Monthly Archives: September 2015

Review: Seven for a Secret by Mary Webb

I read what is probably Mary Webb’s most famous novel, Precious Bane, a few months back.  So when a friend and follow bibliophile offered me his extra copy of this novel I was thrilled at the prospect of reading another of Webb’s books.

My Review:
Seven for a SecretGillian is the only child of a very wealthy farmer, so whomever she marries will not only be lucky to have a pretty bride, but will also have the added benefit of inheriting a large fortune.  Gillian is nineteen when the novel opens and she is a starry-eyed romantic who wants to flirt with men so that they will fall in love with her.  Gillian, in many ways, still acts like a child and she is is selfish, narcissistic and silly towards others in her life.  The kind and simple shepherd named Robert who is employed by her father is oftentimes the target of her coquetry.  But Gillian keeps telling herself that she can never fall in love with Robert because she doesn’t want a simple farm hand for a husband;  she wants excitement, passion and a man who can ride a horse bareback.  Webb beautifully foreshadows the suffering that Gillian will have to endure before she can have her happily ever after.

Robert is the only son of Mrs. Makepeace who lost her husband when Robert was a very young boy.  Mrs. Makepeace has remarried a man named Jonathan who, despite being so clumsy, is a great husband and stepfather.  Mrs. Makepeace knows her son Robert well, so she senses it when Robert begins to fall in love with Gillian.  Robert is the main farm hand and does the lion’s share of the work for Gillian’s father; he has grown up with Gillian and as they both mature he sees her in a very different light and begins to develop deep romantic feelings for her.  It is sweet that since he cannot express his love to her directly, he composes penillion verses about her and his love for her.   He is a gifted poet but he never writes his poetry down or shares it with anyone, especially not Gillian.

When another sheep farmer comes to town and buys the local inn, Robert is very suspicions of this mysterious man from the beginning.  Ralph Elmer is not married, or so he says, and lives with his servants Fringal and Rwth.  Rwth is mute and Robert treats her very badly.  Both Robert and Gillian take pity on Rwth and treat Rwth with kindness and compassion;  Gillian’s kind treatment of Rwth, for me, was the beginning of her transformation into a mature and less selfish woman.

Unfortunately, Gillian is smitten with Ralph Elmer and despite the warnings from Robert, she continues to spend a lot of time with Ralph.  Ralph makes physical advances toward Gillian that show us he is not a gentlemen.  But Gillian is too silly and young to make the distinction between passion and physical lust and true love.  While she is allowing Mr. Elmer to court and kiss her and do other things to her, she is really thinking about Robert and wishing it was the shepherd-poet who was paying her so much attention.

In the end, Gillian does have to suffer in order to become a better human being; she becomes someone with whom we can sympathize and someone who is finally worthy of Robert’s love.  I am so glad I had the opportunity to read another of Webb’s novels and I would like to read even more of her works.

About The Author:
Mary WebbMary Webb (1881-1927) was an English romantic novelist of the early 20th century, whose novels were set chiefly in the Shropshire countryside and among Shropshire characters and people which she knew and loved well. Although she was acclaimed by John Buchan and by Rebecca West, who hailed her as a genius, and won the Prix Femina of La Vie Heureuse for Precious Bane (1924), she won little respect from the general public. It was only after her death that the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, earned her posthumous success through his approbation, referring to her as a neglected genius at a Literary Fund dinner in 1928. Her writing is notable for its descriptions of nature, and of the human heart. She had a deep sympathy for all her characters and was able to see good and truth in all of them. Among her most famous works are: The Golden Arrow (1916), Gone to Earth (1917), and Seven for a Secret (1922).



Filed under British Literature, Classics

Review- Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village by Ronald Blythe

I received and advanced review copy of this title from the New York Review of Books.

My Review:
AkenfieldThis book is a history of the British village of Akenfield in Suffolk, England as told through the stories and narratives of its own citizens.  Blythe interviewed 49 different people from all types of social backgrounds and occupations and recorded their words for this social history.   In 1967, the year in which the villagers are interviewed, the way of life in this small village is changing from one of manual labor to mechanization. Each person from Akenfield that is interviewed by the author highlights different aspects of his or her life in a forthright, honest and stream-of-consciousness narrative.  Blythe groups the book into twenty different sections of the people, some of which include “God,” “The Craftsmen,” “The School,” and “The Law.”

One group in the book that made a particular impression on me were the craftsmen such as the wheelwright, the  blacksmith and the thatcher.  It would seem that with the invention of cars that there would no longer be a need for such talents because of the shrinking reliance on horses and wagons for transportation.  It was inspiring that these hardworking men decide to change with the times and find other uses for their crafts.  The blacksmith, Francis Lambert age twenty-five, is a very talented craftsman and now that there are no longer horses to shoe in order to sustain his business he has diversified by making weather-vanes, gates and fire-screens.  Francis is so talented that he is even sent to Germany to represent England at an international craft festival.  Francis loves his job which is evident by the fact that he usually puts in sixty hours of work per week and he takes a great deal of pride in his masterpieces.

As one would expect, hopes of escaping the village are expressed from some of the residents, but for the most part they seem content to stay in their small part of England.  Several of them mention that their families have resided within the boundaries of Akenfield for generations.  But there are also a fair number of voices we hear from people who, even though that have lived in Akenfield for many years, will always be considered “outsiders” because they were born elsewhere.  Hugh Hambling age thirty who is a schoolmaster tells us that he was born on Norfolk.  He and his wife move to Akenfield when he was twenty because he found a charming cottage that the newly married couple could afford.  Hugh feels that the villagers are very private people and although he tries to engage them in discussions, he only ever is able to talk to them about cursory things like football or the weather.

In the section on the school, Blythe includes the administrative records from the teachers and headmasters which date back to 1875.  One problem, in particular, that teachers have to deal with is poor attendance by the children of farm owners.  There are certain times of the year when even the young ones are needed to be out in the fields helping with the crop and later when a truancy law is passed these guidelines for school attendance are still not enforced.  Outbreaks of health issues such as ringworm, diphtheria and scarlet fever are also recorded and must have certainly worsened the poor attendance issues.

Many of the details that the residents of Akenfield provide are like no other that one would find in any ordinary history book.  The orchard worker, for instance, gives us a detailed accounts of different apples that are best grown in the English climate and what the prime picking time is for each breed.  The thatcher provides a lengthy description of the best way to thatch a roof and which are the best materials to use.  I found the section on the bell-ringers particularly fascinating; these young men are in a way considered talented musicians and go around to village and neighborhood churches in order to practice their craft of bell-ringing.  I had no idea before reading this history that there is such a fine art form to the ringing of church bells.

This is a charming, interesting, candid glimpse into the pulse and essence of an English village in the middle of the 20th century.  If you have any interest in British history, oral history or social history then this latest edition to the New York Review of Books classic titles is a must read.

About The Author:
Ronald Blythe is an English writer, essayist and editor, best known for his work Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village (1969), an account of agricultural life in Suffolk from the turn of the century to the 1960s. He writes a long-running and considerably praised weekly column in the Church Times entitled Word from Wormingford.



Filed under British Literature, Classics, New York Review of Books, Nonfiction

Review: The Looking Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen

I received an advanced review copy of this novella from Peirene Press.  This is the third book in their Chance Encounter Series.  This title was originally written and published in Norwegian and this English translation has been done by John Irons.

My Review:
Looking Glass SistersThis is an emotionally intense and sinister book that will leave you thinking about relationships with close family members long after you finish the last page.  The focus of the book is on the codependence of two sisters who are each other’s only remaining relatives after their parents die.  When the book opens they are middle-aged and have been living together in isolation on the outskirts of rural Norway for almost 30 years.

The first sister, the one who is the unnamed narrator of the story, has been physically handicapped since she was a little girl.  She contracted a high fever which caused her to be in the hospital for several weeks and the illness left her paralyzed from the waist down.  She must rely on her parents for all of her needs and when her parents die the only other person she has left in her life is her older sister, Ragna.  The sisters live in a remote house that no one ever visits and the only way to reach the local village for supplies is by snow sled.

But one day the routine of the sisters’ lives changes when a man named Johan moves into the area and starts to court Ragna.  We get the sense that Ragna has been resentfully taking care of her sister for years and has never really developed any life of her own because of the constant needs of  her invalid sister.  Ragna seems bitter and at times she is emotionally and physically cruel to her disabled sister.  There is one scene in the book that is particularly painful to read;  the handicapped sister has to use the bathroom and drags herself out of bed with her crutches and just before she reaches the bathroom, Ragna runs in and locks the door.  Ragna refuses to come out of the bathroom and the crippled and helpless sister is forced to relieve herself in her pants.  Her dignity is further eroded when she then must be cleaned up and carried back to bed by Ragna.

When Johan comes along and decides to marry Ragna, it seems that Ragna could not be happier now that she has the opportunity to rid herself of the burden of her sister.  At times I felt sorry for both sisters.  On the one hand, the handicapped sister cannot help her situation and she has no choice but to be constantly asking her sister for everything she needs.  On the other hand, Ragna must constantly be at her sister’s beck and call and Ragna feels that her sister is never grateful for what Ragna does for her.  We also get the feeling throughout the narrative that the disabled sister has a very narrow view of the world and doesn’t understand what is going on outside her room or how her constant demands affect her sister.  At times she appears paranoid and melodramatic.

This novella brings up some interesting thoughts about family members and our obligations to them.  If we are the only ones left to take care of a loved one are we obligated to do so to the detriment of our own lives?   But if we can’t rely on our family, then who else is there to depend on in times of need?  In the end, Ragna and Johan make a selfish decision in favor of making peace and quiet for themselves.

The novellas published by Peirene are meant to be read quickly, in a matter of a few hours.  But I found this book so dark and intense that I could only read it a few pages at a time over the course of several days.  The final book in the Chance Encounter series is a stunner that is the perfect way to finish out this set of novellas.

About The Author:
G GabrielsenGøhril Gabrielsen, born in 1961, grew up in Finnmark, the northernmost county in Norway, and currently lives in Oslo. She won Aschehoug’s First Book Award for her 2006 novel Unevnelige hendelser (Unspeakable Events), and was the recipient of the 2010 Tanum Scholarship for Women. Since the publication of her debut novel she has brought out two further books to great acclaim in her native Norway, Svimlende muligheter, ingen frykt (The Looking-Glass Sisters) and Skadedyr (Vermin). Her fourth novel is due out in 2015.





Filed under Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, Novella

Review: The 6:41 to Paris by Jean-Philippe Blondel

Today I welcome France Book Tours back to the blog with an intriguing literary novel from New Vessel Press.  This novel was originally written and published in French and this English translation has been done by Alison Anderson. Scroll down to the end of the review to enter to win your own copy and to look at all of the stops on the book tour.

My Review:
641 to ParisCécile is a stylish and confident forty-seven year old entrepreneur who owns a successful cosmetics company, has been married for twenty years and has a teenage daughter.  When the book opens, she has just visited her elderly parents for the weekend and is about to take the 6:41 a.m. train back to her home in Paris.  As her parents age, her weekend visits to their home are becoming harder for her and more depressing.  The only thing that Cécile wants to do on the train is to relax and have a few hours of peace and quiet.  But when she realizes who sits down next to her on the train, her commute back home is anything but restful.

Philippe Leduc is also forty-seven but time has not been as kind to his physique as it has to Cécile.  Philippe is divorced and his teenage children pretty much want nothing to do with him and he has a monotonous job selling televisions in a big box chain store.  He is also on the 6:41 a.m. train to Paris but for a very different reason than Cécile.  Philippe’s childhood friend is dying of cancer and Philippe is on his way to the hospital in Paris to say his final goodbyes.  Philippe also assumes that his train ride will be quiet, until he realize that the only seat left on the train is the one next to his ex-girlfriend, Cécile.

Philippe and Cécile had a four month relationship when they were in their early twenties.  They were both very different people at the time: Philippe was the most popular boy in school, handsome, and very popular; Cécile was plain looking, shy and did not have many friends.  They immediately recognize one another on the train, but neither one of them has the courage to speak up and acknowledge one other’s presence.  They each sit in silence and contemplate the disaster that was their short-lived romantic relationship that ended more than twenty years ago.

While they were dating, the relationship, for the most part, seemed fine but Cécile always had the feeling that Philippe was better than her and that he would inevitably dump her for someone better.  They go on a trip to London together which ends up being an awful memory for both of them because it is on this very trip that Philippe decides to end the relationship in the worst possible way.  What is interesting about the end of their affair is the effect it has on each of them.  Cécile decides she will never again be made to feel inferior and will not be treated so badly by anyone.  Philippe, on the other hand, knows that he has behaved in a very mean and churlish way towards Cécile and this eats away as his pride and confidence.  He is never able to recover from the guilt of this bad breakup and never has a successful relationship after his time with Cécile.

The ending to this book is very interesting as the author builds up to the conclusion.  We are left wondering if Cécile and Philippe will ever speak with each other; and if they do have a conversation will it be amicable?  New Vessel Press has provided us with another entertaining translation of a charming French book.

About The Author/Translator:

Jean-Philippe Blondel was born in 1964 in Troyes, France where he lives as an author and English teacher.  His novel The 6:41 to Paris has been a bestseller in both France and Germany.

Alison Anderson is a novelist and translator of literature from French. Among the authors she has translated are JMG Le Clézio, Christian Bobin, Muriel Barbery and Amélie Nothomb. She has lived in Northern California and currently lives in a village in Switzerland.

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Filed under France, Literature in Translation

Review: To Bed with Grand Music by Marghanita Laski

I am so delighted that it is finally fall and the temperatures are getting cooler and the NFL season has begun here in the U.S.  I am a huge New York Giants fan and I am hoping for a stellar year.  Speaking of sports, this is another interesting Persephone title, the plot of which involves a woman using sex as a game while her husband is away at war.

My Review:
To BedI thought that the first scene in this book was quite shocking, but as it turns out the subject matter of the entire book is rather bold.  Deborah is in bed with her husband, Graham, who is about to leave for the middle east where he will be stationed during World War II.  Graham informs her that there is no way he can be expected to be faithful to her for the duration of the war.  Graham also gives Deborah permission to have a dalliance of her own since he will be away for so long.  I couldn’t decide what was more shocking: his declaration of intended unfaithfulness or his suggestion that his wife have an affair as well.

Deborah is the type of woman who needs a man to complete her identity.  When she is left alone with her three-year-old son and her housekeeper she thinks she will go crazy from the boredom and the monotony.  Deborah’s mother suggests that she get a job to help pass the time until the war is over.  Deborah eventually finds a job in London as a clerk and it is also in London that she has her first indiscretion with a man.  The first one night stand disgusts her and she runs off in shame, but she quickly changes her mind and her attitude towards having extramarital affairs.

Deborah eventually comes to the conclusion that it is acceptable to have lovers while her husband is gone so that she isn’t lonely.  The first prolonged affair that she has is with an officer named Joe who lavishes attention on Deborah and even gets along well with her son.  When Joe is sent to the frontlines Deborah takes on yet another lover.

The rest of the novel is an account of Deborah’s string of lovers.  Some of the book is very funny, especially when she finds ridiculous reasons to dump one man and move on to the next.  One of her lovers gets along very well with Deborah’s mother and Deborah is extremely irked by this.  So she casts him off and moves on to the next soldier.  Many of Deborah’s lovers provide her with lavish gifts, jewelry, expense differs and clothes.  Deborah is not a sympathetic characters since she is taking advantage of the situation of war to have a series of affairs which are all to her emotional and material benefit.

One part of the book that I found particularly sad is the fact that Deborah cannot bring herself to move back home and take care of her son.  The little boy craves his mother’s attention and the scenes in which she leaves him to go off to London with one of her many lovers is pathetic.  The boy becomes more and more attached to his nanny and we wonder whether or not his mother’s abandonment will have a lasting effect on his life.

This is a very interesting book to compare to Laski’s other World War II title, Little Boy Lost.  Both books bring up a very different side of the war that are somewhat controversial.  And children do not fair well in the lives of adults in either book.  If I found the subject matter of this book bold then I wonder what the reaction to it was in 1946 when it was originally published.

About The Author:
M LaskiEnglish journalist, radio panelist, and novelist: she also wrote literary biography, plays, and short stories.

Lanksi was to a prominent family of Jewish intellectuals: Neville Laski was her father, Moses Gaster her grandfather, and socialist thinker Harold Laski her uncle. She was educated at Lady Barn House School and St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith. After a stint in fashion, she read English at Oxford, then married publisher John Howard, and worked in journalism. She began writing once her son and daughter were born.

A well-known critic as well as a novelist, she wrote books on Jane Austen and George Eliot. Ecstasy (1962) explored intense experiences, and Everyday Ecstasy (1974) their social effects. Her distinctive voice was often heard on the radio on The Brains Trust and The Critics; and she submitted a large number of illustrative quotations to the Oxford English Dictionary.

An avowed atheist, she was also a keen supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Her play, The Offshore Island, is about nuclear warfare.




Filed under British Literature, Classics, Historical Fiction, Persephone Books