Book review – The Curate’s Wife

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TBR August 2015As promised on my review of “Jenny Wren” published yesterday, here’s my review of its sequel, which I started as soon as I’d finished the first novel, as I couldn’t wait to find out what happened to the characters. I have heard of a few people who’ve read the first but not yet the second, so I thought I’d better split the reviews across two posts to avoid spoilers!

E.H. YOUNG – “The Curate’s Wife” (Virago)

(25 December 2014, LibraryThing Virago Group (Not So) Secret Santa gift from Laura)

In this sequel to “Jenny Wren”, the emphasis switches to the older sister, Dahlia, the more relaxed, red-haired sister, who has married the curate, Mr Sproat, after knowing him for eight months. It tracks the rather painful and difficult process of their adjustment to one another in a very fair and even-handed way: the reader is made to see the faults on both sides, and so are all of the characters made to see their own faults in the end.

Their marriage is compared and contrasted with that of the Doubledays, Mr Sproat’s vicar and his wife, married for over 30 years and in a seeming pattern of dominance and subserviance which is gradually revealed to be more one of arrogance and quiet subversiveness. Everything in both marriages can turn on the expression of a word or a sentence not carefully thought about or said after due consideration, and there is much attention paid to the enormous amount of effort that goes into creating and maintaining a marriage. I particularly liked the perception in this:

He saw the parties to a marriage like two neighbouring armed states, protesting the desire and the necessity for peace and friendship, but brought, by their very proximity, to a sensitiveness which, at the slightest grievance, might see cause for a shot.

Jenny reappears part way through the novel, and two very different young men again come into their lives, showing a patterning with the first novel, although to my mind, this is a more even and successful one than the first. Jenny is the one who is clearer-headed now and sees the greater value of one man than the other, while Dahlia is in danger of having her head turned by a sort of glamorous shallowness that contrasts with the values of her husband. Clear sight, however, both of themselves and others, is eventually and gradually given to everyone in this subtle and devastating portrait of the early days of a marriage.

Now, I’m going to have to address this, and two people I’ve asked didn’t have this, but I can’t be the only one: since I got married, I’ve been horribly jangled and upset by books portraying affairs, widowhood and marital strife. It’s starting to annoy me a bit now, since most books about human relationships seem to have one or more of these. And I thought it might have died down by now. Has this happened to you, and when did it recede again?

This was Book 12 in my #20BooksOfSummer project (see, I am getting there!)

This book will suit … People who like reading Virago books and books that delve right into the depths of human and family relationships; people who don’t mind an untidy ending.

Funnily enough, I’m still reading Dr Thorne. I have a Persephone to review soon, and another couple to read, but I’m doing a bit of my Hard Book every morning, too …

 

Book review – Jenny Wren and a terrible slip-up in the bookshop …

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TBR August 2015A bit of a change to the usual way of reviewing things – just one book in this one and one in the next. See, I read “Jenny Wren” and its sequel, “The Curate’s Wife” one after the other. But it’s hard to review the second one without issuing terrible spoilers for the first! So I’m going to review them separately (but possibly on the same day, if I can type fast enough). In this post, you’ll also get a bumper crop of horrendously naughty book acquisitions, after really not taking many new ones on board for quite a while (2 in June, 4 in July) …

E.H. YOUNG – “Jenny Wren” (Virago)

(25 December 2014, LibraryThing Virago Group (Not So) Secret Santa gift from Laura)

Jenny and Dahlia are moving with their mother into a house intended to host lodgers at the opening of this book, set in the Clifton area of Bristol, clearly recognisable in “Upper Radstowe”. But their house is feared sullied by their neighbours, because their uneducated mother, married in error to a higher-class and fastidious man, had an affair when her husband was alive and accepted money from her lover to set up her current establishment. He now visits every Saturday, intent on some form of repayment, and the girls – Dahlia casual and blowsily attractive like their mother and Jenny quiet, fastidious, small and neat like their father – despair of being able to progress to love and marriage from such a background.

So, when Jenny, out for a walk with their suitable lodger, the lovely and kind Edwin Cummings, encounters the son of the local manor, on his horse, all gilded and glowing, she’s vulnerable to falling (in several different ways) and to give herself a better chance, instinctively lies about her family and brings despair to herself, while Dahlia, straightforward, mocking and honest, prefers to reserve her love and be loved instead. With horrible Aunt Sarah and her plans for all three of them in the mix, their mother desperately straining for any connection with her girls, local gossip running wild and things not being as they should, the scene is set for heartbreak and sacrifice.

With nature and inner selves beautifully described, this novel set in the 1930s seems more archaic (as someone commented when I posted up this set of books for #20BooksOfSummer, it’s more like Hardy than a novel of the 30s, and they were right), yet of course the women characters have more freedom, even if it still leads to their downfall.

I immediately rushed to read the sequel, and you can read that review now.

This was Book 11 in my #20BooksOfSummer project and also filled in 1932 in my Reading a Century project.

This book will suit … People who like reading Virago books or books set in country towns.

Now, oops …

Tracey Thorn and Jonathan FranzenI met up with Sian and Gill in the local cafe on Friday for a catch-up and to stock the BookCrossing shelves. I also needed to pass Tracey Thorn’s autobiography to Sian, swapping it for her newer book on singing. She had brought along a Jonathan Franzen novel for the shelves, which I immediately snapped up, as I really enjoyed his first novel, “The Corrections” (which I must have read aaaages ago as I can’t find a review on here).

Anyway, that was bad enough, then …

Books from The WorksI’ve had most of the weekend off work, so was quite relaxed wandering down the High Street, thought I’d pop into The Works to see what was in their new 3 for £5 batch … and came out with FIVE books. Hm.

The Ranulph Fiennes biography, “Cold”, I’ve had my eye on for a while, and it fits in with my collection of books on exploration, especially Polar. Arnaldur Indriadson’s first novel “Silence of the Grave”, although a modern crime novel, has the attraction of being set in Iceland, and the bit I quickly read that had bodies in it didn’t seem tooo bad (maybe you could comment below if you think I can cope OK with him – I’m OK with dark stuff esp as it’s from the land of the Sagas and Halldor Laxness, as long as it’s not too gruesome or explicitly violent) and all of his novels appear to be in the special offer, so if I like this …

Going a little more fluffy, “A Cornish Affair” appealed because it features a library cataloguing project and we’re planning a trip to Cornwall, so it will be appropriate to read there. Cathy Kelly is a light-reading favourite of mine, and “Too Many Cooks” is about a cookery book ghost-writer, so again, couldn’t resist. And remember how I picked all the light reading off my TBR when I had that flu? So it needs replacing, right?

Have you read any of these? What are you currently reading? I’m still on “Doctor Thorne”, and I think I’ll have a good go at that now, as I have another Virago and a Persephone ready to review …

 

#20 Books Of Summer update – the third set

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20BooksofSummer logoI felt time was pressing on and although I’m still finishing off books in sets 1 and 2, I should post my last batch of plannned reads; also, I’ve started reading one of them already! You can see those two sets of books on my main #20BooksOfSummer 2015 page; that has links to all the reviews. I have read 10 of my 20 books already, and am in the middle of (oops) three more, so I might just do it. Might. Of course, I have read more than 20 actual books since I started, as I’ve had review copies and other projects on the go, but this is of the ones I’ve nominated to be part of the project.

20booksofsummerSo, these are my final five, and they’re fitting in with the All Virago / All August theme which is done by the LibraryThing Virago Group I belong to. It probably actually counts as cheating to pull the shortest book off my TBR, but I want a chance of finishing my 20, so …

E.H. Young – “Jenny Wren” and “The Curate’s Wife” – these come as a pair, so have to be read together if you have both of them, right?

Susan Glaspell – “Brook Evans” – I read her book “Fidelity” not that long ago, so I’m really looking forward to this one.

Dorothy Whipple – “Greenbanks” – I do love a Whipple, and even though her books are substantial, they’re quick reads. I can’t wait to get into this one!

Molly Panter-Downes – “Minnie’s Room” – I read the title story in the “Persephone Book of Short Stories” and knew I had to have this book of the set – she has another short story volume that is also on my wishlist.

Have you read any of these? Are you doing #20BooksOfSummer and how are you getting on? I’d love to know!

Book reviews – Unbridled Spirits and Tales from Earthsea

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TBR August 2015Two books that I’ve read this month now I’ve caught up with last month’s reads, and two that really reach back into my earlier reading history in many ways; although the history book was published in the 90s, it forms a continuum with women’s reclaimed lives read in my university days, and I first read Ursula le Guin in my early secondary school days. I have also chosen my next set of #20BooksOfSummer books so there will be a post on that tomorrow, but these two fall into the project so tick off some more of the numbers (I’m barely half way, though – oops!)

Stevie Davies – “Unbridled Spirits”

(29 November 2014 – from Laura)

A study of women of the English Revolution, mainly, for obvious reasons, those who wrote and published, or were written about, that, although published in 1998, seems to have a ring of the earlier works of ‘herstory’ that came out in the late 80s and early 90s, both in the subject matter, reclaiming the lives and words of women from the margins, and in the language it’s written in, which is harder to quantify by definitely half way between polemical and academic writing, with a twist of pro-women language and a consciously partisan way of writing.

It uses women’s own words where possible, and links sets of women together – early Quaker women (this was fascinating, as I didn’t have a grasp of the role of women in forming the Quaker movement), women who preached, women who prophesised, the active and trouble-making wives of men who were imprisoned, etc. Davies brings their stories into the foreground and pulls the threads together, celebrating them in a readable work that does an important job.

This is Book 9 in my #20BooksOfSummer project.

Published by Women’s Press, I think this can count in my All Virago / All August project, too (as Persephones are allowed)

This book would suit … people interested in the time period in question, historians, historians of women’s lives

Ursula Le Guin – “Tales from Earthsea”

(10 December 2014, from my BookCrossing secret santa, Julia)

Five long short stories plus “A Description of Earthsea” make up this book that does work best if you already know the main Earthsea books. I’ve read and reread them over a long period of time, but I found that reading the Description first helped a lot in straightening out what was going on and what period of the fantasy land’s history we were in for each story.

The long first part, “The Finder” is set in the very early history and covers the setting up of many of Earthsea’s institutions. “Darkrose and Diamond” is a tale of wizardry vs. love vs. family, “The Bones of the Earth” and “In the High Marsh” deal with wizards in their later years, living out their lives in the real world, and feature characters who we have already come across, and “Dragonfly” is a lovely longer story about a girl who finds her true destiny isn’t quite as she expected and dares to knock on the door of the School of Magic.

I find Le Guin’s books very moving, and these stories show why – although part of the fantasy genre, they are deeply rooted in a realistic, if medieval, world, so a wizard will worry about his chickens when he goes away to try to prevent a catastrophe, and a quite cat gives comfort to a man in distress. The female characters are also good and strong, proud and able, and this theme is woven all through these stories. This makes these books a lot more accessible than some of the other fantasy novels out there, and perhaps more suitable for the general reader.

This is Book 10 in my #20BooksOfSummer project

This book would suit … someone who’s read the other Earthsea books – it won’t make nearly as much sense without them!

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I’m currently reading E.H. Young’s “Jenny Wren” and (still) a hard book for my research …

 

Book reviews – Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, The World’s Wife and Twenty Wishes

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July 2015 TBRI’m catching up FINALLY with my July reads after a couple of reviews of new books sent to me to review (so the photo is a throwback to my July TBR) so here are three shorter reviews of three shorter books to finish that month. I have been reading some more books this month, too, with two finished already and the #20BooksOfSummer project ticking along nicely. Oh, and I went to London last week and bought three books … but only one was for me!

Cornelia Otis Skinner – “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay”

(Borrowed from Ali)

I’d been keen to read a couple of books that Ali  has recently read and reviewed, and she kindly loaned these two to me. Here’s her review. This one has been oohed and aahed over by Simon at StuckInABook, too – so doubly highly recommended!

Published in 1944 (thus filling in a year in my Reading a Century project, too), this is a delightful account of a visit by the author and best friend Emily Kimborough (who is cited as the co-author although it seems all written by one person) from America by ship to London, other bits of the UK and then Paris and France in general. Much of the action takes place on the ship and in port, but there are lovely descriptions of Europe.

It’s naively and amusingly told, looking back at the excesses and excitements of youth 20 years ago from the middle of the war years. The tone is a bit like that of the Provincial Lady over in the UK at the same time, and also reminds me of my “I Hate To Cook Book” by Peg Bracken, another wry and funny American.

There is a little casual racism which is of course of its time but does jar, but on the whole the book is charming, madcap and funny, with delightful illustrations, as the young women skip through life and Europe with no cares that can’t be calmed away by the safety net of their parents, also on a European jaunt!

This is book 7 in my #20BooksOfSummer project.

This book would suit … Anyone who likes gentle humour and mid-20th century women’s writing.

Carol Ann Duffy – “The World’s Wife”

(Borrowed from Ali)

Another of Ali’s recent reads (reviewed here), and a different genre for me – poetry! I have to admit to being Not Very Good with poetry, even though I have an English Lit degree and all that. I like the poetry of John Donne, Wendy Cope, John Hegley and Carol Ann Duffy, and that’s pretty well it (I really think it is, have I forgotten someone?).

This book is all set around the idea of the wives of famous men (of history and legend) getting their own chance to speak, which is a marvellous concept to start off with. The poems are witty, thought-provoking, perceptive, subversive and great fun – as poems should be!

Mrs Midas has to stop herself from touching her husband; Mrs Tiresias  watches hers get to grips with his own womanhood; Mrs Aesop is bored by fables; Mrs Faust joins in the fun; and Queen Kong has a delicate and appreciative relationship with a film-maker. These were some favourites, although basically I opened it up to read the first few and put it down an hour or so later, way past my bedtime!

You do have to know a bit of history / legend to get the point of these, but they are SO good, and heartily recommended. They reminded me of the “Great Housewives of Art” books – anyone else remember those and see a link?

This is book 8 in my #20BooksOfSummer project.

This book would suit … People who think they don’t like poetry!

Debbie Macomber – “Twenty Wishes”

(The Liz And Linda Debbie Macomber Collection – received at some point this year to add to the collection I’m keeping for both of us)

In another Blossom Street book, we are introduced to Anne Marie, the bookshop owner on the street of small shops, and her group of friends who are all widows, who decide to put together and work through a list of twenty wishes each. They get into scrapbooks and fantasising about dancing in the rain, dating again, etc. Deeper friendships are forged between the different kinds of women, and Anne Marie learns her own lessons as she makes room in her schedule for joining a Lunch Buddy scheme at a local school (of course she becomes close to her buddy and the plot develops as DM’s plots often do in this area, which often seems a little easier than it should be, but hey-ho, it’s a fun read).

The only issue I have here is that since I got married, I’ve had a real problem reading books with infidelity and widowhood themes! I wish that would fade away now, but it hasn’t seemed to yet. So I struggled a bit with that aspect, although it seems well done and sympathetically but usefully treated in the book.

This book would suit … Someone looking for a gentle read. You don’t need to have read the other Blossom Street books first.

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David Kynaston Modernity BritainOne confession apart from those books that were sent to me and reviewed earlier in the month. I’ve been collecting David Kynaston’s wonderful Tales of the New Jerusalem books as they’ve come out in lovely double volumes. They’re amazing: starting post-war and planning to cover up until 1979, they weave political and social history together with a huge mass of primary sources, from diaries to newspaper reports to letters, written by all sorts of people. He has a knack of finding early pieces by people who are later very well known, and contrasting the stories different people tell of the same event.

I’d asked my dear friend Emma for a book token to put towards this, and bought it in the new Foyles, where I also picked up a Foyalty Card, given that Foyles is coming to Birmingham soon!

I’m not reading this quite yet – I’ve read two more of my Books Of Summer and am currently enjoying a Virago and a Trollope! More of those later this month …

 

Book review – Anne Goodwin – “Sugar and Snails”

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Anne |Goodwin Sugar and Snails cover

Image from Anne Goodwin’s website

I’ve been lucky enough to receive two (very different and both) excellent review copies this month – and here’s my review for the second. Anne Goodwin’s “Sugar and Snails” is a first novel that it’s hard to review without giving away its secrets – it’s very plot-driven, but also be reassured that it’s very cleverly done, so there’s definitely room to go back and re-read it to work out exactly how it works.

We meet Diana at the beginning of the book, a woman in her 40s who has obviously experienced some kind of trauma in her younger days which has resulted in her not being able to accompany her boyfriend on a journey to Egypt.

[Note: It’s also worth mentioning right here, because both of these things did give me pause for a moment, that the opening chapter slips quite quickly into a description of an episode of self-harm which would be triggering to those who find this a trigger – a hospital visit follows later and there are other, slightly less detailed descriptions. For those who don’t find this a trigger but are squeamish, like me, I found the details can be slid over slightly, and I can confirm that they are not gratuitous.  The other matter that gave cause for concern is that a cat is introduced around now – I can happily confirm (I did check with the author first) that the cat comes to no danger or harm, and is just a foil for the main character.]

Anyway, we quickly learn that something happened on a family trip to Cairo 30 years ago which had a life-changing effect on Diana – but from then on it’s a case of picking up what happened and why as we thread our way through her memories and life events, with many (but not confusing) flashbacks to events further and nearer in time, which are sometimes revisited from a slightly different angle. We also follow her life as a university lecturer, struggling with the administration and dealing with one of her troubled students and an ethical research dilemma, which adds a very interesting and sometimes paralleled dimension, as it echoes research Diana did in her early academic days.

That’s a lot to pack in, but it doesn’t feel rushed or over-packed. The shifting events and feelings give us an excellent and absorbing meditation on identity, but as well there are lovely portrayals of friendship, both childhood and adult, which are nuanced and observant – and it’s not often that adult friendships are given as much importance as childhood ones or adult relationships, so this is a lovely aspect of the book. There is also what feels like a timely and necessary look at what happens to people who experience a situation before it gets discussed in the mainstream, and what happens to them when society catches up with what they’ve experienced.

The book is extremely cleverly done, with the reader often not realising what they are realising or when they have come to realise something – our knowledge unfurls as the central character’s knowledge of other characters and theirs of her unfurl, too. This makes it sound confusing, but it’s not – it’s extremely competent and, ultimately, moving, and it’s extremely impressive, especially for a first novel.

——

This book was kindly sent to me in e-book format by the author. Anne Goodwin’s website is here, you can read the Shiny New Books review here (when Anne originally approached me to review this, having a rewiew in SNB certainly worked as an indicator of quality) and you can buy it from Amazon UK here.

Book review – Victoria Eveleigh – “Katy’s Pony Challenge”

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Victoria Eveleigh Katy's Pony ChallengeI received this in August, kindly sent to me by the publisher (read to the end for a special giveaway!). I read and reviewed all of the other Katy books a few years ago now, and was excited to hear there was to be a fourth (because if there are four, there are going to be more, right – and this isn’t one of those series written by multiple authors; all of the books are by the very lovely Victoria Eveleigh).

So, the Katy books are about a young teen and her growing stable of Exmoor ponies. She’s a countryside girl, growing up on a farm and learning about farm life and taking on new responsibilities there as the series progresses – here she’s carefully matching up lambs with their mothers and keeping an eye on various aspects, as well as looking after her own ponies.

The multi-tasking challenge is one that she has to face, but also the tricks that she’s been teaching Tinkerbell the cheeky foal are suddenly not so cute as Tinkerbell grows in size and strength and starts demanding those treats. Can Katy swallow her pride and ask someone more expert for help with her foal before she ruins her? There’s also the problem of what to do about her best friend, Alice, more distanced now she’s away at school much of the time, but obviously not coping well with the stresses of having a new super show-jumping pony to compete with, whatever her Facebook page might suggest (Eveleigh weaves just the right number of modern touches into what is essentially – and joyfully – a traditional pony book).

New aspects are also introduced into this book, carefully and cleverly in a subtle way. Dean at the stables has got into a rather odd thing called Pony Agility (think Dog Agility – honest!) and Katy learns a few pony training pointers having a go at that, and she meets a new neighbour, James, who has autism but turns out to enjoy helping out at the farm. He’s well and sensitively drawn, and it’s nice to see how his actions and reactions are accepted for what they are, and the positives he brings are celebrated but in a practical and down to earth way.

Lessons are learned, friendships are celebrated, and it’s another quiet winner with the usual charming illustrations.

This book will suit … any pony-mad teen or tween; people like me who love the traditional pony books – no sparkles or magic here, but a lovely feeling and good writing.

Giveaway!

I accidentally received two copies of this book, so I have one available to give away. Pop a comment on this post if you want to be included in the draw, and I’ll do a random name drawing after a week. I’ll be sending surface mail outside the UK, but the competition is open to all. It would be LOVELY if you could promise to review the book on your own blog and/or Amazon when you receive and read it!

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