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Book reviews for "Spark,_Muriel" sorted by average review score:

A Far Cry from Kensington
Published in Hardcover by Constable (1988)
Author: Muriel Spark
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"That glint of a thin trail."
Muriel Spark is one of those writers I'd heard about for some time, and for an unknown set of reasons, I just didn't get around to reading her novels. But then recently, I decided that I wanted to try a 'new-to-me' author, and so I picked up "A Far Cry From Kensington." To my delight, I've found another author to add to my treasured list. Spark's tightly-written novel is full of the black humour and odd characters that I enjoy so much.

"A Far Cry From Kensington" is set in post-WWII England and is the story of Mrs Hawkins--a sizeable war widow in her late 20s who resides in a boarding house in Kensington and works at the publishers, Ullswater and York. The eminently sensible Mrs Hawkins occupies respectable positions in both her private life and in her professional life. At work, people confide in her--including her employer, the desperate Mr York who is madly, busily forging his way to a hefty prison sentence. At home, fellow tenants also look to Mrs Hawkins as a confidante, so when nervous boarder, Wanda Podolak, a Polish refugee receives an anonyomous threatening letter, Mrs Hawkins becomes involved in more ways than she could imagine.

This excellent novel is full of deliciously odd characters--Martin York, the publisher whose life is spiralling out of control; Emma Loy, the famous novelist who dresses in grey and insists on promoting nasty Hector Bartlett--a would-be author; Mackinstosh and Tooley--the publishers who seem to have a predilecation for employing peculiar people, and Wanda Podolak, the hysterical dressmaker who has something to hide. "A Far Cry From Kensington" is part mystery, part drama--but all highly entertaining. Particularly amusing, are the scenes in which Mrs Hawkins deals with novelists. She offers frank advice to those who seek publication, and then there are also those who refuse to listen. The insights Mrs Hawkins possesses about some of the writers are priceless. This is my first Spark novel, and it certainly won't be my last. I am delighted by her characters and her style--displacedhuman.

Sparks at her best!
Delightful, suspenseful, hilarious, and wise.
Told from the point of view of Mrs. Hawkins, looking back on her years in a failing London publishing house during the years following WW II. It mixes a tale of deceit within the publishing world with the eccentric characters of her seedy boarding house. Spark's scathing wit and marvelous way with words is sprinkled lavishly over everything, like salsa on an already terrific plate of nachos.

Quirky and wonderful
Muriel Spark is a writer's writer. Don't miss this quirky book with unforgettable characters that come together in a boarding house in odd and touching ways.
By turns hilarious, witty, sarcastic, and wryly endearing, it's a masterpiece.

The Driver's Seat
Published in Audio Cassette by Canongate Books Ltd (1996)
Authors: Muriel Spark and Dame Judi Dench
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The Art of Sensual Massacre
The bleakest of Muriel Spark's twenty one novels, 1971's The Driver's Seat provides its audience with a short, harrowing ride, one often without apparent course or destination. Written in uncomfortable second person present tense, the reader becomes an immediate and hesitating witness to the last days in the life of Lise, the book's erratic, exacting, and strangely confrontational anti - heroine. The Driver's Seat is, among other things, a piercing indictment of both the Apollonian and Dionysian aspects of Western sixties culture and the radical break with traditional that the decade represented. Spark pulls off a clever literary coup in the opening paragraph of the third chapter, when she casually reveals the novel's catastrophic ending. By defusing the book's forward motion and the reader's expectations of reaching a climax in the routine manner, Spark forces the reader to look away from the narrative to understand the book's theme and meaning.

Lise, 34, is a product of scrubbed clean and prepackaged modern society, and is or has become a kind of tight - lipped clockwork cog blandly caught in the dull hierarchical social and economic machinery of life. Emotionally sterile and spiritually vacant, only the briefest glimpses into the inner workings of Lise's mind are made available. However, Lise, who habitually erupts into unprovoked barking laughter, has had "years of illness" of the psychological kind, the results of which have left her office coworkers quietly terrified of her presence. Lise is a walking pathology, a brittle death's head effigy who is likely to collapse or collapse a building at any moment should her precarious self regulating control system fail. Lise is a shark fin cutting the surface of life, a breathing but not necessarily living crash test dummy, a combustible wax work 'other' lacking a genuine human presence and an authentic resemblance to mankind. Spark hilariously underscores Lise's tragic monstrousness by giving her the Bride of Frankenstein's hairstyle, skunk stripe rising up from middlebrow to high pile above.

Subtly coerced by her coworkers to take a vacation, Lise already has extensive plans to do so. She will travel by plane from her own northern country (probably Sweden) to a southern country (most likely Italy), leaving behind her modern pine walled apartment, which has been constructed so that all furniture and appliances fold smoothly away into the walls (even the toilet). Lise keeps the few visible household trappings perfectly ordered and devoid of personal touches, leaving the apartment like a hotel room in a perpetual state of readiness for the next guest. Lise's home is her 'pine box.'

Only elderly, sweet natured, and met - along - the way traveling companion Mrs. Fiedke, who can neither see nor hear properly, can stomach Lise's company as Lise searches endlessly for a "boyfriend" she is unable to recognize or describe. In an effort to assist, Mrs. Fiedke asks, "Will you feel a presence? Is that how you'll know?" "Not really a presence," Lise famously replies, "the lack of an absence, that's what it is." Strangely, Lise becomes briefly more human as the narrative winds to a close; she momentarily regrets the plan she has precipitated, even while there is still more than enough time to bring it to a halt. She misses "the lonely grief" of home, and offhandedly says, "I wished my parents had practiced birth control." Readers will find Lise's brief manifestation of humanity starkly poignant.

By revealing that Lise's present condition has been partially caused by her being "neither pretty or ugly," and her continuing isolation due to her intrinsic status as a nondescript person in a world of mediocre, bland, and unremarkable people, Spark underscores the process by which some individuals perpetually overlooked as 'ordinary' can become extraordinary deviant and dangerous. Encouraging already indistinct members of society to assume generic personalities and rigid, conformist lifestyles, Spark seems to be saying, doesn't force the evolution of the New Man, but causes permanent spiritual deformities and creates abominations.

The Driver's Seat is filled with eccentric characters, but unlike other Spark novels, there are no outright sinister eccentrics other than Lise. The Driver's Seat equates evil with processed sterility and blankness rather than with the more traditional concepts of Christian sin and violation of grace and virtue. Here, vacuous stupidity (when Lise and Mrs. Fiedke are surrounded by cavorting hippies, shrewd Mrs. Fiedke says, "They are hermaphrodites. It isn't their fault"), solipsism, witless opinion, groundless protest, and trendy hedonism are merely the new norm, the to - be expected detritus of newly destabilized Western life. Even meek Mrs. Fiedke, representing the decaying old guard, believes all "homosexuals should be put on an island" and doesn't hesitate to say so. In the Driver's Seat, both civilization and nature, both the old order and the new, are at a dead end.

In an absurd world, can a person seize complete control of his or her destiny? If so, to what degree, and to how many possible outcomes? Can man successfully usurp God's role? These are the questions Spark raises and unsettlingly addresses here.

A story of a woman in search of the perfect man, and of two people perfectly suited for one another finally meeting, The Driver's Seat turns every fairytale and romantic notion painfully upon its head. Upon finishing the book, Spark landed in the hospital, apparently suffering nervous strain and exhaustion, which gives potential readers a hint of its macabre power. Highly recommended.

Is this Spark's most disturbing metafiction
From the start of this story it is clear that the protagonist - Lise (pronounced Lees, or Lies?) - is living in a fantasy.

The foreshadowing, sometimes subtle sometimes obvious, allows Spark to play around with the genres of the thriller, the detective story and the holiday romance. But it is in the self-consciously deliberate way that Muriel Spark at the same time obscures and reveals Lise to us that the genius of the author is demonstrated.

It's not a happy holiday read, it is an addictive and provocative story, told with considerable narrative skill.

Spark at her best!
This is one of my all-time favourites. From the very beginning it is clear that there's definitely something wrong with the main character of this book. Very disturbing, yet irresistable.

Loitering With Intent
Published in Audio Cassette by Blackstone Audiobooks (2002)
Authors: Muriel Spark and Nadia May
Amazon base price: $32.95
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One of her best; one of the best books ever
It's hard to believe this book is out of print (as it appears to be in many editions). Spark is the finest living English writer (as of early 2000, she's still with us) and this is one of her best novels. It folds back in on itself. It's obviously autobiographical even with the kind of foreshadowing and self-reflection of the author, who doubles back the flashback, first seeing herself, then seeing herself remember herself.

The plot is fascinating and a constant undertow back into the same themes of the true reality of a book. Is this memoir (fictional) told by an unreliable narrator? I think so. It's hard to know. Some events seem Kafkaesque in their bizarreness, but then turn out to have plain explanations.

Ultimately, evil bizarrely destroys itself; good triumphs with sacrifices. All is never as it appears with Ms. Spark.

A Metaphor for Life
My first introduction to Muriel Spark's work was the movie "The Prime of Ms. Jeane Brody." I was a young budding poet and author growing up in Mississippi, and was influenced by the love poetry of poet Rod McKuen. The lyrics he wrote for the title song for the film moved me. But perhaps what is more important was the way the characters were developed in the book. I began to look for more work by the writer, and came upon "Loitering with Intent."

Aside from Nathalie Goldberg's "Writing Down the Bones," no other book has impacted my writing career as much. I recommend Ms. Spark's work to youg and old writers. I use "Loitering with Intent" as text book for character development in writing workshops. There is no other writer, male or female who can do what she does with the development of a character. In addition Ms. Spark's notion that "in life no experience is without value, nothing is lost" preceded the "Celestine Prophecies" by at least two decades.

I call the book a metaphor for life because in the process of inspiring others, it is one of the books I always suggest they read. Muriel Spark is truly one of a kind. Her gift to the writing life in "Loitering with Intent" is priceless. She is to writing, what Quentin Crisp was to style.

A mature and energetic exploration of life's formative years
Spark, as always, completely captures the reader with her straight-on energy and wit. She is a master at this craft, always providing honest and intimate portraits of real, but sometimes quirky, humans. This is nothing new for her. What I find especially intriguing about this novel is the striking perspective it takes--that of a young lady diligently pursuing her destiny despite the hilarious, distracting, and downright mean actions of those more "adult" than she.

This perspective, of honest and thoughtful youth, I find refreshingly sane. The protagonist triumphs completely over the obstacles set before her by employers, publishers, and especially, friends, ultimately realizing her full potential and achieving success. She also defeats passion to some extent, by remaining thoughtful and true to herself, a lesson I find extremely important for young people in modern society, where so little guidance is offered in this area. Though overcoming passion, Fleur is by no means dispassionate, nor is she judgmental or moralizing. She simply recognizes and accepts others for what they are, choosing to spend her time at things most important to her. The clarity of self-perception Spark offers us is, I feel, poetic and inspirational. She manages to convey strength as a force of will and self-worth, rather then the all to frequent hodge-podge of money, appearance, peers, employers, etc., offered by the mass media to young people today.

I hope that this book would be used in cirruculum for teenagers or summer reading programs.

The Bachelors
Published in Audio Cassette by Blackstone Audiobooks (2000)
Authors: Muriel Spark and Nadia May
Amazon base price: $39.95
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Perfect Balance
Muriel Spark is deliciously witty and writes with a lively charm. This does not prevent her from having an extraordinary talent for portraying the monstrously abnormal--to be precise, the diabolical. THE DRIVER'S SEAT, for instance, is overwhelmed by this malevolence--it is an excellent nightmare, but has only small moments of the Spark charm.

THE BACHELORS has a lot of both--the "medium" Patrick is one of Spark's most chilling portraits of evil. The scheming Spiritualists resemble more typical Spark "villains" (like the literary circle in LOITERING WITH INTENT), but are perhaps even more harmless in and of themselves. However, unwittingly they touch on something far grimmer--Spark demolishes the Spiritualists by showing that the only thing worse than their nonsense is when they stumble upon something genuine.

The "good" bachelors' interactions with this group provide an entertaining and equally true view of things, preventing the chill from permeating the book.

Wickedly Funny, As Is The Norm For Ms. Spark
Forgetting that I read this book some years ago, I recently picked up the new edition. Expecting to page through innocently and put the book back on the shelf, I suddenly found myself drawn into this devilish and absorbing tale about spiritual mediums, forgery, betrayal and yes, bachelors. Spark turns her marvelous eye on that group of men who want girls for companionship, but not marriage. This is a sly and yet poignant look at a group of intelligent, but not very bright Londoners circa 1960. I recommend it without reservation.

Reality and Dreams
Published in Paperback by Houghton Mifflin Co (1998)
Author: Muriel Spark
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Run, Don't Walk, to Get This!
This book was an unexpected surprise. I'd read Spark's earliest novels years ago, had only the vague memory that they were enjoyable and well-written. REALITY AND DREAMS is a reminder that Spark is far better than just good. In just 160 pages, she carries off a miracle of imagery, plot twists and character development that swirl about the title's themes and the difficulty that mortals, particularly those engaged in artistic, especially cinematic pursuits, have in distinguishing between the two or understanding how one can beget another. Spark wittily populates her book with a lively, bright ensemble of contemporary British characters whose lives are in one way or another connected with protagonist Tom Richards, a successful movie director. Like most of the characters, he is flawed, but also like most of the characters, there is tension yet some fun in watching him. Appropriate to the theme, Spark creates two films for him to conceive and execute, and such is the power of her vision, they felt real enough that I wanted to see them. She grounds that glamour, however, against the backdrop of contemporary economic realities--redundancy, the British term for unemployment, down-sizing and such becomes a major image and theme as well. Spark's voice is so very truthful throughout, that it is yet another layer of commentary on the relationship between reality and dreams. She can take a bell-clear image, scene or piece of dialogue and make it dense with multiple meaning. Wow! I was very sorry when the book was over.

Fiction as it Should Be Written
The most astonishing thing about Muriel Spark (other than how good she is at what she does) is that she does it so sparingly--she never wastes a word. This novel is no exception. As usual, artistry and creation are central themes, but for Spark they are natural themes, and connected to a startling and authoritative view of reality as an artwork, of God as the truly capable artist and artificer. Spark's characters are always deliciously alive, often malicious, always charming or repulsive as need be; Tom is one of Spark's best male characters--appearing in a role often reserved for a possibly autobiographical female character. Read this book, and then hunt down the rest of Muriel Spark's work and enjoy.

Mary Shelley: A Biography
Published in Paperback by New American Library Trade (1988)
Author: Muriel Spark
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Quintessential Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley biography
Muriel Spark is a captivating author in her fiction and takes you into the fascinating world of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Living in a rich period of history, mingling with the likes of Percy Shelley (her husband) and Lord Byron, Mary Shelley's life is incredible. Combined with the elegant writing of Muriel Spark, this is a must for women scholars and period studies. Really very good.

Novels of Muriel Spark
Published in Hardcover by Houghton Mifflin Co (1995)
Author: Muriel Spark
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Thank God and the Stars and Heaven for Muriel Spark
There has never been a dryer or wiser wit committed to print in the history of the English language. Ms. Spark is a master of the sly and slippery slope that devious human beings find themselves on---often with tragic results. Her characters are vividly and superbly drawn.

But it is her wit that causes Ms. Spark to rise above her contemporaries. She renders the worlds she creates with such slyness, one wishes he could have cocktails with the author every single night of the week. Or at least on weekends.

Open to the Public: New & Collected Stories
Published in Hardcover by New Directions Publishing (1997)
Author: Muriel Spark
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One Funny Dame
Of the best novelists now working none is funnier or, in her whimsical, deadly way, more profound than Dame Muriel Spark, and this updated collection of her short stories is a delight from cover to cover. Readers of her many novels will already know what an elegant stylist Dame Muriel is. The short stories--especially 'The Portobello Road', 'The Go-Away Bird' and 'The First Year of My Life'--show to even better advantage the economy and precision that characterize the novels. Good English may be absent from the works of all but the very best contemporary novelists; it is present and very much accounted for in these brilliant, perceptive, funny stories. Five cheers for Dame Muriel!

Stories of Muriel Spark
Published in Hardcover by (1987)
Author: Spark
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Must Reading For All Short Story Lovers
Along with William Trevor and Penelope Lively, Muriel Spark is a master storyteller. Though she is best known for her novels (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), these stories make for lovely reading. I would take this book to the beach, on a plane or just to bed. Spark is a wondrous companion---you'll laugh aloud constantly.

The Abbess of Crewe: A Modern Morality Tale
Published in Paperback by New Directions Publishing (1995)
Author: Muriel Spark
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a fable to keep you laughing
If this book were written in a serious tone, I fear it could be taken as very offensive slander. Instead, it is a brilliant send-up of Watergate and similar abuses of power. It centers on the election of a new abbess.

Candidate 1 recites her favorite (Protestant) English poetry rather than the Psalms, supports a strong sense of societial class, and uses electronic eavesdropping as a mere extention of listening to convent gossip as a way to maintain proper order.

Candidate 2 is compulsive regarding order in her sewing box, maintains an all-too-public liaison with a young Jesuit (outdoors rather than linen closets), and leads the sewing nuns to dreams of freedom.

Add to this a missionary nun using Machivelli to deal with cannibal and vegetarian tribes, young Jesuits bungling break-ins, a nun cross-dressing to deliver hush money ... and you have an absolutely hilarious study in justification of means to insure one's "destiny".

Witty and relevant
I was about nine years old when the Watergate scandal broke, and I must confess that I don't know much about it beyond our national mythology of bugging, break-ins, erased tapes and G. Gordon Liddy. Is this satire fair to Nixon and his gang? I don't know, but I suspect that it is. At any rate, it remains a witty parable of hypocrisy in high places and, given the rate at which our technology is improving, its comments on surveillance are bound to keep this book topical for quite some time to come.

Nixon Improved
Muriel Spark's "Watergate novel" transmutes the interesting but often squalid Washington scandal into something better--the Abbess is more sure-footed and considerably more charming than Nixon, imperious and impervious where Nixon was paranoid. As usual, Spark takes the material of life and, well, to put it bluntly, she improves upon it. Of course, this is the task of the true artist, but Spark doesn't soften the blow of discovering just how disordered and unsavory real-life often is--as when she is dispatching her characters to their various fates, she is sharp, sympathetic, and economical. The perfect necessity of every word is the key, I think to Spark's novels.

Literary blathering aside, this is also one of Muriel Spark's funniest books, which makes it doubly wonderful.

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