24 May 2012

Crochet and cupcakes!

Nope, fear not dear readers, I have not suddenly morphed into some terribly cheap, Northern version of Kirsty Allsopp. The reality is in fact much, much better as myself and happy chappy Simon Savidge were invited by the lovely Louise (the one member of the Manchester Book Club that we managed to save from the horrors of Barton!) to speak as 'Book Experts' at the first meeting of the Manchester Women's Institute!

We were very very excited to be invited and only marginally hysterical at the thought of joining what I think we imagined to be an exclusive coven of powerful, knitting needle toting women, drinking tea and singing Jerusalem (is it Jerusalem they sing?)

Apart from being ever so slightly disconcerted at the label of 'expert' and what exactly we would be expected to deliver to these formidable ladies, the sight of Chetham's Music School on a summer's eve was enough to quieten me down .. just a tad ... the medieval building becoming the perfect quirky venue for an event that completely took me by surprise!

A concerned Simon about to be thrown to the lions...

In a flash of Cath Kitson and lemon cupcakes we were thrown into an hour of socialising and nattering about our most favourite obsession, which is of course books, books and more books! Invited to give advice on how to set up a Book Club/how we choose what to read etc, matters descended into engaging chit chat with intriguing and thoroughly modern ladies of all ages and, on occasion, a fit of giggles, potentially caused by sugar overload.

The aftermath. 

It was great to hear from a mix of the very bookish, those getting back into reading and those who practically never read at all but really do like the idea. Banish all thoughts from your mind of your traditional WI meetings, this was really a rather trendy affair; not at all stern or awfully posh and I could actually *stop the press!* imagine myself joining such a society. The event was great fun (for the girls and the three boys in the room) and seems the perfect way (apart from book groups of course!) to meet new people and try new things. At the end of it all I really could have even gone for a bit of the below!:

23 May 2012


Margaret Atwood's huge popularity is no great mystery. She has become, as we all know, a literary mahatma; with a back catalogue to out-rival many and some intriguing dips and dives into all manner of genre and medium;  poetry, children's fiction, sci-fi ... you name it, Atwood seems to have been there.

Not all of her books have had the earth-shattering significance and lasting effect (certainly for me) that the likes of The Handmaid's Tale (1985) has, however, she is an undoubtedly excellent and, if not excellent, perplexing writer. I know where I am with her and quite frankly, just one good book simply wasn't enough to recover from the thrills of Gaskell month. Surfacing is a fairly early offering of Atwood's, one that I had never seen before and to be honest, wouldn't have necessarily been too fussed about reading had it not been 50p in my local charity book shop! (Naughty!)

An unnamed woman is returning to her childhood home in a remote area of rural Quebec to find her missing father, accompanied by her so-called 'friends' and partner Joe (although in reality these people seem to be mere acquaintances; vehicles of Atwood's thrown in to facilitate discussion). What starts off as a road trip becomes a voyage of self-discovery for our narrator as she returns back to her roots; eventually reverting completely back to nature itself.

The stark difference between Susan Hill and Margaret Atwood's prose (I read both this and The Small Hand on the same day, something I don't often get the time to do) really shocked me. Atwood's writing is on a completely different level; expressing things in such an ingenious and intricate way that I am sure, should I ever want to, that I could never even begin to replicate it.  Our heroine in this story is 'nameless' in every sense of the word; symbolic of something that I felt in the end I had really failed to understand. She willingly becomes completely distant and separate from her companions, both physically and mentally; wrapping herself up in the past; her family and her landscape..

Atwood addresses themes in this book that, courtesy perhaps of my my age and nationality, I just found quite difficult to connect with. Although certain characters (such as one of party; David) clearly reflect a certain political flavour and period, I started to find the reference to 'f***g Yanks' etc fairly irritating and I just don't know enough about Quebec and its history to sympathise, a sentiment helped along by the detached narrator. The remote landscape and desire to connect with it however, I can completely understand; being a great lover of nature, animals, and isolation from the trappings of the modern world myself.

Some pretty hard hitting, feminist themes are also at play here; abortion and our relationship with our fathers/partners/mother nature being just some of them and I did find the contrast between our lonely, secretive narrator and the bullied, superficial Anna very interesting; Anna in particular leaving me wondering what darkness lay beyond her cracked mask of makeup.

There is an ever-pervading sense of sadness in this short novel, one that worked well in such a foreboding, 'Lord of the Flies-esque' setting; with the narrator eventually betraying a wildness and loss of identity quite comparable to Piggy and the gang. There is a sharp change in tone within the closing chapters of the book that completely knocked me for six at first and, although I think this is worth a read to form your own opinions (and also because it's Margaret Atwood!) I felt a little abandoned by the author as she ran off on a wild tangent, with her poor little readers sprinting to catch up and left feeling, well, rather baffled by the end!

16 May 2012

The Small Hand

Susan Hill has excited me ever since I picked up I'm the King of the Castle a few years ago, completely ignorant of her massive popularity and quiet chuffed thinking I had made some marvellous discovery all by my clever self (aaw bless). I also came to The Woman in Black far too late, spurred on by the fear of Harry Potter spoiling it all for me...

Although I have always felt fairly ambivalent about her crime series (reflecting my 'meh' feeling about crime fiction in general I suppose) I felt nothing but shivery anticipation picking up The Small Hand; a huge wave of relief washing over me at the neat little book that promised so much, particularly after the damp flannel of a Gaskell novel I have been suffering the hangover from since April...

Adam Snow is a mild mannered, solitary man; a prosperous intellectual and dealer in antiquarian books whose work takes him around the country and beyond; getting all warm and fuzzy about first edition Shakespeare folios and ancient manuscripts. On his way to see one particularly impassioned collector and customer, Adam loses his way, finding himself down a winding country road ending in an abandoned Edwardian house and gardens, once seemingly open for admiration to the public. As he stands at the gateway, Adam suddenly feels a small hand grasping his own:

'as I stood I felt a small hand creep into my right one, as if a child had come up beside me in the dimness and taken hold of it. It felt cool and its fingers curled themselves trustingly into my palm...'
p. 6

Although it is completely unfair to compare this book to its predecessor The Woman in Black, the comparison is inevitable and, perhaps to Susan Hill's detriment, I did it throughout. 

A good ghost story, particularly one after the traditions of M R James and Charles Dickens, never fails to impress and delight me (however predictable they might be). After the unrelenting wordiness and repetition of Mary Barton, Susan Hill's bare prose and clean, clear descriptions were precisely what I needed and Adam's fickle ghost (watching over him or out to harm him?) kept me guessing until the final chapters. 

My single reservation, and granted I understand it may be one that is quite personal given my taste in fiction, is that I found that the modern setting for this novel made everything, well, just not as scary as I'd hoped for. I wanted pure, unadulterated terror and got the occasional goosebump here and there. I found the narrator to be weaker than his Victorian counterpart and with tools at his disposable to remove himself from most unsafe/scary situations. What's the point in a ghost if you can escape from it?

Chilly (rather than chilling) with some unpredictable elements thrown in for good measure (Daddy Relish will be pleased), this was good and a welcome break ... but The Woman in Black is better. 

13 May 2012

Spring review

These past couple of months have been so hectic both professionally and personally and I have been reading Wolf Hall for what feels like so long now (two weeks is quite a long time for a book nut like myself) that I feel like I've lost my way a little with what I am reading/going to read, etc. This fuzzy state of mind has definitely not been helped by some terrifyingly huge book hauls at Sharston Books and copious amounts of gin and tonic this weekend *snigger*

Nothing like a decent meme to clear my mind! (Courtesy of Simon at Stuck in a Book)

1) The book I'm currently reading

Cor blimey, I knew this book was going to be good, but never quite this good. I studied the Tudors twice in school and it really is such a sexy, exciting period of English history and the perfect setting for this high-drama, high-action, sumptuous book.

2) The last book I finished

Between the dullness of Mary B and building myself up to Wolf Hall, I picked up a few short little treats, The Tiny Wife being just one. This completely fantabulous, bizarre modern fable is brilliantly fun and so so groovy. 

3) The next book I want to read

I love love love Carlos Ruiz Zafón and am going to see him speak at Waterstones Deansgate in June. (Eek!) I picked this up in India when we had to use up our rupees and am very excited about it. A bit of mystery and heat I'm hoping! 

4.) The last book I bought

Say no more :)

5) The last book I was given

Mummy and Daddy Relish uncovered this gorgeous copy (completely untouched) of this Thomas Hardy classic in a charity bookshop! Now, if that isn't an advert for secondhand/charity book shopping I don't know what is...

8 May 2012

Mary Barton

Before I get on to what is no doubt going to be an incredibly painful review of Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton, a book that happily (*coughs*) became my very special choice (*coughs*) for the Manchester Book Group, I would first of all like to say a big hello to all the lovely new faces who materialised for our second meeting last Tuesday which, if I do say so myself, I think went swimmingly! To my horror (this horror will be justified within the next few paragraphs) these new peeps had all made the effort to pick up 'bonkers Barton' (as Simon is now calling her) and to my delight had plenty to say! In the end, like most people, I struggled to finish this book, and it was a real relief to get the various conflicting thoughts and feelings swimming around my head out into the open....and now to commit them to paper/the blogosphere...

*At least my edition is pretty!
I'm quite a laid back soul at heart, however, the amount of deliberation I suffered through just to pick three book choices for a group of people I had never met was really quite something. Back in the heady days of working at the John Rylands Library archives, I was lucky enough to know a lady who is the Elizabeth Gaskell expert and works very closely with the manuscript collection bequeathed to the library by the author's daughter. This exposure to Gaskell along with sharp little snippets of her writing I had encountered, meant that her 'Manchester novel' Mary Barton was at the forefront of my mind when choosing a classic book for the group to read.

Central to this 'tale of Manchester life' is a self-declared love triangle, one which, on the blurb on the back of the book, promises chapter upon chapter of drama and tragedy as Mary Barton is torn between Jem Wilson, her childhood friend and sweetheart and the charming Harry Carson, son of a Manchester mill-owner, when Carson is murdered down a Manchester alley and Jem becomes the prime suspect. Sounds exciting doesn't it?

The sad truth is that this blurb was one of the most deceptive I have ever had the misfortune to be drawn in by. I feel as though I've been ambushed by mud, melodrama and misery. To adequately explain the plot of this book to anyone leaves me in a bit of a muddle because frankly, for 200-300 pages, there is no plot at all. What follows from Chapter 1 is a lengthy diatribe against the condition of the working class in Manchester, the injustices they faced at the hands of the 'masters' and a pitch-perfect depiction of just what an awful place the city was to be at the time.

For about 100 pages a part of me appreciated the bold subject matter and, although Gaskell's resolve seemed to waiver about two thirds of the way through the novel (which, having read the criticism she faced from her contemporaries, I can reluctantly understand) I enjoyed what I saw to be a fairly faithful portrayal of industrial Manchester in the early 19th century. It proved both intriguing to hear the names of the roads and areas I know so well and utterly staggering to learn that mill workers were often so poor that they could not feed their children or themselves and died in a state of poverty that, certainly in the eyes of Elizabeth Gaskell, would be so easy to avoid. However, the problem I had was that these harrowing and very real issues jarred severely with a lacklustre story line, unendearing characters and a feckless, doll-like 'heroine' who really did nothing more than create a whole load of trouble for an innocent young man.

The main questions I seem to be left with are, first of all, how could such an interesting woman write such a dull novel and, second of all, how can I stop myself from feeling bad about disliking Mary Barton so much?  Some good excuses that's what. Interestingly enough it appears Gaskell was pressurised into changing the title of the book from John Barton (Mary's father) to Mary Barton, perhaps in an attempt to make the book more attractive and romantic, with a focus on the love triangle rather than her highly politicised, highly volatile father? In hindsight, had she not been pressured by her publisher all that time ago, disappointment may not be reigning supreme right now as I would have expected the murder/love plotline to be given the slightly rushed, secondary treatment it does in the last third of the book. As Simon quite rightly pointed out, this was her first novel, and clearly not the best if feedback on North and South and Cranford  are anything to go by; a project to throw herself into following the death of her son. If all I achieved from reading this frenzied account of the lot of the working classes was to learn just how bad things were at the time then I have gained something from reading Mary Barton...but I'll be reading Friedrich Engels next time love...

2 May 2012

Bonjour Tristesse

However many times the boyfriend has tried to get me to pick up Françoise Sagan's debut novel, reading a book entitled 'Hello Sadness' is always one, funnily enough, that I've always thought I needed to be in a very specific mood for. In the stress of picking out my choices for the Manchester Book Group (more on this soon!)  I thought I would be kind to myself and go for something short, sexy and French. Hoorah! Or hourra! as they might say ...

The baby blue, freckly cover you see to your left has certainly never helped in persuading me to read this book, but as is often the case, upon finishing the last page I was ashamed it had passed me by until now. The characters we meet at the beginning of the story and their blessed surroundings - sunning themselves on the French Riviera - are delightfully light and airy, making the novel's dark, twisted side all the more satisfying...

Seventeen year old Cécile is summering down south with her father Raymond; a man who seems to fancy himself as a quasi-bohemian Lothario-type, indulging in what he likes to think of as his 'sinful' ways, with a penchant for girls in their twenties. In short (and I'm sure many of his women feel the same way) an irrepressibly charming figure, although I know it doesn't sound that way. Cécile herself, like most seventeen year olds, is incredibly naive, jealous and thinks herself to be far older and more mature than she actually is. The pair are joined by Raymond's completely vacuous, though kindhearted girlfriend Elsa and Cyril, a young man who quickly captures Cécile's heart and overactive imagination.

This rather innocent summer holiday is rapidly punctured by the arrival of Anne Larson, an educated, refined, cultured and rather serious woman, whose appearance on the scene severely disrupts the fine balance that has been established...with tragic consequences.

Although it may seem like an obvious way to describe something, Bonjour Tristesse felt like such a 'complete' novel, despite its brevity. Although I had heard wonderful things, I was still taken aback by how satisfied and moved I felt by the very end. The apparent superficiality of the main characters and their lifestyle acts as the perfect mask to a much deeper, darker realty. Although certain relationships and behaviour, particularly between Anne and Raymond, seemed to have appeared out of the blue at first, I did eventually manage to reconcile myself with the fact that we are being treated to a snapshot of the life of a small family here, with no real knowledge (although we do like to sumise) of what has come before or indeed what will happen afterwards...

The frivolity of Cécile and her father struck me as very tongue in cheek and, as a result, allowed me room to sympathise with them. Anne's intrusive and supercilious behaviour frustrated me as much as it did Cécile, whose 'bratishness' simply didn't! I surprise myself. Perhaps it's because hot French people are almost allowed to be so precocious. I love them for it!

Françoise Sagan was eighteen when she wrote this book. A fact that I am still struggling to fully comprehend. Although it explains the devastatingly honest and accurate teenage character, it still doesn't explain the complex emotions that are explored here and the pure ease with which she writes and with which we, in turn, read. In the wake of reading this book, it is the unconventional father/daughter relationship which really interests me. Is she merely the spoilt child of a wealthy, liberal man with too much time on his hands, or is there something a little more subversive going on?  I'd love to know what you all think because Sagan may just be a little too subtle for me on that front...