Book Reviews – The Secret Olympian, 1105 Yakima Street, The Secret Horse, Bindis and Brides

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The last few books in June – I have chipped away a fair bit at Mt TBR although with the whole re-reading in July thing, it won’t be getting much smaller next month!

Anonymous – “The Secret Olympian”

(01 June 2012)

A fascinating behind the scenes exploration of exactly what it’s like to go to the Olympics as an athlete (and promoted up Mt TBR for obvious reasons). In this case, it’s someone who was at Athens in 2004, but they interview people who were at Beijing, as well as many of the earlier Games. It covers the run-up, including choosing your sport, the selection announcement, training, pre-camp, the Games themselves and all sorts of interesting areas like accommodation, food, sex, drugs and parties in what seems like honest depth. Some of the people interviewed are anonymous, too, but it’s a good read, except that the copyeditor and fact checker seem to have given up around p. 120 (or the version control went wrong and the wrong section was published), and there are several howlers, including the claim that the announcement of London’s winning the 2012 Games was in 2006 – I distinctly remember it being in 2005! This did take the edge off it for me, I’m afraid, but otherwise very informative and a good preparation for my TV viewing experience next month.

Debbie Macomber – “1105 Yakima Street”

(13 Jan 2012)

We fall back into Cedar Cove like settling on the sofa with a cuppa, possibly under a blanket, to watch a favourite soap opera. Although this concentrates on newlyweds, Bruce and Rachel, and their difficulties, most of the characters from the previous ten books are brought in and updated, with that way Macomber has of reminding you who they are and their relationships to one another. Comforting, and it’s sad that the heavily prefigured sequel is a Christmas story only, and apparently the last one in the series.

Jane Smiley – “Secret Horse”

(21 January 2012 – from Geoff)

Second in Smiley’s series about Abby and her horsey life. As Abby starts to negotiate a new school year and to learn about families and ways of life other than her rather ascetic, religious, horse farm one, a mystery starts to surround the foal, Jack, who she is training up after the death of his mother. Was she a stolen horse and does Jack belong to someone else? Meanwhile, she learns to show Black George off to his best advantage … so that he has a chance of being sold. Obviously written from a love of horses (and it’s even her second book in the same genre – there is a third one, too) and she gets both the training and riding details and the amount of these details she puts in the book just right, in my opinion.

Nisha Minhas – “Bindis and Brides” (DNF)

(9 Jan 2012 – Poundland)

I seem to accept the more chick-litty end of the spectrum when the book has an added cultural dimension, so this story of two sisters, one of whom has escaped a violent marriage, running an Asian wedding shop should have been a fun, if silly read. Unfortunately there was a really off joke about anorexia half way through, which made me put it down very hurriedly. This was my first Did Not Finish of the year, though!

A Month of Re-Reading in July: My Choices

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As you may know by now, my friend Ali and I are doing a month of re-reading in July. It’s really time to choose our books, so here goes!

I have not planned this that well: I am part of two reading challenges, but I find I don’t have a copy of Elizabeth Taylor’s “Angel”, so I can’t reliably claim that I’ve read it (if only my Reading Journal Card Index was up to date …) and I am pretty sure I haven’t read Hardy’s “The Trumpet Major”, even though I have a copy, so I’m going to have to work round those (I’ll read the Taylor this month as it’s July’s read, and I have July-August for the Hardy). I also have a couple of books I need to read before watching the Olympics (“The Secret Olympian” and “How To Watch The Olympics”), but I will try to get those done this month. And I can’t find my copy of Villette, and the idea is NOT to buy new books for this, so, this is the pile at the moment.

The List

So, what and why?  Well, I wanted to sum up the kinds of books I like to read, I suppose, and sink back into some dear favourites and at least one that I’ve only read once.

Mary O’Hara – “My Friend Flicka”, “Thunderhead” and “Green Grass of Wyoming” – classic, wonderful pony books. I loved and read and READ these as a child/teen – I recall a New Year’s Eve in bed, ill, with them, one year in my early teens. But I don’t think I’ve read them since then, or in the last decade, anyway.

E.M. Delafield – “The Diary of a Provincial Lady” – a Virago, of course, and I do love this. I have read it several times, but not that recently. I’ve read a large number of Viragoes and Persephones in the last few years, but this is one of my original loves.

Charlotte Bronte – “Jane Eyre” – I always say this is one of my favourite books, but I haven’t read it for YEARS (there will be an Austen in here if I have time, probably “Northanger Abbey”, but I’m trying to be realistic!

Henry James – “The Europeans” – I love James but haven’t read him for ages. I remember really liking this one, but think I’ve read it only the once.

Larry McMurtry – “The Last Picture Show” – to express my love of the small-town America coming-of-age novel. And it’s a bit of a cheeky one – this is the first of the five-book Thalia series. I have the fourth and fifth on my TBR, but I really need to read this, “Texasville” and “Duane’s Depressed” again before I go for those. I have read this a couple of times before, but it’s simply marvellous.

Georgette Heyer – “These Old Shades” – another cheeky one, as it’s off my TBR! One book down in July! But I have been reading her a lot recently, and this is one I have been due to read for a while, as it’s one of the ones my friend Heather gave me when I left the library.

So there we are, a good selection, I think. Have you read any of these? Which one should I read first?

See what Ali’s planning to read.

Book Reviews – Call of the White, Hostages to Fortune (Persephone), The Return of the Native

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I’ve been a bit slow on my reading since my last little flourish, but I’ve had quite a lot of work in. I actually read one of these books last weekend.

Felicity Ashton – “Call of the White”

(January 2012, BookCrossing)

This was a failed BookCrossing book, as there was a label on the front but no BCID inside. And so I also failed to be able to catch it, or record when I acquired it. Anyway, Aston, an explorer and outdoor pursuits instructor, who has lived and worked in Antarctica, decides to recruit eight women from Commonwealth countries and walk to the South Pole with them. She tries to find ordinary women, and the search for them is as interesting as the expedition. Of course, as ever, it is more about the personalities and group psychology than about feet and sledges: it seems fairly and honestly told, and is interesting.

Elizabeth Cambridge – “Hostages to Fortune” (Persephone)

(25 December 2o11, from Bridget)

I suppose one would call this Persephone book a psychological novel, as there is nothing much in the way of action, but we become heavily involved in the interior lives of a family – especially the mother – between the wars, struggling to make ends meet in an ordinary village, even though the husband is the local doctor. The mother is a frustrated writer, and much is made of the growing characters of her children, and the contrast with their seemingly more carefully raised older cousins. Nothing really happens, but the small, incremental changes of village, social and family life are painstakingly and beautifully portrayed, with the modern world claiming its victims, whether literally, in the case of people engaging with new fashions like motoring, or metaphorically, in the case of people engaging with modern ideas of marriage. As I move away from finishing this novel, I appreciate it even more. There wasn’t an introduction, though, which was a shame.

Thomas Hardy – “The Return of the Native”

(1988)

Amusingly, this was my copy bought for my A levels – we had an open book exam for the classics we studied, and I suppose you had to have your own copy so you could annotate and mark passages. Which brought an extra level to the re-reading aspect of this read, as I was forced to engage with my rather literal minded younger self, all themes and having to show off for the examiners, as I read along (at least the annotations go all the way to the end, unlike my copy of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”, bristling with pencil marks until p. 100!).

I do love this book, but having done it to death for A level, I am not sure that I’ve actually read it again since. What a difference in my perceptions: I found this aspect fascinating. I remember thinking Eustacia was marvellous (I named cats after her and Bathsheba!), Thomasina a bit wet, and Mrs Yeobright a horrible, interfering woman. And I preferred the “new” ending imposed upon Hardy by the readers of his original serialisation. This time round, I thought Eustacia was pretty awful, admired poor, plucky Thomasina, and could understand Mrs Yeobright: after all, Clym is given a pretty clear-eyed understanding of her which he expresses at several points. I also feel that I would prefer the original ending now. I have always loved good old Digory Venn, though!

The landscape really comes through as a character in this novel, and also the characters’ reactions to it govern their fate in a way that is perhaps strongest in this novel. If you hate Egdon Heath, beware … Fate and the Pathetic Fallacy of the environment matching the characters’ emotions also play their part, but not, I think, in a clunky way. There is also gentle humour about human relations, in the lost glove and Clym’s misunderstanding of Thomasina’s intentions, which give light to the shade of the more serious matters. A magnificent novel, and I’m already looking forward to my next re-read.

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Talking of re-reading, I’ll be sorting out and posting my choices for the Month of Re-Reading Ali Hope and I are organising … watch this space!

A weekend with friends old and new

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I wanted to record my first proper Whole Weekend Off since I started working for myself full time. I have had the odd couple of days where I haven’t worked, but this was a booked, pre-arranged, weekend away, with no laptop and no work. How exciting!

The impetus for the weekend was the LibraryThing Virago Group. LibraryThing is a place where you can catalogue your book collection, and it has groups to join related to various interests. The Virago Group reads and celebrates books published by Virago Press (especially the classic green-spined ones) and, having had a get together in Reading a month or so ago, we decided to  meet up in Oxford.

I didn’t take many photos on the day, but here are the few I did take.  I have been to Oxford a few times in the past, and have general pictures, so I concentrated on the bits I hadn’t seen (like Magdalen). Ali and I travelled down together with much giggling and book chatting, and met the others at Oxford Station (leading to lots of “does that look like a Virago person?” comments). We’d met Simon and Julie before, Julie had Mary and Helen with her, and then Claire and Luci arrived together, so it all worked well. We then went and toured the Oxfam bookshops and a few others, behaving very well when two of us wanted the same book: “You have it, no, you have it!” I was thrilled to discover that quite a few of us are pony book fans and picked up a Mary Webb novel in Oxfam. The lovely Kerry joined us at this point, having been driven in by her husband. “Husbands?!” we all shrieked, but he sensibly did his own thing and kept safe from the marauding hordes of book hoarders.

After book shopping we had lunch at the Nosebag, a lovely little restaurant next to a shop with a large number of Georgette Heyer novels in stock … Claire kindly gave me a green copy of Stevie Smith’s “The Holiday” – I had one once but managed to mislay it. I’ll be more careful with this one! After that, we went to Magdalen, where Simon is studying for his PhD, so we got the inside story and I started taking some photos.  We had the great treat of tea in the MCR (Middle Common Room – the one for graduate students / postgrads) and a good old chat. A quick trip to the upstairs of Blackwell Books and on …

Then it was on the bus to Verity’s house, where we had a marvellous tea (I should have started this post with the story of my cat eating the original pack of crumpets I’d bought – I did source some completely new ones!) Verity had laid on a spread of wonderful treats, catering to our various dietary requirements and even making shortbread and cake decorations in the shape of the Virago apple logo. There was also a shelf of books to choose from, and I finally laid my hands on a copy of Lolly Willowes.

Kerry’s patient husband kindly drove Ali and me round to our hotel, the Peartree Travelodge, which was fairly nearby but tricky by public transport. We checked in, got some decadent dinner from Waitrose and had a lovely evening of Own Time, reading and, in my case, getting a really early night.

On Sunday, we hadn’t arranged to do anything until lunchtime, so had a leisurely breakfast and more glorious reading time, in which I finished my travel book and got half way through “The Return of the Native”, and then walked the 3 or 4 miles into Oxford. A coffee at the cinema and a slightly panicky hunt for the Pizza Express, then met up with my old University friend, Nick – we graduated 20 years ago this month! We had a good old chat that left Ali and me time for a quick whisk round the shops and a gentle stroll to the train station, where there was time for a cuppa (of course) before the train came in.

What a lovely weekend. I really appreciated having time to do nothing except read. I’m planning to do more of this, but mulling over strategies, so will probably leave that for another post …

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A month of re-reading: July 2012 and January 2013

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These happen to be my recent and current re-reads!

This weekend I’ve been in Oxford doing various book-y and friend-y things with my good friend, Ali. Talking about our horrendous “To Be Read Mountains”, we were bemoaning the fact that we don’t get time to re-read much, as there’s always something new to get on with. Thus was hatched the Month of Re-Reading plan, which Ali is hosting over on her blog … but I’ll be talking about my re-reading on here … watch this space!

Book Reviews – Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks, The Sleeping Beauty, The Time of My Life

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Although this is my first set of reviews for this month, I am happy to say that I’ve chipped away at the reading matter I discussed in my State of the TBR post for the start of June, so progress is being made …

Ethan Gilsdorf – “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks”

(? This book is somewhere in the house, but I can’t find it to check when I got it. Some time in Dec/Jan I presume!)

In which he hits 40 and decides to find out what’s going on the world of role-play and fantasy gaming (and, by extension, some historical role-playing groups, but not re-enacters) and whether he does, actually, need to “grow up”. More family background, around his mother’s illness, han I had expected, but this gave it a deeper and more personal aspect. I enjoyed finding out about the different kinds of role-playing games and his experiences among them, and the effects on their players, which was given a balanced treatment. But he didn’t come to Birmingham when looking into Tolkien! All in all an interesting read, and not bad for a book from Poundland!

Elizabeth Taylor – “The Sleeping Beauty”

(pre-1989)

With the echoes of her previous books now becoming obvious as we read through the books month by month in the LibraryThing Virago Group, there’s another yacht, an uncomfortable mother-child relationship, a pair of old school friends (portrayed deliciously with their face-packs and diets, the best part of the book for me), and a man who comes to observe and apply healing who ends up swept away by his own sudden emotions. I think I heard there was even a wreath of roses somewhere, although I didn’t notice that. A little reminiscent of Iris Murdoch’s “The Sea, The Sea”, especially in Vinny’s insistence on his rescue of the sleeping beauty.

Taylor isn’t usually a “warm” writer, and this doesn’t usually bother me, but all the warmth and life in this book seems to live at its edges, in the female friendship, Vinny’s rather marvellous mother, the nursemaid and nanny and the hilarious efforts so many of the characters make to hide their proclivity for betting on the horses from one another.  The ending seems a little hasty, and not to matter once the actual, inevitable, act of betrayal has taken place. So it feels like a novel with a hard centre, to an extent, and it’s not my favourite of her novels, although not, of course, a bad one at all!

Denis Healey – “The Time of my Life”

(30 August 2011 – from a bag given to me for BookCrossing by Linda)

This has taken me a long time to read, at meal times and, lately, on the exercise bike in the gym. I do like a political biography, particularly Labour ones, and I’ve been reading a fair bit of 1970s history recently, but it was a bit of a slog. Also, he dislikes Bevan, Benn and, to an extent, Foot, which didn’t help. There were some interesting insights into the way Cabinets worked and the Falklands War.

He mentions Iris Murdoch twice, introducing her to Samuel Beckett’s “Murphy” and working with her in the Communist Party, both at Oxford, and he rather pleasingly mentions the delights of Hall’s Bookshop in Tunbridge Wells, an old favourite of mine, but these were small consolations in a long effort with some skimming near the end, and it is definitely not the finest political biography of its century, as the quote from The Economist on the front asserts!

A typical day for Libro

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See, I do relax. Here’s me at Easter, hanging out with a friend!

It’s great working for myself full time, but sometimes I am reminded that not everyone realises that, just because I might mention I’m working at, say 6am, and again at 10pm, that doesn’t mean I’m working as such for the whole day. If I was, that would be a bit worrying, of course. Anyway, I thought I’d note down a “typical” day in my life now (and contrast it with one from my former office-part-time/libro-part-time life, too). Note that these are example days, but they are common ones.

A typical day now

6.00 – 8.00 Get up. Check email and work for about 90 minutes.

8.00 – 9.00 Breakfast with M. Shower.

9.00 – 9.30 Check and answer emails, check Facebook and Twitter. Publish a blog post.

9.30 – 11.00 Work of various sorts – projects large or small

11.00 – 11.30 Cuppa and a drink of squash. Emails and admin

11.30 – 12.30 More billable hours

12.30 – 14.30 An hour at the gym, lunch and shower

14.30 – 16.00 Work.

16.00 – 16.30 A soft drink, a cuppa (a bun?) and some emailing.

16.30 –  18.00 Work.

18.00 – 19.00 Either work or walk down to meet M on his way home from work

19.00 – 20.00 House admin and dinner.

20.00 – 21.00 Maybe an hour of work if I’m busy or have tight deadlines. Otherwise, TV etc.

21.00 – 22.00 TV or reading.

22.00 – 22.30 Check email, last minute bits and bobs, check personal email

22.30 – 23.00 Get ready for bed, a bit of reading.

23.00 Bedtime.

So that gives me between 7 and 9 billable working hours – usually more like 7, which is what people do in an office, of course, just not so spread out through the day.

And in a week of days like this I will get out to the cafe to meet friends at least once, pop into town or meet a friend for dinner, and have some time writing up blog posts etc.

A typical day in 2011

On a day when I worked in the office and at home, my day would look like this:

5.45 – 6.00 Get up, check Libro email, maybe do some Libro work

6.00 – 7.00 Breakfast, shower, get ready for work.

7.00 – 7.30 Travel into work.

7.30 – 13.00 Working at the Library.

13.00 – 13.30 Lunch. Check Blackberry and reply to Libro emails / make calls.

13.30 – 15.45 Working at the Library.

15.45 – 16.30 Travelling home.

16.30 – 19.30 Cup of tea then working till M gets home and beyond. He makes my dinner.

19.30 – 20.00 Hasty dinner.

20.00 – 22.30 Working on Libro projects.

22.30 – 23.00 Getting ready for bed.

23.00 Bedtime.

That was 4 then 3 days a week through the whole of 2011 pretty well. Phew! I would have a day like the above one 1 or 2 weekdays a week and work solidly at the weekends. Not so much gym, certainly not any cafe with friends, not so many blog posts, not so much reading!

Writing this post, and the reason for writing it, has got me musing about “presenteeism” and the way it creeps into self-employment. Here’s my article on that topic on the Libro blog.

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