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Simon Thomas "bookaholic" (Oxford/Somerset, UK)

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by Tom Lappin
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Even the apolitical can appreciate this novel!, 1 Feb 2008
This review is from: Parties (Paperback)
It took me some time to notice the pun on 'parties', despite the fact that the cover, with its ballgown and political rosette, give the game away. Yes, this is about parties of both a social and a political nature, and specifically Beatrice, Grainne, Richard and Gordon. I'm going to be brutally honest - after the first chapter I had made up my mind. I wouldn't mention it on my blog, because I don't like being critical about new books, especially those published by small presses, but I did not get along with at all. It was only the fact that I'd been sent the novel that made me continue at all. Thank goodness I did.
I don't know what it is, but the first few pages seem like another novel to the rest - or perhaps I just needed time to get into Lappin's world and writing. Either way, I encourage potential readers to persevere - having read a couple of other reviews, I see I wasn't the only person who almost gave up. Keep going.
Parties is structured so that each chunk of the novel has a one-word subtitle - Crisps, Coffee, Champagne, Beer etc. - and the following section is divided again into Beatrice, Grainne, Richard, Gordon. Not always that order. And what Lappin has done, one gradually realises, is write a magnificent bildungsroman - but in actual fact four of them in one. There are four protagonists, each so rounded and stunningly, painfully accurate and whole that it is difficult to believe they are not real.
Beatrice is a very beautiful part-Italian who bewitches men (mostly her tutors) but has a wry intelligence and discontent which the reader sympathises with, and allows her to be approachable as a character. Grainne is a little podgy and has manages to combine dreaming optimism with self-loathing and realism - she is paired with Gordon, a political climber who will exhaust everything and everyone to reach his pinnacle. Richard writes musical journalism and has listless relationships, while always admiring Beatrice.
It is hopeless to define these characters so briefly, since they are complete and can only truly be understood when the novel is read. I found Beatrice and Grainne the stand-outs of the four, but really all four are needed. Though their paths throughout the novel are dogged with disilluion and dissatisfaction, there remains an undeniable warmth and truth to the novel throughout. Quite unlike the sort of novel I usually read, but so utterly engaging that the characters remain in my head several months after I read Parties. Not for the faint-hearted, perhaps, but a striking work which I would foist on you - if you can get through the first pages. Oh, and I am the most apathetic person in the world when it comes to politics (which I'm sure would displease the author immensely) so if you have the slightest interest in that area, you'll probably value Parties even more.

The Closed Door and Other Stories
The Closed Door and Other Stories
by Dorothy Whipple
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.00

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful Whipple on a smaller scale, 1 Feb 2008
Though I now space them out, a new Persephone Books read is always a wonderful treat, and something to be treasured. Though they cover quite a range of decades, genres, authors, forms - and, yes, some of the writers are even male! - there is something unmistakably Persephone about everything they issue, and thus something unmistakably great. The Closed Door and Other Stories, one of the latest batch of three, was no different. I loved it.

Most aficiandos of Persephone agree that Dorothy Whipple is one of their major finds. Crompton and EM Delafield were already firm favourites with me, and I was delighted to see them come back into the light of day, but it is Whipple who has been the nicest new face. Though decidedly a domestic-fiction-writer, she demonstrates that this need not mean anything derogatory about writing style. Nicola Beauman (who runs Persephone) has had to fiercely defend Whipple against some critiques over the past few years, mostly from people who, bewilderingly, have been against niche publishing in any shape or form - but just pick up Someone at a Distance or They Knew Mr. Knight and it is indisputable that Whipple needed bringing back into print.

The Closed Door and Other Stories is different from any other Whipple I've read, not least because it's short stories rather than full-length prose. The first story, 'The Closed Door', is easily the longest - 75 or so pages - and the other eight are snapshots of characters' lives. I read them all together at a fast pace, which probably isn't the ideal way to approach short stories, and I must confess I found a lot of them to be quite similar - a daughter (always a daughter) is repressed by her selfish parents who expect her to act like a servant, and dismiss any academic or romantic ambitions the daughter has. I like that Whipple doesn't aggrandise either of these ambitions over the other, but sees both as valid modes of self-expression and fulfilment. Anyway, as you read more of the stories in the collection this scenario becomes very familiar - but each story presents a different ending/solution/irresolution. 'After Tea' is an especially nice contrast. When presented together, the particular culminations grow even more significant, playing off against each other, and become less 'closing', as it were - more problematic, occasionally more triumphant.

Against the stories which fall into this mould, a couple stand out as really beautiful evocations of character and predicament - 'The Rose' and 'Wednesday' particularly. The latter is quite a brave portrait - a divorcee adulteress (though one coerced into it by her husband, we are led to understand) on one of her monthly permitted visits to her children. Agonising and realistic and a painful gem.

In case you hadn't ascertained this yet - The Closed Door is a book definitely worth buying! Just spread the stories out a bit.

The Haunted Woman (Canongate Classics)
The Haunted Woman (Canongate Classics)
by David Lindsay
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.84

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hauntingly Good..., 1 Feb 2008
The Haunted Woman is a type of novel I love, where life is normal except for one fantastical element. In this case it is a staircase, which gets me interested immediately. Think this might be a rather specialist interest, but I love staircases in literature.

I'll quote the blurb from my copy of The Haunted Woman:

Engaged to a decent but unexceptional man, Isbel Loment leads an empty life, moving with her aunt from hotel to hotel. She is perverse and prickly with untapped resources of character and sensibility. They explore by chance a strange house and there Isbel meets Judge, its owner; a profoundly disturbing relationship develops and it is from this that the drama unfolds.

They obviously don't want to give the staircase bit away, but I shall - there is a staircase which offers three doors at the top. Isbel takes one of them, which leads to a room, where she meets Judge again. When they return to the main house, neither remember what has taken place in the room. And so it goes on, with parallel existences and relationships. All the way throughout the novel there is the mystery of what remains behind the other doors...

David Lindsay's writing is sometimes criticised for not being very fluid or well styled, but I just found it took a little getting used to - sure, he's not Virginia Woolf, but I didn't find it stood out as awful. And, for me, the plot and intrigue and characters more than make up for this. I sometimes love books for language, regardless of plot (e.g. Tove Jansson's writing) but equally sometimes plot takes precedence over language. And Lindsay manages to combine the two in a way which leads to a beautiful surrealism by the end, and produces a novel which is quite unlike anything else I've ever read. Give it a try.

Dear Joyce, Dear Ginnie: The Letters of Joyce Grenfell and Virginia Graham (BBC Radio Collection)
Dear Joyce, Dear Ginnie: The Letters of Joyce Grenfell and Virginia Graham (BBC Radio Collection)
by Virginia Graham
Edition: Audio Cassette

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book; great cassette, 1 Feb 2008
Dear Joyce, Dear Ginnie, as the cassette is called, or Joyce & Ginnie: The Letters of Joyce Grenfell and Virginia Graham, the more prosaic title of the book, is well worth looking out for. Indeed, a 'must-read' for anyone intrigued by either correspondent. Everyone knows who Joyce was - for those unfamiliar with Virginia, she was a poet whose work includes Consider The Years, now republished by Persephone. The exchange of letters between the two women spans many, many years, and offers a unique perspective upon the lives of each - life as they wished to convey it to their closest friend. Without the modesty (assumed or otherwise) requisite for autobiography, or the idolatory of biography, reading letters may feel a little like encroaching upon a friendship, but also allows closer and more genuine understanding of the women than available elsewhere.

Grenfell appears to have been a prolific letter-writer - I'm also currently enjoying An Invisible Friendship, letters between Grenfell and Katharine Moore, a pen-friend she never met, though who often attended Grenfell's concerts and readings. What makes Dear Joyce, Dear Ginnie superior, to my mind, is that they saw each other as equals. Katharine Moore (though interesting writer herself, as Cordial Relations demonstrates) never quite loses the sense of appreciation and awe that Grenfell is writing to her.

Love-Child (VMC)
Love-Child (VMC)
by Edith Olivier
Edition: Paperback

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a fabulous fable, realistically told, 1 Feb 2008
This review is from: Love-Child (VMC) (Paperback)
Agatha Bodenham, at 32, finds herself alone for the first time, after the death of her mother. She has been kept quietly at home, and has no real friends or chance of marriage. She turns her attention instead to an imaginary friend of her youth, Clarissa - who then appears, 'gathering substance in the warmth of Agatha's obsessive love until it seems that others too can see her', to quote the blurb. Though a great joy to Agatha's lonely life, as Clarissa begins to explore the more exotic features of 1920s life (tennis, dances, boys) something of a power struggle develops, and it is unclear who possesses whom...

There are similarities to one of my favourite books, Miss Hargreaves, though Frank Baker's novel was funnier and less affecting. The Love Child (1927) is a touching portrait with edges of surrealism and heartache. A very slim novel, it contains many intriguing ideas about love and possession and neediness - I also found the writing to flow beautifully. I'd love to discover other fables of this ilk.

My Virago copy (bought on a whim for 75p in an Oxford charity shop) has an introduction by Hermione Lee which is illuminating. And, like so many other authors, Edith Olivier was related to a clergyman. Daughter, in this case. She spent nearly all her life in her native Wiltshire, except for some time at Oxford University on a scholarship - and The Love Child, where it does not wander into fantasy, appears to be influenced by autobiography.

Take My Blanket and Go
Take My Blanket and Go
Offered by EliteDigital UK
Price: £23.95

3.0 out of 5 stars I'm a little bit country..., 30 Jan 2008
This review is from: Take My Blanket and Go (Audio CD)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
This is a very country album, and that probably sums it up for someone, like me, without any great knowledge of country music. I daresay country aficiandos would be able to tell me the exact places that this album differs from the greats, but I'm afraid it all went a little over my head.

You can imagine Joe strumming his guitar (or should that be geetar?) around a campfire, and that will either leave you smiling or running for the hills. His voice sounds quite distinctive at first, but this distinction soon mellows into something approaching blandness. Or perhaps comfortingly familiar would be a nicer way of phrasing it.

All in all, a nice enough album, though not one to convert a country-suspicious music listener such as myself.

Ivy York
Ivy York
Offered by best_value_entertainment
Price: £4.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Ethereal or irritating?, 7 Jan 2008
This review is from: Ivy York (Audio CD)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
With so many bland lead vocalists around, it has to be a good sign when a singer's voice causes you to start in surprise every time you hear it. Ivy York, apparently the name of the vocalist too according to the CD case, sounds a bit like a rockier Cyndi Lauper. Anything she sings comes out as an ethereal and deeply felt paean to emotions, but the rocky edge leaves her much more grounded than, say, Kate Bush. Perhaps the perfect compromise - emotional without being embarrassingly so.

So what's the problem with this album? The writing relies heavily upon repetition - almost every chorus has the same line repeated. That's ok when the tune and words hit home, but leaves some tracks unredeemable. When it works, though - especially when it speeds from floaty to rocky in a crash of vocals, such as my favourite track Forces of Nature - it really works. One of those albums which will either grow and grow, or leave you throwing it against a wall.

A Lifetime Burning
A Lifetime Burning
by Linda Gillard
Edition: Paperback

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best depiction of twins I've read!, 9 Nov 2007
This review is from: A Lifetime Burning (Paperback)
I don't want to tell you too much about the plot of Gillard's novel, for three reasons. Firstly, it will ruin genuine shocks and surprises which enhance the reading no end and add richness to the writing; secondly, Linda has said that she doesn't really do plots - more characters to whom things happen; thirdly, it would sound ridiculous. I don't mean that as a criticism at all - but a synopsis of the novel would make you think "wow, what a crazy amount of things happen to this family", whereas reading the novel makes you think "Wow!"

So, not revealing the main plot points - but suffice it to say that the Dunbar family do not live uneventful lives. The novel focuses on Flora, whose funeral is witnessed in the opening pages, and flits between first and third persons, and many different times throughout her life. She is forceful, hopeful and often quite selfish, but with a disarming self-awareness - and great closeness with twin brother Rory. They are not identical personalities, nor are they wholly disparate (the two usual paths taken with twins in fiction) but rather complementing characters; individuals but intertwined.

Though the novel jumps all over the place, I never found it confusing - rather a path towards illumination and comprehension of the characters, understanding (rather than sanctioning) the way they act. Linda Gillard writes with lyrical intensity, beautiful prose which is powerful without being overly 'flowery.' I enjoyed her previous novel Emotional Geology, but this is leagues ahead of it - can't recommend it enough. The subject matter isn't uncontroversial, but nothing in A Lifetime Burning is gratuitous - and almost every other modern novelist I've read could take a leaf out of Gillard's book.

The Loudest Sound and Nothing
The Loudest Sound and Nothing
by Clare Wigfall
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.19

7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Small but perfectly formed, 25 Sep 2007
What The Loudest Sound And Nothing has made me realise is that, though many collections of short stories contain a lot of variety, they always have some identifiable style or wording or topic which is unmistakably consistent. Not so Ms. Wigfall. She covers so many periods, personas, styles, situations, nationalities and (though I haven't counted) no great imbalance in gender of narrator too. If they do share a common trait, it is the focus upon the unspoken. That's rather a truism of all literature post-1950, but rarely have I read it done without being irritating or merely included for effect. Wigfall's stories allow glimpses into lives, and wherever the image hinges on an untold aspect of these lives, it is the surrounding existence which grabs out attention. Sure, we don't know, say, what it is the barman tells the girl in 'Free'; we don't know what Mr. Turbridge's crime is in 'Night after Night' (though one can perhaps guess); we don't know what's going on in 'Safe', the most enigmatic story of them all. But in each of these cases, and throughout the collection, the portraits are complete enough to leave you satisfied. Not every story has an omission to illuminate the rest - in 'On Pale Green Walls', for example, understanding what's happening, when the narrator doesn't, is the crux.

Whichever way the story is structured, they all involve the reader in a way which I hope Wigfall can bottle and sell to potential writers. Because they're such a varied bunch, each must stand on its own merits - and I found that all but one of them did. Within sentences, Wigfall creates a miniature landscape of narrative, and even stories which last a few pages feel like complete entities. This is how the modern short story should be written.

Leave to Remain
Leave to Remain
Price: £9.27

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not her best.... but her worst is great!, 27 Nov 2006
This review is from: Leave to Remain (Audio CD)
The title for this review kinda says it all. I once read a review of Williams which said she could 'sing the back of a cereal packet and it would be brilliant.' They have a point - William's voice is, as ever, a delight to which to listen; soft and floaty without being nauseating. This is helped by her frequently sardonic lyrics - to the reviewer who objected to 'not waving but drowning', Williams is referring to the title of a collection of Stevie Smith's poems, as the song is about said poet.
What prevents this album being as good as Old Low Light or Little Black Numbers is probably the production - the 'backing' sections to the tracks are often a little samey, and none of the tracks are given the interesting and track-changing beats/backing-tunes/syncopated accompaniments which made those other two albums so interesting. So, if you've not bought any Williams before, don't start here. If you want more, it's worth adding to the collection.

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