A Blogging Good Read - August

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Morning all! Welcome to the August edition of A Blogging Good Read. Joining me this month are two of my special internet friends, Lucy from Lucy in the Clouds and Becks (aka The Girl) from Just Me. I finally persuaded them to join in with BGR. Hurrah!

Onto the reviews...

My choice for the month was another of my Persephone favourites, Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson:

This book is a little similar to my beloved Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day in that it's a slice of sheer escapist fairytale fiction. It's sweet and sentimental but in the very best possible way and, similarly to Miss Pettigrew, there's a layer of bitter realism undercutting it all. The story starts when three people arrive at an unoccupied Scottish stately home and are shown around by the caretaker, Mrs Memmary. As their visit progresses, Mrs Memmary tells them the life story of the last owner of the house, Lady Rose. She was a child that led a charmed life, growing up almost as a princess in a castle: wealthy, indulged and surrounded by royalty and aristocracy. Delightfully naive when it came to marriage, she was quickly trapped in a loveless, stifling marriage to Sir Hector, owner of the neighbouring estate. He died (hurrah, I hear you cry) and then she met the love of her life on a park bench in Edinburgh. It sounds romantic, doesn't it? Well it is but it's also a decision that rips her away from everything she loves. Her world is so tightly bound by societal rules and restrictions that she can't remain in it after making the choice that she made.

This isn't just a beautiful story, it's a love letter to Scotland. Lady Rose's passion for her home and her country are as important a theme as anything else expressed in this book. I adore Ruby Ferguson's 'Jill' pony books but although they're great, it's odd to think that this was penned by the same author. It's got such a light, deft touch and a way of expressing bittersweet sentiments so beautifully that it's a crying shame she didn't write more adult fiction.

What did Becks think of it?

This book belongs in a fairy-tale land somewhere. Lady Rose is a lovely little girl who is charming and lovely despite her cold and uncaring parents who send her away to boarding school. She marries the mean-spirited Lord Galowrie, equally cold-hearted, and endures a 10 year loveless marriage before he is killed. She finally gets what she deserves and falls in love with a new man. Such is their love that it transcends the society that shuns them and they live happily ever after. Or at least as happily ever after as you can hope for.

It is emotional without being sentimental and sweet without being saccharine. Ferguson manages to make the point that life for a woman was tough in the late 19th century, without having to resort to heavy handed tactics.

The beauty of the book lies in its simplicity. There is no need to over-egg the pudding and it is proof that less is more when it comes to invoking an emotional reaction in your reader. If you can make it through the last chapter of the book without getting a tear in your eye then you are a tougher person than I am.

How about Lucy?

This was my first Persephone book! I’m slightly ashamed to admit that I tend to shy away from older books as I find the language quite hard to decipher and it’s exhausting having to concentrate so hard on every sentence. I was pleased to find then that Lady Rose was very easy to read, but without being poorly written – perfect. I found the character of Rose extremely likeable, even if she was ever so slightly precocious as a child. The story moved along at a good pace and I found myself not wanting to put the book down, and although I guessed the small twist from the off, it didn’t take anything away from my enjoyment of the book at all. There were also several points where I laughed out loud, “…marriage with the right kind of man will soon take the romance out of [romantic girls]” on page 118 for instance. It makes a change to see the darker side of high society and it certainly got me thinking about how even now, even in our own (lowlier) social circles, we are still all bound to a certain extent by convention and expectation. Like Never Let Me Go, I think this is another book that will remain in my thoughts for a long time to come.

Lucy's own choice was The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood:

I’m a huge Atwood fan and this was the first book of hers I read after not particularly enjoying dissecting The Handmaid’s Tale for A-level (I’m yet to re-read this and am certain I’d enjoy it a lot more now). Reading The Edible Woman for the first time, I remember being surprised as a somewhat na├»ve nineteen year old at how far women’s lib hadn’t got by the mid-sixties when it was written. Given that women got the vote in 1918 (both in the UK and Canada, where Atwood is from), I was shocked to find women’s careers, fashions and expected roles in society still so restrictive and restricted.

The book is about Marian, a young woman in her early 20s, living an ordinary life with an ordinary job and an ordinary boyfriend. Once she gets engaged though, she feels a growing sense of suffocation, of being ‘consumed’ by her boyfriend and by a patriarchal society as a whole. This feeling manifests itself in her appetite – starting with meat, then eggs and gradually even vegetables and cake – she becomes unable to stomach any of it.

Atwood’s prose is, as ever, wonderfully evocative and yet somehow seems so effortless – it’s so easy to be swept away in her imagery (e.g. “she always looks as though she is coming unravelled”, “[the cake felt] spongy and cellular against her tongue, like the bursting of thousands of tiny lungs”) and that’s what I love her books so much. What I loved most about The Edible Woman though is Marian, because she is somewhat flawed and awkward – the cringe-worthy passage where she hides under the bed (p77) particularly resonated with me as it’s certainly something I could imagine myself doing (really). 

It was interesting to re-read this book as an adult woman and consider how far feminism has come since this was written, but also how far we still have to go in some ways. It’s a nice little reminder not to let yourself become ‘edible’ or do something just because it’s what’s expected.

I do struggle slightly with this sort of book. Not because of the writing, simply because it horrifies me to think of just how limited women's lives and choices were even a couple of decades back. It's somehow easier to accept in Lady Rose because that book is very Victorian but this is much more modern. The author's introduction in my copy summed it up very nicely: this is a book which both starts and ends with the main character having a choice between a career going nowhere or marriage as an exit from it. That's how life was. It scares me.

So, how interesting can a book about frustration and lack of choice be? As it turns out, very interesting! The extended metaphor of consumption and destruction is cleverly done and Marian's awkward, odd progress during the course of the story is compulsive to read about, even when her actions slightly turn your stomach or make you cringe. I've never read any of Margaret Atwood's books before, despite The Blind Assassin having been in my TBR pile for an absolute age, and I was really pleasantly surprised by how readable and gripping this was. I read it in a morning and I'm looking forward to discovering more of her books.

Did Becks feel the same?

I had to keep reminding myself to remember when this book was written as it was a little tempting to give the main protaganist a bit of a slap and tell her to get a grip. But of course this slap is coming from 2013 whilst this book is based in the 1960s and oh what a different world this was for women. Unimportant, disposable and indeed, edible, able to be consumed/subsumed by men and the world in general. Unable to do work she really enjoys but work that she will be forced to give up once she's a married woman. Unable to find happiness with the man that she's with but unable to take the exit by any door other than the marriage door, Marian's life is not to be envied.

Atwood cleverly uses a change of narrative throughout the book, starting off in 1st person at the beginning of Marian's story, switching to 3rd person when Marian loses her way (and hence her voice), before switching back at the very end of the book when Marian becomes her own woman again. This isn't my favourite of Atwood's novels. I wanted to like it but it felt a little clunky and I found it hard to put myself in Marian's shoes because I have the fortune of being a child of a later age who find it difficult to envisage the life that faced women in the terrifyingly not too distant past.

Becks picked Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro:

Kathy is our narrator in this book and, as she talks about her life as a 'carer', everything appears to be normal. However when she talks about the 'donors' she looks after and what happens once they 'complete' you start to get a feeling that all is not as it seems. She talks about her life with two of her school friends, Ruth and Tommy, and their lives at Hailsham school and it is soon revealed that they are one of goodness knows how many children who are clones and have been brought into the world for the sole purpose of being organ donors. Chilling. But what is really chilling is that Ishiguro doesn't go into the minutiae of detail about the how and the why of this - it just is and you accept it and go along with the story.

The only frustrating thing about the story is what you actually don't know. You want to know how this came about and how they react with 'normal' people and more details about the donating but you never find any of this out. Instead the focus is very much on what it means to be human. Tommy, Ruth and Kathy are like any other group of children who grow up to be adults - their emotions and tribulations are all the same, despite the purpose to which they were born, and it is this that is both comforting and heartbreaking. It is comforting that what it means to be human is not something which can be manufactured in a laboratory but also disturbing to think that there could be a situation where people are there to exist to be donors and nothing else.

It is hard reading in so many ways and leaves you with almost a feeling like you want to shudder, much like Madame in the book, who shudders when the students of Hailsham come near her. For me, I don't want to shudder because of the thought of the clones, but shudder at the not necessarily impossible thought that one day...

I don't know at what point a book becomes a Classic, but for me this book has to be one in the future.

What did Lucy think?

I listened to the audio version of this book in my car to and from work and it had me gripped; I’d head into the office on a morning with my thoughts still in this other version of England and the book has haunted me so much since, that I’ve actually just gone back and upped my four star rating on Goodreads to a five. The story starts off pleasantly enough: a nostalgic memoir of a seemingly idyllic childhood in an English boarding school, which must be easily relatable to anyone who grew up in the UK and beyond, but a sinister undertone begins to creep in with the mention of Donations and Carers. The intrigue keeps building as the children grow and leave school, I guess reflecting the piecemeal way in which they gather titbits of information themselves… What is a Possible? What exactly are they donating? And why? I love that not all of these questions are answered, or not answered fully, leaving you hungry for more and pondering the moral questions in the book, and indeed our own society, long after you’ve finished reading.

I saw the film of Never Let Me Go before I read the book and I still can't quite work out whether that was a good or a bad thing. For what it's worth, I really liked both of them.  Usually I'd always prefer to read the book first but somehow it didn't matter quite so much here. Yes, I already knew the twist and the way the plot unfolded because I'd seen it on screen but when you're reading a story by an author as talented with words as Ishiguro, it somehow doesn't matter that you already know the plot. Nothing is spelled out explicitly to the reader here; this alternative world and its differences to ours are fleshed out by slight, subtle mentions throughout the course of the book. It still hasn't been totally explained by the end but it doesn't need to be. Sections of exposition would be utterly out of place here and the process of gradual discovery that we're led down alongside with the main characters is written in a masterly fashion.  Never Let Me Go still manages to cast an eerie shadow over my thoughts.  It's that sense of "what if..", combined with the atmospheric nature of the writing that make it such a good read.

Well, wasn't that a good month? Three excellent books and I suggest you go out and buy them all. Here's hoping that next month is as enjoyable. We'll be reading All My Friends are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman, Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill and Spares by Michael Marshall Smith. See you then!


  1. Great reviews! Thanks for some book inspiration!

  2. Ha I almost sound clever in these reviews. MOAR BOOKS.

  3. Thank you for these, I have recently caught the reading bug again and I am always on the lookout for more books. I have added Lady Rose and Never Let Me Go to my wishlists they both appeal to me.

  4. Really intrigued by Never Let Me Go, adding this to my books to buy list.

  5. Thanks for having me Alex, I really, really loved both your choices and I definitely have the reading bug again!

    Glad you like TEW - get The Blind Assassin read is all I can say though, it's in another league altogether. Also the MaddAdam books are wonderful (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and the new one). [/Atwood fangirling] xx

  6. Never Let Me Go is one of my true favourites! It helped to inspire my creative dissertation and I love it so much. I agree that both the film and book are on parr with one another. They both capture the eerie atmosphere of Hailsham and what happens afterwards along with the tangled friendship of Kathy, Tommy and Ruth. The cast is also amazing in the film.

    I'm intrigued by The Edible Woman. I'd definitely call myself an Atwood fan but haven't yet read all of her books. Will add it to the list!

  7. I really love The Edible Woman, definitely the book that made me fall in love with Margaret Atwood!

    Maria xxx

  8. Wow, what interesting books and great reviews x


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