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      Summer Supporter Giveaway   08/31/2020

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Suffolk - The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

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The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald
This, Penelope Fitzgerald’s second novel, was her first to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It is set in a small East Anglian coastal town, where Florence Green decides, against polite but ruthless local opposition, to open a bookshop. ‘She had a kind heart, but that is not much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation.’
Hardborough becomes a battleground, as small towns so easily do. Florence has tried to change the way things have always been done, and as a result, she has to take on not only the people who have made themselves important, but natural and even supernatural forces too. This is a story for anyone who knows that life has treated them with less than justice.
Other Suffolk books:
Sacred Country by Rose Tremain
The Hundred and One Dalmations by Dodie Smith
Cecilia by Frances Burney
The Sea House by Esther Freud

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I read The Bookshop at the back end of last month, my first for the Counties Challenge. Copied and pasted below is the substantive part of the review I wrote:

This might be almost a novella in length, but Fitzgerald's lean, almost skeletal, style packs a lot in to the space, barely 150 pages. Characters and attitudes abound, as do the incidents. None are earth shattering - this is small town human relationships we're talking here - but lives are definitely altered, even if only at the micro-level in some cases.

For me, though, that writing is just a mite too lean (and I usually love lean!). Whilst the ground covered is impressive, I would have appreciated just a bit more time taken to develop some characters and situations. I also found it all just a bit too unremitting in the negativity, whilst the length meant that things had barely got off the ground before the landing came into view - the ending is one of the most abrupt I can recall for a novel! Still a good book, with Fitzgerald's strength lying in the strength of her characters (other than Florence, who surprisingly is the least developed IMO), just not as good as The Blue Flower. Definitely worth reading. 3 stars out of 6.

Edited by willoyd

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Review: Strangely I didn't find this an easy read and I'm not entirely sure why except to say that Penelope Fitzgerald has her own style of writing which is not necessarily immediately accessible. You do get the feeling that her words have been chosen carefully and as such there are meanings behind meanings and your brain can spend a bit of a time splashing about in the sentences .. perhaps I just wasn't concentrating hard enough .. I kept having to do the re-reading sentences thing as the prose is quite spare. She's a writer of great skill and precision though, not one word is wasted. The concept is a great one .. who could fail to be interested by Florence and the bookshop she has opened amid local opposition .. I just saw the word 'bookshop' and I was there with bells on. I've read similar stories before, small minded people in small towns who are able, through their lofty connections, to put rather large spanners in the works of decent, hard working, honest folk but here it's dealt with in a different more subtle way and as such the ideas seem fresh and original.

'She had a kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation. For more than eight years of half a lifetime she had lived at Hardborough on the very small amount of money her late husband had left her and had recently come to wonder whether she hadn't a duty to make it clear to herself, and possibly to others, that she existed in her own right. Survival was often considered all that could be asked in the cold and clear East Anglian air. Kill or cure, the inhabitants thought - either a long old age, or immediate consignment to the salty turf of the churchyard.

It's not at all the book I was expecting, I was hoping for something a bit more Maeve Binchy probably with chatty gossipy customers and lots of book talk (a sit-com version of my weekly visits to Waterstone's most likely :biggrin: ) but all the characters were rather mysterious and impenetrable. At first, as I say, I found it difficult and it didn't grab me but before I was halfway through I was hooked and enjoying it. The pressure put on Florence to relinquish her plans is not so much heavy as relentless. You couldn't call her feisty but she's not a woman to be easily swayed or diverted from her path so a rather strong battle of wills ensues. There's a mystical element weaving through it too, as the bookshop has a live in poltergeist or a 'rapper' as it's known locally (or 'unusual period atmosphere' as the house agent would have it) and it's also a humorous book, not lol but plenty of out loud smiling. One of the characters I really enjoyed reading about was ten and a half year old Christine who helped out at the bookshop after school, a real gift of a character, sparky but vulnerable. It's only short and I found I was really getting into it when it finished, I wanted to know more about some of the characters which is always a good sign. It's a book to be re-read often, I'm sure I'll gain more from it each time. 7/10


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(A shorter version of this review appears on my blog)
Florence Green, a widow of advancing years, decides to open a book shop in the Suffolk town of Hardborough.  After some investigation she settles on The Old House, a neglected and rather damp property that comes with its own poltergeist!  Whilst she gets off to a good start, she soon faces a problem in the form of a local, powerful, woman called Violet Gamart who will stop at nothing to get her own way.   With few allies apart from local near-recluse Edmund Brundish will Florence's business survive?
When my children were small we used to visit Suffolk quite often to stay with relatives, so it's an area I know reasonably well.  I *think* that Hardborough is possibly based on Aldeburgh (at the time of writing, I haven't actually Googled to see if that's the case though) but in any case, I was picturing some of the bits of Suffolk I know whilst I was listening.  
I enjoyed this gentle story - it's a very short book – 176 pages and the audio version I listened to (ably narrated by someone called Stephanie Racine - I haven't come across her before) is only a fraction over four hours long so I was able to listen to it in one day.  I really liked the writing and the characters, especially Florence.  I really wanted her to have a happy ending and felt a bit sad when the book finished.  The ending felt rushed and I felt really sorry for Florence at the end of it - I hope she found happiness in her new life!!
There is a film coming out this year starring Emily Mortimer as Florence, Bill Nighy as Edmund Brundish and Patricia Clarkson as Violet Gamart which I will probably go to see.

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After seeing Janet's review, I realised I haven't written down my own thoughts on this book. I read it on holiday last summer, and found it a reasonably easy read.


I enjoyed the story and reading about the characters, although it did feel like it was a bit too lacking in a breadth to the story and wanted it all to be a bit more fleshed out. It actually reminded me of two other books and writers - firstly the setting and to an extent the characters reminded me of a more serious Mapp and Lucia while the writing and tone felt a bit like Barbara Pym's work. I can't say it was my favourite of the challenge, but it also was far from the worst, and it passed an easy day of reading while, in typically British holiday weather, it was pouring with rain outside!

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