Book reviews – Pomfret Towers and The House in Dormer Forest (Virago)


Aug 2014 AVAAI think this will be the last of my All Virago / All August reviews, because although I’m planning to start “The Last Kings of Sark” today, I don’t think I’ll get it finished. I’ve done pretty well, though. Well – I did make A MISTAKE with one … I picked “Wartime Women” ooff the TBR to add to the AV/AA one, and you can see why in the middle of this picture – it’s GREEN, Virago Green, and it’s about women … and it came from a friend from the LibraryThing Virago Group, too (although the mistake is not her fault in the slightest, as she also had lots of other non-Viragoes – it was my assumption alone!). Anyway, I’ve put that one aside to finish next month. I did start “She Knew She Was Right” but I didn’t take to it for some reason. So apart from those, I’ve now read or started everything in the AV/AA pile! Not bad going!

Angela Thirkell – “Pomfret Towers” (Virago)

(21 January 2014 – from Ali)

Yet more Thirkell, and this one links charmingly to the first two, since we’re at the residence of the brother of Lady Emily from “Wild Strawberries” and Mrs Morland from “High Rising” and her publisher, Adrian Coates, are also mentioned. Even without this, it’s altogether an exquisitely charming book, with a gauche and painfully shy heroine who you can’t help adoring, who has to suffer the agonies of a local house party (local, but with no chance of escape) at the home of the irascible and crusty Lord Pomfret, alongside his diffident and equally shy heir, who we all come to love, too, and various difficult and disruptive relatives and locals, as well as the odd shrieking girl and red-faced man. Luckily, some friends and allies are there, too, and there are enough lovely characters to make a good balance with the horrendous ones, and a lot of good-hearted generousness on the part of both author and characters.

All is beautifully drawn, and the contrast between two lady authors is beautifully and highly amusingly done. I really didn’t want this to end, while desperate to know who was going to end up with whom. A lovely read. Here’s Ali’s own review of the book, by the way!

Mary Webb, “The House in Dormer Forest” (Virago)

(25 January 2014 – Shakespeare Hospice Bookshop, Stratford)

I do love Mary Webb with her rural settings like those of Hardy and Brett Young (with the landscape playing an active role in the atmosphere and events of the story) and an intriguing mysticism and insight into the interior and exterior of family and community relationships.

In this dense novel, the house in which the Darke family exist (ingrained in age-old patterns and acting as a unit rather as individuals, they can’t really be said to be living) seems to exert its own impassive yet claustrophobic influence over the family, which in turn has bound itself too fast in its own web of special conventions and ties of (mostly) hatred. Jasper fights against his religion, Ruby is trapped between her need for convention and her own desires, and Peter is forced to rebel, while quiet Amber truly communes with nature and thus surely deserves a better fate than being the unattractive odd one out, regarded with disdain by her manipulative cousin, Catherine (her of the “long eyes”).

Although there’s a brooding matriarch given to shouting out Biblical phrases and a scary family retainer, Enoch, Mary Webb does not deserve her reputation of being melodramatic and humourless, unfortunately brought up by her association with Stella Gibbons’ “Cold Comfort Farm” (which Gibbons herself claimed was based on an amalgam of ‘countryside misery’ novels, including Hardy and others as well as Webb). The descriptions of nature are truly beautiful, and this is a very human, understanding and sometimes funny book. Webb certainly doesn’t take herself or her characters too seriously, undermining them with touches of playful or vicious satire. A better read than people would think: luckily, I already knew I was going to enjoy it.

I’ve managed to acquire only one new book, Nick Hornby’s “Polysyllabic Spree”, from the BookCrossing meetup, so my TBR is looking amazing, as you will see tomorrow …

Book review – The Persephone Book of Short Stories, and some shuffling around


Aug 2014 AVAAFirst things, first, I’m doing *beautifully* with my AV/AA challenge, with my last Persephone book picked off from my TBR and devoured gleefully. It’s been lovely wallowing in all of these very different books – I’m glad that I have had a real range to get my teeth into. After the review, look for some pics from my latest book shuffling exercise. I’d started this a while ago, and got about half way (i.e. there were piles of books all over the back coffee table), but earmarked some time yesterday, on Bank Holiday Monday, to finish the shuffling. I fear I may be giving a few of you other bibliophiles an Idea or two, though.

“The Persephone Book of Short Stories”

(14 March 2014 – from Verity)

This was part of a Not So Secret Santa parcel which delivered its goodies throughout the first part of the year as well as on Christmas Day – what a lovely treat! This is an excellent collection of short stories which was published to mark Persephone Book No. 10o – an excellent idea. I’m not the biggest fan of the short story, as regular readers of this blog will know (or will have guessed, given the dearth of such things in the reviews). However, I do like a good classic one (think Hardy …) and that’s what we have here, in the main, with Whipple and Wharton providing familiar enjoyment, and a new favourite found in Mollie Panter-Downes, who is the only author to appear in this volume twice (but we forgive her, and I will be adding her volumes of stories to my Persephone wishlist!).

The last story, by Georgina Hammick, is quite a graphic description of a visit to what we will euphemistically call a women’s hospital, and the procedures undergone therein, however, its portrayal of its subject-matter shows on the one hand how far we’ve come since the more (literally) buttoned-up days of the Edwardian story that starts the volume, in terms of the overt detail discussed, but also highlighting that almost a century on, the female experience is still found to be shocking, especially when the female in question is reclaiming her own experience.

So, an intelligent and deeply enjoyable collection with, of course, good biographical notes to accompany it (but no introduction, which is a shame). Highly recommended, even (especially?) if you don’t think you care for short stories. Oh, and it’s the final book (chronologically) in Reading a Century of Books, too!


Books by the bathroom doorA while back, I admitted in a guest post I did for someone’s blog that I had a Pile of books on the landing. OK, the two short walls either side of the bathroom door are ideally placed and sized for my small bookcases which hold my “nice-looking books” on one side and (held) language, literature, books about reading and books about books on the other. You can’t see the other side in this “before” pic, but it was a bit piled up, too, and because our floorboards are quite … springy … there were occasions when the books on that side leapt down the stairs, while the pile shown here was always apt to catch the hoover as it was lifted from the cupboard on the right (don’t ask about the reason for the curtain – we had to hack that door down, honest: there was nothing else for it).

They've gone underA little while ago, while pondering the state of the downstairs shelves (hardbacks / non-fiction), I came to the conclusion that I had Too Many Encyclopedias. Yes, that is A Thing. I have some nice ones I’ve inherited, and I went through a phase a (good) few years ago of collecting nice-looking ones that were used to help display bookshelves in charity shops – Arthur Mee’s “Children’s Encyclopaedia” and the like. Now, encyclopaedias are lovely, but they are bulky. However, if I was to give them to a charity shop, I don’t know that anyone else would take them. So, I hit upon this plan – put them UNDER the bookcases. Can you see? Under! Stroke of genius.

No pile by the bathroomThey’re perfectly safe there, no damp or anything (I’ll move them when we mop the floor). You can still see them and get to them, but with those and some more over to the side, there is SO MUCH SPACE. Erm, there was so much space. The bathroom pile is gone. Don’t worry – “Howard’s End is on the Landing” is still on the landing, but this is now Language and Books About Reading. And no pile! The pile has been redistributed around the spaces downstairs (and on Biography and Memoir and Travel, not pictured, where some of them may still be horizontal in front of the other books). No books to catch the unwary hooverer. No books lost at the bottom of the pile. It’s amazing!

Books on BirminghamMost excitingly, where a row of uniform volumes once sat (top left in the picture of the three bookcases above), with various papers and things roosting on top of them, I now have space for a Birmingham bookshelf – these were previously languishing on a low shelf and double-stacked. There’s room for the ones our friend Bridget kindly passed to us, and there’s room for a few more, as indeed there’s bagginess in the whole set of three bookcases (although not on the top, as the cat does like to wander around up there, so they need to be reasonably firm.

Fun, eh. Have you ever Gone Under with your shelving (as opposed to Gone Under, submerged in a wave of books?)

Book reviews – Wild Strawberries and Bedsit Disco Queen (Virago)


Aug 2014 AVAAI read these two on our nifty trip to Dorset to visit relatives earlier in the week. Hooray for long train journeys – I read the whole of the first one on the way down, and finished off the second on the way back up! I’m still marching on with All Virago / All August, and these two are both actually Viragoes, the Thirkell one of the new Modern Classics volumes with a lovely new cover, and the Tracey Thorn a standard biography Virago. Happy days! (It was a good trip, too, with plenty of sunshine and paddling on the beach, as well as visiting old haunts. What I didn’t do – amazingly – was visit any second-hand bookshops or charity shops, so the bookshops of Poole and Bournemouth might still be full of Viragoes and Persephones for all I know. Luckily, we will be returning!)

Angela Thirkell – “Wild Strawberries”

(21 January 2014, from Ali)

The second in the Barchester books by Thirkell; I was given the first three by my friend Ali for my birthday, and I can’t wait to get the next ones in the series.

This was an absolutely charming read. Mary comes to stay for a summer with the Leslie family, relations by marriage, and takes part in family and village life. We have the classic members of a gently satirised gentry family / household: the autocratic matriarch, quiet patriarch, playboy son, grandson set to inherit the estate, and argumentative family retainers, however, they’re all subtly made more interesting, and of course, more funny, by Thirkell’s keen eye and acerbic pen. For example, Lady Emily is brilliantly drawn in all her vague dictatorship and ownership of the family, yet touches of third party sympathy and explanation make it clear that she’s  not a two-dimensional character.

We have a love story, and we do root for our heroine, who is only too human and conscious of her mistakes and of embarrassing herself. It is sparkling, as the back cover has it, but it does have more depth and lasting value than that description implies.

Tracey Thorn – “Bedsit Disco Queen”

(16 April 2014 – The Works in Kendal)

I bought this on our lovely minimoon in the Lake District back in the spring. And yes, it’s that Tracey Thorn, of the band Everything But the Girl. This is her (mainly musical) autobiography, and a fabulous read, just as amusing, honest, self-deprecating and insightful as you would hope it would be.

Growing up in a post-punk world where music suddenly became an obsession, she goes to great pains to describe her influences and the development of her musical interests and talent, as well as what it felt like to be in a band as the only female, in a band full of women, and as a member of a band made up solely of a couple.

Thorn is obviously reticent about adding in a lot of emotional stuff, relying on regaling us with tales from her teenage diaries in order to keep our eye off any inner turmoil she might be experiencing, but she does open up, wisely, appropriately, charmingly and with the right amount of detail about her relationships with her husband, Ben Watt, and their children.

It ends in 2007, which is  a pity; on the plus side, there are lots of great illustrations of tickets and other ephemera as well as band pictures. It’s an engaging and fascinating read, and will make me go back to her music, too.


A good Virago session! I’ve now finished “The Persephone Book of Short Stories”, which I will be reviewing next, and I’m onto “A Passionate Sisterhood”, which is an interesting read about the women who were involved with the Lake Poets. But I have a bus journey tomorrow, and it’s going to be Thirkell time again!

Are you doing All Virago / All August? How are you getting on? Will this make me feel like having a month reading books only written by men in September? (It hasn’t yet!)

Book reviews – A Woman’s Place 1910-1975 and The Two Mrs Abbotts (Persephone Books)


Virago and Persephone books to readWhat a treat – my All Virago/All August reading is coming along beautifully: we’re allowed to include Persephones as another strong and marvellous women-centric reprints publisher, and I’ve been wallowing in the Persephones that I’ve been stacking up since Christmas. For those who don’t know them, Persephone Books republish books by mid-20th century women (in the main) writers who have gone out of print and been otherwise neglected. I collect, read and review them, although not to the extent that some others do – and you can find all of my Persephone reviews if you do a little search. Oh, yes, there’s a gorgeous shop in Lambs Conduit Street in London, which you really ought to visit if you’re around that way (OK, in London. OK, in the UK). And the books themselves are lovely – good, solid, well-produced paperbacks in grey dustjackets with glorious endpapers and bookmarks featuring a fabric pattern contemporary to the book.

Enough going on – here’s what I thought of my latest two Persephone reads, and you can read about my two latest acquisitions below, too (one a Virago!)

Ruth Adam – “A Women’s Place 1910-1975” (Persephone)

(25 December 2013, from Bridget)

An excellent work which looks at women’s conditions and experience in terms of family, relationships, politics, sex and work through much of the 20th century. A thorough and analytical viewpoint meant that I learnt a lot about the suffragettes, the struggle for equal pay in various professions, and women’s entry into those professions, and linkages between various subjects that make logical sense when you consider them, which I hadn’t actually known about or considered before. I do count myself fairly knowledgeable about this period and subject, so that was a nice surprise alongside the recognition of various figures and campaigns that I found throughout the read.

The book is full of meticulously researched detail and quotations from contemporary sources. It was very interesting to read the author’s take on contemporary (early 1970s) reactions to the wave of feminism which was hitting the UK at that time, especially the point about how UK feminism different from its US counterpart with its civil rights affiliation and techniques of consciousness raising, etc.

It’s extremely good on the way that society in general (i.e. The Establishment) has sought to compel women to, variously, go out to work, stay at home, be more masculine, be more feminine, have more or fewer children, in order to suit its own economic and political ends. Related to this are reminders of how much women’s lives changed during this period, so that women in corsets who were expected to keep their children to a strict routine saw their daughters showing their knees and their grand-daughters fixated on spending every moment with their babies so as to avoid psychologically damaging them.

A good afterword written in 2000 make Persephone Book No. 20 an excellent all-round read – very thought-provoking but also written in an accessible, clear style with its learning worn lightly, but underpinning the whole.

D. E. Stevenson – “The Two Mrs Abbotts” (Persephone)

(25 December 2013, from Matthew)

A charming book and a joy to read, gulped down in a couple of days with the delicious prospect hovering of re-reading the whole lot in one go at some point, as this is the second sequel to the marvellous “Miss Buncle’s Book”.

We’re firmly established in village life here, with Barbara and Jerry Abbott and their friends and neighbours enduring the Second World War however they can, with soldiers all over the place, evacuees taking or not taking to country life, and standards of housekeeping being strictly upheld by most, even when it is tricky to get macaroni ready-made or bake a decent cake.

Various romantic threads are woven together successfully and sweetly, but it does not overdo the saccharine, having some tart observations to make about people’s attitudes to one another, the effects of upbringing being explored (prodigy Lancreste becomes a bore, while a wild evacuee might be trainable to overcome her bad start in life) and an excellent new writer character struggling with the processes of creativity and saleability.

Being written in 1943 gives this book a poignancy I have found in other mid-war books; we cannot help but remember that the author did not know what the outcome or progress of the war would be as she was writing. This does give the book a fresh and contemporary feel, as it’s fairly obviously written from some amount of direct experience. Although the war tends not to directly affect the central characters, there is a brave and experimental passage set in North Africa, and some exploration of how to lead men and the nature of officers and men.

A lovely warm bath of a book for all this exploration and interest. There is no afterword, but the reader is directed in a publisher’s note to the afterwords in “Miss Buncle’s Book” and “Miss Buncle Married“, and surely no one who is reading this volume can fail to have read the other two first!


Two lovely Persephones, and two more for the Century of Books, too!

Karen Armstrong and Vita Sackville-WestTwo acquisitions to report – the Karen Armstrong was picked up from a pile of books my friend Linda passed to me that were registered on BookCrossing. I’ve had a vague yearning to read this for ages, but never expressed this, so it was interesting that it just came to me in this manner! And Vita Sackville-West’s “The Edwardians” was sent to me by the lovely Kaggsy, who’s been doing a weeding exercise and discovered she had a duplicate. That one’s a Virago, so I’ll try to slot it in this month! Thanks, both!

Currently reading – “The Persephone Book of Short Stories”, and I can’t resist another Angela Thirkell for very much longer …

Book reviews – Dictionary of Canadianisms, Welcome Strangers and High Rising


Virago and Persephone books to readIt’s a rare three-book rather than two-book post today, a) to catch me up and b) because I didn’t have the most words in the world to say about two of these, so it was going to be a bit short otherwise. And I’ve changed the picture to my All Virago/All August image because two out of the three fit in with that challenge, so this is more relevant than the standard TBR picture.

This one will catch me up and I’ll tell you about the lovely Persephone I’m reading afterwards. And I’m proud to admit that even though I spent the entire DAY in Stratford-upon-Avon on Saturday, and did venture into one bookshop, I have NO book confessions to make!

Geordie Telfer – “Dictionary of Canadianisms”

(24 January 2014)

This was a kind Christmas present to both of us from our friends Madeleine and Mike. Matthew leafed through it too and found it interesting. It’s an amusing but also useful guide to Canadian cultural icons, references and idioms, including French-Canadian ones, mainly ones that all Canadians know of. I was a little confused by the insistence on “eh” as an integral part of Canadian English, as I’ve never known a Canadian to say that to me personally, and I spent many hours recently on a transcription project where all of those taking part were Canadian! They said “right” an awful lot, though, so maybe that’s a regional variant. Maybe a Canadian would like to comment on that.

There was a useful guide to the main areas of difference from US and UK English followed by an alphabetical listing of terms and phrases – both were interesting to read and will be useful in my editing and localising work. The cross-referencing was useful and accurate (not always the case in such books).

Mary Hocking – “Welcome Strangers”

(22 July 1994)

The third in the trilogy (again, my own copy, bought 20 years ago) and we catch up with the Fairley sisters, their mother, aunts and uncles, their various husbands and associates. Hocking is (rightly) celebrated as a novelist of the ordinary, you do still naturally seek for what this is “about”; Alice is a writer, and there is a lot in this book on this subject, as well as an examination of the lingering effects of the various experiences of war on the cast of characters. She’s good on the fear and paranoia that war and the way in which different states behave instil into people.

I still did find it a bit cold and calculating. I can’t work out why I minded, because Taylor and Pym can be quite distanced and their characters are not always attractive. It might put people off a bit (if you don’t like Taylor and Pym in the first place, I’m not sure Hocking is for you) and there’s a lot of authorial comment about her characters, although the almost cubist views of different events from different perspectives is interesting. I’m glad I re-read this trilogy and re-acquainted myself with this author, but I’m not sure that I’d re-read them again.

Not a Virago edition, but a Virago author.

Angela Thirkell – “High Rising” (Virago)

(21 January 2014)

A birthday gift (along with the next two Barsetshire novels) from my friend Ali, after she’d bought some for herself, raved about them and encouraged me to take an interest in them. She was not wrong in doing that! A highly amusing romp of a novel which occupies the mutual overlap in the Venn diagram that comprises the Provincial Lady, Barbara Pym, Miss Buncle and Mapp and Lucia. The heroine, Laura, is rather adored by her creator, probably because she’s a writer herself, but that’s fine, and I personally loved her annoying son Tony, very accurately portrayed with his obsessions with railways and schoolboy friendships. Laura’s fierce independence and sharp comments to her neighbours and publisher are endearing, village life is charmingly portrayed, and it’s a cosy read, perfect for reading when you’re tired after a busy weekend and having a recline on the sofa or are a bit unwell. A nice introduction by Alexander McCall-Smith can be found in this pretty new Virago edition. Note: there are a few hunting references in the book which I know a few people have been bothered by, so just dropping that in. Nothing lurid or celebratory, and of its time. Also anti-Semitic comments which were affectionately used but a little (more) grating (to me), but neither are enough to spoil the read.


I’m currently reading Ruth Adam’s excellent Persephone “A Woman’s Place 1910-1975” which is a history of issues affecting women. I’ve already learnt quite a lot about suffragettes that I didn’t already know!

Book Reviews – “The Marriage Plot” and “Indifferent Heroes”


To be read books July 2014Two books from my July reading as I seem to have had a few busy days workwise and preparing for some friends visiting for a university reunion. So we’ve got two novels here, one a new one by an author I’ve loved before, and one the second in a series, kindly loaned by a friend.

Jeffrey Eugenides – “The Marriage Plot”

(21 January 2014)

A birthday present with an apposite title in the year I was getting married! On the front I read “One Day with George Eliot thrown in” which didn’t fill me with anticipatory glee, as I very much disliked “One Day“. But I also very much enjoyed the author’s “Middlesex” (I don’t seem to have ever posted a review for that one – must have read it before I started reviewing online), so I forgave it that. The “One Day” reference seemed to be shorthand for us meeting some fairly unlikeable characters at university who we follow through a few more years (not 20), and who include a man and woman who are friends, but we will them to get together. But that’s where the comparisons would end, and the university setting reminded me more of a campus novel, a genre I really like.

I very much enjoyed the satire of English departments and people’s sudden affiliations to branches of literary theory such as semiotics, and it was nicely evocative of student egocentricity. The depictions of bipolar disorder for which it has been rightly praised were well and minutely done, and may well help people coming to this topic with unfamiliarity – I’ve read quite a lot of descriptions of mental health issues so this maybe lacked the impact others might find.

Good on the minutiae of friendships, sibling relationships and academia, but it seemed ultimately a bit of a cold book (a theme at the moment – see below) and I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did “Middlesex” (although more, happily, than “One Day”).

Mary Hocking – “Indifferent Heroes”

(Borrowed from Ali)

I still can’t quite work out why I had the first and third of this series but not this one! Anyway, a kindly loan and I was away.

It did feel, reading this second volume on the Fairley family, that Hocking created the series just to invent a range of characters and then put them through the various experiences of war, from battling bombs and family relationships on the Home Front to becoming dispossessed and homeless in various ways to facing physical and mental trauma in Europe, North Africa and the Far East, to finding a role and a place that might not be repeated – all mixed up and triangulated to produce a portrait of the war.

It’s thus very cleverly if a little dispassionately done – like Taylor and Pym, Hocking is not particularly empathetic or sympathetic towards any of her characters – maybe only Alice Fairley, the writer, who still ends up having to beat a lonely path through life. I can see her like a war general, pushing them around a map with one of those sticks, trying to see how they cope during and then after the war, as the hasty marriages made for one reason or another start to have to face day-to-day reality.

State of the TBR August 2014


Aug 2014 TBRJust a quick post today because all my patient Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn contacts were bombarded with stuff about my business, Libro’s, fifth birthday and my new website I’ve set up for the books I’ve written (did I mention I’ve written some books?). So, here’s a dark and moody pic of the TBR taken late last night, because yes, this post is also a day later than I normally do the state of the TBR. I finished 11 books in July and you can see the effect it’s had – the only books on the front are the two Persephones and three Angela Thirkells, then I have those interminable language books (but I’ve read half of quite a different language book) and a lovely big book that I WILL be getting to this month.

Virago and Persephone books to readSo August is All Virago / All August in the LibraryThing Virago group, and when I pull out all the Viragoes and Persephones in my TBR, it looks like this, which I think is quite a nice reading project for the month (we have a little trip involving quite a long train journey coming up this month, which will also help). I will add the last Mary Hocking and the big white book on the TBR (“The Heavenly Twins”) to this pile, and that will do me nicely. Quite a few of them will fill some more gaps in my Century of Reading project, too – hooray!

Are you doing AV / AA this month and will it be ALL Viragoes? Or another reading challenge?