Book reviews – A Woman’s Place 1910-1975 and The Two Mrs Abbotts (Persephone Books)


Virago and Persephone books to readWhat a treat – my All Virago/All August reading is coming along beautifully: we’re allowed to include Persephones as another strong and marvellous women-centric reprints publisher, and I’ve been wallowing in the Persephones that I’ve been stacking up since Christmas. For those who don’t know them, Persephone Books republish books by mid-20th century women (in the main) writers who have gone out of print and been otherwise neglected. I collect, read and review them, although not to the extent that some others do – and you can find all of my Persephone reviews if you do a little search. Oh, yes, there’s a gorgeous shop in Lambs Conduit Street in London, which you really ought to visit if you’re around that way (OK, in London. OK, in the UK). And the books themselves are lovely – good, solid, well-produced paperbacks in grey dustjackets with glorious endpapers and bookmarks featuring a fabric pattern contemporary to the book.

Enough going on – here’s what I thought of my latest two Persephone reads, and you can read about my two latest acquisitions below, too (one a Virago!)

Ruth Adam – “A Women’s Place 1910-1975″ (Persephone)

(25 December 2013, from Bridget)

An excellent work which looks at women’s conditions and experience in terms of family, relationships, politics, sex and work through much of the 20th century. A thorough and analytical viewpoint meant that I learnt a lot about the suffragettes, the struggle for equal pay in various professions, and women’s entry into those professions, and linkages between various subjects that make logical sense when you consider them, which I hadn’t actually known about or considered before. I do count myself fairly knowledgeable about this period and subject, so that was a nice surprise alongside the recognition of various figures and campaigns that I found throughout the read.

The book is full of meticulously researched detail and quotations from contemporary sources. It was very interesting to read the author’s take on contemporary (early 1970s) reactions to the wave of feminism which was hitting the UK at that time, especially the point about how UK feminism different from its US counterpart with its civil rights affiliation and techniques of consciousness raising, etc.

It’s extremely good on the way that society in general (i.e. The Establishment) has sought to compel women to, variously, go out to work, stay at home, be more masculine, be more feminine, have more or fewer children, in order to suit its own economic and political ends. Related to this are reminders of how much women’s lives changed during this period, so that women in corsets who were expected to keep their children to a strict routine saw their daughters showing their knees and their grand-daughters fixated on spending every moment with their babies so as to avoid psychologically damaging them.

A good afterword written in 2000 make Persephone Book No. 20 an excellent all-round read – very thought-provoking but also written in an accessible, clear style with its learning worn lightly, but underpinning the whole.

D. E. Stevenson – “The Two Mrs Abbotts” (Persephone)

(25 December 2013, from Matthew)

A charming book and a joy to read, gulped down in a couple of days with the delicious prospect hovering of re-reading the whole lot in one go at some point, as this is the second sequel to the marvellous “Miss Buncle’s Book”.

We’re firmly established in village life here, with Barbara and Jerry Abbott and their friends and neighbours enduring the Second World War however they can, with soldiers all over the place, evacuees taking or not taking to country life, and standards of housekeeping being strictly upheld by most, even when it is tricky to get macaroni ready-made or bake a decent cake.

Various romantic threads are woven together successfully and sweetly, but it does not overdo the saccharine, having some tart observations to make about people’s attitudes to one another, the effects of upbringing being explored (prodigy Lancreste becomes a bore, while a wild evacuee might be trainable to overcome her bad start in life) and an excellent new writer character struggling with the processes of creativity and saleability.

Being written in 1943 gives this book a poignancy I have found in other mid-war books; we cannot help but remember that the author did not know what the outcome or progress of the war would be as she was writing. This does give the book a fresh and contemporary feel, as it’s fairly obviously written from some amount of direct experience. Although the war tends not to directly affect the central characters, there is a brave and experimental passage set in North Africa, and some exploration of how to lead men and the nature of officers and men.

A lovely warm bath of a book for all this exploration and interest. There is no afterword, but the reader is directed in a publisher’s note to the afterwords in “Miss Buncle’s Book” and “Miss Buncle Married“, and surely no one who is reading this volume can fail to have read the other two first!


Two lovely Persephones, and two more for the Century of Books, too!

Karen Armstrong and Vita Sackville-WestTwo acquisitions to report – the Karen Armstrong was picked up from a pile of books my friend Linda passed to me that were registered on BookCrossing. I’ve had a vague yearning to read this for ages, but never expressed this, so it was interesting that it just came to me in this manner! And Vita Sackville-West’s “The Edwardians” was sent to me by the lovely Kaggsy, who’s been doing a weeding exercise and discovered she had a duplicate. That one’s a Virago, so I’ll try to slot it in this month! Thanks, both!

Currently reading – “The Persephone Book of Short Stories”, and I can’t resist another Angela Thirkell for very much longer …

Book reviews – Dictionary of Canadianisms, Welcome Strangers and High Rising


Virago and Persephone books to readIt’s a rare three-book rather than two-book post today, a) to catch me up and b) because I didn’t have the most words in the world to say about two of these, so it was going to be a bit short otherwise. And I’ve changed the picture to my All Virago/All August image because two out of the three fit in with that challenge, so this is more relevant than the standard TBR picture.

This one will catch me up and I’ll tell you about the lovely Persephone I’m reading afterwards. And I’m proud to admit that even though I spent the entire DAY in Stratford-upon-Avon on Saturday, and did venture into one bookshop, I have NO book confessions to make!

Geordie Telfer – “Dictionary of Canadianisms”

(24 January 2014)

This was a kind Christmas present to both of us from our friends Madeleine and Mike. Matthew leafed through it too and found it interesting. It’s an amusing but also useful guide to Canadian cultural icons, references and idioms, including French-Canadian ones, mainly ones that all Canadians know of. I was a little confused by the insistence on “eh” as an integral part of Canadian English, as I’ve never known a Canadian to say that to me personally, and I spent many hours recently on a transcription project where all of those taking part were Canadian! They said “right” an awful lot, though, so maybe that’s a regional variant. Maybe a Canadian would like to comment on that.

There was a useful guide to the main areas of difference from US and UK English followed by an alphabetical listing of terms and phrases – both were interesting to read and will be useful in my editing and localising work. The cross-referencing was useful and accurate (not always the case in such books).

Mary Hocking – “Welcome Strangers”

(22 July 1994)

The third in the trilogy (again, my own copy, bought 20 years ago) and we catch up with the Fairley sisters, their mother, aunts and uncles, their various husbands and associates. Hocking is (rightly) celebrated as a novelist of the ordinary, you do still naturally seek for what this is “about”; Alice is a writer, and there is a lot in this book on this subject, as well as an examination of the lingering effects of the various experiences of war on the cast of characters. She’s good on the fear and paranoia that war and the way in which different states behave instil into people.

I still did find it a bit cold and calculating. I can’t work out why I minded, because Taylor and Pym can be quite distanced and their characters are not always attractive. It might put people off a bit (if you don’t like Taylor and Pym in the first place, I’m not sure Hocking is for you) and there’s a lot of authorial comment about her characters, although the almost cubist views of different events from different perspectives is interesting. I’m glad I re-read this trilogy and re-acquainted myself with this author, but I’m not sure that I’d re-read them again.

Not a Virago edition, but a Virago author.

Angela Thirkell – “High Rising” (Virago)

(21 January 2014)

A birthday gift (along with the next two Barsetshire novels) from my friend Ali, after she’d bought some for herself, raved about them and encouraged me to take an interest in them. She was not wrong in doing that! A highly amusing romp of a novel which occupies the mutual overlap in the Venn diagram that comprises the Provincial Lady, Barbara Pym, Miss Buncle and Mapp and Lucia. The heroine, Laura, is rather adored by her creator, probably because she’s a writer herself, but that’s fine, and I personally loved her annoying son Tony, very accurately portrayed with his obsessions with railways and schoolboy friendships. Laura’s fierce independence and sharp comments to her neighbours and publisher are endearing, village life is charmingly portrayed, and it’s a cosy read, perfect for reading when you’re tired after a busy weekend and having a recline on the sofa or are a bit unwell. A nice introduction by Alexander McCall-Smith can be found in this pretty new Virago edition. Note: there are a few hunting references in the book which I know a few people have been bothered by, so just dropping that in. Nothing lurid or celebratory, and of its time. Also anti-Semitic comments which were affectionately used but a little (more) grating (to me), but neither are enough to spoil the read.


I’m currently reading Ruth Adam’s excellent Persephone “A Woman’s Place 1910-1975″ which is a history of issues affecting women. I’ve already learnt quite a lot about suffragettes that I didn’t already know!

Book Reviews – “The Marriage Plot” and “Indifferent Heroes”


To be read books July 2014Two books from my July reading as I seem to have had a few busy days workwise and preparing for some friends visiting for a university reunion. So we’ve got two novels here, one a new one by an author I’ve loved before, and one the second in a series, kindly loaned by a friend.

Jeffrey Eugenides – “The Marriage Plot”

(21 January 2014)

A birthday present with an apposite title in the year I was getting married! On the front I read “One Day with George Eliot thrown in” which didn’t fill me with anticipatory glee, as I very much disliked “One Day“. But I also very much enjoyed the author’s “Middlesex” (I don’t seem to have ever posted a review for that one – must have read it before I started reviewing online), so I forgave it that. The “One Day” reference seemed to be shorthand for us meeting some fairly unlikeable characters at university who we follow through a few more years (not 20), and who include a man and woman who are friends, but we will them to get together. But that’s where the comparisons would end, and the university setting reminded me more of a campus novel, a genre I really like.

I very much enjoyed the satire of English departments and people’s sudden affiliations to branches of literary theory such as semiotics, and it was nicely evocative of student egocentricity. The depictions of bipolar disorder for which it has been rightly praised were well and minutely done, and may well help people coming to this topic with unfamiliarity – I’ve read quite a lot of descriptions of mental health issues so this maybe lacked the impact others might find.

Good on the minutiae of friendships, sibling relationships and academia, but it seemed ultimately a bit of a cold book (a theme at the moment – see below) and I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did “Middlesex” (although more, happily, than “One Day”).

Mary Hocking – “Indifferent Heroes”

(Borrowed from Ali)

I still can’t quite work out why I had the first and third of this series but not this one! Anyway, a kindly loan and I was away.

It did feel, reading this second volume on the Fairley family, that Hocking created the series just to invent a range of characters and then put them through the various experiences of war, from battling bombs and family relationships on the Home Front to becoming dispossessed and homeless in various ways to facing physical and mental trauma in Europe, North Africa and the Far East, to finding a role and a place that might not be repeated – all mixed up and triangulated to produce a portrait of the war.

It’s thus very cleverly if a little dispassionately done – like Taylor and Pym, Hocking is not particularly empathetic or sympathetic towards any of her characters – maybe only Alice Fairley, the writer, who still ends up having to beat a lonely path through life. I can see her like a war general, pushing them around a map with one of those sticks, trying to see how they cope during and then after the war, as the hasty marriages made for one reason or another start to have to face day-to-day reality.

Book reviews – A Changed Man and The Harp in the South


To be read books July 2014Two more novels to review today – I’ve been galloping through my July reading, with a mere five books left on the front of the bookshelf and loads of good stuff read and enjoyed. If I don’t have a pressing deadline, I’ve been having a bit of a read in bed of a morning, which has certainly helped, and bus journeys back and forth to my parents-in-law at their new house have helped, too (plus a train journey to York). So here are two oldies but goodies – thanks for the lend, Ali, and the gift, Laura!

Thomas Hardy – “A Changed Man”

(Borrowed from Ali)

I gave up reading the collected Hardy on my Kindle near the start of Ali’s Hardy readalong, as you never knew where you were in the books (the percentage it gave was for the whole series of books, not progress through the one you were actually reading). Although I’ve liked the look of the new Kindle Paperwhites, I have to say that waiting for my old one to break down so I can buy a fancy new one might take a while, because I really do not use it an awful lot. Anyway – back to the Hardy.

This was rather a momentous read, as it was the last published work of Hardy’s fiction, and thus I have now, along with Ali and a group of other people, read the complete works of Thomas Hardy in publication order! Wow! I really hadn’t read as many as I should have (or people thought I had!) and found some lovely reads in “The Trumpet-Major” and “Tess” in particular, plus “Jude”, which I had been rather dreading, was actually a very good read and, dare I say it, not as depressing as I thought it was going to be. Thank you for organising the challenge, Ali. I did get a bit behind, but I got there in the end!

This collection of short stories was a great selection, treating themes of love, marriage, changed opinions and twists of fate. There was some interesting experimentation in this set of stories, with “Alicia’s Diary” being written entirely as a diary and letters, and “What the Shepherd Saw” and “A Tryst at an Earthwork” being told from the point of view of an observer rather than the main protagonist. A couple of the stories were full of the reverses of fortune, opportunities almost grasped then missed and snatches of defeat from the jaws of victory that Hardy is famous for, and some had plot twists so extreme as to be almost Sensational, giving an interesting link back to the Gothic elements in the early short stories we read.

A very good collection, with no tailing off of quality, and a worthy end to the read.

Ruth Park – “The Harp in the South”

(21 January 2014 – from Laura)

The last in my set of slightly random books kindly given to me by a friend to address some of the gaps in my Reading a Century project, this is set in a poor community in Australia and is a vivid, unusual and affecting novel about love, danger, family and trying to escape from the fate you were born to. It follows the fortunes of one central family as they try to survive and make ends meet, as well as their rather eccentric lodgers and the wider community. There are some violent scenes and one upsetting animal incident – but this was justified in the context of the dumb and pointless suffering of many of the characters with their lack of agency and the sudden violence that can flare up in a crowded and poverty-stricken environment. Some very lively and fresh characters, a good plot and great insight into the inner workings of many of the characters in turn – an engaging read.


Currently reading: I’ve got a couple more to review, and I’m enjoying a book about Canadian English and “Underground to Everywhere”, another book about London Underground. What are you all up to? Have you read anything by the hitherto unknown (to me) Ruth Park?

Book reviews – Mapping the Railways and Through the Language Glass


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!


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


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.


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


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.


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


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


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.


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.

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