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

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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.”

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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!

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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??

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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

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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.

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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

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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!

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