Book reviews – Love Letters and All Balls and Glitter


May 2015 To Be Read shelfWell, with these two reviews I’m finally all caught up with my reviewing – there’s nothing else finished but not reviewed! But I have to say I’m a little disappointed I haven’t been reading anything a bit “meatier”. I am completely recovered from the flu but have maybe been doing a bit too much catching up with the fitness side of things, so I’ve been a bit tired and when I got to the end of “Barchester Towers”, out of all of the travel, business and fiction on my Kindle, I chose a celebrity autobiography. You can blame my and my friend Linda’s current Macomber obsession for the other one – she’s just started the Rose Harbor series and I had book three ready to read and pass to her, so it would have been RUDE not to have done so as quickly as possible … right?

Debbie Macomber – “Love Letters”

(19 May 2015)

Third in the Rose Harbor series and Jo Marie has the by now customary pair of visitors, in this case Maggie and her husband, whose marriage is in serious trouble after faults on both sides, and Ellie, defying her mother to meet up with a man she met via the Internet, but then discovering he’s not quite as he seems. Meanwhile, is Jo Marie using her curiosity about handyman Mark to mask her grief at knowing her late husband’s fate at last, and can she bear to read the last letter he sent her?

The letter theme is carried through the book (oddly enough, given the title!), with Elise’s mother revealing the existence of a long-lost (or ignored) love letter and Maggie brooding over one given to her long ago by her now-husband. Will everything change for the better, settle down or be torn apart?

We have to wait for August for book four – oh dear!

Craig Revel Horwood – “All Balls and Glitter: My Life”

(26 December 2014 – ebook)

This must have been in the Christmas Kindle books sale. I do like a celebrity autobiography from time to time, and I do like Strictly Come Dancing, so this was a must to pick up (when it was 99p). It’s an easy read and pretty well written and edited, and thankfully takes us right up to date (well, up to around 2008), rather than expecting readers to shell out for a second volume (I get quite annoyed when such books are split into two for presumably financial reasons). It was a bit more explicit than I’d expected, given that lots of people would probably pick it up for the SCD angle, but I suppose that that means it’s honest, and it is written in his customary style. There’s lots on his journey through musical theatre training and choreography, etc., and on the various households he has lived in and relationships he’s had, but not very much gossip about Strictly, apart from going on about a spat with Julian Clary.

When you read an ebook, you never quite know where the pictures will be, and here they were all clustered at the end in the last 80% of the book, which was a bit annoying as by then you’ve forgotten who some of the early people are!


Mary Hocking and Charlie HIllI went to the BookCrossing meetup on Saturday and acquired three books I was expecting (but didn’t pick any up and actually took in three books from my BookCrossing pile, amazingly for me). My friend Sian passed me local author Charlie Hill’s “Books” – I read his “The Space Between Us” about a year ago, and was keen to read this one, which I think is a bit of a roman a clef, and is about genre and quality in books, but in a satirical and funny novel. Friends have had mixed reactions, but I’m looking forward to it.

The Mary Hockings are for Ali’s Mary Hocking Reading Week, which starts a week on Monday. I haven’t been able to find any in the local charity shops, so Ali kindly lent me a couple. I’m aiming to have one on the go by 1 June so I can review it early in the week, and the other done by the end of the week. Let’s hope! They both look interesting and it’s nice to celebrate this very out-of-print and “lost” author.

I’m currently still reading the book of Iris Murdoch interviews and getting a lot out of it – and adding a lot of post-it markers to the pages for my research! I did start a Kindle book about reading “Middlemarch” on the way back from the BookCrossing meetup, but I have the temptation of a Robertson Davies trilogy in paperback sitting on my bedside table, so I will see what I fancy later.

Are you joining in with Mary Hocking Week? I think there might be competitions and all sorts … what are you reading now? How do you switch from light to meatier books, or don’t you worry about substance?

Book reviews – Barchester Towers and Prefects at Vivians


May 2015 To Be Read shelfTwo more traditional books under review today – another of the wonderful “Barchester Chronicles” and a lovely old-fashioned school story. I could have actually ploughed on through the rest of the Trollopes when I got to the end of “Barchester Towers”, however, my reading (and this blog) thrives on variety, so I reined myself in and went on to the school story, and I’ll try to keep myself to one a month. In other news, I went in another charity shop yesterday, again looking for Mary Hocking books, and came out with a bag of others – it looked worse than it was, because I met up with my friend Linda and she returned a load of Debbie Macomber novels she’d borrowed from me plus passed me some to complete my Cedar Cove collection again (knowing she has full dibs on any of them at any time). Do any of you share collections of books?

Anthony Trollope – “Barchester Towers”


Second in the Chronicles and much longer than “The Warden” but so engrossing and unputdownable! Trollope has dispatched John Bold so that Eleanor Harding as was is available again, although accompanied by a small son. While the dispute in the Church of England rages between High and Evangelical Anglicanism (a feature of the time the book was written but also still raging now, as I know from various tales I hear from my CofE friends), the beloved and gentle Bishop dies, the position of Warden finally becomes available again as it is now politically approved, and when the position of Dean comes up, too, there is even more politicking and jostling for preferment than ever. As a start, Mr Harding’s son-in-law and the Bishop’s son is passed over for an incomer who is going to stir things up even more.

There are some great villains in this novel: the odious and slimy Slope, who the author still treats with care and whose inner workings are still shown somewhat sympathetically, and the naughty and manipulative Signora, daughter of a clergyman but certainly not behaving like one, controlling her family and pointing her dilettante brother in the direction of any available female, but we also have the saintly Mr Harding and the shy 40-year-old Mr Arabin on the side of Good.

You can see Trollope working out things in order to produce echoed and patterned scenes, surprising overhearings and duplications, but I think it works in a Shakespearean or even Murdochian patterning way which doesn’t detract from the whole: there is more a delight, an “Oh, THAT’s how it comes out”, and the set pieces are really rather marvellous. Will people stop talking about Eleanor’s love life? Will Slope get everything that he wants (and he wants a great deal and thinks he will get it)? Who will grasp the real power behind the Bishop’s throne?

Interestingly, I noted here as well as in “The Warden” that the narrator appears to be part of the community and knows most of the characters, having shaken hands once and never again with Slope, etc., but we’re never given a hint as to whether he (or she?) is one of the characters. This reminded me of N, the narrator of Iris Murdoch’s “The Philosopher’s Pupil” – I did look into this and IM doesn’t mention Trollope, but he was read by her husband, John Bayley’s, so who knows!

Patrica K. Caldwell – “Prefects at Vivians”

(15 May, from Verity via Linda)

Our friend Verity lent this to me and Linda – Linda had it first (and enjoyed it) then passed it to me. It’s a traditional school story, published by Girls Gone By Publishers, who reprint lovely old books in this kind of genre (don’t click on that link if you’re weak-willed and don’t say I didn’t warn you if you do) with an introduction and an autobiographical note by the author herself, which is a lovely touch.

It’s a proper, traditional girls’ school story, with the requisite loner being made a prefect to encourage responsibility, rags, natural peril, even midnight feasts – but it’s the girls’ school genre, that’s what you expect, and it’s done well. It was written when the author was only 17 and she continued the series as a young and then older woman – I will definitely look out for the others. The characterisation is nicely done and differentiated, the teachers are shown as human, and it’s a lovely, warm read.  Oh, and it was originally published in 1956, so adds one more to my Reading A Century list!


Kingsolver Flight BehaviourAnd here’s one of the books that fell into my bag at the charity shop. There were, I confess, three more. One was a copy of “My Summer of Love” by Helen Cross, which I reviewed recently – I couldn’t let that stay there, but will put it into one of the BookCrossing zones in Birmingham. One was a Georgette Heyer omnibus which I already had in a BookCrossing copy, but it’s time for that one to circulate again now, so I swapped them over (that’s two NOT on the TBR, right!). The third, I’m slightly ashamed to say, was Judith Krantz’ “Princess Daisy” – this was one of ‘those books’ that was circulated at my girls’ grammar school in the 80s, and I couldn’t resist seeing if it was as shocking as it seemed then (I’m guessing it won’t be). Any woman in her late 30s to mid 40s is bound to remember this one and Lace 1 and 2 …

Anyway, moving swiftly on, this is Kingsolver’s latest, I think, and not one I’d picked up yet – I’ve read all of hers except “The Poisonwood Bible” (because I don’t like books set in Africa particularly, I’m sorry to say – we all have our foibles, that’s mine, and there’s a blog post in there somewhere, isn’t there). So only two on the TBR and it’s not quite burst yet …

What are you reading? What did you circulate secretly at school? Do share (keep it clean, please!). Did you click through to Girls Gone By and do you blame me for what happened next?

Book reviews – The White Monkey and Smart Blonde: Dolly Parton (plus a confession)


TBR April 2015Hooray – I’m all caught up and back on track now with my May reads – although I do note that I’m only on books four and five of the month at the moment … Today we have two sagas – well, one’s meant to be, and one was a bit of a saga of a read in not quite the right way. I also had a slight accident, falling into a charity shop to look for reads for Ali’s Mary Hocking Reading Week and coming out with six books, but at least they don’t all count (see below).

John Galsworthy – “The White Monkey”


The first in the next set of Galsworthy novels, “A Modern Comedy”, and we’re very firmly in the next generation now, with this book concentrating on Soames Forsyte’s daughter Fleur as well as the doings of Soames and a few of his cousins. We are now in the fall-out of Fleur and Michael Mont’s hasty and ill-considered (on her side) marriage. Michael is a decent chap, and is almost blinded by his love for Fleur, as indeed Soames was for Irene, but does realise the truth of the situation and tries to act respectfully and honourably, while being torn between his own emotions and his need to preserve his marriage. His best friend, the poet Wilfrid Desert (a very Powellian character; see below) has all sorts of claims in all sorts of places, complicating the friendship and the marriage.

Meanwhile, Soames gets mixed up in a rather confusing banking scandal, alongside what one might call his co-father-in-law, Michael’s father (why is there no word for that relationship in English – or is there?), who is a much lighter and more flippant chap – this gives an opportunity for an interesting contrast to be drawn between the two, one coming from inherited and one created money, one with a serious and traditional attitude, one with a more modern, live-for-the-day perspective. The fall-out from this situation could destroy Soames and he must be clever and perspicacious and use all his faculties to survive.

There is also a parallel and linked story about a man who is sacked from Michael’s company and his and his wife’s attempts to survive the loss of their own reputation and income – with very different consequences to those of Soames. This thread is a bit reminiscent of “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” but doesn’t come across so successfully perhaps, although there is an interesting story and links to Michael and Fleur’s situation, too – I suppose you could see the puppet-master’s strings a bit too much here, but it is interestingly done nonetheless.

The way in which the characters constantly cross paths and the milieu of publishing, the arts in general, artists and writers was highly reminiscent of “A Dance to the Music of Time” and of course both series proceed in trilogies and cover a large swathe of the 20th century. I did love Michael’s comment when Fleur was trying to gather more artists and push the cultural aspects of her salons and people collecting:

Our lot think they’re the tablecloth, but they’re only the fringe.


I also read “A Silent Wooing” which is the first Interlude and catches up with Jon Foryste, Fleur’s lost love, and his adventures in America. This is a lovely read and quite different in setting and character.

Ali has now reviewed this one, Bridget has, too, and Karen will post a review in due course and I’ll link to it here.

Stephen Miller – “Smart Blonde: Dolly Parton”

(3 December 2014 – The Works)

I thought I liked Dolly Parton – and I (still) do, but not as much as some people, and not as much as the readers of this book are expected to do! I like some songs – the ones I know – and her charity work for children’s literature and general resilience. But this book has the dual characteristics of little access to a notoriously guarded and private subject and an attention to detail that is almost epic. So we get some detail from one sister and a few people who have worked with DP and are willing to talk, information otherwise drawn from a range of published interviews, and then lots of detail about the stuff the author can be sure of, so reams of information about every concert, album and single, with the covers discussed in great detail, too.

To be fair, it’s not prurient or trashy, even though much commentary on DP’s unusual life and relationships has been, although I found myself wishing for a little scandal here and there to lighten the read. It does descend in the later stages into a listing of what DP did each year, and gets a bit difficult to wade through – it also stops in 2008, so before she did any of her UK charity work.

The book could have done with a bit of an edit, as certain stories and quotations are repeated again and again – something that DP does do herself as a way of creating her public figure, but I don’t think an echo of this practice is necessarily the aim here. One for the completists!

May 2015 1So I popped into Sue Ryder on the way back from the cafe this morning, hoping to find some Mary Hockings, and instead found three in a series a friend is collecting and these three for me.  Handily, the “Silver Brumby Stories” (Volume 2) replaces one I had from BookCrossing in 2005 – I do like to pass such books on when I find my own copy, and hadn’t realised it’s been so long. I’m reading a Girls Gone By Paperbacks school story at the moment, so when I spotted this fairly modern Chalet School trilogy, it had to be picked up, and I grabbed the Jessica Ennis biog because I do like a sporting biog, and it takes us from her childhood right through to the Olympics, so not one of those that ends annoyingly half way through her life (to be fair, sporting ones don’t tend to do this, but all of those comedians’ ones certainly do, don’t they, and it’s pretty annoying to have to shell out for a second book (or third, looking at Paul O’Grady) to read the showbiz years bits. Or is that just me).

Anyway, I haven’t acquired anything for a while, and I did read the pony book at the time, so that one goes straight on the shelves …

Any interesting reads from you? Have you picked up a biography thinking you’re a bit of a fan and then been worn out by a plethora of information?

Book reviews – Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge and How’s Your Dad? (April reads)


TBR April 2015Catching up again, desperately – these are the last in my bumper crop of thirteen books read in April (there was me thinking I’d read a lot on holiday – it was being ill that did it!). We’ve got two books loosely about the power of inheritance here, in that “How’s Your Dad?” is all about the offspring of rock stars, and in “Mr Selfridge” we see what happens when a successful man tries to keep the next generation close and control his family, leaving his entire fortune dissipated rather than being shored up for the next generations. Here we go …

Lindy Woodhead – “Shopping, Seduction and Mr Selfridge”

(3 December 2014, charity shop)

The true story of Gordon Selfridge of department store fame, the background tie-in book to the TV series (which I think is fictionalised? I’ve never seen it). Very nicely detailed on how he made his innovations in retail, including lots about his time in Chicago as well as the London times. Not hagiographical at all, sharing information about what was almost a divided personality, all control in business but indulging in numerous affairs with actresses, a lot of spending and a serious gambling habit, all of which eventually left him a sad wreck of a man, with no legacy to pass on to his seemingly workshy or extravagantly badly marrying children, ousted from the management of his own shop.

Good on the financial details, with enough information on the times and industry to round everything out and a good read, well written, edited, illustrated and referenced.

Zoe Street Howe – “How’s Your Dad? Living in the Shadow of a Rock Star Parent”

(3 September 2014, Poundland)

Written by the daughter-in-law of a rock star, this is a more serious book than I’d imagined it would be, taking a deep and detailed look at various aspects, both good and bad, of being the offspring of one. Grouped into themes such as Growing Up, School, Following in the Footsteps, it uses a mixture of direct interviews and quotations from biographies to cover a fairly wide range of sources. Some good pictures and interesting insights, although the concentration on Bob Geldof’s daughters was rather unfortunate, and probably why it ended up remaindered. I enjoyed it. though it was a meatier read than I’d expected.


I’m currently still reading my Trollope (a long way through that – what a satisfying soap opera life in Barchester is!) and the book of Iris Murdoch interviews. I’m making more time in the mornings for reading, which lets me carve out a bit of me-time, although I’ve potentially stepped up my volunteering – I’m going to try to do less work rather than give up my reading, though!

Book reviews – Desperate Romantics and Estates (April reads)


TBR April 2015Oh dear – I’ve got all behind and confused with my book reviews! These are the two books I read on holiday in early April, between the last two sets of reviews. I seem to have forgotten about them when I posted my poorly reading. And then I discovered I hadn’t written up the two reviews before that in my reading journal, either! Nightmare. So, I think I’m sorted out now, and you’re going to get a few reviews over the next week as I catch up on here.

What I did find on holiday was that if you have a friend join you for a few days in the middle of a holiday, you have wifi in the place you’re staying so you check social media all the time AND you only go on a couple of trips and with both of those the scenery is so amazing you don’t read on the coach, you don’t read much. I took my Kindle with me as well as these two books (one for each flight) and only read a bit of one book on the Kindle. I need to redress this situation next time we’re away!

Franny Moyle – “Desperate Romantics”

(02 January 2015, via BookCrossing)

A book about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their art and women, apparently accompanying a TV series. Pretty well done, drawing links, keeping who was who clear and clearly written, using multiple sources to reflect on the bitter scandals and clarifying them. Decent notes and an index, and didn’t seem too full of conjecture, or when conjecturing was done, it was marked as such.

I think the book was originally written in the present tense and then changed to the past some time in the editing and revision process, because quite a few instances of “has” and “are” had managed to cling on, which made it a bit confusing at times. But it was nicely and competently done and interesting, with an Epilogue that tied up all the loose ends and good illustrations of the central characters and artworks.

Lyndsey Hanley – “Estates”

(30 November 2014, charity shop)

A book about English council estates, covering their history, treatment, policies and current state. The author grew up on a huge housing estate near Birmingham and talks about that time in detail and revisiting the estate to visit her parents and consciously explore it for the book, as well as the London estate where she lives now, actively struggling with policy-makers and the local authority.

Woe about sink estates and policies that work against community spirit, as well as about the shoddy construction and corner / budget cutting that degraded the original grand architectural plans and the lack of maintenance which is really damaging, is balanced by some positive stories about community action. A strong case is made against the ghettoization of the poor and disenfranchised and the way estates have worked to hide the poor from the eyes of the rich, and also against the way in which people growing up on estates are not encouraged to have any ambition or belief in themselves.

It was a little chaotic at times, sometimes confusing me as to the general principle or aim of the book, but it was a valuable and useful read.


Those were read a month ago, but I’ll catch up quickly with what I’m up to now. I read two more non-fiction books at the end of my illness, then two sagas (a very dense book on Dolly Parton and my Forsyte for the month) and now I’m finally reading Trollope’s “Barchester Towers”, and am half-way through it and loving it, and have started reading Gillian Dooley’s excellent “A Tiny Corner in the House of Fiction”, which is a collection of interviews by various luminaries with Iris Murdoch. That one needs a set of post-it tabs to be kept close by in case of anything of relevance to my research, but I’m glad I seem to have regained the cognitive / intellectual capacity to manage the two current reads. More reviews to come …


State of the TBR – May 2015


May 2015 To Be Read shelfWell, I’m starting this month off with a much healthier TBR shelf than I had at the beginning of April – sorry it’s not a great photo, but the front row finishes at those two lovely grey Persephones. This of course is down to the fact that, while I didn’t read much while we were on holiday in Iceland (blame social media – I’m going to learn that lesson for our next holiday), I have just had two weeks in flu hell, during which I picked off almost all of the easy books on the TBR (I still have a few Heyers et al. lurking on the back shelf) and read for comfort, and only comfort. Funnily enough, I note that almost the same books were on the front row last time, I’ve just picked off some of the interstitial ones.

I’m currently reading just one book, a biography of Dolly Parton which is exhaustingly detailed. Now, I like Dolly as much as the next woman, and have a Greatest Hits CD, but this is a LOT of detail. And a bit slow. Anyway …

May 2015 coming upComing up, well, there are some of the tougher volumes. Having said that, I’m really looking forward to reading Gillian Dooley’s book of various interviews Iris Murdoch did over the course of her life, but I am conscious that I will need to read that one with postits and pencil in hand – ditto the books that come just after it. But then there’s the delight of that Robertson Davies trilogy – I haven’t read anything by him for aaaaages – and then a Virago crime novel and a lovely Persephone, and then good old Tony Benn, which I will either need madly by then or read in celebration, depending on how the election turns out next week (ooh, political).

But first, I have some Kindle delights, because it’s time to pick up the first of Galsworthy’s “A Modern Comedy”, his next trilogy, set in the 1920s. Hooray! I’ll look forward to reading along with Ali, Karen and Bridget as with the first set. And I feel ready for Trollope now, so after Galsworthy, I’ll be straight on to “Barchester Towers”. I can’t wait!

How was your April reading? What delights have you got coming up?