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Persephone Pleasures: The Blank Wall by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding

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It’s always a mistake to plan reading – I knew it, I knew it! I had wanted to read this for quite some time and ordered it from the library – as it just turned up I felt obliged to read it, and I’m so glad I did – very impressed!

The Persephone page for the book quotes the New Yorker: ‘A suburban matron, harassed by wartime domestic problems – her husband is overseas – finds herself implicated in the murder of her young daughter’s extremely unattractive beau’ and goes on to state: This tense and fast-paced novel is about maternal love and about the heroine’s relationship with those around her, especially her children and her maid.

The novel was first published in 1947, and the wartime setting is very realistic and it’s also interesting to see how this affected the USA. The heroine, Lucia Holley, is living outside New York with her father, teenage children Bee and David, and loyal maid/household help Sybil. Bee, who is at art school, is starting to reject her mother’s rather passive, traditional female role and is attracted by lively types who she can’t see are actually very bad types! After her aforementioned beau is murdered, Lucia is forced into action to protect those around her and starts to come into contact with the kind of people she would never usually go anywhere near – blackmailers, bootleggers, petty thugs and the like. Her certainties gradually unravel and the novel is certainly very, very suspenseful. I had to read it in two large chunks because I couldn’t wait to find out what happens.

One of the things I liked about this novel was the fact that it worked on many different levels. There was the mystery itself, and Lucia herself being thrust into dealing with people and situations she’d never come across before – and proving how strong and resilient she was. However, there were a number of subtexts as well. Lucia’s relationship with Sybil was pivotal to the plot and as the novel progressed we found out about Sybil’s life, marriage and the unfair treatment of her husband. This revelation informed Lucia’s attitude to the law later in the book and there seemed to be a discreet but definite critique of racist attitudes – even early in the book, Lucia says straight away they will not deal with a particular trader because he is rude to Sybil.

There is also the attitude displayed towards Lucia by her family. Her son David is actually very bullying and patronising, and Bee also dismisses her mother out of hand for marrying young and having no experience of life. She is therefore very, very puzzled when her beau revealed as a wrong ‘un which her mother could see instantly, but she couldn’t! As the novel progresses, Lucia is appalled when she realises how much at the beck and call of her family she is and how she can barely have a moment alone without one of them wanting her, or wanting to know what she’s doing. Only her father seems to accept her as Lucia the person and not just the cipher of a wife and mother. When her actions stray out of their accepted norms, the children are shocked and immediately assume that the man she is spending time with to try to avert trouble is a lover – obviously the concept of male/female friendship doesn’t exist in their world!

This character – Martin Donnelly – is one of the most interesting in the book. Although on the wrong side of the law, Lucia can’t help liking him and he ends up being the only person who can get her out of the mess her daughter has got the family into. Martin obviously comes to care quite deeply for Lucia although this of course never goes anywhere. I won’t say too much more as I really don’t want to spoil the book for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, but suffice to say the resolution is excellent. This is one of Persephone’s best re-releases and comes highly recommended if you want a well written, complex, exciting and intelligent thriller!

All Virago/All August – well, almost!

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This is my first year as part of the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group and one of the reading projects the group undertakes is All Virago/All August. As I’ve amassed quite a few Viragos recently (ahem!) I think I’ll join in as it will be a good way to reduce my tbr. I’m not sure if I will make it through the whole month on only Viragos, and I’ve found recently that planning my reading in advance doesn’t always work, but these are the titles I’ve chosen so far:

I’m particularly looking forward to sinking myself into the Storm Jameson trilogy which sounds fascinating. Also Barbara Comyns comes highly recommended and is fairly slim if I don’t get enough reading time!

Just so I don’t get too bogged down I’m allowing myself one Persephone in the form of:


(My photos are not that brilliant, but that’s “Tell It To A Stranger” by Elizabeth Berridge). These short stories sound quite intriguing so I’m looking forward to them.  Not sure if I will make it to September only on Viragos, but I will be sure to read a lot of them!!

Recent Reads: The End of the Affair by Graham Greene

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I posted earlier about obtaining this book as it came highly recommended by Middle Child, who stated it was the best book she had read and desperately sad. As I have a few Greenes (not Virago ones!) on my shelf ready to read I thought I should add a copy of this and after finishing “Dusty Answer”, I thought this might be a nice contrast.

According to Wikipedia:

The End of the Affair (1951) is a novel by British author Graham Greene. Set in London during and just after World War II, the novel examines the obsessions, jealousy and discernments within the relationships between three central characters: writer Maurice Bendrix; Sarah Miles; and her husband, civil servant Henry Miles.

However, I’m writing this review with a little trepidation, as I really didn’t seem to get on with the book at all. The three main characters listed above seemed to me to be very much cardboard cut-outs. I found no real depth or substance in them, and it’s not so much that I disliked them, more that there wasn’t really anything there to feel emotion about. Bendix, the narrator, is a writer and not a particularly nice person, coming across as selfish and riddled with jealousy. Sarah his lover is very insubstantial – we only learn bits about her background towards the end of the novel, but I felt I didn’t really get much of a sense of what she was like as a person, why she was like she was, what really motivated her. Poor cuckolded Henry seemed to me very much a caricature of a stodgy civil servant.

However, accepting the characters as they were portrayed, I could have gone along happily enough with the story of a jealous love affair suddenly ended, the anguish of Maurice without Sarah, wondering what the reason for the split was, if the book had simply concentrated on this. But instead huge sections of the book consisted of theological debate and argument and I ended up feeling as if the characters and plot were just a device for Greene to hang his discussion about Catholicism on. Someone will probably turn round and say, yes that’s what Greene was intending, but it didn’t work for me – the debate dominated and spoiled the novel and I felt the whole construction was rather clumsily done. I’m very happy for novels to have debate and ideas but a skilled writer will embed this within the story so that the ideas are there and can be considered and weighed up by the reader, whilst still allowing them to enjoy a good tale.

If I seem to be a little over-critical, there are some good points to the book. The character of Parkis and his boy are very touchingly portrayed and the atmosphere of war-torn and then post-War London are really well evoked. When Greene forgets his treatise and just tells stories (the section at Sarah’s funeral when he almost picks up another girl) the writing is excellent and you start to engage with the characters. He’s also very good at demonstrating what close companions love and hate actually are, what a thin line there is between them. And the story *was* desperately sad – I ended up feeling that in another setting or time, Sarah would have left her husband and started a new life with Bendix and things could have been very different. But I’m afraid for me all the pontificating was just too much of an intrusion into the novel – it stood out like a sore thumb and spoiled it rather for me. I ended up frustrated thinking that it could have been such a better book had it just concentrated on the storyline. I’ve read several other Greene novels (“Our Man In Havana”, “Monsignor Quixote”, “Brighton Rock”) and really enjoyed them and his writing – but I’m sorry, Middle Child, this one was not for me!

Elizabeth Taylor Centenary: In A Summer Season

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2012 is the centenary of the author Elizabeth Taylor’s birth and various members of  the LibraryThing Virago Modern Classics group have been hosting monthly read-alongs of Taylor’s works. We are now approaching August and this is just a heads-up that I will be hosting the August book, Elizabeth Taylor’s seventh novel, “In A Summer Season”.  There will be an introductory post on 1st August and then hopefully future weekly posts. You can read more about the centenary on Laura’s blog and also follow the discussions on LibraryThing.

I do hope you can join us discussing this excellent and underrated novelist!

A Visit to the Seaside…. and Books!

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Since Summer has actually decided to pay a visit this year, OH, Youngest Child and I decided to take a quick jaunt to Felixstowe this week as it is our nearest seaside place and is quite fun for an amble along the sands, quick play on the penny pushing machines, and a bag of seaside chips. However, Felixstowe has another attraction for me in the form of this deceptively modest looking frontage:

Treasure Chest Books has been there for a while and when you first pop in, it looks like a small shop with some hardbacks at the front. However, it’s a little like a maze and once you start trying to find your way to the back of the shop you realise that the winding corridor with its bookshelves and offshoots seems to go on forever (as you can see from the pictures).

           

 

 

There is a large paperback fiction section and OH was kind enough to drop Youngest Child and I at the bookshop for a browse while he sat on the seafront in the sun.

Needless to say I was in search of Viragos as it’s at least a year since I visited the shop. YC is assisting me in my search (we trawl the local charity shops constantly, regularly stumbling across copies of “Frost in May” which seem to turn up everywhere). However. while I was scanning the shelves for green spines, YC noticed another little group of books which she knew would interest me – a clutch of second hand Persephones!! This is quite unheard of in our locality – the only Persephone I’ve ever found second hand was my copy of “Miss Pettigrew Lives for A Day” in the classic version in my local Oxfam bookshop. However, there were a dozen or so here, all for around £4 – some even had their bookmarks!

So after about an hour’s browsing I was left to make some difficult choices, owing to the limitations of purse and how much we could carry. I ended up with the following Viragos:

Most £2 which is something of a bargain.

But I tended to err in favour of the Persephones as it’s so hard to find reasonably priced copies:

And I do love a pre-loved book!

Last purchase was a lovely old Penguin version of a Virago – The Dud Avocado, which I’ve been wanting to read for a while.

As you can see from the photos, Treasure Chest Books is the quintessential, old-school, second hand bookshop. As I said to YC, if the end of the world ever comes, just lock me in here with food and water….! If you’re ever near Felixstowe, I highly recommend a visit. In the meantime – I better get reading as I have a few volumes to get through……..

Rosamond Lehmann Reading Week: Dusty Answer

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Rosamond Lehmann is an author whose books have been languishing for far too long on my TBR pile (which is rapidly turning into a mountain – but more of that in my next post). So I was delighted when Florence at Miss Darcy’s Library announced she was hosting a Rosamond Lehmann Reading Week . I decided to start with “Dusty Answer”, Lehmann’s first novel and the only one I’ve actually read. This is a little contrary perhaps, but it ties in also with Heavenali‘s July re-reading challenge also. In the end, I’m very glad I did start with this book.

The book tells the story of the early life and growing up of Judith Earle, a solitary girl who lives in a house by a river and is fascinated by the five cousins who come to stay next door. Over the course of the novel, Judith grows up, goes to Cambridge, falls in and out of love and her relationships with the various cousins change as the years and events take their course. The story is told in an impressionistic way, and we see events through the highly subjective lens of Judith’s viewpoint. In many ways she is naive and her lack of experience lead her to misunderstand the other characters and situations quite dramatically, despite her intelligence.

I suspected from the little I knew about Lehmann that there might be autobiographical elements and when I had a look at Wikipedia it had this to say:

The story contains many elements of the author’s own childhood and upbringing; albeit idealised. Like the author the protagonist Judith Earle grew up privately educated in a large riverbank house in Buckinghamshire; unlike the author though she is an only child; her only playmates being the occasional visits of the children next door; five cousins: Julian, Charlie, Roddy, Martin and Mariella. Childhood friendships develop into romantic entanglements which continue as Judith leaves home for Girton College, Cambridge with a brief interlude when Judith falls in love with Jennifer a fellow student, scandalous for contemporary readers.

I was quite interested in what was said about the scandalous content as Lehmann is very matter-of-fact in her treatment of the love affairs of the various characters although she is of course never graphic or detailed. Judith’s love for Jennifer is in the end portrayed as quite pure – in a letter, Jennifer describes Judith as tucking her in like a mother, whereas one suspects that Jennifer’s passions are more adult and usually consummated. Similarly, cousin Roddy, who is Judith’s major love, has an ongoing relationship with Tony, who is given just a couple of somewhat camp characteristics but nothing is ever spelled out. But it doesn’t need to be – the quality and beauty of Lehmann’s writing tells you all you need to know about the characters and their emotions.

Did I enjoy “Dusty Answer”? A resounding yes! The writing alone, which is elegant and beautiful, is enough to enchant you. The characters and the settings are beautifully drawn and very real, and the whole story is infused with a sense of nostalgia, a pining for what is lost (or what was never had). I found the narrative gripping and this turned out to be one of those ‘can’t put it down’ books. It was a book that sent your emotions soaring to heights or to the depths of Judith’s despair. Lehmann’s talent as a writer is immense and hopefully the reading week will stimulate a lot more interest in this neglected writer.

 

Recent Reads:The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne

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Well, July was meant to be for re-reads, but unfortunately new delights just keep popping up – I really should stay off the Internet and book blogs because they always send me off on tangents! This very delightful digression came about as I was wandering around the very lovely A Penguin A Week blog. I’ve always had a weakness for vintage Penguins, particularly of the green (crime) variety, but I noticed this one listed and I hadn’t heard of it before, which meant a little digging online.

It sounded irresistible but alas Penguin versions are hard to come by so I settled for a very handsome recent Vintage reprint.

This is what Wikipedia has to say:

The Red House Mystery is a “locked room” whodunnit by A. A. Milne, published in 1922. It was Milne’s only mystery novel; he is better known for his humorous writing, children’s stories, and poems. The setting is an English country house, where Mark Ablett has been entertaining a house party consisting of a widow and her marriageable daughter, a retired major, a wilful actress, and Bill Beverley, a young man about town. Mark’s long-lost brother Robert, the black sheep of the family, arrives from Australia and shortly thereafter is found dead, shot through the head. Mark Ablett has disappeared, so Tony Gillingham, a stranger who has just arrived to call on his friend Bill, decides to investigate. Gillingham plays Sherlock Holmes to his younger counterpart’s Doctor Watson; they progress almost playfully through the novel while the clues mount up and the theories abound.

Playful is often the word to apply to this book as the dialogue between the two detecting young men is sparkling. In classic Golden Age style, there is plenty of silly-ass wordplay and the book is immensely readable. The mystery is well plotted and I didn’t really spot the end coming (which is always nice when you’ve read as many crime novels as I have). There’s a real feeling of suspense at times and enough red herrings and side plots, midnight jaunts and secret passages, to keep any reader busy. Tony Gillingham is an excellent detecting creation by Milne and his sidekick Bill strikes exactly the right note as a Watson – needing things explained to him but having flashes of insight himself (or inspiring them in his Sherlock). All in all this was an excellent, reliable read and I only have one complaint – why, oh why didn’t Milne write a whole series with Gillingham and Beverley instead of going off to write about bears in the wood!!

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