The Book Of Forgotten Authors – Christopher Fowler (2017) – A Book About Books Review

 

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Now, this is just the sort of book to throw out my reading schedule. Novelist Christopher Fowler briefly examines the careers of 99 authors, who either used to be big but have faded from prominence of who deserved to be more popular than they were. It’s a fascinating, highly readable book which is both illuminating and nostalgic. The author has always been a voracious reader and book purchaser and he’s certainly done the groundwork for us here.

Christopher Fowler need not have any real fears of being forgotten, certainly not by me. You wouldn’t know it from this blog as this is probably his first mention in over 400 posts but since I’ve been keeping my own meticulous records of what I’ve been reading (I’ve always done this but lost a book which went back quite a few years), so we’re talking the last 23 years here, he is the author whom I’ve read the largest number of books by.

This book puts the Fowler total up to 15 (+ 1 I’ve read twice in this time) which pushes him further ahead from his nearest competitors , Charles Dickens (12) and Peter Ackroyd (11 + 2 re-reads). I’ve still got plenty of Fowler to discover, a quick tot-up of his books listed inside the front cover suggest 43 publications in total. I did gobble up a number of his horror novels in a short space of time in the mid to late 90’s after discovering “Spanky” (1994), a Faustian tale of a pact with the devil, which I still consider to be his best. In recent years he has concentrated on the Bryant & May detective series. I realise, with a fair amount of shock, that the last of his books I read was the third in this sequence “77 Clocks” and that was 10 years ago now! I haven’t forgotten you, Mr Fowler, honest! (I did last re-read “Spanky” in 2013).

Here the author tackles his findings alphabetically with considerably more than 99 names actually being thrown into the mix as in addition to the potted biographies and commentaries on individuals there’s also sections of forgotten authors linked to themes and genres.

It wasn’t long before I found myself making lists of those I’ve already read (not many and those a long time ago), those whose books I have unread on my shelves (5), those I can get from the library (36), those I can get on Kindle for free (4), for under £1 (8), or at a higher price (8) and those I can buy from Amazon (32). This left just those whose books do not seem readily available (4) or just too collectable for my budget (2). So thanks for all this, Mr Fowler, I’m supposed to be reviewing, not spending my time making lists!
And now I’ve got said lists I’m going to have to use them! So starting with what I have on my shelves already I hope over the coming months to unforget as many authors as possible. So this would include Margery Allingham, (a Golden Age of Crime Fiction writer who appears time and time again on recommended lists), I have a copy of her “Police At The Funeral” to start me off. There’s also Edmund Crispin (I bought a set of his Gervaise Fen novels from “The Book People”), Patrick Dennis (I bought his “Auntie Mame” because I love the Rosalind Russell film version and it’s pretty pricey on DVD), Barbara Pym’s “Excellent Women” (Book People purchase set again) and Edgar Wallace (a mammoth Wordsworth publication of “The Complete Four Just Men” taking up considerable shelf space). I’m adding these to the reading mix over the coming months and will of course be letting you know what I think and then I’ll move onto the others. Christopher Fowler has whetted my appetite so much I want to read them all!

This book would make a great present for bibliophiles – even those who claim to have “read everything” may find some hidden gems. A number of them are names that you’d remember from bookshop visits from your past, but may have never read. It could be time to put this right.

fourstars

The Book Of Forgotten Authors was published by Riverrun in October 2017.

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Dr Thorne – Anthony Trollope (1858)

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This is the third of Trollope’s “Barsetshire” sequence and even by the author’s admission, takes quite a while to get going.  There’s a lot, he informs us, of back story which we need to get to grips with before his plot can unfold.  He even apologises “for beginning a novel with two long dull chapters full of description” (that would be the modern publishing deal out of the window then), but Trollope is a master of lighter-than-you-would-expect him-to-be classic fiction and it isn’t long before his characters are winning us over.

Dr Thorne lives with his niece.  Her father died in a brawl with the brother of the woman he had got pregnant.  A story was told about the baby not surviving and the mother went off to America where she married and had a new family.  Few people know of Mary Thorne’s real background.

She is the object of affection for the Squire’s son, Frank Gresham, who needs to marry money if the family’s status is going to continue.  Mary Thorne is considered a disastrous match and that’s without most knowing the full details of her parentage.  How much should Dr Thorne reveal and to whom?

Trollope handles this kind of social comedy very well and has sparkling characters on the sidelines, including the older heiress lined up for Frank, Miss Dunstable and the drunken reprobate Sir Roger Scatcherd, the killer of Mary’s father.

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ITV recently did a good three part adaptations starring Tom Hollander as Thorne and Ian McShane as Scatcherd.  They simplified Trollope’s plot to get to the resolution in three hours but it helped keep me moving through some of the legal intricacies and Trollope’s digressions.  Thorne is viewed sneeringly by the other local doctors and politics of the time is lampooned when Scatcherd stands in an election against tailor’s son and beau of Augusta Gresham, the pompous Mr Moffat.

After a slow start this ends up certainly on a par with the two earlier book and by choosing to continue the general location and selected themes rather than the characters (other than the odd cameo performance) it would imply that there is much mileage left in his “Barsetshire novels.”

fourstars

Dr Thorne was published in 1858.  I read a free e-book version.  There are many print and digital versions available.

 

Two From Anthony Trollope – The Warden & Barchester Towers

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Strangely, before these I had not read any Anthony Trollope before but “The Warden” (1855) proved a good introduction to the Chronicles of Barsetshire.  It was actually a much lighter read than I was anticipating and also light on the pocket as it was a free book from Kindle.  To be fair, not a lot happens and if action is your bag you might think twice about this, but I have to say that not a lot happens very nicely.  Main character, Harding, is a vicar who alongside his other work is given an honorary post as warden at an alms hospital with a very healthy stipend.  A suitor of his daughter discovers that this was not the intention of the foundation who set the charity up.  It snowballs (slightly) from here with Trollope’s tongue in cheek look at honorary posts and the privileges of the Church of England together with the ramifications of challenging those.  It’s a perfect winter’s day novel, gentle, readable and with considerable charm.

“Barchester Towers” (1857) is a longer and more thoroughly plotted novel.  I did feel, however, that some of the simple charm of the first book was missing and it is more weighed down by the tale of intrigue amongst men of the cloth.  It picks up a couple of years after “The Warden”.  Vicar’s daughter Eleanor’s happy marriage at the end of the book is no more.  She is a widow and open to the attentions of others.  There are some new characters which add life and colour to the novel.  A new bishop, Proudie, and his formidable wife arrive to take up their (and it is very much their) appointment, bringing with them a chaplain, Mr Slope.  He is a man keen on plotting his way to the top by getting the better of the traditionalists sat in his way.  The Signora Neroni is Trollope’s best female character I have encountered to date.  She is the daughter of a cleric, forced back from his Italian retreat with family in tow, including Bertie Stanhope, the good-for-nothing son and his sister, The Signora, who is unable to walk and needs to be carried everywhere soon has the men of Barchester wrapped around her finger.  The characters stir and plot, the job of the warden comes up again, the status and advancement of the local clergy is central as is the question as to whether Eleanor will remarry.

I like both books very much but for different reasons.  “The Warden” for its readable charm but “Barchester Towers” is a rich, denser work and so I think it just has the edge.  A series which is getting better is very promising.

fourstars

There are free versions of both “The Warden” and “Barchester Towers” available in e-book.  For those who want the real thing there are reasonably priced editions from Penguin, Oxford World Classics and Wordsworth amongst other publishers.

Pride And Prejudice – Jane Austen (1813) – A Female Fiction From A Male Point Of View Review

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And here we have the original blueprint for many a chick lit novel. Girl meets man, girl doesn’t like man, girl is not sure if man likes her, man makes his attentions known and is rebuffed, girl decides she does like man after all and has to wait for the catalyst which brings girl and man together. Along the way, family and friends both help and hinder the eventual outcome. Sounds simple, yet when carried out with the subtlety, wit and craftsmanship of Jane Austen the whole thing reaches another level.

I re-read this to see if it was my favourite Austen novel. It isn’t. That is still “Emma” (I think although I may have to re-read this soon to confirm this). There the vivacity and machinations of the main character raise it up to a slightly higher plain. I am also a great fan of the “Gothic” influenced “Northanger Abbey”, her first novel (but only published posthumously) one of the greatest expositions on the power of books (especially on an impressionable mind). I recently had another go at “Mansfield Park”, which I felt like I virtually knew off by heart when I was at college, where I read it of necessity and found it all rather solid and indigestible. I did think age and experience would mellow my opinion but it still lacks the sparkle of her best. I think it’s because of Fanny Price, probably literature’s most passive character and the less than captivating love interest, Edward. “Persuasion” and “Sense And Sensibility” were read too long ago for me to carry out any comparison but I think they might not challenge the big three of which “Pride & Prejudice” is one.

It’s hard not to recall the BBC series when reading this and picturing Colin Firth as Darcy (I know quite a few of my readers would like to now picture Colin Firth) and Alison Steadman superb as the silly Mrs Bennet but I did feel that the Darcy in the novel does not have quite the presence that later visual interpretations have given him. (Controversial point) but Mrs Bennet is just as silly, daughter Elizabeth just as likeable and the sense of propriety just as important.

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This novel probably has the greatest range of memorable characters, the pompous Mr Collins, who first makes a play for Elizabeth; her too laid-back father; the scheming Miss Bingley; the other sisters, especially the too ready to grow up youngest, Lydia and the pretty ghastly Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Unlike the best of Dickens or the Brontes, I do not find myself hanging onto every word of the novel and my concentration does have the tendency to dip in and out, but when it’s good it is very good indeed. From Lydia’s disappearance onwards it does become more consistently engaging.  For me this is a book I am very happy to have sitting on my shelves, until the next time I decide to give it another go, but it just misses out on being an all-time favourite.

fourstars