My Last Duchess – Aw!

In the run up to a certain wedding, a romantic book with a little bit of an edge…My Last Duchess by Daisy Goodwin.  I picked up this book when it first came out in hardback, as I have seen some poetry programmes presented by the author, and thought it may be worth reading as it was based on the true stories of the “dollar princessess” who came over to Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their aim was to marry a title in return for a vast fortune to be ploughed into  vast but crumbling mansions and declining family fortunes.

I had read Persephone books’ offering on this subject, The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett, which I greatly enjoyed, at least the second half which took on more energy and for me, more humanity.

As to this book, I was interested to see that it was on at least one tv book club list. I was surprised to see that it had been so popular, as it is a good book, but not exactly mainstream. It is historically accurate I’ve no doubt; Goodwin was involved with If these Walls on tv and the book which I have mentioned and will post about soon. I spotted at least one fact that appears in the novel about the innovation that was brought in by one American bride. It has a lot of research behind it, and there is an impressive amount of detail about the American situation that Cora, the heroine of the novel, comes from. Britain is a contrast of style, expectations and rules. Cora is seen as challenged by the people, places and role she is expected to impress and fulfill.There in jealousy, crisis and Cora is pushed and pulled by emotions that nothing in her pampered lifestyle has prepared her for. She is not free, and her loyal maid Bertha is the only one who realises what she is going through.

But this is essentially a romantic fantasy. There are goodies and baddies, dismay, bitterness and anger, but I really struggled to feel sympathetic. Cora is very, very rich, and imprisoned by the expectations around her, but this is not a book in real time. She is exiled to the country, but I felt that her sorrow and frustration is not real. I felt more sympathy with her maid, but maybe that is the intention. I never felt that Ivo is a developed character of any depth; Georgette Heyer may have many semi distant heroes, but she does reveal what makes them tick and makes them real. Ivo is just a  character who needs to be there and he only seems to have a flicker of realism at the very end of the novel.

I’m a great fan of historical novels, and often read very insubstantial books by Laurens et al which work to a formula. I wanted to enjoy this book, I read it carefully, but I could not really engage with it. It is good that it could be published and pushed as a book with no real sex, violence or despair. But I wish that the characters were more real, the ending more convincing, and in brief that it was a better book. I hope that Goodwin writes another soon, and that she goes for the historical genre again, because she so nearly achieved what I think that this book set out to do. I would buy it, and read in hope!

Wandering to Wigtown – Bookshops!

Today, as part of a quick post Easter break, Husband and I wandered to Wigtown. (not so much wandered as drove rather a long way, to be honest) So, why rejoice? Well, Wigtown is Scotland’s official book town, so it obviously had to be inspected.Four bookshops later and I was beginning to get a little cross eyed with looking at books en masse -yes, even I can reach saturation point. We started at ReadingLasses, which is apparently the UK’s only surviving woman’s bookshop, or do you know better? I stepped across to this rather fine shop; some people have pointed out that it is amamzing how fast I can get to a book shop…

I’m not sure how many bookshops there are in the town (20?) because we didn’t manage to tour them all; some are a bit specialist, some are a bit inaccessible for your intrepid blogger, and one looked a bit deserted. I will have to do a count to see how many books I bought, but I think it was into double figures.

If you are or can be close it’s an interesting little town, the natives are friendly and it’s not so overwhelming as Hay on Wye. Mind you, it’s not the sort of place you would happen to be passing by…being in the extreme west of Scotland.

One Day – another well remembered book

Greetings from up North, where the sun is shining (now- I drove to work this morning in fog!) and looks to continue. Maundy Thursday service in a little while, having spent an hour trying to make an Easter garden- turf, anyone? Still, many Easter eggs laid in for Sunday…

One of my book groups meets soon, and it is discussing One Day by David Nicholls.

I read this novel about a year ago, and found it a very truthful, honest, insightful and moving book. The original encounter on Graduation day of Dexter and Emma reads as so painfully possible, and I winced throughout Emma’s trial’s and tribulations in Theatre in Education, working in various eateries, and writing progress. Dexter is such a frustrating character, seemingly having it all, but not knowing what to do with it. The structure of the story, with snapshots of their yearly progress or lack of same, is a fascinating narrative of young people, getting older and in some ways wiser. Emma maintains the sense of realism, of an awareness of reality, throughout the novel. Dexter, on the other hand, in many ways lives the dream, but does not realise until the end what he has , and what he loses throughout the book. I think that it is in some ways a cruel ending, certainly sad, but there is a sense that at least one character comes to a greater understanding of themselves and relationships.

It is a well written book, developing a set of themes of love, loss, self knowledge, respect for others, and much more. I enjoyed the style of writing, and it is quite and achievement to encapsulate the events, atmosphere and feelings of twenty years in two lives. Many other realistic characters also emerge, though some are more like necessary sketches. I particularly like the theatre company near the beginning of the book, with the wannabe star, the fading actor and the reception that the play gets from the audiences. There were times when I felt Emma’s frustrations with her lousy jobs, and felt like cheering when she finds some measure of success and love. Dexter is a little more two dimensional, but we have met characters like him. This is an immensely readable story, memorable for all the right reasons, and a strong popular book for many people. I would recommend it to anyone who has struggled to find their feet in turn of the century Britain, though it is, in some ways, a sad book.

A remembered book – because it was that good!

I usually try to read books and then post about them, but occasionally I remember a really good book that I think is worth mentioning here. Husband has just read a biography of John Donne, so I found out my copy of this book The Lady and the Poet by Maeve Haran.

I actually read this book quite a while ago, but still remember the story of a couple devotedly in love, but parted by family, law and imprisonment. Ann More went to the court of Elizabeth I, but soon fell foul of the Queen’s moods and the requirements placed on ladies of the time. She is met and courted by the young John Donne, seen as a dangerous man to know if only because of his romantic history and Catholic faith. His poetry is also seen as subversive as well as suggestive, but Ann, educated and rebellious, proves more than a match for him. The couple are forced to meet in secret, and there is the feeling of a deep love despite all the obstacles in their way.

This is a lovely book to read, and though aimed at a female reader in many ways, Husband enjoyed it greatly because it is a novel about bravery and love defeating all. Haran obviously knows her subject really well, and lists the books and other sources that inspired the book. Ann Moore is a shadowy figure in history, but very real in every respect in this book. If all of it isn’t true, you get the feeling it should be, and could have been. Unlike many book bloggers I do not get proof copies or other treats, so I always try and work on books that anyone can get hold of easily. A quick check on a certain website suggests that it is really cheap to buy, so do try and get hold of a copy and enjoy a good read (even if you are not a Donne expert!)

Bye bye Finkler – towards Fingersmith

Well, we had the Book group, and yes, we did decide that The Finkler Question (Howard Jacobson) was far from the most popular choice we have ever had. While the phrase “self indulgent”did occur, alongside “circular”, we did agree that it did suggest several interesting issues such as identity and the nature of Judaism.None of us enjoyed it, but I had at least finished it ( one of our number read it twice…such dedication) I admit that I hadn’t really noticed that it was in two parts; the first lighter and humourous, the second more sombre. I think we all struggled to like any of the characters, and really wondered why it had won the Man Booker. I think that Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel was a much better book.

For various reasons I must admit to not finishing this book yet, and will probably start again. But both book groups have rejected opportunities to read it, mainly on the basis of its sheer size. Maybe now that there are so many  paperback copies around we’ll have more chance. Will she write the second book soon, I wonder?

Next month we are discussing Alan Bennett’s  A Life like Other People’s. Not sure about this selection from one of Bennett’s autobiographical books which I have read.But we’ll see. Looking forward  much more to Sarah Waters Fingersmith. At least I know we have enough copies of these to go round with them both being World Book Night books!

Oh help! Book Group Blues

Don’t worry, I’m not going to sing – blues or otherwise. I just thought I would write a quick post about the Book Group Choice The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson.

I really struggled with this book. I have read the reviews, noticed its prizewinning history, and wanted to read it. But I found it a really pointless book, trying to consider the modern state of being, and failing. I felt it went round in circles; Jacbson seems to have come up with a great thought, wrote it down, repeated it, and then in case we had not appreciated fully, repeated it again a few chapters later. I think it is supposed to be an examination of a man’s (or men, I lost interest) feelings about life, lost love and Jewishness. I could handle the sadness, and the idea of looking at a man’s real emotions was good, but I just felt like shaking the characters and telling them to pull themselves together, or at least I would have, if I could have been bothered.

I got the joke/ image/ metaphor about Finkler. I got the whole thing about real Judaism and aspirational/ ashamed Jews. I noticed the whole problem of losing a spouse. And I found that nothing really worked for me in this book. There wasn’t a real sense of loss, or even when in love, a real sense of gain. Maybe it is because this was meant to be a male book, a book aimed at a different readership or maybe it is simply a matter of not enjoying at all. Still, it arrived with the rest of the Booker shortlist, and I probably would not otherwise have read it, or once started, finished i,t had it not been a Book Group book. So, I suppose it extended my reading list. We shall see what emerges from the discussion tomorrow. I promise not to be totally negative, and find something nice to say. Maybe I read some more glowing reviews…

Series of books – guilty pleasures

Some books I read for book groups, some books I read because they are a challenge, other books I read because I just enjoy them. Two series, one of which I’ve just started, one which I have been reading since the last century…

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie R. King is the first in a series of books about a certain Mary Russell, who becomes the apprentice of Sherlock Holmes. It is written in her voice, and Holmes (and Watson, Mrs Hudson and Mycroft) appear through her eyes, her interpretation.

The Beekeeper's Apprentice (Mary Russell Mystery 01)

This is an interesting idea, and on the whole, well carried out. King is an American, and there are times when she writes as someone who has looked up “Wales”, “Gypsies” and pre motor cabs in Google. Despite this, she does write well, delving into character, plot and enjoyable flights of invention. Several mysteries appear in this book, which poses the idea that Holmes takes on a determined, intelligent teenager as an apprentice and through setting problems and experiments develops the strange set of skills that qualify her as a partner in his continuing  work of detection.

I suppose what makes it an interesting book for me is the female perspective on the Holmes idea which is sadly lacking in the original. Even in the otherwise great series “Sherlock” on BBC1 women are seen as landladies, victims or in one episode, girlfriend. I thought that it was sad that women are still seen as optional plot devices rather than protagonists. While I thought that Martin Freeman did a good job as the confused Watson, why couldn’t we have a confused woman sidekick, rather than  a girlfriend who usefully got kidnapped? Rant over. This is a good book, difficult to put down for all the right reasons, a and promising great things to come. I confess to being baffled by the order of the books in the series, and have started reading The Game because I thought that it was the second book. Still it does prove that these are stand alone books , at least if you read the Apprentice first. Having criticised the series though, let’s have a picture anyway…

The second series of books is “The Village Series” by Rebecca Shaw. This series has been going for many years, alternating with the Country series. Every book is set in the village of Turnham Malpas, a fictional idyll which features the Rector, called Peter. The latest in  the series (I think) called The Village Newcomers has sudden death, exposure of backstories, threat and resolution. In other words, typical of the series. This is the sort of book to read in a sunny afternoon (even in the North!) and find absolutely nothing that is ever likely to have happened, anywhere, among the most unlikely series of characters. But it is fun! And I just love the idea of the clergy being called Peter and proving to be a gorgeous superman character… Read these books if you want a complete departure from reality, tv soaps are too depressing, and you need something daft to read. A quick inspection of a certain online bookseller suggests that there are many books in this series of  very British books. Read it and…giggle?

South Riding – the real thing

So, having been off gallivanting again – this time to Manchester with at least no dramas about returning – I bought far too many books and now feel obliged to write about at least some of them. My Mothering Sunday present from Son Two was If Walls Could Talk by Lucy Worsley.

I have started to read it, and it is a enjoyable history book. I am enjoying it, partly for the reasons that I was disappointed in Bill Bryson’s  Home. This is a book of British home history in all its itchy, smelly but fascinating detail. So you do not need to be an American History don to understand it. Also, it does represent the female element far more fully, revealing the sheer hard work behind bed making, dressing and all the other activities of the bedroom…

The main book today is the amazing South Riding by Winifred Holtby.

If you have only watched the (admittedly excellent) BBC adaptation you may have gained the impression that this is a lightweight romance. Not so. If you have read Middlemarch you will recognise the type of book this really is. It is the story of a community, but more importantly the various people, their passions and problems, that make up that community. I think that Holtby was trying to present a portrait of what actually makes a community tick through looking at some of its inhabitants, old and new, with a vested interest in the people and place as well as the newly arrived and ambitious. As in the tv adaptation the main character is the new headmistress of the girls’ school, Sarah Burton, and her ambitions. She does encounter the mysterious Carne, who has many problems of his own, as well as Lydia, whose intellectual promise is held back by her family responsibilities. This book includes many other characters and their stories which are developed and run together. It is a complex book, far deeper than the tv would make you believe, with far more to say about love, hope, ambition, compromise and fulfillment. It is is not a completely happy book; there is death, disillusionment  and despair. But there is also love of many kinds, humour in the variety of people, and fascinating situations. It is a deep wallow of a book, an undertaking to read but very rewarding. I enjoyed it and have already given my copy to unwary relative to read. If you enjoyed the drama on the tv, this is a really good read, even without David Morrisey…