House Unlocked

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Overview

'I thought that I would see if the private life of a house could be made to bear witness to the public traumas of a century'. Here Penelope Lively recalls Golsoncott, the country house in Somerset her grandparents bought in 1923. Through the sometimes strange, unfamiliar articles there - the gong stand, the picnic rug, the potted meat jars and bon bon dishes - she charts the social changes and transforming moments of the twentieth century. Changing attitudes to social class, the tension between town and country, how one learns to see the world:
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A House Unlocked

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Overview

'I thought that I would see if the private life of a house could be made to bear witness to the public traumas of a century'. Here Penelope Lively recalls Golsoncott, the country house in Somerset her grandparents bought in 1923. Through the sometimes strange, unfamiliar articles there - the gong stand, the picnic rug, the potted meat jars and bon bon dishes - she charts the social changes and transforming moments of the twentieth century. Changing attitudes to social class, the tension between town and country, how one learns to see the world: all are examined in this eloquent, fascinating memoir.
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Editorial Reviews

New Yorker
The British novelist Penelope Lively spent her early childhood in Egypt, but it was her school holidays at Golsoncott -- a manor house that her grandparents bought in the wilds of Somerset, in 1923 -- that shaped her life. In this slim, beguiling book, Lively describes the contents and customs of the house: its silver cupboard stocked with napkin rings; the sampler stitched by her grandmother (it featured portraits of refugee children billeted in the house during the blitz); the gong stand and the potted-meat jars. By meticulously tracing the provenance of these objects, she re-creates the life they once furnished.
Publishers Weekly
Using "the furnishings of a house as a mnemonic system," Lively (Moon Tiger) takes readers on an imaginary tour of Golsoncott, the Edwardian country house her grandparents bought in 1923, home to several generations of her family. She recalls the gong stand in the entryway (a symbol of "vanished rituals" calling the family to its meals) and her grandmother's intricately worked sampler, with its row of "skinnies" (representing evacuated children boarding at Golsoncott during WWII) just a few of the many objects that "spun a shining thread of reference" to another era and way of life. In this combination personal/social history, Lively tells of how even the layout of the rooms spoke to changes in thinking over the course of the century. Children were quartered in a nursery wing, far from the adults, not at the center of household life as they are today. Grandfather had his dressing-room separate from grandmother's bedroom; the gender divide in the early 20th century was not a "distinction" so much as a "chasm." Surrounding the house were its gardens, reflecting in their botanical variety the progress of British colonial expansion and commercial enterprise. Family photos with the names of the dogs and horses penciled in recall riding's role in country life and inspire a digression on the history of foxhunting. Despite all this, Lively unlocks more than the house and its century; the author herself is here, a product of both her corseted grandmother and the more modern eras that followed. This is a quietly intelligent, oddly soothing meditation on modernity. (Apr.) Forecast: Fans of Lively's Booker Prize and Whitbread Award-winning novels, Anglophiles, memoir readers and students of material culture will gravitate toward this. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Whitbread Award and Booker Prize-winning novelist Lively's latest book is a mixture of autobiography and social history. The house in question is Lively's ancestral home Golsoncott in Somerset, England, acquired by her grandparents in 1923. In 1995, when the house had to be disposed of, its familiar objects spoke elegiacally of a way of life that had changed in the intervening years. The figures on the embroidered sampler, for instance, recorded the effect of historical events like the Blitz, the Russian Revolution, and the Holocaust on the inhabitants of Golsoncott; the potted meat jars served as a mnemonic for the state of the Church; and the bon bon dish evoked a social class served by domestic servants. Lively's writing is a palimpsest of past and present on which flit scenes of England's changing mores and rituals. Add to this a narrative graced with fictional elements and felicitous prose and the result is, to borrow Lively's own phrase, "a rattling good read," as absorbing as any of her novels. Highly recommended for all libraries. Ravi Shenoy, Naperville P.L., IL Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
Lively, a British novelist, has written a memoir centered on her grandparents' country home in Somerset, England. The beautifully written personal account expands beyond the house to include the historical circumstances of Europe in the first half of the 20th century, revealing the social change occurring in the English countryside, including the presence and lives of refugees. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
A memoir from novelist Lively (Spiderweb, 1999, etc.) in which the personal opens onto the greater social vista with the help of grace and a gimlet eye, as nearly an entire century reverberates inside an English country house. Lively's family purchased the Somerset home in 1923, and she uses its rooms and furnishings like one of "the mnemonic devices of the classical and medieval art of memory," bearing "witness to the public traumas of a century." The elements of the house can be emotive trappings as simple as a picnic rug recalling a moorland lunch or weightier signifiers of social change and historical clamor. Lively allows the past to be touched but never obscured by a sepia haze in prose that is remarkably comfortable, setting the stage as cozily as a panful of embers warming a winter bed, and rendering contrasting episodes like the Blitz all the more melancholy or horrible. She ranges freely, from the opening of the country's west by the Great Western Railway to the importance the Romantic poets and, gradually, an entire nation placed on walking, to church-touring with her grandmother ("and thus learned about iconoclasm and had a sudden startling insight into the power of prejudice and conviction and coercion"), turning from the garden as a veritable botanical marvel-ancient and compelling-to pastoral idealism, fox-hunting, and relations (or the lack thereof) between the sexes and between children and adults in Edwardian England. The best moments come when strangers arrive at the house and leave their mark as children evacuated from the Blitz, evoking the social reforms the evacuation sparked, or as political refugees from Russia, with all the baggage of simply being Russian duringthe first half of the 20th century. As Lively shapes the greater social picture, she keeps it invested with a personal stake, making her world a deeply lived experience.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802140074
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/10/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 301,981
  • Product dimensions: 5.48 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.63 (d)

Meet the Author

Penelope Lively
Penelope Lively
Beloved memoirist (A House Unlocked), children's book author (The Ghost of Thomas Kempe), and Booker Prize winner Penelope Lively is perhaps best known for smart, literate thrillers that look to the past for keys to understanding, like 2003's The Photograph. "I'm not an historian," Lively told Britain's The Observer, "but I can get interested -- obsessively interested -- with any aspect of the past."

Good To Know

In her interview with Barnes & Noble.com, Lively shared some fun facts about herself:

"I came late to writing -- I was in my late 30s before I wrote anything. The years before that had been busy with small children, and I seem to have fallen into writing almost by accident. Since then, I have never stopped -- books for children to begin with, then a period writing for both adults and children -- short stories also -- then for adults only when the children's books, sadly, left me."

"It has been a busy 30 years, but because writing is a solitary activity and I like the company of others, I have also always had other involvements -- with writers' organizations such as Britain's Society of Authors, with PEN, with the Royal Society of Literature, and, for six years, as a member of the Board of the British Library (the opposite number of the Library of Congress) which I regarded as a great privilege -- what could be more important than the national archive?"

"I have always been an avid user of libraries; like any writer, much of my inspiration comes from life as it is lived -- what you see and hear and experience, but my novels have sprung from some abiding interest -- the operation of memory, the effects of choice and contingency, the conflicting nature of evidence -- and these concerns are fueled by reading: serendipitous and eclectic reading."

"I am first and foremost a reader myself. I don't think I could write if I wasn't constantly reading. I both wind and unwind by reading -- stimulus and relaxation both. I used to love tramping the landscape, and gardening, but arthritis rules out both of those, so I do both vicariously through books. I live in the city now, but feel out of place -- I have always before lived most of the time in the country: I miss wide skies, weather, seasons."

"Never mind, there are compensations, and London is a very different place from the pinched and bomb-shattered place to which I came as a schoolgirl in 1945 -- now it is multicultural, polyglot, vibrant, unpredictable, in a state of constant change but with that bedrock of permanence that an old place always has. I like to escape from time to time -- mainly to West Somerset, where we have a family cottage and I can admire my daughter's garden -- she has the gardening gene in a big way and is far more skilled than I ever was -- bird-watch, walk a bit, talk to people I've known for decades, and see the night sky crackling with the stars that the city blots out."

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    1. Hometown:
      London, England
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 17, 1933
    2. Place of Birth:
      Cairo, Egypt
    1. Education:
      Honors Degree in Modern History, University of Oxford, England, 1955

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


The hall chest was carved oak, some four feet long and three feet deep. Late nineteenth-century, I would guess, and brought to Golsoncott from my grandparents' previous home in St Albans. Indeed, it features in a photograph in one of the albums, doing duty in that other hall. At Golsoncott the chest housed the albums, a great pile of them, the hefty leather-bound objects favoured in the early part of the twentieth century. Here was the pictorial history of the house and garden, and their predecessors at St Albans; through the pages troop family and friends, from the 1890s onwards. Edwardian skirts and Norfolk jackets give way to twenties shapeless dresses and Oxford bags. People are decked out in silks and morning dress for weddings; young mothers pose with babies by the sundial in the rose garden. The babies grow up and are wed in turn more babies peer down into the lily pond.

    At the other end of the chest was a welter of dog leads, brown wrapping paper, lengths of string and bald tennis balls. On the top of the contents lay the picnic rug, stained and weathered tartan, veteran of many a moorland lunch or tea and potent symbol of how it all began — the family's hundred-year addiction to north-west Somerset, now into the fifth generation.

    You could say that this addiction was fuelled by the advent of the Great Western Railway. Wordsworth and Coleridge had a hand in it, which would perhaps have been news to my grandmother and her siblings — not a bookish lot — whooping it up on the moor in their youth around the turn of the century. There they are, the Hewetts, in the earliestalbum, the late Victorian family incarnate, their names alone pinning them firmly to a time and a class: Walter, Gilbert, Maud, Beatrice, Harold and Douglas. On a Sunday afternoon in 1895, having tea on the lawn of Wootton Courtenay Rectory, rented for the summer, the party expanded with a couple of friends. Most of them are sitting on chairs, but the two youngest are sprawled on a rug similar to the one I knew in my adolescence. There is a table with white cloth and silver kettle; on the grass is a three-tier cake stand, the cakes largely demolished. The girls — all are in their late teens or early twenties — wear hats, round straw with shallow crowns and brims and wide petersham bands. All have long skirts and sumptuously swollen leg-of-mutton sleeves, either on their white-frilled and pin-tucked blouses worn with a dark ribbon tied in a bow around the neck, or on their jackets. Other photographs are less posed — here they are on Larkbarrow in the autumn of 1901, on a moorland hike, in deerstalkers and straw boaters, Norfolk jackets and long skirts. Here is Harold in a larky pose with his head on one side and boater tipped jauntily to the back of his head, beside his nicely smiling sisters, a pipe jutting incongruously from his youthful face. And here he is flat on his back on the shingle of Porlock beach with Maud leaning over him, bespectacled and wearing a man's tie, apparently admonishing. Often some or all of them are on horseback — the horse always named in the handwritten caption: Lorna, Hard Bargain. Dogs too are meticulously identified.

    In all these photographs the family is defined by dress. What they wear and how and where they are wearing it tells you who they are: upper class. They may be on holiday, in an isolated spot, engaged in strenuous country pursuits, but they cannot be without their badges of identity. The girls must have their matching coats and skirts, their hats, the men their tweed jackets, their collars and ties. Looking at family parties in summer Somerset today, I note that everyone is again clad very much alike — in jeans, leggings, chinos, T-shirts, trainers. But nothing tells me where the wearers fit into the social system — they are classless, anonymous. Until they open their mouths, and even then distinctions are blurred. Back in 1900 that family's dress and utterance set them apart instantly. Anyone seeing and hearing them could have told you what sort of home they occupied and their manner of living.

    The story of Golsoncott over the seventy years of its occupancy by this family has two dominating themes, and those are social change and absence of change. The style of its habitation over time reflects in microcosm the shifting sands of this country's class structure. Things are done differently now — up to a point. The structure remains, but at the end of the twentieth century it is opaque, furtive, lurking behind the engineering feats of educational opportunity and social mobility. We all know who we are and whence we came, but it is harder to define others. This subtle reconstruction of how people view one another is nicely expressed, for me, in those sepia photographs of six twenty-somethings on Exmoor back then.

    Sepia. A descriptive term for a kind of early photograph, but also a loaded one. The photographs themselves are loaded, indeed. I have to look at them with a cool dissecting eye because images such as these are tainted. They have become the currency of the remembrance industry — the stock of grainy postcards for sale by the bundle, the furnishings of souvenir guidebooks, representing a past that is reinvented in tune with the requirements of the present. Heritage. Nostalgia. Freighted words — nostalgia especially, a term itself subject to reinterpretation over time. Pejorative today, implying a distorted vision to be avoided, but a term that carried a clear and precise meaning once, in the eighteenth century: 'homesickness', German Heimweh, a condition recognized as requiting treatment and thus, when diagnosed in a soldier, entitling him to a spell of home leave.

    So I look at the photographs for what they can tell me about their time, trying to extract information, to see beyond the obscuring sepia haze that gives them nostalgia status. But they have a further dimension. Those people fossilized in that particular fraction of a second subsequently stepped out of the frame, assumed flesh and personality. Several of them are vibrant within my own head — my grandmother, my great-uncles — reconstructed for the 1950s, '60s and '70s. Nostalgia in any sense of the term is out of place.

    Four members of that turn-of-the-century group would eventually settle in west Somerset. My grandmother brought her family there in 1923 to Golsoncott, a Lutyens-style house built some ten or fifteen years earlier at the foot of the Brendon Hills, and set about creating a large Gertrude Jekyll-style garden to complement it. Aunt Maud set herself up in a gloomy house in Porlock that matched her aloof, acerbic style — I remember visits to her in adolescence, neither of us finding anything to say to the other. Douglas and Harold, the youngest of the siblings, became Uncle Chuff and Uncle Herk, pursuing brief parallel careers in the Burmese and Indian Civil Services before retiring at a comfortably early age to live together in a house overlooking Porlock Vale, purpose-built for them before such refinements as planning permission. They were bachelors in the old-fashioned sense of the word — not a woman in sight, nor anything else. Their long and gleeful retirement was devoted entirely to walking and tiding on the moor, rising to the seasonal high of stag hunting, on which Uncle Herk published a small but definitive work, The Fairest Hunting. The house was astonishing, a cross between a London club and an officers' mess somewhere in the East — huge battered leather armchairs, brass coffee tables, moth-eaten oriental rugs, bamboo screens, a tiger skin. Bits of foxes and stags sprouted from the wall — grinning masks, tattered brushes, a forest of antlers. We used to go there for tea — the uncles served copious schoolboy teas: jam puffs, doughnuts, sponge rolls, rock cakes. They wore ancient hairy tweeds deeply impregnated with cigarette smoke. Uncle Chuff was purple-faced and convivial, Uncle Herk was beaky, weather-beaten and equipped with a silver cigarette case on the back of which each fag was briskly tapped before being lit. They addressed each other as 'brother' and my grandmother as 'sister', treating her with joshing affection, as someone deeply familiar but of another species. And, looking again at the photographs, I see that she and Maud are always standing together but slightly apart from the others. Their brothers in plus-fours and jackets are a uniformed brigade: the Men.

    My great-uncles seem to have hammered their sex drive into total submission and settled to a satisfactorily uncomplicated alternative of pursuing red deer over the moor. I remember them fondly and admire their genial treatment of a young and awkward female relative — they can't have had much to do with schoolgirls. Indeed, when I knew them in the forties and fifties they had not had much to do with a good deal of twentieth-century England, holed up down there, and hence were relatively untroubled by what was going on elsewhere. There were ritual fulminations about the horrors of a Labour government after 1945, but with a certain detachment, as though they could not conceive that they themselves would be severely inconvenienced, as indeed they probably were not. Rather surprisingly, both of them went in for versifying — carefully typed selections survive still, some of them dating back to 1900. Cod verses after Tennyson and Kipling. Heavy-handed Edwardian humour — 'Apology to a Lady' makes you wonder for a moment about their bachelordom: 'If you met an angel / You would surely find / You for once had lost your head / Got confused in mind / Now perhaps you understand / Why I always put / Into every social trap / My ungainly foot.' But another poem by Uncle Herk sets the record straight by pondering the advantages of marriage, and then deciding that his horse is preferable as a companion — biddable, controllable and, it would seem, more congenial. A somewhat ham-handed Longfellow parody has Hiawatha out with the Devon and Somerset staghounds and failing to be in at the kill: 'Very wroth was Hiawatha / To have missed the glorious finish.' But a high proportion of their verse is jingoistic stuff hymning the glories of Empire and the virtues of being English. I read it now with bewilderment, thinking of those jovial figures, plying one with jam tarts and talking to my grandmother about their dahlias — realizing that the climate of their minds is as alien as that of another century.

    The attractions of Exmoor and west Somerset for those turn-of-the-century young people were sternly physical. They would pursue their favourite activities — riding, walking, cycling. Walking, above all — punishing long-distance walks across the moor, the ritual morning ramble. My grandmother considered a daily walk an essential part of civilized existence — she continued the regime into her eighties and lived to the age of ninety-seven. In the Golsoncott cloakroom was a stack of walking-sticks, their handles burnished with use, the necessary props for swiping nettles, lifting gate latches, hooking down a high spray of blackberries. The family took walking seriously, and in that sense they were eerie descendants of those great walkers, the Romantic poets, and also precursors of the early twentieth-century passion for hiking and rambling, when striding out into the landscape ceased to be a middle-class preserve and became a leisure occupation for the masses. Type the keyword 'rambles' into the British Library on-line catalogue for publications before 1975 and up come a dizzying 969 entries, some indication of the spread and intensity of interest. In the twenties and thirties the urban young and fit poured out into the countryside, on cycles and on foot, perfectly enshrined by those Shell posters of the period in which rosy-cheeked figures in shorts, shirts and hiking boots pause to consult the map on a five-barred gate.

    But that particular revolution was a long way off in the 1890s. Walking for pleasure was a socially restricted activity. Furthermore, Exmoor itself was a relatively recent discovery, opened up by the railway in much the same way as the Rocky Mountains or the Sierra Nevada. People had not realized it was there — except of course those who had been living and working in those parts for centuries. But from the moment Isambard Kingdom Brunel's line snaked west towards the toe of the country, and in due course threw out tentacles to net the whole of the peninsula, nothing would be the same again.

    My great-grandparents were West Country holiday pioneers, beneficiaries of the Great Western Railway. At the turn of the century they started to remove there with their brood, renting a house and settling in for a season of determined activity. Exmoor was ideal — it had overtones of Scotland but was now more accessible and was furnished with equivalent fauna, some of which you could slaughter on horseback rather than with a gun, thus combining two favoured activities, riding and blood sports. The men shot, rode and walked. The women walked and sketched. They were after all late Victorians and knew what was expected of them — my grandmother indeed went briefly to art college in London (where she attended classes given by Gilbert Tonks) and had a talent which was later expressed in superb needlework. But, most importantly, they were celebrating the scenic glories of the place — the great curves of the moor, the melting colours, the green tapestry of the combes. West Somerset had arrived as somewhere you visited for aesthetic enjoyment.

    It had not always been so. For centuries discriminating travellers seldom set foot further west than Bristol and Bath and those who did steered well clear of the barren wastes of Exmoor and Dartmoor. The ecstatic discovery of the Quantocks by Coleridge and the Wordsworths was the beginning of the gathering perception through the nineteenth century that there was much to be said for points west, but initially this was a revelation restricted to a small number of cognoscenti. Philip Gosse trawled for seashore specimens on the north Devon coast. The Tennysons visited Lynton on their honeymoon and explored the Valley of the Rocks. Large-scale visitation of the area was still a long way off; the three counties, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, got on with what they had been doing for centuries, agriculture and local industry — a world apart. The moorland was simply there, the soft grey ridge on the horizon — rising from green distances and crowned with a fleece of cloud along its length — that one sees from the train today.

    Early topographical travel writers steered clear of the moor. Celia Fiennes, indomitably riding west in 1698, ignores it entirely as she travels from Taunton to Wellington and Cullompton and thence deeper into Devon. The charms of Exeter merit several pages ('spacious noble streets and a vast trade is carried on') and the plunging Devon hills are noted in passing but the distantly looming moor is of no apparent interest. Daniel Defoe was also inclined to focus on town descriptions but with a distinctly wider range and depth; and he did at least notice the moor, travelling north-west from Taunton to take a look at the coast and thus, by the way, 'Exmore [which] gives, indeed, but a melancholy view, being a vast tract of barren, and desolate lands; yet on the coast, there are some very good sea-ports.' He also nails the perceived otherness of the west with his comments on local speech in Somerset:

It cannot pass my observation here, that when we are come this length from London, the dialect of the English tongue, or the country way of expressing themselves is not easily understood, it is so strangely altered; it is true that it is so in many parts of England besides, but in none so gross a degree as in this part.

    Later eighteenth-century travellers paid hardly any attention to areas off the beaten track. Dr Richard Pococke was a clergyman whose duties were sufficiently undemanding to allow for frequent and extended travels. Indeed, he cut his teeth as a travel writer with the grandly titled A Description of the East and Some Other Countries, an account of a journey to Egypt and the Levant. But in later life he concentrated on home territory with Travels through England, a busy and informative survey which included a tour right down through the West Country into Cornwall. He sticks to the south coast of Devon, sternly (or wisely) avoiding the interior and is mainly interested in cathedrals, castles, the seats of the aristocracy and country gentry. He was writing with an eye to his readership, presumably, and was well aware that they would be no more inclined than he himself was to risk a foray into the wastes of the moor.

(Continues...)


Excerpted from A House Unlocked by Penelope Lively. Copyright © 2001 by Penelope Lively. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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Table of Contents

Preface ix
The Hall Chest, the Photograph Albums and the Picnic Rug 1
The Children on the Sampler 29
The Gong Stand, The Book of Common Prayer and the Potted-Meat Jars 53
The Woman in White and the Boy on the Beach 81
The Cedar of Lebanon and Erigeron karvinskianus 111
The Sunset Painting and the Harness Room 141
The Dressing-Room, the Nursery and the Grand Piano 165
The Knife Rests, the Grape Scissors and the Bon-Bon Dish 193
Acknowledgements 223
Bibliography 225
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