BILL TURNBULL – The Bad Beekepers Club

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Borrowed from Gill

An amusing and informative book about beekeeping and Turnbull’s exploits as a beginner beekeeper.  Nicely done, with enough humour but also heart.  The only bit I didn’t like was his chapter about rivalry with Chris Tarrant, as this just seemed a bit name-droppy – but I loved his marathon (done in beekeeping costume, of course) and stint on Strictly Come Dancing.  Probably most useful in the amount I learned about what Gill does for a hobby – although I do seem to have absorbed and taken on this information, when really I could have just stored and accessed it via Gill!

SUSAN HILL – Howards End Is On The Landing

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21 Jan 2010 – from Jen

Gosh – here I am in August reading books from January… just realised!

I heard about this book on the Dovegreyreader blog and immediately added it to the wishlist.  What’s not to like when you have an established author married to a Shakespeare Professor, living in a big house full of books and deciding to only read from her current collection for a year?

Well, there was some stuff to like, and some to dislike, and some to argue with.  And that’s the mark of an excellent read, isn’t it?  The book is divided into short sections which dip into reading, Hill’s life as a reader and as an author, and all sorts of bits and pieces. The short section style is eminently suitable for treat reading, especially in quite a busy week, although I did devour great gobbets of it at once.  This is definitely a book to read once, fast, and again, slowly (as she is told to do with Proust).

So – I got a bit annoyed on p. 6 when she talks about “I know people… whose books are even catalogued, in card indexes, on spreadsheets or even on infernal systems on websites where it is possible to log your own library and arrange virtual books on virtual shelves”, as I love my LibraryThing account and wouldn’t be without it.  But it becomes clear that Hill loves the chaos of her books, their odd juxtapositions, the serendipity of coming across something when looking for something else – and she also champions books AS books, holding out against the little grey e-reader…  and there’s a lot more to like in the book.

Hill confesses at the beginning to be worried about seeming to name-drop, but I love her encounters with other writers, placed in context within the book and her life.  Her meeting with Edith Sitwell is hilarious and cringeworthy, and there are a lot of other writers in here too.   A whole section is devoted to Iris Murdoch, which of course pleased me greatly – including two meetings, one where she is hale and hearty and one when she is sadly unwell.  I like the assessment that Murdoch’s reputation is going through a dip at the moment due to her having died fairly recently, that she reclaims her from the miserable film and Bayley books, and that a Murdoch could in fact be included in her forty books for a desert island.

I also like her discursions on books she hasn’t read (she knows all about Don Quixote… but has never read it) and books she can’t finish, and I have to love her description of saving up some unread books for “when I am very old, or have an illness that requires me to stay in bed for days but that does not make me feel too rotten to read” – don’t we all have Books I Will Read If I Break My Leg?  And she admits she can’t get into Jane Austen, which is a big admission to make.

So, a challenging and at the same time comforting read – for the basic assumption under all of the book is that books MATTER, and that’s got to be a good thing, of course. Even if they’re not catalogued.

DEBBIE MACOMBER – Rainy Day Kisses

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Acquired via BookCrossing 30 Jan 2010 – at the Birmingham meetup

Shock, horror, it’s a Mills&Boon! I don’t think I’ve ever read one knowingly before – nothing against them and I know they give a good service of escapism for some people and easy to understand reading material for others – but I’m not really a romancy kind of girl.  

But this is a Debbie Macomber, and therefore it was picked up.  OK, this very short book is a romance, and the usual romance things happen like the two main characters being in conflict, a charming yet steely hero, a heroine who doesn’t realise she doesn’t want a career so much as a BayBee… but it *is* a Debbie Macomber, and so the situations are interesting and the plot is funny and the characters are well drawn and rounded.

It did take me all of 45 minutes to read – but that still counts as a book read, doesn’t it?

CHRISTINE PULLEIN-THOMPSON – The Open Gate

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Acquired via BookCrossing 1 Jan 2010 – RABCK from Suedo

Last of the pony books from Sue, this was a nice read although the second part of a linked pair.  Very much of its time, with a risk from teenagers on motorbikes, and an attempt to thwart them by the pony kids.  Excitement at every turn and some lovely line-drawings.  A good old Green Dragon paperback, although I don’t think it’d be marketed at 12-15 year olds nowadays!

ELIZABETH VON ARMIN – Elizabeth and Her German Garden

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Bought 1988?

The Virago Group in LibraryThing were having an All Virago, All August challenge and, while I knew I couldn’t fit many in, with a heavy proof-reading schedule and a large TBR, I thought I could manage one or two.  There was some talk about this one, and I knew I’d liked it when I first read it, so I picked it up to read.

I must have bought this soon after its 1988 publication, as it dates from my short – but passionate – phase of covering paperbacks with that sticky-backed, clear film (the one that comes with a square-printed backing sheet).  No date of acquisition written in, but I stopped doing this when I went to University in 1989.

So, to the book.  It was different from how I remembered. Not worse, just different.  Elizabeth very clearly and emphatically does NOT do the gardening herself; she’s not a man, so she can’t wield a spade (honestly, it says that).  And the print is quite large and the margins quite large too, so it doesn’t last very long in the reading.  And some of the sentiments – particularly about how the working class woman is calmed with a good beating, while the middle-to-upper-class woman just gets in a state – while I assume tongue in cheek, were a bit shocking (especially in a Virago book!)  But the descriptions of friendship and – of course – gardening are just as lovely as they were the first time I read this, and I have a bit more experience gardening myself, now, which helps.  

ALICE DOMURAT DREGER – Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex

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From the library

A slightly odd choice, maybe, but I’ve been interested in what I see as over-medicalisation of  "normal" people (eg doctor telling me I was borderline obese / blood pressure and cholesterol danger limits moved so I "became" unwell) and this book’s sub-plot is the development of an arrogance and over-control in the medical profession in the 19th and early 20th centuries, which lingers on to this day.

My issues with slight health issues pale into insignificance, obviously, when we’re presented with these objectified people, used as evidence and examples without much thought about respect, consent etc.  The photos are shocking, not for what they show (obviously, genitalia feature) but for the treatment of the subject (or, in fact, object) who often actually has their head in a bag and a doctor’s hand photographed (or drawn – what’s that all about?) displaying them.

And the fascinating and troubling final chapter shows that things aren’t that much better today, with people with particular issues having their gender (ie nurture) and therefore sex (ie nature) decided fairly arbitrarily at a very young age – leading to the need for more and more operations, which those who have escaped claim they often don’t need anyway.

The author obviously has a deep concern for the objects of her predecessors’ research, making time and room for their stories as much as she can gather, and giving a voice to the people around now who have the same issues as those earlier victims.  She celebrates the way in which, in a postmodern society like today’s, they can reclaim their own voices and stories through blogs, books and groups.  

So, an academic but emotional book, which was very interesting on both subjects, hermaphrodism and the medical profession.

MONICA FERRIS – Knitting Bones

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Acquired via BookCrossing 10 Apr 2010 – from WelshHelen, contribution to the book spiral

Next in the Betsy Devonshire series and we find two people with broken legs, one with amnesia, a mystery around a large cheque, and poor old Godwin discovering there’s more to sleuthing than coming up with sudden flashes of inspiration.  Jill the policewoman pops in and out with her delightful small daughter.  Oh, and there’s an excellent crow.  A really good one, I found.

BTW – for anyone worried by the cover image of a skeletal hand stroking a cat, no harm comes to Sophie the cat in this story!

RAPHAEL SELBOURNE – “Beauty”

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From Bridget, Mar 2010

Published by Tindal Street Press, this is a gritty, inspiring and eventually heart-warming story set in the urban wastelands of … Wolverhampton.  As has been mentioned by several reviewers, Selbourne writes as excellently and believably about an ex-con breeding scary dogs in a run-down rented house as he does about an extended family of Bangladeshi origin crammed into a small house a few miles away.  Beauty, the main character, has been brought back home after an arranged marriage gone wrong, and she’s now paying the price.  When the JobCentre make her attend a course or lose her benefits, she gains a small amount of "freedom" and takes the opportunity to extend this a little.  But what is freedom when, seen through her eyes, so-called free white British people have no god, no security, no family and put their elderly relatives into care homes?

Some of the scenes and situations are quite "gritty" indeed – not one for reading over your lunch. But I think the edgy parts are needed to round out the characters and make the setting believeable.

The writing is refreshingly free of flourish and pretension, and beautifully well-observed.  Appearances are deceptive and the characters who seem to have a good background are revealed in all their flawed messiness.  This was really engaging and involving and I found it hard to put down.

I look forward to reading more of this author’s work, and it was lovely to see the working class Midlands being seen as something worth writing about.  My only issue with this book was that I read it a bit close to "The Reluctant Mullah" and could have done with a little space between the two – but that’s my problem, not either of the books’.

I’m going to register this on BookCrossing and probably offer it as a bookring.

PAULA RADCLIFFE – Paula: My Story So Far

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Acquired via BookCrossing 05 Feb 2010 – from KGC bookshelf

I picked up Paula Radcliffe and Kelly Holmes’ autobiographies at the same time, but had a little gap between reading them.  This one was just as good as Kelly’s (I like the way they mention each other, too!).  "My Story So Far" is up to and including the disastrous Athens Olympics, with some follow-up information afterwards – and what was a very traumatic time is faced up to at the very start of the book and then returned to and explained in its place chronologically.

The chronology does go a bit odd in places, and I got confused in the University and just-post-University years.  But that didn’t really matter – what did matter was the honesty and directness of the story, with Gary putting his oar in occasionally (amusingly at time).  There’s quite a lot of detail on physical and digestive matters, but of course these things really count – and are endlessly fascinating to a fellow runner even if probably a bit Too Much Information for the more casual or uninvolved reader!

Like Kelly, Paula acknowledges that running is one of the few sports where everyone, from elites to slow but sure charity fundraisers, can take part in the same race at the same time.  And the amateur as well as the professional can get encouragement, tips, familiar feelings and inspiration from both books.

A very enjoyable read and I am left with even more admiration for Paula’s strength and determination.  Oh, and I loved that she went for a run on her wedding morning bridesmaid and lifelong friend Liz Yelling!

ELAINE HARWOOD & ALAN POWERS (ed.) – Housing The Twentieth Century Nation

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From library

An interesting book pulling together articles about social housing in the UK in the C20th, taking examples from across the UK with varying viewpoints.  I think the most interesting to me was the one about maintaining a Westminster Council block through its life in the 1990s, as I lived in a similar block in London and worked in Regeneration for a time.  Not to everyone’s taste, but I enjoyed dipping into this and seeing those great plans actually put into action, with all the varied results that entailed.

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