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H. M. Holt "souloftherose" (Tring, Herts)
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A Five Year Sentence
A Five Year Sentence
Price: £2.57

5.0 out of 5 stars Dark, uncomfortable yet utterly compelling, 29 April 2014
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"Miss Hawkins looked at her watch. It was two-thirty. If everything went according to schedule, she could safely reckon to be dead by six o'clock."

So opens Bernice Rubens' 1978 Booker shortlisted dark comedy which I found to be a very strange, but utterly compelling read.

The book opens with Miss Hawkins making plans to kill herself. She's about to retire from her job at a sweet factory where she has worked for all of her adult life. From her childhood in an orphanage to her time at the factory she has always obeyed orders and can't imagine her life without any. However, on her last day at work her co-workers give her a five year diary as a retirement present ("a gilt-edged inscribed five year sentence"). Miss Hawkins is unable to contemplate not obeying this last order and so her five year sentence begins.

At first Miss Hawkins resents the diary, those hundreds of blank pages which need to be filled. But after a while she finds the diary gives her new purpose; she starts to write orders to herself in the diary and experiences pleasure again as she fulfills them. The problem is that, like any other addiction, the orders have to become increasinglydifficult for Miss Hawkins to fulfil for her to continue to expereince pleasure at their fulfilment. And so Miss Hawkins starts a chain of events that lead to the most bizarre, dark and uncomfortable consequences for her and the reader. So bizarre and dark that I frequently found myself wondering whether I 'should' enjoy reading this at all - but despite the darkness, the bizarreness and the uncomfortableness, Bernice Rubens writes so well that this was a joy to read and certainly the work of a great writer.

"She closed the book and held it lovingly against her cheek. It was her life-line. It made everything possible, as today's precarious events had clearly shown. It had a life of its own. Of that she was sure. That accounted for its excitement, the utter unpredictability of where it would send her, and on what mission. It was her benevolent and sometimes tyrannous master, and she regarded it as separate from herself."


Lady Susan Plays the Game
Lady Susan Plays the Game
Price: £4.80

4.0 out of 5 stars An enjoyable romp, 30 Sep 2013
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Janet Todd is a well-known academic who particularly focuses on female authors from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. She's also recently published a novel which is a retelling of Austen's early epistolary novel, Lady Susan. I love the original Lady Susan and having heard a little bit about Todd's retelling I impulse-bought it when it was offered as a kindle daily deal.

Lady Susan Plays the Game takes the events revealed in Austen's Lady Susan and expands on them. By retelling the story in 3rd person rather than in epistolary format we're able to explore some of the backstory and spend time with some of the characters who didin't feature as largely in the original letters (I really enjoyed getting to know more about Frederica, Lady Susan's daughter). Being a 21st century novelist rather than an 18th century one (which I think is probably when Austen wrote Lady Susan although it was published posthumously), Todd is able to be a lot more explicit in some areas than Austen could be: Lady Susan's indiscretions are certainly no longer left to the reader's imagination!

It took me a while to adjust to the third person narrative and I have no idea whether I would say Todd managed to capture Austen's style, but I found this to be an enjoyable, humourous read and I enjoyed Todd's take on the characters from the original novel.


Nachtstürm Castle: A Gothic Austen Novel
Nachtstürm Castle: A Gothic Austen Novel
by Emily C. A. Snyder
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars An enjoyable sequel to Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, 2 Dec 2012
I hadn't thought I would enjoy an Austen sequel but this turned out to be a fun, light read. Following on from the events in Northanger Abbey, Henry Tilney decides to tease Catherine a little by taking her on a European tour with the intention of visiting some Radcliffe inspired gothic castles (Catherine, of course, takes her beloved copy of The Mysteries of Udolpho with her). In the course of their travels the Tilney's receive an invitation to stay at Nachtsturm Castle which promises to fulfil Catherine's wildest gothic dreams.

Emily Snyder is obviously a lover of gothic literature in general as well as Jane Austen's novels and I think this worked well as a homage to gothic novels in general as well as to Northanger Abbey. Whilst I don't think it was as good as Northanger it was a very enjoyable read, frequently funny and I thought Synder had captured Jane Austen's style well.


Night Birds on Nantucket (Puffin Books)
Night Birds on Nantucket (Puffin Books)
by Joan Aiken
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More entertaining adventures with Dido, 18 Nov 2012
Contains very slight spoilers for Black Hearts in Battersea

Following directly on from the events that took place at the end of Black Hearts in Battersea we finally get to find out what happened to the wonderful Dido Twite.

Dido wakes up to find herself on a whaling ship having slept for ten months (fed on whale oil and molasses) after having been rescued from a shipwreck. Dido is desperate to get back home to England but before she can do so she has to help Captain Casket's daughter, Dutiful Penitence, who has become scared of absolutely everything following the death at sea of her mother and has locked herself in a cupboard in one of the cabins where she has spent most of the voyage. Dido's journey eventually leads her to the isle of Nantucket where she becomes embroiled in more adventure as she meets one or two of the characters from the earlier books in the Wolves series and has to stop a dastardly Hanoverian plot to assassinate King James III, assisted by a great pink whale.

With several nods to Moby Dick, this instalment of the Wolves Chronicles easily lives up to the previous two and my only regret is that I didn't order the next book in the series along with this one.


Dancers in Mourning
Dancers in Mourning
by Margery Allingham
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Albert Campion comes into his own, 14 Nov 2012
This review is from: Dancers in Mourning (Paperback)
I think, for me, Dancers in Mourning, the 10th book in Margery Allingham's series featuring Albert Campion (or the 9th if you exclude short story collections), is going to mark the point at which I really fell in love with this series and with Albert Campion.

Campion is asked by an old friend (a returning character from Police at the Funeral (Campion Mystery)) to investigate some unusual threats that Jimmy Sutane, the star of a West End musical, has received. At first these threats appear to result from no more than the sort of petty jealousies you find in the theatre but things take a more serious turn when one of Sutane's house guests dies whilst Campion is visiting.

For once though, the crime and its solution aren't the real focus of Allingham's novel. When Campion first arrives at Jimmy Sutane's house he is completely blown away by Sutane's wife. She isn't the typical wife you might expect a star to have and she and Campion seem to connect quite deeply. The idea that these feelings might be acted on is never raised but when the evidence of Campion's investigation starts to point in one direction, he is aghast at the thought of what this might do to Sutane's wife and almost entirely abandons the whole investigation and returns to London. It's only when an event more tragic than anything Allingham has previously written occurs that Campion very reluctantly comes to terms with his responsibilities and returns to Sutane's house.

I can understand that some may find this book less satisfying than some of Allingham's other mysteries as it feels like the crime and its solution really take a back seat to Campion's dilemma. But I felt like Allingham had used this to show readers the real Campion for perhaps the first time in the series; I felt that there was a real emotional depth to Campion in this book and I liked that a lot.


Mrs Palfrey At The Claremont: A Virago Modern Classic (VMC)
Mrs Palfrey At The Claremont: A Virago Modern Classic (VMC)
by Elizabeth Taylor
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars Exquisite, 2 Nov 2012
After the death of her husband, Mrs Palfrey decides to move into the Claremont hotel for the remainder of her retirement. It's more genteel than a nursing home, easier to manage than living on her own and preferable to having to move in with a daughter with whom she has little in common. The Claremont has other long term, elderly residents thanks to its discounted rates and together they try to pass the time with endless card games, examinations of the dinner menu, library books, knitting and longed for visits from relatives. It's the age old game of keeping up appearances: a game that Mrs Palfrey is so determined to join in with that she asks the nice young writer, Ludo, who helped her when she fell in the street one day to pretend to be her grandson to the other residents.

Exquisitely written, insightful and both funny and heartbreaking by turns, Taylor's penultimate novel is a masterful look at the subjects of ageing and loneliness.

"It was hard work being old. It was like being a baby in reverse. Every day for an infant means some new little thing learned; every day for the old means some little thing lost. Names slip away, dates mean nothing, sequences become muddled, and faces blurred. Both infancy and age are tiring times."


The Fortnight in September
The Fortnight in September
by R. C. Sherriff
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful!, 8 Oct 2012
The Fortnight in September is a story about "about simple, uncomplicated people doing normal things." as the author himself described it in his autobiography. We follow the Stevens family on their annual fortnight's holiday to Bognor Regis in the 1930s. This fortnight in Bognor is an annual ritual, starting with the evening before going away, the journey to Bognor by train, their stay in the same house in Bognor every year and even including the amount of food and drink they buy which has been calculated to a nicety based on how much they required in previous years.

There are some changes this year, however. The two eldest children, Mary and Dick, now have jobs and income of their own and have contributed some of their money towards the cost of the holiday meaning the Stevens can rent one of the large beach huts to change in and sit on the veranda when on the beach. The lady who runs Seaview, the house they always stay in, is getting rather elderly and struggling to cope and the Stevens start to notice how run down Seaview is becoming. There's a sense that this may be the last family holiday they have all together at this house so there is a sense of impending change throughout the book and also a sense of nostalgia towards the many years they've enjoyed this holiday together. But there's also a sense of hope as Dick Stevens thinks about his future career and what he wants to do with his life, Mary Stevens falls in love for the first time and even Mr Stevens is able to come to terms with some past disappointments.

"The man on his holidays becomes the man he might have been, the man he could have been, had things worked out a little differently. All men are equal on their holidays: all are free to dream their castles without thought of expense, or skill of architect. Dreams based upon such delicate fabric must be nursed with reverence and held away from the crude light of tomorrow week."

There are some wonderful moments of quiet humour, such as Mr Stevens reaction to the holiday photos when developed, or the description of the large, soulless holiday house one of Mr Stevens' clients has had built for him and his wife which they had wanted to be a seaside house despite the fact that 'the sound of the sea got on Mrs. Montgomery's nerves'.

The story ends as the Stevens say goodbye to Bognor and Seaview at the end of their fortnight there and I was very sorry to leave them. This isn't the sort of story where much happens but it is a wonderful observation of the hopes and dreams of ordinary people. Recommended.


A Long Walk to Wimbledon (Bloomsbury Reader)
A Long Walk to Wimbledon (Bloomsbury Reader)
Price: £2.57

23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thought-provoking post apocalyptic tale of London, 8 Oct 2012
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A Long Walk to Wimbledon is set in a London where society has almost completely broken down. Large parts of Oxford Street have been reduced to rubble, packs of feral dogs roam the parks and the remaining inhabitants of London have withdrawn into small communities within the city. Nobody travels to other parts of the country or even to other parts of London; food, clothing, water and power are found locally or not at all. So Mark is surprised to hear his telephone ring one day and to hear the voice of his mother-in-law on the other end of the line; even more surprised when she tells him that his ex-wife, Jasmine, is dying and that Jasmine's dying request is to see Mark. Mark is unable to bring himself to refuse to go despite his fears of what he may encounter on the journey, so he sets out to walk from Highgate in North London, to Wimbledon across the river in order to get to Jasmine before she dies. A Long Walk to Wimbledon is a book about Mark's journey, both in the sense that it describes the physical obstacles he has to overcome but also that it shows us Mark's thoughts and outlook and how his forced journey challenges those. We never really find out what happened to leave London and (one assumes) the rest of the country in this state but the clues Keating gives seem to indicate that the collapse of society was caused by nothing supernatural or other-worldly, just normal, everyday people losing the desire to make society work.

"Now he knew with conviction that what lay ahead for him beyond any conjuring away was uncertainty. The territory he had pledged himself to make his way through was not simply a dangerous world. The journey facing him was not just a long walk where he would have to keep constantly alert, but which if he managed so much he might reasonably hope to complete with no more than some bad scares. No, ahead, he knew now, lay anything.

His world was at the mercy of the unmotivated.

Perhaps it had really been so for years. Perhaps that was what gradually, over as much as a century even, had been creeping up from beneath into the secure organised society which he had been brought up to believe he was living in and was entitled to live in his whole life long. The unmotivated."

A well-written, thought-provoking book that has definitely left me wanting to read more of Keating's books.


Good Evening, Mrs Craven: the Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes
Good Evening, Mrs Craven: the Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes
by Mollie Panter-Downes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.00

5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating insight into women's lives during WWII, 9 Sep 2012
Good Evening, Mrs Craven is a wonderful selection of short stories written by Mollie Panter-Downes as articles for The New Yorker during WWII. The stories focus on middle-class women and how they were affected by the war, whether it's trying to say goodbye to a husband leaving for active service, opening your home to receive evacuees or a mistress worrying about whether she would ever find out if her lover is hurt or injured. The selection of stories are arranged chronologically which gives a good sense of the changing mood and worsening conditions in England throughout WWII. Some are funny, some sad, but each one feels as if Mollie Panter-Downes has managed to lift a curtain and allow the reader a brief glimpse of her characters' lives before the curtain falls and they carry on. I think what I'm trying, rather clumsily, to say, is that all the characters and situations she wrote about felt very real to me, and I felt like I'd been given a real glimpse into what life was like for certain groups of people during WWII. And, of course, the Persephone edition is a joy to read.


Death of a Ghost (Classic Crime)
Death of a Ghost (Classic Crime)
by Margery Allingham
Edition: Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Murder in the art world, 9 Sep 2012
As I've been reading through Allingham's early Campion novels I've started to categorise them as either adventure/thrillers (sort of The Prisoner of Zenda (Penguin Classics) meets the The Thirty-Nine Steps) or more traditional murder mystery/crime fiction. Death of a Ghost is a straight murder mystery set amidst the art world of Little Venice in the 1930s. Campion deduces 'whodunnit' fairly early on, but how and why it was done proves harder to figure out and almost impossible to prove. I enjoyed this a lot and my only criticism is that I felt slightly dissatisfied with one part of the ending. This seems to be a recurring problem I have with Allingham's stories and probably reflects my inability not to compare her books to later crime fiction.


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