Friday, 8 October 2010

I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith


This is such a wonderful book, I don't even know what to do with myself. I began it on the train home from Bath in the evening, and suffice to say I finished it all before bed time. You know how it is when you look at the clock and it's 00:05, and then, ten minutes later it's 01:20? At that point, you're sleep schedules all fucked anyway, so you may as well just keep reading! Hurray! It was a total binge.
Though now, as with all the best binges, I'm sorry for it. Because now I have no more I CAPTURE THE CASTLE to read. The cover says: "I know of few novels - except Pride and Prejudice - that inspire as much fierce lifelong affection in their readers as I Capture the Castle." (Joanna Trollope) And I believe it. The first person I told about having read it practically chewed my arm off in delight, as she loves it too, and she told me it was recommended to her initially in an equally crazed fashion. I looked it up on Amazon, and it has a vast majority of 5 stars. Though three morons who need to smoke less crack gave it 1 star.

I CAPTURE THE CASTLE is written in journal format; and that that is successful is a major feat I think. It's a hard thing to do. That ghost story I read a few books ago was in that format, and it was sadly creaky: the hardy young explorer was bizarrely literary, and kept saying “I write this journal because xyz” in a not very believable way. I CAPTURE THE CASTLE is very successful in this respect. It's allegedly written by a seventeen year old girl, and not only is the voice itself charming, but, amazingly, it remains believable as she changes and grows over the course of the journal.

The girl, called Cassie, lives in a delipidated old castle with her sister and brother, her stepmother, and her father, who is struggling with his second decade of writers' block. As their father is not writing, they have almost no income, and while very middle class, are so poor as often to be underfed. The owner of the nearby manor home dies, and his estate passes into the hands of his American nephew Simon. Simon and his cousin Neil arrive, and the former falls wildly in love with Cassie's sister Rose. Rose is swept up in preparations for the wedding, and only slowly discovers that she does not in fact love her new fiance. In a quite unexpected twist, Cassie falls in love with him too, and this causes much upset. The book captures very well the sort of achingly painful love that is so common in adolesence and, thank god, not so very common afterwards.

There is much that is beautiful in the writing of this book: there's one bit, about a nightime swim in a moat, that is just gorgeous. There's a lovely capturing of English countryside too, and a real love of a certain English way of life. It makes me sad blogging about it because I've already read it, and there's no more left.

Monday, 4 October 2010

HANGOVER SQUARE by Patrick Hamilton


This is a fantastic little book. It's subtitled 'A story of darkest Earl's Court,' and is very much about the misery and anonymity of the big city. It's certainly not a book to read when you are feeling sick of London, as I am.

Sample: At one point, our protagonist is trying to warm up on a cold day in front of a miserable gas fire. Comments the author, in probably my favourite line of the entire book: “To those whom God has forsaken, is given a gas-fire in Earl's Court” You said it, baby.

HANGOVER SQUARE tells the story of one Harvey Bone, who is a sweet and slightly simple young man living in Earl's Court. The year is very specifically 1939, and the war hangs over the entire book. Bone is very lonely, and conceives an obsessive love for one Netta Langdon. She is thoroughly nasty to him, but he hangs onto the edge of her hard drinking social group. Occasionally, Bone hears what is described as a click in his head, and suddenly the world becomes a bit silent and vacant, and he moves as if in a dream. During these periods, he plans to kill Netta. When his head clicks back, he cannot remember these 'dead' periods at all. Bone is a thoroughly symmpathetic character, and the book reels you in by continually keeping you in hope that he will come right. He keeps trying to give up drinking, and planning to move out of the city to the countryside, both of which, it is suggested, might yet save him. Eventually, in a particularly bad period, he does kill Netta, and on her friends, and then covers the apartment in lengths of thread, so the crime scene will not be touched by the police. Shortly afterwards, he kills himself. He had been looking after a stray cat, and his suicide note is mostly about making sure the cat is looked after. It is sad.

Hamilton is a bit naughty, as he really makes you hate Netta. I have to admit its a tiny bit mysoginist. Apparently 'her thoughts resembled those of a fish – something seen floating in a tank, brooding, self-absorbed, frigid . . . she had been born, apparently, without any natural predilection towards thought or action . . .' You get the picture. You seriously totally don't care when she gets drowned in her bath.

JB Priestly in the introduction makes the excellent point that Hamilton is one of the first writers to really deal with the way one can be homeless in a big city – homeless in the sense of anonymous, and without any kind of community – just floating. Let me just quote you one other little bit! Speaking of a young man: “For he was alone in London for the fist time, and at an age when the external world generally bears a totally differnet aspect from the one it bears to its more battered and jaundiced inhabitants – at an age, indeed, where even the scenery of SW7 might be associated with the beginning of life rather than the end of all hope, and its streets and people charged with a remarkable mystery and romance of their own.”

Fantastic.

DARK MATTER by Michelle Paver

I needed to read this for a job I have. It is a ghost story, and a pretty successful one, judging by the fact that I had to sleep with the lights on for three days after. Either it's pretty good or I'm a pretty big wuss. It's about an expedition in the 1930s to the Arctic. Once the sun disappears entirely for the winter, they start seeing a man who walks the shore near their cabin. Nothing much more than that happens, there's not much gore, but it's still impressively scary.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

ORANGES ARE NOT THE ONLY FRUIT by Jeanette Winterson


This book begins charmingly. It is unpretentious and seemingly honest; and rather sweet. It's about a little girl growing up with an exceedingly religious mother. As she grows, the little girl begins to realise she is a lesbian, with predictable results as respects the mother.

It seems quite a common or garden coming out story to me, but I think at the time it was very new subject matter. Thus the fame?

It all goes a bit wrong at the end, for me anyway, when she starts inserting sections of a rather naff and quite fakey fairy tale into the story.

I sort of love the introduction. Many thanks for typing out this extract to A Literal Girl Blog

“Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was written during the winter of 1983 and the spring of 1984. I was 24. At that time I was sharing two rooms and a hip bath with the actress Vicky Licorish. She had no money, I had no money, we could not afford the luxury of a separate whites wash and so were thankful of the fashion for coloured knickers which allowed those garments most closely associated with our self-esteem, not to be grey. Dinginess is death to a writer…the damp small confines of the mediocre and the gradual corrosion of beauty and light, the compromising and the settling; these things make good work impossible. When Keats was depressed he put on a clean shirt. When Radclyffe Hall was oppressed she ordered new sets of silk underwear from Jermyn Street. Byron, as we all know, allowed only the softest, purest and whitest next to his heroic skin, and I am a great admirer of Byron. So it seemed to me in those days of no money, no job, no prospects and a determined dinginess creeping up from the lower floors of our rooming house, that there had to be a centre, a talisman, a fetish even, that secured order where there seemed to be none; dressing for dinner every night in the jungle, or the men who polished their boots to a hard shine before wading the waters of Gallipoli. To do something large and to do it well demands such observances, personal and peculiar, laughable as they often are, because they stave off that dinginess of soul that says that everything is small and grubby and nothing is really worth the effort.”

Friday, 1 October 2010

PIED PIPER by Nevil Shute


My cousin gave me this to read on the plane last week. I was glad to see it. I've only ever read one other Shute - when I was about fourteen - ON THE BEACH, which made a really big impact on me (in the way things do much more often at fourteen than at thirty three). Essentially, it tells the story of a bunch of people waiting on a beach in Australia for the nuclear cloud that has obliterated the rest of the world to float towards them. I loved it. So much so, that I'm scared to re-read it in case I don't love it anymore. Anyway, PIED PIPER makes me feel I could go back to the BEACH, because I really like it too.

It tells the story of an elderly British man who decides to go to France for a spot of fishing. Not too much to make a novel out of there, except that the year is 1940, and Germany is very much on the move. Once he's been there for a little while, it begins to look more likely that France will fall, the man decides to leave for London, and another guest at the hotel asks him to take their children (aged 5 and 8) with him. He agrees, thinking that this will entail simply a train ride to the coast, and then the ferry – a journey of less than 24 hours.

Unfortunately, on the way, one of the children becomes ill, so they are forced to wait in a hotel. By the time they can leave they are having to constantly change their travel plans, as word reaches them of this or that train or port shutting down as the Germans advance. You get very much the sense of what it would really have been like to be in France at this time: everything is based on rumours and surmise, and no one thinks for a minute that Paris will actually fall, until it really does. Eventually, he is reduced to walking with the children, while the roads are machinegunned, and attempting to keep his nationality a secret to avoid arrest and internment by the Germans. As they proceed, they pick up other lost or abandoned children on the way, till he eventually is looking after five children.

We learn that the reason he chose such an odd time to go on a French holiday was because his son was killed in the very early days of the war, and he spends much of the book trying to come to terms with the loss. He does eventually get all the children to safety, and, in a beautifully handled parallel arc, comes to accept the death of his own child.

This is a cleanly and intelligently written page turner with lots of heart. It kept me up till 3am finishing it, which I do not think was just the jetlag.