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Sunday, 4 September 2011

The Group by Mary McCarthy

This book had been sitting on my shelf since I stumbled across it in a charity shop about a year ago.  I think it had been re-issued a couple of months previously and there was a good deal of buzz about it.  As with so many books that I pick up second-hand I didn't get around to reading it straight away and then it got forgotten as other more demanding books took my fancy.

When I noticed a couple of weeks ago my enthusiasm for it had completely waned.  It was only because I had just finished Lucy Moore's wonderful Biography of the Roaring Twenties: Anything Goes that I was considering reading it.  But if there is one thing I have learnt over my years of reading it is that just because a book doesn't feel like the right book to read at the moment doesn't mean that you won't enjoy it and be proved utterly wrong.  And so it was with The Group.  I'm not sure how, but I had the impression that this was a non-fiction book.  That was my first eyebrow-raising moment.  Second was the joy of Candace Bushnell's introduction.  If I had previously doubted whether I wanted to read the book or not I had completely changed my mind by the end of the Introduction.  Candace describes it as a book that her Mother had recommended to her as a teenager.  At that age she had not enjoyed it and I think therein lies the secret of this book.  The story, of a group of girl-friends from Vassar college, follows the girls as they make their way in the big, bad world outside of college.  They all have hopes, dreams and expectations, just like young women today, and they none of them quite know what life will throw at them.  Suffice to say that within the group they all suffer, they all gain and they all show strength and resilience in the face of challenges and disappointments.  Their story is timeless.  OK, so the specifics may have changed, but the central theme of the story is that we cannot predict how life will turn out... and that's not a bad thing.  My only criticism of the book is that it could have told me more.  I had grown to love these women, for all their idiosyncrasies and flaws.  They reminded me of friends, acquaintances and colleagues and their stories were all ones I had seen play out in real life, and for that reason I understand why it might not appeal to younger readers.  It is the mirror it holds up to our own lives (and those of our friends) that make it such an intriguing and genuinely touching read.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory

I would describe Philippa Gregory's historic fiction as a guilty pleasure but you know what? I don't actually feel that guilty about it.  Her writing is compelling and enjoyable and she really makes the characters come alive, by giving them motives and backgrounds.  This is the second of the Cousins trilogy and is as fascinating and well written as The White Queen.  Following the life of Margaret Beaufort, we see the Lancastrian side of the story this time and what I really enjoyed was the cross-over between the two books.  Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth Woodville's lives are set against each other and reflect the contrasts and conflicts of the Lancastrians and the Yorks.

I'm sure for scholars or students of the period the historic fact is a little too black and white, but for me it simply enthuses me and makes me want to learn more about the period, which can only be a good thing, surely?

Sunday, 13 February 2011

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

Discovering Anthony Trollope is a wonderful experience - The Warden by Anthony Trollope is the first of his Barsetshire novels and only my second ever Trollope read.  Having been a life-long fan of Dickens, I admit to being a little biased and resisting Trollope for some time.  I'm so glad that I decided to go against my better judgement and give Trollope a chance.  His writing is just wonderful and his characters more than compare to Dickens.

The Warden tells the story of Septimus Harding who is the warden (no surprise there) of an almshouse in Barchester.  The plot centres around a legal action against Mr Harding, challenging the living he makes from the wardenship.  Trollope examines the effects of investigative journalism on those involved and how it colours opinions and can damage reputations.  There is biting satire  - Dickens is lambasted as Mr Popular Sentiment, an author writing novels pandering to the masses and manipulating their emotions.  But it is also a story about human relationships and what brings us happiness.

Anthony Trollope

What I find so intriguing about this novel is how it has remained so fresh and applicable to society today.  Journalism and publishing still influence opinion and can manipulate the general public.

Mr Popular Sentiment
While I will never turn my back on Dickens, I can now appreciate that Trollope is a writer of equal importance and possibly greater talent.  While Dickens embraced and shaped popular thought and opinion Trollope questioned and challenged them and in some ways this makes Trollope's work more universal and lasting.  I'm really looking forward to reading the rest of the Barsetshire novels and am grateful that Trollope was as prolific as Dickens!

One Day by David Nicholls

I don't think I would have ordinarily picked this book up were it not for a string of recommendations by book bloggers and friends.  One Day by David Nicholls turned out to be one of those books that really took me surprise.  It started off as straight-forward.  It's the story of two people who spent one night and day together following their university graduation.  We then catch up with them on the anniversary of that day (St Swithin's day) over the next twenty years.  I think the beauty of this book is that it all seems so real - Emma and Dexter are people you know, the situations they find themselves in are those that we, or our friends, go through.  It's a book about the things in life that matter - love, friendship and realising your dreams.  I started off thinking it was going to be a story that I have read a million times before and yet the brilliant thing about David Nicholls is that he manages to make this seemingly standard love story different and memorable.  For all the things about the story that are familiar, there are still moments that surprise, and shock.

There's an up-coming film adaptation of One Day, due later this year, starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess.  Having seen (and enjoyed) other films and tv projects that David Nicholls has written (Starter for Ten and Cold Feet) I have no doubt that this adaptation will work really well.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Brighton Rock - the film

Went to see Brighton Rock at the lovely Reigate Everyman cinema this afternoon, and am still a little undecided about it.  Of course, there is no arguing that the cinematography is beautiful and the acting, for the most part, is wonderful.  Andrea Riseborough gives Rose an innocence and childlike quality that goes some way to making her character believable.  Sam Riley, whilst certainly brooding and menacing wasn't much else and we never got a sense of why he was the way he was.  I haven't read the book, but watching the film made me wonder how much more there is in the novel than they were able to squeeze into the film.  So much of the story seems to be unexplained - I don't think we saw enough of Rose and her home life to understand her willingness to devote herself unconditionally to Pinkie.  The religious aspects of the story are glossed over and there are many sub-plots which are hinted at, but left undeveloped.  It may be that the book is much the same but I felt that many of the characters seemed quite flat because their motives were unexplained.  On the plus side, the film certainly gave me a good deal to think about - what makes us love or trust people the people we do, what are we driven by? - and it also made me want to read the novel!

Footsteps in the Dark by Georgette Heyer

Having read my first Georgette Heyer crime novel a couple of weeks ago, I thought I knew what to expect from Footsteps in the Dark and it started off true to form.  Celia, her husband Charles and siblings Peter and Margaret have moved into the Priory which the Fortescue children have inherited from their Uncle.  The locals are full of tales about The Monk - a mysterious ghost that haunts the Priory and its surroundings.  So the Edwardian country house is there, as are the upper class heroes - but this novel has more than a touch of the supernatural about it and for much of the first half of the book I was convinced this was more of a ghost story than a crime fiction.

Heyer is so readable and perfectly draws you into the story - and that is what I love about her books.  They are complete escapism and while the mysteries are not the most complex (I confess to guessing the ending, although not that much before it was revealed!) and yet it remains a real page-turner.  Thank heavens she was such a prolific writer - these are the sort of novels I love to have 'on standby' for those times when I want an easy, enjoyable read.
Anthony Trollope

Putting aside Heyer, I have now thrown myself into the world of Barsetshire and begun The Warden by Anthony Trollope.  I have only previously read one Trollope, The Way We Live Now, and I thought it was wonderful and I am very hopeful that The Warden will also deliver!  Trollope's characters are so vividly created and his writing so smooth that it makes his novels an absolute joy to read.  Much as it pains me to say, I may even end up preferring Trollope to Dickens...

Pretty Woman at the Prince Charles cinema

 Some friends and I went to see Pretty Woman and the Prince Charles cinema in Leicester Square last night.  It's one of my favourite films and I don't think I had ever seen it on the big screen.  It was one of those really lovely cinema experiences when everyone there loves the film, the audience are all in-tune with each other.  Going to see a film you know is such a different experience to seeing something brand new.  At the start of the film I was wondering how much of it I would remember - and about ten minutes into the fim all of us found ourselves mouthing along to some of the lines.  And of course the music is fantastic!  The cinema were showing this as part of their 'Feel Good Friday' series and that's exactly what it was - we all came out of the film feeling really happy (and after the day some of us had at work, that was no mean feat!) and ready for the weekend.  Even on the train home we were still talking about it - and the chap sitting next to me (easily in his fifties) even joined in to say how much he loved the film (although for him it was Julia Roberts' smile that made it a favourite!

Of course, is made me want to go home and drag out all my old favourite films - Back to the Future, The Sure Thing, The Breakfast Club... and anything with Richard Gere in it!  There is something about him that is just so watchable.  Unfortunately, the only thing I have at home starring Gere is Chicago, and I wouldn't say that is one of his greatest moments.  So, I'm off to LoveFilm to stock up on Yanks, American Gigolo and An Officer and a Gentleman!

Sunday, 30 January 2011

A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

I kept seeing these beautiful editions of Elizabeth Taylor's novels in the library and local bookshops until I could no longer resist!  I had also read several other book bloggers who all sung the praises of Taylor's books.  So, with that sense of excitement one gets when about to discover a new author you are sure you're going to love, I picked up A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor from my local library.

A Game of Hide and Seek tells the story of Harriet and Vesey, childhood friends whose love is suppressed over many years, through circumstances both in and out of their control.  After many summers spent together at Vesey's aunt's house, Harriet and Vesey drift apart.  He goes to university, moving into a different social sphere.  Harriet meets and marries Charles - a kind man who was jilted by his first love.  She is not in love with Charles, but they fall into marriage because there seems no other option.  When Vesey comes back into Harriet's life she is torn between the true and deep love and connection she feels to Vesey and the loyalty she feels towards Charles.  Thrown into the mix aswell is Harriet's teenage daughter Betsy, who becomes obsessed with Vesey and his relationship with her mother.

Taylor's writing is just right - not too meandering and descriptive and not too sparse and clinical.  The story is littered with interesting and comic bit players who add to the reality of the world she is creating.  I particularly enjoyed the female camaraderie of the girls in the gown shop where Harriet worked and how she grew from a girl to a young woman.  It is these women who teach her 'femininity' and that there is more to being a woman than men.

For me, the cleverness of this novel is the way in which Taylor so carefully balances the different aspects of the story.  As a reader you feel no anger towards Harriet as she spends more time with Vesey behind Charles's back.  Instead, all I really felt was her confusion as to what was truly right - the age-old quandary of heart or mind.

One of the most interesting ideas Taylor explores is that we are born 'complete' in terms of personality, and that life is merely the unfolding and revealing of that true whole self.

I loved this book and will certainly read more Elizabeth Taylor - beautifully written, with humour and pathos.  There may not be much in terms of plot, but in some ways this is an even more skilled type of story-telling - one which teaches us something about the human condition and makes us think about our own motives and decisions.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Penhallow by Georgette Heyer

I think I may well have stumbled across a new guilty pleasure - Penhallow by Georgette Heyer is the type of book that makes commuting a joy.  I actually began to look forward to my train journey in the morning (and considering it is still dark when I leave the house, that is no mean feat) because it meant half an hour of pure escapism.  Georgette Heyer is probably best known for her Regency period novels, but she also wrote a number of Edwardian novels.  What really caught my eye with Penhallow was the wonderful cover - so beautifully Art Deco!

So, on with the book.  Heyer's writing style is very easy to read.  She creates interesting characters and her dialogue is believable.  Penhallow had comedy and tragedy and moved seamlessly between the two, without trivialising either.  For me, there were genuinely heart-breaking moments and the comic moments, although not perhaps laugh-out-loud funny, certainly raised a wry smile.

The story follows a large, aristocratic family dominated by the cantankerous and devilish Adam Penhallow (an interesting choice of name - Adam, the first man?)  Penhallow enjoys playing with people and rules his house with fear.  His first wife is set on a pedestal, whilst his second wife can do nothing right and is bullied and humiliated by her husband.  Penhallow has called all his children back to the family home for his birthday and we see the whole dynamic of the family creaking and breaking under the pressure.

What is most unusual about this novel in terms of it being a murder-mystery is that there is no mystery.  We know who the murderer is and how/when they commit the murder.  We already have the inside story, so what is clever is how convincing and believable the false leads are.  Despite knowing the culprit, I couldn't help getting drawn in by the possibilities of the other suspects.

All in all, not a masterpiece but a good read none-the-less.  A great example of a book that can take you to another place and time and make you forget the ordinary and everyday for the time you are reading it.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

The Rising Tide by Molly Keane

The Rising Tide is the third book I have read by Molly Keane and she continues to be an absolute delight.  The Rising Tide, written in 1937, was originally published under the pseudonym of M J Farrell.  At that time it was considered inappropriate for women of Molly's social status to write novels and she wanted to hide her creative literary side from her hunting friends.  It was not until 1981 when she began writing again after a break of nearly thirty years that she published under her own name.

Her novels describe the lifestyles of the Anglo Irish - a lifestyle with hunting and outdoor pursuits at the very heart of it.  Her characters are complex and interesting and her books are full of subtle humour.  She does not write comic novels, but her characterisations and plots are full of comedy.  She also explores the darker side of that lifestyle - the competitive and snobbish pre-occupation with appearances and the all encompassing obsession with horses and hounds.

In The Rising Tide we meet the French-McGraths - Lord Ambrose and Lady Charlotte live in Garonlea, a Gothic mansion with their four daughters and one son.  Lady Charlotte rules the house, insisting on standards of behaviour totally at odds with the interests of the children.  When Desmond falls in love with and marries the beautiful Cynthia, Lady Charlotte's reign comes under threat.  Cynthia befriends Diana, the youngest daughter, and Diana comes to live with her in Rathglass, a house in the grounds of Garonlea which Cynthia has taken possession of from some elderly relatives (in her perfectly charming way).

When tragedy strikes and Desmond is killed in the war, the status quo slowly begins to unravel as Cynthia eventually takes control of Garonlea.

With such a great cast of characters it would be hard not to love this book.  Molly creates such a fascinating and richly described atmosphere - the house and the family really come to life.

So, from an author I have read twice before to a brand new experience.  Somehow, I have managed to never read a Georgette Heyer novel.  I think this was mainly because I always thought all her novels were set in the Regency period and this never particularly appealed to me.  On Saturday in the library I stumbled across a number of her novels set in the Edwardian era, and so I decided to take the plunge.  I am starting with Penhallow... I'll let you know how I get on!

Saturday, 15 January 2011

The King's Speech

I went to see The King's Speech last night in Reigate at the Everyman cinema.  Firstly, I have to sing the praises of the cinema, which is an absolute gem.  With only two screens, they are quite selective about the films they show and being part of a small chain they offer a much more personal and friendly experience than the multiplexes which have overtaken the market.  The manager gives a quick chat at the beginning of each performance, they produce a great monthly magazine, have fantastic drinks and snacks in the bar and even sell ice-creams between the trailers and the feature.  If you're lucky enough to live near an Everyman cinema please do give them a try (if you haven't already!)  They deserve to have the support of anyone who appreciates good films and the magic of the cinema.

OK, so gushing praise for the cinema, but what of the film?  More of the same I am afraid!  I am always slightly wary of going to see any film that is surrounded by a huge amount of hype; the potential for disappointment is always so much greater!  I can honestly say that The King's Speech met and exceeded my expectations.  There are so many wonderful things about it that I am not even sure where to begin.  I had expected it to be quite a sombre film, but there are laugh-out-loud moments, mostly in the scenes with Lionel Logue, the speech therapist.  Geoffrey Rush plays the part beautifully - quiet and understated but completely dedicated to his task. 

In fact, each part is played beautifully.  Of course, Colin Firth is an absolute marvel.  When I first heard the casting for this film, I could not picture how Colin Firth could make a good Bertie - he seems too 'solid' and down to earth - but his portrayal is touching and utterly convincing.  Helena Bonham-Carter is perfect as Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (not that I expected anything else) and Guy Pearce quite chilling as the Duke of Windsor.  And who would have thought that Timothy Spall could play such a convincing and instantly recognisable Winston Churchill?

Although there are some moments of slightly clunky exposition, I think it has actually been very finely balanced - it's not dumbed-down, nor is it inaccessible to anyone who knows nothing of the history or events of that era and the abdication crisis.

An absolute delight of a film - I laughed and cried - and I really hope that it makes its mark in the awards' season and I firmly believe that Colin Firth can now step boldly from the shadow of Mr Darcy and stake his claim as one of the best contemporary British actors, pending full status as a National Treasure.

This is the first of many must-see films this year.  I am already beside myself with excitement about the release of Never Let Me Go having absolutely loved the novel.  Carey Mulligan is a captivating actress and I have even begun to appreciate Keira Knightley's talents after her performance in The Duchess.

The cinematography in the trailer looks gorgeous and the story is so deeply emotional that I cannot see how this can fail to be a fantastic cinema experience.

Also, there is Brighton Rock, an adaptation of the Graham Greene novel.  Interestingly I hear that Carey Mulligan was originally cast in the role of Rose, but ended up doing Wall Street 2 instead (having seen neither film I cannot comment on her decision!)  

I have only ever read one Graham Greene Novel (The End of the Affair) so don't really know what to expect, but the trailer looks amazing.  The other advantage of not having read the book in this case is that I won't be offended or upset by the setting of the story in the 1960s, rather than the 1930s as in the novel.

So, plenty to look forward to in the first few months of 2011.  I am planning on settling down later with Empire magazine and poring through their preview of up-coming films.  What films are you itching to see?

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Henry: Virtuous Prince by David Starkey

Having all but forgotten I was reading this book in the excitement of Christmas and New Year, I finally finished Henry: Virtuous Prince by David Starkey on Friday.  I say finally not because it is an arduous read, only because I can be an incredibly slow reader sometimes!  David Starkey has a very definite style to his writing, partly influenced I suspect by his academic and inquisitive nature.  This is particularly noticeable I felt, by Starkey's use of probing questions at the end of many paragraphs and chapters.

On his marriage to his brother's widow, Catherine of Aragon:
"Did Henry supress his doubts?  Had he forgotten them?  Did he even utter them in the first place?  Or were his views invented, or at least glossed, by a hostile councillor?  We do not know"

On Elizabeth of York's third time of seeking refuge in the Tower of London:
"Now she was a refugee in the tower again.  Would it be the sanctuary next?  Or worse?  And what of Henry?  Was he to follow in the footsteps of Richard of Shrewsbury for one last, terrible time?"
Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk

Of course, these are valid questions as much of this period of history is unknown, or clouded by propaganda and the mists of time, but it is one of those quirks of style that, once you notice it, can become quite tiring.

I find it quite difficult reading books about 'older' history, partly because so much is unknown, or based on supposition and deduction, but also because of names.  It's challenging to keep tabs on everyone when they all have so many different names.

Take, for example, Thomas Howard.  That's Thomas Howard, son of Thomas Howard and father of Thomas Howard.  The Thomas Howard I am referring to is the one who married Anne of York (one of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville's daughters).  He was also the third Duke of Norfolk and third Earl of Surrey, as well as Lord High Admiral, Lord High Treasurer and Earl Marshall at various times in his political career.  So perhaps you see my problem?  Or perhaps not?  I am sure those with greater knowledge of Tudor history have by now got their heads around this issue, but I am afraid I am still struggling!  Thankfully, Dr Starkey does provide a family tree, but of course there are all those characters that are not 'family' who figure in the story.

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein (1537)
All this aside, I did enjoy this book especially as I was lucky enough to go to one of the talks Dr Starkey gave at the British Library as part of his curatorship of the Henry exhibition last year.  He spoke about the influences on the young Henry and how events in his life changed him from the dashing and chivalric hero of his early life, to the tyrannical and power-crazed monarch immortalised by the famous Hans Holbein portrait.  What is apparent was that the young Henry was not raised to be King - his brother Arthur was nurtured as the future King whilst Henry was left to be raised along with his sisters.  The young Henry was fun, sporty, virile and charming.  He surrounded himself with friends and those of like mind.  And he was used to getting his own way and being adored.

Henry VIII continues to fascinate and I am sure we will never tire of his story.  Certainly as long as academics like David Starkey continue to investigate and speculate over motives and reasons the story will never feel it is finished being told.  I am certainly looking forward to the next installment 'Henry: Model of a Tyrant" due for publication later this year.

A Flea in her Ear at the Old Vic

I bought tickets for A Flea in her Ear at the Old Vic as a Christmas present for my Mum and Dad, as well as tickets for me and my husband.  So yesterday we all headed off to enjoy an afternoon of fast-paced French farce.

As I've got older I have started to appreciate the joys of a Saturday matinĂ©e performances.  Late morning train into London, delicious leisurely lunch and a glass of white wine at Auberge near Waterloo station, walk down to the Old Vic, enjoy French farce, home by 6pm (and managing to avoid any football crowds).  Perfect.

Sadly, Tom Hollander was 'indisposed' and not performing.  A real shame as he was one of my main reasons for booking tickets, but I don't think his absence detracted from the play one bit.  The understudy Greg Baldock was fantastic, although for me the real stars of the show were Freddie Fox as Camille and John Marquez as Carlos Homenides de Histangua - both parts played beautifully for laughs, but without becoming purely comical.  Of course, having said this I can also see that Tom Hollander would be superb in the role of Victor Emmanuel, and I am sure his performance is an absolute treat for those lucky enough to see him.  I had never heard of the play (or playwright, Georges Faydeau) before but reading the programme I see that it was big influence on Fawlty Towers and this is glaringly obvious when you see the play.

The other great joy in going to the theatre is buying a programme and drooling over what to see next.  I now have a growing list of things I want to go and see over the next few months.  I have already booked tickets with my best friend to go and see In A Forest Dark and Deep (influenced purely by the fact that is stars Matthew Fox of Lost fame), but now have three other events to add to my list.

Of course, there's The Wizard of Oz opening in February at the Palladium, then there's Richard III at the Old Vic in June (with Kevin Spacey in the lead role and Sam Mendes directing this is a MUST SEE) and also Season's Greetings (the Alan Ayckbourn play) is still running at the National Theatre.  I must admit, my brother in law had mentioned this to me ages ago (as I am a big fan of Mark Gatiss) and I utterly failed to do anything about booking tickets.  Thankfully it's on until mid March, so there's still time!

Monday, 3 January 2011

2010 Summary - Highs and Lows

I always find it difficult to look back over the year's reading and remember exactly how I felt about each book.  I seem to be so wrapped up in each book as I read it that all previous books fade into the background (for good and bad).  Of course, that's where a well-maintained blog would really help out, but as I have not managed to do that this year, I will instead have to rely mainly on memory...(could be interesting!)

Top 5 Books read this year
follow the link to read either my review or to see the Amazon page for these titles
Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Shirley Jackson
The Go-Between - LP Hartley
Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides
Good Behaviour  - Molly Keane

Favourite Non-Fiction read this year
Bess of Hardwick - Mary S Lovell
(although Stephen Fry's The Fry Chronicles comes a very close second!)

What I have found interesting looking back over the books I read in 2010 is how many of them were in some way or another a surprise.  There were books I had eagerly awaited that didn't quite match up to my (admittedly very high) expectations (The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters and The Children's Book by AS Byatt), books I read that I didn't expect to enjoy at all (Rabbit Run by John Updike and Sum: 40 Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman) and books that I read under recommendation and didn't enjoy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson and The Present and the Past by Ivy Compton-Burnett).

I'm glad that my reading experiences over the past twelve months have been so varied.  In 2011 I hope to keep this going - mixing fiction with non-fiction and reading books that I know I will enjoy, as well as taking the odd risk.

I will also endeavour to keep up to date with blogging - both writing and reading.  I really do enjoy reading others' opinions on books - finding common ground with other book fanatics as well as discovering new books and authors and exploring the new worlds these open up.

Thanks to all those bloggers whose blogs have inspired me to go out and read something different, and for sharing your thoughts and opinions in such interesting and varied ways; and also to those who have commented on my blogs.

Here's to a bookish 2011!