Friendship Across the Class Divide

90fe459fa16fd4d597235456a51444341587343The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters ★★★★⅓
Source: Audible
Edition: Penguin Audio (2014), Unabridged MP3; 21h28
Original publication date: 2014-09-16

London, 1922. Frances Wray and her aging mother have been living together in their large villa in Camberwell, a district in south London, all on their own, ever since Frances’s two brothers were killed in the war, her father’s death following shortly after, leaving both her mother and her in reduced circumstances, when it was discovered Mr. Wray had made bad investments and had left his widow and daughter with debts to pay. They’ve had to let go their servants, which is bad enough for ladies of their genteel standing, but worse still, this has left Frances no choice but to take on all the hard chores of keeping house herself, which is something too shameful to reveal even to their closest relations. Barely able to eat their fill, they’ve decided to take on paying guests; the word “lodgers” will not enter their vocabulary, for they refuse to think of themselves as landladies, something too common to consider without evoking disturbing feelings. Then Lily and Len Barber erupt on the scene. They’ve arrived a little bit later than planned with all their possessions, ready to move into the top floor, which Frances has cleared, moving her mother into what was once the dining room downstairs, and only keeping her own bedroom up next to what will be the Barber’s quarters. Leonard Barber is a clerk at an insurance company, a redhead, cheery and rather loud, while Mrs. Barber seems quite young, early 20s, very pretty but obviously done up and just slightly vulgar with the bright colourful clothes and clinking accessories she wears, and soon too the decor comes to resemble her personal style, which isn’t exactly to Frances’s liking. Frances is dismayed by all this; she has long ago resigned herself to her life as a spinster and life-companion to her mother, even though she is still only twenty-six, expecting few pleasures and deriving satisfaction from her responsibilities and the familiarity of the grand old house and neighbourhood she has grown up in. But the Barber’s arrival brings many changes, and after the initial resistance, Frances finds herself caught up in a whirlwind, not the least of which starts with the unlikely friendship she develops with Lilian Barber across the class divide.

For the first half of the novel, we are very much observing a rather slow-paced women’s domestic fiction kind of story, which is all about nuance and minute detail meticulously and beautifully observed, bringing the house and it’s residents and their interactions vividly to mind. But there is passion and plenty of excitement too, which will probably keep the general fiction reader going. By the time the mid-point is reached, suddenly events take a big dramatic turn. I won’t reveal the exact nature of these events to avoid any spoilers, but suffice it to say there is a crime which is transformative both for the characters and for the novel itself, which now moves from the domestic to a more public realm. Now the law and the police are involved, a scandal erupts in the newspapers, there is a famous court case, and the tension keeps mounting, and through it all, Sarah Waters keeps us wondering about the fate of our main protagonists.

I thought this was a great read, and part of the enjoyment for me was actress Juliet Stevenson’s impeccable narration, during which she gave each character a very distinct personality and voice and truly made you the reader actually live through the entire experience more vividly than I know I would have, had I merely read the words on a page with my limited imagination. I found some parts were a bit slow, and some were repetitive and maybe unnecessary and made the novel overly long, but these were balanced by great story elements and some surprises thrown in. I can’t say I’m overly fond of romance in any form, and that aspect of the novel, which is rather an important one, as the plot basically evolves around that theme, was extremely well executed, though I was still made uneasy by the actual sexual elements, though these will no doubt tantalize many readers. In all, definitely a worthwhile read and a very well executed novel.

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A Brief Return to Audley Manor

1934997552.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Lady Audley’s Secret
by Mary Elizabeth Braddon ★★★★
CSA Word, abridged audiobook narrated by Juliet Stevenson. 5h12
Original publication: 1862

Here, another melodramatic gothic extravaganza like I’ve come to love them. Might this be my ‘comfort reading’ region? There’s historical fiction which tends to put me in a compliant mood, and then there’s classic fiction, which also seems to agree with me on the whole. I usually steer clear of abridgements because if I wanted summaries of stories I’d get a Reader’s Digest subscription. As a creative, I respect the author’s original work too much to take those shortcuts, but in this case, I’d read the original (well, listening to it that time too, but in complete and unabridged form), so I thought refreshing my memory with the truncated version as narrated by my beloved Juliet Stevenson—who has soothed my frayed nerves many a time and over again—might be just the thing on a day when my reading life seemed to get away from me and not give me the peace of mind I’ve come to expect from that quarter (the book in my next upcoming review is partly to blame).

The action takes place in England, in the mid-19th century. Lady Audley, formerly simply known as Lucy Graham, has married up in the world. Renown for her exquisite doll-like blonde beauty, she was formerly employed by Mr Dawson, the local doctor, as a governess, which somehow put her in the way of meeting the much older and very wealthy widower Sir Michael Audley, Baronet, who must have her as lady of his Audley manor.

Sir Michael’s nephew Robert Audley, a barrister who likes to put comfort before duty, meets with his old and very good friend George Talboys upon the latter’s return to England after some years of gold prospecting in Australia. Talboys is expecting to return to a wife and infant son whom he left behind to seek a great fortune, so that he might give his beloved spouse the life of luxury she deserves. But shortly after disembarking from his ship, he learns that Helen Talboys has perished from a grave illness just shortly before his arrival. He is of course completely stricken, to the point where he does not see the point of living on. George is determined to leave at once for Australia and makes Robert his little son’s guardian, a son who is to receive 20,000 pounds upon his father’s decease. His plan is thwarted when it transpires he has missed the ship and must wait another month for the next voyage to the antipodes.

Back at the manor, Lady Audley’s erstwhile devoted maid Phoebe is about to marry her cousin Luke Marks. She brings him to her employer’s home to show him the luxury she’s been surrounded by, and while her lady is away, shows him the jewelry box which Lady Audley normally keeps safely locked, though on this occasion she has forgotten to take the key with her. While Luke and Phoebe are looking through the splendid jewels, her husband to be encourages his cousin to take a precious diamond necklace, but the young woman instead chooses to take a lock of hair which has been carefully wrapped and hidden away, feeling sure they can parlay this small secret into even greater wealth.

Meanwhile, Robert Audley has brought his grieving friend George to an inn near Audley manor so they can take advantage of the fishing and hunting, and in hopes of being received by his uncle to meet the new Mrs Audley, of whom the barrister has heard a great deal. But the lady repeatedly relays excuses to the two young men, in effect preventing them from meeting her in person. Not long after, George disappears without a trace, leaving no word to his friend. Robert must of course find out what happened to him. Is he still alive or dead? And why was his friend so struck by Lady Audley’s portrait?

I had fun revisiting this story, though of course the abridgement leaves many gaps, where the complete novel provides great detail. There is mention that Robert is lazy and complacent of a sudden, quite late in the story, as if this is a given, when there’s been no indication of this before, though I recall the novel describing his character in full. Here we must be contented with the general outline and those details that push the narrative forward. In a way, it was rather satisfying to go from the first few clues, to fully fledged crime, to almost immediate resolution in such a short time. Still, I would advise newcomers to Braddon’s novel take time to savour the complete work, a must for lovers of classic mysteries and fans of authors such as Wilkie Collins. But Juliet Stevenson does make for a splendid introduction, come to that.

My original review from 2012 for the full version is here.

Most Memorable Reads of 2013

Given I’ve read close to 160 books this year (158 to be exact), I found it almost impossible to narrow my list down to just ten books. Besides, why should I? I’ve been lax about writing reviews this year, so thought I’d just write a quick line or two about each of my 31 choices explaining why they were especially memorable to me. They are listed in reading order:

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris ★★★★½
Faber & Faber (2012), Paperback, 440 pages.
Because an unreliable narrator done this well always makes me want to go right back to the first page and start all over once I’ve finished the book.

The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay ★★★★★
Bolinda Audio (2006), Unabridged MP3, 21h34.
Because one little guy’s dreams of glory as a boxing champion to make reparations for a whole nation makes for a captivating read in Courtenay’s hands. He’s a bestselling author in Australia, but apparently little known everywhere else. Aussie actor Humphrey Bower narrates all Courtenay’s books and is a real pleasure to listen to. 


84, Charing Cross Road
by Helene Hanff ★★★★★
Penguin Books (1990), Paperback, 112 pages.
Because these genuine written exchanges between a quirky American writer and a very English London book vendor in postwar years make for every book lover’s delight.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (3rd reread) ★★★★★
The Folio Society (2012), Hardcover 336 pages. Illustrated by Anna and Elena Balbusso. Because rereading one of my all-time favourite novels from a gorgeously illustrated Folio Society edition started me on avery expensive, but highly satisfying craze.

Elizabeth and Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim ★★★★★
Blackstone Audiobooks (2006), Unabridged MP3, 3h47. Narrated by Nadia May.
Because von Arnim made me, a city bound dweller, fall in love with her garden as well as her feisty character. The perfectly adequate audio version compelled me to search high and low for a beautiful vintage collector’s edition and I was rewarded with this little jewel from the MacMillan Company (1901), first American edition. 

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin ★★★★½
Harper Audio (2013), Unabridged MP3, 7h39.
Because reading this story set in ’70s San Francisco was like getting acquainted with the roots of everything the 80s pop culture of my childhood and youth became for the rest of the world. Frances McDormand narrates this audio edition; quite a treat. 

Good Behaviour by Molly Keane ★★★★½ Folio Society (2011), Hardcover, 240 pages. Illustrated by Debra McFarlane.
Because reading about the misadventures of the Irish St Charles family whose prime concern is keeping up appearances, as seen through the lens of Aroon St-Charles, the unlovely and ungainly heroine, made for a gripping ride as they all descend from riches to rags

Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuściński ★★★★½
Folio Society (2012). Hardcover, 248 pages.
Because Kapuściński’s love letter to Herodotus’ The Histories made me want to get better acquainted with the ancient historian and read more works by them both.

Middlemarch by George Eliot ★★★★½ Naxos AudioBooks (2011), Unabridged MP3, 35h40.
Because it’s a classic love story and social commentary about a small English community peopled with fascinating characters I hope to revisit again and again. This audio version is narrated by the Divine Juliet Stevenson, but I’ve got a Folio Society edition standing by for future rereads. 

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin ★★★★½
Folio Society (2012), Hardcover, 280 pages.
Because it’s a captivating tragic story about unrequited love complete with a duel to the death. Because it’s told in verse, yet still reads like a gripping novel. The Folio Society edition illustrated by the Balbusso Twins is to die for. And the Opera version by Tchaikovsky isn’t bad either. (A short editorial)

Le fantôme de l’Opéra by Gaston Leroux ★★★★½ Le Livre qui parle (2005), Unabridged CD, 10h.
Because I finally got to discover the mysteries of the Phantom and the story had more intrigue to offer than I could ever have hoped for.

Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh ★★★★½
AudioGO (2010) Unabridged MP3, 6h49.
Narrated by Michael Maloney.
Because it’s a hilarious send up about an African emperor’s misguided attempts to bring his country into the modern age, and everything that can go wrong does so with a vengeance. Waugh is so brilliant I want to read everything he’s ever written.

Jumping the Queue by Mary Wesley ★★★★½
AudioGO (2011), Unabridged MP3, 5h36.
Because Mary Wesley had a talent for creating fascinating characters and made me deeply care for an old woman intent on suicide, and not find ridiculous that she fell in love with a much younger suspected matricide. Wesley, who started writing in her 70s and became a huge success is an author worth discovering. Anna Massey, one of my favourites narrates this edition.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (reread for Coursera The Fiction of Relationship course) ★★★★½
White’s Fine Editions (2010), Hardcover, 448 pages.
Because that crazy woman in the attic makes Rochester’s unforgivable behaviour almost understandable.

The Potato Factory by Bryce Courtenay ★★★★★
Bolinda Audio (2005), Unabridged MP3, 23h27.
Because it tells the story the real life Fagin, the criminal Ikey Solomon, and while it doesn’t make him the least bit more likeable, it turns him into the centre of an epic tale you can’t help but be carried away with.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare ★★★★½
Sterling Signature (2012), Hardcover, 456 pages.
Because I finally got to discover for myself what the big deal is, and the Prince of Denmark had no difficulty transcending his own fame. This gorgeous edition features cut paper illustrations by artist Kevin Stanton.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibin ★★★★½
McClelland & Stewart (2012), Kindle Edition, 112 pages and Simon & Schuster Audio (2013), Unabridged MP3, 3h07.
Because Tóibin presents us with a completely believable Mary who has a mind very much her own. It made for a compelling and very short read, but then was worth revisiting on audio, if only because Meryl Streep as Mary is a something you don’t want to miss.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos ★★★★★ Frémeaux & associés (2001). Unabridged MP3 CD.
Because I was one of the many fans of the movie when it was originally released and found the book told in a series of letters delivered that much more intrigue and obscenely irresistible cruelty. The audio version featuring a cast of over 10 actors is a real treat, but I supplemented that with a Bibliothèque de la Pléiade edition featuring fascinating essays and additional notes. 

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry ★★★★★
Phoenix Audio (2000), Unabridged MP3, 36h11. Narrated by Lee Horsley.
Because even though I wasn’t all that keen initially on reading a Western story about a cattle drive, once I read this book I just wanted to—and did—stay on with the characters for three more novels.

Harvest by Jim Crace ★★★★½
Hamish Hamilton (2013), Hardcover, 224 pages.
Because this one man in this tiny isolated community in the middle ages seem to express the pain all of humanity has faced since the dawn of the industrial age.

Music & Silence by Rose Tremain ★★★★¾
New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (2000), Paperback, 464 pages.
Because this story is about a musician in King Christian’s IV’s Danish court in the 17th century and introduced me to a world I wasn’t familiar with. Because the lutist is a beautiful and idealistic man who falls in love with a lovely young maiden. Because in stark contrast, King Christian is mad and his wife is a manipulative wench who makes Pretentiousness Somehow Appealing.

Le Comte de Monte-Cristo by Alexandre Dumas père ★★★★¾
Livraphone (2008), Unabridged MP3 CDs, 49h50.
A man who becomes almost godlike in his quest for vengeance. Epic. Classic. Mythical. Legendary. Bring on the superlatives. Dumas stole from Arabian Nights and created his own Masterpiece.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding ★★★★¾
Random House Audio Publishing, (2002). Unabridged CD. Narrated by Martin Jarvis.
Because over 30 years after seeing the movie, this dystopian tale about children run amok on a desert island still has the power to chill and enthrall, and then some. I’m treating myself to the Folio edition illustrated by Sam Weber. 

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev ★★★★½
Tantor Media (2010), Unabridged MP3, 8h16.
Because Turgeniev made his nihilistic anti-hero Bazarov the centre of an outstanding commentary on family, social struggles, love and friendship, all in one very small package that leaves you with plenty to think about. My full review here. 

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris ★★★★½
Random House Audiobooks (2013), Unabridged MP3, 16h03. Narrated by David Rintoul.
Because Harris presents the Dreyfus affair from the point of view of a man who initially condemned him, and then became one of his most ardent defenders, and does so in a way that has you on the edge of your seat even though the outcome of the affair is well documented. Really liked David Rintoul’s narration.

91AFB7e1SpL._AA1500_Dragonwyck by Anya Seton ★★★★½
Chicago Review Press (2005), Paperback, 352 pages.
Because the Gothic and Tragic elements of this story about a young farm girl invited to stay with her supremely wealthy cousin were absolutely overpowering (in a good way) and made for a truly delightful reading experience. The Joseph L. Mankiewicz movie version starring Gene Tierney and Vincent Price did a good job of capturing the mood, but could not encompass the richness of the novel. Mariner Books have recently published new editions of a selection of Anya Seton’s novels featuring lovely cover designs (as shown) also available as eBooks. (Recent review here)

An Elephant in the Garden by Michael Morpurgo ★★★★½
Harper Collins Children Audio (2010), Unabridged MP3, 4h18.
Because I feel a soul connection with elephants, though I’ve never laid eyes on one in the wild, and this WWII true story about a zoo elephant who saves a family from the utter annihilation of Dresden really is very affecting. (Recent review here)

The Man of Property by John Galsworthy ★★★★½
Blackstone Audio (2006), Unabridged MP3, 13h49. Narrated by David Case.
Because the first novel in the Forsyte Saga makes clear that the Forsytes are everywhere to be found, and though it is set in late 19th century London, Galsworthy perfectly captured the mentality of the upper middle-class which is still prevalent today, with captivating characters and a story I definitely want to keep following. Narrator David Case aka Frederick Davidson has an unbelievably snooty delivery which often puts me off, but sometimes works very well, as with this novel. With time I intend on completing not just the Forsyte Saga, comprising three books and two interludes, but the complete Chronicles, which includes nine books and four interludes. (Recent review here)

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini ★★★★★
Riverhead Trade (2008), Paperback, 432 pages.
Because Hosseini has a unique talent for telling unputdownable horror stories about the trials of the Afghan people (in this case two women) filled with outrageous violence on an individual and social scale, yet always reminding us that as long as there is love, any kind of love, there is always hope.

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson ★★★★½ Vintage (1995), Paperback, 460 pages.
Because through the telling of one Japanese American man’s struggle to find justice in a small island community which has convicted him because of his heritage, the pain of an entire post-WWII nation is revealed with unique beauty. (Complete review here)

Morality Play by Barry Unsworth ★★★★½ AudioGO (2012), Unabridged MP3 5h34. Narrated by Michael Maloney.
Because it’s a damned well written little novel set in the Middle Ages of plague and widespread fear about a young cleric on the lam who joins a troupe of actors, in and of itself a dangerous and unsanctioned move. But then the troupe decides to enact the play of a murder which has just occurred in the village to draw in the crowds and in the process uncover dangerous secrets that might doom players of the troupe and the real life act alike. Read with a rushed, breathless delivery by Michael Maloney which suits the first person narration very well. 

Two by Woolf

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf ★★★★

Asked to talk about Women and Fiction, Virginia Woolf approached the topic in her unique conversational style, moving from one stream of thought to another. This essay, delivered as talks in British women’s colleges in the 1920s make the case for the importance of women having their own space and income to allow them to explore their own feminine voices. Taking the examples of established authors such as Jane Austen, who famously wrote in the family’s sitting room, and George Eliot, who not only took on a male nom de plume but also wrote weighty tomes adopting a male narrative style, Woolf also makes the case for the fictional Judith Shakespeare, the would-be sister of the famous playwright. She compares the siblings, who, having equal potential and talent are nonetheless given very different opportunities, the one having access to education and being allowed to work in the theatre as formative experiences, and the other being denied these options by virtue of her sex. The author also discusses the importance of women finding their unique mode of self-expression, something which she not only advocated but also took pains to explore in her own work, taking as she did the risk of appealing to a narrower readership while making her mark as an influential writer. I first read this book in the late 80s as part of a Women’s Studies course and can’t say I got very much out of it the first time around, mostly focusing as I did on the fact that much of the arguments Woolf was making seemed to me at the time to be no longer relevant to contemporary women. But with this reading, I was very much interested in the argument she made for the fact that women in the past had had to work against challenges far more daunting than those their male counterparts ever faced, with the whole of public opinion set against their efforts to distinguish themselves as anything other than wives and mothers, which makes their achievements that much more valuable. While it’s true we’ve come a very long way, I couldn’t help but be once again surprised how plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, since although the majority of women today—at least in the Western world—have all the options they might wish for, they more often than not have to sacrifice their artistic ambitions, if not in the name of family then in the name of career, or at least feel they must do so, while those who choose to live for their art are still often regarded as eccentrics and outcasts.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf ★★★★⅓

All the action within this novel takes place during one day and evening as Mrs Clarissa Dalloway, an upper-class woman, is first preparing for, then throws a party in the evening. While still at home before she sets out to run her errands, she is visited by Peter Walsh, a man she’s known since she was a young girl and who once asked her to marry him. For the whole of the novel, we wander from one stream of thoughts to another, with Clarissa’s mind wandering from the moment’s happenings and backwards into the past, then without preamble we are following Peter’s thoughts, then Clarissa’s husband’s and so on, with the author’s focus wandering between every person encountered in the novel. Clarissa thinks about the life choices she has made. Peter has just come back from India and is seeking a divorce from his wife now that he has fallen in love with a much younger married woman. Clarissa’s husband has bought her flowers and intends to tell her he loves her, something he presumably hasn’t said in a very long time. There is Doris Kilman, the teacher of Clarissa’s daughter Elizabeth, who, while she venerates the young girl to a degree that borders on desire (or as much desire as a religious fanatic will make allowances for), despises her mother Clarissa for all she stands for as a society woman living a life of ease and luxury. We meet Septimus Warren Smith, sitting in the park with his wife; he is a war veteran suffering from a very bad case of shell-shock who is being treated for suicidal depression. His wife is concerned because he talks to himself and to his deceased army friend Evans, who may have been much more than just a buddy, and together they are waiting to meet a psychiatrist who will suggest a course of treatment for the young man.

I had a couple of false stars with this book over the years, never making it past the first couple of pages, and must say one needs to be in the right frame of mind to fully appreciate this short, yet very profound novel. Having just finished reading A Room of One’s Own I found myself in the right mood for more of Woolf’s deep reflections on life and how we are affected by circumstances and the people we are surrounded by, whether by choice or happenstance. Once one gets accustomed to the flow of words, which doesn’t follow a traditional narrative style with chapters and commentary, but pours forth in an organic way meant to mimic a real-life experience, one is transported by the portraits Woolf paints of these people, whom we get to know from the inside out, as opposed to the other way round. Because of this, there is a timeless quality to this novel, even though the events it alludes to are very much fixed in the London of the 1920s.

Both these audiobooks were beautifully narrated by the much recommended Juliet Stevenson.

Favourite Reads of 2011: Part Three

Had you told me in 2010 that a year later I’d become addicted to audiobooks, I would have laughed you off. I used to think that audiobooks were either for people who’s eyes didn’t permit them to read comfortably (or at all), or for those who were too ‘lazy’ to read ‘a real book’. This was until I joined a group on LibraryThing, among which Mark, a postal carrier with very good and eclectic tastes, said he listened to them while working, and assured me that many audio productions were of excellent quality and at least worth looking into. So I tried one or two very short ones—children’s books; The Gruffalo and A Bad Case of Stripes. I thought those were fun, but of course, they were supposed to be, considering who they were geared to. Then I tried something quite a bit longer, Oliver Twist, and found that my daily walks with Coco suddenly became more interesting as I listened on my iPhone. When my concentration drifted away—which it frequently does—I pressed the nifty auto-rewind feature as many times as I needed to. Suddenly, I found myself wanting to do things around the house which I usually have little taste for, such as… well most things one should do around the house, such as cooking and cleaning—because they made for perfect listening opportunities.

I discovered I could borrow recordings from the library, download free ones recorded by volunteers on LibrixVox.org, and purchase them from a huge selection and the frequent sales at Audible.com. Quite apart from the quality of the book itself, I found that what could make or break the experience was whether or not I liked the narrator’s style and voice, and being able to sample to recordings on Audible helps to avoid disasters. Most productions are fairly simple, but some employ multiple narrators and combine music and sound effects, with varying results. Since I live alone, and my pets don’t seem to mind my attention being divided, I tend to be plugged into an audiobook much of the time, which is one of the reasons I usually get through them quite fast, which in turn, has dramatically increased the volume of reading I do in any given week. I won’t deny that I get quite a lot of satisfaction from being read to… after all, wasn’t that one of our greatest pleasures as children? Links lead to my reviews.

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