State of the TBR – February 2014


Feb 2014Well, the state of the TBR is frankly parlous at the moment. It’s all those acquisitions from December and January that have done it! But I am doing a nice lot of reading now, slotting in good chunks of book time, so I’m hoping that I’ll get going through it and reduce it to manageable proportions again soon. You can see, can’t you, that this shelf is double-stacked? Oops!

Feb 2014 currently readingA quick reflection on the Month of Re-Reading in January – it was pretty disappointing, to be honest. I finished eight re-reads, plus reading a book of Hardy stories and two e-books that I’d won from LibraryThing, so had to be read within the month. I didn’t have much reading time early in the month, and one of the books wasn’t great, so I felt cheated out of some of the ones I’d selected. One will go now, as I’ve not got round to it twice, and I will keep the others aside for July. I do like devoting a month to re-reading, so I will try again. I am still re-reading “Jude the Obscure”, which is excellent, and I’m so glad that I picked it up again after all these years, because there is a lot to recommend about it. My other current read is Simon Reynolds’ “Rip it up and Start Again”, a history of post-punk that I paused at the end of December.

Feb 2014 next 1Coming up next, I want to re-read the anthology of First World War poems, “Up the Line to Death” through the rest of the year, encouraged to do so by my re-read of Vera Brittain’s classic war book. So that will be on-going, with a section or two read per month. I think that will be my way of honouring the centenary of the start of the war.

Feb 2014 nextThe other books coming up are a bit of an overly green bunch, so I might have to do some judicious juggling. I am keen to read “Murder at Mansfield Park” reasonably soon, so I can see how it works off the Austen classic, but might do a Virago first. I wonder how many of these I will get through …

What are you planning on reading this month? How’s your TBR looking at the moment??

Book reviews – The Crowded Street (Persephone) and Mansfield Park


Reread Jan 2014It’s back to the re-reading after a brief foray into the world of e-books and review copies, and what a pair of excellent books with which to continue! Neither of these disappointed, and I loved the tie-ins with previous Month of Re-Reading posts, as Winifred Holtby was of course Vera Brittain’s great friend, and I’ve been reading a Jane Austen novel during each Month of Re-Reading so far. Both of these books treat unconventional women; Holtby’s is almost as strictured as Austen’s through much of the book, but she manages to make her escape from the clutches of conventional society in a more modern and – perhaps to the modern reader – satisfying way.

Winifred Holtby – “The Crowded Street” (Persephone Books)

(25 December 2013 – From Ali)

A brilliant novel, full of stories and ideas and a careful consideration of what is really meant by society, duty, family, morality, love and women’s place in the home and wider world.

A quiet, Jane Eyre-like central character is contrasted with her more impulsive, emotional sister and the one emancipated woman in the village, who she feels is a version of herself that she could never hope to be, as well as her glamorous half-French school friend, who has all the worldliness there could be but does not understand English small-town life in the years around the First World War. Can she achieve escape from the stultifying half-life of helping her mother run a house that doesn’t need that much running and offer herself – still in service – in a more meaningful way? Dare she develop a ‘temperament’ and a personality of her own? Will she just go from one form of subjugation to another?

Holtby does seem here to value the quiet virtue of home-making and service as a way of life, as we will see that Austen values the quiet, timid goodness of  her heroine. But will Muriel speak out and speak up, even flourish on the lecture platform, as she needs to? And then, when offered what she has been conditioned to believe she has always wanted, will she make the right decision? It’s a heart-in-the-mouth moment when she does that, and a very satisfying ending.

A novel of ideas and one that depicts some important times in the development of the women’s movement, charting the state of flux that always seems to exist between the sides of the home-maker and the non-domesticated activist.

I last seem to have read and reviewed this in July 1997, although I was at pains to point out then that it was already a re-read:

“(Library) Read before. Story of woman’s realisation of her own needs away from family and community. A bit over-metaphorical, but told with good plot and character.”

Hm, not sure what to make of that. Onwards …

Jane Austen – “Mansfield Park”

(1988, School Form Prize)

A re-read of perhaps the Austen I know least well. And of course, many people seem to cite it as their least favourite, especially given the ‘prim’ heroine, Fanny. Well, maybe it’s the quietness of age, or maybe it’s the influence of lovely Muriel in the Holtby, but I found a lot to like in quiet Fanny, trying to do the best she could, trying to stick by her morals and those of the age, in the face of the rather dodgy influences that come into play around her.

We all know the story, of course – Fanny is taken in by  her uncle and aunt, raised to feel inferior to her cousins and to be a support to her aunt. She observes the wickednesses that ensue when Mary and Henry Crawford enter the vicinity, with their play-acting and flirtatiousness, takes refuge in her little room full of books but no fire, is flirted with herself, has a difficult trip ‘home’, loves her one decent cousin, witnesses further wickednesses (at one step removed) and finally prevails.

There is a lot in the Penguin Classics introduction about how Fanny represents the status quo of the old order before war and money broke in and changed society, and in showing her quiet, decent heroine winning through, she reminds me of Hardy’s promotion of the good, gentle and quiet above the passionate and those who seek to break society’s mores. She does stand up for herself, quietly and firmly and, while the younger or more lively reader, keen on the wittiness and reversals of “Pride and Prejudice” and the like, might find her boring, I found her intriguing. It’s so clever to write a novel with such a quiet, almost non-existent heart, and the foreshadowing of more concrete events in plays, trips to a park and seemingly innocuous card games is so masterfully done.

Although I was heard to complain that things were going a bit slowly in the first half of the book, I will remember next time to look out for those small, revealing moments.

I have to include a photo of the bookplate and bookmark in this copy; I took this photo to contrast the school prize bookplates in my copy of “Mansfield Park” and a book that I hoped was published in 1914 (but proves to be from 1908, with a bit of research):

Jan bookplates

Currently reading: I’ve really finished the Month of Re-Reading now, I’m going to have to get on with the rather large history of post-punk music that I started in December, but I am about to start re-reading “Jude the Obscure” for the Hardy project, so one more, even if I am unlikely to finish it this month …

Book reviews – The Strange Case of Dr Terry and Mr Chimes and Dark Horse

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kindleI’m breaking off from the Month of Re-Reading here to review two LibraryThing Early Reviewers Programme e-books. Why I received two, I’m not quite sure. One was very, very disappointing, one was good for what it was, although not directly relevant to me and my business endeavours. I did resent them a little bit, especially as I don’t seem to have had as much reading time as I’d hoped this month, so they definitely took at least one book off that lovely pile, but when you sign up for LTER, you undertake to read and review within a month, so read and review within a month is what I’ve done …

Terry Chimes – The Strange Case of Dr Terry and Mr Chimes

(e-book, LibraryThing, Jan 2014)

Terry Chimes was the original drummer in The Clash and rejoined the band part-way through their career, as well as working with other rock bands until he decided to change career and become a chiropractor. I thought that this book looked very interesting from a music and career-change perspective, but I was, I’m afraid, sadly disappointed.

It’s very … pedestrian. He manages to make life as a rock drummer sound really boring, and the business wisdom that has been praised in other reviews already published consists of truisms and exercised in stating the obvious. Be reliable and things will be better for you. There is no limit except that set by your mind. All that sort of stuff. Although he thanks an editor in the acknowledgements, he must have ignored their suggestions, as the prose is flat, full of dangling identifiers and non sequiturs, and littered with errors. I was really pretty disappointed with this, and was glad I didn’t pay for it.

Re the editing issues, I know it’s a pre-publication copy but it seems to have been out there for a while, perhaps in print, already, judging by the number of reviews.

Dan Mack – “Dark Horse”

(e-book, LibraryThing, Jan 2014)

A book about small companies that do better in business and against their larger competitors than they logically should do, with insights from the leaders of such companies culled from seminars and groups run by the author. He certainly knows his stuff, and the book is packed full of insights, inspiration and real-life, concrete examples of the theories and practices he discusses.

This book would be most useful for companies that are offering a product (rather than a service), and in the sectors of health, beauty and wellness, as these areas are where most of the examples are located, although there are some good general principles too. It would also be of most benefit to the small-to-medium sized enterprise, rather than a very small or single-person business, as there’s information about recruiting and managing the appropriate staff and departments working together which wouldn’t be so directly relevant.

It’s well laid out, in an easy to follow structure that is consistent across the chapters, and there is a good bibliography and references list to back everything up. I would recommend this to the CEO of a small company trying to hit above its weight, or to anyone in business (and in fact big businesses could learn much from this, too).


Currently reading: I am finishing off “Mansfield Park” at the moment, and then it will be goodbye to the Month of Re-Reading with “Jude the Obscure” for the Hardy challenge, which is a re-read of which I remember nothing but a very dim impression!

And so the TBR explodes …


My friend Elaine, met through the LibraryThing Virago Group, was coming to the UK again from her home in Chicago. The Virago Group didn’t seem to have had a meetup for a while. So, with Elaine being in Stratford and Stratford being full of bookshops and tea shops, it seemed too good an opportunity to waste.  I had accepted a while ago that it’s not a bad thing to buy lots of books, but I was a bit worried about today, given my recent Christmas haul and Birthday haul, and I already knew from a trip to Stratford two years ago that Elaine is a very good “enabler” (sorry for the rather grainy pic in that post, but you get the idea. To be fair, she just took me to the shops and pointed things out. She’s very good at that!)

So, Ali and I got the train to Stratford, meeting new real-life but familiar online chum Genny on the train. We arrived in Stratford to meet Elaine, Julie, Claire and Luci, all arrived safely from London, Oxford and, well, Stratford for the week. We started off with a coffee at the White Swan (thanks again, Elaine, for the coffee, and Luci for the wonderful pile of books to pick through!), we definitely went to that cafe in the antiques centre (does it have a name?) for lunch, and I’m sure we went to the Shakespeare Hospice Shop and Oxfam, and some other places, too. It all blurs a bit.

Anyway, I came home with these …

Jan 2014 3

Charlotte Mendelson – “Almost English” – I read her “When we Were Bad” back in 2011 and really enjoyed it, this is a proof copy of her new one (thanks, Luci).

Dorothy Sheridan – “Wartime Women” – a Mass Observation book about women in WWII – what’s not to like? I do still count myself a MO participant, although I’m lagging woefully in returning my responses to them (thanks, again, Luci).

Victor Skipp – “The Making of Victorian Birmingham” – how can I resist a book about the history of my city?

Mary Webb – “The House in Dorner Forest” – I am a big Mary Webb fan now, so pleased to find a nice Virago Green.

Rachel Hewitt – “Map of a Nation” – the history of the Ordnance Survey. How did I not already have this one?

Gwen Raverat – “Period Piece” – her childhood memoir, plus charming illustrations.

Rosie Swale-Pope – “Just a Little Run Around the World” – her memoir of running thousands and thousands of miles – I’ve been vaguely looking out for this for ages.

Antonia White – “Frost in May” – the first Virago Modern Classic; of course I have it anyway, but this is for some young friends of mine.

After another cuppa at the station, it was time to wend our weary et ceteras. I’ve now put all of these and my birthday books on my TBR shelf, and was slightly horrified to find that this …

Jan 2014 recent acquisitions

… represents just my acquisitions from Christmas onwards. Oops. I’d better slow down (and up the reading) for a bit, hadn’t I. I think this represents something of a record, even for me. You will be able to see the full TBR on 1 February; all I can say is that you won’t see many of these behind the front layer when I’ve done that!

Have you read any of my new ones? Had any splurges yourselves …?

Birthday Haul


a pile of books

Well, haven’t I been a lucky lady! I had a birthday on Tuesday,  not an exciting or big one, just a Douglas Adams-style one (some of you will get that). And my friends gathered together and made sure that I had plenty of books, as good friends do.

Icelandic Folk and Fairy Tales – this is registered on BookCrossing and I’m going to make sure to read it before and release it during our honeymoon in Iceland. Hooray!

Judy Budnitz – “If I Told you Once” – I know nothing about this: this and the three below it were bought by a friend to help me fill in my Century of Books project. This one is billed as an Angela Carter-like magical journey through a family’s history – looks very interesting.

Nella Larsen – “Passing” – I have heard of this book but never read it – the tale of childhood friends, one who ‘passes’ as white and marries a white racist, one who remains in Harlem and works for racial equality.

Ruth Park – “The Harp in the South” – an Australian novel about a poor family living in Sydney – again, looks very interesting.

Mary Lavin – “The House in Clewe Street” – I’ve previously read her “Mary O’Grady” and this looks to have a similar theme, set in working-class Ireland.

Angela Thirkell – “High Rising” / “Wild Strawberries” / “Pomfret Towers” – quite a few of my friends have been reading these light and interlinked novels from the 1930s, and I’ve been wishing I could, too, so I was pleased to receive this set of modern Viragoes.

Jeffrey Eugenides – “The Marriage Plot” – I adored this “Middlesex” and have had this one on my wishlist for a while. An appropriate title in this Year of Our Wedding, too!

Bob Harris – “The International Bank of Bob” – the story of Kiva and how it’s developed, Kiva being the microfinance loan organisation through which I regularly support entrepreneurs, business people and farmers around the world.

What a lovely haul and how well my friends know me (these came among notebooks, mugs, scarves, tea and appropriate gift vouchers, of course). Have you read any of these? What did you think of them?

Oh, and I know someone who I know through book blogging is a  big Beverley Nichols fan – is it Kaggsy or Fleur Fisher or someone else? Do get in touch, as I’ve been having a weed of my biography section and found a lovely elderly hardback of “The Sweet and Twenties” which I’d love to pass on to you. Hopefully you’ll see this. Oh, the weed? Well, it made room for the books that were sitting in piles in front of the other books, so I suppose that’s some form of progress …

Hope you’re all having a lovely January of reading – any re-reading going on? I’m currently enjoying “Mansfield Park” …

Book reviews – Talking for Britain and Frost on my Moustache


Reread Jan 2014I’m managing to read a bit more at the moment and am slipping behind with my reviews a little – but here are two non-fiction books that I added to my pile for my Month of Re-Reading. One of them was sadly a bit disappointing. One of the purposes of the Months of Re-Reading was always to check whether I do in fact still need to keep certain books, authors or even genres, but I’ve already weeded out one author this month, and now I fear I’m about to remove another! Oh well, I’ve had some cracking reads, still too …

Simon Elmes – “Talking for Britain”

(26 December 2006 – from my parents-out-of-law for Christmas)

I was partly inspired to read this by passing my language and literature shelves every time I go in or out of our bathroom, and partly by a conversation with my father-out-of-law where he mentioned that he has been re-reading the popular science books I like to give him for Christmas. This book is a survey of the dialects of the United Kingdom, informed by a 1980s survey and older works on the particular dialects and then a new survey done in 2005.

It did have a lot of interest and was a worthwhile re-read. However, I did feel that it wasn’t able to go into enough detail, as of necessity the chapters had to cover a wide geographical area and many variations between, for example, rural and urban speech. For example, in the chapter on the South East, London was lumped in with all of the rural accents of the Home Counties, and I felt that Kent, for instance, didn’t really get much of a look-in at all. Conclusions were drawn and comparisons made that linked the chapters at times, but there were no general conclusions about language change and spread. I did also wish that the examples of transcribed speech used the standard phonetic alphabet rather than an approximation of the accent made up with the common alphabet. I do accept that this was all done to make a book that could actually be handled and enjoyed by an ordinary reader, and it’s also interesting to note that I must be even more obsessed with language than I was before I started working with the English language all day, every day in my job!

Having put down all those criticisms, there was much to enjoy and it was a good basic introduction, with the interest of words for the same things being extracted from regional speakers in each area, giving a good point of comparison and indication of how much general terms have spread and where regional terms still hold strong. I was particularly pleased to note “coupy down” for squat in the West of England section – I have always used this (especially, I’m afraid, for the kind of squat necessary to the archaeologist, field-walker, rambler or birdwatcher out in the wild) and wasn’t sure if it was my own or a family phrase, as no one else seems to understand it. But there it was, resplendently inherited from my Dorset forebears, just like my Spanish colouring! All in all, an entertaining and lively read.

This is what I thought of it when I originally read it in March 2007:

“A wonderful book looking at the dialects of each region in turn, historically and now, with a short glossary at the end of each section. Well and engagingly written and endlessly fascinating.”

Tim Moore – “Frost on my Moustache”

(31 March 1999)

Narrative of Moore’s travels in Norway, Iceland and Spitzbergen in the footsteps of Lord Dufferin. I like this kind of ‘in the footsteps of … ‘ book, and thought I remembered really loving this book first time round, but I struggled with it more than a little this time.

Although it is funny, it’s a bit TOO funny, even silly, and trite. It’s sub-Bill Bryson (or at least I hope it is and I haven’t gone off BB, too) with too much flailing and vomiting and not enough solid information or deeper entertainment than a man being a bit silly and making a fool of himself. There were some genuine laughs, but too many laboured puns and foolish moments took away from the balance of the book for me.

I will keep it because of the bits set in Iceland, but I’m not sure about the others of his books that I still have (I didn’t fancy the latest one at all).

What I thought of it when I last read it in May 1999:

“Very, very funny book about the author’s rather unwilling journey in the footsteps of Lord Dufferin, Brysonesque in the best way – self-deprecating, insightful and laugh-out-loud funny.”

Oh dear – have I become humourless in my old(er) age?


Currently reading: I just finished the wonderful “The Crowded Street” by Winifred Holtby and am starting on “Mansfield Park” again, now, as I do like to get an Austen in during each month of re-reading …

Book reviews – Testament of Youth and 1914 and Other Poems


WWISense a theme here? I was inspired by Heaven-Ali’s Great War Theme Read, which is based on the latest of the LibraryThing Virago group’s successful and enjoyable themed reads (a closed group so I can’t link to that), to pick up Vera Brittain’s “Testament of Youth” to read in this Month of Re-Reading. Now, that’s not the assigned read for this month, I know, but basically I’m taking inspiration but am not keen enough on war books in general to read them all through the year. So I thought I’d do my own form of In Memoriam and pick out books I love to re-read this year.

I was only going to do the Brittain, but then she mentions Brooke’s poems in her book, and so I felt drawn to pick up this lovely copy that I have of his “1914 and Other Poems” to read through, too. I’ve since picked that wonderful compilation of First World War poems, “Up the Line to Death” to read slowly through the next few months, too. I don’t think I’ve read that since I did a First World War poetry course during my degree, and I did that because I’d studied them in great detail for A and I think O level (my copy of “Up the Line to Death” is somewhat worryingly inscribed with my class name and room, although it has the pencilled-in price and Other Person’s Name indicative of a personal second-hand purchase). But I thought it would be interesting to do that, too.

So, two First World War re-reads (and reviews of other reads coming soon – I have been reading since my last review, I promise!)

Vera Brittain – “Testament of Youth”

(25 May 2009, from my friend Julie, who was moving back to Australia. She gave me some boxes of books for BookCrossing but I saved this nice hardback for myself)

Her famous autobiography, covering the First World War and the terrible personal toll it took on her as she lost family and friends as well as suffering the horror and privations of being a nurse in England and France (I think everyone knows what happens but won’t give details just in case). Beautifully written, of course, having been constructed out of real letters, poems and diaries as well as novelised and mulled over for a decade or two before this was written and published. The distance shows, as she is able to view her and others’ changing feelings about the war with the objectivity gained from mature reflection, while representing the immediacy of those feelings through the vivid first-hand sources.

Even though this was at least my third time of reading, I had forgotten that there’s a long pre-war section and a presentation of her life as an undergraduate returning to Oxford changed beyond belief after her experiences. The psychological and physical effect that 1914-18 had on her are laid out without self-pity, and we get to enjoy her growing friendship with Winifred Holtby as well as her romance with her future husband, as well as her and Winifred’s work writing, lecturing and working for the League of Nations, that unfortunately doomed precursor to the UN. This had the effect of making it more contemplative and less harrowing, looking at the long-term effects of the war and people’s attempts at constructing their own and a world peace. It’s also a more feminist book than I remember from last time, with a good description of the worries of contemplating marriage when you’ve had a life of your own (more marked then than now, of course, but interesting in the context of some of my own recent experiences) and the pleasures of that rare thing in those days, a room of one’s own, however basic, freezing and rife with domestic dramas.

My review from my last re-reading in December 1997:

“Bought 1 June 1997. I had read this before, but a long time ago. Almost unbearably moving – at one point I was reduced to unstoppable tears, because of both the losses she experienced and the damage to her.”

I have to admit there were no unstoppable tears this time, but at times it was very hard to read and so poignant, especially a sentence about her eventual wedding. I’m really glad that I re-read this.

Rupert Brooke – “1914 and Other Poems”

(bought late 1980s)

As I mentioned above, I picked this off my “nice books” shelf to red because Brooke’s poetry is mentioned in “Testament of Youth”, as is Brooke himself. This has the famous early war poems, and was originally published in 1915, although I have the 30th impression from 1923. (I bought it at a book sale or Halls Bookshop in Tunbridge Wells for £3. It bears the ink inscription “To Bert Hewson, WIth every good wish, from Margaret Croker [?] 30.6.24”. I probably bought it because I was in my late teens and in love with R. Brooke. This led me to unsuccessfully apply to King’s College, Cambridge, who rejected me because I didn’t want to take a year out. Anyway …)

This volume lacks the slightly more disillusioned poems that Brooke wrote later in the war, when he’d experienced the conditions we all know about, so has the purity of those early poems of patriotism, written when there really was that idealism about a noble death for one’s country. It’s important to remember that that is how people felt (or were made to feel by the political and military leaders) before the reality and horror set in, and also to remember that he was representing a commonly held belief. He wasn’t a fool and he did realise, but he also died very early in the war, in 1915.

The war poems are almost unbearably poignant to read now, with the pages of history turned and the outcomes for Brooke and his compatriots and fellow soldiers of all nationalities known and mourned. I found myself feeling glad that he’d had the sunny, happy interlude in the South Pacific whence originate some of the “Other Poems” of this volume. “Grantchester” is included, too – I had completely forgotten how long it was and the humorous list of other places in Cambridgeshire – it’s really rather an odd poem.

Reading this volume has led me to pick up “Up the Line to Death” again, an important collection of poems published in chronological order of their writing, which records the progress of the war and the shared idealism of the early days so very well. I recommend that volume as a very good companion to this year of remembrance.


Reread Jan 2014Currently reading: I’m working through my re-reading pile although I haven’t had quite as much reading time as I would have wished (I rather foolishly wished out loud that I could test out my new keyboard, leading me to get a massive load of transcription jobs in). Coming soon, reviews of some language and travel books, and some non-re-reads which I won this month from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme. I’m currently reading Tim Moore’s “Frost on my Moustache”, which is unfortunately sillier than I’d remembered, but is about Iceland in part … .

Book reviews – Life’s Little Ironies and Moo, a DNF and three acquisitions


Reread Jan 2014Welcome to my first book review post of 2014! I have a good solid reading schedule for my Month of Re-Reading in January, although I’ve already Not Finished one novel (and made a nice space on my bookshelves) and realised I should have added another to the pile. Today we have one leftover from 2013 – I usually like to finish my last book of the year before midnight on 31 December, but I didn’t manage it last year and I didn’t manage it this year, either. Oh well. It’s two works of fiction, anyway, one new to me, one a re-read. After those, news on my first DNF of the year and some newcomers to the TBR shelf …

Thomas Hardy – “Life’s Little Ironies”

(Borrowed from Ali)

I think we’ve only got three more books after this one to go – and the next one is a re-read so will come soon. I’m really glad that I’ve manage to read all of the Hardys, even though I thought I was going to pick and choose initially. I am a bit confused, however, as this book has one of the “Wessex Tales” in it that we’ve already read, while two of its original stories have moved to that volume, so I hope I haven’t missed anything.

Anyway, this is an excellent and very readable collection of short stories, noticeably full of Hardy’s common interests or obsessions – fate, country folk, the countryside, doomed love and family mishaps. For all of this, and even though some were sombre indeed, they are all enjoyable, particularly ‘On the Western Circuit’ and the set of interlinked stories in ‘A Few Crusted Characters’ with their deep irony, horrible fates and linked histories told by a group of travellers in a handy but believeable framework.

Many of the stories felt as if they could be the germ of a longer novel – something I like in a short story, although I know that objectively that’s not seen as a mark of the best in the form, which should stand alone. I feel that they do this, but also fit into the rise and fall and preoccupations of his oeuvre. A nice palate cleanser before the rather darker “Jude the Obscure”, up next in the Hardy readalong …

Jane Smiley – “Moo”

(22 January 1997, bought with a book token given to me by my then boyfriend, I carefully noted in the inside front cover – the day after my birthday!)

I will have to admit right here at the beginning of this review that this book could never live up to my memory of being one of the best books that I’ve ever read. I’m forever recommending it to people, but I don’t know that I’ve ever actually read it from March 1997 (it turns out) to now. When I complete my index to my reading journals, I’ll be able to confirm that.

Anyway, what it is is a perfectly good and readable campus novel, featuring a range of students, professors, administrators, secretaries, campus wives and farming folk in the local community. The shifting viewpoints of this wide range of characters show us every aspect of the campus, university, academic environment, industrial sponsors and local community, including but not limited to grants, rivalries, love affairs, committees, set pieces, financial woes and rows with the funding bodies and government which are very apposite today and, in the centre of the novel and of the campus, an abandoned, old-school, closed department housing a large, white, sentient tenant – a hog, whose inner thoughts are described movingly and believably. (Yes, there is a bit of sad animal stuff, but it’s integral to the plot and not at all gratuitous.)

Interestingly, there are quite a lot of horses in this book, something that is a real theme in Smiley’s writing, and enjoyable. A good re-read in the end, however much I was slightly disappointed initially.

And that March 1997 review?

“Campus life and intrigue in a third-rate US university. V good – reminiscent of Tom Sharpe [hm – it’s far less farcical and dirty]? Characterisation done well, everything tied up at the end, multi-narrative worked. Satisfyingly long – a good, solid read.”


A Did Not Finish now: I’d picked Wendy Perriam’s “Of Woman Born” off the shelves to see if I still liked this novelist I read an awful lot in the 1990s but not since. Turns out that, although her writing style is similar to Paul Magrs (perhaps a North-East England idiom?), her subject matter seems very rooted in the 1980s, all sex and ascetic religious people and white nighties and taboo-breaking. Ninety-three pages in to six hundred-odd, I was bored, and I both put it aside and took her other books off my shelves to Bookcross (carefully!). This is a positive result: if you’ve been following the progress of my Months of Re-Reading, I do like to read some books / genres to check that I still want to re-read them. If so, good; if not, shelf space!


Jan 2014 1And now some additions to the shelf. Katharine D’Souza’s “Deeds not Words” is her second novel; I enjoyed her “Park Life“, set in Kings Heath, back in December 2012 (was it really that long ago?). I met Katharine at a book event I went to last month, and just had to pick up this one – unfortunately the first copy was delivered damp and I had to have it replaced, although the process to do this did go more smoothly than I’d feared (I had to buy the print edition from Amazon but was happy to support a local writer even though I am trying not to buy from Amazon these days).

The other two were from my visit to the Kitchen Garden Cafe with Gill this afternoon – the Paul Magrs is last in the Brenda and Effie series and was promised to me when she opened her Not So Secret Santa gift at our BookCrossing Christmas meal. The other is a history of the telegraph in Australia – what’s not to like??


Currently reading – I’m a little way into Vera Brittain’s “Testament of Youth”, picking my reading time carefully as I know it’s an upsetting and powerful read. For a less fraught time, Simon Elmes’ “Talking for Britain” about the different dialects in the country. What are YOU reading? Are you re-reading along with me?

State of the TBR and A Month of Re-Reading in January


Jan 2014 bWell, I’ve been a busy lady and have had to save this state of the TBR post for the second day of the month, as I spent yesterday talking about my Top Reads of 2013 and my planned book challenge for 2014 and beyond.

I’ve also renamed this blog as I feel it’s more about the reading and writing and less about reports from the front line of self-employment, so reflects the blog better. AND I’ve added a blogroll in the right-hand column which pulls together the best book review blogs that I read on a regular basis. I was looking at everyone else’s blogrolls, thinking this blog wasn’t on them, thinking this blog didn’t have a very suitable name to be on such lists, and thinking that I should do my own list … and it all came together into a bit of housekeeping!

Dec 2013 3Here’s the TBR as it is now (above), with my Christmas books added. Not too bad, actually! Only one of the Christmas books went into A Month of Re-Reading in January, but I’d done sterling work getting through some good reads in December, so plenty of room. If you can’t see it clearly, the Virago to the right of the tall grey book is the last one on the front row.

Of course, not only did I add Christmas acquisitions from the BookCrossing Christmas meal and Christmas Day itself; I also received an extra book on 31st December – a gift from one of my Russian clients, sent via Amazon. And such a good book, which I hadn’t heard about before but which would definitely be on my wish list if I had. Hooray!

A Month of Re-Reading in January

Reread Jan 2014 aAs has become customary, since July 2012, I’ve been doing a Month of Re-Reading every July and January. I’ve really, really enjoyed revisiting some old friends, checking that I want to keep the authors and genres that I’ve been keeping all these years, and seeing whether my opinion of books changes over the years (I have paper reading journals going back to 1997 and can remember what I thought about a lot of my favourites earlier than that). I feel it’s a valid and worthwhile thing for me to do, stepping off the conveyor belt of the To Be Read pile and enjoying some different reads from around my shelves.

Although I teased my Facebook friends with my first Project 365 photo of the year (pictured left), I did intend to reveal my choices, and can do so now …

Reread Jan 2014So, from top to bottom, we have …

Winifred Holtby – “The Crowded Street” – received for Christmas in the Persephone edition but I know that I’ve read it before so off the TBR and onto the January pile!

Simon Elmes – “Talking for Britain” – a survey of British regional language, received and read around 2006. This sits on the English Lang & Lit shelf outside the bathroom and was a late addition when I spotted it after making the pile shown above left.

Jane Austen – “Mansfield Park” – I’ve done an Austen in each Month of Re-Reading, and as I have “Murder at Mansfield Park” coming up on the TBR, it seemed appropriate to take this one to read this time.

Thomas Hardy – “Jude the Obscure” – handily this is the Hardy Project read for Jan/Feb, so reading this achieves two aims. At the beginning of the Hardy project, I wasn’t keen on re-tackling this one, but I’ve read all the books so far and got back into Hardy’s way of looking at things, so really quite looking forward to it now.

Jane Smiley – “Moo” – I was reminded of this marvellous campus novel when discussing “The Art of Fielding“. Smiley famously writes in different genres and I’ve read most of her books, but haven’t re-read this one since I originally read it back in 1997, it seems. I’ve started this one today.

Wendy Perriam – “Born of Woman” – I used to love this writer back in the 90s, with the heady mix of women’s freedom, religion and taboo-breaking. She sits with Marilyn French and Erica Jong in my memory. Anyway, I’ve got a lot of them, all quite substantial, so this is one of my tests to see if I want to keep her books or pass them along …

Molly Moynahan – “Living in Arcadia” – this is another ‘woman breaks free’ road-trip novel. I selected it for last July but never got to it, so re-added it for this month. If I fail to read it again, I think that’s telling me something and it will have to go!

Brian Hinton – “South by South-West: A Road Map to Alternative Country” – bought and read a while ago, I probably know more of the bands he talks about now.

Tim Moore – “Frost on My Moustache” – his first travel book, where he travels to Iceland. I’m going there this year, so want to up my reading on the country.

Anthony Powell – “To Keep the Ball Rolling” – his memoirs. As we read “Dance to the Music of Time” last year, this seemed appropriate!

Vera Brittain – “Testament of Youth” – this will be my third read of this heartbreaking narrative of the effect of the First World War on the families and women at home. I remember sobbing over it last re-read, in my flat in Brockley. This is a beautiful edition gleaned from a set of books my friends Julie and Barry left behind with me for BookCrossing etc. when they returned home to Australia, and is being read to honour the 100th anniversary of the start of the War.


Anyone else doing any re-reading this month? It’s not a proper challenge and you don’t need to do more than one, but I do recommend a hearty re-read! And do let me know what you think about the new blog title and shuffle around of the side menus … Happy reading!

Top books from 2013 and reading plans for 2014


I never do these lists until the end of the year, and this is very justified this year, with two December books making the cut.  I read 147 books in 2013 (with 3 Did Not Finishes), 89 fiction and 58 non-fiction. Here, in no particular order, are my Top 10 Fiction Reads of 2013 and my Top Five Non-Fiction Reads of 2013, and after those, some reading plans for the year …

Top 10 Fiction Reads

Patrick Hamilton – “The Slaves of Solitude” – I love his “Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky”; this is vintage Hamilton but through the lens of a Virago or Persephone book!

Chad Harbach – “The Art of Fielding” – an excellent first novel and you do NOT have to like baseball to enjoy it.

Thomas Hardy – “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” – still don’t understand how I’d never read this book before. Yes, bad things happen, but it’s amazing.

George Eliot – “Daniel Deronda” – the first book I finished in 2013 and I knew it would be in the top 10 even then!

Barbara Pym – “Excellent Women” – hard to choose just one but this is a classic and a favourite and introduces many recurring characters. I’ve loved reading all of Pym in 2013.

John Lanchester – “Capital” – so glad that Sian bought this for my birthday as I was holding off on it and it was brilliant.

Jo Walton – “Among Others” – a gift from Emma, the pink cover worried me but it was a brilliant story about reading and books and science fiction. [where is my review of this? Don’t know, will have to search further]

Anthony Powell – “Dance to the Music of Time” – yes, there are 12 of them, and I counted them as separate reads, but you can’t separate them out in terms of a work. A worthwhile re-read and fun readalong with Matthew and Linda.

Susan Glaspell – “Fidelity” – marvellous Persephone that captured small-town America so well with an excellent story with characters you could really care about.

Victoria Eveleigh – Joe series (“Joe and the Hidden Horseshoe” and “Joe and the Lightning Pony“) for helping to rescue the pony story and writing classics that will last (thanks to Jane Smiley for that, too, but she has a bit more publicity …)

Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads

Adam Nicolson – “Sea Room” – I re-read his “Perch Hill” and read “The Gentry” this year, too, but this is the one I really loved re-reading, about his experiences owning his own Scottish island.

Ann Chisholm – “Frances Partridge” – a wonderful biography – I said at the time that she’s as good as Michael Holroyd in my estimation – and that’s big praise from me!

Jane Badger – “Heroines on Horseback” – what the world needed in 2013: a clear, complete and fascinating history of the pony book. So absorbing and well done, I could have read it twice in a row straight off!

Jude Rogers & Matt Haynes – “From the Slopes of Olympus to the Banks of the Lea” – I loved this book about East London / London around the time of the Olympics.

Andrew Martin – “Underground Overground” – fascinating, enthusiastic and well researched history of the Tube.

Reading plans for 2014

Sadly, we’ll be coming to the end of Ali’s Hardy reading project this year. I’ve read all of the books, sometimes a bit behind, and we just have “Jude the Obscure” for Jan-Feb then I think a couple of volumes of short stories. I’ve really enjoyed doing this and read some books I wouldn’t have got round to for years. There’s a First World War readalong going on in the LibraryThing Virago Group and on Ali’s blog, but I am not hugely keen on war books, so I’m limiting my honouring of 100 years since the beginning of World War I by re-reading Vera Brittain’s “Testament of Youth” this month.

What I have fancied is doing one of those Twentieth Century challenges where you read a book from each year of the century. But I’m not going to push myself to do it in a year or two years, even; I’m going to see what I get and then fill in the gaps. I know plenty of people, like Stuck-in-a-Book and Fleur In Her World who have done it and can be mined for lists.  However, I do have some questions about the dating …

  • Is it the date on the book you have in your hand, or the original date of publication that matters?
  • What if there’s a new introduction in your copy, what happens then? That date or the original?
  • If it’s the original date, does it matter if it’s not on your book and you have to look it up, e.g. I have a reprint of Winifred Holtby’s “Virgina Woolf” that is clearly older than the edition I have, but the only date in the book is that of the reprint.
  • I’m presumably OK to have more than one book by one author as it’s my project and I can do what I like, right?!

I hope someone will come and answer those. I’ve put up a list of years on a new page, and I know I have 15 individual years in the current TBR (I have a LOT of books published in 2010 – am I just 4 years behind the times at all times, I wonder?)

I’ll be doing my usual Month of Re-Reading in January this month, and will be posting about that and the state of my TBR tomorrow. This was the wonderful state of my TBR after a good December’s reading and before adding my Christmas reads …

Jan 2014 aHope all my lovely readers have a good 2014 of reading themselves!