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Archive for the ‘Bloomsbury Reader’ Category

The Bannister GirlsHow to review a book that skirts the line between being a ”good bad” book and simply a “bad bad” book?  Most of my reading falls into the good bad category: books that are not going to win prizes for their experimental structure or complex themes but which, as Orwell wrote, remain “readable when more serious productions have perished.”  The Bannister Girls by Jean Saunders, originally published in 1991 and recently reissued as an e-book by Bloomsbury Reader, aspires to be a good bad book; it doesn’t quite get there but it is a fun, more than slightly soapy historical romance.

Set during the First World War, The Bannister Girls follows the members of the Bannister family from 1915 to 1918, focusing in particular on Angel, the youngest daughter.  The novel opens with Angel meeting a young French pilot currently on leave in London.  Within a few hours, she has abandoned the rigid social rules her mother tried so hard to instil in her three daughters, finding herself with him first at a nightclub and then at a hotel.  Their relationship builds from that day forward and is a dominant feature of the story…which would have been more enjoyable if either Angel or Jacques had been remotely interesting.  Angel becomes a far more interesting person when she’s interacting with her sisters (though, since she spends most of the war nursing in France, that’s rare) or with her father.

The eldest sister, Louise, is largely absent from the story, with other characters providing updates on her life while the middle sister, Ellen, is still seen all too rarely for my tastes.  Ellen is a passionate and idealistic young woman, attracted to controversial social issues: she begins the book as a vocal supporter of women’s rights and, after a German shopkeeper is murdered in the village near the Bannister’s country home, begins advocating for the rights of foreign-born residents.  But before too long, the war does intrude on her causes and she takes up work at one of the neighbouring farms, becoming even closer friends with the farmer there, having initially befriended him while protesting.  Unlike Angel, Ellen’s love life is actually interesting: she makes a bit of a muddle of her relationship with her farmer and her embarrassment at having confused attraction and love felt more real than most of the emotions in this book.  Her struggles are less dramatic than Angel’s but more impactful for that reason.

While I would have preferred more of a focus on Ellen and cheered if any attention at all had been given to Louise, I must say that Saunders does do an excellent job of describing the hospital and nursing conditions in France, where Angel spends most of the novel working.  This partially makes up for the general flatness of the characters and the ridiculously overdramatic twists in Angel and Jacques’ love story.  For all my complaining, I did have fun reading this.  I may not remember it a month from now, but I also couldn’t put it down when I was reading.

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Bloomsbury Reader

Ever since reading and loving Another Part of the Wood by Denis Mackail and The Happy Prisoner by Monica Dickens, I have been looking forward to investigating some of the other e-books on offer from Bloomsbury Reader.  The selection is immense and tempting but, until now, I’d held off buying anything.  After more than a year with my Kobo Touch, I’ve only bought two e-books: everything else has been either in the public domain or borrowed from my library (including the Dickens and Mackail books I loved so much).  But then I saw yesterday that a number of Bloomsbury Reader titles were available for around $2 each in the Kobo shop.  That is a price that even I, cheap as I am, can get behind.  In the end, I purchased 10 new titles (the majority of which were heavily marked down):

The Fancy by Monica Dickens
Monica Dickens’s novel chronicles the lives of a group of female workers in an aircraft factory – their men are off fighting the Second World War, and the women have had to step up and take over.

The Lorimer Line by Anne Melville
The enthralling first volume in the sequence which chronicles the lives and fortunes of the Lorimer family from the 1870s to the 1940s.

Anna by Norman Collins
Against the background of France and Germany at the time of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, Norman Collins tells with great brilliance the story of Anna, a beautiful woman. Born in Rhineland, when she was nineteen she fell in love with a French cousin whom she followed to Paris on the eve of the outbreak of war. When he was killed by her compatriots she found herself in besieged Paris, destitute, alone, and a German. Thrown into prison, she got out only by marrying a middle-aged restaurateur for whom she had no feeling. These are the opening incidents in a novel which is full of incident, of tragedy and of adventure, and which carries Anna from France to Germany, and finally to England, where at last she finds both peace and happiness.

The Proud Servant by Margaret Irwin
A tale of seduction and witchcraft and a promise made to Charles I to “raise Scotland for the King”.

Enchanter’s Nightshade by Ann Bridge
Bridge presents her reader with a “period piece” of Italian provincial society and distributes our sympathies over a surprising range of characters, several of whom touch on individual tragedies. The lovely “Enchantress” in the late thirties; the little English governess in the early twenties, full of Oxford enthusiasms; the ardent youth, Giulio; Marietta, that delightful child, puzzling over the problems into which she is plunged by the disaster which overtakes her beloved English instructress; the old Marchesa, whose hundredth birthday looms all through the book; above all perhaps the wise, patient Swiss governess – all these in turn claim our affection or our pity.

A Place to Stand by Ann Bridge
Set in Budapest in the spring of 1941, Hope – a spoilt but attractive society girl and daughter of a leading American business man – finds herself playing the lead in a dangerous and most unexpected affair of underground intrigue, through the machinations of her journalist fiancé. During the course of her activities she falls in love with a Polish refugee, and at the moment when Germany invades Hungary, she is already deeply involved – both emotionally and politically.

Children of the Archbishop by Norman Collins (Elaine just reviewed this yesterday)
A story of the unfolding secret of Margaret whose determination to be near and protect the orphan, Sweetie, is part of the crucial years at the Archbishop Bodkin Hospital. For Sweetie has set her heart on Ginger, and Ginger is geared only for trouble, while the new head, Dr. Trump, dreams of nothing but reforms when he replaces the loved, kindly Canon Mallow.

Lorimers at War by Anne Melville
Volume Three of the dramatic saga of the Lorimer Family

The Black Sheep by Ruby M. Ayres
Norma Ackroyd is the quintessential English country rose-pretty and rather innocent. But on the day her path crosses with that of the notorious womanizer from London, George Laxton, fate itself seemed determined to shatter her previously sheltered life.

The Lorimer Legacy by Anne Melville
Volume Two of the dramatic saga of the Lorimer Family

Since I’m currently out of town (I ran away to California again) and have a month-long trip to Europe coming up in June, having lots of new material on my e-reader is even more exciting than usual.  I rarely use it at home but when I’m on the road it’s my best friend.  Now if only all the Bloomsbury Reader Monica Dickens titles would get marked down I would really be set…

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The Happy PrisonerAfter my first very successful encounter with Bloomsbury Reader (Another Part of the Wood), I quickly downloaded another of their e-books from my library.  First published in 1946, The Happy Prisoner by Monica Dickens is another gem, an intelligent but light character-driven novel about a wounded soldier trying his best to council his family members through their various crises.

The war is over but nothing has gone back to normal for Oliver North: he is lying in bed in his mother’s house, waiting for his leg to heal after the bottom half was amputated and for his weak heart to get stronger, it having been damaged by shrapnel in the same attack that damaged his leg.  Unable to move from the main floor room where his bed is set up, Oliver watches his family’s lives go on around him, happily doing his best to steer them when they come to him for guidance:

How wise Oliver felt lying here, knowing he could run people’s lives better than they could themselves.  He had visions of himself as the oracle and influence of the household, but it was difficult to be either an oracle or an influence when people kept going away and you could not get up and follow them and make them listen.

Elder sister Violet, horse faced and happier in pants than skirts, finds herself with an unexpected chance at romance.  Younger sister Heather, mother of two small children, has been struggling for years as a single parent, ever since her husband was captured as a POW in Asia.  Now that he has returned from the East, she is struggling to readjust to the man she once adored but now barely knows.  Others bustle in and out of Oliver’s room – a young cousin, an old girlfriend, his brothers-in-law, and, of course, his doting mother – everyone telling calm, steady Oliver their troubles.  Everyone, that is, but Elizabeth, Oliver’s invaluable but reserved nurse.

What a wonderful discovery this was!  I adored my first encounter with Dickens (Mariana) but since then had begun to wonder if she was for me, having had mixed reactions to the books I had read since then.  While I don’t particularly enjoy her much-admired memoirs (One Pair of Hands, One Pair of Feet, etc), I really do enjoy her fiction.  Dickens’ writing is simple but admirably so.  She writes clearly and with great humour and, something I am coming to appreciate more and more, has complete control over the pacing of the story.  It never drags or rushes but proceeds at exactly the right rate towards the happy ending.  Another great offering from Bloomsbury Reader!

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Another Part of the WoodAlmost exactly a year ago, I bought a Kobo Touch e-reader.  I have been thankful for it many times since then but probably never so much as when I recently discovered that my library’s e-book collection included a copy of Another Part of the Wood by Denis Mackail.  I have been eager to read more by Mackail since discovering the charms of Greenery Street in 2010 and especially since becoming a wee bit obsessed with the many books written by his elder sister, Angela Thirkell.  Though Mackail was a busy writer (you can find his full bibliography here) his books have fallen sadly out of print.  Greenery Street is readily available from Persephone and, thanks to Bloomsbury Reader, Another Part of the Wood can also easily be got, albeit only as an ebook right now.  And it is well worth getting.

When eighteen-year old Ursula Brett, known to most as Noodles, leaves her respectable but unexceptional school (the kind that is very proud that it has never trained a girl for higher education), she is excited to have (in her mind at least) passed from schoolgirl to proper grown-up woman.  But neither St Ethelburga’s nor Noodles’ disinterested guardian have done anything to prepare the pretty, friendly young woman for a world full of men.  Almost immediately after leaving school, she runs into trouble:

For though no one seems to be quicker than Noodles at identifying rather awful men when they cross her path, experience suggests that no one is less capable of dealing with them once they have done so.

First, she finds that she has attracted the unthreatening but determined attentions of a ne’er do well neighbour.  She is properly horrified by his interest but not so horrified as her guardian, who packs poor Noodles up and humiliatingly sends her back to St Ethelburga’s.  (Coincidentally, being sent back to school after having graduated has been one of my more intriguing recurring dreams since I left my own school, though I think my dream self views the whole exercise as less traumatic than poor Noodles does.)  After a few disastrous weeks back at school, where it is discovered that she has forgotten most of what they taught her before she left, Noodles finds herself running away to join a seedy variety show in a seaside town.  As you do.  Noodles remains remarkably plucky (an adjective I don’t get to use as often as I’d like) throughout her adventures , even as her innocent approach to the world undergoes a necessary change: Noodles quickly learns that her polite ideas about being nice to everyone who is nice to her isn’t always the best or safest approach.

Meanwhile, as Noodles is bouncing around from school to home to school to seaside, her brother Beaky and his flatmate Snubs are toiling away at unimportant jobs in London.  Beaky is struggling with his passion for the lovely Sylvia Shirley while Snubs, the more level-headed of the pair, takes an usual amount of interest in the updates Noodles sends her brother.  When she disappears from St. Ethelburga’s, the two young men set off in search of her, with their adventures (and misadventures in poor Beaky’s case) proving just as amusing as Noodles’.  The story bounces between them, Noodles, and, on occasion, Sylvia, tracking the parallel activities of all the characters until they all come together for a very happy ending.

This is a fun and funny book and for me half the joy was seeing how Mackail’s work fits in with that of his friends A.A. Milne and P.G. Wodehouse, two of my favourite authors.  The characters’ nicknames are certainly Wodehousian: how well I could imagine Drones members or visitors to Blandings called Noodles, Snubs, or Beaky.  And there are definite flashes of A.A.M.-esque frivolity:

‘Oh, look at them all!’ says Sylvia – meaning the human beings.  ‘Aren’t they marvellous!’

They are.

‘Oh, look at that fat one!’

The fat one is really a splendid example.

‘And that one with the bare legs!’

The one with the bare legs might not appeal to all tastes, but is distinctly worth looking at.

Published in 1929, Another Part of the Wood is a comic novel very much of its time.  In other words, it is perfect for me.  I dearly hope more of Denis Mackail’s books are reissued soon.

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