Book reviews – A Cottage by the Sea and The English Riviera Global Geopark – plus new purchases!

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Nov 2013 TBRTwo books set beside the seaside today, as you do. OK, one’s a novel set in South Wales and the other a guide to a bit of Devon, but you know how I like to have a theme … These were two relatively “easy” reads, with the Carole Matthews being read on a trip down to London and back again in one day, and the guidebook accompanying my irregular hairdrying sessions in the spare room. But really, where would we be without the odd “easy” read, eh? As long as you get a good mix, that’s all that counts, just like always eating sliced white bread or meringues wouldn’t be fun if we did it all the time.

Carole Matthews – “A Cottage by the Sea”

(e-book, bought on sale, can’t remember when)

Ella, Grace and Flick get together at Ella’s inherited cottage along with their partners. Grace is reassessing her marriage as she looks in slight horror at what it seems to have become, and Ella and Flick are reassessing their priorities and changing their ways – or seem to be. They slot into the same roles they’ve taken since they met at University, 10 years ago, but are maybe even starting to question those. Throw this uneasy mix into a rural setting with long walks, no mobile signal, too many pubs and the odd emergency, and you’ve got a potentially explosive situation.

Carole Matthews is adept at creating leading men with a sweet vulnerability and kindness rather than the chest-beating alpha males of traditional romance (at least in the books of hers that I’ve read). In fact the two alphas of the group come over as a bit pathetic, chasing a free existence or the bottom of a wine bottle … She’s also very good at subtly letting her readers guess plot points before the characters do, leading to a nice sense of clever satisfaction. You kind of know that it’s going to work out in the end – somehow – and there are some very enjoyable scenes before it does. A good relaxing read with some laughs along the way and believable characters and relationships.

“The Official Guide to the English Riviera Global Geopark”

(07 March 2013, Paignton)

Taking in the geology, geography, social development, flora and fauna of the area, this is a useful guide to the Torbay region with good explanations and plenty of illustrations. It suffers from a lack of copy-editing, especially towards the end, but is useful and has a handy fold out map section.

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New acquisitions …

Nov 2013 5aI was out shopping for Not So Secret Santas for the LibraryThing Virago Group and Birmingham BookCrossers’ group (and also picking up odd others for people) when I happened across this one. I’ve been wanting to read this ever since I realised it’s set in Moseley in 1998-91, a time when I was around in South Birmingham: oddly, this fact and author had escaped me, even though I have heard of the book, and my friend Ann knows the author / my friend Sarah is thanked in the acknowledgements, and my friend Karen and her husband taught the chap! So, when I spotted it in the Oxfam bookshop, it would have been rude not to have added it to my pile (and it wasn’t on my wishlists, so I haven’t denied anyone the opportunity of buying it for me, hopefully!)

Nov 2013 5bAnd then I was at the BookCrossing meetup on Saturday when this one surfaced – I’ve been wanting to read it for a while, and there it was, and here it is on the TBR shelf!

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Currently reading – I’m currently reading Debbie Macomber’s very romancey and easy “The Manning Sisters”, which a friend who’s in hospital at the moment is also reading, hence my promoting it up the TBR pile. Readable fluff. I’m not reading anything else at the moment, but I’m sure that will change soon …

Book reviews – The Great British Sewing Bee and The Art of Fielding

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Two books: Great British Sewing Bee and The Art of FieldingI’m reviewing two very different books today, but when I looked at them together I realised that their covers match in terms of their colours so well, while retaining an essential Britishness and Americanness that are reflected in their contents. So, they are being reviewed together today. One of them is a non-fiction TV tie-in and the other a novel set on a New England campus: both are interesting in very different ways!

Tessa Evelegh – “The Great British Sewing Bee”

(27 April 2013 – bought on the day I went to the launch of Guthrie & Ghani)

The tie-in book for the TV show shown in the spring, with lots of lovely pictures of the contestants (and some of their patterns) and introductions by the judges. There are lots of well-thought-out projects to undertake, both clothing and home furnishings, which are pretty enticing and well-explained, and good basic instructions to help novices to take up sewing.

However, it’s woefully let down by the complete lack of editing of anything but the instructions themselves. I hate mentioning such things when editors are listed by name in the acknowledgements, but it is interesting that they are specifically described as having edited the instructions. The rest of the text is not mentioned. But there’s a lot of it, and, while I have some sewing experience and can pretty well judge that the instructions are accurate and do-able, I would expect other people to feel unsure about the quality of the rest of the book when they’ve met glaring errors in the first few pages. I know that Lauren and Tilly from the show, at least, are planning on bringing out books in the New Year, and I hope that they don’t suffer from the same sort of rush job which undermines the hard work that goes into these book.

Chad Harbach – “The Art of Fielding”

(18 March 2013 – The Works)

This was one of those books I fell into buying after an unpleasant trip to the dentist, detailed here (the book buying, not the dentist trip, don’t worry!). It’s an astoundingly accomplished first novel: I’d class it as a campus novel, because it revolves around the fabric of an American college and its president, as well as the students.

We meet Henry, a bit weedy but amazingly talented at baseball, who’s tempted into taking up a scholarship at Westish College in New England by Mike Schwartz, massive football star and baseball captain, all crunchy knees and painkiller-popping now; his new roommate is the fastidious Owen, who takes him shopping for clothes and teaches him what’s what. Thrown into the mix are college president Guert Affenlight and his wayward daughter, Pella, on the run from an ill-fated marriage.

When Henry makes a mistake on the field with potentially fatal consequences (don’t worry, readers of a nervous disposition: while things aren’t exactly fine, there isn’t anything horrible to read), it affects all of these main characters and affects the classic arc of the college novel as the team endeavours to do well in the college championships for the first time.

It’s masterfully and confidently written, with never a foot put wrong. I particularly appreciated the way in which people and situations were viewed and described from different perspectives, so the muscular long legs of a woman seen by a man are just that, while the woman viewer sees “yoga toned” legs in particular. The portrayals of depression, despair and how easy it is to slip lower into chaos are well described, too (and here there is some content that would be triggering around eating disorders and so I’d recommend it’s best left by those who are susceptible to such triggers). Ultimately uplifting and satisfying, though, and I will look out for more by this writer.

Note: there are baseball games and baseball practices in this book, however not understanding baseball will not ruin your enjoyment of the book! If you can manage Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch”, you can definitely manage this. The author’s really good at describing the games but making sure you understand what they MEAN for the team and the individuals involved.

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Currently reading: I’m behind on my reviews, so currently reading something completely different: new reviews and new “confessions” coming on Thursday or Friday …

Book reviews – Happy Accidents, Mistress of Charlecote, a DNF and some lovely new volumes!

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Nov 2013 TBRI’ve got two works of autobiography for you to read about today, both by strong and doughty women, both very much of their time, and both interesting in different ways. Then there’s a DNF that I bet you saw coming, and news of some incomers to bring the balance of the TBR very much into it customary format. So, we’d better get on, hadn’t we!

Jane Lynch – “Happy Accidents”

(13 March 2013 – Poundland)

The last of my celebrity autobiographies picked up in Poundland (and enjoyed as a gift from M but all but one going to new homes), this was one of the better half of the deal. A good autobiography of the actress made famous to me in the Christopher Guest films (“Best in Show”, etc.) and to the world as Sue Sylvester in “Glee” (duly covered), this is clearly written, fairly clearly by Jane Lynch, and with self-knowledge and humility. It takes us all the way from her childhood to her work on “Glee”, via a plethora of stage, film and TV appearances, and also concentrates on her personal development, including some self-confessed nightmare behaviour years and an issue with alcohol.

The self-knowledge and happiness she has now is shown to have been hard-won, and she makes no excuses for herself, detailing her challenging behaviours and attitudes as she moves through her life, but ultimately positive about the opportunity for change and her long-term friendships and marriage. Good reading.

Mary Elizabeth Lucy – “Mistress of Charlecote”

(17 March 2013 – from Bridget at a BookCrossing afternoon)

My friend Bridget has a habit of bringing tempting books along to the cafe of a Sunday, and I snapped up this life story of a Victorian matron, edited and commented on by the wife of her great-grandson. This starts off as a charming portrait of girlhood and family, with the requisite giggling over suitors and ‘coming out’ balls, then encompasses her marriage and creation of a formidable family of her own. Rather more domestically than nationally inclined, and very much written for her grand-daughters, this is a remarkable document. However, the life expectancy and mortality rates of the times mean that it becomes somewhat of a harrowing read at times, with her husband, siblings and children dying younger than one would hope and in often distressing circumstances, so not one to read if you’re feeling a bit delicate. Remarkable and interesting as the surviving memoir of a very different way of life.

Edith Sitwell – “English Eccentrics” (DNF)

(06 March 2013 – Dartmouth)

Oh dear – I tried, I did. It’s such a pretty book, too, but it is going to a good home with an American friend. I really wanted to love this Folio Press edition by a favourite mid-20th century figure, but it was pretty dense and oddly written, bouncing from obscure eccentric to obscure eccentric with barely a pause for breath. About half way through I was confronted with all sorts of unpleasant descriptions, with more to come, and I had to draw a line and give up!

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Nov 2013 4aNew acquisitions time now. I went a bit over the top in The Works the other day. I was only looking for some grown-up colouring books, honest! First of all, I found the next in Debbie Macomber’s “Cedar Cove” series., “1022 Evergreen Place”. That’s (I think) the 12th book in the series following the fortunes of a number of people and families in a small town in Washington State. Each concentrates on a particular household, thus bringing in the title / address. She’s a go-to for comfort reading, and she used to be US-only but is now all over the UK.

Nov 2013 4bI then found this set of three in a series, too – “The Manning Sisters”, “The Manning Brides” and “The Manning Grooms”, and thought they’d be ideal for a friend who also likes this gentle author (in fact, I bought the second two for her in error, then had to rush back to buy the first one for her … and then bought a set for myself, too).

Nov 2013 4cThen, I spotted this gem – “Mapping the Railways”. I like railways, I like maps, I like history, and I still had some Bank Of Matthew money (a sum of money given for a present but left through the year for the purchase of treats and nice things all year round, there is also a version called Bank Of Liz, of course) left over from my birthday back in January, so I treated myself to this lovely looking and quite thick book.

Nov 2013 4dAnd then, well, books know when to flock (or herd), don’t they, because no sooner did I have these lovelies ensconced in the house than I went and won a Jane Badger Books competition and this book, “The Marvellous Mongolian”, one of the only ones ever written about Przewalski horses, plopped onto the doormat. Oh well, the TBR shelf is looking pretty svelte and, well, it’s only books, isn’t it!

Currently reading – I’m currently enjoying the “Great British Sewing Bee” book, although unfortunately the main text doesn’t seem to have been copy-edited, as it’s full of errors that are making me FUME. The instructions seem OK, though, and I’m currently fooling myself into thinking I can make myself a jacket. Hm. Also about to start “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach, a campus novel that’s had good reviews but does apparently have quite a lot of baseball in it …

Book reviews – Torbay, An Academic Question and more acquisitions!

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Nov 2013 TBRTwo books with absolutely nothing in common to review first, although I suppose I’ve had both for a comparatively long time. The Torbay book highlights why I do try to keep the TBR down to manageable proportions – if you read books in order of acquisition and then acquire so many books that books bought in March get read in November, there can be an unseemly time lag that makes for an oddly dislocated read when you do get to that book bought months ago. I’m currently reading another one bought on the same holiday, and I will learn my lesson and promote such time-dependent reads next time.

Jack Whitton – “Torbay: The Visible History”

(7 March 2013 – Paignton Bookshop)

A slight volume, almost invisible on the far left on the TBR picture above, bought as a holiday memento. It explains the history of the Torbay region in terms of what can be seen now, with a concentration on Torquay as the main town, but enough information about the rest of the area and some nice reproductions of maps.

Barbara Pym – “An Academic Question”

(2 January 1993)

I’ve heard quite a few Pym-ites say that this is not good, or not their favourite, and, to be fair, it was stitched together from two drafts by Pym’s literary executor and friend, Hazel Holt, but I have always liked it. I think it was one of the first ones I read, and I certainly bought it just after I graduated, so I’ve known it for just over 20 years if not longer.

I like the picture of an academic wife amidst trendy changes in higher education (which could be said to be giving the opposite side of the story to Bradbury’s “The History Man”). Life in a small university town and smaller academic community is well drawn and the tensions of modern life (and, indeed, life with a small child and Swedish au pair) are assimilated well into the more traditional portrayal of the old guard (I feel that Kitty and Coco could have been happy in an Elizabeth Taylor or Anita Brookner novel – do you agree?).

Not so much echoing of previous characters here, but we do see Esther Clovis’ memorial service again (surely an extreme case of re-using a character!) and there is an encounter with two middle-aged spinster sisters, just retired from jobs in London, who have to be either the Bede sisters or Barbara and Hilary themselves. And the librarian and his office must surely be a reference / homage to Pym’s friend, Philip Larkin, mustn’t they?

Some plot elements may be a little unsatisfactory, but it does have a decent plot, and the asides about titles of journal articles and the like are hilarious. So, I liked it, and I’ve now read all of Pym’s novels this year, as I’ve already read Civil to Strangers, the last posthumous collection, in July.

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Nov 2013 2Now for some new acquisitions. I went to a “Tea with Barbara Pym” event at the Library of Birmingham yesterday – which turned out to be a dramatisation of the whole of “An Unsuitable Attachment”, cleverly done by Pym Society archivist Yvonne Cocking and acted by some local students and alumni (the chap playing Mervyn Cantrell was marvellous). It did bring out the romance which I always feel is a bit buried in the book. Anyway, there was (of course) a book table and on it (of course) a book I didn’t have, so Ali and I literally emptied our purses to get one each.

Nov 2013 3aOn the way home, I dropped by Waterstones as I wanted to investigate Icelandic dictionaries. Annoyingly, I can’t find the Old Norse dictionary I used to have, which contains all the grammar stuff (I wonder if my friend Nick still has his copy …) but I needed to update my vocabulary anyway, so I picked up this book, which amazingly does seem to be the most up-to-date one you can find.

Nov 2013 3bIt looks OK on the outside, but inside it seems to be photocopied from something from the Ark! And now I’ve gone and learned the Icelandic for linoleum. Oh well. Anyway, guide books should have the modern stuff, I have a language learning app that my friend Sandy told me about, and I certainly can’t run to the ¬£150 for the serious dictionaries, so this will have to do. Watch for a review of my book in Icelandic soon!

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Currently reading – I’m STILL on “English Eccentrics” and am trying to get that done before starting anything else. I’m over half way through now, and it is interesting, just seems a bit hard to get into and stay in …

Book reviews – London: A Life in Maps and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and an acquisition

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Nov 2013 TBRTwo excellent books that I really can’t find any way to link today! A book telling the history of London through the maps drawn of the capital, and that marvellous classic, “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”. So, I think we’re just going to have to jump in and review them. Watch out for this week’s book acquisition below the reviews …

Peter Whitfield – “London: A Life in Maps”

(02 Feb 2013 – birthday present from Sorcha)

An exhaustive history of London told through historical maps, both well-known and obscure, most from the collection of the British Library, who also published this book (I wonder if it accompanied an exhibition. If so, I wish I’d seen it!). The illustrations are a little hard to see in detail, even in this larger format book, although it’s difficult to see how this could be addressed, apart from having the book published as an app for tablet or computer.

I would have liked a few more modern maps and mention of the A-Z perhaps (copyright issues probably came into play here), and the ordering is a little odd, skipping around in the chronology a little, but overall it’s a fascinating and absorbing read. I particularly liked the various schemes for improving the layout of the city, including one for straightening the Thames and leaving the redundant loops, converting them into docks, and of course the glimpses of my own old haunts.

I learned a lot from this book, and enjoyed understanding how particularly the large aristocratic estates shaped and formed the city as these tracts of land were developed.

Thomas Hardy – “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”

(Bought late 1980s – dated from Penguin Classics ‘red-top’ edition covered in sticky-backed plastic)

I still can’t quite believe that I had never read this before – but reading it through, I know I really hadn’t – and I’m grateful for Ali’s Hardy Project for compelling me to do so (a bit late, although I did START it in October …).

Her father’s ridiculous pride on discovering their ancient family connections sets Tess on one of Hardy’s inexorable paths of fate, and if you’ve read any Hardy before, you’ll know that she will be crushed by her fate in one shape of form. Mind you, I did think I knew the story, and found¬† that I didn’t. She can’t escape the family that is her downfall, and as her birth family and her ‘family’ both start to collapse in on themselves, she is thrown on her own, not inconsiderable in terms of physical strength and fortitude, resources. The choices she makes are not optimal, but are logical and believable given the personality she is described as having, and rather a lot is made of the fact that her lack of education and then half-education have a role to play in her eventual fate.

Some of the content of the novel is decidedly gothic, with sleepwalking, horror and mystical elements. We also have the usual wandering oddities, but I personally like the fact that the silly country-folk are toned down here into some realistic if doomy maidens and some farming folk. By the by, this does slot into that rural gothic genre inhabited by Mary Webb – the two cross artistic paths on many occasions.

The ending is mystical, powerful and affecting, coming quickly but not exactly brutally when it comes. The descriptions of nature and the countryside are worth mentioning, too – there is a portrait of the coming of winter on the farm that is sublime and unforgettable.

The introduction makes the point – reasonable in my view – that Hardy himself is in love with his heroine. She is certainly an unforgettable member of his tribe of passionate and troubled women. As I always say, the thing about Hardy is that he gives you a blooming good read, alongside the layers of personality, fate and landscape, and this is what he does here.

Nov 2013 1And now to my book “confession”. Well, I’m going to have to keep the category and tag as otherwise I’ll mess up links I’ve put in other posts, but reading this post over at A Musical Feast did make me stop to think about using the word “confessions”. Because it’s not actually BAD to buy books, is it? There are worse addictions, aren’t there? And what better gift than a book? This little beauty came courtesy of my lovely friend, Sian. She knows I’m plotting and planning a trip to Iceland, and want to brush up my Icelandic (I studied Old Norse at university for three years; as Icelandic didn’t have a Great Vowel Shift like English did, it’s pretty much the same language now, but there’s obviously a slight issue around vocabulary, seeing as all I read for three years were myths and sagas – good for dogs, swords and torture, not so good for, well modern life). She was in Grant & Cutler in London and had found their Icelandic section – did I need anything? A few texts later (and after she’d been told off for taking a photo to send to me to see if I wanted her to, well, spend money in the shop!) and this was on its way to me. It’s perfect – lots of vocab on geology, fairly obviously, but also colours, geography, and it’ll get me back into how the sentence structure works. I’d better pick up a dictionary now, though!

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Currently reading – I’m still working my way through “English Eccentrics” and am half way through now. I’m also reading my last Barbara Pym of the year, “An Academic Question”, for the LibraryThing Virago Group Pym readalong, and enjoying that more than some others are!

My life in books …

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A big thank you to Simon Thomas at Stuck-in-a-Book for inviting me to take part in his My Life in Books series – I was featured yesterday along with Alex in Leeds, who it turns out I know from years ago. You’re asked a set of questions about books that you read at various times in your life – interestingly, because of this format, as M pointed out, I don’t seem to mention the biography and other non-fiction books I read, I suppose because I’ve kind of ALWAYS read them, but I think I get in most other things and favourite authors.

Pop over to Stuck-in-a-Book to read more …

State of the TBR – November 2013

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Nov 2013 TBRWell, this month, I’m actually quite pleased. Because look how good my TBR is looking! As far as I can tell, I acquired a mere five books in September – two Debbie Macombers, one of which I’ve already read, and one of which is now on my Special Pile, because it’s second in a series and I don’t have the first one yet (we all have a Special Pile like that, right?!), a Fannie Flagg, a book on China that I ended up not finishing and a great book on the effect of people’s first language on their English, also on the Special Pile, as it’s a book I bought for work reading. You can see all of my recent Book Confessions by clicking the link. Anyway, this is doing better than last month, I think you’ll agree (what looks like a gap in last month’s is an optical illusion: the front shelf books end where the horizontal pile begins.

Nov 2013 currentlyIn current reading, I’m galloping through “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”, which, admittedly, is Ali’s Hardy Challenge book for August/September, but I only read the June/July one in October, so I am catching up slowly! And ooh, it’s wonderful, isn’t it. As I’ve said many times before, the thing about Hardy is that he tells a blooming good story, and he’s certainly told one here. I still can’t work out why I’ve never read it before (yet I have a copy, covered in sticky-backed plastic, dating it to my pre-University Penguin Classics years). The other current read is Edith Sitwell’s “English Eccentrics”, in a lovely Folio Society edition picked up in Dartmouth. It’s … well … eccentric. It’s a bit random and odd, but interesting reading and quite poetic and individual, and I will persist with it (it’s not as long as I thought, either, because the high-quality pages are really quite thick!

Nov 2013 coming upComing up – well, this is the front shelf of the TBR: the first two books there are slim volumes about Paignton bought on our holiday in March. It would be nice to have moved forward a few months in the TBR by the end of this month, perhaps (at least I know these are the oldest books on the TBR mountain, save for the Special Pile). As I put them in order, and these were NOT all bought at the same time, it seems a bit odd to me that I’ve got a white / pale spines theme going on! Does that happen to you ever? Anyway, one more celeb biography (but hopefully a decent one), then mainly biography and travel, with one novel (by an unknown author, picked up in The Works). I wonder if I’ll get to the end of these this month?

NOv 2013 coming up 2I also do want to mine the bottom of that Special Pile and read at least one of these really interesting books that I’ve bought for work. Of course I’m interested in these as books in their own right: that’s why I do the job I do, but perhaps I should have shelved them with the other books in acquisition order. I can only think that I wanted them to be accessible.

So, there we are. What are you planning to read in the coming month, as the nights draw right in (in this hemisphere) and there’s nothing better than curling up cosily with a good book?

Edited to add – in other booky news, I’ve been featured on Simon Thomas’ blog in his “A LIfe in Books” series – it came out really well and I enjoyed reading my partner’s assessment of my own life in books!

Full TBR here: haven’t done one of these for aaages …

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