Book reviews – The Slaves of Solitude and 1225 Christmas Tree Lane

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Dec 2013 TBRReally, these two books can only be linked by the fact that they’re both novels. But that’s OK – every review I post here doesn’t have to have some amazing link! I have, by the way, enjoyed writing these longer-form reviews, with only two books reviewed and a bit more expansively than the previous three quick notes format. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them, too. I don’t intend to change this format for 2014.

So, here we have two novels, and the first up is the reason that I never write up my Books of the Year post until 1 January the following year, because it’s a prime candidate for the list!

Patrick Hamilton – “The Slaves of Solitude”

(11 July 2013 – Fopp in Manchester)

Bought on a very warm, sunny day in Manchester with our friends Paul and Jeremy on our “Northern Odyssey” holiday and read in a cosy house in the chilly winter with Matthew and I spending some time seeing friends and family and lots of relaxation time. I’ve had a nice work lull, so I’ve been gulping great globs of books down in the early mornings, rather than engaging on the commute up the stairs …

Anyway, opening with a description of London as a ravenous beast, consuming and belching out commuters as its daily sustenance, and set mainly in an oppressive and depressing wartime boarding house in Henley-on-Thames, with bullying residents and much simmering hatred and resentment, one could fear that this is going to be as bleak as the TV adaptation of the also-rather-wonderful “Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky” trilogy by the same author. But it’s actually more akin to a Virago or Persephone, with its 39 year old spinster heroine working in her job in publishing and wryly observing the habits of her fellow residents and negotiating the rivalries and allegiances of boarding house life, always a slave to her lonely life, although keeping her teeth gritted and her integrity intact.

Into this somnambulant and restricted life crash an American Lieutenant who seems rather keen on the ladies (or just one lady? Or all of them?) and a new German woman friend who might just be a bitter enemy in disguise, who add to the wartime privations, concerns and sudden reversals of fortune to conspire to bring matters to a head that requires escape, for the brave …

A beautifully observed interior monologue, very funny in places, and a real candidate for book of the year. Why, when I’ve known “Twenty Thousand Streets” for so long, had I not read this one before?

Debbie Macomber – “1225 Christmas Tree Lane”

(28 December 2013 – BookCrossing meetup from Sorcha)

Now, I had a good old rant about popular and genre fiction while reading a Macomber the other week and then promptly gave up on the other two books in that series, because they concentrated on just a couple of characters and their romance, and what I really like in my light fiction is a sense of community, of different people living and existing together, different ages, genders, viewpoints, etc. The Cedar Cove novels have always given this to me, with their multi-generational families, mixed fortunes and interesting, intertwined plots, so I was pleased to read this, the last in the series (I checked, and I seem to have read all of them now), and at almost the right time of year, too! Thanks to Sorcha for passing it to me, and Gill for giving it to Sorcha for her Not So Secret Santa earlier in the month!

This one ties up most of the loose ends in the series, but not too tidily, carefully reminding us of the previous main plots the characters were involved with and showing us their on-going lives. This is achieved through the clever plot device of a box of puppies, dumped on the doorstep of kind Beth Morehouse just before Christmas (although I want to mention here that I do not approve of the practice of giving pets for Christmas if it is not part of a planned and sensible arrangement – some of the adoptions here are planned, but some are a bit too off-the-cuff for my liking). Beth is the centre of this book, living on her Christmas tree farm and welcoming her daughters, home from college, oh, and her ex-husband, with a bit of manipulation from said daughters.

I don’t think that this book would work so well if you hadn’t read the others in the series, but it’s a satisfying ending to a lovely set of books. There’s a charming short story at the back, too, with another Christmas theme.

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I’m currently reading one book that I won’t finish this year, a substantial book on popular music, and I’m going to start Thomas Hardy’s “Life’s Little Ironies” later with the aim of having a good old curl up and read and finish it before the year is out. Then, and only then, will I publish my Best of 2013 list – so watch out for that tomorrow!

I hope you’ve had a good reading year in 2013. I’ve read 148 books this year (with one to go) and I think that’s more than last year, although I’ll have to check. One of my few resolutions for the year was to make more room for reading in my life, and I think I’ve achieved that. Until tomorrow, dear readers …

Book reviews – Barbara in the Bodleian and Iris Murdoch: Texts and Contexts

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Dec 2013 TBRToday we have two books about writers – and about two of my favourite writers! I have to admit here that I’ve held the Barbara Pym review back so that I could review it at the same time as the Iris Murdoch one, as I just couldn’t resist the perfect pairing! Maybe I’ve made a rod for my own back with this constant attempt to pair similar reviews in each post, but what the heck, it’s my blog and I can be as fussy as I like … I read this out of order, anyway, promoting the Pym book so that I read all of my books by and about her in her centenary year, and taking ages to savour the Iris Murdoch one!

Yvonne Cocking – “Barbara in the Bodleian”

(9 November 2013, Library of Birmingham)

I bought this book at an event I attended at the new Library of Birmingham where we were treated to a read-through of a dramatised interpretation of Pym’s novel “An Unsuitable Attachment” (two of the actors being related to a gym friend of mine: such is the working of One Degree of Birmingham).

The author has had access to the Barbara Pym archive at the Bodleian Library, as archivist of the Barbara Pym Society. Here she demonstrates the solid work that she has done in unearthing and synthesising material on Pym’s early life and loves (with some slightly shocking revelations about the Nazi activity of her pre-World War II German boyfriend). Then she goes through most of the novels, drawing together Pym’s own notes and drafts, mentions of the book by Pym and others, then reviews in the press and finally fan letters from friends and strangers. The latter are of course the least interesting, but these papers were originally presented at conferences of the Barbara Pym Society, and I know from my own effort at the Iris Murdoch Society Conference how much conference-goers enjoy and appreciate evidence of others’ love for their favourite author. (Obviously, this fact also means that the pieces would not have been encountered one after another as they are in the book; I can see that this could become repetitive for some, although I enjoyed the patterns and, as an ex-Special Collections library assistant myself, the mention of the physical files and formats in which the information was found.)

Written in a friendly, approachable way, this collection is a good addition to the Pym Studies canon, and to my own book collection.

Anne Rowe & Avril Horner (eds.) – “Iris Murdoch: Texts and Contexts”

(24 September 2012 – bought from fellow IM Society member, Michelle)

I can’t believe I’ve been reading this for so long – I think because it doesn’t add anything to my actual research project (but it’s still really interesting), I moved away from it when I originally started with it, so I only picked it up again recently.

This book sets out to offer new insights into IM’s work (philosophical and literary) by examining it in new contexts, for example in comparison to other writers’ work, in terms of power relations and theory around that area, and looking at Derridean, political and cultural contexts. I have to say now that I didn’t always grasp the detail of the pieces covering the philosophy, and I obviously need to read and understand that better before attempting this book again. But I did enjoy Pamela Osborn’s piece on mourning and Derrida, even though I’m not the biggest Derrida fan in the universe.

I liked Frances White’s chapter on T.S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral” and IM’s little-known play, “The One Alone” (on a side note, I was lucky enough to see “Murder in the Cathedral” performed in Canterbury Cathedral crypt many years ago – wow) and the piece on IM and Canetti, the one on her childhood reading, and the assessment of the Iris film. Although I do feel there that I’ve gone for the ones by people I know or on the more accessible aspects of IM and her life and work. Then again, this book is not all accessible to what I like to call the “common reader”*, but it is interesting and another good addition to my book collection.

* I still persist in talking about Virginia Woolf’s “common reader” even though the participants in a couple of my book groups for my research project very much do NOT like that description!

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Dec 2013 2A small confession. I went to the BookCrossing meetup yesterday; it was lovely to see the BookCrossing crowd again and we all had lovely piles of tempting books. So these two did come home with me – a Debbie Macomber Christmas novel that Gill had given Sorcha for her Secret Santa (and I’ve read already to give back to Gill!) and John Sergeant’s autobiography. Still, the TBR is looking remarkably low at the moment, with a space at the end of the ONE SHELF it occupies … however, none of the Christmas books apart from my own BookCrossing secret santa have made it onto the shelf yet!

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I’m currently reading an excellent history of post-punk music (“Rip it up and Start Again” by Simon Reynolds) and I have the Hardy short story collection, “Life’s Little Ironies” saved up for New Year’s Eve. I’ve also read two more novels in this lovely time of reading between Christmas and New Year, so watch out for their reviews tomorrow!

Book reviews – The Man Behind the Smile and Underground Overground

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Dec 2013 TBRYou know how I like to pair up my reviews and find a link between them … well, this first one was going to be a tricky task to pair with anything until I get to some more political biography in a few weeks’ time. But then I realised that both of these books go UNDERNEATH – a dissection of what goes on behind (or under) Blair’s smile, and a book about the London Underground! Phew – the pairs theme is saved. Maybe. Anyway, two very interesting recent reads for you here …

Leo Abse – “The Man Behind the Smile: Tony Blair and the Politics of Perversion”

(27 May 2013 – University of Birmingham)

Matthew spotted this book being given away by an academic who was leaving his department, and remembered that I’d previously read the author’s “Margaret, Daughter of Beatrice“, picking over Mrs Thatcher through the medium of Freudian analysis. This is another of Abse’s political/psychological unpickings, in which he delves into Tony Blair’s immediate family and his own activities, contrasting the true charisma of Gaitskell and Bevan’s hermaphroditism with Blair’s avoidant and consensus-seeking androgyny (just reporting what it says: don’t blame the reviewer!).

Lots about Blair’s immaturity, especially in the sexual sphere (perversion in this case being an avoidance of the mature relationship and obsession with some part of life, in his case returning to the womb through the vehicle of the rock guitar, his perennial placenta) (no, not making this up – the book’s available if you want to read it and check!). This is shown through the lens of his love of rock music into his 40s (shocker!) with mention of the womb-returning desires of Nirvana et al. providing a rather odd interlude in this book about politics).

It is interesting for the fact that Abse was wary of and critical of New Labour and Blair in particular (oh yes, there’s a fair bit about sibling rivalry and Gordon Brown, too), writing this in 1997, before most people got wary and critical. It goes off on fewer tangents than the Thatcher book, and is of interest, if not a keeper.

Andrew Martin – “Underground Overground”

(03 July 2013 – from Verity)

Accompanying the Boot Camp novel in a lovely parcel from my friend Verity, this was a sure-fire winner, and it’s another reason why I don’t do any best-of lists until the very end of the year! (This is also one of the reasons that I knew my Virago Group parcel was from the same person, as it included a book heavily quoted in this one!)

Subtitled “A Passenger’s History of the Tube”, this is indeed that (or a driver’s, or a Londoner’s, or an out-of-Londoner’s – there’s pleasure to be found for every reader in this book), an unofficial history, using a range of official, formal and informal sources to build up a real labour of love, charting the history and experience of the London underground from its first inception, including extra information on administration, design and – of course – maps. It’s carefully researched and packed full of fascinating details – I must have driven M to distraction reading bits out to him at least once per few pages!

As an ex-Londoner, I appreciated the details about my ‘own’ lines (and this led to an interesting discussion, M being a Metropolitan, Bakerloo and Central Line chap where I was all about the Northern Line, East London Line, Jubilee and District: I don’t think I’ve been on the Bakerloo more than a handful of times in my whole life). I loved the details about why the tunnel from Moorgate towards Finsbury Park is extra wide, and why it’s so difficult to navigate from Tube to Overground at Finsbury Park, and why the East London Line splits to New Cross and New Cross Gate. But it’s all here, from the early days of the Metropolitan Line to the fancy new Victoria (I didn’t know that one was so recent) and Jubilee Lines, and various extensions that have waxed and waned over the decades.

Both entertaining and informative, the author’s enthusiasm for his subject shines through but is tempered by good historical work and close attention to his sources. The illustrations are good – although it could do with an actual Tube map (however, it’s not like these are hard to find – how many do you have at your fingertips in the average household?). And, well, a highlight of the year!

Currently reading – I’m finding it very hard to tear myself away from Patrick Hamilton’s “The Slaves of Solitude”, which reads like it could be a Virago or Persephone, actually, and planning to finish “Iris Murdoch: Texts and Contexts”, which I appear to have been reading for EVER … What are you reading in these lovely cosy end-days of the year, when there’s often more time for curling up and relaxing with a book?

Book reviews – The Boot Camp and The J.M. Barrie Ladies’ Swimming Society, and Christmas acquisitions!

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Dec 2013 TBRI thought I’d read more books this month so far, but there are always these few days when the world is quiet, my work is (sometimes) (a bit) quiet(er) and I can delve away into good books in preparation for getting the TBR shipshape to receive any new additions that might have come in.

As my niece might say, “There MIGHT be some more books to put on your shelf”. Yes, there are. And you get to see pics of those at the end of this post. First off, though, I’ve got two books about groups of women that I really did happen to read in sequence. I was a bit worried that they might seem a bit samey, but all was OK in the end!

Kate Harrison – “The Boot Camp”

(03 July 2013 – gift from my friend, Verity)

This was one of a pair of books my friend Verity kindly sent to me back in July. She said she’d enjoyed it, and it looked to be based around exercise, so that’ll do me! Steph, Darcy and Vicki attend a boot camp in the countryside (one that promises – but spectacularly fails to deliver – luxury alongside the sweating and lycra) for very different reasons. What will they learn about themselves, their reasons for being there and the two ex-Army chaps running the fitness side of things? And will the snow that’s threatened trap them there forever?

Well-written and funny, there’s a range of different characters, with different voices, and although romance is present, it’s not the sole focus of the book. Different topics, for example Afghanistan, are skilfully woven into the story without being gratuitous or jarring, and the men are written as well as the women, and there is a satisfying and believable amount of information about the exercise regime. Funny and heart-warming, and I would read more by this author.

Barbara J. Zitwer – “The J.M. Barrie Ladies’ Swimming Society”

(11 July 2013 – Fopp, Manchester)

I bought this one on our “Northern Odyssey” holiday in July, in Fopp in Manchester. I hadn’t meant to have a huge book splurge on holiday, but this was near to the start of it, and where the rot set in – I blame our friends Paul and Jeremy, who lured us into a shop we don’t have in Birmingham and waved various tomes at us …

New Yorker Joey finds herself working on her dream architectural project – the restoration of the house in which Barrie wrote “Peter Pan”. The locals, especially the caretaker, are not welcoming, however, although the caretaker’s daughter latches on to Joey as a rare example of a woman near to her age who she can really talk to. As Joey gets the space to explore her feelings about her ex-boyfriend and about her old best friendship with a woman whose life is now so different from hers, she comes across the Swimming Society, a group of elderly women who decided to work on staying friends decades ago, and have pretty well succeeded. Appreciating their wisdom and the down-to-earth friendship they offer is one thing, but the rifts are still there, and it might take something momentous to heal them before Joey slots back into her old life without making any of the necessary changes.

A good read with a delightful – surviving – dog and a lot to say about the nature of friendship – female and male. Again, there is a romance element, but female friendship and liberation remain more important.

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December 2013 1Christmas acquisitions! Well, first of all we had the BookCrossing Christmas Meal, at Las Iguanas in the city, and I was given this lovely pile of books by Julia. I’ve written about these ones here already, but I’ll just add that I’m really looking forward to reading these excellent choices (and the TBR is down to a shelf and a pile, so I hopefully won’t take 5 months to get to them!

And then we had Christmas Day, which starts with the traditional opening of another (not so) secret santa, this time from the LibraryThing Virago Group. I have to admit that I did suspect dear Verity to be my santa, as I recognised her writing on the envelope and on the gift tag inside. And she has now admitted responsibility. The internal evidence of the Lego Minifigure librarian, Bodleian colouring book, book set in the Bodleian (“Oxford Exit” by Veronica Stallwood) and book on the Underground, Stephen Halliday’s “Underground to Everywhere” (I’m reading one she sent me on this topic right now!) confirmed this anyway.

xmas books 2Then I’d taken a trip to the Persephone shop back in November, taking the opportunity to meet up with my friend Emma, and buying books for all of the Birmingham crew on behalf of one another for one another. This is a traditionally fraught undertaking involving spreadsheets and much confusion (and I will admit here to buying multiple copies of one particular book from me for the others, and from Matthew for me, to cut down on the complexity – it was on all of our wishlists!). I’d managed to wipe any memory of what people had bought me from my mind, so was thrilled to find “The Two Mrs Abbots” by D. E. Stevenson, “A Woman’s Place” by Ruth Adam and “The Crowded Street” by Winifred Holtby (I now have all of Holtby’s novels in different editions!) as I unwrapped the piles. I was also very pleased to receive two books that have been on my wishlists for YEARS – Paul Magrs’ “Strange Boy” and Michael Simkins’ “What’s My Motivation?” (a coming of age novel and a memoir about acting, respectively). A new addition to the wishlist and now my TBR was “The Great Typo Hunt”, which is about people wielding a marker in an attempt to make the whole world grammatical (I’d never do that, of course!

What a lovely selection – thank you so much to everyone who gave me lovely books (I was lucky enough to receive some non-book presents, too). I know one person who received NINETEEN books for Christmas – so go on, share – how many did you get and have you read any of these pictured?

Book reviews – Silk Dreams, Troubled Road and Behind the Scenes at the Museum of Baked Beans

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Dec 2013 TBRTwo travel books under review today, both visible on that front row of my TBR to your left. One is based in the UK, one is more exotic; both were good reads; one was by a writer who I’ve always found very engaging, one was by one who I found a bit less so. Intriguing, eh? I do love a good travel book – do you? I’ve travelled with books to places I’d never travel on my own, and while a good novel can help you to understand what it’s like to live somewhere, a good travel book will give you so many insights in a different way.

Johnny Bealby – “Silk Dreams, Troubled Road”

(27 April 2013, BookCrossing meetup)

This came to me at a BookCrossing meetup, unregistered, so I popped a BCID into it and released it on a book share table at a book event I attended last week.

An inveterate, indeed compulsive traveller, after many years on the road and a share of tragedies, Bealby falls in love with an intriguing and rather difficult woman and plans the ultimate road trip with her. When the woman of his dreams bails on him, the TV deal that he’s already got forces him to search for a new travelling companion to help to make the film he’s promised, and feature in it herself as a potential romantic interest.

Much of the book covers this search and the acclimatisation of the woman he selects to Pakistan, at the beginning of his planned journey along the famed Silk Road, and to travelling with him, which proves somewhat more difficult … and the ultimate, unsurprising, disappointment. Actually, salt is rubbed into the wound in a way which does make you feel a bit sorry for him, although it does seem rather a fool’s errand in the first place. The rest of the book details the actual journey, including buying horses, learning their ways and travelling through some of the most amazing scenery in the world.

While Bealby is clear about his own role in the personal issues and romantic let-downs, and talks about what he learns along the way, this aspect reads a bit like a presentation at a corporate motivation seminar. He seems unapologetic about how difficult he is to live with, which isn’t hugely appealing, and then there’s a bit too much soul-searching about his need for ‘authenticity’ which doesn’t really work if you haven’t engaged that much with him in the first place. However, there is good writing and memorable characters, both human and equine.

Disappointing that there are no illustrations, except for those on the cover, although a film was made (laboriously and playing its part in adding to the difficulty of the journey) and the companion was supposed to be producing sketches. An interesting read with a different back story.

Hunter Davies – “Behind the Scenes at the Museum of Baked Beans”

(11 May 2013)

Bought from The Works because Hunter Davies is one of those authors whose name on a book will compel me to read that book (even if said book is about the Beatles or football, both subjects on which I’m not that keen, but I know he’s written books about them, and I will buy them if I see them). Do you have authors like that, who are guaranteed to provide an enjoyable read for you and who you will automatically pick up?

In this book, he visits single-topic museums in the UK whose founders still run the museum, covering topics from the Armstrong Clan to baked beans, via fans, lawnmowers, teddy bears, cars belonging to famous people and more. He also muses on his own collections, the nature of collecting and what he plans to do with his collections, pinning the narrative around a search for a solution to his own building collections in a way which sometimes grates a tiny bit – it doesn’t actually need that, as the narrative itself is interesting enough.

But the main parts of the book, describing the museums, some of what he learns from them, his confusion when presented with so much information on esoteric topics, and his encounters with the founders, is excellent, and he celebrates the range of subjects and people he meets without ever being snide or joking at their expense. You get a good feel for them all, and there’s an update at the end, too, which explains what he decides to do with some of his collections, and updates us on the progress of some of the places he has visited.

A charming and highly enjoyable meander through the more eccentric byways of British life, told with genuine affection.

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I’m currently reading a book about Iris Murdoch’s work which I’d forgotten I was reading (but goes well with my next review, so I’m glad I remembered it in the pile by my bedside), a psychoanalytical study of Tony Blair in his early years as leader of the Labour Party (by the author who brought us that Margaret Thatcher book) and a good novel about women on a fitness boot camp sent by a good friend.

What are you reading in the run-up to Christmas? And who’s the author whose name guarantees that you will pick up a book, whatever the subject?

Book reviews – My Animals and Other Family, Running my Life, and some new lovelies!

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Dec 2013 TBRTwo sporting autobiographies today, almost read in order; I am skipping about a bit but the temptation to put my reads in pairs is pretty overwhelming. Hopefully it all makes sense. I was doing MARVELLOUSLY with my TBR, too, getting it down to two books by the time a Macomber taken from the back had allowed a front shelf book to pop behind and those first three books to the left were read or getting read … then it was the BookCrossing Birmingham Christmas Do last night, complete with Secret Santa, and a new flood of incomers was inevitable. But what lovelies – read on to see those! But first, reviews of two good books read this month.

Clare Balding – “My Animals and Other Family”

(04 May 2013 – Sainsburys)

An impulse buy in paperback for a low price. Sorry, independent bookshops (not that there are any in Birmingham, I found when I was looking into ordering books through Hive). Now, I did check before I read this, as I knew there were lots of animals in it, and I’m not good with upsetting animal stuff. And yes, each chapter is based on a different dog or horse, and yes, some of them do meet their ends. I did cope, because as she’s neither harsh nor maudlin over them, expressing her upset and some on occasion traumatic events, it’s not gratuitous and she is always respectful of her animals and her readers. So if you’re as sensitive to this sort of thing as I am, you’ll probably be OK.

The book takes the author to age about 20. This is absolutely fine: unlike with some other celebrity autobiographies, this is a natural stopping point, when she ceases to be a jockey and embarks upon her university career, and doesn’t feel forced in order to sell two volumes. In fact, the section at the end brings us up to date, so I’m not even sure that a second volume is planned (however, I’d love to read one, and I bet lots of other people would, too).

Famously, now, Clare Balding has a rather odd family. This oddness, and her relationships with them, are told unsentimentally and unsparingly, but never with self-pity. She just gets on with it, much as she appears to have done growing up.  It’s very touching, nonetheless, when she details the few times when her family praise or respect her. Her relationship with her brother is told very nicely, with all the rivalries and conflicts, but pulling together in adversity: like the rest of the book, it’s not sugar-coated, but by no means a misery memoir. She shows us her own mistakes and failings, too, from getting in with the wrong crowd to making riding mistakes, but again clear-headed and with no self-pity.

Basically, she doesn’t disappoint readers who will be looking for the same endearing, straightforward and strong character that she appears to be on the TV and radio. Deeply loving and respectful of her animals, hardworking and persistent and celebrating these values, this is a good read with depth and none of the surface gloss of the standard celebrity autobiography. Lovely line drawings of the animal represented in each chapter complement the good range of photos in the book. I’m glad that I read this.

Seb Coe – “Running my Life”

(11 May 2013, The Works)

A post-dentist Works buy; I must have bought something else at the same time, I can never buy just one. Anyway, this is a good, full, satisfying read that covers his early life, sporting career, political career and the run-up to and progress of the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.

I was always for Coe rather than Ovett – what about you? Although he was The Northern One, he also seemed to be The Polite One and The Non-Scary One (although I was fonder of Steve Cram than I was of Ovett). These great middle-distance runners define an era for those of us in our mid-30s to mid-40s, don’t they, and it was good to read all about the background to their few encounters on the track.

He obviously has some scores to settle, being at pains to vindicate his dad’s often combative behaviour and keen to explain the details of the professionalisation of athletics and some of the activities of promoters and journalists around the sport. He also gives great descriptions of what it’s like to attend an Olympic Games, which is something I always like reading about. He’s just as detailed and passionate about his political career, too, and I got some insights into the Conservative Party under Hague which were interesting.

Family life in terms of his own wives and children is kind of left out here, but it feels respectful rather than secretive. There are photos, but little narrative to accompany or explain them, which does seem slightly odd. Friendships shine through, which is always nice (I particularly like his relationship with the irrepressible Daley Thompson). It’s excellent on the Olympics bid, with plenty of behind the scenes snippets, and on the Games themselves, with the section on the Opening Ceremony making me cry (of course: add that to brass bands, choirboys and people dancing outdoors to be on the tear-inducing list for ever more). In my opinion, it treats the intertwined story of 7/7 very well, ending with a moving encounter with a Gamesmaker.

With good photographs and written reasonably well (it could have done with the odd edit here and there), this was a genuinely good read that I will keep to read again.

New acquisitions

December 2013 1So, we had the BookCrossing Birmingham Christmas do at Las Iguanas in central Birmingham (and very nice the meal was, too, catering well for our gluten-free friend and for my low-fat requirements, and doing sterling work of tidying away crackers and wrapping paper). We do a secret Santa every year, which is not particularly secret, because we give each other books registered on BookCrossing, so as soon as you catch your haul online, you discover who gave them to you. I was very lucky to have this bumper crop from Julia (we’ve all known each other for around 6-8 years, which makes it all the more lovely): I’d added Elizabeth Jane Howard to my wish list after encountering her at the Elizabeth Taylor day and coming across mention of her books since, but never having read any, and now I have the first of her Cazalet Chronicle, as well as two other novels. I’ve read the first two volumes of Paul O’Grady’s excellent autobiography, so was pleased to find the third one, and then thrilled to open Paul Magrs’ “Diary of a Dr Who Addict”, sadly out of print, I believe, and one I’ve wanted to read for AGES. What treats!

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I’m currently reading “Barbara at the Bodleian” by Yvonne Cocking, exploring the Oxford archives of Barbara Pym’s letters and notebooks, and Hunter Davies’ “Behind the Scenes at the Museum of Baked Beans”, which narrates a journey around the maddest museums in the UK. Good reads, both, and reviewed here relatively soon. See, this is why I don’t prepare my Top 10 Books of the Year until the year is over – you never know what you’re going to get at the back end of the year. After all, if I’d finished Daniel Deronda more quickly, it would have been Number One for 2012 as the last book I read that year!

Book reviews – The Manning Sisters and The Mystery of Mercy Close (and a small rant)

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Dec 2013 TBRThese two books are another pair that go together. And some people would call them ‘chick lit’. And some of those people would say this in a disparaging way, with a sneer. They might suggest this is trashy. Not worth reading. That people who read them are a bit rubbish, a bit lightweight. Not proper readers of proper books. Not ‘proper’ readers of ‘proper’ books. They might make the little quote mark movements with their hands and everything.

Well, to be honest, I’m a bit sick of that. OK, I don’t read a lot of ‘genre’ books myself. That’s mainly because I’m a bit feeble, so thrillers, mysteries, crime novels, sci fi, horror – they all have a bit too much guts and violence for me. Though I like a cosy mystery with a lady who does quilting and an off-stage corpse. I read a lot of different books. I read travel books, biography, autobiography, psychology, books on music, popular fiction, literary fiction, Virago books, feminist books, books on computers and business and running a hotel, books on books.

I read different books for different purposes. We all do, don’t we. I like some authors who are seen as ‘chick lit’. I don’t like others, just because I’m not hugely keen on formulaic books about women choosing between the dangerous stranger and the sweet friend. But you know what? Some of the best books I’ve read have been genre books. Connie Willis’ “To Say Nothing of the Dog” – alternate history / sci fi / fantasy. “Flowers for Algernon” – sci fi. Some of Marian Keyes’ books, the one reviewed below in particular. And I can tell you something else. Some of the so-called ‘literary fiction’, the ones we’re meant to aspire to, the ‘good’ reads, have been rubbish. And, if we’re going to say it as it is: formulaic. How many of those housewife-pressured-to-be-perfect-in-a-stifling-marriage books have you read that claim to be good literature. How many books that read like self-conscious writing exercises, like the written equivalent of those paintings you do for A-level art where you have to capture the reflection of an old lady and a striped apron in a piece of tin foil?

Sometimes you need something easy. Sometimes you need to escape. Sometimes you want a challenge. Sometimes you want to learn about something – and actually, if that’s learning exactly how to run a cake shop or market handbags (I’m looking at Carole Matthews for that last), you can learn as much from a ‘light’ novel as you can from a work of non-fiction. Some ‘literary fiction’ tells us NOTHING; some ‘popular’ fiction tells us, for example, exactly what it’s like to be depressed.

I try not to criticise people for what they’re reading. Hell’s teeth: they’re reading. I don’t really care what people read. I read Young Adult fiction: does that make me childish? I don’t think so. Stop beating up other people for their reading choices. As long as something is well written (by which I mean tells an effective story; does it without too many distracting mistakes; entertains you and does any other job you ask it to do) then who is to say what someone else should be reading. On the other side of the coin: no more guilty pleasures. Do I feel guilty curling up with a slightly silly romance that I know a good friend in a difficult situation is also reading? No, I do not.

Rant over. Here are some book reviews!

Debbie Macomber – “The Manning Sisters”

(13 November 2013)

I read this one because I bought a copy for a friend and she was also reading it. I love readalongs! (And I read it in November but it went so well with the next one …) This looks like a satisfyingly fat novel but is in fact two bound together. However, they’re related to one another, with their heroines being sisters, and it was nice reading them together (although, editor’s note, one seemed to have a slightly changing hair colour across the two books!).

The first book centres on Taylor, who  has run away to Montana to take up a teaching position and escape a broken heart. But then she meets unreconstructed cowboy, Russ, living with his teen sister and trying to control her ways. Nature, naturally (ha) runs its course … In the second book, Taylor’s sister, Christy, comes to visit, and meets Russ’ best friend, Cody, the sheriff. But she’s got a fiancé back home – what’s a girl to do?

Although these are a bit more romancey with a less detailed setting and background of town life than the Macombers I most enjoy, they are competently done and have a nice line in side characters and some details of life in Montana (didn’t one of her Cedar Cove characters go there, too?). Absorbing, and very handy when you need something light and undemanding but competent and nicely done. Not as good as Cedar Cove, but I’ll carry on with the other two (four) books in the series.

Marian Keyes – “The Mystery of Mercy Close”

(4 May 2013)

Private investigator Helen Walsh’s world is collapsing around her. The economy has crashed, she’s back at home with the hilarious and terrifying Mammy Walsh (who’s celebrating all of her daughters leaving home by giving up cooking entirely and living on cake), she has a lovely boyfriend but he has the kind of baggage she never really wanted, and to cap it all, the seagulls have started turning into vultures (again).

Known for being no stranger to depression herself, Keyes manages to describe in this novel exactly what it’s like to sink into depression (and not only that, but to sink BACK into depression, which is just as scary in a different way as the first time it happens) and all praise is due to her for getting this into a book which will appeal to those looking for a light read and maybe educate a few people who weren’t expecting this and might not read non-fiction books, memoirs or even the various brilliant cartoons on the topic. She even gets in people’s (non-useful) reactions and what the medical profession do to help, but this is all packaged neatly into a fun-filled and eventful plot with lots of other things going on, so it doesn’t drag you down and, while integral to the plot, doesn’t overwhelm.

The rest of the book is about Helen’s attempts to track down a missing boy band member, with plenty of satire and laugh-out-loud moments and clues just as likely to come from Mammy Walsh’s close readings of Hello! magazine as the scary stock villain down at the local pool hall. All the Walsh sisters we’ve met in the other novels are here, plus the usual playful language, set pieces, shoes and attractive gentlemen. A masterclass in working an ‘issue’ into a book in a seamless way that is actually useful and worthwhile.

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I’m currently reading Sebastian Coe’s autobiography, which is really good, although could have done with an editor’s pen over it, and just finished another travel book with an unusual twist. Hope you didn’t mine the rant up there: what do you think? Are all genre books rubbish and should their readers be forced to read more ‘worthy’ tomes? I don’t think so … but you might, gentle readers. Who knows? Do tell!

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