Book reviews – Almost English and Becoming Iris Murdoch

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Sept TBRTwo books that I can’t really link this time – it does happen. They didn’t even come off the same part of the shelf – the Mendelson was in the normal run of the TBR, and the Iris Murdoch book was acquired at the IM Conference, but I couldn’t resist dipping in to it. I’ve just realised that I’ll have to photograph and post my TBR tomorrow – it’s not quite the sleek, svelte thing from this month’s picture, but I’ve got some cracking books to read, so who cares!

Charlotte Mendelson – “Almost English”

(25 Jan 2014 – a Stratford charity shop)

I seem to have read all of Mendelson’s novels so far (this search gives you the post about buying this one, too) and she specialises in quirky family situations, carefully observed and full of humour and pathos. This one was, happily, no exception.

It’s the story of 16 year old Marina, who has a set of embarrassing elderly Hungarian relations and has tried to escape by choosing (instantly regretting doing so) to attend a boarding school for her A-levels. The other main character is her oh-so-English mother, also living in the stifling family flat, having mislaid her husband, and trying to cope with her in-laws while sleeping on the sofa and keeping her clothes in a sideboard. Events are set in motion when the past comes back to haunt the family in particular ways, but it’s also strongly character-driven, and a good, rich read because of these two aspects.

It manages to be fresh, funny and affecting, with shades of Jane Gardam’s “Bilgewater” and Anita Brookner’s flat-dwelling European families in the school and home scenes respectively. The two protagonists are beautifully and sympathetically displayed, yet with an insight into their flaws and the ways in which they manage to make things worse for themselves. The descriptions of the elderly Hungarian ladies’ home life and forays into English society are both hilarious and poignant. First ‘love’ and yearnings for adulthood, and the agonies of both teenagerhood and worries in later life are convincing – a very good read.

Frances White – “Becoming Iris Murdoch”

(12 September 2014 – bought at the Iris Murdoch Conference)

A short biography in the Kingston University Press Short Biography series which covers Iris Murdoch’s life between 1945 and 1956, when her character¬† and life were being shaped in terms of their emotional, spiritual and intellectual aspects, as she moved between Europe, Cambridge and Oxford, a succession of relationships and losses, and the first publications of her literary and philosophical careers.

The introduction places the work in the context of the author’s own life, interests, attitudes and theoretical leanings, as well as those of Iris Murdoch, and this personal aspect and voice continue throughout the text, making it appealing and approachable while retaining the necessary intellectual content and rigorous scholarship. I should mention here that I was absolutely bowled over to read mention of my own (unpublished) research into IM and the ‘Common Reader’ (I did check with Frances, and this was a reference to my work!) and I was moved by the book in general, as it takes a generous, clear-sighted and human approach, different in tone, content and concentration from all of the other biographies, and just as valid, of course. Her mention of her only meeting with Iris Murdoch was a lovely treat (even to someone who vigorously champions “reception theory” and is supposed to dismiss the author as almost unimportant in the reader’s encounter with the novels).

In the book, we follow Iris Murdoch from a mass of doubts and uncertainties, poised at the very start of a long and distinguished career, dealing with a chaotic personal life, to the relative calm and stable waters of her late 30s, ready to get on with writing her body of amazing and much-loved work – it proves very worthwhile to look at this period almost in isolation as a forerunner to the much-discussed later life, and it also serves to reclaim Iris Murdoch as a scholar, writer, intellectual and PERSON, rather than the poster-child for Alzheimer’s she has had a tendency to become.

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Katharine D'Souza Park Life Deeds not Words

Katharine D’Souza with “Park Life” and “Deeds not Words”

I went to an excellent spoken word event at Brewsmiths Cafe in Birmingham last night to celebrate the Birmingham Reader’s Map, an initiative set up by Pigeon Park Press to record the stories, poems and plays being produced about Birmingham and the Black Country. Author Katharine D’Souza was there with her excellent novels, “Park Life” and “Deeds not Words”, both of which I’ve read and reviewed here, as well as several other writers. We had readings from several books and a poem, Birmingham did its usual thing of showing me that everyone I know knows everyone I know, and I caught up with friends from locally, book groups and BookCrossing.

Ryan Davis "27"

Ryan Davis “27”

Of course, there was a tempting table of books, but I only came away with one, “27” by Ryan Davis. It’s a thriller set in Birmingham’s music scene (the title refers to the age at which many rock and pop musicians have died) and looks fun (but hopefully not too gory – I might have to get someone to pre-read it for me). Do have a look at the Reader’s Map, and regular readers, do let me know if you fancy reading about some of these local authors and I’ll see if I can set up some interviews or features …

Book reviews – Welcome to Biscuit Land and Are We Nearly There Yet? plus four acquisitions

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Sept TBRWell, my TBR is not really looking like this any more, as I seem to have been all about acquiring books in September. More on that later: first I have reviews of two memoirs, both interesting and affecting in their different ways. I read both of these on my Kindle, as I decided to take it on my recent trip to Kingston and London, to escape having to carry too many books around (I solved this issue by almost immediately buying five books. Oh well). I had a couple of train journeys and some nights alone in my hotel, so got through quite a lot, and I’ve decided to share the index to my Kindle on my TBR posts in future, as it’s so easy to click-click-click then forget you have them!

Jessica Thom – “Welcome to Biscuit Land”

(Kindle e-book, no idea when I acquired it)

Jessica is the young woman with the neurological syndrome, Tourette’s, who people may recall meeting on Stephen Fry’s TV series about language and words. She blogs at Tourettes Hero, and this book shares a year in her life, I imagine drawn from earlier blog posts. As with the “Moonlight Blogger” book, the format does make it a little bit disjointed, with episodes from daily life interspersed with more general explanations, but it’s still very well worth reading.

Brave, honest, unflinching in her descriptions of how people behave towards her – good and bad – and of necessity using some swearing, etc. (not to say that Tourette’s is all about swearing, because it’s so much more, and less, than that, but there are swear words in there, so watch out if you’re easily offended), it’s a moving and anger-inducing yet also very funny book. You do get something of a feel for what it’s like to be Jess in her daily life (the “something” is not from a lack of good writing or explanation, but because it’s truly impossible to imagine what it could be like to get trapped in the world of tics but also draw immense joy in life and creativity from them) and she very usefully guides the reader through how she would like to be treated and things to look out for when interacting with someone with Tourette’s.

Although it is funny and life-affirming, it is also moving, and as Jess’ condition changes and deteriorates, it’s a testament to her hugely supportive friends and family and the NHS and those workplaces and officials that are understanding and caring.

Ben Hatch – “Are We Nearly There Yet?”

(Kindle e-book, no idea when I acquired it)

Hatch takes his family on a madcap, months-long driving tour of the UK, testing family-friendly hotels and attractions and trying to keep his young kids happy and his marriage together while compiling the guidebook they’ve been commissioned to write. But he has some health worries of his own, and then his dad receives a devastating diagnosis, and both sets of episodes, plus several involving their children are told in excruciating, harrowing detail.

While much of the travel stuff is amusing, especially when they visit Birmingham and stay in the Rotunda, the family stuff is so raw, like a cathartic therapeutic writing experience more than a professional narrative with the necessary amount of detachment. Don’t get me wrong – I feel for the author in his struggles with his identity within his family and facing up to an exceptionally difficult situation, but the harrowing medical details sit a bit uncomfortably with the warts-and-all but generally jolly travelling sections.

I did read on, and I felt guilty when skipping the more detailed medical bits as well as guilty for reading these details of someone’s life – I really would recommend you not read this book if you’ve lost a family member recently or indeed have elderly parents, as it might be a bit close to home. It’s not a bad book as such, but it was too uncomfortable for me.

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Sept 2014 11I’ve had a bit of a book-buying splurge, as I was in the local charity shops with some LibraryThing friends at the weekend, where I found a Maeve Binchy I’ve not read or got (how so?) and a Noel Streatfeild autobiography I didn’t know about at all, so that’s exciting. I saw a book that I wanted to buy a friend for their birthday, so I popped back to one shop today and found that book had been sold (of course it had) but there were some more lovelies, including this interesting Virago crime novel by “Amanda Cross” (pseudonym for Carolyn Heilbrun, apparently), which is way down a series but not a series I’ve ever seen before. I also, while calling M to check whether my big “Forsyte Saga” omnibus included books 1-3 or 1-6 (it was the latter, so I put down the copy of 3-6 I’d grabbed), remembered to check the state of my “I have 2/3 of each of the trilogies” Robertson Davies issue and picked up “The Salterton Trilogy”, of which I only had one volume already. I haven’t read any Davies for years, although I did read most of him in a big chunk back in the 90s, so this is a nice addition to the shelves. And I have been doing a lot of weeding lately (including finally getting rid of some an ex-friend gave me which I won’t read again and don’t need for sentimental reasons any more) so there will be space on the shelves for these, honest!

Have you read any of these? What about the ones I’ve reviewed? What are you reading at the moment? Are you as behind with your reviewing as I am?

Book reviews – The International Bank of Bob and Moonlight Blogger plus more acquisitions

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Sept TBRTwo books that have been inspired by online things here, with “The International Bank of Bob” being based on the author’s experiences with Kiva, and “Moonlight Blogger” being based on a blog by someone who works for the Chicago Manual of Style. I read Bob in a lovely new hardback and “Moonlight Blogger” on my Kindle while on my trip to Kingston and London for the Iris Murdoch Society Conference. More on the Conference below, as I got a bit over-tempted by the book table and second-hand book table. Let’s just say that the TBR is NOT less than a shelf now. But it’s not doing too badly, and I managed to read three books I’ve had on my Kindle for ages – watch this space for the next two, coming soon …

Bob Harris – “The International Bank of Bob”

(22 January 2014, birthday present from Linda)

A great choice of present from Linda. Bob Harris, a freelance journalist, was on a jolly assignment to review luxury hotels around the world for a website, but started to find an uncomfortable distance between the pampered life of the guests he was mingling with and the often visible poverty and distress of the locals and immigrant workers. Casting around for something to do to redress this imbalance, he comes across Kiva, the microlending site which helps people to make loans to entrepreneurs who are trying to make it at often a very basic level (e.g. borrowing money to buy a cow – just a cow, not a herd). I’m a big fan of Kiva and have made enough loans that I get enough repayments most months to fund a new $25 loan – this guy committed the whole of his $20,000 journalism fee to the project, and then decided to go and visit some of the projects he’s funded.

Harris has already travelled extensively, and he treads lightly, also not mentioning to the individuals he meets that he is their funder, although the fund administrating organisations do know. He goes through some of the Kiva field workers’ training process and explains a lot about how the organisation works and has grown, as well as going into thoughtful detail about how people choose who to loan to, which is quite surprising sometimes. I’ll certainly pick more people who say they want to use their profit to put their children through school, as this is a good way to relieve family poverty and raise the quality of life of a whole family.

Everything is explained and expressed clearly, honestly and respectfully. Names are changed where they need to be, and photographs are careful and often beautiful. There’s even an update at the end about how some of the people he’s met are doing.

This book explained a lot of the details of Kiva to me, and was also amusing where it needed to be, definitely not a worthy book, although hugely worthwhile reading.

Carol Fisher Saller – “Moonlight Blogger”

(Kindle ebook)

Saller is the author of “The Subversive Copyeditor”, which I reviewed back in December 2012. She works at the Chicago Manual of Style, which produces THE text by which American copyeditors work (OK, one of them, but it’s the one I go by, along with the AP Stylebook for journalism). This is made up of posts from her blog (this doesn’t seem to have been updated that recently although it’s worth checking), and very clearly so, using the format and dividing longer posts into two – I think it might have been nice to have some editorial input into this so as to make it a bit more of a smooth reading experience, but it did give a nice flavour of everyday posts dealing with all sorts of things. Plus I know how hard and time-consuming it is to turn blog stuff into a book, and I’d rather this was out there educating and entertaining people!

It’s full of good stuff about questions people have, the problems raised by the English language not having as many strict rules as people think it should have, and mistakes that editors as well as writers make. I enjoyed the pieces on writing the new version of CMOS, was pleased to see a mention of my editor friend, Kathy O’Moore Klopf, and I picked up some very useful hints about colouring the text of particular things you search for to help the editing process. So there wasn’t enough of it, and it wasn’t as shaped as I would have liked, but it was still good, entertaining and inspiring reading.

The Iris Murdoch Conference – “Archives and Afterlife”

I’m not going to do a full conference report here, but this was a great conference, from dinner with a few IM chums on the Thursday night to a packed programme on the Friday with a double book launch AND a concert AND a dinner on the Friday, the excitement of presenting my paper and attending lots of fascinating talks including one from Brigid Brophy’s daughter, Kate Levey, about BB’s letters and relationship with IM, and Janet Stone’s son-in-law, Ian Beck, with some previously unseen photographs of Iris and John, time with bestie Em and her daughters on the Saturday night and a fabulous walk around Kensington with a select band of Murdoch-aholics, to a trip to the National Portrait Gallery with three of them … Phew. But it was great. There was both a new books stall with some offerings I didn’t yet have and a selection of books discarded by eminent professor and writer on IM, Peter Conradi, so I couldn’t resist coming home with this little lot (the Iser is actually on the bibliography for my own research!)

Iris Murdoch conference books

Book reviews – “The Last Kings of Sark” and “Wartime Women”

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Sept TBRI’ve got a bit behind with the book reviews, which is probably down to needing to spend time preparing for and attending the Iris Murdoch Society conference (a report on that will come later) and then reading quite a lot while travelling to and from the conference. Today we have the last of my All Virago / All August reads, and a book that I started reading last month then realised it wasn’t actually a Virago at all. I also report on some more acquisitions – I knew that low TBR total wouldn’t last for long …

Rosa Rankin-Gee – “The Last Kings of Sark” (Virago)

(28 June 2014 – via BookCrossing)

This was an Advanced Review Copy that Ali had been sent (see her review here) and brought to a BookCrossing meetup. I read it as my last read in All Virago / All August. 21-year-old Jude lands on the Channel Island of Sark to be tutor to posh boy, Pip. In the strange household, her ally is Sofi, the cook, with whom she shares a room in a scruffy guesthouse, too, the two women’s ways of operating clashing with each other quite remarkably. As the summer passes and Jude learns about the island and its people (in the most successful part of the book, as it turns out) events, while seemingly random, add up to one “moment that changed everything”, as the book blurb has it.

Once this has happened, the book splinters into a collection of vignettes of the characters’ subsequent lives in France, which I’m not sure works, as I don’t think we’ve engaged with them enough to or care enough about them. Why would one youthful adventure be enough to hold them together, and is this plausible? I’m not sure. It feels like a bit of a writing exercise rather than a book written for the sake of the writing of it and the story, which is something I’m not particularly keen on. The point seems to get a bit lost and with a narrative voice that’s stretched to describe the three lives without much differentiation, this reader was left unsatisfied.

Dorothy Sheridan (ed.) “Wartime Women”

(25 January 2014 from Luci)

I acquired this from the lovely LibraryThing Virago Group member, Luci, at our meetup and charityshopathon in Stratford. She always brings a big bag of enticing books with her. Of course, I then assumed it was a Virago and started it in August, but set it aside and finished it this month.

It’s a collection of Mass Observation reports, diary entries and responses to MO directives (sets of questions issued to MO members) covering the progress of the Second World War, from a variety of women and covering those left out, e.g. the working classes, in the comprehensive reports by full-time MO workers. A huge amount of information treating a huge range of reactions and opinions, some of them familiar if you’ve read a lot about the Home Front and the social history of the time, but still fresh and interesting, and including our old friend, Nella Last. But it’s not only her – women young and old have their say.

The introductory notes and chronological themes make it easy to navigate and a real flavour of women’s voices is allowed to come through. It’s amusing to read of their excitement when they heard the founders of MO on the radio and commented on their accents. A very worthwhile volume that is interesting to the general reader and not worthy or dull.

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Sept 2014 9You know how I said I was addressing the issue of that low TBR mountain? Well, the other week I popped along to a Meet the Author event in the city centre (in the Hotel La Tour on Moor Street, which has a very nice bar area which I may well revisit) where Helen Cross was speaking. I have met Helen a few times before and very much enjoyed her novel, “Spilt Milk, Black Coffee” which I read a few years ago, and although I was a bit late to the session (luckily being able to give the true reason that I’d been volunteering and got delayed) it was most enjoyable, with Helen sharing stories about the film being made of “My Summer of Love” and the upcoming dramatisation of “Spilt Milk”.

Sept 2014 8We had a good discussion about writing and publishing, with me being ‘outed’ as a non-fiction writer in the process but other people chiming in too, and how could I resist when she mentioned that she had books for sale? I picked up these two – “My Summer of Love” is the copy she’s been reading from at events, and is therefore in a ‘gently used’ state, which is a lovely thing to have, I personally think! The picture to the left is Helen posing with her books, and to the right we have a close-up of the books themselves.

Have you read any of Helen’s books? What are you reading as we sail through September? I’ve had a¬† bit of an e-book fest; more of that later, and I must check if any of them come into Reading a Century of Books, as “Wartime Women” did …

Book confessions … and launches!

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I had a rare little bit of time off yesterday (6 September) as I’d decided to do a book launch extravaganza. Well, two book launches in one day. Two of my favourite contestants from The Great British Sewing Bee, Lauren Guthrie and Stuart Hillard, were having launch events for their new books on the SAME DAY, both in Birmingham. I couldn’t resist that, could I?

I started off at Guthrie and Ghani, Lauren’s lovely haberdashery and sewing supplies shop (with a lovely training room upstairs) in Moseley. It’s not far from where I live, so I popped up on the bus, met up with my friend Jen, and checked out the shop downstairs (of course) before popping upstairs to see Lauren and have her sign her book, “Learn to Sew with Lauren”.

Lauren Guthrie with her new book, "Learn to Sew with Lauren"

Lauren Guthrie with her new book, “Learn to Sew with Lauren”

Lauren kindly signed my copy, after we’d browsed through a rail of makes from the book (some lovely bags, pyjama trousers with contrast pockets and a skirt I will customise to be slightly longer for the more mature lady) and oohed and aahed over some new technology to make constructing folding blinds easier – I am SO going on her course on that. Downstairs were some lovely sewing starter kits, too.

Lauren signing her book

Lauren signing her book for me

See how lovely and light the workroom is! There was tea available, and snacks, and it was lovely to see people enjoying their visit and making some attractive items while they were there. I had a photo with Lauren, too …

Liz Dexter and Lauren Guthrie

Liz Dexter and Lauren Guthrie

The lovely workshops were going on all day – a friend of mine made a lovely bow hair slide – and what a good idea for a launch day! You can find the full list of the upcoming workshops here.

Stuart Hillard ready to sign his book "Sew Fabulous"

Stuart Hillard ready to sign his book “Sew Fabulous”

Then it was time for Launch Number Two! I said goodbye to Jen, and hopped on the bus into town, nipping up to House of Fraser in the city centre to see how Stuart was getting on. I missed the giant poster of him which was displayed somewhere around the building, but zipped (ha) on up to Haberdashery, and found a lovely table of shiny books. And there was Stuart, bounding over, not showing any signs of exhaustion from being in the middle of a fairly comprehensive tour of John Lewises, House of Frasers, independent bookshops and independent sewing shops. The department had laid on drinks and nibbles, and of course there were plenty of enticing items around on sale, too.

Stuart signs my book

Stuart signs my book

I didn’t get a pic of me with Stuart, as he was esconced behind his desk, signing away, but here’s the one I got last year at the Guthrie and Ghani shop launch as an added bonus (if you call seeing two pics of me on one blog post a bonus …):

Liz Dexter and Stuart Hillard 2013

Liz Dexter and Stuart Hillard 2013

I had to rush back home to put my headphones back on and start transcribing, but what a lovely little trip and two luscious books, both very different with different kinds of project (Stuart’s is all home and garden furnishings and decorations, Lauren’s clothes and accessories, and yes, I perceived NO rivalry between them about their books). Both books seem to have good production values and have been edited well, at first glance, with both Lauren and Stuart confirming they had full control and input all the way through the process. I will be reviewing them soon and will link to the reviews here when I’ve done them.

You can buy Lauren’s book “Learn to Sew with Lauren” from Amazon and from her own online shop. You can buy Stuart’s book from Amazon and his publisher’s website, which also has details of the rest of his tour.

Sew Fabulous and Learn to Sew With Lauren

Sew Fabulous and Learn to Sew With Lauren

Note: I bought these books at full price and I’ve written this blog post off my own bat because I like these people and want to support their hard work.

I may have bought other books recently, too – these two jumped into my hands in Poundland and The Works on an innocent trip to the cafe with my husband on Friday …

How's Your Dad and Vikings

How’s Your Dad and Vikings

Any confessions from my readers? Did you go to either of these launches? Have you read any of these books?

State of the TBR – September 2014

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Sept full TBROK, so here is the full TBR as of 1 September 2014. Please note that there are no books in front, that’s just one shelf from left to … well, towards the right. And a pile of books which don’t quite fit in the “read them in order of acquisition” thing that I do, because I’m supposed to be picking over the sagas and war poems this year, I have a large borrowed book I’d like to read by the end of the month (so I can return it) and I have those language books that I want to get read … but you know what? I think I will read some of those this month, and maybe something off my Kindle, too … because … this:

Sept TBRYup. I have a Gap. I just looked back, thinking maybe it was a time-of-year type thing, but no, September 2013 was truly terrifying. I do know that I really haven’t acquired many books recently. I don’t know why: I certainly haven’t lost my reading mojo, with 10 books completed last month, but all that seems to have come in in September is that Nick Hornby on the end. Wow.

Sept currentI do get a bit panicky at this stage, with thoughts of “What if I run out of books?” although with over 2,000 in the house and 10 charity shops on the high street, plus the 50-odd on my Kindle, I’m doing OK, and shouldn’t really run out. This is what I’m reading at the moment – I might well take the Sartre book to the Iris Murdoch conference to see if the atmosphere will help me get through it. “The Last King of Sark” is a quick coming-of-age read that I’ve nearly finished already, and “Wartime Women”, the book that I thought was a Virago but turned out not to be, is a bit more substantial, but enjoyable.

Sept coming upOnce these are done, I have these lovelies coming up – one Christmas one, one birthday one and then various charity shop acquisitions, which all look fun. I’ve got no more challenges until a Month of Re-Reading in January, although there’s talk of a book group starting in my Project 365 photo-a-day group on Facebook …

I’m also getting on well with Reading a Century of Books, with 29 read and 2 on the go, plus a couple of the upcoming batch fit into it. It’s nice doing that without a time limit, although I will have to start actively looking for some soon, I think, to fill in those weird gaps.

What are you planning to read for September? Has your TBR got smaller, too?

Book reviews – Pomfret Towers and The House in Dormer Forest (Virago)

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Aug 2014 AVAAI think this will be the last of my All Virago / All August reviews, because although I’m planning to start “The Last Kings of Sark” today, I don’t think I’ll get it finished. I’ve done pretty well, though. Well – I did make A MISTAKE with one … I picked “Wartime Women” ooff the TBR to add to the AV/AA one, and you can see why in the middle of this picture – it’s GREEN, Virago Green, and it’s about women … and it came from a friend from the LibraryThing Virago Group, too (although the mistake is not her fault in the slightest, as she also had lots of other non-Viragoes – it was my assumption alone!). Anyway, I’ve put that one aside to finish next month. I did start “She Knew She Was Right” but I didn’t take to it for some reason. So apart from those, I’ve now read or started everything in the AV/AA pile! Not bad going!

Angela Thirkell – “Pomfret Towers” (Virago)

(21 January 2014 – from Ali)

Yet more Thirkell, and this one links charmingly to the first two, since we’re at the residence of the brother of Lady Emily from “Wild Strawberries” and Mrs Morland from “High Rising” and her publisher, Adrian Coates, are also mentioned. Even without this, it’s altogether an exquisitely charming book, with a gauche and painfully shy heroine who you can’t help adoring, who has to suffer the agonies of a local house party (local, but with no chance of escape) at the home of the irascible and crusty Lord Pomfret, alongside his diffident and equally shy heir, who we all come to love, too, and various difficult and disruptive relatives and locals, as well as the odd shrieking girl and red-faced man. Luckily, some friends and allies are there, too, and there are enough lovely characters to make a good balance with the horrendous ones, and a lot of good-hearted generousness on the part of both author and characters.

All is beautifully drawn, and the contrast between two lady authors is beautifully and highly amusingly done. I really didn’t want this to end, while desperate to know who was going to end up with whom. A lovely read. Here’s Ali’s own review of the book, by the way!

Mary Webb, “The House in Dormer Forest” (Virago)

(25 January 2014 – Shakespeare Hospice Bookshop, Stratford)

I do love Mary Webb with her rural settings like those of Hardy and Brett Young (with the landscape playing an active role in the atmosphere and events of the story) and an intriguing mysticism and insight into the interior and exterior of family and community relationships.

In this dense novel, the house in which the Darke family exist (ingrained in age-old patterns and acting as a unit rather as individuals, they can’t really be said to be living) seems to exert its own impassive yet claustrophobic influence over the family, which in turn has bound itself too fast in its own web of special conventions and ties of (mostly) hatred. Jasper fights against his religion, Ruby is trapped between her need for convention and her own desires, and Peter is forced to rebel, while quiet Amber truly communes with nature and thus surely deserves a better fate than being the unattractive odd one out, regarded with disdain by her manipulative cousin, Catherine (her of the “long eyes”).

Although there’s a brooding matriarch given to shouting out Biblical phrases and a scary family retainer, Enoch, Mary Webb does not deserve her reputation of being melodramatic and humourless, unfortunately brought up by her association with Stella Gibbons’ “Cold Comfort Farm” (which Gibbons herself claimed was based on an amalgam of ‘countryside misery’ novels, including Hardy and others as well as Webb). The descriptions of nature are truly beautiful, and this is a very human, understanding and sometimes funny book. Webb certainly doesn’t take herself or her characters too seriously, undermining them with touches of playful or vicious satire. A better read than people would think: luckily, I already knew I was going to enjoy it.

I’ve managed to acquire only one new book, Nick Hornby’s “Polysyllabic Spree”, from the BookCrossing meetup, so my TBR is looking amazing, as you will see tomorrow …

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