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To Marry or Not To Marry?

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Honeycomb by Dorothy Richardson

My monthly read of Dorothy Richardson’s “Pilgrimage” continues with the third book in the sequence, and the final one collected in Pilgrimage Volume 1 from Virago – “Honeycomb”, originally published in 1917. The book opens with Miriam Henderson travelling to the country house “Newlands” to take up a position as a governess to the two children of the Corrie family. The Corries are monied – the husband is a QC – and the contrast with the pinched, impoverished existence Miriam experienced in the past is marked.

pilgrimage 1

The household is a lively one, with regular visitors; including Joey, described as looking like an Oriental princess, and the Cravens, who have both had previous marriages. Miriam is swept away by the comfort and luxury, such a strong contrast to what her home life has become and also to her previous employments. However, she finds that she’s in a curious position, not exactly an employee but not a friend or member of the household, and this leaves her feeling awkward at times. As usual, Miriam finds that she stands apart, relating more to Mr. Corrie than some of the women, and playing billiards and smoking with them rather than making polite chit-chat.

But things in the Henderson household are undergoing another big change, as Miriam returns home for the weddings of Harriett and Sarah. The family have moved to a smaller, suburban house and Miriam is rapidly absorbed into the preparations for the joint ceremony. While everyone is involved in the excitement, it becomes clear that Miriam’s mother is unwell, and it is she who is given the responsibility of accompanying her ailing parent on a fateful trip to the seaside in an attempt to improve her health…

Well, Richardson just goes from strength to strength, and “Honeycomb” was an incredible read. The stream-of-consciousness narrative was obviously becoming a comfortable way for Richardson to express herself, and she writes effortlessly here. Again, we see from Miriam’s point of view and it’s absolutely fascinating watching her experience the world and coming to judgements about people and events. She’s matured a little and can cope with situations better; and she’s obviously an intelligent woman, wasted on the family she’s working for, as she soon realises.

That’s men, she said, with a sudden flash of certainly, that’s men as they are, when they are opposed, when they are real. All the rest is pretence. Her thoughts flashed forward to a final clear issue of opposition, with a husband. Just a cold blank hating forehead and neatly brushed hair above it. If a man doesn’t understand or doesn’t agree he’s just a blank bony conceitedly thinking, absolutely condemning forehead, a face below, going on eating – and going off somewhere. Men are all hard angry bones; always thinking something, only one thing at a time and unless that is agreed to, they murder.

As I read through “Honeycomb”, I realised that much of the book is concerned with one subject, that of marriage. Of course, the two sisters are undergoing that ceremony as part of the events taking place, but Richardson uses many of the experiences which Miriam has as a springboard to consider the whole subject on a wider level. Miriam watches the various guests at the Corries’ house, and indeed the Corries themselves, and comes to the opinion that marriage is the option women often choose simply to have a comfortable life, not to have to scrabble around making a living – which was a difficult road to take at the time. She sees all different types of union, some more successful than others, and Richardson lets her debate the pros and cons, trying to decide whether the sacrifice of independence is worth it to gain economic security. Certainly, Miriam attracts several admirers and it may be her independence and lack of interest in them that draws them to her; but she is uncertain whether she can give up her autonomy and ploughs on, making her own way through life.

01 Hastings Pier c1900

The portrait of Miriam’s parents is fascinating, too, reflecting another kind of marriage which has not worked out so well. Mr. Henderson is a shadowy figure, responsible for the family’s financial ruin and by implication for the state of Mrs. Henderson’s health. Miriam is rather left holding the baby, so to speak, when she’s entrusted with taking her increasingly unstable mother away for a rest cure; and the consequences, which are only hinted at in the book, are tragic. In fact, I ended up drawing on my knowledge of Richardson’s real life at this point, as without that I think it wouldn’t be obvious what had happened.

“Honeycomb” was another fascinating piece of writing from Dorothy Richardson and I was once again drawn into the world of Miriam Henderson, seeing the world through the prism of her viewpoint. Richardson’s prose is hypnotic and quite beautiful in places and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that gets inside the head of a person or their thought processes quite like this. Really can’t wait for the next book!

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Sneaking in the odd tome…

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It’s been a little while since I posted about new arrivals, mainly because I’ve been trying to de-book the house a bit – and I *have* been very good about taking as many as I can carry to the charity shop each week. However, a flying visit to Leicester over half term inevitably meant trips to the charity shops there – in particular the Loros and Age Concern bookshops – although I’m pleased to report I was surprisingly restrained!

ch shop leics

These were my finds – the lovely early green Virago of Surfacing came from the Age Concern and replaced my modern copy (which I’ve donated to Middle Child!); and the Galsworthy short story collection was from the Loros. Yes, I know I fell off the wagon with the Forsyte challenge, but I *do* want to return to the books when the time is right.

The other two discoveries came from a new source to me – Clarendon Books, just round the corner from the charity shops. Despite numerous visits to Leicester, I’ve somehow never made to this one, which is surprising as it’s kind of perfect. A tiny little shop crammed to the gills with the sort of books I love, I was lucky to get out with just two – a lovely paperback of an obscure Colette I haven’t read, and a book I once owned, The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. So some lovely Leicester finds!

We also popped into the Waterstones – a nicely stocked one, but I have to say that I think my local Ipswich branch has the edge. The latter stock a wider range of publishers and I think use their shop and window space more creatively. However, as the only bookselling chain which seems to have a national high street presence, I certainly think they need support and so I purchased this:

zeno

The fact that I already own a battered old Penguin of this is irrelevant… Because if I’m honest I’m actually finding it harder to read smaller, older books with small type, a fact that’s become clear with my recent reading of a particular Hermann Hesse book. This looks to have bigger, cleaner, better set out pages and I think I’ll be more inclined to pick it up sooner because of the relative physical ease of reading it’ll bring. Hope so, anyway!

And there have been some other arrivals – some purchases and some review books – here are a few:

rev and recent

An intriguing little pile, no? So, what to read next!

Madcap hijinks – and plenty of alcohol…..

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The Embezzlers by Valentin Kataev

There’s something really special about Soviet satire from the 1920s. When you look back at the decade, so many great works came out – in particular, Bulgakov’s “The Fatal Eggs” and “Heart of a Dog”, Ilf and Petrov’s “The Twelve Chairs”, as well as slightly less-well known works such as Yuri Olesha’s “Envy”. Maybe there was something in the air, because Valentin Kataev (the brother of Petrov) also produced a rather wonderful satirical work himself, in the form of “The Embezzlers”.

There were of course many shorter works in the same vein by all these authors, and I *have* been reading several of Kataev’s pieces recently, as well as his wonderful memoir “The Grass of Oblivion”. It was enjoying these so much that prompted me to send for a copy of “The Embezzlers” and I’m really glad I did. It was Kataev’s first novel, published in 1926, and my copy is a battered old 1973 US library edition; it’s a reprint of a 1929 Dial Press edition translated by Leonide Zarine, and I’ve seen this described as the one to read – particularly, I suppose, as he translated it close to the original date of publication.

My copy does not, alas, have this lovely dustjacket...

My copy does not, alas, have this lovely dustjacket…

The embezzlers of the title are one Philip Stephanovitch Prohoroff, a respectable chief accountant working for a Soviet trust in Moscow, and his cashier, known as Young Ivan. Prohoroff is married to the rather terrifying Yaninochka, and Young Ivan is a country boy trying to make good in the city. To be honest, calling the two embezzlers is rather overdoing it; in fact, they have no real intention of running off with sums of money. However, Nikita the messenger will keep going on and on about the amount of people who are absconding with official funds, and somehow, after withdrawing a cheque from the bank for wages and expenses, the two hapless men end up drunk and on a train to Leningrad….

In fact, alcohol plays a large part in the story and the men seem to be in a constant state of inebriation. They’re soon taken under the wing of Isabella, an alarming woman of the world who commences to fleece them for as much as she can get; and in fact our two heroes seem to be incapable of holding onto their money and are constantly being conned out of large sums. They are taken in by a gang of so-called Royals in Leningrad who turn out to be a collection of out of work actors; vast sums are squandered on food, drink and entertainment; and in desperation to escape from Isabella they flee to the countryside, ending up in Ivan’s old village. However, things seem no better here and the money is running out – and quite how our two embezzlers will survive is not clear….

The colleagues crept into a queer, narrow sledge, which was strewn inside with straw, put the cover over their knees and drove to the town, which had the same appearance as all other towns of the Soviet Union – ten old churches and two new ones, an unfinished building and a fire station, and a closed market-place secured by huge bolts.

Well, Kataev was certainly having a lot of fun here, and swiping away at everything: so-called respectable citizens desperate for a glimpse of old royalty; the amount of alcohol that seemed to be imbibed in Soviet Russia; the amount of people on the make under a so-called Communist regime; and the foolishness of just about everyone encountered in the tale.

In fact, I found myself wondering quite how he got away with so much criticism of the times and stayed in one piece, until I recalled that during the 1920s Russia was struggling under the NEP (New Economic Policy) where a limited amount of ‘state capitalism’ was allowed. The book (and all the other satire of the decade) reflects an era before Stalin had tightened his grip on his empire, and in these transitional times it was still possible to criticise the authorities. After the NEP was abolished in 1928 the dictator came more to the fore and by the time the next decade was well underway he was in a position to unleash the Great Purges of the 1930s.

The train dragged slowly from station to station, and night dragged as slowly towards the train, creeping through the rattling carriages with their banging doors, with their shadows of heads and flickering flames of candles in rattling lanterns. Young Ivan stood in the corridor of the uncomfortable carriage and, pressing the palm of his hand on the low handle of the door, gazed intently through the rain-splashed window. His knees and his back ached with having stood so long in one place.

But back to “The Embezzlers”. Despite being great fun to read, a kind of frantic, madcap adventure of the type that would turn up in later Hollywood movies (and believe me, there’s just *so* much alcohol!), there’s a thoughtful undercurrent. Kataev’s writing (as rendered here) is excellent and he conjures up atmosphere brilliantly. The opening paragraphs, where Prohoroff stomps off to his office through a rainy Moscow, are striking and bring the city vividly to life; and Leningrad (Petrograd/Petersburg/St. Petersburg/whichever name you prefer) is a living, breathing city too. He doesn’t sugar-coat his look at urban life, but neither does he present the countryside through rose-tinted glasses. Poor Young Ivan, who spends much of the book out of his comfort zone, longs for his home village at one point and is initially delighted when they reach it. However, he soon remembers how dull and repetitive life was back there, and how much he wanted to get away, leaving him wishing to return to Moscow to seek out a simple life with the beautiful step-daughter of Prohoroff…

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In the end, “The Embezzlers” seemed to be making the point that we really should accept that the grass will *always” seem greener on the other side of the fence, but in fact the world is pretty much the same all over and we might as well make the best of what we’ve got. Certainly, the two heroes constantly attempt to find the high life but end up with the same old troupe of dancers in pantaloons doing Ukrainian folk dances – wherever they go! As I said earlier, Kataev’s writing is really excellent, and very evocative in places, and the whole experience of reading “The Embezzlers” was a joyous one, leaving me even keener to try to track down any more of his work available in English!

Tragedy – or comedy – or a bit of both?

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Closely Observed Trains by Bohumil Hrabal

Sometimes a book slips onto your wishlist and you really can’t recall why and where it came from – well, I often find that to be the case, anyway! “Closely Observed Trains” is a case in point, and I was lucky enough to receive it as a gift from my lovely Virago Secret Santa (Cushla) last Christmas. A novella of just over 90 pages, I thought it would be the ideal read after the length of “How To Quiet a Vampire” (which did take a little commitment), although its short length is perhaps a little deceptive, as it’s another book with plenty to say…

closely Wikipedia says of author Bohumil Hrabal (28 March 1914 – 3 February 1997) simply that he was “a Czech writer, regarded by many Czechs as one of the best writers of the 20th century.” The site also says that “During the war, he worked as railway labourer and dispatcher in Kostomlaty, near Nymburk, an experience reflected in one of his best-known works (Closely Observed Trains)” – so it seems as though Hrabal was drawing from his life for parts of this book (but not all….)

The book is set in German-occupied Czechoslovakia (or as the back cover describes it, “a small but strategic railway station in Bohemia”) and the year is 1945. German troops are travelling to the front regularly, and wounded and dying men are being brought back. However, the narrator, a young man called Milos, is concerned with other matters. There is the possible promotion of the station master; the scandal caused by fellow Dispatcher Hubicka who’s been using the station’s official stamps on unmentionable parts of the telegraphist (well, ok, on her bottom….); and there is Milos’s desire to lose his own innocence, something he’s failed to do so far. However, Milos has a darker side; as the story progresses, we find that he’s survived a recent attempted suicide. And there is an ammunition train passing through the station soon, which may be the subject of a sabotage attempt – though by whom is not clear…

I’ve seen this novella described as a tragicomedy (and what an odd term that is!); certainly both elements are present in the narrative. The station master is very funny, pompously strutting around with pigeons on his shoulder and showing off the new uniform he’ll wear when promoted; and the whole saga of Hubicka and the stamps is very silly! But on balance the darkness wins; death is never far away, and Milos narrowly misses execution by the Germans when a scarred officer spots the marks on Milos’ wrists from his suicide attempt and senses a fellow victim. Hrabal pulls no punches in his description of the horrors of war, with the wounded returning from the front being described with cold clarity. There is a theme running through the book of cruelty and suffering: the wounded in the train trucks could be equated with the animals being transported in cramped and horrible conditions, and the reader is left in no doubt about the harshness and stupidity of war.

hrabal

You could, I suppose, consider the book as a snapshot of life under German occupation at a particularly difficult time of the war, and certainly the book shows the absurdity and brutality of that particular situation, as well as the various strategies that the characters employ to survive. However, the undertow of bleakness, the sadness of so many of the characters involved and the darkness of the ending left me thinking again of what a mess human beings can make of their lives and the world around them. “Closely Observed Trains” packs a lot of moving and thought-provoking events into its short length and certainly keeps you thinking about the pointlessness of conflict for a long time afterwards.

In search of lost stories…

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Back in January, when I shared a picture of a recent arrival in the form of a small “Science Fantasy” paperback, I mentioned that there was a reason for this purchase – and indeed there was! “Science Fantasy” was a paperback-format sci fi journal, edited at this point in the 1960s by Kyril Bonfiglioni (currently being rediscovered via his Charlie Mortdecai books). Issue 81 was the final issue, as the publication morphed into “Impulse”; and this last edition featured the first published story of M. John Harrison, in the form of a short story entitled “Marina” (and credited to “John Harrison”). The ISFDB threw up this title as one of his stories which has never been reprinted, and I was intrigued; I wanted to know what his first fictional outing was, and so I tracked down a fragile little copy to see what I made of it.
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“Science Fantasy” describes itself as “a monthly collection of fantasy and science fiction for the Connoisseur” and it’s intriguing to see the two genres Sci Fi and Fantasy conflated into one title. I like it when both types of storytelling step outside their usual boundaries and experiment, and that’s something I usually expect from MJH. In fact, I’m not a fan of genres at all if I’m honest; many of the books I love best defy description and that’s the way it should be. Fiction should take you places you wouldn’t normally go, and as long as a book does that I don’t want to stick a label on it.

But I digress. On to “Marina”, a story of less than seven pages. It seems a relatively simple tale, of the titular girl and her dog. Marina remembers the sound of the sea, despite being nowhere near it; since it took her mother, she and her father have kept away from the water. But Marina feels distant longings she can’t explain; and wonders why her father is so adamant that she should keep away from the attic…

M John Harrison

However, the story is anything but simple; for a start, Marina and Dog seem to manage to communicate quite well, which leaves the reader wondering whether the dog is from some superspecies, or if Marina is quite what she seems. It’s difficult to say too much more without giving the plot away, but let’s just say the intelligent reader will have probably guessed one element of the outcome.

But what shines through even at this early stage is the quality of Harrison’s writing; the ability to evoke something strange and wonderful yet make it seem quite ordinary and acceptable. What is perhaps a kind of slightly twisted fairy tale is lifted above the ordinary and, as usual with MJH’s work, ends up being quite haunting.

Despite its brevity, I’m sure that if I’d been around to read “Marina” when this little paperback was first issued, I would have known I was in the presence of a talent. Although MJH’s work is set alongside such heavyweights as Harry Harrison and E.C. Tubb, it holds its own; and “Marina” is such an effective little story, that it may well send me off on a quest to track down any other lost M. John Harrison works…. 🙂

Condemned to repeat the past….

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How to Quiet a Vampire by Borislav Pekic

The literary world is full of unreliable narrators, but one of the least trustworthy ones I’ve come across has to that of this very remarkable book! Written by Serbian author Borislav Pekic, it was one of my Christmas bookish gifts and it certainly is an extraordinary read. I was hesitant about picking it up at the moment, as it looked to be a long and involving read (it was!); however, when I noticed that it was dedicated to Danilo Kis (whom I reviewed here) I was hooked…

vampire

First, a few words about Pekic. Born in Yugoslavia in 1930, much of his youth was spent moving around following his father’s work (the latter being a high-ranking official who also worked for the police). In his teens he hit a rebellious streak which led to clashes with the authorities and imprisonment. Prison affected his health and despite marriage plus a career in screenwriting, he was always at odds with the regime. He began to write novels which reached a wide audience, but the late 1960s were a period of much change in Yugoslavia and eventually in 1971 he was able to emigrate to London, where he spent the rest of his life, eventually passing away there in 1992. “How to Quiet a Vampire” was first published in his native language in 1977 and this wonderful English-language version, translated from the Serbian by Stephen M. Dickey and Bogdan Rakic, appeared in 2005.

“Vampire” tells the story of one professor Konrad Rutkowski: in 1943 he was an apparently unwilling member of the Gestapo, stationed in D (Dubrovnik?) and, he claims, trying to save as many prisoners from the Germans as he could; in 1965, he returns to D and begins a journey into his past, trying to justify his behaviour and exonerate himself. Sounds simple enough, but this is most certainly not a simple book. For a start, it’s structured as a series of letters sent by Rutkowski to his hated brother-in-law Hilmer; the letters are apparently edited and annotated by one Borislav Pekic, who has also taken it upon himself to consult a number of specialists on the subject of Rutkowski’s sanity. And then there is the philosophy….

Each letter has been titled to correspond to a particular philosopher and way of western thought; and the book ends with a pair of treatises by Rutkowski on his beliefs. All this adds up to a rich and complex work that takes a fair amount of commitment but yields fascinating rewards. But what’s all this about umbrellas? We’ll see…

So the bulk of the book consists of the 26 letters and these vary in tone according to the mental state of our Konrad. He and wife Sabina are visiting D for a break while Rutkowski finishes a historical work he is writing. Amazingly enough, they’re staying at a hotel which is actually the building that was the Gestapo headquarters back in 1943. Flashbacks starts hitting Rutkowski immediately, as he recalls his nemesis Steinbrecher (which translates as “stone breaker”) – his commander in the Gestapo and a rigid and tricky man capable of talking anybody into believing anything or confessing anything. A cold, hard, logical man, he typifies how we think of a Gestapo man and he’s utterly merciless in how he deals with either his staff or his prisoners.

As the Germans enter D, they take over the old headquarters of the previous occupying force of Italians and start to Germanize it. However, they find they have inherited a prisoner – one Adam Trpkovic, who will become another nemesis for Rutkowski, and is a minor municipal clerk who’s sitting in a cell with a large black umbrella. As the letters progress, it becomes clear that Adam’s fate will not be a good one, particularly when we find that not only is he being inappropriately memorialized in his local town, but also that he does not intend to let Rutkowski’s conscience rest easy. The story flips between past and present as Rutkowski attempts to exculpate himself, but despite his stated intention to try and get Adam released, events are very much out of his control.

To say more about the plot would be to give away too much, as there are plenty of surprises and unexpected twists in the narrative, right up to the very last page (a trait I do love in books). And despite the layers of philosophy, this is a surprisingly gripping book which really keeps you reading to find out what’s going to happen next. Rutkowski himself is brilliantly portrayed, with his changing mental states convincing and chilling. His wife Sabina is a shadowy figure, but her brother Hilmar, about whom certain things are revealed as the narrative goes along, seems to have as much to be guilty about as Konrad does. Both men deal in history as their trade, and both seem to want to use it, manipulate it or forget it in different ways

We’re proceeding – or should I say hurtling – into the future as innocent as children! Let’s shake off the dust of history from our clothes at the threshold of a new age! Let’s await a new insanity stripped of confusing memories of our old insanity. As far as I’m concerned, I can only wish you a nice journey down that road, and that on it you won’t find yourself facing once again the same tests that we failed back in 1933 and 1939.

So what actually is the book about? Well, a number of things really. Crucial to the narrative is human behaviour to other humans, particularly under a totalitarian regime (and this could be the Nazis under discussion or in fact that of Yugoslavia, from which Pekic had just fled.) “Vampire” shows brilliantly the absurdities of totalitarian double-think, particularly in one of the appendices, which purports to be the transcript of an interrogation by Steinbrecher of a suspected spy. The Nazi is able to twist words and logic in a terrifying manner so that whatever the suspect does, he will never be able to talk himself out of the inevitable verdict.

25_-_B.Pekic

There’s also the subject of free will and choice, and discussion of whether we (or anybody else) put in the position of Rutkowski and co would be able to make different choices. The point is made subtly that the people sucked into Nazism were educated men, many of whom after the war returned to their posts in Universities and the like (after perhaps serving a prison sentence of some sort…) And however badly the collaborators behave, there is, alarmingly enough, always a philosophy available to help them justify the worst possible kind of behaviour.

It’s a cynical and dark viewpoint, condemning most of western philosophy, which leaves you with not much hope for the future of humanity; particularly in our modern world with reports of atrocities and horrors on the news every day. As Rutkowski says at one point, “There’s no doubt that we’re only the product of our environments, and that the difference between a cannibal and a humanist lies in the kind of training.”

However, there are the other elements in “Vampire” which make it unusual and readable and not just a catalogue of torture and violence. Surprisingly, there is a little comedy – for example, at one point Rutkowski describes his unit as looking like “an extraordinarily dangerous company of retired university professors who had escaped from an insane asylum disguised in Gestapo uniforms.” And as Rutkowski slides in and out of madness, the events he claims to have witnessed become more and more bizarre. There are also metafictional levels in which the author becomes a necessary character in his own book, blurring the lines between fact and fiction.

black-umbrella-clipart

Ah yes; the umbrella…. This item, possessed by Adam and with him until the end, comes to symbolise much for Rutkowski, somehow becoming the incarnation of evil. He fights against this for a while, stating “The healthy, rational core of my intellect rebelled against the idea that in 1943, amid the tumult of a bloody war, a crooked umbrella was strolling through the world and increasing the general misery on its own initiative.” However, the particular umbrella in question, and umbrellas or parasols in general, will become an important part of the story – more I shall not say because I’d hate to lessen the impact …

You’re one of those who’ll be saying tomorrow that you were only following orders.

The time at which I believe the book was written, the early 1970s, is relevant. The Second World War was still a recent memory; many of the communist regimes were starting to show cracks, as more and more protests against restrictions took place; and trials were still taking place of those involved in holocaust atrocities. Against this background, Pekic takes us into the mind of a number of people who were involved in the last great conflict and asks whether we have learned from the mistakes of history or whether we are to be condemned to repeat it; and the philosophy quoted indicates rather frighteningly that we’ve learned nothing.

I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of what is an important work, one which lost me a little sometimes in the philosophical sections but which nevertheless is a necessary read. “Vampire” is a difficult book but worth it, for its powerful mixture of philosophy, drama and surreality.The world of Konrad Rutkowski is not an enjoyable or pleasant one, but it needs to be explored if we ever want to have a chance of rising above the morass of human existence.

****

Just as a little aside, the book is subtitled “A Sotie” – no, I didn’t know what that meant either. Apparently it’s an old word for a short satirical play. Well, satirical this certainly is, even if it’s not short and not really a play!

A couple of Shiny reviews!

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By now you’ll all hopefully be reading your way through all the wonderful reviews in the latest edition of Shiny New Books! There are some marvellous books highlighted on the site (very bad for the wishlist!) and I thought I’d point you to another couple of reviews I’ve been happy to provide for SNB.

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First up is a lovely reissued volume from Oxford World’s Classics. I reviewed it here on the Ramblings and loved it a lot – for a novel of this vintage to have such strong female leads was a real treat! My review is also on Shiny here if you’d like to check it out.

 

 

 

 

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The second review is for something completely different – a powerful and visceral yet often beautiful work of Dutch-Caribbean literature from Tip Marugg. The author was completely new to me and the book was a memorable read – my review is here.

 

 

 

 

So do pop over to Shiny New Books to read up on these and many other wonderful books! 🙂

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