Novellas in November 2021

I’ve collected together a selection of novellas in advance of Novellas in November, hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of BookishBeck. These are all books of under 200 pages.

From top to bottom they are (I’ve given the actual page numbers in my copies):

  • Another Part of the Wood by Beryl Bainbridge – 159 pages -literary fiction set In a remote cottage in Wales where two urban couples are spending their holiday with the idealistic owner and his protege. The beginning is idyllic but catastrophe lurks behind every tree.
  • The Great Divorce by C S Lewis – 118 pages – a fable and allegory in which the writer, in a dream, boards a bus on a drizzly afternoon and embarks on an incredible voyage through Heaven and Hell.
  • The Invasion of the Moon 1969: the Story pf Apollo 11 by Peter Ryan – 189 pages, non fiction about the flight of Apollo 11 and the men who went to the moon and back.
  • Rebus’s Scotland by Ian Rankin – 131 pages (not including the photographs). Ian Rankin’s guide to the places in Scotland that have provided inspiration for his bestselling Inspector Rebus novels.
  • The Sovereignty of Good by Iris Murdoch – 105 pages, philosophy – three essays, exploring questions of good and bad, and myth and morality.
  • Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay 189 pages – a novel for the reader to decide if it’s fact or fiction. On St Valentine’s Day in 1900, nineteen girls and two schoolmistresses visit Hanging Rock. Some were never to return. 
  • On Chesil Beach 166 pages by Ian McEwan, It is July 1962. Edward and Florence, young innocents married that morning, arrive at a hotel on the Dorset coast. At dinner in their rooms they struggle to suppress their private fears of the wedding night to come. The events of that evening will haunt them for the rest of their lives. (This will be a re-read)
  • A Life of Walter Scott: The Laird of Abbotsford by A N Wilson 185 pages, ‘weaving together the life and the works, and discussing all Scott’s best-known books as well as many which are less familiar.

Novellas in November 2021

I’m glad to see that Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of BookishBeck are once again co-hosting Novellas in November as a month-long challenge with four weekly prompts. Each week they will take it in turns to host a “buddy read” of a featured book they hope we will join in reading.

They suggest 150–200 pages as the upper limit for a novella, and post-1980 as a definition of “contemporary.”

1–7 November: Contemporary fiction (Cathy)

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson – including a giveaway of a signed copy!

8–14 November: Short nonfiction (Rebecca)

The Story of My Life by Helen Keller (free to download here from Project Gutenberg. Note: only the first 85 pages constitute her memoir; the rest is letters and supplementary material.)

15–21 November: Literature in translation (Cathy)

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima

22–28 November: Short classics (Rebecca)

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (free to download here from Project Gutenberg)

~~~

I enjoyed taking part last year so I’m looking forward to this year’s event. I read Ethan Frome in 2014 and loved it, so I think I’ll re-read it. Many years ago (I can’t remember when) I read a biography of Helen Keller, or it may even have been her autobiography, so I’ll have a look at that too. I also have several novellas on my TBR shelves to choose from.

The Dressmaker by Beryl Bainbridge

This is another ‘catching-up’ post about a book I read a while ago. It’s one of my TBRs and also one of my 20 Books of Summer. It’s a novel with an under current of psychological suspense.

Description

Wartime Liverpool is a place of ration books and jobs in munitions factories. Rita, living with her two aunts Nellie and Margo, is emotionally naïve and withdrawn. When she meets Ira, a GI, at a neighbour’s party she falls in love as much with the idea of life as a GI bride as with the man himself. But Nellie and Margo are not so blind …

My thoughts:

I read The Dressmaker because I’ve enjoyed other books by Beryl Bainbridge. It’s a novella, really, as it’s only 160 pages. I love her style, clear, concise prose, with fully realised characters and descriptive settings. It was first published in 1973 – my copy is a Fontana edition published in 1985.

The Dressmaker was runner up for the 1973 Booker Prize and also for the Guardian Fiction Prize. The Sunday Times, is quoted on the back cover: ‘ Like the better Hitchcock films Miss Bainbridge suggests a claustrophobic horror … An impressive, haunting book.’

It’s a wartime story of life in Liverpool in 1944, where Rita, aged 17, is living with her two middle-aged aunts, Nellie (shown on the cover of my 1985 copy) and Margo, also called Marge. Her mother had died in childbirth, and she had lived with them as her father, their brother Jack, was unable to bring her up whilst single-handedly running his butcher’s shop. Rita, although she knows he is her father, calls him ‘Uncle Jack’. She is naive and innocent, and after meeting Ira she fantasises about being a GI bride, but her aunts are not taken in by him and view him in a very different light. She dreams about life in America as Ira’s wife:

After the war he would take her to the States, and they’d have a long black car and a grand piano with a bowl of flowers on the table. There’d be a house with a verandah and wooden steps, and she would run down them in a dress with lots of folds in the skirt and peep-toed shoes. Auntie Nellie would tell Mrs Mander how well-off they were, how Ira cared for her, the promotion he kept getting at work. (page 59)

The opening chapter signals with the word ‘afterwards‘ that something significant had happened, but with no indication of what it was. It left me wondering where this book was going. At first it seemed a rather mundane story of everyday life, but as the story played out I began to feel it was leading up to a tragedy – something terrible was coming towards this working class family.

And indeed it was – and it was shocking, particularly given the domestic setting. It’s only with the final denouement that the mystery hinted at in the opening chapter is revealed in a savage and violent climax. Even though I was expecting a tragedy the actual nature of it took me totally by surprise.

My Friday Post: The Dressmaker by Beryl Bainbridge

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

My book this week is The Dressmaker by Beryl Bainbridge, one of the books I’ve just started reading, and also one of my 20 Books of Summer. It’s not long – just 160 pages.

It begins:

Afterwards she went through into the little front room, the tape measure still dangling round her neck, and allowed herself a glass of port.

This opening sentence makes me wonder -after what?

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.
  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

She didn’t know how to remedy the situation. Rather like her Aunt Nellie who could never say she was sorry. She twisted her hands together and gazed helplessly at his hostile back.

Description

Wartime Liverpool is a place of ration books and jobs in munitions factories. Rita, living with her two aunts Nellie and Margo, is emotionally naïve and withdrawn. When she meets Ira, a GI, at a neighbour’s party she falls in love as much with the idea of life as a GI bride as with the man himself. But Nellie and Margo are not so blind…

The Dressmaker was runner up for the 1973 Booker Prize and also for the Guardian Fiction Prize. The Sunday Times, is quoted on the back cover: ‘ Like the better Hitchcock films Miss Bainbridge suggests a claustrophobic horror … An impressive, haunting book.’

The Shortest Day by Colm Toibin

Today is the shortest day of the year, so it’s the best day to write about The Shortest Day by Colm Toibin, a novella of just 31 pages, one of the shortest books I’ve read. I loved it. It appealed to me on several levels – first of all it’s about the mythical past, about the strange carvings I’ve found on certain stones, about archaeology, and about the unknown customs and rituals of our ancient past, and secondly because it’s storytelling at its best – a tale of wonder and mystery.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Amazon Original Stories|3 November 2020|31 pages

Professor O’Kelly is writing notes about Newgrange, also called Bru na Boinne, a circular mound with a retaining wall that had a narrow passageway leading into a vaulted central chamber. There are spirals and diamond shaped designs cut into some of the stones both inside the chamber itself and outside the entrance to the passageway. It’s a burial chamber, a prehistoric monument in County Meath in Ireland, that was built around 3200 BC – older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. It’s ringed by a stone circle, stones brought from the Mournes and Wicklow Mountains.

He speculates about the people who created the burial chamber, who they were, where they came from and what they believed in. He wonders about their burial rituals, what language they spoke and what they believed about the spirit. It all remains a mystery. He would dearly love to find something to open up its secrets to him. He has visited it several times in the past and plans to spend the days before Christmas visiting Newgrange, to make fresh drawings of the carvings on the stones and do a small amount of excavation in the passageway.

Meanwhile deep within the chamber there were whispers among the dead that the professor was coming again. They are concerned that he would discover the secret of the light penetrating the chamber on the winter solstice – the shortest day of the year. Some of the local inhabitants know of the secret but they never talk about it, except in whispers between themselves. When he arrives they put up a number of obstacles to prevent him from entering the chamber.

This is a wonderful story full of atmosphere, of dread and of anticipation. My heart was in my mouth as I read this story, wondering and hoping that the professor would succeed. Would he witness the secret of Newgrange – the secret of those who had lived thousands of years before?

Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses by Georges Simenon

This week the theme for Novellas in November is Literature in Translation and I’ve chosen Maigret and the Reluctant Visitors by Georges Simenon translated from the French by William Hobson, a novella of 172 pages.

This is the 53rd Inspector Maigret book, originally published in 1955.

It is November and Maigret, nearing retirement, is in a melancholy, nostalgic mood. He has been called out to the home of the Lauchaume family where Léonard, the eldest son has been shot dead. The name Lachaume brings back memories of his childhood in the countryside where the village grocer sold Lachaume Biscuits. But the family is now in dire straits, living in a large house on the Quai de la Gare, Ivry and their biscuit factory is failing. Their house was once an impressive three storey building but is now in a state of decay, cold and damp. The rest of the Lachaume family, his younger brother Armand, Paulette Armand’s wife and his elderly parents, are not only reluctant to talk to the police, they don’t appear to be grieving.

It looks initially that the murder may have been part of a burglary, although only a wallet is missing, but Maigret is suspicious right from the start. His attempts to question the family are held up by their lawyer and also by the Examining Magistrate, Angelot who insists on taking charge of the case. But he makes headway when he visits Véronique Lachaume, Léonard’s estranged sister and eventually Paulette reluctantly talks to him.

The book as a whole has a nostalgic feel, the sense that the world is changing – the Lachaume family has been left behind. Their business has only been kept afloat by the money from the sons’ wives, but they are still proud and reluctant to face the true facts of their situation. Maigret, too, is beginning to realise that his world is changing. for one thing he is getting older, the new magistrates are the younger generation bringing in new methods and he is aware that he only has two years left before his retirement. However, he solves the case mainly through his own intuition, and so he casts off his melancholy.

I’ve now read several of the Maigret books totally out of order, so now I’ve decided it’s time I read the first book, Pietr the Latvian first published in 1931.

The Man Behind Narnia by A N Wilson

This week the theme for Novellas in November is nonfiction novellas and I read The Man behind Narnia by A N Wilson, about C S Lewis.

A N Wilson is the author of over forty books – 20 novels, biographies, a three-part history of the last 100 years, and stories for children.

I’ve read a few of his biographies, the latest one I read was about Queen Victoria. At 656 pages it took me 3 months to read and I learned so much and enjoyed it immensely. In 1990 he wrote a full length biography of C S Lewis (which I haven’t read) and in 2013 he made a BBC 4 documentary about Lewis and his work. I didn’t watch the programme, but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of The Man Behind Narnia. In only 72 pages he writes briefly about Lewis’s life, his own reflections on Lewis’s works, and describes the making of the documentary.

Clive Staples Lewis (1898–1963) was a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Oxford University until 1954, when he was elected to the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University, a position he held until his retirement. He wrote more than thirty books, including Mere Christianity, Out of the Silent PlanetThe Great DivorceThe Screwtape Letters, and The Chronicles of Narnia books.

I first came across Lewis’s books when I was a teenager and a friend lent me The Screwtape Letters and then I read his autobiography, Surprised by Joy – in which he tells the story of his conversion to Christianity and about his childhood in Ireland, his school years and his adolescence – then his time at Oxford University and in 1917 he enlisted and was sent to the front line in France. Since then I’ve read quite a lot of his theological books, including Mere Christianity, as well as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (the first of his Narnia books) which I read about 15 years ago. I think I’d have enjoyed it more if I’d read it as a child.

I enjoyed Wilson’s book very much, but it really is as much about himself and the effects that Lewis’s writing has had on him as it it is about Lewis. He writes about the places where Lewis lived, Belfast where he was born, Dunluce Castle on the coast where he used to visit with his mother (the castle in the Narnia stories), the places he went to school in England, and Oxford University. I’ve realised in writing this post that Wilson’s book jumps around a lot from place to place whilst covering Lewis’s life at different periods of time, so that it might seem a disjointed book, but it isn’t. As I was reading it, it seemed to flow naturally.

He also writes about Lewis’s relationships with, amongst others his father, and Mrs Moore, his friend’s mother and later his lover (allegedly) and their life together at The Kilns in Headington. He only writes briefly about his marriage to Joy Davidman. Several years ago I remember being enthralled watching Anthony Hopkins, Debra Winger, and Julian Fellowes in Shadowlands (not a dry eye in the cinema). Shadowlands is  about Lewis’s meeting with Helen Joy Davidman and about the events that led to their marriage. And earlier this year I read Becoming Mrs Lewis, a novel by Patti Callahan about Joy Davidman and her meeting and subsequent marriage to Lewis, so I was interested to read what Wilson’s view of their relationship was. He too ‘dissolved into tears‘ whilst watching the film, ‘even though [he] knew the circumstances of Lewis’s marriage to Joy Davidman [bore] only the haziest relationship to the story of ‘Shadowlands’. Interesting, I wondered what he based this on. My impression of Joy from reading Becoming Mrs Lewis was that she was stalking Lewis and I couldn’t warm to her.

In Chapter three he writes about the Narnia stories. Like me Wilson didn’t read the Narnia stories as a child. He hadn’t wanted to spoil his admiration for Lewis’s academic books by dipping into Narnia and found Lewis ’embarrassing’ when he got onto the subject of religion. He finally read them when he was on holiday in the Hebrides with his family and as it was raining he read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe aloud to his daughters. The children were enraptured but he found it disturbing and shocking, with the Atonement theology of the story. But even so he found the story absolutely absorbing.

There is so much packed into this novella that I could probably go on writing about it. But this post is too long already, so I’m going to stop. If you’re interested in knowing more I can recommend reading it. I was fascinated and it has made me want to read more of Lewis’s books. I have little pile of them and haven’t read all of them yet.

The only one I’ve written about on this blog is Letters to Malcolm, a book about prayer. I’m also wondering whether to read Wilson’s biography of Lewis, or maybe Alister McGrath’s more recent biography, written in honour of the 50th anniversary of C. S. Lewis’s death, C S Lewis: A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet.

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide: a Novella

This is my first novella review for Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Rebecca

It was the cover of The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, translated by Eric Selland, that first caught my eye. As a cat lover how could I resist this book? It is only short, 146 pages but it packs so much within those pages. And there was a lot that struck chords with me.

It is a story of how a cat made itself at home with a couple in their thirties who lived in a small rented house in a quiet part of Tokyo. The opening chapter describes the house and its position on a little alleyway the couple called ‘Lightning Alley’ because of its frequent sharp turns that one sees in drawings of lightning blots – or, I imagine, of the one on Harry Potter’s forehead. The alleyway followed a twisting path between the extensive grounds of an old estate and the place they were renting. It had originally been a guesthouse of the old estate, where their landlady lived. There was a rickety gate in a wooden fence, that was the landlady’s side entrance and the tenants’ front gate. And just beyond the gate was a knothole. I couldn’t quite visualise it but after reading it a few times I gave up trying to picture the scene and the optical illusion, like a camera obscura, the knothole projected on the small window in the corner of the kitchen.

I simply moved on to the story of the cat the narrator noticed in their garden. Their neighbours’ house to the east, which because of the twists and turns of Lightning Alley, was a distance away from them so that they rarely met face to face. But they could hear their neighbours’ little boy often playing where the alleyway turned sharply. One morning he announced his intention to keep a stray cat, Chibi, and they could hear the tinkling of the cat’s little bell. At first the cat was cautious and just peeked inside their little house but eventually Chibi spent a lot of time with the couple coming and going as she pleased.

Chibi was a jewel of a cat. Her pure white fur was mottled with several lampblack blotches containing just a bit of light brown. The sort of cat you might see just about anywhere in Japan, except she was especially slim and tiny.

These were her individual characteristics – slim and small, with ears that stood out, tapering off beautifully at the tips, and often twitching. She would approach silently and undetected to rub up against one’s legs. (page 11)

So, I wondered why the picture of the cat on the cover that caught my eye was different. I think the picture on the cover of the audio book is more like Chibi:

There’s not really much more to say about the story, except that is a collection of fragments – of events that gradually change the couple’s lives. Chibi becomes a source of joy to them both and they began to see the beauty around them. There are passages about Chibi’s activities – her agility, her unexpected ways and playfulness.

Having played to her heart’s content, Chibi would come inside and rest for a while. When she began to sleep on the sofa – like a talisman curled gently in the shape of a comma and dug up from the prehistoric archaeological site – a deep sense of happiness arrived as if the house itself had dreamed this scene. (page 14)

Hiraide’s description of nature is detailed – the garden of the large house in particular. And I was struck by his description of two dragonflies, copulating while flying, in formation like a bracelet ‘in the shape of a distorted heart.’

But then something happens that changes their lives again. Change over the passage of time is one of the main themes in this book. Others are about nature and the nature of belonging – who does Chibi belong to, were her visits to their home actually a homecoming or was her home really with the neighbours? This was one of the chords that resonated with me because my in-laws once had a little white cat, Mitzi, who went to live with one of their neighbours. The neighbours clearly thought she didn’t belong to them because although = they fed her and she lived with them they brought the vet bill to my in-laws for them to pay it.

And so the changes continued. The ending which gave me much pause (pun not intended) for thought, is ambiguous, a mystery left hanging for you to decide for yourself what had happened – inevitable, maybe.

I was curious about this book – is it fact or fiction? So, I looked online and I came across this article, about a book signing/discussion organised by the Japan Foundation at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation’s venue on Cambridge Street in Manchester. Takashi Hiraide explained that some of the novel including the location and living quarters for instance, are based on fact, although the novel is a mixture of reality and fiction.

He also explained that the novel is a Japanese ‘I’ novel and pointed out the problems in translating it into English. For example whereas in Japanese personal pronouns (such as ‘I’, ‘he and ‘she’) are not necessary in a sentence, in English they are. As a result the narrator, who in the novel is meant to be a detached observer, in the English translation sometimes becomes a character in the story, which explains the detached feeling I had whilst reading it. I was also interested to find out that Hiraide is influenced by modern art and that he regards book covers as an art form in themselves. So, the cover that first attracted me to the book was his choice (I guess).

I loved this novella – so different from other books I’ve read. It’s one of my To-Be-Read books that has been hiding in my Kindle for five years, until I looked to see if I had any novellas in e-book form.

Novellas in November

Although I’ll be taking part in Nonfiction November I’ve been wondering whether to join in with Novellas in November, a month long event co-hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of BookishBeck. Their definition of a novella is loose – it’s based on word count rather than number of pages – but they suggest aiming for 150 pages or under, with a firm upper limit of 200 pages. Any genre is valid. Each week has a theme:

2–8 November: Contemporary fiction (Cathy)

9–15 November: Nonfiction novellas (Rebecca)

16–22 November: Literature in translation (Cathy)

23–29 November: Short classics (Rebecca)

So, I’ve been looking on my TBR shelves and found these novellas – a mix of genres:

I don’t expect I’ll read all of these – but I should be able to read one or two, maybe three?

Printer’s Devil Court by Susan Hill

Printer's Devil Court

A short while ago I quoted the opening paragraph and an extract from page 56 of this novella in one of My Friday posts. I was hoping Printer’s Devil Court by Susan Hill would live up to the promise of its blurb of a chilling ghost story.

Blurb (Amazon)

A chilling ghost story by the author of The Woman in Black.

One murky November evening after a satisfying meal in their Fleet Street lodgings, a conversation between four medical students takes a curious turn and Hugh is initiated into a dark secret. In the cellar of their narrow lodgings in Printer’s Devil Court and a little used mortuary in a subterranean annex of the hospital, they have begun to interfere with death itself, in shadowy experiments beyond the realms of medical ethics. They call on Hugh to witness an event both extraordinary and terrifying.

Years later, Hugh has occasion to return to his student digs and the familiar surroundings resurrect peculiar and unpleasant memories of these unnatural events, the true horror of which only slowly becomes apparent.

Sadly, I don’t think it does live up to the blurb. I think it’s well written, but I didn’t find it chilling, although it does have a great sense of melancholy. Susan Hill is very good at setting the scene, although at times I was under the impression that this was set in Victorian times, especially as the illustrations give it a Dickensian feel. But in this scene when Hugh returns to London forty years later this is what he records :

… this corner of London had changed a good deal. Fleet Street no longer housed the hot-metal presses and many of the old alleys and courts had long gone, most of them bombed to smithereens by the Blitz. (page 68)

So, it’s not set in Victorian times, but in the 20th century.

Hugh is a junior doctor and shares his lodgings with three other medical students, Walter, Rafe and James and the story begins one evening as Walter asks what they all think about the story of raising Lazarus from the dead. It turns out that he and Rafe have been experimenting with the possibility of capturing the last breath and want Hugh to be a witness to what they find. From that point on  I could see almost exactly where the story was heading – it is too predictable.

It’s really a very short story padded out with several pages of illustrations, divided into three parts with an introductory letter, Postscript and Hugh’s Final Pages with blank pages between each sectionMaybe, I wouldn’t have been so disappointed with this book if I hadn’t just read Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s and three of his short stories at the end of that book, which I think are excellent.

  • Hardcover, 105 pages
  • Published September 25th 2014 by Profile Books Ltd (first published October 14th 2013)
  • Source: Library Book