Book reviews – Mapping the Railways and Through the Language Glass

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To be read books July 2014Ooh, I am doing well, 10 books read in July and another couple on the go that I should finish within the month. I’ve even read the two books that my friend Ali lent me only the other day. After a few dismal reading months (though with some great reads), I’ve been making a proper effort to carve out decent reading time, getting up as early as ever but squeezing in a sit in bed with a book if I haven’t got an early work deadline. I’ve also had a few longish bus journeys across town to help with relatives moving house, which has had the side-effect of upping the reading time nicely. So here we go with two non-fiction books, one a present from me to me (but I also bought my father-in-law a copy for Christmas) and one a present from a client!

Julian Holland – “Mapping the Railways”

(13 November 2013)

This did sit on my TBR for a bit (you can see it on the left in the picture), because it’s a big floppy paperback that you need to get close to – sitting on the sofa with my knees up seemed the only way to cope! It’s an excellent book which really did need to be in this format, as it takes us through the history of Britain’s railways, using reproductions of all sorts of amazing and fascinating maps to demonstrate exactly what happened at each stage, alongside informative text and other documents and photographs. Some of the maps were produced for public consumption, and some were produced by firms that wanted to tender (ha ha) for building new railway lines, so some are of things that never even got built. It’s lavishly illustrated, with the whole map, a blown-up section and intricate details included for each section.

It was great spotting places I’ve lived, places I’ve been and friends’ houses. I do like a good map, and I do like a railway, so this was a good match for me! I was perhaps slightly less fascinated by the more modern sections after the Beeching Report, although the parts about the InterCity (I hadn’t quite grasped that it’s not called that any more!) were interesting. Very good on the whole though.

Guy Deutscher – “Through the Language Glass”

(31 December 2013; gift from a client)

I was so chuffed to receive this through the post from a long-term client – I’ve never had a present from them before and this was such a lovely choice (they’re a translation and transcription agency, so it’s a good choice all round).

Subtitled “Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages”, this book makes an optimistic attempt to unpick the Sapir-Whorff hypothesis (the language we speak changes our perception of the world, basically) and the theories of its (myriad) opponents, as well as the development of theories of perception and language that have been circulating since the 19th century. And it does a really good job of this. Obviously, as someone who’s studied English language and linguistics, and works in a wordy field, I was aware of the concepts being discussed, but it describes everything very clearly and this would be a good read for anyone with an interest in how languages work.

The author – who incidentally comes from a non-native English speaking background, not that you’d know it from the construction of his book, which gives him an extra insight into comparisons between languages – doesn’t fully espouse any of the main theories, but instead constructs the idea that, while Nature dictates much of how we both experience the world and talk about it (there’s some very interesting stuff about the order in which words for colours appear to develop in almost all languages), within the constraints of Nature, Culture (or Nurture) has an effect, too, insofar as the way the language we speak works influences what we focus on and some of the things we have to think about. Sound a bit woolly? Well, he provides lots of interesting examples, finding, for example, that speakers of gendered languages (like French with its le and la, etc.) tend to see objects in terms of their gender, and this affects the way they react to objects even when their names are not presented to them. Similarly, someone living in a culture where the language demands that they specify the exact time at which something happened, and when they perceived it, of necessity consider these matters more than someone who doesn’t get constantly challenged to provide this evidence.

While unpicking the work of those researchers who handily found what they wanted in languages and ignored the rest (citing people who claimed languages with a good and complex system of words denoting time had no such words thus no concept of time), he gives a lot of examples from current and new research and makes fewer grandiose claims than he presents ideas and possibilities. The material on colour is particularly interesting, and has some good examples.

An accessible and fascinating book, and I’m glad it came to my attention via my lovely client!

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Currently reading: No wicked acquisitions (well, I borrowed two books but as I said, I’ve already read them, watch out for the reviews soon). I’m reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ “The Marriage Plot”, which seems good so far although I’m just at the very beginning, and I’m also exploring “Underground to Everywhere”, a lovely book on the Tube that Verity sent me in my Virago Group Secret Santa parcel. I’ve been trying to read Iris Murdoch’s “Sartre”, which fills in a year in the Century of Reading, but it’s a  bit HARD! What are you reading this summer?

 

Book reviews – The House in Clewe Street and The Singing Line

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To be read books July 2014Two for the Reading a Century of Books here, and we’re very firmly in January 2014 acquisitions now, at least, so keeping up with myself (a bit). Two very different books again today: I can’t pretend that they have anything in common, one being a novel set in small-town Ireland and the other being a travel memoir and history book set in Australia!

Mary Lavin – “The House in Clewe Street”

(21 January 2014, birthday present from Laura)

A lovely old Penguin with a dust jacket, one of a group of books bought by my friend Laura to fill in gaps in the Century of Books, and doing that very well. I thought I had the author mixed up with someone else, as I was reminded of a very miserable book full of doom and abject poverty – when I checked my archives, there it was, “Mary O’Grady” by the same author, read back in 2008! This was a bit doomy, but only in a Hardyesque way rather than grinding poverty and misery.

It’s set in a small walled town in Ireland, and we meet three generations of the Coniffe family, and their neighbours, including the liminal Soraghan family (liminal in that they live on the edge of society and literally on the border of the town, right by the ramparts of the decaying town walls, and occupying temporary positions when people need them, then fading away when not needed). The Conliffes are apologetic New Money, thanks to Theodore’s property empire, but make sure they don’t show it off, and anyone going against the grain doesn’t have the best luck. Theodore has three daughters, and from one of them, the heir issues.

Gabriel tries to break free of the stifling life of the town, with convention and with the harsher family conventions, moving to Dublin to stay with his less conventional friend, the artist, Sylvester, whose ramshackle lodgings and group of friends provide both an uncritical background and the roots of a fall.

There’s an interesting sub-text to the book, although the Penguin edition doesn’t have an introduction and I couldn’t find much about it apart from a review from my friend Verity from when she was reading ALL the Viragoes (I don’t know if she managed that in the end – I certainly wouldn’t want to try!). But I couldn’t help noticing that going against convention left you pretty well chewed up in one way or another. The women in the book are doomed to flaring love, some kind of embarrassing, atypical childbirth experience and early death, or grim spinsterhood, the only alternative a sort of blowsy, grubby motherhood. It’s a pretty damning assessment of the paths that women can take and the traps that society places for both men and women.

It’s a good, solid read, and very enjoyable in the way that Hardy is enjoyable, with interesting but not often kind characters and a feeling of fate hanging over them.

Alice Thomson – “The Singing Line”

(BookCrossing 05 January 2014, picked off Gill’s pile before it could go on the cafe shelf)

More interesting than I thought it would be, this is the story of the man who installed the first telegraph line linking Adelaide to Darwin (and thus to Asia and Europe), and his wife, after whom Alice Springs was named. This chap was the author’s great-great-grandfather, and there’s been an Alice in every generation since his wife’s; this version pieces together her ancestors’ lives from archives in both the UK and Australia, and makes her own journey (with her husband) across the Australian interior, recounting the Victorian and modern-day struggles with the terrain, heat and lack of facilities.

The Aborigine question is addressed, not without resistance from the local population (it was interesting that we watched a programme on the TV that featured the Inuit of Northern Canada and their parallel path to distress via the colonialists at the same time I was finishing this book), and both the historical and modern stories are told well and with humour and modesty, benefitting from the author’s background as a journalist.

A good selection of pictures and maps and a good read overall.

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Dec 2013 3I’m currently still reading “Through the Language Glass” (when I’m not working on that book on historical philology) and I’ve borrowed the final set of Hardy short stories and the middle volume of the Mary Hocking trilogy from Ali, both to hopefully read this month. I have some big books from the beginning of the TBR to look at when I have time and room, and then it’ll be almost time to hit the back shelf, leaving a little pile of Viragoes and Persephones for next month …

Book reviews – Passing and Penguin Special

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To be read books July 2014What have these two titles got in common? Well, erm, they both start with a “P”, and they both add new years to my Century of Reading project … but apart from that, well, all I can say is that I do read a wide variety of books. And not in pairs, fairly obviously. Today I have for your enjoyment a fascinating late-1920s novel(la) about race and class and belonging, and a lovely biography, full of research and knowledge. Can’t be bad, can it!

Nella Larsen – “Passing”

(21 January 2014 – from Laura)

My friend Laura very kindly gave me four slightly random books for my birthday, chosen because they fitted gaps in my Century of Reading. How cool – and the two I’ve read or am reading so far are excellent choices. “Passing”, a small and subtle book, is a fascinating exploration of the practice of [as a black or mixed-race person] ‘passing’, [i.e. appearing to be a white person] during the years of segregation in the US. The blurb suggests that of the two main characters, Clare has moved strictly into a white world, while her childhood friend, Irene, has remained within the African-American community. But it’s not as simple as that: they actually meet in adulthood when both are using a white-only restaurant, and Claire is in some ways anxious to return to her own roots, while Irene passes between the two communities at times.

So, even though it’s a short novel, it’s more complicated than it seems, and as Irene moves between the two worlds, she is put into some beautifully observed and very uncomfortable situations. White intellectual and interested observers further add themselves into the mix, attending benefits for the black community seemingly with impunity, although obviously ‘passing’ between the worlds in a very different way – and it’s interesting that all of the characters are pretty firmly set in the professional and aspiring middle class, so the class issue is not maybe what you’d expect if you were told it was a book about race and class.

All of the inter-mixing and the deceit that naturally comes along with it leads, perhaps inevitably, to a climax which is as predictable in some ways as it is shocking in others. Even then, the conclusion of the book is again subtle and complex, especially if you bring into play a final paragraph which was included in some editions, but not others. A quick read, but a very interesting one indeed.

Jeremy Lewis – “Penguin Special: The Life and Times of Allen Lane”

(19 August 2013 – Oxfam Books in Oxford)

I am a bit surprised to be reading two books acquired so far apart, but it’s big hardback / little paperback syndrome, where I dwell on a larger, more unwieldy, book over the dinner table and in bed, while popping paperbacks into my handbag for bus travel and my gym bag for bike-n-read. Anyway, this one didn’t take me long to read, some of it being read in the garden in the sun during lunch-hour sessions.

It’s very much the life AND times of Father of Penguin Books, Allen Lane: a hugely detailed and well-researched biography and history of the book trade in general and Penguin Books in particular, from the pre-Second World War years up until the 1970s. Lewis is very confident in handling the mass of material, keeping us away of who’s who and their relationships and manipulating the narrative so that there is enough detail without getting too bogged down.

Allen Lane himself comes off as rather remote and unknowable, but the author’s gentle modesty (his introduction was very appealing) but persistent triangulation of his sources gets us as near to the man as anyone probably could, critiquing various bibliographical sketches and robust enough about their authors and the subject as he needs to be. Good notes, bibliography and illustrations, too.

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I’m currently reading “The House in Clewe Street” by Mary Lavin, another of Laura’s gifts. It’s a gentle but absorbing saga of a family in Ireland. I see from doing a search that it’s been published by Virago (the copy I’m reading is a slightly elderly orange Penguin, which I love), so I suppose I could have saved it for All Virago / All August. But I’m reading it now and I’m not inclined to put it aside.

Talking of All Virago / All August, this was on my mind as I wrote this post, as Ali just passed me the final Hardy to read in our readalong, and the second of the Mary Hocking trilogy, which I will either read this month or next. Would you like a sneak preview of everything else I’ve got lined up for AV / AA? Of course you would. Here goes – this is all of the Viragoes and Persephones from my TBR. Looking at the rest of the TBR, I don’t think I have any more that were also published in Virago, and I think these plus the one or two Hockings will see me through:

All Virago, All August - Virago and Persephone Books to readI was a bit worried that it would get a bit ‘samey’ as certain Viragoes can be much of a muchness, but with a history, two biographical works and books by Irish and Russian authors, plus social history and short stories in the Persephones, I think the only risk I’ll have is reading three Thirkells in a row …

Book reviews – The Great Typo Hunt and Good Daughters

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To be read books July 2014OK, you know how I like to post reviews that go together? Well, these two don’t. Not only don’t these books go together, but they are about as different as you can get. One’s fiction, one’s non-fiction. One’s contemporary, one’s pre-WWII. One’s set in the UK, one’s set in the US. One I was given last Christmas, the other I bought for myself almost exactly 20 years ago. I even finished one in June and one in July! So maybe I can make a connection out of that difference … or something. Anyway, two reviews and ONLY two acquisitions from an afternoon spent with literally hundreds of books that I’d never seen before … (oh, and another one, too).

Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson – “The Great Typo Hunt”

(25 December 2013 – from Gill)

One from my wish-list from Gill, and I was looking forward to an amusing book about people looking for typos and correcting them. I wasn’t disappointed: this is what the book was all about! Jeff Deck is working as an editor in Boston when he has the grand idea of touring America making changes to public examples of typos and spelling mistakes. He’s at pains to point out that he pretty well always asks permission to make the changes, and certainly never mocks those who have made the mistakes (this is a bit of an ambiguous point, because he does include examples, and isn’t that in a way encouraging us to laugh at them? I don’t know – I’m particularly careful about this kind of thing because I don’t ever want to upset my clients who might be struggling with their English writing for whatever reason, although I enjoy a good typo as much as the next editor (just not in public)).

He recruits some sidekicks for different parts of his journey around the US, and gets to work, leaving both his home town and his new girlfriend. But will he have the nerve to ask people to climb up ladders or take notices out of cafe windows and erase their own errors, and does his girlfriend really approve, or are they going to get into an argument along the great prescriptive/descriptive divide?

It’s amusing and sweet, but then matters take – perhaps inevitably – a litigious turn, and there’s angst, anguish and the threat of a court case; something that might make people think twice about taking out the Sharpie and Tippex (maybe people will realise now that I DON’T go equipped to amend typos wherever I go …). An interesting read, although perhaps preaching to the converted a bit. And will it make people actually think we DO carry around the tools of the public amendment of errors … *

* When I still worked at the university, a sign which appeared by some roadworks just off campus swiftly had the unnecessary apostrophe in “Please dismount bicycle’s before entering this area” removed, using little bits of sticky paper. Six separate people commented that I’d obviously done it. I hadn’t.

Mary Hocking – “Good Daughters”

(22 July 1994)

I read this to help Heaven-Ali celebrate Hocking’s life in June (I did start this in June, but finished it in July). First in the Fairley Trilogy, which is only one small portion of this prolific writer’s works, here we become acquainted with the three sisters; remote, mysterious Louise, all poised and ready to fall in love or rebel (or both); little Claire, with her red hair, passions and inability to keep a secret; and our heroine Alice, slightly lumpish and awkward, the misfit narrator who we will come to love.

Set in 1930s London, as events begin to unravel in Europe and having a Jewish neighbour can be something extra to worry about, the girls perhaps more worry about the mundane events of girlhood and growing up, seeing events clearly only when they relate directly to them, and thinking more about friendships, honesty and the opposite sex …

The narrative perspective shifts so that we’re given insights into the interior monologues of the high-principled father, the more prosaic concerns of the mother, the reactions and perceptions of all three girls and some important but more minor school characters and neighbours. Sometimes the language is allusive and slips away, so you’re not sure what has actually happened and have to page back or wait to see if it’s elucidated – an effective set of techniques that leave the reader standing on slightly shifting sands and tugged this way and that, much as the adolescent central characters experience their lives.

An engaging and involving and proper old-fashioned (even though published in 1984) story, with some of the wry perceptions about the characters and their motives that wouldn’t be out of place in an Elizabeth Taylor, while retaining the “I Capture the Castle” like evocation of teenagerhood.

New acquisitions:

The Last Kings of Sark I borrowed this review copy from Ali, I did read her review of it when she published it and thought I might fancy it, and when she BookCrossed it I grabbed it avidly. I’m not going to revisit the review now, but it looks like an interesting coming-of-age novel, set on the tiny Channel Island of Sark, and I’m looking forward to it. It’s a Virago book, so I may well read it in August, when I’m going to join in with All Virago (and Persephone) / All August run by the LibraryThing Virago Group – a good way to pick a chunk of books off the TBR.

Abha Dawesar Babyji and Monica Dickens Joy and JosephineLast Saturday, I helped out at the BookCrossing Birmingham stall at the Moseley Festival Street Fair. So many books, and Meg and I gave away lots of them to eager visitors, many of whom had heard of BookCrossing already. I didn’t restrain myself when a fire engine stopped at the traffic lights by us, jumping up at the open windows to give bemused firefighters some free books (this is, I must add, a tradition for the BookCrossing stall which I felt compelled to continue), but I did restrain myself when it came to limiting myself to only choosing two books from the piles in front of me – a Monica Dickens, “Joy and Josephine”, which I’d never heard of before and about which I can find little from the book itself (it appears to be about a foundling, and very good – fine!) and Abha Dawesar’s “Babyji”, which appealed to my love of Asian writing, but might be a bit much, as it’s described as a Delhi-based Lolita! Anyone read either of these and can fill me in?

No new ones for the Reading a Century of Books amongst those, but “Good Daughters” as a surprise addition for 1984, and I’ve got two more reviews that both fill in gaps in the list coming up at the weekend …

Book review – ‘Zine and film review – The Punk Singer

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Book - Zine by Pagan KennedyWell, this doesn’t happen very often, but today I have a book review and a FILM review for you. I don’t know what it is about cinema, but I just don’t go to see many films, or watch them at home. I’m pretty sure it’s not the attention span, as I can spend hours editing away or transcribing. It might well be that I’m not good with violence and have a very retentive, pretty well eidetic memory, so anything horrible I see is glued to my brain for ever more.  I do have a few favourites – “Bhaji on the Beach”,  um …. But the fact is, I’m not a big cinema-goer or film-watcher. So when I see something that takes me back to my youth, makes me think, makes me sad and happy, where I don’t look at my watch once during the showing and I sit there at the end, willing it not to have finished, I think that deserves a review!

And the great thing is, I saw the excellent film, “The Punk Singer”, about Riot Grrrl, feminist and early zine exponent Kathleen Hanna at the Electric Cinema in Birmingham on 8th June (at its only showing in Birmingham), and then won “‘Zine”, Pagan Kennedy’s 1995 book about her zine, in the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme. I don’t THINK I’m going to start backcombing my hair and wearing shorts, woolly tights and DMs again, but you never know … Anyway, here’s a perfect pair of reviews.

Film: “The Punk Singer”

This film is a biography of Kathleen Hanna, singer in Bikini Kill, Le Tigre and The Julie Ruin, founding mother of the Riot Grrrl music genre and of the zine movement. It was funded partly through benefit concerts and partly through a Kickstarter campaign that I wish I’d known about. Featuring archive footage and old and new interviews with most of the important people to do with the bands and scene (such as Kim Gordon, Joan Jett and members of Sleater-Kinney, it looks home-made and is quirky and charming (the most charming bit was when they showed someone actually cutting and pasting, literally, to create a zine, with a caption explaining what a zine was), but has a lot to say about life, music, feminism, music, marriage, friendship …

What I found captivating about the film as a whole was the sheer number of WOMEN you see in it. While Hanna’s husband and a couple of band confederates get a few minutes, the protagonists, commenters, music specialists and zine experts are predominantly women. Some of these women wear makeup, some don’t. We see people looking run down, as if they’ve just woken up, sweating on stage in pants and vest. Women shouting and swearing and talking about child abuse and domestic abuse and how women get treated in the crowd at concerts. Women are supportive of each other, are celebrating each other, are not set in conflict. Men are seen, where they are seen, as supporting players, nurturing the band or Hanna herself (she went public about her long battle with Lyme Disease in this film, and there are scenes with her doctor and husband which cast them in a supportive and empathetic role).

So, as well as taking me back to my earlier incarnation as a fan of the Riot Grrl movement at a time when I was reading a fair bit of American music writing and fiction and dressing how I wanted and being a strong feminist, it reminded me that, while my much-younger self might not have completely approved of my blue jeans-wearing, MARRIED current self, I am still a feminist, I still care about girls having good, positive, feisty and rule-breaking role models (*runs out and buys copies of the DVD for all of the young women she knows*), and it’s brilliant to see films like this being made and distributed.

I wish this had been on for more dates in Birmingham. I’m not sure how I heard about it, but it was shown at 3pm on a summer Sunday and the cinema was not full. I got quite a lot of interest when I posted on Facebook about it, and a quick Tweet out led me to this website where you can buy a DVD of the film (in the UK and Ireland), plus a rather nice Tshirt and BADGES (buttons). Oh, if only I still had that Air Force Surplus canvas bag. Maybe it’s time to pop down the Army Surplus in Selly Oak (where I bought the original) for a replacement …

Pagan Kennedy – “‘Zine”

(20 June 2014 – LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme)

Reissued by the Santa Fe Writers Project, this is Kennedy’s book from 1995 (did I read it then? The reading journal archives, alas, began in 1997) with no extras, just reprinted with a new cover. It has several full issues of Pagan’s zine, “Pagan’s Head” reproduced in all their typewritten, cut-and-pasted glory, plus narrative about how and why she started and continued it, and life events as the axis of her life shifted from writing and room-mates and hair and thinking about getting a car to more serious matters when her father fell ill and she had to face fairly serious health matters herself.

The free-form format of the zine and the accepting world she inhabits mean that the zine can mutate and change direction as she goes, and this book still reads as fresh and is a useful contemporary documentary of the zine scene. One First World / Ageing Reader problem – because the presumably A4 zine was reproduced in a smaller-format book, some of it was pretty hard to read, requiring strong lighting and the occasional peering over or under my glasses. Readers over 40 – to whom this will necessarily appeal – be warned!

Book reviews – The Marvellous Mongolian and Strange Boy

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Books to read in JuneWell, we’re back in the swing of things with book reviews, almost caught up with what I’ve actually been reading recently, and I’ve even managed to create one of my pairs of books here, as both of these are aimed at the children’s / young adult market. I won “The Marvellous Mongolian” in a raffle organised by Jane Badger Books – I’m not usually one for winning things, but there was the draw and there was my book in the post. It does have a slightly sad theme, but Jane warned me, so all was well! The other one came for Christmas, and completes a slight Paul Magrs binge I’ve been having lately (I think; maybe there’s one more lurking on the back TBR shelf …). They are also another pair to add to my Reading a Century project, covering 1974 and 2002 respectively, so that’s coming along nicely!

James Aldridge – “The Marvellous Mongolian”

(13 November 2013 – won in a raffle from Jane Badger Books)

A lovely children’s book told in letters between a Mongolian boy living with a horse-herding family and rather reluctantly going to school in the local town and a Welsh girl, Kitty, whose grandfather runs a nature reserve. They come into contact when a magnificent specimen of the original Mongolian Wild Horse is shipped over to Wales to live in the nature reserve. Kitty’s pet pony, Peep, is earmarked to be the first member of the herd, and Kitty and Peep go through a process of separation that is beautifully observed as Tachi the stallion claims the tame pony for his own.

Tachi and Peep are not then happy where they are, and the seemingly safe and protected reserve seems to have more permeable boundaries than was first thought. Could the two horses really be trying to make their way across Europe to get home to Mongolia? If so, this will be an epic journey – and one that will end in tragedy for one of the characters (this is signposted and necessary to the plot, so it’s not too much of a jolt and is sad but not devastating).

Really well done in the letter format, which I haven’t seen in a pony book before, with lots of information about wild horses, but presented naturally, and a sympathetic and attractive hero and heroine. Some of the events echo all stallion stories, with shades of the Black Stallion and Thunderhead from the Mary O’Hara books, but this really doesn’t matter, and it’s a good read. Even though it’s in letters and the children’s lives are old-fashioned, it’s not dated and is still a good one. Thanks, Jane!

Paul Magrs – “Strange Boy”

(25 December 2013 – Christmas present from Gill)

Although this covers some of the same ground as “Diary of a Dr Who Addict” (a lad growing up in Newton Aycliffe in the North East, in a fractured family with a policeman dad, and his dawning awareness of his sexuality and trips to the precinct to buy books and comics), this doesn’t centre on the TV show (although it does of course mention it) and is a bit more explicit (not troublingly so, and in the context of an examination of sexuality and (perceived) masculinity).

It’s a warm and touching book, with the portrayal of David’s relationship with his younger brother and of the various matriarchs in his extended family particularly well done (I love his grandmas and slightly scary mothers-of-friends and the strong older women that crop up throughout his early work are obviously the ancestresses of Brenda and Effie). The strong identification with region and the touch of magic recall his earlier novels, and it’s a good read which would certainly help any reader struggling with the issues around masculinity/sexuality portrayed here, or those seeking to understand.

But it’s not just an ‘Issues’ novel: it’s a good read in its own right. I loved the voice in this first venture into YA fiction of Magrs’, and I loved the glossary at the end, which maintained that voice perfectly.

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So, two more off the Reading a Century project, and next up we have a very exciting combination of a book review and a film review! The latter doesn’t happen very often, so I hope you’re looking forward to that!

Song of the Vikings bookOh, and one small acquisition – I saw the announcement of this book’s paperback version in ‘The Guardian’ but decided to treat myself to the hardback, as it was only a couple of pounds more. And I bought it from “Bank of Matthew”, my seemingly inexhaustible fund of Christmas and Birthday money from Matthew and his family, so it was effectively FREE. It’s a biography of Snorri Sturluson, writer of Egil’s Saga and the Edda which records the Norse myths, as well as other books and histories, and it’s  a lovely physical object, with untrimmed page edges and a very shiny cover.

Book reviews – Queen of Dreams and What’s my Motivation – and some acquisitions

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Books to read in JuneHello, regular readers and new blog friends! Today I’m rounding off my holiday reading with the book I read on the plane and train from Iceland to Birmingham and finished in the early evening when we’d got back home, and then we’re back working our way through my TBR with a book that I’ve thought I’ve wanted to read for YEARS. I also report on an innocent walk past the town square in my neighbourhood which, upon my friend uttering the words, “I wonder if there’s a book stall”, turned into a minor book-buying fest. I can also report that the TBR hasn’t suffered too badly from this, and I’ve also added to my Century of Books reading project list, so it’s all good!

Chitra Divakaruni – “Queen of Dreams”

(Acquired via BookCrossing 05 June 2014 – from Icelandic BookCrosser Bjorg)

I’d arranged to meet Bjorg while we were in Iceland, and we’d offered each other the choice of our availables (as my availables were a bit low, I ended up giving her “Mr Lynch’s Holiday”, which I enjoyed on the journey out and she read almost immediately). I’d read others by this author and was intrigued by this one. I did collect a few other books from Bjorg and Birna which I had to leave behind owing to packing issues (too many DVDs and a dictionary) but I read this one on the plane and then on the train journey from Manchester Airport back to Birmingham.

Rakhi is a second generation Indian-American running a cafe with a friend who’s in the same situation but trying hard to shake off her ethnic roots and dealing with her divorce while trying to maintain her painting practice and caring for her daughter. When a big chain cafe opens over the road, matters for the cafe and its owners take a turn for the worse, and Rakhi’s parents try to help in their different ways.

Devastated by her mother’s inexplicable death, Rakhi starts to read her journals, with the help of her father, to whom she has never been close until now, and discovers more about her life – and this is where the magical realism kicks in – doing ‘dream work’ for people, which involves both providing consultations and dreaming other people’s dreams and tracking them down to tell them about it. Rakhi used to long to do this work herself, but now, as her daughter starts to experience terrifying nightmares, she begins to think twice.

Set against this inward exploration is a very overt and outward theme: when the 9/11 attacks take place, suddenly it’s not that safe to be of any kind of South Asian heritage, and fighting back, as Belle’s new Sikh boyfriend finds to his cost, is not the answer. Tensions heighten, and the characters are forced to examine what it actually means to be ‘American’.

Well written, with a magical and mysterious element which adds depth and emotional intensity as well as a range of voices to the novel.

Michael Simkins – “What’s my Motivation?”

(25 December 2013)

I’d had this one on my wish list for literally years; I think I saw a friend reading it ages ago and thought it looked fun. As with some things that are wished for for a long time (but not Iceland!) it was disappointing. But I’m glad I finally got hold of it and read it!

It’s the autobiography of a semi-successful actor, taking in drama school, the early years and then jumping around a bit, mainly treating his (semi-successful) relationships. It’s supposed to be self-deprecating and Bill Brysonish and while it does use some phrases like Bryson’s, it was more on the silly end of things, and didn’t have much to say for itself when it all came down to it – the detail about acting classes and auditioning was the most interesting part of the book. It also runs out of steam rather when he begins to have some decent work, as there’s not so much of amusement to say then, as things settle down (much like a difficult second album, I suppose).

I was put off by an early nasty anecdote about a pet which was really not necessary to include, and was then on the watch for unpleasantnesses. There are some fairly grimy descriptions, but then a jobbing rep actor’s life can be a bit grubby, so that’s fair enough. But it’s not really one to read while you’re eating, for example. It didn’t ever really engage me, and it was odd that it simultaneously mocks actors’ self-absorption and egocentricity and plays heavily on Simkins’ being at RADA with Timothy Spall, although oddly doesn’t mention another actor in the RADA sections with whom he later claims he studied.

Patchy, in sum: I read it, but it wasn’t brilliant.

Book - Zine by Pagan KennedyNew acquisitions! First off, a LibraryThing Early Reviewers book – “Zine” by Pagan Kennedy. This is a reissue of a book published about ten years ago, all about how Kennedy started and ran her own zine. It fortuitously fits in really well with a brilliant film I saw last Sunday called “The Punk Singer”, a biopic of Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna (more info here: see it if you can, and I really hope they do a DVD version as I want to share this with a few people!). It has lots of pages from her zine and the book, reissued by the San Francisco Writers’ Collective has a good indie feel to it, too. Of course I’ll be reading this SOON as you are supposed to read LTER books and review them within a month of receipt.

Newby, Lees-Milne, Litvinov, SinclairAnd those books from the town square? There was a Green Fair on, with lots of stalls on solar panels and recycling, but the book stall that’s run on Farmers’ Market days (normally inside the church so invisible therefore not tempting to me) was out in the sun, and so we had a browse.  Ian Sinclair’s “Edge of the Orison” is a work of psychogeography about travelling in the footsteps of Essex poet John Clare. I really enjoyed his “London Orbital” (bought in 2002 and due for a re-read) so am looking forward to this. I’d not seen James Lees-Milne’s “Harold Nicolson” biography before: this is Volume 1, taking us up to 1929, and there is a second volume available. It fits in to my collection on the various Nicolsons (he was father of Nigel and grandfather of Adam) and looks like a good read. I also collect Eric Newby’s travel books but didn’t yet have “The Big Red Train Ride” so was pleased to spot that (he’s one of my favourite travel writers), and I saw a few Virago original greens that I already had, but had never heard of Ivy Litvinov’s “She Knew She Was Right”, which is short stories set in Russia and England.

Even better, when I added these to my TBR, I found that three of them (all except the Sinclair) added new items to my Century of Reading list – and nothing could have been further from my mind when I was browsing the boxes of books. So I can report that I now have 41 books in my collection and on the list, 16 of which I’ve read and reviewed (well, the review is to come for one of them) and the remainder of which are on my TBR. I haven’t had to desperately look for any or hunt too much through my own collection to fill in the gaps so far. So it’s going well.

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That’s it for now. Two more reviews to come for the week, and I’m going to be doing some Icelandic saga reading and possibly starting one of the bigger books on the TBR picture at the top of this post. What are you reading this summer?

 

 

Book reviews – At Home, Icelandic Folk and Fairy Tales and Oxford Exit

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Books to read in JuneI know I usually do two reviews at a time, rather than three, but I’m feeling like I will never get all these books reviewed on here if I don’t do some combining. So here we have three books read solely on holiday in Iceland. Three quite different books, which were chosen for their Englishness or their Icelandic nature, and in two cases, their portability. So, here we go with all of the rest of the holiday reading actually done on the holiday (one flight-home book to come!)

Bill Bryson – “At Home”

(Acquired via BookCrossing 23 November 2013, at a meetup)

A somewhat hefty tome, which I thought would be entertaining on the journey (it was, but too big for the in-cabin baggage) and finished by the time I met the Icelandic BookCrossers (it wasn’t, sorry). This is an exhaustive tour of, well, basically, stuff, told through the conceit of a journey around Bryson’s house in Norfolk. This works better in some rooms than others (OK, the attic one was a bit of a mish-mash, but it didn’t have anything about storage, etc.) but generally gave a potted history of the type of room, and type of activity that went on in the room, with side excursions into all sorts of things.

it’s haphazard but entertaining, full of little details which will stick with you, half-remembered. It debunks myths and confirms or denies generally accepted beliefs, and does tend towards the icky tale of disease and pests, leading to some sections that I did skim over, I have to admit. But it was generally well done and amusing, but not silly (he can get a bit silly, I find). A good travelling read if you can fit it in your baggage.

Jon Arnason, May and Hallberg Hallmundsson – “Icelandic Folk and Fairy Tales”

(21 Jan 2014, from Sian, registered on BookCrossing)

While I do like to collect books on Iceland, and this looked enticing from the day I received it on my birthday, it was found in a local charity shop and registered on BookCrossing, so it had to keep on travelling! I also knew by then that I would be going to Iceland some time this year, so I had it saved up (ha – saved up, who am I kidding? I’m on last summer’s acquisitions still!) to read and then release in Iceland. I ended up leaving it in our guesthouse, which was a good place for it, as the owners are Icelandic, but people come through from all sorts of different places.

This has a variety of tales, short, long, scary, funny, myths, tales from the saga-times, humans, elves, trolls and ghosts. They’re collected into a loose order, some involving a particular person, others types of tales, with a good introduction explaining the background and the choices that the editors made. There are also atmospheric pictures scattered through the text. A good read in the fragments of time you often have on a trip, where a few paragraphs or a page works well slotted in amongst the day’s activities, and it was super to read it actually in Iceland!

Veronica Stallwood – “Oxford Exit”

(25 December 2013 – LibraryThing Virago Group Not so Secret Santa gift from Verity)

I took this away with me because it was short and about England and libraries – I had already checked with Verity that she didn’t mind me registering it on BookCrossing and giving it away when I’d finished it. I’m not normally a big mystery fan – which means that I NEVER guess whodunit – but I do like an interesting and different read, and the fact that this one centres around a writer and is set in the libraries of Oxford University meant that it was right up my street.

Novelist Kate Ivory is approached to investigate the theft of books from various Oxford libraries, and she starts to delve into the mysteries of cataloguing and downloading records (oh so familiar from my library days). But it quickly becomes apparent that book theft is the least of her concerns, when people start telling her about a young library assistant who was murdered recently.

Taking in multiple locations in Oxford and America, our heroine is an interesting woman who goes running and has a fairly independent (or solitary) life, although she comes into contact with her comedy neighbours and a hunky policeman in the course of her investigation. There’s also some convincing detail about why she doesn’t want to get involved in more action and has lost her head for heights which obviously refers back to a previous book, but this does happily stand alone in its series.

Further interest is added in the form of creative writing assignments created by someone who is obviously linked to the case in some way, and may be unhinged or just a fantasist. There’s a convincing air of menace and worry that builds as the book goes on, and it’s a good read with a broad range of characters and a good dose of humour. I would definitely consider reading others in this series.

Books by the lake in ReykjavikI read this book in Reykjavik, and read most of it on our last afternoon, sitting on a bench by the town lake with Matthew, both absorbed in our books and enjoying thewarm and sunny weather.

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Coming up next – what I read on the plane home and my first read back home, and we keep chipping away at the TBR!

 

 

Book reviews – Mr Lynch’s Holiday and Brenda and Effie Forever!

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Books to read in JuneHello! Sorry for the gap there – I’m finally writing up my holiday reading, after posting the last of my Icelandic reads while in Iceland (I don’t like telling people when I’m away – I have been to Iceland and there will be a blog post and pictures soon … ). So today we’ve got two books I read early on during our holiday. I was a bit dim with my holiday reading – knowing we were going to meet up with a couple of Reykjavik BookCrossers, I thought I’d take the opportunity to read a few books that were already registered on BookCrossing, then pass them on. However, I hadn’t considered that we were meeting Bjorg and Birna fairly early on in the trip, and I’d only read the first of these two by the time we met them. Oops! But I passed that one on, collected one from them to read on the way home (actually I took three then for some reason the bags, even though they were minus some toiletries and a pile of books, were not having any of it, and I had to leave two of those), and left a nice pile of books in the guest house kitchen. In other dimness news, I took my tablet along, having carefully downloaded all of my Kindle books onto its Kindle app, then managed not to read on it at all. But it came in handy when Matthew’s book wouldn’t fit in the packing, either, but was handily on my Kindle, so he could read it on the way home.

Anyway, on to two books by people I’ve actually met, which is quite a nice pairing …

Catherine O’Flynn – “Mr Lynch’s Holiday”

(01 June 2014 from Gill via BookCrossing)

Dermot, newly widowed, decides to visit his son, Eamon, in his crumbling apartment in a Spanish resort that has fallen foul of the economic downturn and remains an outpost of expat civilisation, full of feral cats (nothing bad happens to the cats) and centred around a swimming pool with no water. Is the place depressing Eamon, or was he depressed already? And what’s happened to his girlfriend?

Practical Dermot sets to work trying to sort things out, in the neglected flat, in Eamon’s disconnected life, and then in the community at large. He encounters the ex-pat community in a different way from Eamon, missing out on the cues about the on-going rivalries and oddnesses, but developing his own routines and friendships, including with the outcasts in that outcast group.

It’s a lovely warm and moving novel, set partly in Birmingham, examining masculinity and the world of work, political correctness and friendship, marriage and family, while remaining a light read and one eminently suitable for a holiday read.

Paul Magrs – “Brenda and Effie Forever!”

(05 January 2014 from Gill via BookCrossing)

The last of the Brenda and Effie books – there are six altogether. I did do BookRays for the other books in the series, but they have gone all chaotic, so I decided to read this and then release it in Iceland, to see what the Icelanders (or people from our hostel) make of it – it is possible to read it as a standalone, although more fun if you’ve read the others.

This one roams from Paris to the land of Faery, via Haworth, as antique shop owner and powerful witch Effie remembers a missing portion of her past, and we encounter the ghostly Bronte sisters, who are not all that they seem. There’s a scary set of folk in town, Brenda’s having troubles of her own, the vampires are rustling around, and Panda (who is in others of Paul’s books) makes an appearance – a very good new character for these books who’s a bad-tempered sentient soft toy of uncertain habits. We have all the old characters, too, and Robert’s friend Gila, the lizard boy, is central to the plot; in addition to this, we find out how the books came to be written (in the Brenda and Effie world).

There are twists and turns, flesh-eating mini mermaids and dodgy magicians, old characters and new, the plot works well and almost everything is explained in the end … a good read and a good end to the series.

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Coming next – four more reviews of books read on the holiday and on the way home, plus a write-up of the Iceland trip at some stage. And then I’m galloping through my TBR, having added only one book to it and read it immediately, and having discarded Bill Gates’ “Business at the Speed of Light” when I realised that reading a book about digital business that was published in 2000 would not be that fun (too new to be archaic or interesting when viewed through the lens of history, too old to be relevant).

 

Book reviews – The Diary of a Dr Who Addict and Give me Ten Seconds

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May 2014 whole TBRTwo books that don’t really go together, but they’re the last ones I read in May or started in May and finished in June, and weren’t on the subject of Iceland. So, unlikely pair they might be, but everything can’t be arranged neatly!

Paul Magrs – “The Diary of a Dr Who Addict”

(08 Dec 2013 – BookCrossing Birmingham Secret Santa present)

In this delightful novel written for Young Adults but perfectly readable by the rest of us, we follow some time in the life of David, growing up in the North-Eastern England town of Newton Aycliffe in the 1980s – as did the author – and getting used to a new family structure with a new, American stepdad and his mum, the fabulous Jacqui, an ally for a time in this new and unsettling period of David’s life, especially as she has a room full of sci fi and gets properly interested in David’s obsession, Dr Who.

It’s the time when Peter Davidson started on the show, which adds a lovely nostalgic touch, and it really captures the excitement of sitting down to watch the new series as a young almost-teen. David finds, however, that his best friend, Robert, is not as keen as he used to be, and in fact is starting to look down on it, as well as starting to criticise David for being both too mainstream (compared to him and his somewhat marvellous sister – the women characters in this book, as with all of Magrs’ novels, are super) and too ‘puffy’.

Will David have the courage to take his own path? Is it easier being friends with girls? (Not particularly, it turns out.) What will happen to the family as Jacqui gets frailer and starts to sleepwalk? Some lovely set pieces, plenty of that Magrs standby, precincts (precinct is to Magrs what the tabard is to Victoria Wood, the classic word – do any authors you love have a standard word that will summon them up in a couple of syllables?), an engaging central character and an ending that hints at new beginnings. Lovely.

John Sergeant – “Give me Ten Seconds”

(28 December 2013 – BookCrossing meetup)

The instruction in the title turns out to be a request for a warning when he’s about to run out of time, which is interesting. A slightly older book, this autobiography covers his early life and BBC years, up until the time when he moved to ITN (so we don’t get any of the Strictly stuff). It’s engagingly written, settling a few scores and taking us behind the scenes for an insight into political characters as well as the machinations of the BBC.

The background to political events such as the Falklands war and power struggles in the Conservative and Labour parties was interesting, and I was amused to note that the BBC was accused of giving undue coverage to the rise of the SDP / Liberal Democrats in the 80s, given that the same is being said with regard to UKIP nowadays. The book is dated, which is a shame, but still a good read.

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