Top 12 books for 2012

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scribbly booksNow I’ve accepted that I won’t get “Daniel Deronda” finished by midnight (I’m half way through its 899 pages at 6 pm …) I can, copying my dear friend, Ali, reveal my Top 12 for 2012.

Note: I review several books in each review post, so you may need to scroll down to find the appropriate review.

Fiona Joseph – “Beatrice” – excellent biography of the unconventional Cadbury heiress who tried to give away her fortune to the chocolate factory workers

Francis Pryor – “The Making of the British Landscape” – a marvellous read covering history, geography and geology

Elizabeth Taylor – “A Game of Hide and Seek” – like Ali, I’m only allowing myself one Taylor and one Hardy, and this is the Taylor

Georgette Heyer – “The Grand Sophy” – this was the year I rediscovered Heyer in a big way

Thomas Hardy – “The Return of the Native” – read it to death for A level; still love it now

E. M. Delafield – “The Diary of a Provincial Lady” – a reread of a beloved set of books

Charlotte Bronte – “Jane Eyre” – there’s always something different to find!

David Goldblatt – “How to Watch the Olympics” – I couldn’t ignore the Olympics and this explained EVERYTHING (I don’t seem to have reviewed this on here – will add a review later)

Victoria Eveleigh – the “Katy” books – marvellous new pony books just as good as the old ones

Kenneth O. Morgan – “Michael Foot” – a wonderful biography, so sad when it ended

Dodie Smith – “The Town in Bloom” – felt like a re-read even though it wasn’t!

Carol Fisher Saller – “The Subversive Copy Editor” – how could I not?

Interestingly, five re-reads and five new reads. Four non-fiction and six fiction, which vaguely matches my stats for the year: 116 read of which 79 were fiction and 37 non-fiction

Honourable mentions go to two more re-reads:

Paul Magrs – “Exchange” – slightly magical realism and a mention of something dear to my heart

Jane Austen – “Northanger Abbey” – laugh out loud funny, honestly!

“Daniel Deronda” will be one of my top reads for 2013, though!

Book reviews – The Town in Bloom, The New Moon with the Old and the Subversive Copy Editor

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A more gentle mix this time of charming novels and a book about editing … I’m also whizzing through the months of the TBR now we’re in the middle of the year’s acquisitions: yes, I’ve made it to May, although I do still have one left from my last birthday, and an omnibus from last Christmas.

Dodie Smith – “The Town in Bloom”

(16 May 2012)

An absolutely charming and delightful, adorable book, written in that naive voice I love in Barbara Comyns and Victoria Clayton. I am amazed that I don’t seem to have read this book before, and regret missing out on it for so many years – this should have been a many times re-read!

Tiny Mouse comes to London to get into the theatre, acquires her nickname and bluffs her way into a job at the Crossway Theatre. As demonstrated so amusingly, she can’t actually act, but she’s a good assistant and becomes – perhaps too much – part of the fabric of the place. She lives at a dotty Club with three other girls, and at the end of one memorable summer they pledge to meet up every five years. Forty years on, she looks back on that summer, as they all do, and the present-day framing allows an excellent and seamless update on all of the characters, which makes for a full and satisfying read. I adored this book, which didn’t put a foot wrong, and I wish I’d found it years ago!

Dodie Smith – “The New Moon with the Old”

(16 May 2012)

I couldn’t resist jumping straight into this other charming Dodie Smith novel, the plot of which was very reminiscent of Victoria Clayton’s books (or, I should say, VC’s are reminiscent of DS’s). Jane Minton arrives to a new position as secretary/housekeeper to a large family house, only for everything to go to pot when the father of the house is accused of business wickednesses. We then get a section narrated by each of the four children of the house as they try to become independent. Lovely stories, really giving us four in one as far as novels are concerned, with a delightful cast of supporting characters. Even though some of the assumptions about women blossoming when presented with the right man to hang off are a little hard to swallow, it doesn’t take away from the delight – and yes, romance – and the quirkiness and humour of this lovely, absorbing read.

Carol Fisher Saller – “The Subversive Copy Editor”

(7 June 2012)

Sound, sensible advice on the job of copy editing, mainly addressed to in-house editors, but with a chapter on freelancing, lots of great advice that can be applied to freelancing, and even a chapter for authors who are dealing with editors. It’s more reassuring than new for me, now – but then it’s great to be reassured that you are on the right track. It should be recommended reading for all of those new to – or considering – the job. We find some superb sections on dealing with conflicts, and amusing but apt examples, many gleaned bravely from the author’s own lessons learned and mistakes. Over all too soon, and one to return to!

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Currently reading: Tony Blair’s autobiography is more interesting than I thought it would be, and George Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda” forms an excellent and wonderfully written contrast.

Book reviews – Strictly Shimmer, Two on a Tower and Journey to the End of Islam

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Publishing these reviews in threes and fours, I do like the way the sets of books fall together – usually covering a range of my interests, often with interesting juxtapositions. And so it proves to be here!

Amanda Roberts – “Strictly Shimmer”

(Bookcrossing 28 April 2012)

I picked this up from my friend, Meg, at a BookCrossing meetup in the spring, read it while Strictly Come Dancing 2012 was still going, and passed it to our friend, Sam, at the Birmingham Bookcrossers’ Christmas meal. It’s a rather silly Strictly-themed novel that does give some handy background information on the show, and it’s nice to come across some of your telly favourites being mentioned in a book. But ultimately it’s what I take to be classic chick lit (I haven’t really ever read enough genre fiction of any kind to know the tropes), with the characters and plot to go with it (heroine with slightly low self-esteem, girly bonding, the steady friend and the sexy Other, some mild peril … ). A fun read, although not without typos, and I have to admit to turning the corner of a page down: a page on which a character’s name changes for a paragraph, then changes back!

Thomas Hardy – “Two on a Tower”

(December 2012)

I was getting a bit fed up reading the Hardy books on the Kindle, as I have a Collected Works so never know where I am in the book, so I jumped at the chance of picking up Ali’s spare copy of this one in paperback. However, I did get a little irritated at the “helpful” asterisks marking notes in the back on the most simple of concepts, while sometimes blithely ignoring things I did want to know about. But that’s a minor and over-picky comment and it was lovely to read it in the paper.

This is called a romance, and a romance it is, with elements of sensation fiction and sensation or gothic plot devices like letters, bequests and sudden deaths. We have a feisty, memorable heroine, Viviette, who takes charge of her love affair with a younger man and is reasonably three-dimensional (although elderly at 35 …) at the centre of a plot that goes faster and faster, whirling along like the very heavens that form the backdrop to the novel. It’s still a rich and enjoyable book, with memorable scenes and views and the usual rural chorus, of course. The astronomical background is also interesting and, while not his best novel, a good read.

Michael Muhammad Knight – “Journey to the end of Islam”

(21 March 2012)

A different man to the young firebrand who wrote the rather amazing “The Taqwacores” (which spawned an entire music sub-culture of Islamic Punk), Knight takes a trip around the Islamic world, returning to some places and visiting some for the first time, pondering with erudite and pop culture-laden asides on God, saints, worship, equality, monotheism, holy books, holy places, prophets and interpreters of these matters as he goes. Some of it went over my head, I must admit, and I fear some of it may offend the devout (of any religion) but he is always respectful, even if it’s his own form of respect to the fundamental tenets of religion rather than the surface and accoutrements, and it’s a fascinating insight into the mind of a self-reflective convert, a blue-eyed American Muslim in a mainly eastern, darker skinned and brown-eyed world (he has plenty to say on this interesting issue), a seeker for equality and new traditions, immersing himself in almost timeless traditions as he performs the Hajj. Unsettling and powerful; always thoughtful and mindful.

I have his book about America, “Blue-Eyed Devil”, to read, but realise I should have read that one first.

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Currently reading: Tony Blair’s autobiography is proving interesting, and next to be reviewed will be some delightful novels and what is possibly one of my reads of the year (which is why I don’t post my Best of the Year list until the first day of the new year!)

Book reviews – Park Life

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Katharine D’Souza – “Park Life”

(December 2012 – e-book version kindly sent to me by the author)

Quite a few of my friends have this book, and I’ve been pestering them to borrow it when they’ve finished. Doing so on my friend Ali’s blog gave rise to an email from the author offering me an e-book copy of the novel to read. How could I resist, when it’s a book set in the area of South Birmingham in which I’ve lived for seven years?

Set beautifully in Kings Heath, Moseley and Birmingham city centre, we’re in Mike Gayle, Claire Morrall or Christine Coleman territory here, with this fairly gentle story of ordinary people and their life events: events which could happen to anybody, but are well described in a warm narrative that draws you in and makes you want to read to the end.

We meet the accidental neighbours, Craig and Susan, one passing through, one drifting through life. Susan has finally found the courage to flee an unhappy marriage, and is pondering where it all went wrong, reading back over her teenage diaries to try to get a sense of who she is. Craig is essentially selfish, drifting on a surface of office banter and gym one-upmanship. Both are redeemed by new ideas of family and responsibility. Middle-class knee-jerk liberalism is skewered perceptively but kindly, and relationships between sons and mothers particularly well portrayed, and I have to say that I loved reading the bits set around my home patch, but would have found this engaging and endearing enough without that aspect (bah to the publishers who said people wouldn’t enjoy a book set in South Birmingham. Are there no literate people in South Birmingham to buy it anyway?).

I found the descriptions of the area very accurate, and this comes from a fairly unforgiving reader who once threw a book across a room when it had a character get on the No 11 into the city centre (dear, non-Birmingham readers, the No 11 famously goes all the way around the city in a big Outer Circle). I liked the not-quite-positive mention of the Bull, and of that statue sitting on the steps in Victoria Square. Even more exciting was when a pendant from a shop from which I’ve bought jewellery made an appearance! But, I must stress again that the descriptions had an inner validity which means it doesn’t matter whether or not you know the area. The trees, the parks, all real in their own right as well as descriptions of actual places.

The writing is simple, clear and on the whole it’s well-written (I would have liked more commas, but I’m an editor and comma nut, and it was still perfectly readable – “on the whole it’s well-written” is high praise from picky old me). There are lovely little twists, like this passage:

“Mallards and Canada geese were the only live wildlife I could see, although an urban safari of giraffe print pram blankets and leopard spotted T-shirts adorned some of the passers by.”

and the voices of the different characters were differentiated well. So that’s two things which can be an issue in first novels (that awful habit of describing a scent, a sight, a smell, a feel a sound … and again … and the voices all being the same) neatly side-stepped, and I’m looking forward to more from this author.

Today is the first day of the second year of the rest of my life …

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Exif_JPEG_PICTURE12 December 2011 was my last day in my old office. So today is semi-officially the first day of my second year of full self-employment, although I was still employed and paid by the University until 31 December, so there will be another celebration on 1 January. Happy days! How long have you been at it … or how long have you to go until freedom?

You can read all about my journey to full-time self-employment on this blog, and I’ll be publishing a book about it in the New Year!

Season’s Greetings

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Dear readers – do pop over to the other blog, where you will find Season’s Greetings to all Libro friends and clients.

Book reviews – The Laodicean, Blaming and Michael Foot

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A bit of a mixed bag for the first reviews of December. Well, the Hardy was my last book of November’s rather pathetic five, actually, but never mind. Two books from reading challenges I’m doing (the last one in the Elizabeth Taylor centenary year series and over half way through the works of Hardy now) and almost the last of my buys from my January spree in Stratford (only Tony Blair to go out of those, I think now …).

Thomas Hardy – The Laodicean

(Kindle)

Read on the Kindle for Ali’s Hardy challenge, which was a little annoying as I didn’t know where I was up to in the book, it being part of a collection. Anyway, a very enjoyable read that I would not have looked at were it not for the Hardy challenge, so thanks for that, Ali!

This was somewhat of a departure from his other books, literally, in the fact that a chunk of the action takes place around Italy and Germany in a chase around Europe that is frustrating and almost comical for all concerned, including the reader. Modern heiress, Paula Power, daughter of an engineer, must choose between a scion of the local aristocrats, fallen on hard times, whose ancestral castle she has indeed bought, or a more modern hero. She’s a typical changeable, capricious Hardy heroine, and our hero is confused and dazzled by her. Hardy is rightly celebrated as a describer of landscape and the rural worker, but surely there is no one better at portraying a young man over-thinking the vacillations of a lady.

George Somerset is nicely portrayed as he tries to build up his career:

“Somerset began to feel more professional, what with the business chair and the table and the writing-paper.”

and I loved this description of De Stancy’s suppression of one aspect of his character:

“By this habit, maintained with fair success, a chamber of his nature had been preserved intact during many later years, like the one solitary sealed-up cell occasionally retained by bees in a lobe of drained honey-comb.”

as well as a lovely encapsulation of the architect’s mind when confronted with a scene that delights and interests him:

“It was a street for a mediaevalist to revel in, toss up his hat and shout hurrah in, send for his luggage, come and live in, die and be buried in. She had never supposed such a street to exist outside the imaginations of antiquarians.”

One last quotation, almost unbearably poignant, in this lovely book out of which I got a lot of reading pleasure:

“The tower clock kept manfully going till it had struck one, its face smiling out from the smoke as if nothing were the matter, after which hour something fell down inside, and it went no more.”

Elizabeth Taylor – “Blaming”

(28 November 2012)

Gosh, I really didn’t have all of Taylor’s novels … but I do now! This was the last of her novels, written a little before her death and published posthumously. It’s elegiac because of that, and because of the subject matter, although amusing and hopeful too, in a way, with the younger generation coming through proud and strong with some marvellous young grand-daughters portrayed.

When Amy’s husband, artist Nick, dies on holiday in Istanbul, the rather flaky and too-modern Martha takes charge, and a complicated relationship based on beholden-ness is established. It’s an uncompromising look at marriage, family and blame, but the social milieu of the novel allows for the rather charming Ernie Pounce, a live-in servant with a penchant for chatting up lady wrestlers and a doctor who makes rather too familiar house calls. Martha reminds me of one of Iris Murdoch’s rather grubby bohemians and the portrayal of her – apparently from life – is a little merciless. But it’s a good read, if short, and the portrayal of young Imogen and Dora masterful. Classic Elizabeth Taylor: perhaps not the best of hers to read first, but deeply satisfying as a close to the year of reading her novels.

Kenneth O. Morgan – “Michael Foot: A Life”

(26 January 2012)

A masterful and excellent biography, properly researched, astoundingly well-written and fascinating throughout. Particularly good on his relationships with Nye Bevan, including their falling-out,, and on Foot’s biographies of Nye, which I very much enjoyed reading last year, and Tony Benn, and meticulous at tying him in with contemporary Labour thought and figures, contemporary occupying a long tranche of Labour and British political history, of course. The author chooses to ignore some of the “revelations” which came out of a recent biography of Foot’s wife, Jill Craigie, which was interesting, and I’d kind of like to know why. But even though political biographies, even the best, can waver into the dull zone at times, this was anything but. Hours on the exercise bike whizzed by as I immersed myself in it, and I was sad to finish it. It even mentioned Iris Murdoch, very briefly, as a member of the Communist Party.

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Currently reading: I’ve moved on to the next Hardy, which I should finish this month, the rather enticing “Two on a Tower”, and carrying on with the Michael Muhammad Knight, which is rewarding but fairly hard work …

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