Back from the Backlist · Reviews

Back From The Backlist: The Reading Party by Fenella Gentleman

The Reading PartyIt is the 1970s and Oxford’s male institutions are finally opening their doors to women…

Sarah Addleshaw – young, spirited and keen to prove her worth – begins term as the first female academic at her college. She is, in fact, its only female ‘Fellow’.

Impulsive love affairs – with people, places and the ideas in her head – beset Sarah throughout her first exhilarating year as a don, but it is the Reading Party that has the most dramatic impact.

Asked to accompany the first mixed group of students on the annual college trip to Cornwall, Sarah finds herself illicitly drawn to the suave American Tyler. Torn between professional integrity and personal feelings, she faces her biggest challenge yet.

Technically Fenella Gentleman’s The Reading Party doesn’t count as a backlisted title. Published in 2018, it is both the author’s debut and also her most recent book. But Back from the Backlist is named after MY personal backlist and, sadly, The Reading Party has languished on my shelves for far too long.

Set in the Oxford of 1976, The Reading Party charts a year in the life of historian Sarah Addleshaw. Young and spirited, Sarah has risen through the academic hierarchy to become the first female ‘Fellow’ of her Oxford college, and is keen to prove that she is up to the title in a world still suffused with the stuffy atmosphere and patriarchal structure that comes with centuries of tradition.

Following Sarah from the Michaelmas term through to Trinity, the novel centres itself around The Reading Party, a week-long retreat for an eclectic mix of gifted and noteworthy students that Sarah finds herself drafted to accompany. Organised for many years by the forbidding Dr Loxton, the Reading Party is, for the first time, welcoming a mixed group of students – and the faculty are watching eagerly to see if the event will continue to be a success.

Split between the dreaming spires of Oxford’s colleges and the solitude of the Cornish coast, The Reading Party is a novel that oozes atmosphere, and has a real grasp of its sense of both time and place. I really empathised with Sarah’s struggles to navigate a path between her own knowledge of her self-worth and the imposter syndrome that she feels when confronted with age-old traditions and coded rules that are implied as opposed to explained.

As an academic myself, I loved reading about the politics of life in an Oxford college but it is with the beginning of the Reading Party, and the movement of the action to Cornwall, that the novel really takes flight. Placing a group of people in a contained space for an extended period of time is always going to result in drama. What I really enjoyed about The Reading Party, however, is that this doesn’t take any of the traditional or predicatable forms.

There’s no massive bust-up or illicit love affair. Instead there’s a group of people forming connections, testing boundaries, and shifting their understanding of themselves and of each other. This makes The Reading Party a rather quiet novel but it’s certainly no less interesting for it – I found it compelling to watch as the characters navigated their sense of themselves, their world and each other.

For Sarah, this navigation involves re-assessing her own assumptions about her colleague Loxton, accepting the realities of academic life, and negotiating her illicit feelings for charismatic American student Tyler. Being present in her head as she does this allowed me to really relate to Sarah as a character, even when I didn’t agree with her choices and decisions. Her complexity and depth is refreshing, and she certainly felt like a real person to me, as did her fellow Reading Party attendees.

As I said above, The Reading Party is a quiet novel in many respects. Gentle in its pacing, and beautifully written, this is an immersive and satisfying tale that deserves wider recognition. Whilst it’s certainly not the page-turner that some readers will be looking for, anyone seeking a pensive yet engaging read that reflects on issues of gender equality, history, prejudice, and perception will be richly rewarded.

The Reading Party by Fenella Gentleman is published by Muswell Press and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon.

My thanks go to the author and the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review. 


Back from the Backlist · Reviews

Back from the Backlist!! Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh

Owing to the onset of the PhD, I’ve been taking on fewer blog tours and cutting down on some of my reviewing commitments.

One of the upsides of this has been allowing me more time in my reading schedule to read backlist titles – books that have been on my shelf or on my radar for a while but that the constant need to review and feature newly released titles has led me to neglect. 

So, what better excuse for a new feature on the blog? Thus I bring you Back from the Backlist, an occasional review slot that I will be using to feature some favourite backlist titles. Titles that are in paperback, and are likely to be available from your library or nearest second-hand retailer, but that are just as deserving of your time and readerly attention as the shiniest of new releases!

So, without further ado, let’s get to that backlist!

TamburlaineIt is 1593 and London is a city on edge. Under threat from plague and war, strangers are unwelcome and severed heads grin from spikes on Tower Bridge.

Tamburlaine Must Die is the story of the last days of the playwright Christopher Marlowe, a man who dares to defy both God and state – and discovers that there are worse fates than damnation...

Louise Welsh was one of those authors who was frequently recommended to me but who, for some reason, I’d just never gotten around to reading.

So when I saw a copy of her novella, Tamburlaine Must Die, whilst browsing the second-hand section of a local bookshop, I decided it was high time to rectify that and picked up a copy. And I have to say I am SO glad I did because I think Tamburlaine Must Die might just be one of the best books I’ve read in 2019.

Set over the last few days of Christopher Marlowe’s life, this short sharp punch of a novella follows the doomed playwright as he attempts to find out who has been writing seditious pamphlets in his name, bringing him to the attention of dangerous enemies in an England bought to the edge of chaos by plague, war, and the ever-present danger of civil unrest.

Seamlessly blending known fact and hypothesised fiction, Welsh creates a compelling narrative. Her Marlowe is a fascinating character – furiously angry, forever doubting, endlessly witty, and dangerously brilliant. As a reader, you know that he is doomed from the beginning but his voice is so compelling, and his personality so seductive, that you’re with him no matter how complicit he is in his own destruction. Having read a number of Marlowe’s plays, I could hear his voice in Welsh’s portrayal – that furious genius that first beguiled me when I read Dr Faustus as an undergraduate. It’s a masterful study in the creation of a uniquely powerful voice.

Welsh also excels at her portrayal of the historical moment in Tamburlaine Must Die. Elizabethan England comes alive on the page. Her portrait of Marlowe’s London is a visual, vibrant, visceral delight. Every sight, sound, and smell is made immediate for the reader, from the hawkers plying their wares in the street, to the rotting stench of the heads lined up on Tower Bridge.

For a novella that comes in just shy of 150 pages, Tamburlaine Must Die packs a real punch to the gut. Visceral in its detail, this is not a novel for the faint-hearted. Seedy and saucy by turns, it doesn’t shy away from the violent undercarriage of the world it portrays.

But for those readers who are prepared to be swept up into Welsh’s Elizabethan metropolis, Tamburlaine Must Die offers a tantalising mix of passion and treachery, corruption and mistrust.

Masterfully written, with a taut, tense narrative, and a voice that you won’t soon forget, Tamburlaine Must Die is a must for anyone looking for a riveting slice of historical fiction that will grab you tight and won’t let go until the final turn of the page.

Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh is published by Canongate and is available from all good bookshops and online retailers, including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository, and Amazon