Review: Starlight, Stella Gibbons

Stella Gibbons has the reputation of being a one-hit wonder - Cold Comfort Farm both immortalised her name but also overshadowed everything else she ever wrote.  A few years ago Vintage decided that this was terribly unfair and decided to re-issue her back catalogue.  I had a go at Westwood given that Lynn Truss claimed that it was the Persuasion to Cold Comfort's Pride and Prejudice but alas I found it a bit grim - at the time I was still living with my parents and found a few too many parallels with the unfortunate Margaret.  I might feel differently now.  Still, I have been determined to try again and with Starlight I have finally succeeded.  Ten years after I first fell in love with Cold Comfort Farm, I repeated the experience with this novel - the perfect autumnal read.  Recently I read Barbara Comyns' The Vet's Daughter and while that one had similarly stunning moments of description, in Starlight Gibbons manages to far more effectively stage a Gothic novel within the domestic sphere.  This is a spooky story rooted firmly in a world that is all too real - a world of soggy afternoons and muddy lanes leading to beaten-down houses.  The Gothic meets the mundane, the flesh creeps but then we shudder and we go back to normal.

Review: The Library OF Unrequited Love, Sophie Divry

Every so often a book comes along that is just so delightfully different and The Library Of Unrequited Love is one such.  It imagines a librarian finding a reader who fell asleep and was locked into the library overnight.  In the few minutes before the library officially opens, the librarian soliloquies about her snooty colleagues, the Dewey Decimal System, reading and books themselves, the undeserving public and her own personal dis-satisfactions.  Her unstoppable monologue is hypnotic - obviously so since her listener is unable to break away from her.  And we are them, the captive audience, transfixed like the wedding guest in The Ancient Mariner, listening to a true cri de coeur on the behalf of libraries and those who love them.  This novella brims with passion; it is not sweet or mignon - it shrugs aside any attempt of sympathy, resigned to loneliness and disappointed and indeed, unrequited love.

Saturday Poem - Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night

I always think of Dylan Thomas as a slightly mad drunk Welshman - but I realise that I actually know next to nothing about the man at all.  I heard some of his poetry being read on the radio earlier this week and it seemed rather appropriate to share one for my Saturday Poem.  The anger of this poem saddens me - I am still grateful that my grandfather was able to go gently into the good night and I have sorrowed to hear of others who struggled but the words bring such beauty to the pain - they lend this state of indignant fury a nobility.

Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas

For the full archive of past Saturday poems, visit Poetry Please in the Features.

Review: The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August, Claire North

The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August opens with the main character on his deathbed 'dying his usual death' at the age of seventy-eight when in walks a seven year-old girl, disturbing him 'like an ice cube down my spine'.  She has come to warn him about the end of the world.  In the haze of his dying, Harry is unsure why he is being told this.  So the child whispers to him, "The world is ending as it always must.  But the end of the world is getting faster."  The message has been passed back from a thousand years in the future - now it is up to Harry to prevent it.  From the moment of Harry's death, we snap back to his birth, his beginning, his point of origin.  We discover the basic facts of his life and then that his life is not so very basic after all.  In fact, he is immortal.  He lives his life, he dies, he goes back to the beginning again.  The concept behind this is familiar - earlier this year, I read and adored Life After Life which also took up the idea of a character born with the ability to live and relive their lives.  North refers to them as the kalichakra, or the ouroboran.  While Atkinson's Ursula Todd stumbles from one life to another recalling only the sparest of details, Harry August remembers everything.

Top Ten Tuesday - Top Ten Fictional Meals

A little while ago I had to pick my Favourite Literary Dinner Party for my Book A Day challenge.  I got mildly distracted though by thinking of different times that food had played an important part in the plots of various novels and so another Top Ten Tuesday was born.  It is a slightly flexible category this time - some books I have picked because my mouth waters at the memory, others because I shudder at the thought and still others because they have endured in the mind for quite different reasons.  Food can have such significance in stories - if one character steals food from another, even in a playful way, the reader knows straight away that they are powerful.  What someone eats can define them as a character, food served can tell us all we need to know about an occasion.  Sometimes it can even warn us when something is going wrong and other times it simply helps the characters to celebrate.

Review: Us, David Nicholls

David Nicholls has grown a solid reputation for delivering superior quality romantic comedies and his latest release Us was even long-listed for the Booker Prize.  Not bad at all in the first year when American authors were considered, an event which journalists up and down the country assured us marked The End for British authors.  It's been five years since One Day and I think it's fair to say that the weight of expectation has been on Mr Nicholls, not least when it was announced that his first 35,000 words had had to be canned.  Given that we are indeed British, this would be the perfect moment for a real backlash such as the one JK Rowling has endured but so far he seems to be in the clear.  Maybe as a nation we have grown more tolerant of success.  Or maybe it is because Us is novel with such a gentle spirit, celebrating the loves that go awry, the lives that do not quite go to plan and the lessons that we never wanted to learn in the first place.

Saturday Poem - A Man Who Transforms You Into Poetry

I am a huge fan of StumbleUpon - you tell it the things that you like and it shows you a host of exciting sites.  StumbleUpon knows that I like poetry and recently it showed me this poem.  Even though I am sometimes unconvinced by poetry's power, I still think it's beautiful.

Nizar Qabbani
A Man Who Transforms You Into Poetry

When you find a man
Who transforms
Every part of you
Into poetry,
Who makes each one of your hairs
Into a poem,
When you find a man,
Capable,
As I am
Of bathing and adorning you
With poetry,
I will beg you
To follow him without hesitation,
It is not important that you belong to me or him
But that you belong to poetry.

Nizar Qabbani

For the full archive of past Saturday poems, visit Poetry Please in the Features.

Review: The Vet's Daughter, Barbara Comyns

Last year, I read Our Spoons Came From Woolworths.  It was startling.  I had been expecting a fairly sunny domestic comedy and it packed rather more of a sucker punch.  I mentally filed away Barbara Comyns as an author to explore further.  Naturally, it has taken me a little over a year to get round to doing so but I have finally read The Vet's Daughter.  It unsettled me rather as Spoons did but in an entirely different way.  Rather than a tale of domestic horror and harrowing poverty, The Vet's Daughter is a miniature Gothic fairy tale with a hefty helping of the unpleasant.  Alice is the titular vet's daughter, child of a desperately cruel father and a weak and defeated mother.  This ought to be a Cinderella story, Alice's story ought to start badly and then get better and end happily.  No matter what the foreword suggested, I found no triumph in this novel's conclusion.

Review: A Dangerous Inheritance, Alison Weir

I was eight when I first started reading something written by Alison Weir.  That book was The Six Wives of Henry VIII and I was nearly eleven when I finally finished the thing (I read other things in between).  From there I moved on to The Children of England, The Princes in the Tower, Katherine Swynford, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Mary Boleyn and Elizabeth of York.  I am a fan.  However.  A little while ago though Ms Weir decided to branch out into historical fiction.  I understand why.  They're a lot less work, require less research, fact-checking, citations and they attract a far broader readership.  I love historical fiction and really hate Philippa Gregory so had some fairly high hopes for what Alison Weir's novels might offer.  Alas, the first one I read The Lady Elizabeth bored me rigid.  After heartily enjoying a few of her biographies since though I decided to give her another try.  I particularly thought that A Dangerous Inheritance might be promising because it covered people who Weir had never focused on in her non-fiction work.  But yet again ... alas.

Top Ten Tuesday - Top Ten Character-Driven Novels

Lately I have been coming up with my own topics but this week's Broke and Bookish topic really interested me so I decided to join in.  Many novels make use of blank protagonists which allow the reader to imagine themselves in their place - I think that this is the main appeal of Fifty Shades and Twilight, Jodi Picoult's entire body of work and even to a certain extent Harry Potter (although actually, I have a great affection for Harry, he's got a very dry sense of humour).  These would be events-driven novels as the characters' actions are dictated by events.  A truly character-driven novel though is reliant on the actions of its 'people' to drive the narrative.  I think that there are merits to both, each offers escapism and it really depends on the skills of the author as to whether or not they are enjoyable.  Below are my own favourites.