Book reviews – A Changed Man and The Harp in the South


To be read books July 2014Two more novels to review today – I’ve been galloping through my July reading, with a mere five books left on the front of the bookshelf and loads of good stuff read and enjoyed. If I don’t have a pressing deadline, I’ve been having a bit of a read in bed of a morning, which has certainly helped, and bus journeys back and forth to my parents-in-law at their new house have helped, too (plus a train journey to York). So here are two oldies but goodies – thanks for the lend, Ali, and the gift, Laura!

Thomas Hardy – “A Changed Man”

(Borrowed from Ali)

I gave up reading the collected Hardy on my Kindle near the start of Ali’s Hardy readalong, as you never knew where you were in the books (the percentage it gave was for the whole series of books, not progress through the one you were actually reading). Although I’ve liked the look of the new Kindle Paperwhites, I have to say that waiting for my old one to break down so I can buy a fancy new one might take a while, because I really do not use it an awful lot. Anyway – back to the Hardy.

This was rather a momentous read, as it was the last published work of Hardy’s fiction, and thus I have now, along with Ali and a group of other people, read the complete works of Thomas Hardy in publication order! Wow! I really hadn’t read as many as I should have (or people thought I had!) and found some lovely reads in “The Trumpet-Major” and “Tess” in particular, plus “Jude”, which I had been rather dreading, was actually a very good read and, dare I say it, not as depressing as I thought it was going to be. Thank you for organising the challenge, Ali. I did get a bit behind, but I got there in the end!

This collection of short stories was a great selection, treating themes of love, marriage, changed opinions and twists of fate. There was some interesting experimentation in this set of stories, with “Alicia’s Diary” being written entirely as a diary and letters, and “What the Shepherd Saw” and “A Tryst at an Earthwork” being told from the point of view of an observer rather than the main protagonist. A couple of the stories were full of the reverses of fortune, opportunities almost grasped then missed and snatches of defeat from the jaws of victory that Hardy is famous for, and some had plot twists so extreme as to be almost Sensational, giving an interesting link back to the Gothic elements in the early short stories we read.

A very good collection, with no tailing off of quality, and a worthy end to the read.

Ruth Park – “The Harp in the South”

(21 January 2014 – from Laura)

The last in my set of slightly random books kindly given to me by a friend to address some of the gaps in my Reading a Century project, this is set in a poor community in Australia and is a vivid, unusual and affecting novel about love, danger, family and trying to escape from the fate you were born to. It follows the fortunes of one central family as they try to survive and make ends meet, as well as their rather eccentric lodgers and the wider community. There are some violent scenes and one upsetting animal incident – but this was justified in the context of the dumb and pointless suffering of many of the characters with their lack of agency and the sudden violence that can flare up in a crowded and poverty-stricken environment. Some very lively and fresh characters, a good plot and great insight into the inner workings of many of the characters in turn – an engaging read.


Currently reading: I’ve got a couple more to review, and I’m enjoying a book about Canadian English and “Underground to Everywhere”, another book about London Underground. What are you all up to? Have you read anything by the hitherto unknown (to me) Ruth Park?

Book reviews – Mapping the Railways and Through the Language Glass


To be read books July 2014Ooh, I am doing well, 10 books read in July and another couple on the go that I should finish within the month. I’ve even read the two books that my friend Ali lent me only the other day. After a few dismal reading months (though with some great reads), I’ve been making a proper effort to carve out decent reading time, getting up as early as ever but squeezing in a sit in bed with a book if I haven’t got an early work deadline. I’ve also had a few longish bus journeys across town to help with relatives moving house, which has had the side-effect of upping the reading time nicely. So here we go with two non-fiction books, one a present from me to me (but I also bought my father-in-law a copy for Christmas) and one a present from a client!

Julian Holland – “Mapping the Railways”

(13 November 2013)

This did sit on my TBR for a bit (you can see it on the left in the picture), because it’s a big floppy paperback that you need to get close to – sitting on the sofa with my knees up seemed the only way to cope! It’s an excellent book which really did need to be in this format, as it takes us through the history of Britain’s railways, using reproductions of all sorts of amazing and fascinating maps to demonstrate exactly what happened at each stage, alongside informative text and other documents and photographs. Some of the maps were produced for public consumption, and some were produced by firms that wanted to tender (ha ha) for building new railway lines, so some are of things that never even got built. It’s lavishly illustrated, with the whole map, a blown-up section and intricate details included for each section.

It was great spotting places I’ve lived, places I’ve been and friends’ houses. I do like a good map, and I do like a railway, so this was a good match for me! I was perhaps slightly less fascinated by the more modern sections after the Beeching Report, although the parts about the InterCity (I hadn’t quite grasped that it’s not called that any more!) were interesting. Very good on the whole though.

Guy Deutscher – “Through the Language Glass”

(31 December 2013; gift from a client)

I was so chuffed to receive this through the post from a long-term client – I’ve never had a present from them before and this was such a lovely choice (they’re a translation and transcription agency, so it’s a good choice all round).

Subtitled “Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages”, this book makes an optimistic attempt to unpick the Sapir-Whorff hypothesis (the language we speak changes our perception of the world, basically) and the theories of its (myriad) opponents, as well as the development of theories of perception and language that have been circulating since the 19th century. And it does a really good job of this. Obviously, as someone who’s studied English language and linguistics, and works in a wordy field, I was aware of the concepts being discussed, but it describes everything very clearly and this would be a good read for anyone with an interest in how languages work.

The author – who incidentally comes from a non-native English speaking background, not that you’d know it from the construction of his book, which gives him an extra insight into comparisons between languages – doesn’t fully espouse any of the main theories, but instead constructs the idea that, while Nature dictates much of how we both experience the world and talk about it (there’s some very interesting stuff about the order in which words for colours appear to develop in almost all languages), within the constraints of Nature, Culture (or Nurture) has an effect, too, insofar as the way the language we speak works influences what we focus on and some of the things we have to think about. Sound a bit woolly? Well, he provides lots of interesting examples, finding, for example, that speakers of gendered languages (like French with its le and la, etc.) tend to see objects in terms of their gender, and this affects the way they react to objects even when their names are not presented to them. Similarly, someone living in a culture where the language demands that they specify the exact time at which something happened, and when they perceived it, of necessity consider these matters more than someone who doesn’t get constantly challenged to provide this evidence.

While unpicking the work of those researchers who handily found what they wanted in languages and ignored the rest (citing people who claimed languages with a good and complex system of words denoting time had no such words thus no concept of time), he gives a lot of examples from current and new research and makes fewer grandiose claims than he presents ideas and possibilities. The material on colour is particularly interesting, and has some good examples.

An accessible and fascinating book, and I’m glad it came to my attention via my lovely client!


Currently reading: No wicked acquisitions (well, I borrowed two books but as I said, I’ve already read them, watch out for the reviews soon). I’m reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ “The Marriage Plot”, which seems good so far although I’m just at the very beginning, and I’m also exploring “Underground to Everywhere”, a lovely book on the Tube that Verity sent me in my Virago Group Secret Santa parcel. I’ve been trying to read Iris Murdoch’s “Sartre”, which fills in a year in the Century of Reading, but it’s a  bit HARD! What are you reading this summer?


Book reviews – The House in Clewe Street and The Singing Line


To be read books July 2014Two for the Reading a Century of Books here, and we’re very firmly in January 2014 acquisitions now, at least, so keeping up with myself (a bit). Two very different books again today: I can’t pretend that they have anything in common, one being a novel set in small-town Ireland and the other being a travel memoir and history book set in Australia!

Mary Lavin – “The House in Clewe Street”

(21 January 2014, birthday present from Laura)

A lovely old Penguin with a dust jacket, one of a group of books bought by my friend Laura to fill in gaps in the Century of Books, and doing that very well. I thought I had the author mixed up with someone else, as I was reminded of a very miserable book full of doom and abject poverty – when I checked my archives, there it was, “Mary O’Grady” by the same author, read back in 2008! This was a bit doomy, but only in a Hardyesque way rather than grinding poverty and misery.

It’s set in a small walled town in Ireland, and we meet three generations of the Coniffe family, and their neighbours, including the liminal Soraghan family (liminal in that they live on the edge of society and literally on the border of the town, right by the ramparts of the decaying town walls, and occupying temporary positions when people need them, then fading away when not needed). The Conliffes are apologetic New Money, thanks to Theodore’s property empire, but make sure they don’t show it off, and anyone going against the grain doesn’t have the best luck. Theodore has three daughters, and from one of them, the heir issues.

Gabriel tries to break free of the stifling life of the town, with convention and with the harsher family conventions, moving to Dublin to stay with his less conventional friend, the artist, Sylvester, whose ramshackle lodgings and group of friends provide both an uncritical background and the roots of a fall.

There’s an interesting sub-text to the book, although the Penguin edition doesn’t have an introduction and I couldn’t find much about it apart from a review from my friend Verity from when she was reading ALL the Viragoes (I don’t know if she managed that in the end – I certainly wouldn’t want to try!). But I couldn’t help noticing that going against convention left you pretty well chewed up in one way or another. The women in the book are doomed to flaring love, some kind of embarrassing, atypical childbirth experience and early death, or grim spinsterhood, the only alternative a sort of blowsy, grubby motherhood. It’s a pretty damning assessment of the paths that women can take and the traps that society places for both men and women.

It’s a good, solid read, and very enjoyable in the way that Hardy is enjoyable, with interesting but not often kind characters and a feeling of fate hanging over them.

Alice Thomson – “The Singing Line”

(BookCrossing 05 January 2014, picked off Gill’s pile before it could go on the cafe shelf)

More interesting than I thought it would be, this is the story of the man who installed the first telegraph line linking Adelaide to Darwin (and thus to Asia and Europe), and his wife, after whom Alice Springs was named. This chap was the author’s great-great-grandfather, and there’s been an Alice in every generation since his wife’s; this version pieces together her ancestors’ lives from archives in both the UK and Australia, and makes her own journey (with her husband) across the Australian interior, recounting the Victorian and modern-day struggles with the terrain, heat and lack of facilities.

The Aborigine question is addressed, not without resistance from the local population (it was interesting that we watched a programme on the TV that featured the Inuit of Northern Canada and their parallel path to distress via the colonialists at the same time I was finishing this book), and both the historical and modern stories are told well and with humour and modesty, benefitting from the author’s background as a journalist.

A good selection of pictures and maps and a good read overall.


Dec 2013 3I’m currently still reading “Through the Language Glass” (when I’m not working on that book on historical philology) and I’ve borrowed the final set of Hardy short stories and the middle volume of the Mary Hocking trilogy from Ali, both to hopefully read this month. I have some big books from the beginning of the TBR to look at when I have time and room, and then it’ll be almost time to hit the back shelf, leaving a little pile of Viragoes and Persephones for next month …

Book reviews – Passing and Penguin Special


To be read books July 2014What have these two titles got in common? Well, erm, they both start with a “P”, and they both add new years to my Century of Reading project … but apart from that, well, all I can say is that I do read a wide variety of books. And not in pairs, fairly obviously. Today I have for your enjoyment a fascinating late-1920s novel(la) about race and class and belonging, and a lovely biography, full of research and knowledge. Can’t be bad, can it!

Nella Larsen – “Passing”

(21 January 2014 – from Laura)

My friend Laura very kindly gave me four slightly random books for my birthday, chosen because they fitted gaps in my Century of Reading. How cool – and the two I’ve read or am reading so far are excellent choices. “Passing”, a small and subtle book, is a fascinating exploration of the practice of [as a black or mixed-race person] ‘passing’, [i.e. appearing to be a white person] during the years of segregation in the US. The blurb suggests that of the two main characters, Clare has moved strictly into a white world, while her childhood friend, Irene, has remained within the African-American community. But it’s not as simple as that: they actually meet in adulthood when both are using a white-only restaurant, and Claire is in some ways anxious to return to her own roots, while Irene passes between the two communities at times.

So, even though it’s a short novel, it’s more complicated than it seems, and as Irene moves between the two worlds, she is put into some beautifully observed and very uncomfortable situations. White intellectual and interested observers further add themselves into the mix, attending benefits for the black community seemingly with impunity, although obviously ‘passing’ between the worlds in a very different way – and it’s interesting that all of the characters are pretty firmly set in the professional and aspiring middle class, so the class issue is not maybe what you’d expect if you were told it was a book about race and class.

All of the inter-mixing and the deceit that naturally comes along with it leads, perhaps inevitably, to a climax which is as predictable in some ways as it is shocking in others. Even then, the conclusion of the book is again subtle and complex, especially if you bring into play a final paragraph which was included in some editions, but not others. A quick read, but a very interesting one indeed.

My friend Ali read this in April 2015 – read her review here.

Jeremy Lewis – “Penguin Special: The Life and Times of Allen Lane”

(19 August 2013 – Oxfam Books in Oxford)

I am a bit surprised to be reading two books acquired so far apart, but it’s big hardback / little paperback syndrome, where I dwell on a larger, more unwieldy, book over the dinner table and in bed, while popping paperbacks into my handbag for bus travel and my gym bag for bike-n-read. Anyway, this one didn’t take me long to read, some of it being read in the garden in the sun during lunch-hour sessions.

It’s very much the life AND times of Father of Penguin Books, Allen Lane: a hugely detailed and well-researched biography and history of the book trade in general and Penguin Books in particular, from the pre-Second World War years up until the 1970s. Lewis is very confident in handling the mass of material, keeping us away of who’s who and their relationships and manipulating the narrative so that there is enough detail without getting too bogged down.

Allen Lane himself comes off as rather remote and unknowable, but the author’s gentle modesty (his introduction was very appealing) but persistent triangulation of his sources gets us as near to the man as anyone probably could, critiquing various bibliographical sketches and robust enough about their authors and the subject as he needs to be. Good notes, bibliography and illustrations, too.


I’m currently reading “The House in Clewe Street” by Mary Lavin, another of Laura’s gifts. It’s a gentle but absorbing saga of a family in Ireland. I see from doing a search that it’s been published by Virago (the copy I’m reading is a slightly elderly orange Penguin, which I love), so I suppose I could have saved it for All Virago / All August. But I’m reading it now and I’m not inclined to put it aside.

Talking of All Virago / All August, this was on my mind as I wrote this post, as Ali just passed me the final Hardy to read in our readalong, and the second of the Mary Hocking trilogy, which I will either read this month or next. Would you like a sneak preview of everything else I’ve got lined up for AV / AA? Of course you would. Here goes – this is all of the Viragoes and Persephones from my TBR. Looking at the rest of the TBR, I don’t think I have any more that were also published in Virago, and I think these plus the one or two Hockings will see me through:

All Virago, All August - Virago and Persephone Books to readI was a bit worried that it would get a bit ‘samey’ as certain Viragoes can be much of a muchness, but with a history, two biographical works and books by Irish and Russian authors, plus social history and short stories in the Persephones, I think the only risk I’ll have is reading three Thirkells in a row …

Book reviews – The Great Typo Hunt and Good Daughters


To be read books July 2014OK, you know how I like to post reviews that go together? Well, these two don’t. Not only don’t these books go together, but they are about as different as you can get. One’s fiction, one’s non-fiction. One’s contemporary, one’s pre-WWII. One’s set in the UK, one’s set in the US. One I was given last Christmas, the other I bought for myself almost exactly 20 years ago. I even finished one in June and one in July! So maybe I can make a connection out of that difference … or something. Anyway, two reviews and ONLY two acquisitions from an afternoon spent with literally hundreds of books that I’d never seen before … (oh, and another one, too).

Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson – “The Great Typo Hunt”

(25 December 2013 – from Gill)

One from my wish-list from Gill, and I was looking forward to an amusing book about people looking for typos and correcting them. I wasn’t disappointed: this is what the book was all about! Jeff Deck is working as an editor in Boston when he has the grand idea of touring America making changes to public examples of typos and spelling mistakes. He’s at pains to point out that he pretty well always asks permission to make the changes, and certainly never mocks those who have made the mistakes (this is a bit of an ambiguous point, because he does include examples, and isn’t that in a way encouraging us to laugh at them? I don’t know – I’m particularly careful about this kind of thing because I don’t ever want to upset my clients who might be struggling with their English writing for whatever reason, although I enjoy a good typo as much as the next editor (just not in public)).

He recruits some sidekicks for different parts of his journey around the US, and gets to work, leaving both his home town and his new girlfriend. But will he have the nerve to ask people to climb up ladders or take notices out of cafe windows and erase their own errors, and does his girlfriend really approve, or are they going to get into an argument along the great prescriptive/descriptive divide?

It’s amusing and sweet, but then matters take – perhaps inevitably – a litigious turn, and there’s angst, anguish and the threat of a court case; something that might make people think twice about taking out the Sharpie and Tippex (maybe people will realise now that I DON’T go equipped to amend typos wherever I go …). An interesting read, although perhaps preaching to the converted a bit. And will it make people actually think we DO carry around the tools of the public amendment of errors … *

* When I still worked at the university, a sign which appeared by some roadworks just off campus swiftly had the unnecessary apostrophe in “Please dismount bicycle’s before entering this area” removed, using little bits of sticky paper. Six separate people commented that I’d obviously done it. I hadn’t.

Mary Hocking – “Good Daughters”

(22 July 1994)

I read this to help Heaven-Ali celebrate Hocking’s life in June (I did start this in June, but finished it in July). First in the Fairley Trilogy, which is only one small portion of this prolific writer’s works, here we become acquainted with the three sisters; remote, mysterious Louise, all poised and ready to fall in love or rebel (or both); little Claire, with her red hair, passions and inability to keep a secret; and our heroine Alice, slightly lumpish and awkward, the misfit narrator who we will come to love.

Set in 1930s London, as events begin to unravel in Europe and having a Jewish neighbour can be something extra to worry about, the girls perhaps more worry about the mundane events of girlhood and growing up, seeing events clearly only when they relate directly to them, and thinking more about friendships, honesty and the opposite sex …

The narrative perspective shifts so that we’re given insights into the interior monologues of the high-principled father, the more prosaic concerns of the mother, the reactions and perceptions of all three girls and some important but more minor school characters and neighbours. Sometimes the language is allusive and slips away, so you’re not sure what has actually happened and have to page back or wait to see if it’s elucidated – an effective set of techniques that leave the reader standing on slightly shifting sands and tugged this way and that, much as the adolescent central characters experience their lives.

An engaging and involving and proper old-fashioned (even though published in 1984) story, with some of the wry perceptions about the characters and their motives that wouldn’t be out of place in an Elizabeth Taylor, while retaining the “I Capture the Castle” like evocation of teenagerhood.

New acquisitions:

The Last Kings of Sark I borrowed this review copy from Ali, I did read her review of it when she published it and thought I might fancy it, and when she BookCrossed it I grabbed it avidly. I’m not going to revisit the review now, but it looks like an interesting coming-of-age novel, set on the tiny Channel Island of Sark, and I’m looking forward to it. It’s a Virago book, so I may well read it in August, when I’m going to join in with All Virago (and Persephone) / All August run by the LibraryThing Virago Group – a good way to pick a chunk of books off the TBR.

Abha Dawesar Babyji and Monica Dickens Joy and JosephineLast Saturday, I helped out at the BookCrossing Birmingham stall at the Moseley Festival Street Fair. So many books, and Meg and I gave away lots of them to eager visitors, many of whom had heard of BookCrossing already. I didn’t restrain myself when a fire engine stopped at the traffic lights by us, jumping up at the open windows to give bemused firefighters some free books (this is, I must add, a tradition for the BookCrossing stall which I felt compelled to continue), but I did restrain myself when it came to limiting myself to only choosing two books from the piles in front of me – a Monica Dickens, “Joy and Josephine”, which I’d never heard of before and about which I can find little from the book itself (it appears to be about a foundling, and very good – fine!) and Abha Dawesar’s “Babyji”, which appealed to my love of Asian writing, but might be a bit much, as it’s described as a Delhi-based Lolita! Anyone read either of these and can fill me in?

No new ones for the Reading a Century of Books amongst those, but “Good Daughters” as a surprise addition for 1984, and I’ve got two more reviews that both fill in gaps in the list coming up at the weekend …

State of the TBR July 2014


To be read books July 2014Well, I have to say, the TBR is not looking too bad at all, is it? Of course, it’s been helped by having a holiday at the beginning of June – I took more paper books than I’d expected, including the large paperback “At Home” and didn’t acquire  more than a Mr Man book in Icelandic and an Icelandic-English dictionary which even I’m not going to read cover to cover. The shelf is definitely less full than it was in June, although I do note that it was quite ‘good’ in July 2013, as well, which suggests that it’s a seasonal thing. Anyway, there’s the shelf, and if you can’t make it out, the front row finishes at the sage green book (by Angela Thirkell) about, what, 2/5 of the way along?

July 2014 current 1I’ve just finished reading Mary Hocking’s “Good Daughters” to help Heaven-Ali celebrate Hocking’s life in June. Review will come soon, but I’m glad I was able to take part (I’ve had the book for 20 years so it wasn’t in any TBR pic!) I’m currently reading this excellent-looking book, “Through the Language Glass” by Guy Deutscher. I’m not very far into it yet, but it seems to be saying that different languages do reflect different ways of thinking on the part of their speakers, which goes against some of the current linguistic theorists (the common example here is the Inuit having 200-odd words for snow, suggesting that they see the world differently, with some people pointing out that in fact they have lots of different words for different kinds of weather, as we all do).  Anyway, I’ll report back further when I’ve read it. I’m still chuffed that this was sent to me by one of my lovely clients as a little Christmas present – very appropriate from a translation and interpreting agency, too!

Penguin Special My other current read is I think the last purchase from my last Oxford trip – “Penguin Special” by Jeremy Lewis. This is ever so good – while it’s a biography of Allen Lane, founder of Penguin books, it’s very much the life and TIMES, with immense amounts of research and information being put across in a lively and effective style, and it’s superbly well-written, and edited, as one would expect. A joy to read and I’m only about a third of the way through it, so much more pleasure to go.

Jun 2014 IcelandI’m still also dipping into and loving “The Sagas of the Icelanders” and will hopefully be reading Egil’s Saga along with a few other people over the summer. If you’re on Facebook and would like to join my Saga Reading group, please let me know and I’ll join you up! Talking about reading projects, I do need to read the last book of Thomas Hardy short stories for Heaven-Ali’s readalong – I’ll be borrowing that from her in print book form soon.

Books to read nextComing up next … I’m not doing A Month of Re-Reading in July, because I did A Month of Reading About Iceland in May and even though that got some off the TBR and read, it did disrupt the general reading scheme. One thing I am doing again is All Virago / All August, so I’ve put together here the next books I have coming up if you don’t count the Viragoes and Persephones (this is allowed, as a sister in spirit of Virago). Quite a nice mix – some lovely non-fiction about maps and the London Underground, a set of books given to me by a friend to help with my Century of Reading project, a Jeffrey Eugenides which might just have been chosen as a birthday present for me because of its title, and the history of micro-lending website, Kiva. All look good to me.

What are you planning for your July reading? Any projects coming up?