Bloomsbury Bookshelf Round Up
Sophie and The Sibyl by Patricia Dunker
Published by Bloomsbury
A Victorian Romance, in which the Reader will be transported to 1870s Berlin, to meet George Eliot, observe her relationship with her publisher, and learn of the surprising and knotty entanglements of Our Hero Max
The Duncker brothers, Max and Wolfgang, own a thriving publishing business. When Max’s fondness for gambling and brothels gets out of hand, the older, wiser Wolfgang sends him to Homburg, to dance attendance on a special celebrity author – the enigmatic Sibyl, otherwise known as George Eliot. The most feted writer in Europe has scandalised English society by living with a married man, the biographer and philosopher George Henry Lewes, and the couple are enjoying a rapturous welcome in liberal Berlin. As enthralling and intelligent as her books, the Sibyl soon has Max bewitched.
But Wolfgang has an ulterior motive for the trip: to find Max a wife, in the daughter of a family friend, Countess Sophie von Hahn. At first, Max is lured by Sophie’s beauty and his affectionate memories of their shared childhood. But Sophie proves to be nothing like the vision of angelic domesticity he was expecting. Mischievous, wilful and daring, she gambles recklessly and rides horses like a man. Furthermore, as George Eliot’s most ardent fan, she is determined to meet her idol.
Both Sophie and the Sibyl have Max in thrall and he is soon out of his depth, torn between his worship of these two unconventional women – whose eventual meeting will have unexpected and gloriously amusing consequences.
From a virtuoso musician by the name of Herr Klesmer to a talented painter called Meyrick, the pages of Sophie and the Sibyl are peopled with characters and scenes the Reader may recognise from the works of Eliot herself. Embodying the spirit of the age, it explores the issues of the day: Darwinian ideas, education for women, the arts and artistry, reputation and celebrity – as well as the role of the narrator in fiction. Portraying the author-publisher relationship with wonderful subtlety and humour, it confirms Patricia Duncker’s reputation as a writer’s writer. Playful, audacious and as dazzlingly witty as its protagonists, Sophie and the Sibyl is a literary masterpiece from the author of Hallucinating Foucault and James.
I very nearly gave up on this book. I found part I rather dull, not in the least bit funny or gripping as described by the reviewers in the press release. However I did persevere and part II was much better and definitely worth hanging on for. This is an odd little book, to me the characters were rather one dimensional, as if the author didn’t really know them and was standing behind a glass window watching them but not really hearing or understanding their nature. What it did do was pique my interest in George Eliot and her novels. She is not an author I have read and I feel that I probably should, so if nothing else this book may widen my knowledge of Victorian literature!
The Pleasure of Reading, Edited by Antiona Fraser, preface by Victoria Gray
Published by Bloomsbury
In this delightful collection forty acclaimed writers explain what first made them interested in literature, what inspired them to read and what makes them continue to do so. First published in 1992 in hardback only, original contributors include Margaret Atwood, J.G. Ballard, Melvyn Bragg, A.s. ByaS, Caroll Ann Duffy, Simon Gray, Germaine Greer, Doris Lessing Tom Stoppard, Sue Townsend and Jeanette Winterson. The new edition also includes essays from five new writers, Emily Berry, Kamila Shamsie Rory Stewart, Katie Waldegrave and Tom Wells.
Royalties generated from this project will to go to Give a Book a charity set up in 2011 that seeks to get books to places where they will be of particular benefit. Give a Book works in conjunction with Age UK, Prison Reading Groups, Maggie’s Centres which help people affect by cancer and various schools and literacy projects such as Beanstalk, where many pupils have never had a boo of their own in their lives.
This is an interesting book, not surprisingly a lot of the authors have read and been influenced by the same books and authors. What I enjoyed were the stories told by the contributors about why the books they chose were important to them. I’m sure if you read this book then, like me, you will start to think about the books which have influenced you, books which punctuate chapters in your life. As a child I devoured books of all kinds, the Enid Blyton section in the local library was my treasure trove. At 12 I discovered The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart in the school library and my adult reading career had begun, inevitably I found Jane Austen totally enchanting and her books are amongst the few that I have re-read, along with Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest, another key novel in my reading journey. Like the contributors to The Pleasure of Reading, I could go on, and would find it just as difficult as they have done to limit my choices. A great reminder of just how important reading can be in developing an enquiring mind.
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
Published by Bloomsbury
In 1883, Thaniel Steepleton returns to his tiny flat to find a gold pocketwatch on his pillow. But he has worse fears than generous burglars; he is a telegraphist at the Home Office, which has just received a threat for what could be the largest-scale Fenian bombing in history.
When the watch saves Thaniel’s life in a blast that destroys Scotland Yard, he goes in search of its maker, Keita Mori – a kind, lonely immigrant who sweeps him into a new world of clockwork and music. Although Mori seems harmless at first, a chain of unexpected slips soon proves that he must be hiding something.
Meanwhile, Grace Carrow is sneaking into an Oxford library dressed as a man. A theoretical physicist, she is desperate to prove the existence of the luminiferous ether before her mother can force her to marry.
As the lives of these three characters become entwined, events spiral out of control until Thaniel is torn between loyalties, futures and opposing geniuses.
What an interesting novel. I enjoyed reading this combination of historical novel and fantasy thriller. The characters are intriguing, Thaniel is a sort of everyman to the mysterious Mori and blue stocking Grace. Throw in the dandified Matsumoto and add some Japanese nationalism to the Fenian bombing and it makes for a rarified mxiture, you are never quite sure what is going to happen next! The final chapters are pure thriller and keep you glued to the page to find out what happened, who dunnit and why, all round a very good read.