greek island named Herakleion, which is peopled by a ‘diplomatic, indigenous, and cosmopolitan society’.  It is ‘a little place’ where ‘one forgets that one is not at the centre of the world’.  Challenge opens with a character named Madame Lafarge and her daughter Julie, neither of whom are central characters.  Instead, Sackville-West has used them to give an overview of the historical and political background to ‘the Islands’.

Julian Davenport and his father, William, are soon introduced.  Despite his current studies at Oxford University, Julian was raised on the island and likes to think he knows the ins and outs of the society around him.  He is a very privileged young man, just nineteen years old when the novel begins and ‘no longer permitted to be a boy’.  The Davenport family ‘for three generations had been the wealthiest in the little state’.  A rather old fashioned uncle of Julian’s tells him rather patronisingly: ‘You don’t belong there, boy…  You’re English.  Bend the riches of that country to your own purpose…  Impose yourself.  Make ‘em adopt your methods.  That’s the strength of English colonisation’.

This edition includes an introduction by author Stella Duffy, as well as the original foreword written by Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, which was first added to the book in 1974.  Duffy believes that ‘in many ways, Sackville-West has written a classic Greek drama’.  In her introduction, she also states that she sees the main protagonists in the following way: ‘Eve as all-knowing, all-entrancing femme and Julian as passionate, political butch’.  Julian believes Eve to be ‘spoilt, exquisite, witty…  detached from such practical considerations as punctuality, convenience, [and] reliability’, whilst Eve concurrently views Julian with the utmost disinterest.

The third person omniscient narrative is split into three different sections, one of which follows Julian and another, Eve.  The storyline itself is weighted down by political occurrences and social beliefs, and is also rather heavy with regard to the historical context.  The account of the love which occurs between Julian and Eve is built up rather too gradually, and their tale is often sadly overshadowed by the context in which it takes place.

Sackville-West’s prose is rich and descriptive from the outset, and she is certainly at her best when describing the lush scenery of the island, which becomes a character in itself.  Her character descriptions are inventive – Julian’s ‘black wavy hair grew straight back, smoothed to the polish of a black greyhound’, Madame Lafarge’s bust is ‘generously furnished’, her husband is ‘majestically bearded’ and another man has a ‘wrinkled saffron face’.

Despite, or perhaps due to, the prose style, however, the novel is rather difficult to get into.  Some of the conversations throughout seem a little disjointed, particularly when important comments are made by one character and ignored by another.

To conclude, Challenge is unfortunately a rather disappointing novel.  Sackville-West is at her best when writing about England with its vast expanses of countryside and grand estates, and not of a country which she has never visited.  There is not the same sense of wonder or similar dazzling prose which fills novels such as All Passion Spent and Family History.  It is a shame, but Challenge seems to be lacking in something fundamental.

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Five Great… Novels (O-S)

I thought that I would make a series which lists five beautifully written and thought-provoking novels.  All have been picked at random, and are sorted by the initial of the author.  For each, I have copied the official blurb.  I’m sure that everyone will find something here that interests them.

1. The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell
“Frustrated with her parents’ genteel country life, Lexie Sinclair plans her escape to London. There, she takes up with Innes Kent, a magazine editor who introduces her to the thrilling, underground world of bohemian, postwar Soho. She learns to be a reporter, comes to know art and artists, and embraces her freedom fully. So when she finds herself pregnant, she doesn’t hesitate to have the baby on her own. Later, in present-day London, a young painter named Elina dizzily navigates the first weeks of motherhood and finds she can’t remember giving birth, while her boyfriend Ted is flooded with memories and images he cannot place. As their stories unfold–moving in time and changing voice chapter by chapter–a connection between the three of them takes shape that drives the novel towards a tremendous revelation. ”

2. Secrets of the Tides by Hannah Richell
“The Tides are a family with dark secrets. Haunted by the events of one tragic day ten years ago, they are each, in their own way, struggling to move forwards with their lives. Dora, the youngest daughter, lives in a ramshackle East End warehouse with her artist boyfriend Dan. Dora is doing a good job of skating across the surface of her life – but when she discovers she is pregnant the news leaves her shaken and staring back at the darkness of a long-held guilt. Returning to Clifftops, the rambling family house perched high on the Dorset coastline, Dora must confront her past. Clifftops hasn’t changed in years and moving through its rooms and gardens, Dora can still feel the echo of that terrible summer’s day when life changed forever for the Tides. As Dora begins her search for clues surrounding the events of that fateful day, she comes to realise that the path to redemption may rest with her troubled sister, Cassie. If Dora can unlock the secrets Cassie swore she would take to her grave, just maybe she will have a shot at salvation. But can long-held secrets ever really be forgiven? And even if you do manage to forgive and forget, how do you ever allow yourself to truly love again?”

3. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
“This is the story of Rahel and Estha, twins growing up among the banana vats and peppercorns of their blind grandmother’s factory, and amid scenes of political turbulence in Kerala. Armed only with the innocence of youth, they fashion a childhood in the shade of the wreck that is their family: their lonely, lovely mother, their beloved Uncle Chacko (pickle baron, radical Marxist, bottom-pincher) and their sworn enemy, Baby Kochamma (ex-nun, incumbent grand-aunt).”

4. The Dive from Clausen’s Pier by Ann Packer
“How much do we owe the people we love? Is it a sign of strength or weakness to walk away from someone in need? These questions lie at the heart of Ann Packer’s intimate and emotionally thrilling new novel, which has won its author comparisons with Jane Hamilton and Sue Miller. At the age of twenty-three Carrie Bell has spent her entire life in Wisconsin, with the same best friend and the same dependable, easygoing, high school sweetheart. Now to her dismay she has begun to find this life suffocating and is considering leaving it–and Mike–behind. But when Mike is paralyzed in a diving accident, leaving seems unforgivable and yet more necessary than ever. The Dive from Clausen’s Pier animates this dilemma–and Carrie’s startling response to it–with the narrative assurance, exacting realism, and moral complexity we expect from the very best fiction.”

5. No Signposts in the Sea by Vita Sackville-West
“Edmund Carr is at sea in more ways than one. An eminent journalist and self-made man, he has recently discovered that he has only a short time to live. Leaving his job on a Fleet Street paper, he takes a passage on a cruise ship where he knows that Laura, a beautiful and intelligent widow whom he secretly admires, will be a fellow passenger. Exhilarated by the distant vista of exotic islands never to be visited and his conversations with Laura, Edmund finds himself rethinking all his values. A voyage on many levels, those long purposeless days at sea find Edumnd relinquishing the past as he discovers the joys and the pain of a love he is simultaneously determined to conceal.”

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One From the Archive: ‘Challenge’ by Vita Sackville-West **

Intended as ‘a romantic adventure story’, Challenge was Vita Sackville-West’s second work of fiction and was completed in 1920. It follows her first novel, Heritage, which had ‘met with unusual acclaim’ according to her son. Due to personal turmoil – the author’s affair with Violet Trefusis reaching its ‘peak’ – however, Challenge was not published in the United Kingdom until 1974, ‘for fear of the scandal it would cause’. It has recently been reprinted by Virago.

The novel itself is semi-autobiographical. Echoes of both Violet and Vita are realised in the characters of Eve and Julian respectively. Challenge, according to Nigel Nicolson, was essentially Sackville-West’s ‘declaration of defiance… She wished to publish it as a memorial to what she had endured, as her statement of what love could and should be’.

The novel takes place upon a fictional Greek island named Herakleion, which is peopled by a ‘diplomatic, indigenous, and cosmopolitan society’. It is ‘a little place’ where ‘one forgets that one is not at the centre of the world’. Challenge opens with a character named Madame Lafarge and her daughter Julie, neither of whom are central characters. Instead, Sackville-West has used them to give an overview of the historical and political background to ‘the Islands’.

Julian Davenport and his father, William, are soon introduced. Despite his current studies at Oxford University, Julian was raised on the island and likes to think he knows the ins and outs of the society around him. He is a very privileged young man, just nineteen years old when the novel begins and ‘no longer permitted to be a boy’. The Davenport family ‘for three generations had been the wealthiest in the little state’. A rather old-fashioned uncle of Julian’s tells him rather patronisingly: ‘You don’t belong there, boy… You’re English. Bend the riches of that country to your own purpose… Impose yourself. Make ‘em adopt your methods. That’s the strength of English colonisation’.

This edition includes an introduction by author Stella Duffy, as well as the original foreword written by Sackville-West’s son, Nigel Nicolson, which was first added to the book in 1974. Duffy believes that ‘in many ways, Sackville-West has written a classic Greek drama’. In her introduction, she also states that she sees the main protagonists in the following way: ‘Eve as all-knowing, all-entrancing femme and Julian as passionate, political butch’. Julian believes Eve to be ‘spoilt, exquisite, witty… detached from such practical considerations as punctuality, convenience, [and] reliability’, whilst Eve concurrently views Julian with the utmost disinterest.

The third person omniscient narrative is split into three different sections, one of which follows Julian and another, Eve. The storyline itself is weighted down by political occurrences and social beliefs, and is also rather heavy with regard to the historical context. The account of the love which occurs between Julian and Eve is built up rather too gradually, and their tale is often sadly overshadowed by the context in which it takes place.

Sackville-West’s prose is rich and descriptive from the outset, and she is certainly at her best when describing the lush scenery of the island, which becomes a character in itself. Her character descriptions are inventive – Julian’s ‘black wavy hair grew straight back, smoothed to the polish of a black greyhound’, Madame Lafarge’s bust is ‘generously furnished’, her husband is ‘majestically bearded’ and another man has a ‘wrinkled saffron face’.

Despite, or perhaps due to, the prose style, however, the novel is rather difficult to get into. Some of the conversations throughout seem a little disjointed, particularly when important comments are made by one character and ignored by another.

To conclude, Challenge is unfortunately a rather disappointing novel. Sackville-West is at her best when writing about England with its vast expanses of countryside and grand estates, and not of a country which she has never visited. There is not the same sense of wonder or similar dazzling prose which fills novels such as All Passion Spent and Family History. It is a real shame, but Challenge seems to be lacking in something fundamental.

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Flash Reviews (10th April 2014)

‘Stag’s Leap’ by Sharon Olds

Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds ****
I was quite surprised to find any of Sharon Olds’ poetry in my library, and this was a volume which I immediately snapped up.  The book itself is beautiful, with its heavy cream cover and lovely burgundy frontispiece.  The various reviews on the cover of Stag’s Leap call it ‘essential reading’, and I certainly agree.  I absolutely adored her volume of Selected Poems, and hoped that I would love this just as much.

All of the poems within this volume are centered around Olds’ divorce from her husband of thirty years.  The book has been split into separate sections which relate to the seasons, allowing the reader to see how her grief at the situation manifests itself over time.  It is, as one would expect, incredibly heartwrenching at times:

“I tell him I will try to fall out of
love with him, but I feel I will love him
all my life.”

Olds’ poetry is so intelligent, and her imagery is stunning; she reminds me of Sylvia Plath in that respect.  I loved the different styles which she used throughout, and it is so brave to document such a loss in such bare and stark, yet beautiful, terms.  Stag’s Leap is a very dark collection, and whilst I did not find it as enjoyable as her Selected Poems, it is a great selection nonetheless.  Olds is definitely one of my favourite contemporary poets.

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Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley ***
Parnassus on Wheels is the prequel to Christopher Morley’s Haunted Bookshop novel, the first in a series of three books.  The entire novella is told from the female perspective of Helen McGill, and Morley renders the voice of his narrator most believably.  She is the younger sister of celebrated author Andrew McGill, and is not at all forgiving of her brother’s ardent bookishness.  Merely to spite him, she purchases the ‘Travelling Parnassus’, a done-up vehicle of sorts which travels around selling books – or, to be more precise, ‘good books’.  Helen wants to have an adventure of her own, and in doing so, to ‘play a trick’ upon her brother.

The siblings are very different indeed.  Helen says that her brother is ‘just as unpractical and fanciful as a young girl’, and Andrew too has trouble taking her seriously.  Parnassus on Wheels is very witty, and its ideas about books are just lovely:

“When you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue – you sell him a whole new life.  Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night – there’s all heaven and earth in a book.”

Though short, Parnassus on Wheels is a really sweet read, and my favourite elements of it were related to the joy of reading, which Morley clearly shares with his characters.  It is highly recommended to anyone bookish who has a fondness for quaint literature.

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The Edwardians by Vita Sackville-West ***

‘The Edwardians’ by Vita Sackville-West

I started The Edwardians on a trip to London, and found when I began the typical style of Sackville-West, whom I am so fond of.  This novel, like many of her others, is a comedy of manners.  It is a witty book, rather acerbic, and is focused solely upon the upper classes.  It is not dissimilar to Family History, really, but I did not find it quite as amusing, nor as enjoyable.  For me, the most interesting characters in this novel were the siblings Sebastian and Viola, but they were sadly not present throughout.  Regardless, I still very much enjoyed Sackville-West’s writing style.

The Edwardians, which begins in 1905, feels almost Downton Abbey-esque part way through, and not being a big fan of the television series (I did enjoy the first season, but I think it became a little ridiculous after that), this did put me off a little.  The storyline, for me, became just like an episode of Downton, in which little happens from one week – or, in this case, page – to the next.  I found that huge chunks of it could probably be missed out without any adverse effects.

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