Holiday reading and acquisitions

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Apr 2014 2We’ve just spent a very pleasant “minimoon” in the Lake District, having a lovely, relaxing time with lots of reading. I managed to read two and two bits (a third of Thomas Hardy’s “The Well-Beloved”, which turns out to be a rather odd choice for the newlywed to read, and part of “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”, which didn’t really grab me and I’m not going to finish. I did also manage to buy FIVE books – how did that happen? More info on those after the reviews …

Charlie Hill – “The Space Between Us”

(21 November 2013 Oxfam Bookshop)

Charlie Hill was taught by the husband of one of my friends, is a friend of another and in a writing group with yet another, who is mentioned in his acknowledgements, so clearly it was time to read and review this one (his new one, “Books”, is on my wishlist). It’s also set in early-1990s Moseley, which is where I was when it was, if you see what I mean, so even more apt. It was also set up to disappoint of course – luckily it didn’t!

It’s set among the unemployed and artistic community of a more bohemian and raggle-taggle Moseley than perhaps exists today, underpinned by ageing hippies and unthreatened by general culture or the Establishment, with a different vibe from that of Kings Heath down the road (where I’m writing this review). It gets the atmosphere completely right (although I was a student at the time, not a group particularly mentioned or celebrated in the book), and is full of endearingly odd characters, including the narrator, who you shouldn’t really warm to, given that he spends his life drifting along doing what he fancies and not being exactly faithful to the woman he’s involved with. There’s a touching love story which lurches to a start and looks set to drift to a stop at any minute, and the whole is set against the growing community protest movement against bypasses and the Criminal Justice Act.

It’s a good story, if episodic and sometimes vague (echoing the protagonists’ lives to an extent). Linguistically it’s very inventive and playful, mixing slang and poetic devices to extremely good effect, enhancing the dreamy yet absorbing nature of the reading experience. It’s also funny and very interesting on the background to the ‘DIY culture’ of the early to mid-90s (which I’ve just been reading about in the protest songs book I’ll be reviewing next time, fortuitously enough). A good read and highly recommended, to locals and ex-locals but also to anyone interested in inventive new writing and writing about this time period.

Laura Kriska – “The Accidental Office Lady”

(BookCrossing 07 April 2014)

I was shocked to receive an email about a BookCrossing BookRing (a book that’s passed from person to person on an organised list) as I haven’t joined any for years – it looks like I joined this one in 2007! As BookRings are supposed to be read and sent on within a month, I thought the minimooon would be an ideal time to whizz through this one, and so it was. I read about half of it on the train journey home.

The author was born in Japan and studied Japanese, with a year in a Japanese university, so she obviously jumped at the chance of a two-year stint working for Honda in Japan before returning to her new job in its US operations. This is the story of how she carved out her own role and individuality – in society and the company – amidst the culture clash and environment of self-enforced conformity, learning to negotiate in the Japanese way and to make friends along the way.

I liked the details about exactly how she lived her life, her housing situation and arrangements, and enjoyed the honesty about the culture clash and its frustrations but also her appreciation of Japanese culture and attempts to fit in. I would love to find out what happened next, as this is a few years old now.

Apr 2014 3In terms of book acquisitions, on Wednesday we took a day trip to Kendal where there is one of those outlet malls – didn’t buy anything else there but I did find a Works shop (of course I did) where I picked up the above two new Georgette Heyers (not new to me, of course, but they seem to be drip-feeding them into the stores and I definitely haven’t re-read these recently) and Tracey Thorn’s autobiography, about which I’ve heard good reports.

I also remembered as we walked down the hill from the railway station that there was an excellent bookshop at the top end of Windermere, Fireside Bookshop, and that’s where I gleefully pounced upon the copy of “The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists”. I was very happy to find this because I have for a while now had it planned for the 1914 entry in my Century of Books project (it’s one of the only decent books published that year), but I’m making an effort not to push the acquiring for the project, as such – as I happened upon this one, that was fine.

I also spotted “Penguin Portrait” there on the first visit, but wasn’t sure whether it was a duplicate of a book I already have in hardback. So I went back to the hotel and checked, and then picked that one up on the way back up the hill to the station on Thursday (it was handy that Matthew bought a new rucksack in Kendal, so we could fit in the extra books and Mint Cake).

Apr 2014 Fireside BooksOh, and the picture to the right? This records the first time I’ve written my new name in one of my books  (although the first book acquisition of our married life was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah” from our friend Bridget: I seem not to have written in that one yet). I also include in that picture the web address and email address of the Fireside Bookshop – a lovely bookshop that does mail order too – I was very glad to find it still going.

Apr 2014 sewing shopWhile we’re on the subject of lovely independent shops, here’s one Matthew spotted for me on the approach to Windermere Station – Sew Much Fun. The manager is a lovely lady who grew up locally – so nice to see people staying in their local communities rather than moving away, and it’s a rather nice shop with lots of supplies crammed into a tiny space. They do classes, too (see pic to the right).Apr 2014 sewing shop details

So, some good times, some good reading, and some good new books. I’ve had a bit of a hiatus from this blog while working my way through “33 Revolutions Per Minute” – what have you all been up to?

 

Book review – Joe and the Race to Rescue

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Book cover - Victoria Eveleigh - Joe and the Race to RescueThis is the third (and final?) instalment in the Joe … series by Victoria Eveleigh (read my reviews of Joe and the Hidden Horseshoe and Joe and the Lightning Pony). It picks up pretty well right after the last book, with Joe having moved on from his pony club champion, Lightning to new pony, Fortune. He begins to realise what a good teacher Lightning was as he struggles to forge a meaningful relationship with Fortune, who is of a very high quality but doesn’t seem to have engaged with him.

Meanwhile, Joe’s finally found a horsey world where girls, pink and sparkles do not rule: the world of the heavy horse. Introduced to Malcolm by Chris, the farrier, Joe’s soon learning all he can about driving and ploughing, taking out subscriptions and learning to care for – and even ride – these gentle giants. This is an area that I don’t think I’ve seen covered in a modern pony book before – there is driving in historical novels, of course, but not up to date ones, and we meet a pony who does equally well being driven and ridden, too.

It’s not all about Joe and his horses – his friendships, especially with Martin and Caroline, continue to deepen, and Sensei Radford makes a brief but profound appearance. I do love the range of role models that Joe has, not forgetting neighbour Nellie, who gives Joe a few pointers along the way. And there’s plot and excitement aplenty, of course: who is going to be picked for the England team in the international pony club games, and what exactly does the watery picture on the front signify. There are some lovely touches and echoes, especially in a ploughing scene near to the end of the book.

Once again, Victoria Eveleigh has got it just right, with modern touches (Facebook pages are updated with new pony pictures and text messages are important) but a good old-fashioned story without magic and silliness, lessons to learn about heavy horses and a good solid underpinning about family, friendship and care for the animals. It’s a shame if this is the last we’re going to see of Joe – maybe he can develop an interest in Exmoors next …

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher – thank you, Orion.

Book reviews – Xenophobe’s Guide to the Icelanders, Virago is 40 and Sunlight on a Broken Column

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Mar tbrWell I’ve got three books here, but it’s two very small ones and a Virago so it seemed sensible to do them together. Also some news of several new acquisitions below … But first two small books, read on my journey to London to have a day out with my friend Emma last week. I had cheap tickets on the fast train; good for getting more time in London, not so good for reading time, but I still managed to finish these two, and in fact, start the Virago Modern Classic, too. “Sunlight on a Broken Column” turned into a readalong with two booky friends, so do click through to have a look at their reviews, too!

Various – “Virago is 40: A Celebration”

(10 August 2013, Any Amount of Books, Charing Cross Road)

I picked up this print version of a book I already had in e-book format on one of my other wanderings through London (this time, although I went to the Charing Cross Road, I managed not to buy ANY books …) and it was perfect for a train journey read. A collection of Virago authors were asked to write a short piece on the theme of “40″, and this is the result: pieces about Virago publishing itself, about the authors’ own lives, about other writers at 40, short stories, poems, and a clever list of excerpts from books featuring the numbers one to forty. A very varied collection indeed – nothing to really get your teeth into, but, as I said, perfect for travelling.

Richard Sale – “Xenophobe’s Guide to the Icelanders”

(7 March 2014)

Touted as “frank and funny”, this is more the kind of book that makes an insider chuckle, perhaps – I certainly wouldn’t have got that much out of it if I hadn’t known a bit about Iceland and its inhabitants already, which is not really why I bought this book! It’s a bit too silly, when it comes to it – yes, the title does make that clear, I suppose, but I still hoped for more cultural information than perhaps I got out of it, although there were some useful titbits buried among the jokes. I’m glad that I’m supplementing this with some other books about Iceland (see below: I’m certainly doing that …)

Attia Hosain – “Sunlight on a Broken Column”

(19 August 2013 – Oxfam in Oxford)

This was bought on my last trip to Oxford, and it’s exciting to be among those buys now (and out of July’s ones!). This was a very interesting read: a novel published in 1961 by a woman living in England who had left India in 1947, around the time of Independence. Anita Desai’s Introduction brings out the fact that the author’s life was very like that which she describes in the book, and it is a very intimate portrayal of a largely vanished way of life which could only have been written from the inside.

The novel centres around a traditional family in Lucknow in the 1930s who are working out slowly how to exist in a world where the colonisers are being edged out at the same time as the patriarchal head of the family is dying, politics is becoming more important than looking back at history, but history is in the making. But still the eternal patterns of family life and sacrifice, illicit love, children rebelling and mothers not understanding persist.

In a rich prose that is almost Modernist at times, Hosain describes many different types of character, from distant patriarchal figures to enchanting women who become all-too-human, basing the book in a rather fascinating way around the houses in which they live (as the women’s lives are very internal in terms of housing and emotions), with a particularly powerful last section viewing events during and since Partition through the lens of the deserted family house. All of this is observed by Laila, one of the daughters of the house but with a tenuous position in adolescence and adulthood owing to her lack of family and then bid for freedom, who learns to think for herself almost against the odds.

A powerful and moving book that gives a different perspective on the events I’ve read about so many times before..

Heaven-Ali and Kaggsy have both been reading this book at the same time – read Ali’s review here, and Karen’s too.

More confessions

Mar 2014 2So, we’re going to Iceland for our (delayed so that we go when the buses are running) honeymoon, and I’m using that as an excuse to top up my collection of books on the country and its people. Bank of Matthew paid for these lovelies (Bank of Matthew is a scheme whereby Matthew puts aside money for me for Christmas and Birthday, and I can then claim treats as I want them as I go along through the year) and I’ve decided that instead of a Month of Re-Reading in July this year, I’m going to have a Month of Reading About Iceland in May. So watch this space for some reviews of these in but a couple of months!

“Iceland Defrosted” is an apparently self-published book collecting this Icelandophile’s (is that a word) magazine columns and other writings about his experiences in the country. It looks well written and amusing but detailed and long enough to give me lots of information about the places and people of modern Iceland.

Mar 2014 3These three lovelies are a memoir, a novel and a collection of translations of the saga. “Names for the Sea” follows the author as she moves to Iceland and lives in Reykjavik with her family for a year, working at the university. I could NOT work out what the little things were on the cover at first: they turned out to be people bobbing in the thermal waters of the Blue Lagoon. “The Tricking of Freya” is a novel about a North American woman of Icelandic ancestry returning to the island to discover some family secrets – a rare example of fiction about Iceland that isn’t of the Scand-noir genre. “The Sagas of the Icelanders”, with a Foreword by Jane Smiley, who wrote a saga-like novel about Greenland that I haven’t actually read yet, brings together a collection of translations of well- and little-known sagas, in a lovely Penguin Classics Special Edition with deckled edges, no less (wavy, hand-made looking page edges to you and me).

I’m really looking forward to reading these, and they’ve joined Halldor Laxness on a special pile on my TBR, which I will no doubt share with you at the beginning of April.

Have you read any of these? What are you reading at the moment? Do you have any monthly theme reads coming up?

Book reviews – Waterlog and The Double Life of Jane Austen

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Mar tbrFinally I’ve finished those two books I was so bogged down in. In fact, I finished them on the same day, as I thought I had loads to go on the Jane Austen then discovered wodges of plot synopses in the back (this only usually happens to me with Kindle books, where you get to about 95% and it suddenly ends – or is that just me?)

Anyway, I was pleased to finish these as it was all getting a bit wading-through-mud – and then, of course, I had a day trip to London on Wednesday and finished two more little ones, so watch this space for more reviews on Sunday! But here are two non-fiction books, both the products of their author’s enthusiastic more-than-just-a-hobby, but both frustrating in their ways, too.

Roger Deakin – “Waterlog”

(16 July 2013 – British Heart Foundation, Penrith)

Yes, I’m still on those Northern Odyssey books, but not for much longer: I’ve finally got to the ones purchased in August 2013 in London now! This is a somewhat famous book in which the author wild swims around the UK – although I have to admit that I was a bit bothered that he didn’t do it in order, but darted here, there and everywhere, taking a piecemeal approach which I suppose had to fit around his other activities, but made the book a little disjointed (I could have done with a map, too).

It is however worth reading for the beautiful descriptions of the seas, rivers, lidos, streams, pools, reaches, tarns, lakes, canals, swimming pools and moat, well-known and hidden, that he explores during his series of journeys. There was an exciting (to me) excursion to the Oasis rooftop swimming pool at the end of our old street in Covent Garden (do you get all excited when a book pitches up at somewhere you know well, not set there in its entirety like my obsession with books set in Birmingham, but just a flash of a place you know?). The main plus point about the book for me was the detailed, respectful and accurate descriptions of the flora and fauna he meets along the way – the people come second, in my view.

Deakin was obviously an eccentric chap, addicted to the pleasures of swimming au naturel (and telling us about it), and delighting in having ‘brisk’ discussions with those in authority who are not keen for him to dip in their waters – a real maverick who likes a good ruck. And that makes for a good read, too, of course.

Points, too, for his mention of Iris Murdoch, famously an enthusiastic wild swimmer herself, and, of course, given our recent storms and freak tides, for recording places that quite frankly probably aren’t there any more now. The only problem I had with this book was that it took SO LONG to read. The style (which had some odd quirks which had me hurriedly muting the protestations of my editor’s brain) was quite long-winded; swimming is not something I know much about, so I had to concentrate on working out what he was doing; and there was an indefinable something about the book that meant that, however much I was enjoying reading it, and however alert I was when I picked it up, I would invariably find myself dropping off to sleep after a mere half hour in its company!

Jane Aiken Hodge – “The Double Life of Jane Austen”

(15 July 2013 – Beckside Books, Penrith)

As an espouser of the ‘Death of the Author’ theory (the author has nothing to do with your reading experience; you react to the book yourself and it doesn’t matter what they meant, it’s what you read that counts, in brief), I do tend to be wary of books matching an author’s life to their works. There’s always the danger of finding out that beloved author was a bit of a monster, and I know a few of my readers have come across biographies like that recently. And you can easily love a book but know nothing about why the author wrote this or that, the context of the times, etc., etc.

Having said that, this does do a meticulous job of taking contemporary and just-posthumous sources on Austen – letters, in the main, and recollections and the Life issued by her close relatives – and relating them to the times at which she was writing her books, family and historical events, and something of the writing and publishing environment of the time. Except we don’t really know when Austen wrote her books – especially not the early versions of them – and we don’t have many surviving drafts and notes; add to that the big gaps in her correspondence caused by her sister’s enthusiastic excising of the record after Jane’s death, and while it’s a fair enough point that they were private letters that might hurt family members if they were to be published, we’re left with a lot of spaces to fill.

Aiken Hodge fills these spaces with a fair amount of speculation. She does flag this up both in the introduction and at the point at which she leaves the safety of the sources and paddles into murkier waters, but it is a bit annoying, to be honest. Bad enough to have to relate the books to their author without having to do guessing anyway!

Another quibble is that the introduction states clearly that it’s a reader’s book, not a critic’s book. So critical assessment of the novels is done with regard to character patterns and the relation to Austen’s own life, which is fine, but it does rely on the reader knowing the plots and characters of the novels in intimate detail (yes, there are those synopses, but they are chunks of text which you would have to scan through for character names), and there are many, many asides which throw in a character name and expect you to know immediately who it is, which book they inhabit, and their relevance to the point at hand.

So, a frustrating book on a number of points, but it is good at what it does, and there are some interesting insights.

And yes, if you were wondering, too, she was apparently the older sister of the children’s writer Joan Aiken Hodge, and she wrote a biography of Georgette Heyer that I read and reviewed a few years ago.

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Well, I sound a bit grumpy there, don’t I: sorry! I did enjoy both of these books, I just got a bit frustrated at how stuck I was getting. Next up, two short books for review, and then I have to admit that I’ve started reading “Sunlight on a Broken Column”, which I’d threatened to read later in the month but which fitted in my handbag when I went to London the other day. So, Ali and Karen, if you want to read along, I haven’t got very far yet! What’s everyone else reading?

Book review – The Odd Women

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Mar tbrYou know that I normally like to review books in pairs, right? Well, I’ve been waiting to review this one that I read in February for AGES, and I am not hugely close to finishing either of the current reads, which are both enjoyable but rather slow-going, so I’ve decided just to go for this one. I’m not hugely happy that my March reading is going to slowly already, but I hope to get in some more reading time and make some more progress, even though  I will be fiddling around with the order in which I read my TBR (I know, shocking!) in order to promote a) books on Iceland and b) a book by an author whose event I’m going to next week. I do have a trip to London next week, although it’s on the fast train rather than the slower train or the still-slower coach, so some reading will get done then. In the meantime, one review of a slightly odd book …

George Gissing – “The Odd Women” (Virago)

(16 July 2013, Oxfam, Penrith)

A lovely Original Green Virago, this is yet another in the series of books I seem accidentally to have read on the problem of the ‘extra’ (or here, ‘odd’) women who will remain single throughout their lives, in contrast with the New Woman of the late nineteenth century. This one looks at the problems of a set of sisters, the two oldest, Alice and Virginia, unattractive and worn out by their working lives (the reason being that they were not adequately prepared for such lives) and the younger, Monica, grasping some faint attraction to men and therefore consciously embarking upon a plan to get married and escape the drudgery of her sisters’ lives. We also encounter Rhoda Nunn and her employer Mary Barfoot, who are campaigning to fit such women for more lucrative careers and, in Rhoda’s case, actively to promote the single life over the married one.

There’s an interestingly drawn sub-plot where Rhoda meets a cousin of Mary’s and finds her principles being challenged – but can she use their growing attraction as a method to shore up her own principles and show the men what’s what while remaining a role model for the particular kind of women they are trying to educate (Rhoda has strict and moralistic rules on who she will help, which brings her into conflict with the more flexible Mary). Meanwhile, Monica is drawn into the kind of subterfuge and scandal peculiar to times before ours, where being seen visiting a man unaccompanied could bring terrible punishment.

It’s an interesting novel of ideas, although pretty harsh and brutal. The lack of a conventionally attractive (in any sense) hero or heroine is noteworthy, and the characters and their relationships are drawn precisely, sometimes unbearably so. The plot does jump between the different characters in a slightly dislocating way. There are some flashes of immense charm, however, such as when Rhoda, decrying the unachievable ideals that are placed in women’s psyches (while holding just such a rigid set of principles herself) opines that all novelists should be strangled and thrown into the sea, and startlingly perceptive descriptions, such as that of a young man, seemingly a masculine hero, who actually trembles like a woman when the need to act positively is thrust upon him. Rhoda despises weakness and Gissing seems to, too, and there are no easy or happy endings, with immorality being punished (by the author or society? I’m not sure) and society and its mores shown up under the harsh light of his examination.

So, an uncomfortable read but an interesting one, and it does hold the interest; even at the bleakest moments, I would not have stopped reading for the world, and I did become addicted to the psychological detail and precise delineation of events, places and reactions that Gissing achieves.

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Xenophobe's Guide to the IcelandersNew book in – another book on Iceland (for a holiday, so these Do Not Count), and a little one which slipped through the letterbox yesterday. Billed as a light-hearted guide to “what makes the Icelanders Icelandic”, this slim volume does seem to cover the basics of how society works, attitudes to all sorts of things, etc., and will be read with interest but a pinch of salt.

So, I’m STILL currently reading “The Double Life of Jane Austen” (which pushes against my ‘death of the author’ espousal like MAD and assumes a knowledge of Austen that does leave me racking my brains for the book in which someone appears but is good on the whole) and “Waterlog” (which is still making me sleepy but again, is enjoyable). Up next will be Charlie Hill’s “The Space Between Things”, as I’m going to an event in Birmingham next week where he’ll be talking about his books and hopefully reading from his new one, “Books”, which I will then buy. “The Space Between Things” is set in early-1990s Moseley in Birmingham, somewhere I spent time at that time, and just flicking through the first few pages, I can see so much great observation and recognisable places and types, so I’m really looking forward to that. And then possibly the Laxness – has no one who reads this blog read any Laxness? I did put out a shout-out to see if anyone can shed light on why he’s so revered, from personal experience. Do let me know!

Book review – Deeds not Words

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Deeds not Words by Katharine D'SouzaA single book review here today, because I’ve only got one finished and ready to review at the moment, and knowing the author (although having purchased the book at full price) and especially the fact that she’s an independent author, I wanted to get my review out on here and on Amazon as quickly as I could. It really matters, having reviews, when you’re going it alone without the full publicity machine of a large publisher behind you: people buy on recommendation, and I know from marketing my own books that sales pick up as soon as you have a few reviews – in fact, it’s  not really worth officially launching a book until you have a few reviews stacked up for people to see. I also promoted this one up the book pile because I wanted to get it read and reviewed, and Ali was reading it at the same time.

Katharine D’Souza – “Deeds not Words”

(04 January 2014)

I knew what I was getting into with this book. I’d read the author’s “Park Life” back at the end of 2012 (was it really that long ago?) and was aware that, as with that novel, she had set this one in my home town of Birmingham. Now, I’m more likely to read a book that’s set here, I’d admit, but if they get it wrong, I’m much more likely to notice and throw the book across the room (I have done that before now). But I knew from “Park Life”, which was not only set in Birmingham but in the suburb where I live, that Katharine gets her city right, as she should do – both the places and the feel of the city.

This new novel is more city centre-focused, although also moving out into the suburbs and even as far as Stratford-upon-Avon. It centres around Caroline, working at the Museum and Art Gallery, having returned home from a marriage that’s gone wrong, always tending to run back to the familiar and safe rather than taking risks. She’s got her own flat near to work, but hasn’t really got round to decorating or personalising it, and the contrast is thrown into relief when she visits her beloved grandmother Beth’s much-loved and cluttered family home.

So, we have a returned child of the city, lots of excellent detail about the cut and thrust of working as a museum curator and trying to carve out a place in a setup that’s been there since the year dot, and then simultaneously an old flame reappears with something of a hidden agenda, and a family secret comes to light during a crisis. Mixed up in all of this is a collection of art that might not be what it seems, an unexpected family member who might not be all he seems, a dodgy geezer clutching a ‘find’ that might well be what it seems, and the usual tangled relationships and roles found in a modern family, with the whispers of inheritance and family feuds overshadowing the generations. The dual aspect of genetic and financial inheritance as well as the role of gender in history and family are all explored, too, without making the book dry or didactic.

I like the way in which the themes are more tightly twined together than in the previous book, with one very central character. Her family and work relationships are allowed space to breathe, and the importance of both – and of friends – is explored and given equal weight. It’s a modern book with a modern heroine but one that reaches back into a fascinating aspect of Birmingham’s past about which I knew very little. At the end of the book, I felt sad to be saying goodbye to the world that had been created, and I also longed to experience and visit a couple of the events and places that were created in the book, for the book, so, unlike the general setting and environment of the novel, don’t actually exist!

Yes, this is a great read if you happen to live or have lived in Birmingham. But it’s not just a local novel: strip out those details and you’re still left with a strong story and memorable characters of different ages and with different personalities, delineated beautifully and believable in their depictions: even Caroline’s slightly absent father springs into sharp focus at the appropriate points.

You can buy this book in print and ebook form at Amazon, and it should be orderable from Waterstones, too, soon. Katharine D’Souza has an interesting website where you can find out more about her and her books. Read Ali’s review here.

I’m currently reading George Gissing’s “The Odd Women”, which is oddly enthralling and more than a touch unputdownable, even though it has a slightly odd structure and somewhat unattractive central characters, and about to start a book about Jane Austen. Have you read any of Katharine D’Souza’s books? Do you read books JUST because they’re set in your home city or somewhere you know very well, and are you more critical, giving them more to live up to than books set somewhere you don’t know?

Book reviews – Rip it Up and Start Again and Virginia

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Feb 2014Today’s two books are linked by nothing but their size. I’ve got a way to go before I start (let alone finish) the next music book, and I don’t want to be Viragoes All The Way, so two books with no link except they were fairly hefty tomes and took me a little while to get through! They do reflect my interests in music and feminism, though, although I have to say that I’m a little bit glad that the current Virago I’m reading is the last for a while (apart from the Virago At 40 book) as there are common themes that are getting a little well-trodden now. Anyway, here goes with two normal-sized reviews of two largish volumes …

Simon Reynolds – “Rip it Up and Start Again”

(11 July 2013 – Fopp in Manchester)

I’d been looking at this book whenever I went into a Fopp shop, and finally picked it up on our Northern Odyssey when we thoroughly explored the shop with Paul and Jeremy, old friends newly met in real life, if you see what I mean.

A history of post-punk music from 1978-1984, the well-known groups listed on the cover, tempting you to buy the book, are not all covered in exhaustive detail, while other, more obscure bands are, but this doesn’t matter too much in this wide-ranging and entertaining book, written in a journalistic style by a music journalist who was there through these years, often referring to his own encounters with the musicians he discusses, and obviously a fan of many of them (you’d have to be, to write this book).

It’s split into two big sections, on post-punk, mainly art-influenced and experimental music and the New Pop of the electronic bands that came a little later, with sections on the immediate aftermath and how the inventiveness of the time drained away, and on what happened next for those protagonists who survived. It’s thorough without being dry, and always holds one’s interest, even though some bands of necessity don’t have as much space as you’d wish. It’s great on the machinations of the record labels, managers and producers and at making connections between people, bands and scenes. The organisation of the chapters, taking a group of bands, sub-culture or location as their theme on the whole, works well and is probably the best way to make sense of the material.

Readable and entertaining and has also helped with the transcription part of my job, providing vital background information which I will return to again, and giving me details about two people I transcribed while I was reading the book!

Ellen Glasgow – “Virginia” (Virago)

(15 July 2013 – Beckside Books, Penrith)

Named after both the heroine and the American state in which she lives, this long novel charts a young woman’s progress through society in the post-Reconstruction South, minutely examining the myths of that particular place and how they shape their inhabitants, with an underpinning theory of determinism and people’s inability to escape the fates that society as a whole sets for them.

Some women work against type – the coarse Abbey, who attracts Virginia’s rebel-who-gives-up-rebelling husband, Oliver, and Susan, Virginia’s best friend, the New Woman of the novel who, nevertheless, is forced to bow to duty and to have only a half-fulfilled destiny of her own. The new myth of money-making and commerce is exposed as just as limiting and inflexible as the old Southern ones of class and blood. Maybe Virginia’s children will fulfil a more broad destiny, although they are still described limitingly as having the wrong gender attributes for their actual sex, or making the kind of hasty and unconsidered marriage that their mother made – so is there any progress here?

In unmasking the Southern Belle and the views of love and marriage which forced her to wither and ‘lose her beauty’ through self-sacrifice once married, the author does still make her human, although seemingly unaware of the inequalities of the ties that bind her, a woman trying to do her best in a situation where that is not what is called for, and her best will be never be enough. Her husband is portrayed as just as trapped by societal expectations, giving up his youthful ideals and conforming to the norm, although he is more able to break away than his wife. In the end, the only truly fulfilled character seems to be the poor dressmaker who flits from house to house, serving all, yet her own person, beholden in the end to no one. She is contrasted effectively with the school teacher who sits like a spider in the web of the town’s relationships, judging and holding court and trying to ensure the ignorance of her pupils.

I have to mention that the treatment of the Black characters in the novel leaves much to be desired. While the characters are seen as inhabiting their own closed world, and express their views coherently with their position, the servants and (in many cases) ex-slaves are described in patronising and inappropriate terms as children or even brutes, not only by the characters but by the omniscient narrator. While a product of her times and mores, and while she does display some of the hypocrisies and difficulties of the previously slave-owning class, much of the language used here is uncomfortable for the modern reader, and unfortunately undermines the feminist power of the book.

Interestingly, given my next read, in the Introduction (read, of course, after I’d finished the main body of the novel), Paul Binding (Friend Of Barbara Pym) contrasts the human portrayal of the characters with the more bleakly deterministic George Gissing …

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Currently reading: I’ve picked up the indeed somewhat bleakly deterministic “Odd Women” by Gissing. It is strangely powerful and compelling, however, and I want to know what happens to the characters who are trapped by circumstance and who the New Woman (another NW!) of the book is at present attempting to rescue. I’m also starting Katharine D’Souza’s new novel, “Deeds Not Words”, set in the art gallery in Birmingham and also being read by my friend Ali. What are you up to in your reading? Have you read too many of the same type of novel in one go and how did you resolve that?

Book reviews – Ordinary Families and The Third Miss Symons, plus a lovely bookshop!

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Two Viragoes today and also two bFeb 2014ooks in which the central character suffers in the comparison with her more attractive and conventionally successful younger sister. Two books, also, that examine the place of women in society, the expectations of their reactions and behaviour, and their acceptance of their role in the family hegemony as well as that of society. And two good reads, although I did prefer the length and themes of the first one.

E. Arnot Robertson – “Ordinary Families” (Virago)

(15 July 2013, Penrith Bookshop)

Lalage is the second daughter in a large family which has its ways of doing things – not being sentimental, relentless mocking of any sentimentality, interest or oddity, enjoying the most unpleasant of sailing experiences, in particular – which must be adhered to at all times. The Rushes are an extraordinary family amid some other ordinary and odd ones in Pin Mill, and life revolves around tall stories, odd colleagues from the father’s exciting life and being that particular family.

Lalage feels that she doesn’t fit in, and tries to keep her friendships and especially her love of bird-watching apart from the boisterousness of family life. It’s a coming-of-age novel, but unusually for books written in the 1930s, this has a no-nonsense approach to the discussion of periods and the awakening of desire in its awkward and appealing heroine, only too well aware that she’s no match for her devastatingly beautiful younger sister.

Taking place around the post-First World War period, the war has its effects on the characters and story, with brave Father’s unsuccessful war being contrasted with those who fought and fell or came back shell-shocked. It also covers the screaming and fervid party-going of the 20s generation, even in quiet rural areas, but all in all it’s a wonderful evocation of sailing and bird life and village life, with an attractive and memorable heroine. Some reviewers have found that there are too many descriptions of sailing; I really like reading about sailing, so this was not a problem for me!

F. M. Mayor – “The Third Miss Symons” (Virago)

(15 July 2013, Penrith Bookshop)

A short book – really a novella – taking that unpromising subject, an unmarried woman through the late Victorian era, who never has her character faults addressed and therefore ends up wanting to love and be loved, but essentially unloved and pretty unpleasant, and using it to examine the expectations of love and marriage and the position of the ‘extra woman’ in society in this first novel which she was also to address in her later ones, such as The Rector’s Daughter. There are a lot of what-ifs in this book that make it very poignant – what if there had been fewer children, if Henrietta had been taken in hand or accepted the warnings about her temper and tried to change herself, what if her sister – another attractive younger sister – hadn’t played around with her one suitor? It’s a quick and absorbing read, once more addressing the issue of what to do if you don’t fit in with the prevailing society that we saw in Holtby’s “The Crowded Street”.

High Street Books, New Mills, postcard and business cardWe went up to New Mills yesterday to see my editing friend Laura and her partner, Mark. They have a wonderful bookshop – High Street Books (also on Facebook) – only a few minutes’ walk from their house, which has a huge selection of excellent fiction and non-fiction, beautifully arranged, with owners who know every inch of their stock. They do loads for the local population, too, organising book orders for those who don’t have access to the internet or credit cards, and helping to build and hold this community together. Highly recommended if you are in the area, or even vaguely in the area – and they do mail order, too, so you don’t have to be anywhere near them to use them!

Feb 2014The books that Laura bought me for my birthday came from here, and I picked up these two lovelies – a copy of Hardy’s “Life’s Little Ironies” in the Macmillan Pocket Hardy Wessex Edition that I gently collect (this was one of the only Hardys I didn’t have, and I borrowed Ali’s copy for last year’s read of the book), and a really sweet guidebook to Iceland published in 1981 although based on earlier editions.

Currently reading: “Rip it up and Start Again” is still on the go, though I’m over half way through now. I have some more Viragoes coming up, but might dip into a book I bought at the same time about Jane Austen … What are you reading at the moment and what have you bought recently? Do you collect any special editions?

 

Book reviews – Jude the Obscure

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Reread Jan 2014For once I’m doing a singleton review, not really for any reason other than the fact that I’ve got two pairs of Viragoes and two non-fiction books coming up, and this one really belongs to the Month of Re-Reading. I’ve talked about how I felt the month went on my last post: it was enjoyable and I did have some real highlights, although I was disappointed to find one author did not bear re-reading (then again, I now have an attractive patch of empty bookshelf to fill) and another was not as I’d remembered.

This one, however, was also not how I’d remembered … but in a good way!

Thomas Hardy – “Jude the Obscure”

(not sure when I acquired this: it’s a Penguin Classic but a bit more battered and faded than I’d assume from the fact that I’ve only read it once before. No date written inside. Let’s just call it a mystery.)

I was slightly dreading reading this one, but I had read all of the other books in Ali’s Thomas Hardy project, so it seemed right that I attempted it. I don’t think I was avoiding it by leaving it to the last in my Month of Re-Reading pile: each book in the Hardy project has two months allotted to it, so I knew it was OK to let it spill into February. Anyway, I recalled it as being relentlessly miserable, with one scene in particular sticking in my mind (OK, one scene, total. I don’t think I’ve read this since I was about 19, mind. There have been a lot of books under the bridge since then).

In fact, of course, there’s much to enjoy in this tale of a man struggling against his class, family background and education and failing in his self-imposed task about being a self-made man. The epigraph of this book could be “A little learning is a dangerous thing”, actually, as Jude is maybe given ideas he can’t ever fulfil by his reading, and his Sue is full of half-digested readings and understandings which make her get in ever such a muddle. Is that patronising? I don’t know. But this book is full of ideas about one’s station, as well as about the changing society of the time at which it’s set. Actually, I’m very glad that I was reading this for pleasure and not for study, as my Eng-Lit-trained mind kept noticing echoes and predictions, but I was able to bat them away to a large extent and just enjoy my read.

It’s a fairly hefty novel, but a page-turner. In addition, the descriptions of both the North Wessex countryside and the great city of Oxford are beautifully done. Instead of the rustic chorus of the earlier, entirely rural, novels, the chorus here is of ladies of doubtful reputation and working men who frequent pubs, and they fill just enough of the background not to irritate.

The story is a good one, although to me, Jude seems sometimes to be something of a cipher, a figure full of meaning and metaphor, but curiously passive, inertly succumbing to the wills of the more assertive females in the book, even to the last. The weird child, Father Time, as the introduction to my copy of the book confirms, is not particularly believable and just has to be swallowed, like the more unlikely events in a Restoration Tragedy: I found his character and actions almost Dickensian, or maybe he feels like he belongs in one of the short stories, which can be darker and more odd than the novels.

But Hardy has too many things to say about the restrictions that marriage and convention impose on love and, particularly, women (I did like the part where they fled the Register Office owing to its dismal aspect), and on women’s right to independence, as well as progress and the ‘modern’ world to be spoiled by a peculiar plot device, and so I can forgive him for it. I also found Jude an attractive character, but must admit more of a regard for Arabella than for the over-thinking Sue, a lesser woman, I feel, than the magnificent Tess or other Hardy heroines.

All in all, I’m very glad that I re-read this novel. I couldn’t, in the end, put it down, even when breakfast and work were calling me – the mark of a good book, indeed.

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Currently reading: I’m reading the excellent “Rip it up and Start Again”, an exhaustive study of the history of post-punk music, and having a slight Virago-fest, brought on by (finally) reaching the rich seam of dark green spines put in place in July with our holiday in the Lake District.

Book reviews – The Crowded Street (Persephone) and Mansfield Park

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Reread Jan 2014It’s back to the re-reading after a brief foray into the world of e-books and review copies, and what a pair of excellent books with which to continue! Neither of these disappointed, and I loved the tie-ins with previous Month of Re-Reading posts, as Winifred Holtby was of course Vera Brittain’s great friend, and I’ve been reading a Jane Austen novel during each Month of Re-Reading so far. Both of these books treat unconventional women; Holtby’s is almost as strictured as Austen’s through much of the book, but she manages to make her escape from the clutches of conventional society in a more modern and – perhaps to the modern reader – satisfying way.

Winifred Holtby – “The Crowded Street” (Persephone Books)

(25 December 2013 – From Ali)

A brilliant novel, full of stories and ideas and a careful consideration of what is really meant by society, duty, family, morality, love and women’s place in the home and wider world.

A quiet, Jane Eyre-like central character is contrasted with her more impulsive, emotional sister and the one emancipated woman in the village, who she feels is a version of herself that she could never hope to be, as well as her glamorous half-French school friend, who has all the worldliness there could be but does not understand English small-town life in the years around the First World War. Can she achieve escape from the stultifying half-life of helping her mother run a house that doesn’t need that much running and offer herself – still in service – in a more meaningful way? Dare she develop a ‘temperament’ and a personality of her own? Will she just go from one form of subjugation to another?

Holtby does seem here to value the quiet virtue of home-making and service as a way of life, as we will see that Austen values the quiet, timid goodness of  her heroine. But will Muriel speak out and speak up, even flourish on the lecture platform, as she needs to? And then, when offered what she has been conditioned to believe she has always wanted, will she make the right decision? It’s a heart-in-the-mouth moment when she does that, and a very satisfying ending.

A novel of ideas and one that depicts some important times in the development of the women’s movement, charting the state of flux that always seems to exist between the sides of the home-maker and the non-domesticated activist.

I last seem to have read and reviewed this in July 1997, although I was at pains to point out then that it was already a re-read:

“(Library) Read before. Story of woman’s realisation of her own needs away from family and community. A bit over-metaphorical, but told with good plot and character.”

Hm, not sure what to make of that. Onwards …

Jane Austen – “Mansfield Park”

(1988, School Form Prize)

A re-read of perhaps the Austen I know least well. And of course, many people seem to cite it as their least favourite, especially given the ‘prim’ heroine, Fanny. Well, maybe it’s the quietness of age, or maybe it’s the influence of lovely Muriel in the Holtby, but I found a lot to like in quiet Fanny, trying to do the best she could, trying to stick by her morals and those of the age, in the face of the rather dodgy influences that come into play around her.

We all know the story, of course – Fanny is taken in by  her uncle and aunt, raised to feel inferior to her cousins and to be a support to her aunt. She observes the wickednesses that ensue when Mary and Henry Crawford enter the vicinity, with their play-acting and flirtatiousness, takes refuge in her little room full of books but no fire, is flirted with herself, has a difficult trip ‘home’, loves her one decent cousin, witnesses further wickednesses (at one step removed) and finally prevails.

There is a lot in the Penguin Classics introduction about how Fanny represents the status quo of the old order before war and money broke in and changed society, and in showing her quiet, decent heroine winning through, she reminds me of Hardy’s promotion of the good, gentle and quiet above the passionate and those who seek to break society’s mores. She does stand up for herself, quietly and firmly and, while the younger or more lively reader, keen on the wittiness and reversals of “Pride and Prejudice” and the like, might find her boring, I found her intriguing. It’s so clever to write a novel with such a quiet, almost non-existent heart, and the foreshadowing of more concrete events in plays, trips to a park and seemingly innocuous card games is so masterfully done.

Although I was heard to complain that things were going a bit slowly in the first half of the book, I will remember next time to look out for those small, revealing moments.

I have to include a photo of the bookplate and bookmark in this copy; I took this photo to contrast the school prize bookplates in my copy of “Mansfield Park” and a book that I hoped was published in 1914 (but proves to be from 1908, with a bit of research):

Jan bookplates

Currently reading: I’ve really finished the Month of Re-Reading now, I’m going to have to get on with the rather large history of post-punk music that I started in December, but I am about to start re-reading “Jude the Obscure” for the Hardy project, so one more, even if I am unlikely to finish it this month …

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