sept 2013 coming upHooray – I’m doing well with my plan to read all of the books I have been sent by publishers or were written by friends, with reviews of Heroines on Horseback and From the Slopes of Olympus to the Banks of the Lea already published, and now here are two of the three books that Bello Books kindly sent me. And, oh look: Vita Sackville-West is their author of the month at the time of writing, and here’s a review of one of her marvellous books. Enjoy!

Vita Sackville West – “Family History”

(17 July 2013, kindly sent by the publisher)

It’s taken me a while to be able to be far enough from this book to write my review. Simply put, it’s the story of Evelyn Jarrold, previously unblemished daughter-in-law of a self-made millionaire, established in the upper middle class, raising her son in the ‘right’ way, sending him off to Eton and discouraging his socialist leanings, never seemingly involved with anyone from her husband’s death in WWI up until the present day in the 1930s, and her sudden, shocking affair with an MP, much younger than her and rising star of the socialist intelligentsia. It’s a riff on the Byron couplet “Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart / ‘Tis woman’s whole existence”, which, as Victoria Glendenning says in her Introduction, is never clearly said in the book, but is sitting behind its every turn, as Evelyn fights against having to share her Miles with his farm, his book and his political agent … and her son, while Miles fights against enclosure into her world of silks and shopping.

it’s doomed, isn’t it: you can tell from that first paragraph. But goodness, it’s portrayed so beautifully. Every detail of both protagonists’ feelings is flayed and laid bare, and we’re given contrasting facets within people’s own complex personalities – the father-in-law in particular being given a rich range of behaviours and reactions. Evelyn’s gradual disintegration of personality and, then, person, is vividly and surgically portrayed. And the ending, which would involve a massive spoiler but made Harold Nicolson cry all the way on the train journey from Staplehurst to Charing Cross, is both shocking and inevitable, especially given the time (if you want to be warned, follow this footnote to the bottom*).

I love this book for its amazing portrayals of human nature, but probably most for its examination of the rising kinds of class and people who were taking hold at the time of writing, and most of all for the lovely portrayal of Vita’s castle and grounds at Sissinghurst, the early days of which are lovingly portrayed in this novel. This was a marvellous surprise and something to linger over when I re-read – it was instantly recognisable with a real thrill of recognition.

Gillian Tindall – “Journey of a Lifetime”

(17 July 2013 – kindly sent by the publisher)

I made a mistake here, and I’ll freely admit it. When Bello Books sent me a pdf of their catalogue and asked me to point out a few books I might choose to read and review, I was intrigued to note this author’s name next to some short stories. I’d read and loved her “Celestine: Voices from a French Village“, which was, of course, a non-fiction book, and I fooled myself into thinking that my love of this would translate into love of her fiction, even though I have history in this (for example loving Paul Theroux’ travel narratives and loathing his novels).

So, it was modern short stories, which I have to admit that I’m not usually hugely keen on such things. I didn’t feel that engaged with them, They seemed to be a bit formulaic, in that each must have a twist, a couple I found a little distasteful, and a couple had a rather menacing and supernatural tone to them. One story would potentially be triggering if you’re bothered by reading about child abuse, and I’m putting in a footnote about which one below* if you want to know which one.

I am aware that many people like the modern short story and its tropes, and will just say that they weren’t for me, but that’s not to say that they are bad as such. I have shared the book via BookCrossing, so that someone else can read, review and find out about Bello Books.

Alex Kuo – “My Private China” (DNF)

(10 September 2013 – LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme)

This book was promised as a look at everyday, ordinary life in China over a long period of time. But I found that it was a collection of unconnected pieces, interviews and others, published in newspapers and journals over the author’s lifetime. And although the interviews are with individuals, they do not really give a flavour of ordinary life in my opinion. I love this kind of book, and I’m afraid the disjointed nature of this (and the fact that the first piece had footnote numbers with no footnotes to match (I don’t think this was an ARC, it looked pretty complete to me) left me cold. Oh yes, and there was quite a lot about Bridge, a game I do not follow. I gave up half way through.


Currently reading: I’m currently working my way through Anthony Powell’s “A Dance to the Music of Time: Autumn”, so we’re in WWII and Wales at the moment. I have a Michael Holroyd on the go, and I’m also going to start Vita Sackville-West’s “Heritage” shortly – what a treat that will be!


* Spoiler alerts but necessary warnings follow …

“Family History” – be wary of reading “Family History” if you’ve recently nursed someone at home, as it may be a little too close to home.

“Journey of a Lifetime” – the last story is potentially triggering around child abuse.