Monday, November 30, 2009

All Passion Spent

All Passion Spent (1931) by Vita Sackville-West is the second book I've read for the Women Unbound Challenge .

The novel opens with six siblings all in their sixties, discussing the fate of their newly widowed mother. Lady Slane at 88 has lived what many women would consider a full life having been happily married to a viceroy of India and a prime minister, borne six children and is grandmother and great-grandmother to many. Her children discuss accomodating her in their homes at different intervals for the remainder of her life. However, Lady Slane surprises them all by moving to a small house in the country that she admired thirty years ago. Here, she recollects her lost youth, her lost ambition of becoming a painter and acquires an odd assortment of friends and companions. Among them is Mr.FitzGeorge, an eccentric millionaire who met her once in India more than fifty years ago and loved her from afar.

Though Lady Slane concludes that her life has been satisfactory, she finds passion in the freedom to choose and in the end she bestows this knowledge to one member of her family. Lady Slane was thoroughly likeable and admirable in her decision to stand up to her pompous children and finally live her own life. The book has a wonderful message about it never being too late to fulfill your dreams and to be true to yourself.

"If one is not to please onself in old age, when is one to please oneself?"

This is the second book I've read by Vita Sackville-West and between the two, though All Passion Spent is a touching novel, I preferred her other book No Signposts in the Sea.

Women Unbound Challenge: 2 down, 5 to go.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Pyramid

Sometimes I just feel the need to curl up with a good mystery and after being recently let down by Her Fearful Symmetry, I craved for a good one. Luckily, I spied the new Kurt Wallander book, the Pyramid, at a bookstore this week. I actually have a thing for Swedish detectives and Swedish mysteries. If written well, they can be fun and quite gripping and I love that they're set in the lonely, harsh and cold Scandinavian landscape. A setting that's somehow so appropriate for terrifying murders and a hardened policeman.

Kurt Wallander is my favourite Swedish detective  and is the creation of Swedish author Henning Mankell. There are ten books in the series and all of them are good. They've been translated into 40 languages and there's now a BBC series starring Kenneth Branagh. Before the Frost was the last one I read and that was over five years ago. I didn't think it would be the last but it seemed Mankell grew tired of penning mystery novels and decided to write books about Africa instead. Quite a change! Fans were disappointed and begging for more but it appeared that there wouldn't be new books in the series. Recently, he surprised us all with the publication of the Pyramid which is a short story collection of the first cases of Wallander before he became an inspector. Most of these stories were written by Mankell prior to writing the full-length novels and a few have already been published in newspapers.

Revisiting a favourite character after so many years is always fun and though they're short stories Mankell doesn't disappoint. Mankell recently mentioned that there will be a final Wallander book released later this year. "It's the last time," Mankell says. "When you read it, you will understand. It doesn't mean that he (Wallander) dies – he doesn't die – but you will understand it's not possible to write any more about him."

If you're not familiar with Mankell and you love mysteries or police procedurals then I highly recommend the Wallander mysteries. They are all set in the Swedish state of Ystad. Wallander is the divorced, middle-aged, opera loving detective who solves shocking and at times gruesome murders together with his police team. What I especially love about this series is that you're with the team every step of the way and not in the mind of some killer. You don't have to start with the first novel. My first was actually the seventh book in the series,  the Fifth Woman and it's still my favourite.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Her Fearful Symmetry

I'm still reeling from the ending of this truly messy novel. I really wanted to like this especially when many book bloggers whose opinions I respect just raved about it. But I'm so disappointed. In fact, I want my money back!

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger is about two twenty-one-year-old American twins who inherit a flat in London from their dead aunt. Their aunt Elspeth was also a twin, estranged from her sister for 21 years. There's a mystery there and the solution is hidden in Elspeth's papers, the bulk of which the twins are not allowed to touch. The twins move to London and spend their days aimlessly wandering around the city. They meet Martin, an obsessive-compulsive man and Robert, the boyfriend of their dead aunt, both of whom live in their building. Elspeth is now a ghost trapped in her flat. She soon starts haunting the twins. Sounds good? Yes, that's exactly what I thought but I was wrong!

Siamese twins by Audrey Niffenegger (from her website)

The novel started out just fine and gripping in its way but I just couldn't sympathize with any of the main characters. I found Elspeth annoying, Robert boring and creepy and the twins just plain flaky. The only people I found charming where the suppporting cast: obsessive-compulsive Martin and his Dutch wife Marijke. Just two people in love who somehow make it through in the end. Why couldn't the book just be mainly about them? Now that would have been a lovely novel!

I did appreciate the background setting of Highgate cemetery. The history of which is captivating and it made me want to pick up more novels by one of the cemetery residents, Mrs. Henry Wood (I loved East Lynne). But a setting does not a book make. Just when the story starts to get interesting it seems to spiral out of control. Ouija boards, a spirit of a kitten, a ghost in high heels, distasteful family secrets and out-of-body experiences. Eek!  It was way too much!  I don't want to give most of the plot away in case some of you want to read the book but suffice it to say that I don't recommend this novel. It was cheesy and just ultimately unpleasant.

I almost have the feeling that Niffenegger had a great idea for a novel but she just didn't know how to build it up and how to end it. She seems to have done a rush job. I wonder if she had a deadline because of her five million dollars advance? Hmm....

Have any of you read this? What did you think? If you have reviewed it, please leave a link to your review.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Shuttle - Some Answers

Recently I posted about abridged novels (link here) focusing  primarily on the Persephone edition of the Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Thank you to everyone who commented and offered their opinions. It's surprising how this has struck a chord with so many people.

It was precisely because I had such an interesting response that I decided to contact Nicola Beauman at Persephone Books. She promptly responded. However, being quite busy because of the upcoming Christmas season (there are only two of them in the shop), she was unable to check her notes to recall exactly what was cut off from the original text. But she did tell me the reason why they abridged it. None of you guessed that it was purely a cost issue. Apparently The Shuttle was only affordable if they cut it slightly as it costs more than £3 a copy to print as it is. Imagine that! You'll all be glad to know that it is also the only Persephone book that is abridged.

(endpaper from the Persephone edition of the Shuttle)

It's curious how everyone was speculating about what exactly was cut off. Romain at Library Thing has read the original book and she thinks they played down the god-like adoration everyone had for Bettina Vanderpoel which I admit at times seemed over the top. She was much admired by peasants and peers in the book and Romain mentioned there are several chapters written in purple prose devoted to doting peasants bowing and scraping.

... she stopped the carriage before old Doby's cottage... and Doby, standing up touching his forelock and Mrs Welden curtsying, gazed at her with prayer in their eyes..."  (page 283 of the original edition)

Digfish at Library Thing then pointed me to the Gutenberg website where one can dowload the entire original text. Here's the  link. Upon first inspection, there are 50 chapters in the original in contrast to 25 in the Persephone edition. However, it does seem that Persephone merged two chapters into one several times. The PE edition has 476 pages while the original has 512. That's pretty close even considering they had to use a different typeface.

I didn't have time to go through the entire text. I just went through the first chapters comparing it to my copy and I soon observed a chunk that was definitely cut from the new edition. Upon arrival in London, Bettina visits Mrs. Worthington and has a discussion about the Tower of London and Lady Jane Grey. In fact, the title of chapter nine is called Lady Jane Grey. This entire part is cut off from the Persephone book.  I also noticed that upon alighting from the train at Sir Nigel's village, there are a few paragraphs devoted to the station master's impressions of Bettina and her beauty. These were slimmed down to just a few sentences in the new edition.

As Nicola mentioned, they only cut it slightly and I now see that what she omitted was carefully selected paragraphs here and there (more likely ornate and flowery prose) that don't destroy the gist of the novel. It seems the cuts were necessary to enable it to be published again and allow a new generation of readers to enjoy it. Honestly, in spite of being familiar with Frances Hodgson Burnett, I don't think I would have heard of this forgotten novel if Persephone hadn't republished it. I think I'm quite satisfied with the knowledge I've gathered and I do forgive Persephone for abridging it. It's a wonderful edition on its own and as I said before I didn't think it was lacking in any way.

In other news...and wonderful news it is, according to Nicola, Persephone will next publish Dorothy Whipple's Greenbanks and after that, Because of the Lockwoods. Isn't that exciting?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Consequences is the first book I've read for the Women Unbound Challenge and it was an excellent choice. I read the book without any idea of the plot so I wasn't sure if this was fitting for the Challenge but then how could I go wrong with a Persephone book?

Consequences was written in 1918 by E.M. Delafield who ironically is more known for her domestic light hearted novels such as the Diary of a Provincial Lady. I admit I haven't read any of her other books but I'll definitely be on the lookout for them because I love the way she writes. Consequences is truly a departure for her being a serious novel with an underlying social commentary on the state of women during her time. Alex Clare is the eldest child of an English upper class family and the only expectations her parents have for her are to develop and polish herself at a foreign school, make her social debut and marry an eligible man. Alex is a victim of her time, unable to be happy being a social butterfly and incapable of committing to the one person who asks her to marry him. She is deemed a failure by herself and her family.

(from the Persephone Post, E.M. Delafield photographed for LIFE magazine six years after she wrote Consequences)

This is a deeply feminist novel because it questions the role and expectations of women of the Victorian era. There was really no choice for a woman from a good family but to marry and have children. Schooling was ultimately incomplete and girls were never taught to learn a trade. Alex was probably not meant to be a wife and mother however being a prisoner of her era she was powerless to find out what her ambitions were. She wasn't even aware if she had any.

Throughout the novel, I felt Alex's restlessness, her clumsiness, her unhappiness and her frustration. She is unable to break free from the confines of her own personality and yet feels envious at her peers' social successes and attractiveness to the opposite sex. She wants to make her parents happy yet is unable to do so if she stays true to herself.

Though a sad novel, I highly recommend this brilliant book. I could not put it down, I was completely riveted from start to finish. The last sentence  will really break your heart! Consequences really struck a chord in me because we've all been an Alex at some point in our lives or we've all known an Alex but somehow we all grew up and found our passions and niches in the world. Alex never did.

Women Unbound Challenge: 1 down, 6 to go.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Greengage Summer - Group Read

Bookheaper and I would like to host a group read of the Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden. Simon at Stuck in a Book has expressed an interest to join too. It would be wonderful if many of you can join in whether you've read the book in the past or have yet to read it.

"On and off, all that hot French August, we made ourselves ill from eating the greengages. Joss and I felt guilty; we were still at the age when we thought being greedy was a childish fault, and this gave our guilt a tinge of hopelessness because, up to then, we had believed that as we grew older our faults would disappear, and none of them did."

The Greengage Summer (1958) is set in a French countryside hotel, where five young children are virtually left alone after their mother is suddenly taken ill. What follows is a haunting summer where the children suddenly come of age. The story is told from the point of view of the second oldest child, thirteen-year-old Cecil. From the Evening Standard, "'An exciting tale, this novel has both charm and atmosphere, and Miss Godden recaptures with an easy unsentimental naturalness the unfocused vision of adolescence."

Rumer Godden is a British writer (1908-1998) who was awarded an OBE in 1993. She has published over 60 books both for adults and children. Her stories usually touch on her childhood spent in both India and Britain. Godden's novels are characterized by rich atmospheric description and vivid portrayals of children and their innermost thoughts, confusion and childhood disappointments.

This book seems to be out of print but it's readily available in libraries and there are second hand copies from various booksellers. For those who'd like to post their thoughts and reviews on the book, please post in the first week of January.

Friday, November 13, 2009

To Abridge or Not?

I recently read a review of the Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett at savidgereads. I also reviewed the book during Persephone Week (link here). Reading the comments for both our reviews reminded me that so many of you have mentioned that Persephone's edition is actually abridged. I was appalled as it's almost 500 pages long and I also didn't know that Persephone published condensed novels. Truly shocking! That said however, I didn't feel like the book was lacking in any way and I thought it was perfect as it was. But of course, that was before I knew it was abridged.

The whole discussion started me thinking about abridged novels in general. If you had asked me before I knew about the Shuttle, I would have said I dislike condensed novels. I think it started when I was really young and discovered that the Nancy Drew books I was reading, which were published in the 70s, were heavily abridged. For those who don't know, Nancy Drew is a titian-haired American teenage detective who solves mysteries together with her cousins Bess and George. The mysteries usually involved haunted houses, spooky intruders, secret passages and mysterious letters. Nancy would bravely whip out her magnifying glass and fearlessly investigate, solving all the puzzles in the end.

I was enthralled to discover the originals from the 40s and 50s in my local library and I devoured them. The characters were much more developed, the mysteries more intricate and the writing much more sophisticated. Also, they were five chapters longer than the newer versions. My young mind couldn't fathom why they would condense something that was so enjoyable in its original format. The characters of Bess and George for example were so much more interesting. They actually had real personalities as opposed to the caricatures that were portrayed in the newer versions. The mysteries weren't also that easy to solve. It took much more than pluck and luck for Nancy to solve everything. However, I guess if I had never known that the Nancy Drew books were condensed I would have probably still loved them. I wouldn't have known what I was missing.

To learn that the Shuttle is actually abridged is very disappointing. Rachel from Book Snob mentioned that an entire storyline and character have been eliminated. Now that's intriguing! Why did Persephone deem it necessary to do this? I do have to say though that the Shuttle had some tedious parts especially in the beginning when Burnett described the ships that took the British aristocracy and American heiresses across the ocean. If it had been any other book, I may have given up after just a few pages but being a Persephone, I perservered and was soon rewarded. Maybe the book actually needed to be trimmed down. And I must admit, now that I know the truth, The Shuttle doesn't read like a condensed book. So whatever their reasons, Persephone did a good job!

It would be interesting to hear from someone who actually read the original book. What do you think? Have you read this book and was it the original or the Persephone edition? And what do you think about abridged novels?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Women Unbound

Yay! I'm joining the Women Unbound Challenge.  I was a bit hesitant at first as it seemed such a daunting goal but the challenge starts this month and ends in November 2010. I figure I have more than enough time to complete this. Plus I'm hoping this task will get me to read some of the books on my To-be-read pile. I already have all these books except for one.

I'm joining at the Bluestocking level (read at least five books, including at least two nonfiction ones).

Consequences by E.M. Delafield
The Group by Mary McCarthy
All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West
In this House of Brede by Rumer Godden
Fugitive's Return by Susan Glaspell


Portrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson by  Nigel Nicolson
Etty Hillensum: An Interrupted LIfe, Letters from Westerbork by Etty Hillensum

Have any of you read these? Would love to hear your thoughts. I'd also love to know if you are also participating in the challenge.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Because of the Lockwoods

A dear internet friend of mine sent me an obscure copy of Because of the Lockwoods by Dorothy Whipple. I feel extremely lucky to have read it as it's now out of print, however, I wouldn't be surprised if Persephone Books publishes it in the near future. Since reading my first Whipple, They Were Sisters, she has quickly become one of my favourite writers. She is indeed a fabulous storyteller and I've loved every one of her books that I've read.

Whipple has been described as the Jane Austen of the twentieth century and it's hardly surprising since she writes wonderfully and so effortlessly about domestic dramas. She was quite popular in the 30s and 40s but her popularity waned in the 50s after her last novel, Someone at a Distance hardly sold at all. Luckily, Nicola Beauman, the founder of Persephone Books, discovered her and republished several of her novels.

Just like all the other novels of Dorothy Whipple, Because of the Lockwoods is a page-turner. It tells the story of Thea Hunter who grows up living in the same neighborhood as the wealthy and arrogant Lockwoods. The Lockwoods influence her life and her family's through the years during which Thea struggles with a constant feeling of resentment and envy towards them. Below is a picture of the beautiful endpaper of the original hardcover edition.

Let's hope that Persephone Books will republish this wonderful book very soon. If you can't wait, there's lots of secondhand copies to be had for a song at several internet booksellers. Failing that, you can always get Dorothy Whipple's other novels from Persephone Books.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Waiting on Wednesday: Invisible

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly event hosted by Breaking the Spine.

This week's pre-publication can't wait to read selection is Invisible by Paul Auster.
Release Date: 5 November 2009

From Amazon:
"Sinuously constructed in four interlocking parts, "Invisible" opens in New York City in the spring of 1967 when twenty-year-old Adam Walker, an aspiring poet and student at Columbia University meets the enigmatic Frenchman Rudolf Born, and his silent and seductive girlfriend Margot. Before long, Walker finds himself caught in a perverse triangle that leads to a sudden, shocking act of violence that will alter the course of his life."

Which book are you waiting for?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Manservant and Maidservant

I was quite excited to join Simon's (at Stuck in a Book )book read of Manservant and Maidservant by Ivy Compton-Burnett because I've heard so much about her. I did attempt to read her book a House and its Head a number of years ago but gave up after a few pages. I wanted to try her again thinking that being a bit older and having grown in my reading tastes, maybe it was the right time, maybe I'd finally appreciate her. But I was wrong. And I did so want to like this!

Simon mentions that you either love or hate ICB and if that's the case then I have to put myself in the hate camp. Although I think hate is too strong a word. I completely understand why some people would love her and her style but I'm just not one of them. I don't need a plot to love a book but if there's no plot then I do need a sense of atmosphere or some charming characters and this book has none of those. Even the children were irritating.

Trying to explain why I didn't like this book is not easy. There's also her style. She writes mostly in dialogue form. Her books are almost like plays. The little description that she uses is more to set the scene and physically describe her characters. After that, it's just conversation, non-stop. Gritty, grating and at times unpleasant conversation. Some of it just makes you cringe.

Thomas at My Porch compared one of the characters, Horace, to Basil of Fawlty Towers. I think it's an apt description. Interestingly enough I loved that show but I don't know if I'd enjoy reading a book about a Basil like character. ICB has also been compared in the past with Harold Pinter. I've never read his plays but I enjoyed the movie the Servant which was written by him. Though it was unpleasant, it was very memorable and it does have many similiarities with Manservant and Maidservant. I think I would have enjoyed watching an ICB book dramatized as a movie or a play. I think with the aid of great actors using their faces and voices to bring about all the nuances of ICB's writing, I would have been more impressed. I just didn't have the patience to read it in novel format and in that style of hers.

So anyway, ICB is not for me which is not to say I won't try her again another time. Just not in the near future.

Monday, November 2, 2009


Terry Pratchett is an author I've been coming across for years. His name seems to leap off the shelves and maybe it's because he's written countless books. However, after reading some of their blurbs, I never felt like actually buying one. Pratchett writes about a parallel universe called Discworld. I wasn't attracted to a science fiction premise or someone who's been compared to Douglas Adams. I didn't enjoy the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy so I soon relegated Pratchett to the list of authors I've heard about but have never read. Funny thing is I've never known anyone who's read him either. But quite recently Claire from Paperback Reader wrote a post about his latest book, Unseen Academicals (you can read it here.) and I was suddenly intrigued.

Claire mentioned that a good place to start with Pratchett was a non-Discworld book such as Nation, an award-winning young adult novel. Nation is about a tsunami that devastates a tropical island leaving at first two teenage survivors, a local boy and a shipwrecked English girl. Together they start to rebuild civilization. Hmm, this did sound like an interesting novel and no, it's not a love story! A few days later, I was at a bookstore and there was Nation leaping out from the shelves and calling my name. Of course, I had to buy it and I'm so glad I did. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, so much so that I'm already hunting down Mort, the fourth Discworld book which Claire recommends as a good place to start the series. I can't wait to find it in fact. Pratchett is obviously a brilliant writer and I'm so glad there's a long list of books behind him.

Nation is also a deep and philosophical novel grappling with fundamental questions of humanity, religion, civilization and science. In spite of that, it's also fun and filled with humour, treasures, cannibals, evil sailors, spirits, pigs, dolphins, sharks, talking parrots and magic. I highly recommend this very original book.
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