Book review – Minnie’s Room (Persephone)

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All Virago and Persephone All AugustAnother lovely Persephone book today – you can see its slim volume in the photo here, but although it’s small in size, it’s packed with absolute gems, and is a wonderful read that will be a re-read sooner rather than later. Thank you to Ali from Heaven-Ali for the lovely birthday present! If you’ve not discovered Persephone Books and you like, broadly, women’s mid-century domestic fiction (although the list is far more diverse than that summary suggests), do pop over to their website and have a look, or drop into their delightful bookshop in Bloomsbury.

Mollie Panter-Downes – “Minnie’s Room”

(21 January 2015 – from Ali)

I tend to think I don’t like short stories, although I love those of Elizabeth Taylor and Dorothy Whipple, and I had been hearing a lot about this author and was constantly being told I’d like her, then read “The Persephone Book of Short Stories“, and had to add this one to my wishlist right away.

This is Panter-Downes’ “peacetime” stories and are accompanied in the Persephone collection by a book of “wartime” stories I will also have to get. They were published in the New Yorker in the 1950s to mid-1960s. Particularly the earlier ones, covering the just-post-War period, are still full of Land Girls and rationing, of drabness, greyness and terrible fogs, good behaviour and quietly desperate lives, especially of married women.

Husbands are boring or boorish, dreadful people want to buy your house, no one wants to deal with Mother, seaside hotel dining rooms are pretty always deadly and ageing is a horrible business … but there are lovely descriptions, one theme that comes through as you read them (desperately trying to eke them out but fighting the temptation to guzzle through them like a bag of old-fashioned sweets) being hairy tweeds and doggy faces, and the transformative nature of love is found in seemingly the most unlikely of places. Each story really is a small jewel to be savoured.

This book was part of my All Virago and Persephone / All August reading project, as part of the LibraryThing Virago Group.

20BooksofSummer logoThis book was also part of my #20BooksOfSummer project, being Book 14 of the 20

This book would suit … someone who thinks they don’t like short stories, anyone interested in British lives just post-Second World War.

 

Book review – Brook Evans (Persephone)

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All Virago and Persephone All AugustI’m having a lovely time reading a load of Persephone and Virago books this month – here’s the photo of all of the books on my TBR from these two lovely publishers, and I’m getting through them, I’m happy to say, and enjoying them very much. This was my second book by Susan Glaspell – I reviewed “Fidelity” back in September 2013 (also published by Persephone) and was pleased to receive this one for Christmas last year.

Susan Glaspell – “Brook Evans”

(25 December 2014 – from Laura)

A novel told in episodes across the lives of the title character’s mother, Naomi, and Brook herself, encompassing a range of experiences and choices in a very interesting way.

Having been castigated for a youthful romance and overstepping the bounds of decency, Naomi cannot escape and finds herself doing the ‘right thing’ and restoring her decency, being taken far away from her home and across the mountains to a hard farming life. Brook, full of the certainties of youth herself, cannot see the romance and lost life of the faded woman in front of her, resists the tiny treats Naomi tries to carve out of her hard life for her and threatens to eschew her own youthful romance, tempted by the excitements of her role model, the female missionary, and loyal to her father, only seeing one side, making her own peace with standards of decency and good behaviour.

Then, settled in Europe with her son and an ocean between her and her old home, she meets an alluring man from another far away place (clue: somewhere I love!) and, over 40 and thinking that sort of thing was behind her, ends up faced with yet another choice to make between stolidity and excitement: a choice that she doesn’t appear to remember her mother never had. In the final scenes, Brook’s son visits the old country and encounters his aged grandfather for the first time, unable to decipher the strange references he alludes to and coming full circle to the family home that rejected Naomi.

Glaspell, writing in the 1920s, doesn’t make standard societal judgements (as she doesn’t in “Fidelity” and presumably as a product of her own rather unconventional life, loath as I usually am to associate the author’s life with their literary output), seeming to plead for love and freedom for women but also seeing the constraints placed on me and existing within families.

This book was part of my All Virago and Persephone / All August reading project, as part of the LibraryThing Virago Group.

20BooksofSummer logoThis book was also part of my #20BooksOfSummer project, being Book 13 of the 20

This book would suit … someone interested in women’s experiences at the turn of the 19th/20th century in America, someone who likes reading rescued books, a Persephone fan (visit their website here).

Watch out for another Persephone review coming soon!

Book review – The Curate’s Wife

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TBR August 2015As promised on my review of “Jenny Wren” published yesterday, here’s my review of its sequel, which I started as soon as I’d finished the first novel, as I couldn’t wait to find out what happened to the characters. I have heard of a few people who’ve read the first but not yet the second, so I thought I’d better split the reviews across two posts to avoid spoilers!

E.H. YOUNG – “The Curate’s Wife” (Virago)

(25 December 2014, LibraryThing Virago Group (Not So) Secret Santa gift from Laura)

In this sequel to “Jenny Wren”, the emphasis switches to the older sister, Dahlia, the more relaxed, red-haired sister, who has married the curate, Mr Sproat, after knowing him for eight months. It tracks the rather painful and difficult process of their adjustment to one another in a very fair and even-handed way: the reader is made to see the faults on both sides, and so are all of the characters made to see their own faults in the end.

Their marriage is compared and contrasted with that of the Doubledays, Mr Sproat’s vicar and his wife, married for over 30 years and in a seeming pattern of dominance and subserviance which is gradually revealed to be more one of arrogance and quiet subversiveness. Everything in both marriages can turn on the expression of a word or a sentence not carefully thought about or said after due consideration, and there is much attention paid to the enormous amount of effort that goes into creating and maintaining a marriage. I particularly liked the perception in this:

He saw the parties to a marriage like two neighbouring armed states, protesting the desire and the necessity for peace and friendship, but brought, by their very proximity, to a sensitiveness which, at the slightest grievance, might see cause for a shot.

Jenny reappears part way through the novel, and two very different young men again come into their lives, showing a patterning with the first novel, although to my mind, this is a more even and successful one than the first. Jenny is the one who is clearer-headed now and sees the greater value of one man than the other, while Dahlia is in danger of having her head turned by a sort of glamorous shallowness that contrasts with the values of her husband. Clear sight, however, both of themselves and others, is eventually and gradually given to everyone in this subtle and devastating portrait of the early days of a marriage.

Now, I’m going to have to address this, and two people I’ve asked didn’t have this, but I can’t be the only one: since I got married, I’ve been horribly jangled and upset by books portraying affairs, widowhood and marital strife. It’s starting to annoy me a bit now, since most books about human relationships seem to have one or more of these. And I thought it might have died down by now. Has this happened to you, and when did it recede again?

This was Book 12 in my #20BooksOfSummer project (see, I am getting there!)

This book will suit … People who like reading Virago books and books that delve right into the depths of human and family relationships; people who don’t mind an untidy ending.

Funnily enough, I’m still reading Dr Thorne. I have a Persephone to review soon, and another couple to read, but I’m doing a bit of my Hard Book every morning, too …

 

Book review – Jenny Wren and a terrible slip-up in the bookshop …

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TBR August 2015A bit of a change to the usual way of reviewing things – just one book in this one and one in the next. See, I read “Jenny Wren” and its sequel, “The Curate’s Wife” one after the other. But it’s hard to review the second one without issuing terrible spoilers for the first! So I’m going to review them separately (but possibly on the same day, if I can type fast enough). In this post, you’ll also get a bumper crop of horrendously naughty book acquisitions, after really not taking many new ones on board for quite a while (2 in June, 4 in July) …

E.H. YOUNG – “Jenny Wren” (Virago)

(25 December 2014, LibraryThing Virago Group (Not So) Secret Santa gift from Laura)

Jenny and Dahlia are moving with their mother into a house intended to host lodgers at the opening of this book, set in the Clifton area of Bristol, clearly recognisable in “Upper Radstowe”. But their house is feared sullied by their neighbours, because their uneducated mother, married in error to a higher-class and fastidious man, had an affair when her husband was alive and accepted money from her lover to set up her current establishment. He now visits every Saturday, intent on some form of repayment, and the girls – Dahlia casual and blowsily attractive like their mother and Jenny quiet, fastidious, small and neat like their father – despair of being able to progress to love and marriage from such a background.

So, when Jenny, out for a walk with their suitable lodger, the lovely and kind Edwin Cummings, encounters the son of the local manor, on his horse, all gilded and glowing, she’s vulnerable to falling (in several different ways) and to give herself a better chance, instinctively lies about her family and brings despair to herself, while Dahlia, straightforward, mocking and honest, prefers to reserve her love and be loved instead. With horrible Aunt Sarah and her plans for all three of them in the mix, their mother desperately straining for any connection with her girls, local gossip running wild and things not being as they should, the scene is set for heartbreak and sacrifice.

With nature and inner selves beautifully described, this novel set in the 1930s seems more archaic (as someone commented when I posted up this set of books for #20BooksOfSummer, it’s more like Hardy than a novel of the 30s, and they were right), yet of course the women characters have more freedom, even if it still leads to their downfall.

I immediately rushed to read the sequel, and you can read that review now.

This was Book 11 in my #20BooksOfSummer project and also filled in 1932 in my Reading a Century project.

This book will suit … People who like reading Virago books or books set in country towns.

Now, oops …

Tracey Thorn and Jonathan FranzenI met up with Sian and Gill in the local cafe on Friday for a catch-up and to stock the BookCrossing shelves. I also needed to pass Tracey Thorn’s autobiography to Sian, swapping it for her newer book on singing. She had brought along a Jonathan Franzen novel for the shelves, which I immediately snapped up, as I really enjoyed his first novel, “The Corrections” (which I must have read aaaages ago as I can’t find a review on here).

Anyway, that was bad enough, then …

Books from The WorksI’ve had most of the weekend off work, so was quite relaxed wandering down the High Street, thought I’d pop into The Works to see what was in their new 3 for £5 batch … and came out with FIVE books. Hm.

The Ranulph Fiennes biography, “Cold”, I’ve had my eye on for a while, and it fits in with my collection of books on exploration, especially Polar. Arnaldur Indriadson’s first novel “Silence of the Grave”, although a modern crime novel, has the attraction of being set in Iceland, and the bit I quickly read that had bodies in it didn’t seem tooo bad (maybe you could comment below if you think I can cope OK with him – I’m OK with dark stuff esp as it’s from the land of the Sagas and Halldor Laxness, as long as it’s not too gruesome or explicitly violent) and all of his novels appear to be in the special offer, so if I like this …

Going a little more fluffy, “A Cornish Affair” appealed because it features a library cataloguing project and we’re planning a trip to Cornwall, so it will be appropriate to read there. Cathy Kelly is a light-reading favourite of mine, and “Too Many Cooks” is about a cookery book ghost-writer, so again, couldn’t resist. And remember how I picked all the light reading off my TBR when I had that flu? So it needs replacing, right?

Have you read any of these? What are you currently reading? I’m still on “Doctor Thorne”, and I think I’ll have a good go at that now, as I have another Virago and a Persephone ready to review …

 

#20 Books Of Summer update – the third set

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20BooksofSummer logoI felt time was pressing on and although I’m still finishing off books in sets 1 and 2, I should post my last batch of plannned reads; also, I’ve started reading one of them already! You can see those two sets of books on my main #20BooksOfSummer 2015 page; that has links to all the reviews. I have read 10 of my 20 books already, and am in the middle of (oops) three more, so I might just do it. Might. Of course, I have read more than 20 actual books since I started, as I’ve had review copies and other projects on the go, but this is of the ones I’ve nominated to be part of the project.

20booksofsummerSo, these are my final five, and they’re fitting in with the All Virago / All August theme which is done by the LibraryThing Virago Group I belong to. It probably actually counts as cheating to pull the shortest book off my TBR, but I want a chance of finishing my 20, so …

E.H. Young – “Jenny Wren” and “The Curate’s Wife” – these come as a pair, so have to be read together if you have both of them, right?

Susan Glaspell – “Brook Evans” – I read her book “Fidelity” not that long ago, so I’m really looking forward to this one.

Dorothy Whipple – “Greenbanks” – I do love a Whipple, and even though her books are substantial, they’re quick reads. I can’t wait to get into this one!

Molly Panter-Downes – “Minnie’s Room” – I read the title story in the “Persephone Book of Short Stories” and knew I had to have this book of the set – she has another short story volume that is also on my wishlist.

Have you read any of these? Are you doing #20BooksOfSummer and how are you getting on? I’d love to know!

Book reviews – Unbridled Spirits and Tales from Earthsea

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TBR August 2015Two books that I’ve read this month now I’ve caught up with last month’s reads, and two that really reach back into my earlier reading history in many ways; although the history book was published in the 90s, it forms a continuum with women’s reclaimed lives read in my university days, and I first read Ursula le Guin in my early secondary school days. I have also chosen my next set of #20BooksOfSummer books so there will be a post on that tomorrow, but these two fall into the project so tick off some more of the numbers (I’m barely half way, though – oops!)

Stevie Davies – “Unbridled Spirits”

(29 November 2014 – from Laura)

A study of women of the English Revolution, mainly, for obvious reasons, those who wrote and published, or were written about, that, although published in 1998, seems to have a ring of the earlier works of ‘herstory’ that came out in the late 80s and early 90s, both in the subject matter, reclaiming the lives and words of women from the margins, and in the language it’s written in, which is harder to quantify by definitely half way between polemical and academic writing, with a twist of pro-women language and a consciously partisan way of writing.

It uses women’s own words where possible, and links sets of women together – early Quaker women (this was fascinating, as I didn’t have a grasp of the role of women in forming the Quaker movement), women who preached, women who prophesised, the active and trouble-making wives of men who were imprisoned, etc. Davies brings their stories into the foreground and pulls the threads together, celebrating them in a readable work that does an important job.

This is Book 9 in my #20BooksOfSummer project.

Published by Women’s Press, I think this can count in my All Virago / All August project, too (as Persephones are allowed)

This book would suit … people interested in the time period in question, historians, historians of women’s lives

Ursula Le Guin – “Tales from Earthsea”

(10 December 2014, from my BookCrossing secret santa, Julia)

Five long short stories plus “A Description of Earthsea” make up this book that does work best if you already know the main Earthsea books. I’ve read and reread them over a long period of time, but I found that reading the Description first helped a lot in straightening out what was going on and what period of the fantasy land’s history we were in for each story.

The long first part, “The Finder” is set in the very early history and covers the setting up of many of Earthsea’s institutions. “Darkrose and Diamond” is a tale of wizardry vs. love vs. family, “The Bones of the Earth” and “In the High Marsh” deal with wizards in their later years, living out their lives in the real world, and feature characters who we have already come across, and “Dragonfly” is a lovely longer story about a girl who finds her true destiny isn’t quite as she expected and dares to knock on the door of the School of Magic.

I find Le Guin’s books very moving, and these stories show why – although part of the fantasy genre, they are deeply rooted in a realistic, if medieval, world, so a wizard will worry about his chickens when he goes away to try to prevent a catastrophe, and a quite cat gives comfort to a man in distress. The female characters are also good and strong, proud and able, and this theme is woven all through these stories. This makes these books a lot more accessible than some of the other fantasy novels out there, and perhaps more suitable for the general reader.

This is Book 10 in my #20BooksOfSummer project

This book would suit … someone who’s read the other Earthsea books – it won’t make nearly as much sense without them!

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I’m currently reading E.H. Young’s “Jenny Wren” and (still) a hard book for my research …

 

Book reviews – Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, The World’s Wife and Twenty Wishes

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July 2015 TBRI’m catching up FINALLY with my July reads after a couple of reviews of new books sent to me to review (so the photo is a throwback to my July TBR) so here are three shorter reviews of three shorter books to finish that month. I have been reading some more books this month, too, with two finished already and the #20BooksOfSummer project ticking along nicely. Oh, and I went to London last week and bought three books … but only one was for me!

Cornelia Otis Skinner – “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay”

(Borrowed from Ali)

I’d been keen to read a couple of books that Ali  has recently read and reviewed, and she kindly loaned these two to me. Here’s her review. This one has been oohed and aahed over by Simon at StuckInABook, too – so doubly highly recommended!

Published in 1944 (thus filling in a year in my Reading a Century project, too), this is a delightful account of a visit by the author and best friend Emily Kimborough (who is cited as the co-author although it seems all written by one person) from America by ship to London, other bits of the UK and then Paris and France in general. Much of the action takes place on the ship and in port, but there are lovely descriptions of Europe.

It’s naively and amusingly told, looking back at the excesses and excitements of youth 20 years ago from the middle of the war years. The tone is a bit like that of the Provincial Lady over in the UK at the same time, and also reminds me of my “I Hate To Cook Book” by Peg Bracken, another wry and funny American.

There is a little casual racism which is of course of its time but does jar, but on the whole the book is charming, madcap and funny, with delightful illustrations, as the young women skip through life and Europe with no cares that can’t be calmed away by the safety net of their parents, also on a European jaunt!

This is book 7 in my #20BooksOfSummer project.

This book would suit … Anyone who likes gentle humour and mid-20th century women’s writing.

Carol Ann Duffy – “The World’s Wife”

(Borrowed from Ali)

Another of Ali’s recent reads (reviewed here), and a different genre for me – poetry! I have to admit to being Not Very Good with poetry, even though I have an English Lit degree and all that. I like the poetry of John Donne, Wendy Cope, John Hegley and Carol Ann Duffy, and that’s pretty well it (I really think it is, have I forgotten someone?).

This book is all set around the idea of the wives of famous men (of history and legend) getting their own chance to speak, which is a marvellous concept to start off with. The poems are witty, thought-provoking, perceptive, subversive and great fun – as poems should be!

Mrs Midas has to stop herself from touching her husband; Mrs Tiresias  watches hers get to grips with his own womanhood; Mrs Aesop is bored by fables; Mrs Faust joins in the fun; and Queen Kong has a delicate and appreciative relationship with a film-maker. These were some favourites, although basically I opened it up to read the first few and put it down an hour or so later, way past my bedtime!

You do have to know a bit of history / legend to get the point of these, but they are SO good, and heartily recommended. They reminded me of the “Great Housewives of Art” books – anyone else remember those and see a link?

This is book 8 in my #20BooksOfSummer project.

This book would suit … People who think they don’t like poetry!

Debbie Macomber – “Twenty Wishes”

(The Liz And Linda Debbie Macomber Collection – received at some point this year to add to the collection I’m keeping for both of us)

In another Blossom Street book, we are introduced to Anne Marie, the bookshop owner on the street of small shops, and her group of friends who are all widows, who decide to put together and work through a list of twenty wishes each. They get into scrapbooks and fantasising about dancing in the rain, dating again, etc. Deeper friendships are forged between the different kinds of women, and Anne Marie learns her own lessons as she makes room in her schedule for joining a Lunch Buddy scheme at a local school (of course she becomes close to her buddy and the plot develops as DM’s plots often do in this area, which often seems a little easier than it should be, but hey-ho, it’s a fun read).

The only issue I have here is that since I got married, I’ve had a real problem reading books with infidelity and widowhood themes! I wish that would fade away now, but it hasn’t seemed to yet. So I struggled a bit with that aspect, although it seems well done and sympathetically but usefully treated in the book.

This book would suit … Someone looking for a gentle read. You don’t need to have read the other Blossom Street books first.

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David Kynaston Modernity BritainOne confession apart from those books that were sent to me and reviewed earlier in the month. I’ve been collecting David Kynaston’s wonderful Tales of the New Jerusalem books as they’ve come out in lovely double volumes. They’re amazing: starting post-war and planning to cover up until 1979, they weave political and social history together with a huge mass of primary sources, from diaries to newspaper reports to letters, written by all sorts of people. He has a knack of finding early pieces by people who are later very well known, and contrasting the stories different people tell of the same event.

I’d asked my dear friend Emma for a book token to put towards this, and bought it in the new Foyles, where I also picked up a Foyalty Card, given that Foyles is coming to Birmingham soon!

I’m not reading this quite yet – I’ve read two more of my Books Of Summer and am currently enjoying a Virago and a Trollope! More of those later this month …

 

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