Saturday 30 August 2008

More Elizabeth Taylor

A View of the Harbour focuses on the inhabitants of the unfashionable end of a small seaside town. Beth writes novels which absorb her to the extent that she fails to notice her husband's affair with her best friend Tory who lives next door. The beautiful Tory's main pre-occupation is her wardrobe and her immaculate hyacinth-scented house. Prudence is Beth's highly-strung teenage daughter who is obsessed with her Siamese cats. Mrs Bracey is a loud-mouthed busy-body who likes to bully her daughters and observe the goings-on in the town. Just when you think that there is a fundamental unpleasantness to most of the characters in this novel they present their human side. Tory sobs when she sends her young son off to boarding school. Beth's maternal nature asserts itself over her writing career and Mrs Bracey is wracked with pain and ill-health. My favourite character is Beth's five-year old daughter, the adorable Stevie, who loves to give home-made presents made from flowers, feathers and broken jewellery threaded with wool. An absorbing and enjoyable read.

Wednesday 27 August 2008

Antonia White

During my stay in the Isle of Wight I visited my favourite second hand book shop Ventnor Rare Books and picked up the first two volumes of the famous quartet of novels by Antonia White for the princely sum of £1.00 and £1.50! I began Frost in May last night and have been virtually unable to put it down since. The story of nine-year old Nanda's arrival and upbringing at a convent combines the best of the traditional boarding school story with the deeper resonance of faith and conflict. The second volume The Lost Traveller looks promising, too.

Wednesday 20 August 2008

Bank Holiday Weekend Reading

We're off to the Isle of Wight for the long weekend. I'm taking this old favourite in its fancy new cover. Of course, it's E M Delafield's Diary of a Provincial Lady. We're hoping for sunshine, shell-collecting and breezy walks along the beach. Looking at the weather forecast it may be rain, wind and storm. Unfortunately, Life is Like That.

Sunday 17 August 2008

Mariana by Monica Dickens

This novel begins after the outbreak of World War II. Mary is sitting listening to the radio when she hears that the ship her husband is on has hit a mine and sunk. While she waits anxiously for news she recalls her childhood days in Cornwall, her teenage years spent in pursuit of her handsome cousin Denys, her miserable time at drama college in London and her wild love affair in Paris. This is an absorbing coming of age story. Monica Dickens has a light, almost flippant comic touch and yet convincingly describes the angst of adolescence. The scenes where Mary accompanies her elusive cousin Denys to an Oxford ball are amusing yet painful.

If I have one teensy criticism of the novel it is that too many characters are introduced in the first chapters. I used to blame myself as a reader if I had to keep turning back pages to remember which character was which. I now think that the writer is responsible for clarity. However, I would recommend this very English novel as an enjoyable summer read.

Thursday 14 August 2008

Precious Bane

To conjure even for a moment, the wistfulness which is the past is like trying to gather in one's arms the hyacinthine colour of the distance.

So begins Mary Webb's 1924 novel, Precious Bane. The inventive and beautiful description of the distance as 'hyacinthine' made me immediately want to read this novel which is set in a rural community in Shropshire at the time of Waterloo. Prue Sarn lives with her ill-tempered father, ambitious brother and down-trodden mother who retains a 'married-all-oer' look'. Afflicted with a harelip, Prue knows she will never marry and is forced to spend her days working for her mercenary brother. Despite her gentle nature Prue is the subject of speculation that she must be a witch because of her appearance, but her natural intelligence asserts itself and she finds love, too. Precious Bane is a highly original novel and Mary Webb perfectly captures the vernacular.

But I tell ye not every troth ends in church, not every ring holds wedlock, not every bride-groom takes his vargin, and I dunna like the match!

Tuesday 12 August 2008

Someone at a Distance

Ellen is a cheerful housewife and loving mother who delights in her beautiful old manor house, Netherfold, with its rambling garden, cherry tree and stables. She is blissfully unaware that the young French woman her mother-in-law hires as a companion has her eye on her husband. The manoeuvres of the ambitious and opinionated Mademoiselle Louise Lanier with her magenta lips and matching nails would ring alarm bells with almost any woman but the selfless Ellen and, as a reader, you want to warn her to send the little tart packing!

I'm not going to give the story away, but a lesser novelist would have Ellen undergoing some kind of makeover in order to make her husband desire her again. Fortunately, Dorothy Whipple provides a far more subtle, poignant and perceptive portrayal of marriage and family life which is not without humour. A wonderful book which I couldn't put down.

Saturday 9 August 2008

Trying again with Elizabeth Taylor

I read In a Summer Season last year and quite liked it but it doesn't stand out in my memory. I found Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont very well-written but a little depressing. I enjoyed Angel very much but it's not a favourite novel which I'll want to read over and over again.

However, I'm not ready to give up on Elizabeth Taylor yet! I can't decide to whether to try Blaming or A View of the Harbour. Any suggestions?

Monday 4 August 2008

Two Persephone titles

I've just re-read The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett. This is one of my favourite Persephone titles. I particularly like Part 1 with its Mitford-esque humour and cast of eccentric characters. Part 2 is a little more melodramatic and certainly darker but keeps you guessing until the end.

I wanted a substantial novel to read for August so I've bought Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple, an author new to me. At over 400 pages, this should do nicely. I'm two chapters in and I like her writing very much.

Friday 1 August 2008

Ballet Shoes - not for everyone?

My daughters loved the BBC television adaption of Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes which was screened at Christmas. I bought them this new edition of the book but neither of them finished reading it. They liked the opening chapter where Gum keeps bringing home orphaned babies. They liked the rivalry between Pauline and Winifred at the auditions. They couldn't understand why Garnie and Nana had to keep making clothes for Pauline, Petrova and Posy. Why couldn't they just buy them from Primark?! They have now resumed reading Cathy Cassidy and Jacqueline Wilson who seem to have cornered the market in fiction for pre-teen girls. Maybe we shouldn't impose our favourite childhood books on our children and expect them to enjoy them as much as we did, but I was kind of sad that they didn't finish Ballet Shoes.