16 October 2017

Affinity by Sarah Waters

It wouldn't be October without reading something atmospheric with a dash of spooky.  I feel that a  novel set during the Victorian era is something of a prerequisite for this time of year, when the nights draw in.  A lonely Gothic mansion ticks a lot of boxes, but a prison weeping with damp, squeaking with mice, and scattered with scurrying beetles works quite nicely as well.  And then there's the fog...

'....yellow fogs and brown fogs, and fogs so black they might be liquid soot - fogs that seem to rise from the pavements as if brewed in the sewers in diabolical engines.  They stain our clothes, they fill our lungs and make us cough, they press against our windows - if you watch, in a certain light, you may see them seeping into the house through ill-fitting sashes.'

Set during the first half of the 1870s, Margaret Prior begins regular visits to Millbank Prison.  As a respectable woman, she has been assigned the duty of speaking with female inmates in the hope they will be inspired to correct their criminal behaviour.  We won't get into the politics of why some women unjustly end up in prison as we're quite aware that starvation and abuse can lead to desperation. In any case, it soon becomes apparent that Margaret is herself under care, having recently recovered (physically, anyway) from a suicide attempt.

Living in Cheyne Walk with her mother, Margaret has experienced the death of her father and loss of her lover.  Helen has bent to the pressures of society and married Margaret's brother.  Margaret's heart breaks when she learns Helen will honeymoon in Italy, a trip the women had dreamed of taking together.  At nearly thirty years of age and unmarried, Margaret is both a disappointment and dependent on her mother.

'I saw her growing bitter, because her son and her favourite daughter had homes elsewhere - had gayer homes, with children and footsteps and young men and new gowns in them; homes which, were it not for the presence of her spinster daughter - her consolation, who preferred prisons and poetry to fashion-plates and dinners, and was therefore no consolation at all...'

Visiting the bleak prison in her mourning black, Margaret soon focuses on Selina Dawes.  While most of the prison is dark, it's almost as if a light shines from the young, fair woman as she sits in her cell, fingering a ball of wool.  Accused of fraud and assault during a seance which resulted in the death of another woman due to fright, the reader may wonder whether Selina's mystical powers are real or imagined.  Somehow, without visitors or letters, Selina holds a single violet in a room of stone.

As Margaret and Selina form a friendship, Selina tells Margaret things about her father that she couldn't possibly know.  Then items begin to appear or disappear from Margaret's room, leaving Margaret to believe that Selina does indeed possess mystical powers.  It's also possible that the chloral dispensed each night by Mrs Prior to keep Margaret from the verge of hysteria is muddling her thoughts.

Being extremely fond of London, it never fails to thrill when certain streets or places are named.  I found myself wondering how many houses separated Margaret's address from the Carlyles on Cheyne Walk and how the view of the Thames has changed since the 1870s.  The Reading Room at the British Museum is still a mystery but walking up the steps to the front door is not.  And I wondered which side of Great Russell Street the Association of Spiritualists was located on....fictitious or not.

There are plenty of topics to explore within this novel, such as the appalling prison conditions, mental illness, women's rights, housing, why single women were frowned upon but single men fussed over,  women's access to a bank account, and lack of social assistance.  Also, just what was going on behind the curtain during Selina's seances, and who is the mysterious Peter Quick?

A plot twist at the end of the story means I won't be passing my copy on to someone else just yet.  At some point I'm going to read this book again, to pick up on the clues that Waters has cleverly woven throughout.  Highly recommended as an ideal read for October!

15 October 2017

Guillermo del Toro at the Art Gallery of Ontario

(Young Mako Mori's dress, from Pacific Rim, 2013)

The autumn is my favourite time of year.  Pumpkin pie becomes a food group, the temperature is cool enough to wear my favourite cardigans again, fall fairs dot the calendar and the perfect drive in the country is rich with the aroma of wood smoke.  My husband and I have been busy dividing hostas, planting mums, tidying up the edges on the flower beds, and we've finally worked up the nerve to rip the carpet from the stairs.  Youtube gives you all sorts of confidence to believe anything is possible - fingers crossed.

We ladies with dogs in the neighbourhood decided to start a book club.  The idea came about at a birthday party in August, the same party where I was taught how to sabre a bottle of champagne.  My husband couldn't believe how calm I was, to which my reply was 'Not my champagne, not my knife, not my house!'...what could go wrong?  Well, yes, the possibility of a nasty wound but, to my sheer amazement, it worked!  I'm not so sure about the book club though.  The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry was my choice, especially leading up to Halloween, but only one other person finished the book.  It's true what they say about book clubs, and in our case the discussion was even shorter than the norm!  I'm not sure it's a good fit for me and it wouldn't be fair to further twist the arms of my dear friends.  If they didn't get on with Sarah Perry, there's little hope for the likes of E.M. Delafield or Virginia Woolf, and I'm not very keen to leave my favourite authors behind for weeks on end.


 So while I get back on track with my reading and posts, here are a few photos from the Guillermo del Toro exhibit at the AGO.  We visited last Thursday as part of an afternoon away from domestic duties and mundane errands, and SO glad we did. 

 Victorian family portrait with deceased family member

 Costuming and set pieces from the film Crimson Peak

 The Angel of Death from Hellboy 2
(the eyes in the wings are very creepy!)

 The Faun from Pan's Labyrinth, 2006

 Statue of H.P. Lovecraft

One of del Toro's many notebooks detailing script ideas.

As you walk through the exhibit a pianist plays suitably atmospheric music, although I did a double-take to notice the sheet music was on a tablet, rather than paper.  So much old, so much new and all an awful lot of fun. 

8 September 2017

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

There was a time when I would pick up a book, and should there be even a hint of a despicable character, the book would be set aside.  Reading should be for pleasure, to enhance idle moments.  I had little time for manipulative ne'er do wells or spoiled brats as characters.  I've since come to realize that I was an immature reader.

Being slightly obsessed with London as a backdrop in my reading material, Patrick Hamilton stood out as an author who supplied not only a novel rich with scenes of London, but evocations of the inter-war period as well.  I bought two of his books, The Slaves of Solitude and Hamgover Square.  A few years ago I read the former title and was put off by the copious amounts of drinking, surly behaviour and the bleakness of a dreary boarding house.  Needless to say, Hangover Square was then sentenced to neglect, continuously passed over for something more cheery or domestic.  I have now been enlightened.

'Click!...Here is was again!  He was walking along the cliff at Hunstanton and it had come again...Click!...'

This story begins on Christmas Day in 1938 and George Harvey Bone is visiting his aunt.  It's not out of kindness or affection, but rather for the £10 note coming his way as his annual gift.  At thirty-four George leads a down at heel existence in a shabby Earl's Court hotel.  He's been aware of the 'click' in his head ever since he was a boy, leading the reader to interpret some sort of personality disorder, perhaps schizophrenia.  When George feels the 'click' on Christmas Day he's driven by an intense urge to kill Netta, a manipulative slattern if ever there was one.

So far, not very cosy, is it?  And yet Patrick Hamilton's writing is absolutely brilliant.  He had me standing on the street corner with breeze-blown newspapers and cigarette butts, sitting right there in a smokey pub, walking up the filthy stairs of a run-down bedsit, and you can just about taste the gin.  The mention of an odd cup of tea came as a relief....and I was riveted by what would happen next.

George Harvey Bone worships Netta, who in turn uses George for his casual acquaintance to a man connected with a movie company.  Despite knowing his time and precious money is being wasted, George finds Netta is every bit as addictive as alcohol.

'...in spite of her intelligence and quick wits she couldn't act for nuts (he had ascertained that): but principally because she was spoiled and lazy, and drank too much - because she had expected success without having to work for it, and now drank and was lazy in a sort of furious annoyance at the fact that success was not to be had that way - a vicious circle of arrogance, and laziness and drink.  In other words she had never got out of being the bad-tempered, haughty tyrannical child she was at the beginning.  She lacked the imagination and generousity to do so.  And that brought him to the present Netta he had in front of him - the one who was making use of him in order to be near a man who might be of use to her.  For the moment he was sorry for her, and rather happy.'

As the situation with Netta and a peripheral crowd of punters in Earl's Court leads George further down a path of demoralization and depression, he turns to an unyielding plan of revenge.  And I couldn't be torn from the last pages of the book for anything.

Published in 1941, I never fail to be in awe of writers accomplishing such stellar pieces of work while bombs rained over England, buildings lay in ruin, and there were petrol and food shortages.  I was also saddened to learn that much of Patrick Hamilton's childhood was spent living in the type of boarding house he wrote about, with an alcoholic father of limited means.  He left school at fifteen and as an adult, Hamilton faced his own struggle with alcoholism, dying of cirrhosis of the liver in 1962.  

Hangover Square couldn't be further from my usual preference of a cosy read, but Patrick Hamilton shares the distinction of many of my favourite authors from this era in that their books fell out of favour.  I'm sure I could mention Patrick Hamilton to any number of readers at my library and be met with a blank stare, and that is a great shame.

Publicity photo from Hangover Square (1945) starring Laird Cregar and Linda Darnell.   

4 September 2017

Visiting the Penguin Random House Shop


It's the Labour Day long weekend, but I worked on Saturday and my husband is working today so Friday was 'fun day'.  We took the train to Toronto, along with scores of people attending Fan Expo and the Canadian National Exhibition.  It was like being in a Star Wars film; a quarter of the train was filled with costumed characters from all sorts of video games and films, which certainly bumped up the fun factor!

Our destination was BMV on Bloor for second-hand book shopping and if we had time, a stop at the Penguin Random House office tower at 320 Front Street.  We made time.


The Penguin Random House shop is on the ground floor, watched over by staff from the office on a rotation basis.  A nice diversion from desk work, I'd say!  The space isn't very large but it's cleverly stocked with sliding shelves to maximize space.


The eye-catching colours and beautiful cover art, complete sets of tempting novellas...well, it's enough to make a bibliophile's pupils dilate.


This micro-shop also stocks mugs, tote bags, cards, pins and t-shirts.  You could manage your Christmas shopping while on your lunch break.  Rather enticing....


Between BMV and Penguin Random House, we came home with four books each.  In my case, one book containing two stories, two novellas and one short story.  Yes, it's still all about Virginia Woolf.

If you live in the GTA and didn't know about this micro bookshop, I hope you're encouraged to add it to your list of places to visit.