State of the TBR – February 2016

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Feb 2016 TBROh dear, I’ve been slipping behind terribly with my blog posts (I’ll be sitting downstairs while some people replace the window in my study tomorrow, so expect the odd Like and comment if you’re a fellow blogger, but I’ll have to skip some of them) and now here I am, having posted a State of the TBR every first of the month for a couple of years, getting in just under the wire.

Feb 2016 confessionsAnd as you can see the TBR is still two deep all the way along, but there’s nothing horizontal on the back row, so I must be doing something right. It’s actually grown by two, which I picked up at the BookCrossing meetup in January. I’ve wanted to read “Mrs ‘Arris Goes to Paris” for ages (and I suspect it might cover a year in my Century of Reading) and the David Mitchell was recommended by a friend, who suggested one read it in the author’s voice (in your head).

Feb 2016 currently readingI did read thirteen books in January (although some were from the Other Piles and the Kindle) so I think I’m allowed to acquire two …

As well as the interminable Ken Livingstone autobiography (if he’d not tried to write a history of all history and minute every meeting he went to, it might have been a little more entertaining, but I Struggle On), I’ve been reading the first three Chalet School books and have just started the rather wonderful “Crossriggs”, which I already don’t want to end. A good small town tale with lovely heroines and a satisfying portrayal of society. Next up will be “To the Lighthouse” – I rather liked these two somewhat pensive women on the covers. That’s for Ali’s WoolfAlong, and of course I’ll have the next volume of Dorothy Richardson, too. Hooray!

Feb 2016 coming upAfter those, this is the first chunk of the TBR – a nice but dense book about translating, a slightly scary book about Iris Murdoch, another Virago (should I save them for All Virago, All August? Um … no), a book about letters, a lovely Mitford sister, and a Michael Cunningham. I might pull out Charlie Hill’s “Books” which comes quite a lot further on, as I gave a copy to a friend for Christmas and I’d rather like to read it alongside her.

Have you read any of these? Did you have a good reading January? And how is your TBR? Hope to visit some of you on your blogs again soon, too!

Book review – The Foolish Gentlewoman (Margery Sharp birthday celebration read)

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Margery Sharp's birthdayWell, I’m slightly late to the party, and I sincerely apologise for that – I did check with the lovely Jane at Beyond Eden Rock if it was OK to post late, as the book only arrived on Friday, and she said that it was.

Jane has been running a Margery Sharp Day read for the last couple of years on the author’s birthday. This year, it’s  Margery Sharp’s 111th Birthday Read and if you follow the link, you can read all about it. Margery is another of those sadly out of print mid-century woman novelists. I hadn’t read her before, but having done so, I think she’s very deserving of being brought back into print, and hopefully this celebration will help one of the lovely reprint publishers like Virago, Persephone or Bello to consider putting her on their books.

Margery Sharp – “The Foolish Gentlewoman”

(22 January 2016)

An absolutely charming novel – Sharp falls firmly into the mid-century middlebrow nexus, sitting comfortably with your Dorothy Whipple, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym or Mary Hocking. Sharp (ha) and observant about families, education (or the lack of it), class and ageing, she’s maybe a little warmer than Taylor and Pym, although just as incisive and with similar flamboyant, flawed and hilarious characters.

In this lovely novel, middle-aged, fussy loner Simon is settling down to stay with his widowed sister-in-law, Isabel, while his own house is repaired. It’s bad enough that they have to share their living space with Isabel’s nephew Humphrey and her companion Jacqueline Brown (who want some time to themselves for their quiet love affair), but then the truly dreadful Tilly Cuff (who would be at home in an Elizabeth Taylor or a Beryl Cook painting) is invited to stay when Isabel feels she owes her some kind of reparation. Tilly starts to cause malicious chaos, and Simon is drawn closer to the lower-class Pooles, the caretaker and her daughter, with their perms and film magazines and mild gambling habit (they could be drawn from a Jane Gardam novel, actually), who see him as their protector.

The book is pretty class-conscious, but it’s kind at heart. There are also some interesting points that I don’t recall finding often about the bliss of just having a REST after having been through WW2. The writing is pointed and slightly acerbic, but funny and readable. And there’s no easy solution to the incursion of chaos into the midst of quiet family life, and no easily tied up ends – which I like.

The reason for the comparisons with other writers is not to subsume Sharp within them but to provide some points of linkage with other writers you might be more familiar with. If you like any of these writers, you will like Margery Sharp. I’ll certainly be looking out for more of her delicious novels. Thank you, Jane, for introducing me to a new favourite!

This book will suit … anyone who loves residing in the mid-century middlebrow world of houses that are slightly larger than they need to be and people who don’t have quite enough to do.

Book reviews – Mrs Dalloway and Backwater

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Jan 2016 TBRI do like to theme my pairs of reviews but don’t always manage. But today I have a corker – two fantastic examples of stream of consciousness modernist novels by two seminal writers. One is very well known, one very much less so. One relates her characters to the outer world, to events in history, to characters in history, the other writes in a much more enclosed space.

Virginia Woolf – “Mrs Dalloway”

(bought 9 January 1992)

I bought this when I was 20, at university, and I have a feeling that I haven’t read it again in the meantime, so it was hardly surprising that I’d forgotten as much as I remembered about this classic. It’s thanks to Heaven-Ali‘s #Woolfalong project that I re-read it this month, and I’m glad I did, although I would say that it’s best to approach this (maybe all books that look deep into the mind of people who are having mental crises) when you’re feeling calm and in no way fragile yourself. I read it when I was a bit frazzled, and I certainly found it more disturbing and depressing than I did at 20. Was I more resilient then? Have I experienced too much mental health issues stuff in the meantime? I’m not sure, but I know I did have to read some fluffy stuff afterwards.

Anyway. It was curious how much I had forgotten – I had totally wiped Septimus Smith’s wife, Rezia, from my memory, for example, believing that Septimus wandered the streets of London alone! While we’re on the subject of the streets of London, having lived in London for seven or so years and in Covent Garden for two of them did give an extra dimension of enjoyment, as I was able to imagine Mrs D and Septimus and Rezia’s wanderings quite clearly. I had also forgotten the flashbacks to Mrs D’s youth.

I found it a depressing read, with Septimus’ fracturing world described so horribly clearly and the despair of Rezia heartbreaking to read. That’s  not to say it’s a bad book – it is of course amazing, but it’s one to read when you’re feeling fortified against the horrors of the world.

A Penguin Modern Classics edition with good (if sometimes a bit obvious) notes and a great introduction by Elaine Showalter. And I was excited to find the road we used to live off on the map in the front!

This book would suit … Woolf fans, modernism fans, people interested in the development of the novel in the 20th century, people who’ve read Michael Cunningham’s “The Hours” or seen the film and want to go back to the original

This book fulfils the first section of Ali’s #Woolfalong project, and also fills 1925 in my own Century of Reading.

Dorothy Richardson – “Backwater”

The second book in Richardson’s Pilgrimage series, which I’m reading alongside a few blogger friends this year, and Miriam has left Germany and is interviewed for a position at a school in North London. Again, the characters she meets are shown obliquely and entirely from her viewpoint. As an aside, I described this as being “Cubist” in my last Richardson review, and was pleased (OK, a bit smug) to read in the introduction to “Mrs Dalloway” Woolf’s technique being described in the same way.

Anyway, this technique has started to remind me a bit of when I was studying linguistics, and was introduced to the idea that people talking face-to-face hardly ever use nouns. Think about it – if you’re dress shopping, you’ll go, “I like that one, what about the blue one, oh, this is nice, let’s try these on”. Then the listener must try to piece together what’s being talked about, especially if they’re analysing a tape of the discussion without the context. Following Miriam’s thought processes, preoccupations and discussions, we lose track of people then find them again way later: for example, early on, she meets a man during the holidays, then we get absorbed in the world of school again, and it’s only much later that we obliquely hear what happened to their relationship – because Richardson selects rather than giving everything, and the selection is almost random, as one’s own thought processes tend to be.

Miriam is growing up in this book, but she odes seem like a mardy teenager in places, for example when she’s on holiday with two sisters and a prospective brother-in-law and finds the other holiday-makers’ perfectly normal plans “silly” in the extreme, but then engages in some sort of slightly desulatory flirtation with a man they meet, or using slang terms in front of her older, staid employers. She is given more responsibility than she was in Germany, and her interactions with her acolyte / admirer (who is actually more natural with the pupils than she is) highlight the gap between perception and reality (opening up interesting ideas about how our perception of her life through her eyes might relate to reality).

The book ends on another point of change for the characters and I look forward to the next volume. Why did I think this was so difficult and put off reading it? Again, thank you to the booky friends who have encouraged and joined in this readalong (and please post links to your reviews in the comments).

This book would suit … see above, if you want a lost woman of modernism to contrast with the well-known one!

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Margery Sharp's birthdayCurrently reading – I’ve been a bit tired this week, so I decided to pick the “Chalet School” omnibus off the shelf because it’s a nice big one and will make more room! I’ve also just started Margery Sharp’s “The Foolish Gentlewoman” which I’m reading for Jane at Beyond Eden Rock‘s Margery Sharp’s 111th Birthday Read – seems very good so far although I’m not completely sure I’ll have it read and reviewed for Monday (apparently that’s OK, though!).

Are you doing Woolfalong or the Dorothy Richardson readalong? How is your January reading going?

Book reviews – Voices, The Brightest Star in the Sky and the first DNF of the year

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Jan 2016 TBRWe’re just back from a lovely long weekend away, and so these books were read on the journeys and when milling around in the hotel. I have to say here that I didn’t only read genre fiction, as sandwiched between these two came Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs Dalloway”. However, I needed something easy on the way down after a very busy few days (weeks) and I needed something light after Mrs D, so these two go together nicely and you’ll get Mrs D and some Dorothy Richardson next time.  What do you like to read on trips? Do you take something meaty to get your teeth into or something light to snooze over on the train?

ARNALDUR INDRIDASON – “Voices”

(Bought Oct 2015 I think but I didn’t write the date in it)

In the third Reykjavik Murder Mystery, it’s Christmas time, and Erlundur isn’t really into the festivities, but has to persuade his faithful colleagues, Sigurdur Oli and Elinborg to take time out of their preparations, and the manager of the hotel where the body is found to actually let him investigate the murder. Suspects and seedy characters abound among the hotel’s guests and staff, but no one will admit to knowing the dead doorman / Santa well. Meanwhile, Erlundur comes up against his daughter’s struggles not to take a bleak view of life and go back to using drugs, but he has a hint at a possible romance, and the parts featuring this are very nicely done as he tries to remember how to ask someone out or date them. In a development from the earlier books, there’s an echoing sub-plot which is not directly related to the main action except in its subject matter and the emotions around it – that’s very well done and gives the book depth.

There’s a very unsavory Englishman, an insight into the world of collectors and a range of interesting hotel characters, and I still enjoyed it, even though there weren’t so many different locations around Iceland or Reykjavik to enjoy. Although it’s bleak, it does have the black humour of the sagas and I found it a good read.

This book will suit … those (like me) who like Scandi books but not the horror of the Scandi noir genre. If I can manage them, you can, too.

MARIAN KEYES – “The Brightest Star in the Sky”

(Kindle: bought 20 Jan 2015 so actually from the same approximate time as my print TBR, by accident)

I think Keyes was in a magicky phase when she wrote this (I seem to remember “Anybody Out There”, which she wrote next, had a supernatural theme, too), as it’s a little different from her usual modus operandi, but it’s still character-driven and hilarious in places, while dealing with some serious themes. If you’ve got the author down as a fluffy chick-lit author, think again (even in her earlier books, she deals with addiction, depression, etc.), as this treats quite a lot of serious themes, mainly around trauma and mental health.

I can’t give much detail without introducing spoilers, but the novel is narrated by some kind of supernatural, invisible being that’s hanging around a Dublin apartment block and checking in on the inhabitants, from a 40-year-old music PR to an elderly lady and her dog, a seemingly content young couple and – my favourites – spiky taxi driver Lydia and her hated Polish flatmates.

There are hilarious groups of women, sexy but unsuitable men and family dramas – a good and involving read where nothing is quite as you expect it, but the ending is satisfying.

This book will suit … I can’t actually call this one, as if you look at the reviews, this was a real marmite book. So give it a go if you like Keyes and you don’t mind the odd Dark Theme.

BENEDICT LeVAY – “Britain from the Rails”

(Bought 28 March 2015, The Works in Macclesfield)

There’s nothing wrong with this book as such, it’s just a reference book rather than a reader (and I do have a habit of reading reference books, but you can’t read this one cover to cover). I took it off the shelf before it got to the front because we were travelling on one of the railway lines it describes. This book takes various train journeys (but none in the Midlands!) and describes things you can see and places of interest along the way. It’s actually very interesting, but you do need to be travelling on a train while consulting it.

Unfortunately, it’s a bit heavy and bulky to actually pack for trips away that you might do by train – and there’s no Kindle version, so I’m going to be reduced to photographing the relevant pages when we next go somewhere it covers. But it is good in principle!

Currently reading Ken Livingstone STILL (I’m afraid this phrase came into my head when I was working through some of it at lunchtime: “This book reminds me of the time I had to minute a 3-hour meeting on what colour to paint the lamp-posts of Lewisham”) and the next Dorothy Richardson, which is an unexpected joy when I thought it would be a slog.

Book reviews – Heart of Texas III and Too Many Cooks

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Jan 2016 TBRI’ve been away, and before I was away, I was working like a person who had forgotten that she knew how to say no and keep her work-life balance running smoothly and to never work after tea. Which is a roundabout way of saying that I needed to read something easy and soothing and so I (almost) did. I picked a Debbie Macomber from the DM pile and I raced half-way down the TBR shelf to pick another light novel.

Debbie Macomber – “Heart of Texas III”

(Passed to me by and looking after for Linda)

The fifth and sixth installments of this nice series about the small town of Promise, Texas. I’ve always preferred Macomber’s series about small towns and the web of relationships within them, and while these include romance and are each centred on a particular couple, there is a satisfying richness and denseness of characters behind them.

It’s the turn of dude ranch owner Nell Bishop to star in “Nell’s Cowboy” when a visiting novelist has to put up at her ranch before it’s officially open because he wants to solve the mystery of the ghost town, Bitter End, which has been cropping up in the whole series, once and for all. Clues are scattered throughout Promise and in trunks and attics belonging to different people. Nell starts to fall for the New Yorker, and her kids love him, even her mother-in-law Ruth thinks it’s time to move on from her grief for Ruth’s son, Nell’s husband, but Nell tries to stand firm, with her business to concentrate on. She reluctantly agrees to help with the ghost town research, but what else will she end up agreeing to?

In “Lone Star Baby”, we focus on the pastor, Wade McMillen, when he comes across a spiritual crisis as he feels more than just pastoral concern for attractive but very pregnant Amy Thornton when she makes a sudden decision and ends up settling in the town. What will happen when he takes her to his parents’ barbecue without explaining first? Will Wade finally join his friends in pairing off and, handily enough, joining the Promise population explosion?

I have to say that Macomber’s is a very conservative world. You can be a single mother if there’s a “good” reason for it, values are old fashioned, and I don’t remember ever coming across a gay character – this is a shame, as she writes well and warmly, but I suppose for an audience with which I don’t totally overlap. The writing is good and there is no unpleasant judgement on alternative ways of life to those depicted; they’re just airbrushed out. I’ll tolerate that in one part of my comfort reading although not in my full reading life, of course.

This book will suit … you need to read the series, really, otherwise it’s not so fun to see how everyone is doing.

Dana Bate – “Too Many Cooks”

(22 August 2015 – The Works (?))

I picked this up because it was about a ghost writer of cookery books, and the ghost writing aspect is well done and accurate – the descriptions of cooking and recipes seem viable, too.

It’s a classic chick-lit setup with a girl who has a steady but boring boyfriend getting an exciting opportunity (in the UK, again) where she meets a terribly attractive man, in this case a very unavailable one for a number of reasons, not least being that he’s married.

It seemed funny and quirky at the beginning, with a good dysfunctional family background with some depth and bite and more swear words than are common in such books, but it became clear that it was unfortunately lacking any moral code whatsoever (so, now I’m writing these up, kind of the polar opposite of the book above). In addition to this void, there were some characters who were partly revealed but never developed to have a role in the plot or the emotional life of the book, and there was an eating disorder that was hinted at heavily but never resolved in any way (and was potentially triggering because of some of the details that were unnecessarily put in).

I didn’t really care about the characters, which doesn’t always matter, but there wasn’t much else here. At least the writing was OK and the research well done, apart from some mystifying typos in the recipes at the end (were they added as a late thought and not edited?). Disappointing.

This book will suit … someone who won’t be triggered and has a high tolerance for moral voids and nonsense. Sorry!

Currently reading: well, fortunately I had one of the reasonably light but well-written Reykjavik Murder Mysteries between this last one and the current read – Virgina Woolf’s “Mrs Dalloway”. This is so much darker than I remember – hard to read for the subject matter rather than the style. More on that later, anyway. What are you all reading? How are any challenges coming along? (Mrs D is for #WoolfAlong and also fills in a year in the Reading A Century challenge).

Book review – Bombay Stories

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Jan 2016 TBRI don’t seem to have anything to go with this one at the moment, so a singleton review. I’m reading the books I received for my last birthday as my next birthday approaches, so even though I’ve read quite a lot since Christmas Day (when I finished a book I received for the previous Christmas!) I seem to be at the same point in the TBR. Having said that, I have managed to turn that pile on the back shelf vertical now, so something must be shifting …

Saadat Hasan Manto – “Bombay Stories” (trans. Matt Reeck & Aftab Ahmad)

(21 January 2015 – from Ali)

A lovely Vintage paperback edition of stories by the acclaimed master storyteller of the 1930s and 40s. I got the idea from the blurb that these were shocking and provocative – in fact, I think he’s well known for shocking tales of Partition, whereas these stories are set earlier, mainly pre-WWII. They are in fact a little provocative given the times when they were written and published, with their open attitude to, lack of moralising about and broad discussion of sex, extramarital affairs, drinking, the odd bit of drugs and a lot of prostitution. Of course this all seems more run of the mill now to anyone raised on later stories and themes. There’s only one story which goes a bit far into violence and shock, which perhaps gives a nod to the stories Manto wrote a little later, as it is set at the beginning of the times around Partition, in fact.

Anyway, often centring round a particular character who slips into the narrator’s life (and perhaps out of it again), these stories do show the seedy side of Bombay, with assignations, prostitution, affairs and decidedly dodgy parties going on all over the place, girls being sent round to film studios to “get a job”, etc. The author himself appears in several of the stories, flitting in and out of meeting places, parties and other people’s marriages. All sorts of characters are portrayed, with little moral judgement, or anyway not where you would necessarily expect it to be. The writing is elegant and lyrical, and the translation seems good, with little of the clunkiness that can get in the way of translated reads.

A fascinating read that draws you in to a slightly tacky and sordid world which you can imagine going on at the same time as the colonial rulers were drifting around thinking they had the last word on scandals and parties – very interesting and worth a read.

This book will suit … anyone who likes books set in India (as Ali and I both do).

Currently reading – I’m still working my way through Ken Livingstone (bless him) – little flashes of (again) scandal at the way he was treated by the press but an awful lot of the inner workings of Left politics and the GLC. Also just started the Virago “Crossriggs”, published in 1908, although really I should be doing my next Dorothy Richardson. And just gearing up to read some Woolf, of course …

Book reviews – The Year Without a Purchase and Quiet

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Jan 2016 TBRTwo in the “popular non-fiction” genre to start the year off – both started last year, which was a bit untidy, but never mind. Both are autobiographical to an extent, one more than the other, and maybe both tap into modern concerns with not buying stuff and celebrating the non-neurotypical. Unfortunately, as we’ll see, I had slight issues with both of them, but these perhaps arose from my own expectations rather than any lack in the books themselves.

Scott Dannemiller – “The Year Without a Purchase: One Family’s Quest to Stop Shopping and Start Connecting”

(e-book, kindly supplied by the publisher via NetGalley)

I am fairly parsimonious and not linked into a culture of buying things for the sake of it in the slightest, but I do enjoy books about not buying things for a year or living on small budgets, and have read quite a few over the years. So I was attracted by the title of this one on NetGalley, and made an error in doing so and not reading the description carefully enough, because I didn’t realise that it was written from a specifically Christian perspective until I started reading it. Then, it became quickly obvious, and indeed the author addresses the issue almost immediately, expecting people to be put off. So I refused to be – but if you’re not at all keen on religious stuff in books, you’re not going to be massively keen on this one.

So, it does revolve around themes of connecting with God – but also with family and loved ones and friends – and it’s peppered with relevant Bible quotations. Some of what the family do is necessarily connected deeply with prayer and spiritual connection. But it’s not a particularly preachy book – apart from exhorting us not to waste money on rubbish, which is pretty sensible whatever way you look at it, and it’s not over-serious, either. It’s honest and self-deprecating about the author’s failings, the family’s failures, problems with disciplining the children, etc., and is amusing at times.

There are lots of tips about negotiating money-free gifts (including a very moving birthday celebration), and sharing experiences, etc., which would appeal to anyone, and there’s a good emphasis on charity, both monetary and practical, which is nice to see and interesting to read about.

This book will suit … people looking to save themselves from overspending and the consumer culture, but who are tolerant of or actively interested in about reading on this topic from a religious / Christian perspective.

Susan Cain – “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking”

(21 January 2015)

This was hailed as ground-breaking when it came out, and it is a reasonably good book, although once again (sense a theme in this post?) I don’t think I’m the exact audience at which it is aimed. It would basically appeal most to people who have just discovered they’re introverted (true basic meaning: recharge their energy from being alone, rather than from being with other people, but expanded to mean quiet and some other stuff I’ll mention later) or are having a hard time accepting themselves as introverted and OK all the same. Now, I have lots of things about me that I dislike: I really hate being prosopagnosic / face-blind*, for example, and find that a right old pain, but I’ve never minded being an introvert or thought it made me somewhat less of a person than the extroverted, so I don’t really need this book to bolster me up, whereas the less content would I’m sure find it very comforting.

The other reason that this doesn’t really match me as a reader is that Cain conflates the introverted, the shy and the Highly Sensitive Person to a large (and admitted) extent. I’ve schooled myself out of being shy to a large degree, and having read about HSPs I am pretty sure I’m not one of them, so that means the book matches my own lived experience even less (but again makes it useful for that group of people). It’s good on the cultural and historical aspects of introversion and the current (Western) cult and adoration of extroversion, and has plenty to help the introvert who is thrown into the business etc. arena. In a way, it’s trying to do for introverts what Neuro Tribes does for those on the autistic spectrum, and it’s a laudable aim that is carried out well.

But it’s preaching to the choir here, and I was also a little irritated by the laissez-faire attitude to referencing, with the author admitting that she changes quotations without bothering to mark additions and deletions and that slightly annoying referencing system that does away with footnotes and lists scraps of sentences in the back.

*I’ve blogged about prosopagnosia in the business context here ; it does explain the basics, too.

This book will suit … Anyone who’s not happy about being an introvert or needs to find their place in the world and could do with some back-up; people who work with or are friends with introverts.

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Currently reading – I have to say that the kind of person who attends a random town council meeting when he goes on holiday IN A DIFFERENT COUNTRY can be predicted to not write The Most Interesting Autobiography Ever. But I’m sticking with Ken Livingstone because there are diamonds among the fluff and I’m looking forward to the later sections!

Have you read either of these books? What do you do when you don’t L.O.V.E. a book that everyone else seems to rate – do you care?

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