Tag Archives: Dodie Smith

I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith

I don’t make a habit of reading teenage fiction, I think there are enough books for adults out there to entertain me (note I didn’t say “adult books” – I am a 50 Shades abstainer!).  I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith is classed in some quarters as teenage fiction.  However, a good friend whose reading habits I respect (except that phase she went through of reading the True Blood series, we shall say no more on the matter..) had nothing but good things to say about this book so I bought it last time I was at the second-hand book shop.  The cover of my version is the one pictured – shocking.  If one thing puts me off books it is movie-tie-in covers, but as the old adage goes, don’t judge a book and all that.   I Capture the Castle begins to deliver as soon as you open that cover with a first line to match other classic memorable first lines “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”  The voice belongs to 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain and her journal forms the book.  Cassandra and her bohemian family (sister Rose, brother Thomas, step-mother Topaz, father known as Mortmain and family friend Steven) live in respectable poverty inhabiting a dilapidated castle in the Norfolk countryside.  The arrival of two American brothers, one of whom has inherited the neighbouring stately home, changes their lives and brings upheaval to the family.

Cassandra wants to be a writer, so writing her journal is a means of practising her art.   Her observations are naively perceptive, understandable for one so worldly unwise, yet touching, sometimes acutely accurate and often reminiscent of the musings many teenage girls have at that age; where do you belong in the hierarchy, what should you do when you are older, does God really exist, why are men interested in some girls and not others?  It is an honest confessional and at times highly amusing.  There are some lovely one-liners that really made me smile, a couple of my favourites (and there are many) are:

“And no bathroom on earth will make up for marrying a bearded man you hate.”

“It was a wonderful dinner with real champagne (lovely, rather like very good
ginger ale without the ginger)”

This is a book where things happen to characters so their lives can move on to the next chapter.  Almost every character goes through some sort of rites of passage, revelation or epiphany, all of it beautifully observed by Cassandra, one of the most memorable first person narrators I have read in a long time.   I enjoyed inhabiting the shabby, tumbledown world of the Mortmain household.  Although she sees the benefits a rich London life can offer, Cassandra realises the castle has a poetic hold over her despite its impracticality and its damp and cold in winter.

Dodie Smith wrote this at a time when she was desperate to be at home in England, but the war prevented her.  You can almost feel the yearning for the English countryside and Englishness in general.  It is an incredibly romantic book in every sense and meaning and in the words of Martha and the Muffins “I know it’s out of fashion, and a trifle uncool.  But I can’t help it, I’m a romantic fool”

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Summer Reading

It has taken me over a week to write this post…it’s caused me a bit of grief if I’m honest.  A few weeks ago a friend asked me for some holiday reading recommendations.  Pressure indeed. Holidays are so precious and often it is the only time some of my friends get uninterrupted reading time – to get this wrong, might be disastrous.  This post first started as a long list of books I thought would be great for various destinations, all designed to get you into atmosphere of the place.  The list was getting longer and I kept thinking of more I could add.  Pointless.  When someone asks for a recommendation they want 2 or 3 options to choose from.  Once I get started though I can’t stop – I just keep thinking of other books that I would love people to read.

I’ve now decided to change strategy and instead of recommending a long list of fab books, I’ll tell you about the books I plan to read between now and when the little Fictionhabits go back to school in September.  Maybe some of you can join me in reading a couple of these titles and we can compare notes after the summer.

First up is The Afterparty by Leo Benedictus.  I bought this a few weeks ago at the recommendation of the author himself.  I was scrolling through Twitter one evening when someone I follow retweeted this from Leo.  Dangerous indeed, especially after a couple of glasses of wine!  I did a quick search of blogs I respect and before I knew what I’d done, the book was in my basket at the big river.   It is a story within a story, using a unique narrative style following a writer promoting his book – or is it?  It gets some fabulous reviews, often referred to as “refreshing”.  My only concern is that a lot of reviews also use the word “postmodern” to describe it – a word destined to put me off, but I am willing to ignore this description and give it a go.  I bought it for £3.99, by the way, which I think is pretty reasonable!

This week sees the centenary of the birth of novelist Elizabeth Taylor.  She is generally regarded as one of the most under-rated writers of the last century.  She wrote about everyday life, apparently able to brilliantly capture the nuances of unremarkable events.  I have never read any of her work, but have read so much about her in the last months, that I feel I can’t put it off any longer and need to get hold of one of her books.  I am going to check my local second-hand bookshop first, failing that my big river basket will probably contain A Game of Hide and Seek.  Radio 4 have been doing their bit to celebrate Elizabeth Taylor, with some short stories and Sunday’s Bookclub episode dedicated to Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.  Click on the links to listen (only available for a short time and to UK listeners – sorry!).

Anne Tyler is another writer I’ve read a lot about but not attempted any of her books.  She has written 19 books, the most recent published this year.  I picked up Ladder of Years, written in 1995, at my local second-hand book shop.  I vaguely remembered having read something about it somewhere.  It gets mixed reviews, so I’m not sure it is regarded as her best work, my hope is, those readers who were dissatisfied didn’t quite get it rather than really disliked it.  The story sounds quite interesting; a woman on a beach holiday, dressed only in a bathing suit, walks away from her family and just keeps walking.  I hope to get a flavour of Anne Tyler’s writing from this book as there are plenty of her other works adorning the shelves of my local town’s charity shops.

I recently won a little competition run by Penguin English Library and my prize was to choose one of their lovely reissues of classic works.  The cover art on all the books in this series, is beautiful.  I  chose The Murders in the Rue Morgue and Other Tales by Edgar Allan Poe.  I selected it because Poe is often cited as a writer and poet who influenced other writers.  This is a lovely little  book with several of his grisly tales.  It is exactly suited to holiday reading.

Other books I intend to read this summer are The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie and I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.  These are both book club books.  Now all I need to decide is which of these books I take with me on our annual 2 weeks under canvas in France! (…and not a 50 Shades in sight).