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3.4 out of 5 stars
3.4 out of 5 stars
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on 19 April 2009
A gripping 'rags-to-riches' story, which begins on a train in the American Mid-West at the beginning of the 20th century and ends on another train en route to the Spanish Civil War. Just enough of the major facts are left out along the way for there to be a dramatic denouement and resolution of the story at the end. An effective and pleasing idea is the introduction of Beverley Nichols as narrator (in his capacity as journalist) at a point where a new narrative voice is especially welcome. The supporting characters are particularly well drawn.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 13 December 2012
D.J. Taylor is a curious writer - writes well; good, textured use of language, inhabits period well, creates interesting characters, often manages a splendid line in literary pastiche - Kept: A Victorian Mystery,At the Chime of a City Clock, and I pick up a Taylor book, and each time find myself enjoyably appreciating the craft, and forgetting just why I ended up feeling disappointed with the last one -- because there will come a time, around half way through, where everything begins to turn a bit turgid, there is the sense of a lot of repetition, an overdoing of repeated atmosphere.

It is this which makes me puzzle the accolades which have been heaped on this writer. Something, an incisiveness, an economy, is missing.

It isn't that I expect a furiously driving plot - I very much like books where the mystery and depth unfold, and where detail is put in that gives a three dimensionality - but there should always be some sort of superobjective which keeps the author in focus, and avoids the flabby.

And so I found the problem, again, with Ask Alice. A promising story of how a young girl in Kansas in the early part of the twentieth century, from a pretty ruinous start, climbs out of poverty into high society in England, and is later connected with her past again. No spoilers - the dust jacket of the book explains this. I really enjoyed Taylor's evocations of time and place, social observations, the teeming cast of characters, but somehow, instead of all this gathering itself up and ravelling and unravelling with momentum, it begins, after a while, to plod.

There is the frustrating feeling that if only Taylor could vigorously prune his creations, a better story teller would be revealed
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on 9 August 2009
I read this because I enjoyed DJ Taylor's 'Bright Young People' so much and I was not disappointed. 'Ask Alice' is skilfully constructed, very readable, beautifully written, extremely compelling and is peopled with real characters of the kind we can meet every day. It's in some ways like a 20th Century 'The Way We Live Now' - thankfully somewhat shorter though! A very diverting and thought provoking read.
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on 7 July 2009
Engaging for a quick read, but this is a very forgettable novel. It starts in Kansas in 1904 with a chance meeting on a train then follows Alice's rise from humble beginnings to high society of the 1920s and 30s. Running parallel to this is the story of Ralph Bentley and his eccentric 'uncle' who makes a fortune discovering a new colour/dye which he calls hogpen. (If only that rather banal bookjacket had featured this new colour which I found difficult to envisage!) Unfortunately, Taylor doesn't seem to know what to with his characters and the ending is contrived and silly. Lots of good detail but this book never comes to life.
A much better and more gripping tale of secrets and illegitimacy is Iain Pears' recently-published Stone's Fall. A huge book which I read in a few days because I simply couldn't put it down.
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on 22 May 2013
Ask Alice

There is something about the girl on the train speeding through Kansas that makes her instantly likeable. Her name is Alice and she is an orphan, brought up by an uncle and aunt and now going to live with a different uncle and aunt who, she is assured, will offer her better prospects. However, since these appear to involve becoming either a farmer's wife or a teacher she is not wildly excited. Consequently, when the train breaks down and there is a delay she is happy to accept an invitation from a good-looking man to have dinner with him while they wait. Needless to say, the dinner leads on to other things.

Then we are presented with a story, told in the first person, by a boy who is living in a grand house in England, although he is brought up by servants, with no clue as to his parentage. His life is soon to change, however, because, when it is decided that the house is to be sold, he is transferred to the keeping of the housekeeper's brother in Norfolk - a real eccentric.

The two stories - of Alice, who has now moved to England, and the boy, Ralph - run parallel and we soon become aware that the two are closely linked. Both prosper, Alice by marrying a wealthy man after having been an actress and Ralph because his `uncle' becomes a millionaire. The wealthy and privileged lifestyle which each can afford, and which is so well brought out, serves to bring them gradually closer and closer together. As far as Alice is concerned, her life - even when she inherits her husband's immense wealth after his death - is never entirely what she wants and there are numerous occasions when she looks back nostalgically to the simple life she led in the American mid-west. We are all the time looking forward to the dénouement, which will bring Alice and Ralph to the point where they understand more completely their previous histories. The author creates many opportunities for this to happen but it never actually does until it is too late. Unfortunately, this is where, to a certain extent, the novel falls down because the means the author uses to bring about the meeting are clumsy and scarcely believable. Why he thinks it necessary to bring in a real life character to describe the end of the story it is difficult to say, but it is totally unsuccessful. There is also a tendency, as the novel nears its end, to bring in characters - Constance, Patrick and Simon - who are quite incidental to the plot and who appear to be there only to provide something in the way of padding. This is a great pity because the first three-quarters of the book are totally convincing and enthralling.
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on 3 August 2010
I really wanted to enjoy this book, it had all the ingredients I enjoy and I was encouraged by the five star reviews. Sadly this was not to be.

This is a rags to riches story, well written, which had all the potential to be an absorbing read. At the start of the book, the main character, Alice, is a teenage orphan in Kansas who goes on to transform herself into one of London's foremost hostesses. Her first relationship is with Drouett, a travelling salesman whom she meets on a train and with whom she becomes pregnant. Drouett deserts her and from then on she remarries and 'escapes' with her infant son to England. Her son, Asa, is apparently abandoned and the child somehow ends up being brought up with an unknown eccentric whom he calls 'uncle'. There was so many episodes here that were not fully explained but I carried on hoping that all would become clear, but it didn't.

I enjoyed the first half of the book and put aside my reservations about the whys and wherefores of Alice's actions. But I soon began to get quite bored, there were so many characters introduced who had no bearing on the plot.Not for me I'm afraid.
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on 4 July 2010
I took this book away as part of my holiday reading and couldn't put it down.

Firstly the story itself is intriguing. DJ Taylor has drawn excellent characters and capitalised on his extensive knowledge of society during that period to bring great authenticity to the story. (See Bright young People) Although you suspect you've guessed the way the story will end (and of course I was right, mostly) there are constant surprises along the way and I found myself saddened when I finished the final chapter because I'll not have the opportunity to read it fresh again.

The introduction of Beverley Nicholls to the latter part of the narrative is inspirational and new authors could do a lot worse than look to DJ Tayor for inspiration in the use of strong story structure and good english to create a literary (and literate) winner.

I've enjoyed DJ Tayor's work before and this novel certainly doesn't disappoint. A good one for your Book Group.
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VINE VOICEon 23 May 2010
I bought this book at a recent literary festival attended by D.J.Taylor and his wife Rachel Hore. She was giving a creative writing workshop and as his name never appeared under Speakers I can only assume that he was also involved with the writing class. And this was the feel the book had for me - more of a writing exercise than a novel I would read for pleasure. I felt he would have been better suited to writing short stories as there were spurts of interest along the way, but added together this novel became hard work. It took me nearly 2 weeks to read and I only finished because I had to lead the discussion at our reading group.

The central character is Alice, a teenage orphan from Kansas City, travelling to live with relatives in Bellevue. When the train breaks down en route she agrees to accompany Drouett, a salesman she had been talking to on the train, for dinner at a nearby hotel. She never re-boards the train. This sounds like a potential opening for an exciting story, but no, it is just one of many unexplained episodes in this novel. Eventually she makes her way to England by boat but we are never told why or how.
In a parallel story, that skips back and forth in time in relation to Alice's movements, we meet Ralph, also seemingly orphaned, who lives in a large mansion with servants and an elderly lady. When the lady dies he ends up with "Uncle", the brother of one of the servants, who strangely takes on the role of father to a boy he has never previously met. I'd already had enough and I was only 1/3 through the book.

Some interesting character deescriptions but I lost interest in their motives well before the end, which was also an anticlimax.
Witin our book group five of us had finished this and the score out of 5 was unanimously 2 to 3.
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on 6 August 2013
I rate this a most interesting, inventive, deeply satisfying novel. I cannot understand the lukewarm comments it has received from many other reviewers.
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on 17 April 2009
D.J.Taylor is a sound non-fiction writer but as a novelist he is too self regarding and over controlled. He celebrates the nineteenth century novel but cannot capture the essential qualities of the nineteenth century novelist, a command not only of language but also the subtleties of psychological realism. I found this an irritating book. A book of the mind but with very little heart.
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