Book review – Capital

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IMAG0179.jpg This is a rather special book review, and so I’m letting it stand on its own.

My partner, Matthew, had shown an interest in reading this book a while ago; he reads a lot of audio books on his 3-mile walk to and from work. I’d been eying up the book and wanting to read it for some time, but was held back by my TBR Mountain, promising myself I could pick up this hefty tome when the TBR got that little bit smaller … Then my friend Sian presented me with a copy for my birthday! Hooray! Matthew was keen on reading the book together, and our friend Linda picked up on this and was keen to join in on her Kindle, and so the great Capital Reading Project began.

How we did it: Matthew would listen to his around 2 hours’ worth during the day. Luckily, the book is divided into short chapters, so it was easy to work out where he was. He’d tell me where he was up to, I’d text Linda, and then she and I would catch up that evening. We did get a little ahead of Matthew one weekend, and by mistake one weekday when he told us the wrong chapter number. But we kept reading alongside one another pretty steadily, and this added to my enjoyment of the novel, both in terms of being able to talk about with two friends, and in terms of being forced to read it more slowly than I naturally would have.

So, here are our reviews:

My review:

I had been keen on reading this State of the Nation novel for some time, especially when I realised it was set in South London, in what claims to be Lambeth but could be any road of three-storey terraces in Lambeth, Lewisham, Southwark or Greenwich. Lanchester takes a disparate group of residents – the old lady, the banker and his wife, the young footballer shipped in from Africa, the family in the corner shop – and more peripheral characters, from the Polish builder to the Zimbabwean traffic warden, and weaves the story of their lives around the macro events of the 2008 financial crisis and the micro events of a spate of odd postcards and increasingly hostile graffiti and websites. It never seems laboured, and while some characters are more sympathetic than others, it doesn’t slip into triteness, perhaps because of the size of the book and the room it’s all given to breathe. My favourite characters were the artist, Smitty, the Asian family with their dragon of a mother and affecting story, and Zbigeniew, the Polish builder. Each is portrayed with care and emotion; each seems real.

The ending speeds us on, and I definitely gained from being forced to read this more slowly. I guessed some of the plot points, not some of the others, and enjoyed tracing back the well-placed clues scattered through the text. An intelligent book with an ending that reflects life in the sprawling metropolis – some tragedies, some misunderstandings, some happy endings, some endings left looser than others. This will definitely make my top ten of 2013, and I’m glad that I was both compelled to read it sooner than I expected and compelled to read it more slowly than I naturally would have.

Linda’s review:

Capital is the first of John Lanchester’s books that I’ve read and I’m delighted that I did. The multiple perspectives of the narrative are engaging from the very first page. The use of Pepys St and the “We Want What You Have” campaign lends a narrative unity to Lanchester’s diverse set of characters, each of whom are portrayed with sensitivity and realism, except perhaps for Arabella: I don’t think Lanchester works particularly hard to build the reader’s sympathy for this entitled banker’s wife.

The seriousness of the novel grew slowly and overtook me by about 30% through (I was reading on the Kindle so the percentages stuck in my head). If I hadn’t been participating in a read-along, I think I’d have found myself staying up all night to finish it.

Lanchester also plays with our expectations: he subtly sets us up to anticipate that something will happen to Usman; yet it is one of his brothers who unwittingly becomes central to this part of the plot. It’s hard to say much more without revealing too much about the book but I did love the way that seemingly incidental characters gain their own strand of the story as the narrative progresses.

I wasn’t thrilled by the ending; I wanted more closure and resolution for some of the characters. But this novel is a portrayal of life and life itself seldom provides the resolution that we seek.

Matthew’s review:

Capital is a thoroughly entertaining read about living in London during the middle of the first decade of the 21 century. The book is peopled with warm and engaging characters whose everyday lives and well-being you genuinely care about. There are people from all walks of life here and John Lanchester skillfully weaves their respective stories into and around the central plot. I chose to listen to the audiobook version of the novel and the narrator, Colin Mace, was absolutely first class, managing to bring an authenticity to just about every accent in the book – it really added an extra level of richness to the story and I would highly recommend anyone to listen to this book or just read the paper version, you won’t be disappointed.

Book reviews – A Journey, Blue-Eyed Devil and Margaret, Daughter of Beatrice

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Feb 2013 tbrContinuing through my February reads, we’ve got a slightly uncomfortable mix of religion and politics. It’s just how the TBR (To Be Read (Mountain)) has fallen, not deliberate – as you probably know by now, I try to read my TBR in order of acquisition (how do you approach yours?), and you can see two of the books on the extreme left of the February TBR photo, just waiting to be picked off, whereas Tony had been with me for, well, quite a while.

Tony Blair – “A Journey”

(26 January 2012; Shakespeare Hospice Bookshop, Stratford-Upon-Avon)

As regular readers will know, I do like a political biography. When this one came out, as a lifelong wavering voter between Labour and Liberal (with a touch of Green for the locals and a wobble towards Respect for Salma’s sake) but not a big TB fan, I was intrigued. Then I didn’t want to buy it new and give him the royalties. Then I discovered the royalties were going to charity (or have I made that up?) but I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of getting my vote in the ratings … so when I found it in a charity shop, I did eventually pick it up.

There was an interest there, although it was a bit of a slog, too (not helped by leaving it to one side while I did my Re-Reading in January project). The interest mainly lay in some of the background to the Irish peace process, relationships with other heads of state and royalty, and the mechanics of being the prime minister – having a drum kit in the top room; buying ice creams with Gordon; doing carefully planned and pre-checked “spontaneous” trips to shops, etc. A lot of the rest of it was the usual self-justification that is rife in the political autobiography, and some of it rather tedious (the famous sex bit comes in early, thank goodness). What really rather grated on me was that he was trying so hard to be “Tony, man of the people” that it just wasn’t very well written – or edited. There were too many asides, too many “for sure”s and too much plain dodgy grammar. It read rather as if he’d dictated it and it had gone straight down onto the page without the benefit of much thought.

I’m glad I faced up to and read it – you can’t just read your heroes’ bios, can you? Or maybe you should …

Michael Muhammad Knight – “Blue-Eyed Devil: A Road Odyssey Through Islamic America”

(21 March 2012)

I bought this around the same time that I bought Journey to the End of Islam, which I read first, mistakenly, as this one is the earlier volume and the second one feeds off it somewhat. Another somewhat ambivalent read. I loved the challenging and provocative “The Taqwacores”, a brave novel about a Muslim punk band which spawned a music genre and made some daring statements and told some shocking stories. So when I found that Knight, a white American Muslim convert, had written some books about exploring Islamic America and the world he travelled when in the process of learning and converting, I was really looking forward to reading them.

It’s complicated, though. Although in this book he does talk about selling copies and engaging in lawsuits, he was already moving away from his association with the earlier novel at this stage. He’s still really good on alternative movements, feminism, and some provocative people, but with a respect for his religion and an understanding that at the time he was writing the novel, he was going through a time of questioning, picking and choosing what he wanted to accept, embrace and believe. Now he has a more mature attitude, although he’s still sleeping in his car and hanging out with all sorts of people.

So we find him settling down, revisiting old haunts, and thinking a lot, which is fine. Unfortunately for me, the more casual reader, perhaps, he gets very keen on tracing some of the founders of the Nation of Islam, and here is, I admit, where I got a bit lost and confused, not having the knowledge and background to be able to pick my way through history, conjecture and theory along with the writer. But there is a lot to like in this interesting book still.

Leo Abse – “Margaret, Daughter of Beatrice”

(10 March 2012)

And so we complete my trio of ambivalence. I was looking forward to this one – a psychoanalytical study of Mrs Thatcher by a Welsh Labour MP (brother of the surgeon-poet, Danny, to whom I gave my youthful poetic oeuvre at a poetry reading in Tunbridge Wells in the 1980s, I shudder to admit). He’s a good, solid Freudian, although he does engage with the post-Freud psychoanalysts, especially the feminists, and this informs the most interesting chapters on the effect that weaning, potty training, etc. had on the infant Mrs T. He tells his tales with a little glee, I feel, and I certainly felt a bit gleeful reading them, too, although he is at pains to point out that he pities Margaret for her harsh upbringing, even as he criticises her for letting it have its influence on her politics and reign.

All well and good, and his Freud is solid and his arguments well-mustered and impressive. Unfortunately, the book is bolstered with a big chapter on Keith Joseph and Enoch Powell, and another all about spies, with only tenuous links to the subject at hand, and I’m afraid I did skim a little there. Also, he seems to have some rather odd views on the origins of homosexuality in people; informed by his Freudian paradigm of nurture not nature, and to be fair it’s not clear if he applies this theory to all gay people or just some who “become” gay, but it makes uncomfortable reading in this age of less Freud and more understanding of the nature side of things. So again, a good book in parts.

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I’m currently very much enjoying John Lanchester’s “Capital”, reading along with Matthew on audio book and Linda on Kindle. We’re getting on well with it and it’s ever so good – might even get it finished before the end of the month! I’m not sure what else is coming up – looks like some Heyers and Viragoes if you peer at the photo of the bookshelf …

So, how do you read your TBR? And have you read any of these books? I’d love to know!

Book reviews – Snowfall, Excellent Women, Tune in Tokyo, Millions Like Us

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Feb 2013 tbrFebruary has been full of excellent reading so far. Here are FOUR more great books I’ve finished …

K.M. Peyton – “Snowfall”

(borrowed from my friend Verity)

Well-written YA novel about a group of friends in late 19th century England who hand together to support one of their number who is restoring a house to live in near his much older lover. This is, of course, a bit shocking given the time it’s set and the mix of men and women involved. Central character, Charlotte, uses this situation and the Swiss mountain climbing holiday it springs from, as an excuse to escape the stultifying life at her grandfather’s vicarage and the threat of a loveless marriage.

The group of friends is well done, there’s a lot of love, but it’s missing the sex scenes Peyton usually likes to put in, and there are some horses to satisfy that side of our love for this author. Peril is signposted at the outset and copeable with, being handled well, and a useful epilogue brings the story up to date in as uncontrived a manner as possible – very satisfying and engaging.

Barbara Pym – “Excellent Women”

(02 October 2012)

The second month in the LibraryThing Virago Group Pym readalong and the second novel she published. Mildred is one of those “excellent women”, spinsters and sensible, the kind of women who always have an oven glove to hand and can be relied upon to provide unquestioning, unfailing support to anything from the furniture arrangements of divorcing couples to Church jumble sales to proofreading and indexing dry academic texts. Pym gives Mildred her own clear eye on the situation as she observes and occasionally disturbs, daring to suggest that we might not NEED all that tea, and giggling at the pomposities of anthropology, learned societies and Men.

The story is fairly slight, involving some neighbours who disrupt Mildred’s life in more than one sense, but it’s the details and characters, the observation and ‘unpleasantnesses’ that we’re after in Pym, isn’t it. A welcome sight of Archdeacon Hoccleve from “Some Tame Gazelle” rounds things off nicely – I’m looking forward to noticing more of these as I don’t usually read all of Pym’s books in close succession like this.

Tim Anderson – “Tune in Tokyo: The Gaijin Diaries”

(Kindle, December 2012)

Tim is a gay American who decides to go to Japan to make something out of his pot-smoking layabout self. While there, he teaches at various schools, goes out clubbing, plays music badly in some bands and a duet, finds wonder and amusement, deals with odd housemates, may not take everything entirely seriously and has a few problems involving women. All of this is reported honestly, so it’s an attractive, if sometimes surprising, read – probably not for the easily shockable.

Interesting on Japan’s gay culture, and I would have liked more on this. Summed up by this quotation: “I find myself thinking about what I’ve learned on my Japan odyssey. A cloyingly American thing to do, but I am what I am, and I’ve got to tie this shit up somehow”.

Virginia Nicholson “Millions Like Us”

(borrowed from my friend Verity)

An excellent and very detailed piece of social history research, examining women’s lives during the Second World War across a range of classes, ages and contexts, through interviews, their published and unpublished diaries and books and sometimes interviews with their children and grandchildren. She finds people who were in all sorts of situations and weaves the strands together extremely competently, reminding but not repeating when she reintroduces a particular character. It also covers the post-war period and GI brides, etc., and updates us on many of the women’s lives through the rest of the 20th century. It was lovely to come across favourites like Vere Hodgson, Nella Last and Clara Milburn.

She does seem confused on whether women’s nurturing and homeward orientation is a product of nature or nurture itself, railing against assumption at one point and making generalisations herself at another, but this is a minor criticism of an absorbing and important book.

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Coming up … I’m plodding through Tony Blair, really want to finish him this month (then I have something on Mrs Thatcher, but it’s a psychoanalysis by a Labour MP so should be more fun than traumatic) and I’m about to start reading John Lanchester’s “Capital”, promoting it up the book pile, as it only arrived on my birthday, because Matthew’s starting to read it on audio book today. We’ve just got to work out how long it takes me to read 45 mins’ worth of audio recording so we can keep in step …

Book progress …

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Going it alone coverAs you probably know, I’m putting together an e-book based on my posts on this blog and my main Libroediting one about the process of going self-employed and my first year working full-time from home. I’ve just got to do final edits and it’ll be ready to go.

I hope that those of you who have been reading and enjoying this blog will feel able to share the news – it does have new information and content as well as repeating blog posts, and people will get about 50 pages of A4 for £1.00, so it’ll be worth it! It’ll be available on Amazon for Kindle – if you don’t have a Kindle, you can download a free Kindle reader app or software from Amazon.

Anyway, I’ve written about my experiences having the book edited and I thought you might like to read it too, if you don’t read my other blog. Do pop over and have a read and let me know what you think! It’s been a very popular post among my fellow editors …

On not fishing for compliments …

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scribbly booksOK, so I’ve been posting book reviews on here for a while now, and some people do read them, like them and even post comments. But I don’t have many views per review, not many at all, and not more as time goes on, and I’m getting the feeling that people aren’t really interested.

So, I ask myself, is it worth typing these reviews up on this blog any more, or should I just keep my paper journal?

Can you help me decide?

How do you read this blog?

Do you all read it on Google Reader or another RSS feed, not clicking through to this site (so not being captured in my statistics)? So do I have more readers than I think? I know I have 85 followers on WordPress and emails, and again, I don’t know if you just read it on your feed or an email that gets sent to you, whether that comes through to my stats. So, is that what you do?

Is it too confusing?

It’s been pointed out that the blog url and title don’t reflect the idea of book reviews. This is a repository for musings on being a full-time self-employed person (obviously, past the first year, these have diminished, but there will be more when I publish my book on the subject), stuff on my research project, and book reviews. It’s made pretty clear on my About Me page, but should I change the title (I can’t change the URL). Will this put people off? Do you read this blog (if you do) in spite of or because of the range of subjects?

Are my reviews just not good enough?

I appreciate that my reviews aren’t very long and detailed. I don’t think that’s going to change – I don’t have time to write massive long reviews. I hope I give a flavour of what the book is about, maybe introduce you to some new ideas for reading, etc.

Please do respond!

It would be so helpful to know what people think. I’m not going to waste my time putting out stuff that no one cares about – or yours having to skim over something in your facebook or twitter feed or RSS reader. So please, be honest. If there’s something I can mend quickly and easily that doesn’t involve a) starting another new blog b) spending significantly more time on this one, I’m all ears. If you think it’s boring and you just don’t care, that’s fine! If I get no comments, I’ll know why! Oh – and I do know that blogs grow, audiences grow, etc., etc. I also know that while the audience and hits on my other blog have grown and grown, this one has pretty well stayed the same since I started it.

Thank you for reading!

Liz

Book reviews – A Good Horse is Never a Bad Color, It Ends with Revelations, and some comfort reading

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Feb 2013 tbrTime to get some February reviews set down, although I have reviewed one book finished in February already, to keep in with the Month of Re-Reading in January. I do like to make things complicated for myself! I have read quite a lot this month already, so some substantial batches to come out! We’ve got a nice variety of comfort reading and Kindle reading here …

Mark Rashid – “A Good Horse is Never a Bad Color”

(Kindle, bought December 2012)

A really good read, a reissue with update notes, about his education and subsequent work in training horses in a kind and horse-centred way. Plenty of detail on how not to do it, and plenty of examples of how to do it, with an interesting emphasis on types of horse – Arabs, “paint” horses – that are considered to be particularly difficult to train and work with. Really interesting and humane, and the thoughtful updates made it feel like good value rather than just a re-issue to cash in on the e-book craze.

Dodie Smith – “It Ends with Revelations”

(16 May 2012)

A slightly odd novel, like the others of hers I’ve read recently, set firmly in the world of the theatre. Jill is married to actor, Miles: when they visit a spa town to present a slightly dodgy play in the town festival, and meet local MP Geoffrey and his two quirky daughters (more brilliant Smith adolescents), relationships start to form and, indeed, revelations start to emerge. Set apparently in 1967, the discussions of homosexuality and alcoholism do manage to seem both daring and dated. It’s whimsical and charming in true Smith style, but some elements do seem slightly bolted on or placed in the narrative to raise “issues”, so it doesn’t quite work all the way through. But it’s a not-so-good Dodie Smith novel rather than a bad novel per se, if that makes sense.

Georgette Heyer – “Lady of Quality”

(16 June 2012 – Oxford)

A sweet Heyer, set in Bath. Annis is 29 and has set up a household independent of her brother, to his horror. Then she suddenly acquires a young lady guest and comes up against her (saturnine, rude, natch) guardian. Lots of sparring ensues and some great Bath scenes, making it an enjoyable, escapist read. I found it amusing that some of the locations are the same as those encountered in my recent read of “Persuasion”!

Carole Matthews – “Winter Warmers”

(Kindle December 2012 – free offer)

I’d not read any of Carole Matthews’ short stories before, although I have read a couple of her novels. These three were very nicely done, with just the right amount of plot, character development and romance to make them more satisfying than just a bit of fun – great escapist reading, even in February! I enjoyed “All I Want for Christmas is You” the most, as I liked the office scenes and the intriguing events.

Robert Arthur – “The Case of the Whispering Mummy”

(22 November 2012)

Third in the set (I see I’m missing the Stuttering Parrot but I don’t always come across these in massive batches!), and an easily guessed non-supernatural plot, although not too formulaic (i.e. Jupiter isn’t captured at a vital moment, although he does have a rather exciting ride). The walkie-talkies are introduced, and Alfred Hitchcock is quite involved – interesting, as I’d not read many of the earlier ones recently. The perfect pitch and length for a comfort read …

Coming up … some KM Peyton and a Barbara Pym, some travel writing, some social history … and I might even finish Tony Blair this month. Watch this space! Have you been comfort reading this rainy (or snowy) February?

Book reviews: Persuasion, The Dark is Rising Sequence, A Lot to Ask and a Month of Re-Reading Roundup

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Jan 2013 month of rereadingThe month of re-reading is over (well over, sorry!) and it’s time to review those last reads and to have a think about how it’s gone this time.

Jane Austen – “Persuasion”

(1980s)

I was slightly dreading reading this one, as I was leaning towards the more familiar “Pride and Prejudice”, which was celebrating its 200th anniversary in January, too, and it is one of the two Austens I know least well. But it’s not a hard read, and it’s a short one (my normal length volume fooled me by including the memoir of JA by her nephew in the same edition) and very absorbing. As usual, Austen does her timeless thing so well, with her portrayal of ex-lovers meeting, or rather being thrown into one another’s company, years later, having to cope, matchmaking their friends, etc. – situations that can easily be described emotionally in exactly the same way if the cultural trimmings are pulled gently away. Anne Elliott is a little saintly but is fully rounded and I loved her relationships with their beloved neighbour, Lady Russell, and her difficult sister, plus her children. The book is full of attractive and well-drawn characters and the naval details go outside those two inches of ivory Austen is usually portrayed as inhabiting.

I have to say that I don’t remember this one at all from my last reading, which must have been in my teens. I have an urge to re-read all of her other novels now – not sure whether I’ll do one per month or one per Month of Re-Reading.

Susan Cooper – “The Dark is Rising Sequence”

(30 December 2012 – replacement copy)

A wonderful Young Adult sequence I remember reading over and over again in younger years, but not recently. I have managed to persuade Matthew to read these, too – I stayed just one book ahead of him the whole way through, so my reading of these was spread satisfyingly throughout the month.

“Over Sea and Under Stone” – First in the sequence and we meet the delightfully ordinary Drew siblings and their rather mysterious Great Uncle Merry. Barney’s knowledge of King Arthur is put to good use, and there’s nothing too supernatural or scary in this one.

“The Dark is Rising” – Over to Will in the Thames Valley for the explanation of the mythology and some serious supernatural stuff. All, of course, comes together in the end in a satisfying way (although not the best book to be reading during a really heavy snowfall!) and I love the rootedness in real life and “real” myth and the family relationships.

“Greenwitch” – We’re back in Cornwall with the Drew children, joined by Will and with the Captain home. Something important has been stolen, and they need a lost item to save it all. It’s  nice that Jane, with her kindness and forbearance, has a central and very positive role in this book – I assume because it was written by a woman, as this is fairly rare, in my experience.

“The Grey King” – Now we’re off to Wales with Will and new mysterious character, Bran, and his beautiful dog. Peril under the mountains contrasts beautifully and effectively with human evil, cruelty, love and protection.

“Silver on the Tree” – The Drew children meet Will and Bran in Wales. there’s a role for each of them, more bravery for Jane, nods to C.S. Lewis, a quest (which still has a bit that REALLY scares me) and a final battle full of myth and wonder, with historical characters woven cleverly into the narrative fabric.

A wonderful set of books with a clear and understandable mythology and a rootedness in human nature and relationships, landscape and myth. I was familiar with the stories but it was odd  not reading them in one single volume: I realised I didn’t really know where the breaks between the books came!

Hazel Holt – “A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym”

(bought ?? has not appeared in my inputting of my reading journals into an Excel index yet … Started in January, finished in February)

A re-read of a well-done and thorough biography. Full of excerpts from letters to and from BP and diary entries, and written with a clear eye, even though the author and BP were friends and colleagues – and Holt deals well with the potentially tricky part when she herself comes into the story. Philip Larkin is very sweet, and there are three mentions of Iris Murdoch (although not indexed!) plus a very Murdochian hairstyle (close-cropped hair like shiny animal fur). A good background to the books, the people depicted in them and the woman behind them. I had forgotten how much proofreading and editing BP did, and can’t wait to get on to the anthropological novels.

Will add my original review here, as I’m sure I bought and read it after 1997 and it will crop up in my reading journal index in due course …

A Month of Re-Reading in January

So – a good month? Yes, I think so. I read all the books I set out to read, although finishing one in February, and one and a half non-re-reads found their way in to the month, as they always do. I really find this exercise valuable; it’s lovely to revisit old favourites or discover books anew, and I feel like the large book collection I have amassed over the years is earning its keep a bit better these days. I might even venture into one of the larger format non-fiction books I have next time. Read how my fellow re-reader, Ali, summed up her month. And keep reading for more book reviews – I’ve read quite a lot in February already!

Are you taking part in the Month of Re-Reading?  Do tell me all about it!

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