February already, meep! Joining me for A Blogging Good Read this month are Yvonne from Yvonne Sedition and Nicki from Homebird.
Our first book this month is Yvonne's selection, Arthur & George by Julian Barnes:
Why did Yvonne pick it?
I first read this book about 4 years ago and initially picked it up because of the Arthur Conan Doyle connection (I’ve always been a bit of a Sherlock Holmes fan.) It’s since become one of my favourite books and I recommend it to everyone who asks.
It’s not easy to explain what the book is about. There is a real life mystery at the heart of it, which I found massively intriguing. It’s also a sort of biography of the two main characters, neither of whom initially appears to have anything to do with each other. I don’t think it will be giving too much away to say that one is Arthur Conan Doyle and the other is a young solicitor named George who lives in the Midlands. I love the way that we’re introduced to the people in this story and their backgrounds and personalities are brought to life so vividly. I feel as if I know them all as they are described so well. For me, this was one of the books that you can’t stop thinking about long after you’ve read it. Any fans of detective stories, especially with a historical feel, should enjoy reading this.
I will freely admit that I don't like much literary fiction (it's often so painfully worthy and dull) but Julian Barnes is an exception. I read A History of the World in 10½ Chapters for English A Level and it has the distinction of being the only one of the seven set texts that I've actually reread for pleasure since then. I'm not sure why I hadn't read this book before. Perhaps because it seems to be slightly mixed up with The Suspicions of Mr Whicher in my brain and I assumed I'd already read it? Maybe I'm just forgetful. Either way, this was the first time I'd picked up it and it hooked me from start to finish.
The way the tale unfolds is fascinating. It starts off as straightforward biographies of two people that you assume will never cross paths and then turns into an account of bizarre persecution, an anonymous hate campaign and a miscarriage of justice that leads to a huge crusading effort on the part of Conan Doyle. All of this is revealed in such a way that you're continually left guessing what's actually true and more importantly, why it actually happened that way. Barnes doesn't answer all of the questions but I think that's another point in the book's favour. Life isn't so easily explained or wrapped up. It's a rare book that manages to be both interesting, readable literary fiction and gripping procedural crime novel but Arthur & George manages it with ease.
What did Nicki think?
It took me ages to pick up this book - it isn't the type of novel I'd normally choose AT ALL. I am absolutely not a fan of historical fiction and I'm afraid to say that this book met all of my expectations. I tried to enjoy it, I really did, but I was bored. I found the story slow and the subject matter simply uninteresting. It was well-written and meticulously plotted but I found the language fussy and uninspiring. I found it very difficult to relate to the main characters and the ending was disappointing, to say the least.
Nicki chose Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson:
When Alex asked me to recommend one of my all-time favourite books, I struggled. There are lots of books that I've read and enjoyed over the years but choosing a favourite was difficult. How do you narrow it down? I only read Miss Pettigrew a few years ago but the enjoyment I took from reading it has stuck with me ever since. It was easily as enjoyable second time round. To my mind, it's old-fashioned chick lit - a grown up fairytale not dissimilar to Cinderella. The main character, Miss Pettigrew, is mousy, quiet and anxious but kind, straight-speaking and exceptionally likeable. The book is well written with a great cast and I loved Miss Dubarry, the slightly scary beautician who gives Miss Pettigrew her dazzling makeover.
First published in 1938, the story is from a charming era and I loved reading about the glamour, lifestyles and the relationships between men and women. There are a number of dated references, particularly to class and creed, which clearly need to be taken with a pinch of salt now, but I drank in the descriptions of the clothing, beauty products and behaviour of the glamorous Miss LaFosse. I'm easily won over by juicy vocab and this story is littered with goodies such as "impetuously", "pugnacious" and "smithereens". A feel-good nostalgic story to be devoured in a day or two. Perfect holiday reading material.
Did Yvonne enjoy it?
I was really looking forward to this one as I have a bit of an obsession with the period that this book is set in, the 1930s. I was actually quite surprised that I’ve never heard of it before, or the movie that apparently came out a couple of years ago, but it seems it completely slipped under my radar. I think anyone who is a fan of old screwball comedies will love this, as it really reminded me of those. Miss Pettigrew is a slightly older lady, who’s been working as a pretty unsuccessful governess and is now on her uppers and in dire need of a new job. She gets sent by mistake to the home of a nightclub singer and good time girl Delysia LaFosse, who was actually looking for a maid. Miss Pettigrew doesn’t realise this for a while as she’s too meek to ask a direct question of her potential employer, and by the time she does, she’s been sucked in to a life of glamour and intrigue and has no intention of giving it up.
This book might seem quite frothy at first and it is a bit of a Cinderella story (what is it with all these down trodden women in books?!) but it has a warm heart and also enough social realism to keep it from being too saccharine. There are a few slightly dodgy opinions expressed and it wouldn’t pass a PC test, but bearing in mind the times it was written in that’s not too surprising. I’d say if you’re a fan of old black and white comedies starring actresses such as Ginger Rogers and Carole Lombard, and you’ve read a lot of Nancy Mitford, you’ll like this book.
As for my thoughts on Miss Pettigrew, well, I could probably neatly summarise them by saying that I was just about to pick it as my book for this month but Nicki sneaked in there before me. I love it that much. So much so that I won't watch the film because I don't want it to be ruined for me. It's an utter delight of a book and I would honestly recommend it to anyone. Having not read it for a few years, I picked it up this time and was just as charmed as on all my previous readings. It fills me with complete joy when I read it and there aren't many books that I can say that about.
I might be making it sound like virtual candyfloss here but it has a definite bittersweet edge. Miss Pettigrew is in really dire straits before she's swept into this vivid new world and she can't entirely shut out her poverty-stricken reality, even when surrounded by a dizzying whirl of champagne, silk frocks and nightclubs. I love the way she blossoms throughout the book and discovers a version of herself that she didn't know existed. It's not entirely a fairy tale but I think it's the twentieth century version of one.
I chose The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice:
I am a complete sucker for any book featuring a country house. The cover of Lost Art might lead you to think it's on the pink, girly side of the country house genre - modern chick lit rather than Love In A Cold Climate or Brideshead Revisited - but there's definitely more to it than that. Which is odd when you consider that this isn't a book overburdened with plot. Penelope is eighteen, lives in an enormous crumbling mansion and is a real child of her time - not a proper, correct deb but a slightly awkward teenager who has an overwhelming love for the popstar Johnny Ray. She makes friends with Charlotte, an entirely more self-possessed type, and the story plays out from there as their lives intertwine and complicate.
It's a coming-of-age-novel and although these books can make me cringe, this one certainly doesn't. Eva Rice really captures that peculiar blend of awkwardness and eager charm that makes Penelope such an interesting narrator and it's a slice of life (post war aristocracy and country houses) that doesn't get considered much in fiction. Milton Magna is almost a character in its own right: a brooding, monumental structure that might play home to Penelope and her brother Inigo but which casts a much darker shadow over her mother's life. I really enjoyed the approach that this book took. Yes, the ending is a bit too neat, but one of the major events that happened towards the end shocked me horribly the first time I read it and I still think it's something that authors of a fluffier book wouldn't have tried.
What did Nicki think?
Had I read The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets when Alex asked me for a recommendation, I'd have suggested it. I absolutely adored it. I was thrilled that I finally had the chance to read it as it was one of those on my to-do list that I'd simply not got round to yet.
Not exactly a page turner, the story is slow and steady but is beautifully written and filled to the brim with likeable characters. The girls, Penelope and Charlotte, meet by chance in London one afternoon and instantly become firm friends. The story revolves around their growing friendship and highlights their very different upbringings. It's a cosy read with a vague air of mystery and a gently budding romance. Set in the 50s, there is plenty of nostalgic imagery and strong references to the musical influences of the period. My only gripe with the book is that there is a glaring continuity error in one of the final chapters. One of the key characters arrives at Milton Magna Hall in the dead of night and is described as having ripped trousers from her journey across the fields. Later in the chapter it transpires she is actually wearing a skirt. A very silly mistake but one that has been playing on my mind and infuriating me ever since I put the book down. I'm sorely tempted to write to the publisher and complain about the shoddy editing!
Did Yvonne share our liking for this book?
I have to admit that my heart sank a bit when I read the description of this book on ordering it, as it seemed to be venturing into ‘Chick Lit’ territory slightly. Now all my fears weren’t completely fulfilled as I ended up enjoying it more than I thought I would, mainly because of the descriptions of houses and clothes, and the birth of the teenager phenomenon in early to mid-1950’s Britain.
The story revolves around a teenage Johnny Ray fan named Penelope, her brother Inigo and her new friends Charlotte and Harry. Penelope is part of the fading aristocracy (the ones who couldn’t afford to keep their houses) and has a bit of a self-esteem problem. The book is basically a bit of a coming of age, romance and period drama rolled in to one. The characters didn’t always ring true for me and I also found the story and the ending just too predictable for my taste. It also tries a bit too hard with name dropping famous people who we are expected to accept as acquaintances of minor characters (Penelope’s uncle and Elvis, really?!). It was entertaining enough though and a good read for commuting or if you’re going on a holiday.
Many thanks to Yvonne and Nicki for taking part. I really enjoyed all three books this month and I can't always say that!
If you'd like to read along for next month then the books under discussion will be Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, Yes Man by Danny Wallace and Beloved by Toni Morrison.
I'm also looking for participants for the rest of the year so if you'd like to join in, please let me know!