Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Ivy & Stevie - Kay Dick

The first book I read from my recent Hay-on-Wye haul was Kay Dick's Ivy & Stevie (1971) about Ivy Compton-Burnett and Stevie Smith.  Dick was friendly with both, and recorded conversations with them as part of a wider project she was researching.  'When' (she writes) 'Stevie Smith died earlier this year, not long after Ivy Compton-Burnett, it occurred to me that public interest in them both was sufficient to warrant publications of these two conversations on their own.'  So the book is divided into two - transcripts of each interview, paired with Dick's reflections on each author.  Ivy C-B gets the first half of the book (and is the reason I bought it), while Stevie Smith gets the second half.

As I say, ICB - sorry, Dame ICB - is the reason I bought this book.  Maybe only one fifth of people who try Ivy end up liking her, but that one fifth will be passionately pro.  And she came across pretty much as I imagined she would from her writing and from photographs - formidable, amusing, confident, rather intimidating.  I think all of that comes across in this response:
What question do you most dislike people asking you about your work?
[...] 'Do you find other people's conversation useful?'  I went to a cocktail party the other day, and some woman I was talking to said, "Mustn't this be useful to you?"  Of course it wasn't useful.  Whatever good would it be to put down, "Do you feel that draught?", and "Are you sure you won't have another sandwich?"?  Conceit, because the don't say a thing that would be any good at all.  One would be only too glad to take it down if one heard something deep or revealing or interesting.  Certainly not at a cocktail party, which is a dreadful function in itself.  I can't bear them.  I went to this one because it was given by the landlord.  We're frightfully friendly.  That is to say he's frightfully friendly to me.  I believe it's because of the enormous rent I pay him.  He rather likes my fame, but he thinks of the rent much more.
If I was hoping to learn a lot about her writing process, I was rather out of luck.  The interview is mostly about her thoughts on religion, families, even her characters - but not really about how she creates them.  And the big question that everyone must ask when they encounter ICB - why so much dialogue? - is sadly one which she cannot answer herself:
I don't know why I write so much in dialogue.  I think it must just have been my nature.  It just came like that.  I don't think one can explain these things - they probably go deep, these reasons, don't you think?
So, there you go.  Was she being disingenuous?  Hard to say.  There is an air throughout that ICB is slightly above these sorts of discussions, or that she feels distanced from them somehow.  Perhaps that's just her no-nonsense personality, and that isn't to say she doesn't give her views firmly.  I liked what she had to say about accusations that her novels were old-fashioned (I'm going to keep quoting quite a lot from these ladies, because the whole point of Ivy & Stevie is that it focuses on the authors' voices.  That, and typing out quotations takes less energy than forming my own sentences!)
I know you get very annoyed, don't you, when people say that you write about a world that is no longer there, because, as you say, human beings are always there.
Oh, I think the world will always be there.  It is true I put my books back, because the kind of world one knows one doesn't know completely until it's finished.  In a sense one has to wait until it's finished.  Things are so much in a state of flux now.  I think that some of these modern books that depict human life with people just roaming about London and living in rooms and sleeping with everybody - it's not interesting, because, of course, I can't read them.  Everybody doesn't live like that, do they? [...] They live in civilized houses as they always did.  They have servants as they always did, although fewer.  Supposing I were living fifty years ago, situated as I am, I should have had a house and a cook and a housemaid, and, I suppose, a pony trap and a stable boy, instead of just a flat and one factotum.  But that's a superficial difference.  I don't think people do alter - if they do, they react back again, don't they?  There must be family life.
Stevie Smith says something quite similar in her interview:
What do you think of the world today?
Well, much the same as I always thought of it yesterday.  It doesn't change very much does it?
Well said, Stevie!  I think the difference between question and answer here can be attributed to the difference between journalist and novelist.  Not that Dick was a journalist (she was an erstwhile novelist herself) but she takes that stance for these interviews.  The journalist focuses on change, and everything being new in the present moment; the novelist (especially one as perceptive as ICB) looks at that which stays the same; the consistencies of human nature throughout the generations.

When I say that I bought Ivy & Stevie because of Ivy, I don't imply any distaste for Stevie.  I just haven't read anything by her - except for 'Not Waving But Drowning' - although I do have a novel or two of hers on my shelf.  Having now read the interview with her, she comes across as a charming, modest, slightly scatty woman - qualities which make me rather love her.  She lived with her aunt for a long time, who obviously took scant interest in Smith's writing, and she describes it wonderfully (I think there is something in the expression 'my dear' which will always win my support):
What did you aunt think of your work?
Oh, her attitude was simply splendid, everything one asks for really.  I should hate to live with a literary aunt.  My aunt used to say, "I'm very glad to hear you've got another book coming out, but as you know I don't know much about it.  It's all nonsense to me, my dear."  I felt this was the right attitude.  My aunt had a faintly sardonic attitude, I think, to the whole world.  Her highest praise was when, after I got the Cholmondeley Award, she said, "I wish your mother was alive and could have known about this dear."
Being unfamiliar with her work, I couldn't really relate it to what she said.  My main knowledge of Stevie Smith comes from Kathryn Williams' song 'Stevie', from the album Leave to Remain.  I can't find a version online to imbed, but it includes the line 'They say she's obsessed with death and that / but what else do you laugh at?'  Which prepared me for Stevie Smith saying something like this:
There's a terrible lot of fear of life in my poems.  I love life.  I adore it, but only because I keep myself well on the edge.  I wouldn't commit myself to anything.  I can always get out if I want to.  I think this is a terribly cowardly attitude to life.  I'm very ashamed of it, but there it is, dear.  I love death, I think it's the most exciting thing.  As one gets older one gets into this - well, it's like a race, before you get to the waterfall, when you feel the water slowly getting quicker and quicker, and you can't get out, and all you want to do it get to the waterfall and over the edge.  How exciting it is!
So I came away with a new fondness for Smith, and determination to read her writing, and a renewed admiration for (and slight fear of) Dame Ivy.  As for Kay Dick herself, I rather enjoyed her brief reflections upon knowing both writers.  Neither sticks in my mind particularly, but the personal touch was valuable.  I thought I knew Kay Dick's name from somewhere, but can't track down where... I Googled her and read an obituary which I wish I hadn't, as it was incredibly vicious (and provoked letters giving opposing views.)  Well, whatever else Dick was or wasn't, did or didn't do, I am grateful that she preserved these conversations, which could only take place with an interviewer with whom the authors felt comfortable.  An invaluable resource for anyone interested in either of these writers - or, indeed, in the lives of writers in general.

Waiting on Wednesday # 88 - The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted at Breaking The Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating.

Elisa is the hero of her country. She led her people to victory against a terrifying enemy, and now she is their queen. But she is only seventeen years old. Her rivals may have simply retreated, choosing stealth over battle. And no one within her court trusts her-except Hector, the commander of the royal guard, and her companions. As the country begins to crumble beneath her and her enemies emerge from the shadows, Elisa will take another journey. With a one-eyed warrior, a loyal friend, an enemy defector, and the man she is falling in love with, Elisa crosses the ocean in search of the perilous, uncharted, and mythical source of the Godstone’s power. That is not all she finds.

A breathtaking, romantic, and dangerous second volume in the Fire and Thorns trilogy.
September 18, 2012 by Greenwillow Books

I loved the first book, The Girl of Fire and Thorns, so I can't wait to read this one! :)

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Forthcoming Dodie Smiths

Following on from my recent enthusiasm about Dodie Smith's autobiography, I was excited when someone (Claire, I think, or maybe Verity) pointed me in the direction of Corsair's new reprints of some obscure Dodie Smith novels.  I wrote about The Town in Bloom a while ago, which I thought started very well and got a bit worse, but lots of folk have told me that I should be reading The New Moon with the Old.  Once these come out on 15th March (or, more precisely, when Lent is over and I'm allowed to buy books again) these will definitely be flying their way to me.  I love the cover designs, and I really love the cheap price they're going for at Amazon.  And I say that despite never having got around to sorting out an Amazon Affiliates account.

Anyway, still too under the weather to write much, so I'll just leave you with the pictures...

Book Review: Redwood Bend by Robyn Carr

Title: Redwood Bend
Author: Robyn Carr
Series: Virgin River #18
Release Date: February 28th 2012
Publisher: Mira
Katie Malone and her twin boys' trip along the beautiful mountain roads to Virgin River is stopped short by a tire as flat as her failed romance. To make matters worse, the rain has set in, the boys are hungry and Katie is having trouble putting on a spare. As she stands at the side of the road pondering her next move, she hears a distinct rumble. The sight of the sexy, leather-clad bikers who pull up beside her puts her imagination into overdrive.
Dylan Childress and his buddies are on the motorcycle trip of a lifetime. But the sight of a woman in distress stops them in their tracks. And while the guys are checking out her car, she and Dylan are checking out one another.
In one brief moment, the world tilts on its axis and any previous plans Katie and Dylan might have had for their futures are left at the side of the road.
I know Robyn Carr is a very popular contemporary romance writer, so when I had the opportunity to read one of her books from the Virgin River series, I was very excited.

I think it's always difficult to write a romance about a widow...specially if she has kids and her husband was practically perfect. I always want the characters to connect and have a beautiful romance, but also I want the guy to have a good relationship with the kids. In this case, I wanted to read more about the twins and Dylan together...they liked and accepted each other, but there was something missing.

But I still enjoyed it. Dylan was a great guy, even when he had troubles with commitment and Katie was very sweet and caring, but she was so hard to get! The romance was very sweet and had a couple of hot moments, and they were many obstacles to overcome. Dylan was the character I was most interested, he was a teenager actor and now he has his own business. I'm not sure what Katie does for living, except taking care of her kids.... Also, Katie's brother was sort of funny to read.

Overall, Redwood Bend is a light and sweet story about making decisions, commitment, second chances. It's easy to read, and if you want to read a story with a HEA ending, this one is for you.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Something in the Attic

I think there's something in the attic.

How do I know this? Well, there have been subtle but definite signs. The sound of tiny little teeth on drywall. The occasional scurrying of tiny little legs in the middle of the night. And of course, the loud, continuous, earsplitting screeching of what can only be some kind of fucking demon that has apparently taken up residence in our goddamned attic.

I swear, I've never heard anything that sounds even remotely like this thing. If you fired a cat out of a cannon directly into another cat, the sound they would make at the moment of impact wouldn't be half as annoying as this thing. If you were to put together all the crying children in the world into one room, and then made them all scream into a megaphone, that would be soothing compared to this thing. If nails and a chalkboard ever had a kid, this fucking sound would pop out.

And the fact that we have absolutely NO idea what kind of animal could be making that sound is the only reason we've let this go on as long as it has. But we haven't slept for two fucking weeks now! Enough is enough.

We're going in.

Yes, Kristy owns a sword. No, we don't want to talk about it.

ANYHOO, slowly, we crept forward. The attic was pitch-black, the only light coming from pale-blue moonbeams shining through the dusty windows. The air was cold, clammy, and completely silent. At the time, we both thought something felt horribly wrong but we couldn't quite put our finger on why. Well, as they say, hindsight is 20/20.

The air was silent. The air's never silent. It was silent because He knew we were coming.

And then, in the distance, in one of the dusty windows, we saw it. We saw Him.

The World My Wilderness - Rose Macaulay

I hope this will turn out coherent.  I wrote most of it a while ago, sent the book away to a friend, and am now trying to complete a review sans book and sans health.  Here goes...

Here, ladies and gentlemen, is my first overlap of A Century of Books.  Rose Macaulay's The World My Wilderness was published in 1950, a spot which is already occupied on my list by Margaret Kennedy's Jane Austen.  First come, first reviewed, so it's Kennedy who's on the century list.  But I'm still going to talk about Rose Macaulay, naturally...

This is the fifth novel (and eighth book) that I've read by Rose Macaulay, and she is becoming one of those reliable writers I know I can pick up and enjoy; the only dud I've encountered was Staying With Relations.  Wikipedia tells me that her final novel, The Towers of Trebizond (which I have not read) is 'widely regarded as her masterpiece'.  I am edging ever closer to it, since The World My Wilderness is her penultimate book, and the other one which people tend to have heard of, if they've heard of Macaulay at all.

'Reliable' is just another word for 'consistent', really, and Macaulay does seem to write in a consistently dry, almost satirical style, pursuing a similar theme in each novel - albeit a theme so broad that she could have written two thousand novels and never needed to approach it from the same angle twice.  It is dangerous to summarise thus (and others may have said this before me - indeed, now I see that Karyn has) but I believe Macaulay's broad theme across her novels is: 'What does it mean to be civilised?'  In Keeping Up Appearances this is addressed through literary eschelons; in Crewe Train through the 'civilised savage'; in Dangerous Ages through psychoanalysis, and so on and so forth.  In The World My Wilderness, the title alludes to this debate - and the setting, postwar France and England, offers the physical destruction and moral weariness that the word 'wilderness' suggests.  Macaulay includes an anonymous epigraph, from which she draws the title:
The world my wilderness, its caves my home,
Its weedy wastes the garden where I roam,
Its chasm'd cliffs my castle and my tomb...
The cast of characters is initially broad and confusing (or at least it was to me) and I pesevered by ignoring those who weren't dominant in the narrative at any one time, then slotting them all together later.  There are so many children and stepchildren and half-siblings that I had to throw my hands up in the air in defeat.  Ok.  Stiffen the sinews, summon the blood.  Here goes.

Helen and Gulliver had Barbary and Richie.  Helen and Gulliver divorced; Helen moved to France with Barbary (leaving Richie behind) and married Maurice, while Gulliver married Pamela.  Helen and Maurice had Roland.  Maurice was drowned in mysterious circumstances, leaving Helen with a stepson Raoul.  Gulliver and Pamela had David, and Pamela is pregnant again.  Phew.  That will do - I'm leaving out mother-in-law and uncle, who make cameo appearances.

There are so many characters, but I'm only going to focus on the two I thought most important.

The novel begins with Barbary and Raoul moving to England (Richie visits his mother in France) and these two form the chief interest of the novel.  Macaulay is often quite playful with names, and I don't think it's any coincidence that 'Barbary' is so close to 'barbarous'.  She is used to running amok with the French maquis, a group whose aim was to resist the invading Germans, but who extend this resistance to all forms of authority.  She has the same attitude in England, except now her companions are deserters and thieves, living their lawless lives in the bombed out old churches and houses of London.  Her old nurse warns her against being too trusting:
"And I ask, Miss Barbary, that on no account will you ever trust those young men, for of trust they will never be deserving."

Barbary, experienced in discredited young men, had never thought of trusting any of them.  Lend them something, and you never had it back; leave anything about near them, and you did not see it again.  If they could derive advantage from betraying you, betray you they would; these were the simple laws of their lives, the simple, easy laws of the bad, who had not to reckon with the complication of scruples, but only with gain and loss, comfort and hardship, safety and risk.
"Oh no, Coxy," Barbary said, in surprise at the eccentric idea suggested to her.  "I should never trust them.  I mean, trust them with what?  Or to do what?  There couldn't be anything..."
Barbary is a very Macaulayan character, if you'll excuse me coining the term: she is something of an outsider, straight-talking, independent, but uncertain of her place in the world.  And the apple hasn't fallen too far from the tree - but while Barbary's inability to cohere with society turns her into a restless, waif-like exile from civilisation, her mother Helen is the selfish, self-absorbed type whose callousness hides behind a veneer of grace and elegance.  She claims to have a 'phobia of being bored', and very little breaks through to her heart.  Helen is overtly uncivilised, as Barbary is, but she respects none of the values of civilisation - preferring, instead, a reckless and ambiguous love for beauty.
"As to one's country, why should one feel any more interest in its welfare than in that of other countries?  And as to the family, I have never understood how that fits in with the other ideals - or, indeed, why it should be an ideal at all.  A group of closely related persons living under one roof; it is a convenience, often a necessity, sometimes a pleasure, sometimes the reverse; but who first exalted it as admirable, an almost religious ideal?"

"My dear Madame, not almost.  It is a religious ideal."  The abbe spoke dryly, and did not add anything about the Holy Family at Nazareth, for he never talked in such a manner to his worldly, unbelieving friends.
It is worth noting that Macaulay delights in giving her characters views that are not her own.  She signposts this with a motif running through her novels; that of looking down on writers and novels.  Some readers always want authors to be making a point, moral or otherwise, in their writing; I am happy if a writer can convey characters acting believably.  That is 'point' enough for me, and I think for Macaulay too - it would be a mistake to extrapolate too much from her writing, other than an examination of the way that certain characters behave in certain circumstances.  She extends beyond this, to questions as vast as the role of civilisations, but she doesn't attempt to answer these questions.  Nor could she.

Speaking of her writing... Macaulay has a dry, ironic tone which I've preferred in other of her novels.  Sometimes, in The World My Wilderness, she seemed to get a bit carried away with a romanticised, flowing, almost baroque writing style.  Perhaps that fits into the themes - but it did include this section, all of which is one sentence:
In this pursuit he was impelled sometimes beyond his reasoning self, to grasp at the rich, trailing panoplies, the swinging censors,of churches from whose creeds and uses he was alien, because at least they embodied some cintuance, some tradition; while cities and buildings, lovely emblems of history, fell shattered, or lost shape and line in a sprawl of common mass newness, while pastoral beauty was overrun and spoilt, while ancient communities were engulfed in the gaping maw of the beast of prey, and Europe dissolved into wavering anonymities, bitter of tongue, servile of deed, faint of heart, always treading the frail plank over the abyss, rotten-ripe for destruction, turning a slanting, doomed eye on death that waited round the corner - during all this frightening evanesence and dissolution, the historic churches kept their strange courses, kept their improbably, incommunicable secret, linking the dim past with the disrupted present and intimidating future, frail, tough chain of legend, myth, and mystery, stronghold of reaction and preserved values.
This isn't particularly representative of The World My Wilderness - 200 pages of this would have driven me crazy - but it does pop up now and then, and adds to the richness of Macaulay's writing, if you can cope with this sort of thing.

I'm afraid this review is going to peter out rather, because I seem to be heading towards semi-consciousness... so, in summary... I liked it, but I think Macaulay newbies might be better off with Crewe Train or Keeping Up Appearances.  Let's hand over to some other folk, who might have been more conscious whilst writing their reviews...

Others who got Stuck in this Book:

"[...]it is despairing, and unrelentingly sombre and pessimistic." - Karyn, A Penguin A Week 

"It's a beautifully written and nuanced story that's filled with amazing (in the fantastic sense) imagery of a post-war London" - Danielle, A Work in Progress

"It’s a stunning, well-written novel." - Katherine, A Girl Walks into a Bookstore

In My Mailbox # 64

In My Mailbox is a weekly bookish meme hosted @ The Story Siren

Signed Slide bookmark from Jill Hathaway!


If Books Could Kill (A Bibliophile Mystery #2) by Kate Carlisle
A Certain Wolfish Charm (Westfield Wolves #1) by Lydia Dare
For I Have Sinned (Charley Davidson #1.5) by Darynda Jones
Second Grave on the Left (Charley Davidson #2) by Darynda Jones

What did you get this week?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Song for a Sunday

I've featured her before, on my first ever Song for a Sunday, and this is my other favourite song by her: it's Vienna Teng and 'Kansas' (apologies that the quality isn't amazing):

Still feeling rotten, but I dug out the perfect novel to accompany feeling sorry for myself: Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson.  So far, giggling away to myself in a corner.  Lovely.

Book Review: How to Marry a Duke by Vicky Dreiling

Book Cover How to Marry a Duke by Vicky Dreiling
Title: How to Marry a Duke
Author: Vicky Dreiling
Series: How To Series #1
Release Date: January 1st 2011
Publisher: Forever
Age: Adult
Tristan, the Duke of Shelbourne is a man with a mission: find a wife he can tolerate as long as they both shall live. Love is not necessary--nor desired. But how to choose among a dizzying array of wealthy-yet-witless candidates? Hire London's infamously prim and proper matchmaker. Then pretend she's not the most captivating woman he's ever met...
Helping a devilish Duke create a contest to pick his perfect mate is the kind of challenge Tessa Mansfield relishes. Her methods may be scandalous, but she's determined to find the notorious bachelor more than a wife--she'll bring him true love. Yet when Tessa watches the women vie for the Duke's affections, she longs to win his heart herself. And after a stolen kiss confirms Tristan's desire, Tessa knows she has broken a matchmaker's number one rule: never fall in love with the groom.
How to Marry a Duke is about Tristan, the Duke of Shelbourne, who needs a wife, and fast. He doesn't know where to start, so he hires Tessa Mansfield, a wallflower who works as a matchmaker.

Tristan has a list with all the required attributes his wife must have, but the most important is that she has to be desirable for him. He doesn't believe in love, which Tessa truly believes. It's difficult to find him a wife with so little time, so Tessa must do something scandalous but effective: a contest.

I find difficult to believe that a Duke would agree to participate on a contest (like The Bachelor) to find a wife. But ignoring that, it was fun. Tristan was looking for the 'perfect wife'. But all the available are girls, barely women, too young for him. And none of them ignited his desire, expect Tessa, the matchmaker.

I don't know why Tristan continued with the 'contest', because after sharing a few kisses with Tessa, it's obvious they should be together. Tristan is good looking, strong and very short tempered, while Tessa is very sweet and independent. They are the perfect couple, but Tessa has a big secret and Tristan is just too hardheaded to choose.

Overall, How to Marry a Duke is the second book I read from this author (I actually read the sequel first, How to Seduce a Scoundrel), and altought I enjoyed it, I still think it needs more passion. Tessa and Tristan were a likable couple, and even when the wife's contest was unrealistic, it was fun.

BTW, the next book, How to Ravish a Rake, is going to be released April 1st. Do you think I should read it?

Friday, February 24, 2012

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Hope you all have nicer weekends lined up than I do.  Well, the weekend will probably be fine, it's just that I've come down with a horrible cold... that stage where you feel semi-conscious all the time.  Yeah, not fun.  Lots of bed and Lemsip for me tomorrow... And it's going to be a pretty brief miscellany, so that I can slump in a heap somewhere.  (Cue violins, etc.)

1.) You know me, I love a review of Miss Hargreaves - and I especially love this one by Chris.  Go and have a gander - and if, for some strange reason, you've yet to read the novel... get to it!

2.) Doesn't The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel look wonderful?  I can't believe Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and Penelope Wilton are in a film together - and one that looks such heartwarming fun.

3.) A review of Diary of a Provincial Lady, you say?  Iris and Jenny are happy to oblige.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Young Adult Paranormal Activity Giveaway Hop (International)

Hi guys! Thank you for stopping by my blog, Oh My Books! #12 at the Young Adult Paranormal Activity Giveaway Hop, hosted by I Am A Reader, Not A Writer and vvb23.

Giveaway: 1 winner is going to get Once in a Full Moon by Ellen Schreiber (ARC), Promise by Kristie Cook (Paperback and Signed) & Wings by Aprilynne Pike (Hardcover and Signed)

International. Fill the form below to enter:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

More Giveaways:

News: New Book by J.K. Rowling!

I'm pretty sure you're reading about this on twitter, etc....but still:

J.K Rowling is publishing a new book, I'm excited! I loved Harry Potter, and although this book has nothing to do with my favorite wizard, I really enjoy Rowling's writing.

I wonder...what kind of book will be? It says adult....but I need more clues! What do you think?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Look Back With Love - Dodie Smith

I am growing very fond of those lovely folk at Slightly Foxed.  Last December I had spotted that they were publishing Dodie Smith's first autobiography, Look Back With Love (1974), and was umming and ahhhing about asking for a review copy... when they offered me one!  Although I'm always flattered to be offered books by any publisher, my heart does a little jump for joy (medically sound, no?) when it's a reprint publisher doing the offering.  And even more so when it's one of these beautiful little Slightly Foxed Editions (I covet the *lot*) - and even more so when it's a title I've wanted to read ever since I first read and loved I Capture the Castle back in 2003.

I was not disappointed.  Look Back With Love is simply a lovely, warming, absorbing book.  It is only the possibility that I may prefer one of her other three autobiographical instalments (think of it; three!) which prevents me adding it to my 50 Books You Must Read list just yet...

You may have gathered from all those volumes of autobiography that Smith doesn't cover her whole life in Look Back With Love.  Indeed, she only gets as far as fourteen by the end of this book, placing it firmly in childhood memoir territory.  I do have a definite fondness for memoirs which focus on, or at least include, childhood - as evinced by my championing of Emma Smith's The Great Western Beach, Angelica Garnett's Deceived With Kindness, Harriet Devine's Being George Devine's Daughter, Terence Frisby's Kisses on a Postcard, Christopher Milne's The Enchanted Places, and one of Slightly Foxed's other recent titles, P.Y. Betts' People Who Say Goodbye.  I especially like them if they cover the Edwardian period - perhaps because that means the subjects will have been adults in the interwar period which I love so dearly.  What links all these autobiographies, besides their recountings of childhood, is that they recount happy childhoods.  That is to say, they all find and express happy moments from within their childhoods, rather than prioritising the miserable or cruel.  Misery memoirs, I'm afraid, will never have a place on my bookcases.  I can understand why people write them - it must be a form of catharsis - but I cannot begin to fathom why people want to read them.

Dodie Smith's family sounds like it was wonderfully fun.  True, her father died in her early childhood, and she was an only child, but these sad circumstances do not seem to have held her back.  She certainly didn't grow up isolated: her widowed mother moved back to her parents' house, and so Dodie grew up surrounded by grandparents, aunts, and uncles.  The aunts gradually married and moved, but three uncles remained bachelors and meant (Smith says) that she never felt the absence of a father.  The dynamics of the family certainly don't seem to be lacking much.  As the only child amidst so many adults, Smith was showered with affection and approval - and no small amount of teasing...
Somehow I knew I must never resent teasing and though I sometimes kicked my uncles' shins in impotent rage, never, never did it make me cry.  Teasing must be accepted as fun.  And I now see it as one of the great blessings bestowed on me by those three uncles whom, even when they became elderly men, I still referred to as 'the boys'.
Smith's autobiography is not a string of momentous occasions, really, but a continuous, welcoming stream of memory.  Of course there are individual anecdotes, but the overall impression I got was of a childhood gradually being unveiled before us, with stories and impressions threaded subtly into what feels like a complete picture.  I was mostly struck by how accurate Smith's memory seems to be:
All the memories I have so far described are crystal clear in my mind; I see them almost like scenes on the stage, each one lit by its own particular light: sunlight, twilight, flickering firelight, charmless gaslight or the, to me, dramatic light of a carried taper.
This particular comment is actually an apology for the fact that, for recollections before she turned seven, Smith cannot recall exact chronology.  Well!  I have come to realise that my own memory is rather shoddy.  I remember strikingly little about my childhood - or, indeed, about any of my past.  If family and friends talk about an event, there's a good 50/50 chance that it'll come back to me - but if I were to sit down and try to write an autobiography, I think I'd come unstuck on about p.5.  I just can't remember very much, at least not without prompts.  Curious.  But it makes me all the more impressed when writers like Smith seem effortlessly to delve into their past and convey it so wonderfully - especially since Smith was in her late 70s when she wrote this memoir.

With memoirs, I seem especially drawn to people (like Harriet Devine) who grew up amongst theatrical folk, people (like Irene Vanbrugh) who became actors, or (like Felicity Kendal) both.  There's always been a part of me that wishes I'd grown up alongside actors and theatre managers.  Although I have no genuine aspirations to be an actor, I'm endlessly fascinated by the world of the stage, especially before 1950.  Well, although Smith's relatives were not connected with the theatre professionally, several were keen amateurs, and some of my many delights in Look Back With Love were Smith's first adventures upon the stage - especially the ad-libbing.

These sections were all the more enjoyable because Smith made frequent reference to her later career as a playwright.  (I've only read one of her plays - her first, published under a pseudonym - but am now keen to read more.)  When I wrote about P.Y. Betts' People Who Say Goodbye I commented that it was as though her childhood had been hermetically sealed.  Not once did she introduce her later life, or make links across the decades.  This worked fine for me, since I'd never heard of Betts before, and was happy to take her memoir on her terms.  Since I came to Look Back With Love with an extant interest in Dodie Smith, I've have been disgruntled if she hadn't made these connections between stages in her life (although, tchuh, she didn't mention I Capture the Castle.)

I keep saying that different things from this book were my favourite part... well, that's because I loved so much of it.  But I think, honestly and truly, my favourite element was Smith's ability to write about houses.  I love houses.  Not just to live in (they're handy for that) but as subjects for novels, autobiographies, TV redecoration programmes...  Chuck me a novel where the house is central, and I'm in.  Write something like Ashcombe and I'm delirious.  So I loved the way Smith conveyed the various houses she lived in.  Not that she wrote in huge detail about decor or style, although these were mentioned - more that, somehow, she manages to make the reader feel as though they were also residents in the houses, looking around each room with the familiarity of those who share Smith's memories.  I can't pinpoint an excerpt which made me feel like this; it permeates the book.

Most of Look Back With Love is (as the title suggests) lit by the glow of nostalgia.  The humour tends to be gentle, intertwined with the fond remembrance of innocent times past, rather than knockabout comedy, but there was one excerpt which made me laugh out loud.  It's part of Smith's tales of schooldays:
My mother felt the elocution lessons were well worth the extra she paid for them, but she was not pleased when Art became an extra, too.  Drawing, plain and simple, was in the curriculum but, after we had been drawing for a year or so, the visiting mistress would bend over one's shoulder and say quietly, "I think, dear, you may now tell your mother you are ready for Shading."  This, said my mother, merely meant she had to pay half a guinea extra for me to smother my clothes with charcoal; but it would have been a bad social error to refuse Shading once one was ready for it, so she gave in.  I then spent a full term on a bunch of grapes - the drawing mistress brought them with her twice and then we had to remember them; they were tiring fast.  After a few terms of Shading pupils were permitted to tell their mothers they were "ready for Oils", but mothers must have been unresponsive for I can recall only one painting pupil.  She had a very small canvas on a very large easel and was generally to be seen staring helplessly at three apples and a Japanese fan.  After many weeks I heard the drawing mistress say to her brightly, "One sometimes finds the best plan is to start all over again."
Lovely, no?

This has gone on for quite long enough, so I'm going to finish off with a characteristic piece of Dodie's writing.  The setting, ladies and gents, is the senior (mark it, senior) dancing class.
There were so many superb boys that I did not see how I could be without a partner, but I was soon to realise that there were two girls too many and I was always one of them.  Few of the boys were younger than fifteen.  I was only nine and small for my age, but I could never understand why they were not interested in me - I felt so very interesting.
This is the rhythm which is maintained throughout Look Back With Love: young Dodie always thought she was very interesting, and old Dodie looks back across the years with the same level of interest, albeit now more detached.  There is every possibility that this level of self-importance in a child would have been irritating for those around her - Smith freely confesses that she used to recite and perform at the merest suggestion of the drop of a hat - but, from the adult Smith, it pulls the reader along with the same happy enthusiasm.  Smith's childhood was not wildly unusual, but the way she is able to describe it elevates Look Back With Love above other childhood memoirs.  Everything, everyone, is capable of interesting Dodie Smith (adult and infant), and this makes her the most fascinating subject of all.  It is rare that I am bereft to finish a book.  A mere handful of titles have had this effect on me in the past five years.  But Look Back With Love is one - as I turned the final page, I longed for more; I longed to know why she made such dark hints about her stepfather; how her playwriting took off; how she experienced the theatre of the 1930s... thank goodness there are three more volumes to read!

Others who got Stuck into this Book:

Well, I was going to do a round-up of other bloggers who've written about Look Back With Love, but I can only find one who has!  But they say it's quality not quantity, and you couldn't do better than Elaine's review over on Random Jottings:  "Look back with Love is a lovely, lovely, lovely book.  It is charming, it is delightful, it is beguiling, it made me laugh and it made me cry and I adored every single word of it and was very sad to finish it. [...]"

Waiting on Wednesday # 87 - The Darkest Seduction by Gena Showalter

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted at Breaking The Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating.

My pick: The Darkest Seduction (LOTU #9) by Gena Showalter

At long last, New York Times bestselling author Gena Showalter unveils the story of Paris, the darkest and most tormented Lord of the Underworld….
Possessed by the demon of Promiscuity, immortal warrior Paris is irresistibly seductive—but his potent allure comes at a terrible price. Every night he must bed someone new, or weaken and die. And the woman he craves above all others is the one woman he'd thought was forever beyond his reach…until now.

Newly possessed by the demon of Wrath, Sienna Blackstone is racked by a ruthless need to punish those around her. Yet in Paris's arms, the vulnerable beauty finds soul-searing passion and incredible peace. Until a blood feud between ancient enemies heats up.
Will the battle against gods, angels and creatures of the night bind them eternally—or tear them apart?
February 28th 2012 by HQN Books

I LOVE this series, so when I get this one I'm stopping everything else just to read it :)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Readers and My Life in Books

If you enjoy reading Stuck-in-a-Book but have always thought that it was missing a certain audio quality, then I have just the thing for you!  Simon S and Gav very kindly asked me to contribute my Five Favourite Books to their awesome weekly podcast The Readers - and it's now up!  I'm at the end of the podcast, but obviously you should listen to the whole thing.  Here it is!  Probably not a lot of surprises there for regular readers of SiaB, but I had such fun doing it (and re-doing it when I went on for too long the first time - is anyone surprised?!)

My e-friend Julie alerted me to the fact that the second series of BBC Two's My Life in Books is on its way - some info here - and that seems like a good bandwagon-jumping opportunity.  Some of you will remember that I shamelessly ripped off the idea (and title) for my own My Life in Books series last March/April, inviting some of my favourite bloggers and blog-readers to participate, in mystery-partner pairs.  You can still read them all by clicking on the image below...

Well, I've decided to do it again!  Last time I decided not to ask bloggers in their 20s and 30s, since we've barely begun our reading life - but I rejigged the questions a bit, took away any age limit, and contacted another 16 of my favourite bloggers and asked them to join in.  I'm delighted to say that every single one of them said yes!  Not sure exactly when the series will start, but it'll be sometime in the next two months.  Just thought I'd get you excited about it - it's going to be a fun few collaborative months here at Stuck-in-a-Book, what with Elizabeth Taylor Centenary Celebrations, Muriel Spark Reading Week, and My Life in Books.  Isn't the blogosphere fun?

Book Review: Homicide In Hardcover by Kate Carlisle

Title: Homicide In Hardcover
Author: Kate Carlisle
Series: A Bibliophile Mystery #1
Release Date: January 1st 2009
Publisher: Signet
The streets of San Francisco would be lined with hardcovers if rare book expert Brooklyn Wainwright had her way. And her mentor wouldn’t be lying in a pool of his own blood on the eve of a celebration for his latest book restoration.
With his final breath he leaves Brooklyn a cryptic message, and gives her a priceless—and supposedly cursed—copy of Goethe’s Faust for safekeeping.
Brooklyn suddenly finds herself accused of murder and theft, thanks to the humorless—but attractive—British security officer who finds her kneeling over the body. Now she has to read the clues left behind by her mentor if she is going to restore justice…
It has been a while since I read a cozy mystery, and I missed them so much. Homicide in Hardcover has raving it was the perfect candidate to get my cozy vibes again.

Brooklyn Wainwright loves books, that's why her job is to restore old books. She's one of the best in the field, thanks to her old mentor. It has been a while since they talked, but the night they finally did (and left all hard feelings behind), he was murdered and died in her arms. Of course she's the main suspect and wants to clean her name, but she also wants to find the murderer.

I don't know why, but I couldn't stop thinking that Brooklyn looked as Sheldon's girlfriend from The Big Bang Theory tv show. I just couldn't help it! But anyway, Brooklyn is a great character. She's independent, very funny, loves to eat, and she's good at what she does. She has a curiosity for books that I can relate to... although mine haven't got to the point of stealing.

While trying to figure out who is the murderer, she becomes involved with hot and drop-dead gorgeous..oh, and British! Derek Stone. He's in charge of the security of the Goethe's Faust (the book her mentor was restoring when he was murdered), and he's going to follow Brooklyn because she's the main suspect, and maybe exchange some kisses :P

I had a good time reading this book. I thought it was very funny, with lots of LOL moments, many crazy/great characters and an acceptable mystery (but still easy to have ideas of who was the killer), I definitely recommend it!

BTW, have you read this book? Can you remind me how Brooklyn really looks like?