Book review – Deeds not Words

8 Comments

Deeds not Words by Katharine D'SouzaA single book review here today, because I’ve only got one finished and ready to review at the moment, and knowing the author (although having purchased the book at full price) and especially the fact that she’s an independent author, I wanted to get my review out on here and on Amazon as quickly as I could. It really matters, having reviews, when you’re going it alone without the full publicity machine of a large publisher behind you: people buy on recommendation, and I know from marketing my own books that sales pick up as soon as you have a few reviews – in fact, it’s  not really worth officially launching a book until you have a few reviews stacked up for people to see. I also promoted this one up the book pile because I wanted to get it read and reviewed, and Ali was reading it at the same time.

Katharine D’Souza – “Deeds not Words”

(04 January 2014)

I knew what I was getting into with this book. I’d read the author’s “Park Life” back at the end of 2012 (was it really that long ago?) and was aware that, as with that novel, she had set this one in my home town of Birmingham. Now, I’m more likely to read a book that’s set here, I’d admit, but if they get it wrong, I’m much more likely to notice and throw the book across the room (I have done that before now). But I knew from “Park Life”, which was not only set in Birmingham but in the suburb where I live, that Katharine gets her city right, as she should do – both the places and the feel of the city.

This new novel is more city centre-focused, although also moving out into the suburbs and even as far as Stratford-upon-Avon. It centres around Caroline, working at the Museum and Art Gallery, having returned home from a marriage that’s gone wrong, always tending to run back to the familiar and safe rather than taking risks. She’s got her own flat near to work, but hasn’t really got round to decorating or personalising it, and the contrast is thrown into relief when she visits her beloved grandmother Beth’s much-loved and cluttered family home.

So, we have a returned child of the city, lots of excellent detail about the cut and thrust of working as a museum curator and trying to carve out a place in a setup that’s been there since the year dot, and then simultaneously an old flame reappears with something of a hidden agenda, and a family secret comes to light during a crisis. Mixed up in all of this is a collection of art that might not be what it seems, an unexpected family member who might not be all he seems, a dodgy geezer clutching a ‘find’ that might well be what it seems, and the usual tangled relationships and roles found in a modern family, with the whispers of inheritance and family feuds overshadowing the generations. The dual aspect of genetic and financial inheritance as well as the role of gender in history and family are all explored, too, without making the book dry or didactic.

I like the way in which the themes are more tightly twined together than in the previous book, with one very central character. Her family and work relationships are allowed space to breathe, and the importance of both – and of friends – is explored and given equal weight. It’s a modern book with a modern heroine but one that reaches back into a fascinating aspect of Birmingham’s past about which I knew very little. At the end of the book, I felt sad to be saying goodbye to the world that had been created, and I also longed to experience and visit a couple of the events and places that were created in the book, for the book, so, unlike the general setting and environment of the novel, don’t actually exist!

Yes, this is a great read if you happen to live or have lived in Birmingham. But it’s not just a local novel: strip out those details and you’re still left with a strong story and memorable characters of different ages and with different personalities, delineated beautifully and believable in their depictions: even Caroline’s slightly absent father springs into sharp focus at the appropriate points.

You can buy this book in print and ebook form at Amazon, and it should be orderable from Waterstones, too, soon. Katharine D’Souza has an interesting website where you can find out more about her and her books. Read Ali’s review here.

I’m currently reading George Gissing’s “The Odd Women”, which is oddly enthralling and more than a touch unputdownable, even though it has a slightly odd structure and somewhat unattractive central characters, and about to start a book about Jane Austen. Have you read any of Katharine D’Souza’s books? Do you read books JUST because they’re set in your home city or somewhere you know very well, and are you more critical, giving them more to live up to than books set somewhere you don’t know?

Book reviews – Rip it Up and Start Again and Virginia

8 Comments

Feb 2014Today’s two books are linked by nothing but their size. I’ve got a way to go before I start (let alone finish) the next music book, and I don’t want to be Viragoes All The Way, so two books with no link except they were fairly hefty tomes and took me a little while to get through! They do reflect my interests in music and feminism, though, although I have to say that I’m a little bit glad that the current Virago I’m reading is the last for a while (apart from the Virago At 40 book) as there are common themes that are getting a little well-trodden now. Anyway, here goes with two normal-sized reviews of two largish volumes …

Simon Reynolds – “Rip it Up and Start Again”

(11 July 2013 – Fopp in Manchester)

I’d been looking at this book whenever I went into a Fopp shop, and finally picked it up on our Northern Odyssey when we thoroughly explored the shop with Paul and Jeremy, old friends newly met in real life, if you see what I mean.

A history of post-punk music from 1978-1984, the well-known groups listed on the cover, tempting you to buy the book, are not all covered in exhaustive detail, while other, more obscure bands are, but this doesn’t matter too much in this wide-ranging and entertaining book, written in a journalistic style by a music journalist who was there through these years, often referring to his own encounters with the musicians he discusses, and obviously a fan of many of them (you’d have to be, to write this book).

It’s split into two big sections, on post-punk, mainly art-influenced and experimental music and the New Pop of the electronic bands that came a little later, with sections on the immediate aftermath and how the inventiveness of the time drained away, and on what happened next for those protagonists who survived. It’s thorough without being dry, and always holds one’s interest, even though some bands of necessity don’t have as much space as you’d wish. It’s great on the machinations of the record labels, managers and producers and at making connections between people, bands and scenes. The organisation of the chapters, taking a group of bands, sub-culture or location as their theme on the whole, works well and is probably the best way to make sense of the material.

Readable and entertaining and has also helped with the transcription part of my job, providing vital background information which I will return to again, and giving me details about two people I transcribed while I was reading the book!

Ellen Glasgow – “Virginia” (Virago)

(15 July 2013 – Beckside Books, Penrith)

Named after both the heroine and the American state in which she lives, this long novel charts a young woman’s progress through society in the post-Reconstruction South, minutely examining the myths of that particular place and how they shape their inhabitants, with an underpinning theory of determinism and people’s inability to escape the fates that society as a whole sets for them.

Some women work against type – the coarse Abbey, who attracts Virginia’s rebel-who-gives-up-rebelling husband, Oliver, and Susan, Virginia’s best friend, the New Woman of the novel who, nevertheless, is forced to bow to duty and to have only a half-fulfilled destiny of her own. The new myth of money-making and commerce is exposed as just as limiting and inflexible as the old Southern ones of class and blood. Maybe Virginia’s children will fulfil a more broad destiny, although they are still described limitingly as having the wrong gender attributes for their actual sex, or making the kind of hasty and unconsidered marriage that their mother made – so is there any progress here?

In unmasking the Southern Belle and the views of love and marriage which forced her to wither and ‘lose her beauty’ through self-sacrifice once married, the author does still make her human, although seemingly unaware of the inequalities of the ties that bind her, a woman trying to do her best in a situation where that is not what is called for, and her best will be never be enough. Her husband is portrayed as just as trapped by societal expectations, giving up his youthful ideals and conforming to the norm, although he is more able to break away than his wife. In the end, the only truly fulfilled character seems to be the poor dressmaker who flits from house to house, serving all, yet her own person, beholden in the end to no one. She is contrasted effectively with the school teacher who sits like a spider in the web of the town’s relationships, judging and holding court and trying to ensure the ignorance of her pupils.

I have to mention that the treatment of the Black characters in the novel leaves much to be desired. While the characters are seen as inhabiting their own closed world, and express their views coherently with their position, the servants and (in many cases) ex-slaves are described in patronising and inappropriate terms as children or even brutes, not only by the characters but by the omniscient narrator. While a product of her times and mores, and while she does display some of the hypocrisies and difficulties of the previously slave-owning class, much of the language used here is uncomfortable for the modern reader, and unfortunately undermines the feminist power of the book.

Interestingly, given my next read, in the Introduction (read, of course, after I’d finished the main body of the novel), Paul Binding (Friend Of Barbara Pym) contrasts the human portrayal of the characters with the more bleakly deterministic George Gissing …

————

Currently reading: I’ve picked up the indeed somewhat bleakly deterministic “Odd Women” by Gissing. It is strangely powerful and compelling, however, and I want to know what happens to the characters who are trapped by circumstance and who the New Woman (another NW!) of the book is at present attempting to rescue. I’m also starting Katharine D’Souza’s new novel, “Deeds Not Words”, set in the art gallery in Birmingham and also being read by my friend Ali. What are you up to in your reading? Have you read too many of the same type of novel in one go and how did you resolve that?

A bit of a move-around

12 Comments

childrens-books thenFollowing on from my post about weeding (see the previous post), I’ve been having a hankering to Do Something about the parlous state of the Children’s Books department. This is pretty well what it looked like up until Monday morning – although after An Incident, the horizontal piles were all moved to the bottom of the bookcase to avoid toppling.

There didn’t seem to be too many of these, so as part of my effort to relieve pressure on both the fiction bookshelves upstairs (just seen in this picture) and the non-fiction bookshelves downstairs, I hatched a plot to take over the little-used “Bookcrossing and hobbies” shelves in what is optimistically called the Spare Bedroom (repository for a futon with no mattress, the clothes airer, my shoes and ‘posh’ clothes and the cat paraphernalia) and move my children’s books AND my three runs of multi-volume encyclopaedias into that room.

Childrens books nowWell, I’m not quite sure how this happened, but this (to the left) turned into this (to the right) when I spread them all out horizontally along the shelves. How? How?

So the encyclopaedias will have to remain downstairs for the time being, while I clear that last Bookcrossing shelf (not seen in the pic) and find somewhere else for my binoculars, camera lenses and cardmaking stuff. Oh, it never ends, does it? But I do feel that anyone perching uncomfortably on the futon base (or the cat, when he makes a break for the food stores) will have a more pleasant time of it for the accompaniment of a collection of children’s classics, from Kipling to Ransome to Streatfeild to Pullein-Thomspons to Ferguson to Willard to Lancelyn Green to Magrs to Eveleigh (note to Kaggsysbookishramblings: there’s a Beverley in there, too!).

persephonesAnd in the meantime, my Persephone collection is looking rather fine in its new home, with plenty of space to breathe (I have a couple on my TBR) and giving the rest of the fiction collection room to breathe, too. All good, I feel. If a bit dusty. Achoo!

On re-reading and weeding

10 Comments

Pile of books for book reviews

It could be a pile of books to read, it could be a pile of deaccessions!

I had a big weed today. Oo-er: careful how you read that! A big weed. A big deaccession. Out of a shelf of books and my travel section, I have about 20 to join the reshelved children’s books section in the guest room, and about 20 to go off into the world via BookCrossing. Added to the Biography weed I had a few weeks ago, and the great Wendy Perriam chuck-out of early January, that’s about 50-60 books off the shelves.

While I would like to say that that’s 50-60 books I can ADD to the shelves in the future, it’s more like the piles of books in front of their relevant sections can move onto the shelves, the sports books are all shelved vertically and Social History, Villages and Books About Running a Hotel have their own tidy section. There are a few gaps, though.

Why all this weeding? I blame (thank) the Month of Re-Reading that I do every January and July. OK, it slows up my TBR demolition, but planning my re-reading and then doing it has made me focus on what books I keep. Before Bookcrossing, I used to keep pretty well everything, unless it was utterly rubbish. I discovered Bookcrossing when I came to move up to Birmingham with Matthew, realised that about 80 books had languished in my storage unit unread and unwanted for a couple of years and was looking for creative ways to pass them on, and since then, I’ve been pretty good at not keeping anything that I wasn’t likely to re-read in the future.

However, that left books purchased before 2004 (i.e. Before Bookcrossing), plus ones that I thought I might want to re-read in the future. Going through picking books to add to the Month of Re-Reading has really seemed to focus my mind on what I do want to read again, and has made me less anxious about getting rid of books I won’t read again. Sometimes, re-reading a book to check whether I still like that author has led to deaccessions – but not as many as these latest culls have produced.

The mind works in a funny way, doesn’t it, and I note that it was when I was popping downstairs for a work break drink that I suddenly found myself picking books off the travel section and making a pile to give away, rather than in early January when I was picking re-reads. But, whatever: it’s another reason why I’ll be continuing those Months of Re-reading!

Have you done some deaccessioning recently? How has it felt? Do you find it easy to pass books along?

Book reviews – Ordinary Families and The Third Miss Symons, plus a lovely bookshop!

11 Comments

Two Viragoes today and also two bFeb 2014ooks in which the central character suffers in the comparison with her more attractive and conventionally successful younger sister. Two books, also, that examine the place of women in society, the expectations of their reactions and behaviour, and their acceptance of their role in the family hegemony as well as that of society. And two good reads, although I did prefer the length and themes of the first one.

E. Arnot Robertson – “Ordinary Families” (Virago)

(15 July 2013, Penrith Bookshop)

Lalage is the second daughter in a large family which has its ways of doing things – not being sentimental, relentless mocking of any sentimentality, interest or oddity, enjoying the most unpleasant of sailing experiences, in particular – which must be adhered to at all times. The Rushes are an extraordinary family amid some other ordinary and odd ones in Pin Mill, and life revolves around tall stories, odd colleagues from the father’s exciting life and being that particular family.

Lalage feels that she doesn’t fit in, and tries to keep her friendships and especially her love of bird-watching apart from the boisterousness of family life. It’s a coming-of-age novel, but unusually for books written in the 1930s, this has a no-nonsense approach to the discussion of periods and the awakening of desire in its awkward and appealing heroine, only too well aware that she’s no match for her devastatingly beautiful younger sister.

Taking place around the post-First World War period, the war has its effects on the characters and story, with brave Father’s unsuccessful war being contrasted with those who fought and fell or came back shell-shocked. It also covers the screaming and fervid party-going of the 20s generation, even in quiet rural areas, but all in all it’s a wonderful evocation of sailing and bird life and village life, with an attractive and memorable heroine. Some reviewers have found that there are too many descriptions of sailing; I really like reading about sailing, so this was not a problem for me!

F. M. Mayor – “The Third Miss Symons” (Virago)

(15 July 2013, Penrith Bookshop)

A short book – really a novella – taking that unpromising subject, an unmarried woman through the late Victorian era, who never has her character faults addressed and therefore ends up wanting to love and be loved, but essentially unloved and pretty unpleasant, and using it to examine the expectations of love and marriage and the position of the ‘extra woman’ in society in this first novel which she was also to address in her later ones, such as The Rector’s Daughter. There are a lot of what-ifs in this book that make it very poignant – what if there had been fewer children, if Henrietta had been taken in hand or accepted the warnings about her temper and tried to change herself, what if her sister – another attractive younger sister – hadn’t played around with her one suitor? It’s a quick and absorbing read, once more addressing the issue of what to do if you don’t fit in with the prevailing society that we saw in Holtby’s “The Crowded Street”.

High Street Books, New Mills, postcard and business cardWe went up to New Mills yesterday to see my editing friend Laura and her partner, Mark. They have a wonderful bookshop – High Street Books (also on Facebook) – only a few minutes’ walk from their house, which has a huge selection of excellent fiction and non-fiction, beautifully arranged, with owners who know every inch of their stock. They do loads for the local population, too, organising book orders for those who don’t have access to the internet or credit cards, and helping to build and hold this community together. Highly recommended if you are in the area, or even vaguely in the area – and they do mail order, too, so you don’t have to be anywhere near them to use them!

Feb 2014The books that Laura bought me for my birthday came from here, and I picked up these two lovelies – a copy of Hardy’s “Life’s Little Ironies” in the Macmillan Pocket Hardy Wessex Edition that I gently collect (this was one of the only Hardys I didn’t have, and I borrowed Ali’s copy for last year’s read of the book), and a really sweet guidebook to Iceland published in 1981 although based on earlier editions.

Currently reading: “Rip it up and Start Again” is still on the go, though I’m over half way through now. I have some more Viragoes coming up, but might dip into a book I bought at the same time about Jane Austen … What are you reading at the moment and what have you bought recently? Do you collect any special editions?

 

Book reviews – Jude the Obscure

7 Comments

Reread Jan 2014For once I’m doing a singleton review, not really for any reason other than the fact that I’ve got two pairs of Viragoes and two non-fiction books coming up, and this one really belongs to the Month of Re-Reading. I’ve talked about how I felt the month went on my last post: it was enjoyable and I did have some real highlights, although I was disappointed to find one author did not bear re-reading (then again, I now have an attractive patch of empty bookshelf to fill) and another was not as I’d remembered.

This one, however, was also not how I’d remembered … but in a good way!

Thomas Hardy – “Jude the Obscure”

(not sure when I acquired this: it’s a Penguin Classic but a bit more battered and faded than I’d assume from the fact that I’ve only read it once before. No date written inside. Let’s just call it a mystery.)

I was slightly dreading reading this one, but I had read all of the other books in Ali’s Thomas Hardy project, so it seemed right that I attempted it. I don’t think I was avoiding it by leaving it to the last in my Month of Re-Reading pile: each book in the Hardy project has two months allotted to it, so I knew it was OK to let it spill into February. Anyway, I recalled it as being relentlessly miserable, with one scene in particular sticking in my mind (OK, one scene, total. I don’t think I’ve read this since I was about 19, mind. There have been a lot of books under the bridge since then).

In fact, of course, there’s much to enjoy in this tale of a man struggling against his class, family background and education and failing in his self-imposed task about being a self-made man. The epigraph of this book could be “A little learning is a dangerous thing”, actually, as Jude is maybe given ideas he can’t ever fulfil by his reading, and his Sue is full of half-digested readings and understandings which make her get in ever such a muddle. Is that patronising? I don’t know. But this book is full of ideas about one’s station, as well as about the changing society of the time at which it’s set. Actually, I’m very glad that I was reading this for pleasure and not for study, as my Eng-Lit-trained mind kept noticing echoes and predictions, but I was able to bat them away to a large extent and just enjoy my read.

It’s a fairly hefty novel, but a page-turner. In addition, the descriptions of both the North Wessex countryside and the great city of Oxford are beautifully done. Instead of the rustic chorus of the earlier, entirely rural, novels, the chorus here is of ladies of doubtful reputation and working men who frequent pubs, and they fill just enough of the background not to irritate.

The story is a good one, although to me, Jude seems sometimes to be something of a cipher, a figure full of meaning and metaphor, but curiously passive, inertly succumbing to the wills of the more assertive females in the book, even to the last. The weird child, Father Time, as the introduction to my copy of the book confirms, is not particularly believable and just has to be swallowed, like the more unlikely events in a Restoration Tragedy: I found his character and actions almost Dickensian, or maybe he feels like he belongs in one of the short stories, which can be darker and more odd than the novels.

But Hardy has too many things to say about the restrictions that marriage and convention impose on love and, particularly, women (I did like the part where they fled the Register Office owing to its dismal aspect), and on women’s right to independence, as well as progress and the ‘modern’ world to be spoiled by a peculiar plot device, and so I can forgive him for it. I also found Jude an attractive character, but must admit more of a regard for Arabella than for the over-thinking Sue, a lesser woman, I feel, than the magnificent Tess or other Hardy heroines.

All in all, I’m very glad that I re-read this novel. I couldn’t, in the end, put it down, even when breakfast and work were calling me – the mark of a good book, indeed.

————-

Currently reading: I’m reading the excellent “Rip it up and Start Again”, an exhaustive study of the history of post-punk music, and having a slight Virago-fest, brought on by (finally) reaching the rich seam of dark green spines put in place in July with our holiday in the Lake District.