Because working from home means you can stand outside your front door, staring into a box and inviting your neighbours to do so, too.
Liz Dexter (was Broomfield) muses on freelancing, reading, researching and writing …
March 20, 2015
Because working from home means you can stand outside your front door, staring into a box and inviting your neighbours to do so, too.
March 19, 2015
Two books which have a loose theme of romance today – one very much in its genre, the other pretty genre-defying, one told from the viewpoint of a woman, one from a man, both about family but with different ideas about what family actually means, one written and published a while ago and showing its age, one rather more modern. Oh, and an extra which is a little book of short stories, again in the romance genre and spanning a number of years. Confused? Read on, and hopefully all will become clear.
(8 September 2014 – bought at an author talk)
I went to a lovely presentation by Helen in September 2014 (more about that at the bottom of this review post), having only read her “Spilt Milk, Black Coffee” before but having met her a few times. I picked up this and “My Summer of Love” (to be read and reviewed soon) and read this one on the journey to and from Oxford last weekend, as it was just the right size to pop into my handbag. I was actually disappointed to be really sleepy on the trains, because I really could not put this down, except when I fell asleep!
It’s a cracking read as well as an interesting musing on celebrity, identity and family. John finds himself, somehow, applying for a job as nanny to a reclusive star, looking after her new baby and a somewhat disturbed six year old boy who isn’t clearly related to anyone in the household. At his interview, John falls hard for the mysterious and slightly grubby Hepsie – a wonderful character – a previous incumbent, and meets the deliciously silly but at the same time menacing Brian, stylist to the stars.
Ending up in a decaying farmhouse in a miserable village, the book is shot through with a gothic feel and deadpan, almost camp tone, which reminded me of Paul Magrs’ (non-magical) novels in a way that her other book didn’t. There are also shades of “Cold Comfort Farm” as mysterious static caravan-dwelling women in denim shorts circle ominously. Is John’s relationship with Hepsie real or in his head? Who did live in the house before? What does Misty Moore get up to in her private apartment at the top of the house? Is someone creeping into the house at night, or is it actually haunted, and why’s there a rabbit in that cupboard? What’s more, who and where are Mouse’s parents?
Narrated from a point a decade after the events being told, you become desperate to know what’s happened in the intervening years and craving for more – hints are dropped and John’s life is irrevocably changed by the events of the year he was 19. With spare elegance and masterly writing, the plot thickens, the fairytale world wraps around the characters, and even when “real” people intrude into their space, it’s to act as a kind of chorus. Some great set-pieces, and altogether superb and unputdownable.
(E-book, won February 2015)
Gentle romancy / stories of communities writer Debbie Macomber is reissuing some of her older books in e-book editions, and I managed to snaffle a copy of this one for Kindle.
Simon and Angie were childhood sweethearts, getting “married” at 17 so they could consummate their love. But she was from the wrong side of town, and something happened to do with a sum of money, what is obviously going to turn out to be some misunderstandings, and her and her father leaving town in a hurry. Twelve years on, she’s living away from their home town, running a floristry business, and he’s the boss of the bank, and Angie makes a return trip to the small town as she prepares to get engaged to her dull but dependable boyfriend and wants to draw a line under her old life. Of course, Simon and Angie meet up; of course sparks fly; and then they spend quite a large portion of the book zipping between their respective towns and battling with their families. Issues with Angie’s father are very clearly spelled out here and could probably have done with a bit of editing, I have to say. Will the course of maybe true love (but with whom?) run smooth? Will someone get married to someone else in the end?
It’s quite obviously an older book and curiously old-fashioned in the morals department – or maybe this is just more obvious than in later books. Angie does like to keep herself pure, and that seems a bit grating in this modern world, although obviously there are readers who prefer that kind of aspect, it just makes things a bit unbelievable. There’s also a rather odd bit right at the end which I won’t spoil for readers but seems a little implausible.
Anyway, I’ve realised that the Macombers I prefer are the ones with an ensemble cast set in a community, where the romance is diluted by other friendships and relationships. But it was a pleasant read.
(E-book, December 2014)
This is a book of five short stories and a novel excerpt which was published to celebrate Matthews’ 25th book in 17 years. I have read a few of hers and they’re well written and engaging, and these stories are just the same. I wasn’t expecting introductions to each of them, which explain the background to her writing them and having them published, which make it a nice friendly read. The stories are varied and certainly not all happy endings and romance; the first one, her first ever, was interestingly dark, and the one set in Venice gave a nice surprise. Very enjoyable – and I picked it up as a free pre-order which was a thank you to members of her mailing list and Facebook page.
I’m currently reading quite a hard book about Snorri Sturluson (while I try to learn some more Icelandic – it’s not in Icelandic, I hasten to add, but is clotted and thick as an old saga translation) and an interesting one which is less prurient than I expected about the offspring of rock stars. So some varied reading for me this month but I am getting through them! What are you reading?
March 15, 2015
Two books, one from last month and one from this – linked by the fact that although one’s about the upper class and one about the working upper middle or nouveau riche class, the former mentions the latter at one point, which I quite liked. They’re both good reads, too, and, incidentally, both ones that I’ve read along with my friend Ali! I’ve also got one acquisition, and that’s a tiny one so hardly counts. Are you having a good March of reading so far? I will admit to having read almost three other books but being behind on my reviewing at the moment (oops).
(16 August 2014)
A Virago kindly sent to me by Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, this is effectively a novel about Vita, her family and her love for her home at Knole, which she lost as a result of inheritance laws (and yes, I know I bang on about “Death of the Author” and Reception Theory and all that, but this just screams autobiography at you if you know anything about Vita: we’re all allowed to drift away from our pet theory from time to time, aren’t we!).
The story is a portrait of Sebastian and Viola, twins who both have aspects of Vita (and also recall “The Heavenly Twins“), and their society mother at the very height of the Edwardian era, all country house weekends and reams of affairs which are kept from the masses by an elaborate scheme of facades and substanceless marriages. The outsider, Anquetil, very much not “one of us”, observes a house party with detached interest and has a profound effect on both twins, although it’s not clear quite how he’s affected them at first, as Sebastian turns down an opportunity and Viola starts up a correspondence. A middle-class woman of the working part of London life is drawn into Sebastian’s life but is seemingly the only person in the book with the courage to preserve her own moral code – it’s not quite clear who is being criticised, but there are some powerful scenes to this theme. She is the link to a Forsytean world of property, money and conservatism, which is mentioned as very much in opposition to the morally free upper class milieu.
Vita is pretty savage about high society and its hypocrisy, but also elegiac about a declining way of life on a country estate which is full of respect and honour between the upper class and the people. A good read which Vita rejected as being unrepresentative of her work (it was, however, a bestseller) with an introduction by Victoria Glendenning which rather amusingly urges people to go and visit Knole (more death of the Death of the Author there).
The final book in the original (but now first of three) “Forsyte Saga” trilogy, and in this one we finally get to Fleur, who everyone seems to remember from the TV series, plus the bit where you really need a family tree at hand to work it all out, as the family feud carries on to affect the next generation. Young Jolyon’s son Jon and Soames’ daughter Fleur haven’t crossed paths, as the two branches of the family have pulled firmly away from each ther. Each is the apple of their parent’s eye, and efforts have been made not to let them know about the rift. But with a horrible inevitability (and there wouldn’t be much novel if they didn’t), they do meet at an exhibition, and there are more horribly predictable circumstances as they manage, in the new freedom of the 1920s, to arrange to meet up several times.
The wider family setting narrows a little in this volume – only Timothy is left from the older generation, and we are then confined, apart from some mentions, to Young Joylon’s older daughters, June and Holly, and Holly’s husband Soames’ nephew, who caused conniptions in the last volume, but they’re happily settled now. There’s plenty on how the Forsyte inheritance in terms of personality is getting weakened, while the inheritance in terms of money is building and strengthening, with Soames controlling it pretty well single-handed, although Timothy’s will does throw a slight spanner into the works. And some of the family, in going into farming, is returning interestingly to the roots of its founder. Family loyalties are strained and feelings run high, marriages are successful or not, and there’s s stressful process of finding out the truth. There’s an annoying Frenchman thrown into the mix which allows Galsworthy to be (slightly irritatingly) arch, and altogether it’s a successful ending to the first trilogy and whets the appetite for more.
We had a lovely day out in Oxford yesterday with my Auntie Linda, Cousin Martin and Martin’s partner Rad. I was very restrained – in fact we didn’t really go near any bookshops, but did have a lovely time in the Natural History Museum, but we popped into Waterstone’s and I did pick up ONE of the new Penguin 80s (80 books at 80p each to celebrate 80 years of Penguin). I found out about these from Kaggsy’s tempting posts on the subject, and much as I’d like a complete set, I kept a lid on that tendency and treated myself to “The Icelandic one”.
I’m currently reading Helen Cross’ very good “The Secrets We Keep” which I almost couldn’t put down this morning, and have finished a good book on the Vikings and that Nick Hornby, about which I found little to say in my reading journal. More reviews soon!
March 6, 2015
Well, a nice matching pair today, even though one of them (the Sinclair) was a February read and the other a March read. You can’t have everything, can you! I’ve still got one hanging around from February, too, but I’ve realised that Vita Sackville-West’s “The Edwardians” features some Forsyte-like characters, and don’t imagine for one moment that I haven’t plunged into the Forsyte for March already, so all will be well there. So, a theme of mental illness or distress this time (nice), with two very different books, once from a male, one from a female perspective, one from outside, one from inside the experience, one historical, one contemporary, one involving quite a lot of walking, the other quite a lot of nuns … OK, maybe they aren’t QUITE so similar after all …
(21 June 2014 from book sale stall in the village square)
I can’t have read any Sinclair for AGES as he doesn’t appear if you search this blog. I have read his M25 one, at very least, and his psychogeographical works are entertaining but quite dense (I’ve not read any of his novels; not quite my thing, I fear).
This one is a musing on John Clare, the Essex peasant poet who famously went mad and did some long walks, giving Sinclair a handy excuse for going on some long walks and musing on madness. So he walks in Clare’s footsteps with a variety of his friends who have featured in other books, and there’s also a rather sweetly prosaic and familiar-feeling search for his wife’s family history, too, with some lovely scenes of them delving into archives and consulting local history librarians, all mixed in with his standard poetic psychogeography.
As I know very little about Clare, it wasn’t as immediately gripping as his walk around the M25; but I did love the descriptions of his family life and the walks themselves, and it was fascinating to see more than one mention of Iris Murdoch, which is something to follow up on (I really can’t remember if he mentions her in his other books). His prose is dense as ever, but does come alive when he’s walking with his friends and wife, and it was a satisfying read, if not the easiest read on the shelf.
(14 August 2014 from Linda via BookCrossing)
This one was also not the easiest of reads, but for different reasons. It’s the memoir of Armstrong’s time directly after leaving holy orders, with a brief description of the background of her time as a nun, and taking us up to the real launch of her career writing about comparative religion and the history of religion. Matthew has read one of her big books on the history of religion and I’d vaguely heard of her story, so I was interested enough to put this aside when it came to me in a box of BookCrossing books to sort through and release.
In the book, Armstrong starts to find herself and establish an identity outside of that of a nun, and she also gradually discovers that the fainting fits that she’s had since the nunnery were not, as the nuns and a series of psychiatrists try to make out, attention-seeking behaviour, but a progressively worsening form of epilepsy. Now, this is mentioned on the back of the book, which is fair enough, and I understand that not everything can (and I don’t want to get into the trigger warnings discussion here), but what is not mentioned is the equally major and important theme of eating disorders, related to both Armstrong and two of her friends, which I would have preferred to have a warning about, personally. I thought this might be one of those things that everybody knows, but apparently not. Anyway, consider yourselves warned – it’s not that graphic but is potentially triggering or (in my case) upsetting.
Anyway, it’s an interesting read in general, although the religious theory gets a bit intense towards the end, and I won’t be rushing out to pick up the first bit.
There was a mention of John Clare and a page of musings on Iris Murdoch, which rather amusingly tie the book to the Sinclair in a more useful way than I thought the theme of mental health struggles would.
Currently reading: I’m currently leafing through Nick Hornby’s “The Polysyllabic Spree” – unfortunately, I’m not that fond of Hornby as a writer (OK, I love “High Fidelity” but he leaves me a bit cold elsewhere) and I’m not massively into the books he reads as he keeps a reading diary for a magazine for a couple of years. The conceit of the board of editors referenced in the title is too twee and fanciful for me, but it’s a book about reading and about buying books, it’s not too laborious a read (although it has very small print, making it a smaller and thinner book than it would otherwise be), so I’m carrying on with it. The other current read is the third Forsyte Saga book, “To Let”, and I’m very much enjoying that! No more books in … so far … What are you reading at the moment?
March 1, 2015
Well, here’s the current state of the TBR and I have chipped away at it a bit since February’s excesses, even though some books have come in (more on those later) and I didn’t feel like I’d been reading much this last month. The front row ends with Dolly Parton. At least I was fairly frugal with my acquisitions last summer, so I’ll be on September’s books soon, which feels a bit better.
I’m currently reading Karen Armstrong’s “The Spiral Staircase”, which is about her post-nunhood life, and is OK although there were a few themes I wish they’d highlighted in the blurb. Not getting into the trigger warnings debate, but when there are two main themes and the blurb only mentions one, it’s a bit annoying. I’ve also finished but not yet reviewed Iain Sinclair’s “Edge of the Orison” which was Quite Hard but makes a nice mental-health related pair with the Armstrong, and Vita Sackville-West’s “The Edwardians”, recently also read by Ali, which has intersections with the world of the Forsytes, handily enough.
Coming up on the TBR, I have two books about the Vikings – the first one is a biography of Snorri Sturluson, who collected many of the sagas together in manuscript form but was also a bit warlike himself (I’ve been to his house, which was very exciting), and a more picture-book style one on the Vikings in general. This will be good preparation for our upcoming return trip to Iceland (I also have that lovely book of sagas to continue dipping into. Then I have Nick Hornby’s reading diary, what I’d call some “easy” books – one on rock stars’ children and two novels by the lovely Helen Cross, before diving into some Iris Murdoch stuff and some slightly elderly literary theory which should help with my Iris Murdoch research (so I’d better get on and get my new business books written before I get there, right?).
Of course I’ll also be reading my third book in the Forsyte Saga, “To Let”, which will conclude the first three-volume set, and I might start my next Anthony Trollope, too, although that might need to stretch over a couple of months.
In acquisitions / confessions, I fear I’ve missed a few as I have had a couple more in from lovely friends, but I’ve lost track so you’ll have to see those as I read them (in the “fullness of time”, as I somewhat euphemistically call it). I had a small bonanza on Saturday, first of all collecting Josephine Pullein-Thompson’s “Race Horse Holiday” and a very amusing tea infuser from the parcel office, courtesy of my friend Verity. I can’t believe she found one I didn’t already have, but so she did! And it fills in 1971 in my Century of Reading, too – hooray!
And then in The Works, I found Philip Hensher’s book about handwriting, “The Missing Ink”, which was on my wishlist, so one down, 3,000,000 to go off that list and it looks like a lovely read. I read seven books in February, but I should have a couple of bus and train journeys this month which will encourage some nice long bouts of reading, so here’s to a good reading month for everybody. What are you tackling? Have you read any of my upcoming books?
February 22, 2015
I haven’t talked much about cholesterol-beating-diet matters on this blog for a while; the book‘s still going strong and helping people and I’m keeping my cholesterol levels down just fine (last results in January – doctor still happy with me).
I’ve recently read an article by my friend Sandy (warning, it has explicit details about ulcerative colitis which aren’t ideal dinnertime reading). which gets across very clearly the trials of living with a medical condition that requires you to have a special eating regime. Even though she has a named illness which gives her an immediate and unpleasant reaction if she eats anything to which she’s sensitive, she still struggles to get people to understand what she can eat and why she can’t eat the things she can’t eat.
It’s trickier in some ways (while acknowledging of course that my immediate health condition is not as serious as having UC or diabetes, coeliac disease, peanut allergies, etc.) having the kind of condition that is not immediate – eating one doughnut isn’t going to immediately fell me (although it will have a reasonably unpleasant effect – see below), but putting saturated fat back in my diet is likely to let my cholesterol rise again and put me at a higher risk of stroke and heart disease – and, more immediately, will have the doctor sticking me straight on the statins, drugs I don’t want to take if I can help it. So it is important for me to stick to the regime I’ve been on for five years now, and I’m constantly trying to refine and improve the way I explain it.
Like Sandy, there are various common comments which I experience regularly – and I’m sure anyone else who’s on a cholesterol-controlling diet will get them, too. They include
Do you get comments about your cholesterol-beating diet, and how do you counter them and explain to people? I’d love to know!
We had a family meal at The Four Oaks in, um, well, Four Oaks near Sutton Coldfield the other weekend. Looking at the menu beforehand, I could find one thing that I could possibly eat if I asked them to tweak something. That felt a bit worrying, so I called them and checked in advance, spoke to one of the owners, and they were very helpful. I was able to explain what I needed (using the initial explanation that I had a dietary requirement and was struggling to find anything I could eat at a family party, adding that I was on a low-fat diet for medical reasons ). They had advised the chef and our server before we got there, and had a very good, no-nonsense attitude – none of that “oh, treat yourself”, just checking that what they sent out was OK for me. I was able to have a nice piece of grilled fish, a jacket potato without the butter and a tasty salad, which came out to me with no dressing (that doesn’t always happen). Oh, and they had lovely sorbets on the pudding menu. All of this process was helped by them providing full nutritional information on their website.
It is part of a small chain, and I think those and independent gastro-pub places are probably better than the big chains in this respect (for example, they cook their food from fresh, rather than reheating pre-prepared meals), although Wetherspoons pubs have good nutritional information and a range of things low-fat folks can eat. You also have to be vigilant – I thought IKEA was OK, as they cooked everything in rapeseed oil, went back there confidently the other week, only to discover they’re back to generic “vegetable oil”, nothing was suitable and I had to walk out of the whole shop (no mean feat!) to find a sandwich in a supermarket.
Do you have a special way to explain your cholesterol-beating food regime that works every time? Do you need help countering particular questions or comments? Do comment below and let me know.
And if you’ve found this article because you’re looking for advice, you can find information on my book about how I lowered my cholesterol naturally and kept it down here.
February 18, 2015
Two more “traditional” books this time, I think – in fact, I’m more likely to be found reading an older book than a modern one, I think. I do giggle when I note that any “modern” book I have was usually published 3-4 years ago – so it’s had time to come out in paperback and make its way to the charity shop bookshelves or be registered on BookCrossing. Anyway, a lovely biography and a lovely novel, with all the values you expect from an older book: good writing, good editing …
(Bought from the book sale in the village square, 21 June 2014)
I’ve got a bit of a “thing” about the Nicolson family and devour anything I see by and about them, although I noted when reading this one that I haven’t read any of Harold’s novels and I am patchy on my Vita Sackville-West oeuvre, too. It’s of course akin to the Mitford and Bloomsbury “things” that one can have – a group of people, different generations, books about and by to acquire, old and new. Anyway, I sprung upon this at a random book sale back in June last year (spending my bus fare money once I’d got safely back home from parkrun!), had been greatly looking forward to it, and was not disappointed.
It’s the first volume of a proper, old-fashioned biography, by which I don’t mean stuffy and straight-laced, but beautifully written and edited and with a healthy liking and respect for and understanding of its subject. Of course, there’s a lot about Vita, too, and her love affairs and their effect on Harold, and the development of their special marriage arrangement. Bloomsbury comes into it, too, but also lots of other figures – Sitwells (another “thing” of mine) and Gertrude Bell, for example.
It uses primary sources to good effect, quoting long passages from Vita and Harold’s extensive correspondence (when he was away on diplomatic duties, they would write at least once a day, receiving letters in batches), and writing in Harold’s voice to a large extent when using indirect quotation. This makes the book extremely intimate and very readable, more so than you would imagine from first opening the close-packed print of this 1980s paperback.
The book is illustrated with Harold’s sketches, which are charming, but I would have liked some photographs, and feel that’s a real lack. It’s also quite detailed on his works of fiction and non-fiction, which, as I mentioned, I’m not terribly familiar with, but the insight into the writing process is still interesting. A very good index rounds off a satisfying book which takes us to the end of Harold’s diplomatic career, told in lively and interesting fashion even when it’s going into the depths of discussions on treaties and ententes. I am desperate to get my hands on Volume 2 now!
Would you be shocked to find out that I’ve never actually read any Trollope up until now? I don’t know how that happened, to be honest. I think I had him associated with Thackeray, having read but disliked “Vanity Fair” in my 20s. I do tend to have an odd reading relationship with classic authors – take my progress with George Eliot, where I read “Middlemarch” over and over again but didn’t tackle any of her other books until I was given a copy of “Daniel Deronda” a year or so ago, and I’m now happily picking the others up when I see them to prolong the joy of discovering the rest of her books. Anyway, I hadn’t read any Trollope, and several bloggers who I know and follow and like and share interests with had been reading him, so I thought I’d go for it.
Well, again, I wasn’t disappointed. I thoroughly enjoyed “The Warden” and, while it was slightly odd to get to the end of a reasonably substantial book and find that you’re only 5% through the set, reading on Kindle has been absolutely fine, and has given a contrast with paper book reading of concurrent choices. I feel that Trollope falls into the Hardy arena with his small community life and rural chorus, and the Eliot arena with the web of connections and ties in a community, although perhaps, in this novel, on a slightly smaller, more concentrated scale.
He’s human and humane as a writer, with immense sympathy for even his most unlikeable characters. He’s also much funnier than I’d expected, with asides about whistling bishops and a hilarious rant about Dickens in a metacritical aside about an author who has started writing a novel about the situation he is writing about (he also zooms into the picture, taking us into people’s houses and mentioning his dealings with them, in a way that again echoes Eliot).
Trollope seems to use the premise of the book – that the Warden of a set of almshouses is found by a young, thrusting and radical doctor to be profiting unfairly from the charitable estate’s increased wealth, that doctor being the beloved of his daughter, and the bishop in whose gift the position lies being the father-in-law of the Warden’s other daughter (his son and her husband is the Archdeacon) – as an excuse to gather a set of people into one place and examine human nature and relationships. The Bishop and the Warden are firm, sentimental old friends, both afraid of the Archdeacon, and the women in the piece, while not here at the forefront, are their own firm people and rounded and likeable – I’m told that Trollope is good at women, and I look forward to meeting more in the next books.
So, a joy to read, and I’m going to have to eke these out a bit, or else I’ll be reading them all in one gulp – I do want to enjoy them properly so don’t want to race through them. How marvellous to find a new author to love and know that there are books and books and BOOKS of theirs to read! When did that last happen to you?
I’m currently reading another book from that batch of buys, Iain Sinclair’s “Edge of the Orison”, psychogeography in the footsteps of Essex poet John Clare and, because you can never be sure of what Sinclair’s going to come up with next, a rather silly novel set in Delhi which I’m not sure I’ll finish.