Book reviews – The Tunnel, Harold Nicolson’s Diaries and Letters and a round-up


Mar 2016 TBRI’ve got quite a few to fit in today before we hit the first of the month and the TBR photo tomorrow, but only one long review and the rest are kind of round-up ones, including, unfortunately, the first bump in my Dorothy Richardson “Pilgrimage” Road. I’ve managed to complete 11 books this month, including one I’ve reviewed for Shiny New Books (link to come soon when it’s out) and a Margery Sharp I’ve got to hold off publishing until nearer the date of her republishing frenzy. So, here we go …

Dorothy Richardson – “The Tunnel”

The longest novel in the sequence so far, and unfortunately I found this, the fourth in the “Pilgrimage” sequence, a bit of a slog. I did read it quite disjointedly, which probably didn’t help, as I do think you need to absorb yourself in her world to an extent.

The bits where Miriam moves into and sets up her new lodgings, learns to ride a bicycle, decides to cut her hair and wear divided skirts when she’s 30 and (some of) the scenes with her friends are still quite engaging. But there’s a lot set in the dental practice where she works, which is good on the ennui of office routines but quite confusing and also a bit icky in places. She also comes over as really immature in places, which is a bit grating (maybe I’m expecting as much of Miriam as I am of her author). The other scenes with friends or at lectures or having encounters with patients and random people are just confusing in places. It feels like someone’s private notes, so both intrusive to read and opaque.

I will persist with the next one, but you’d be even more lost if you tried to read it as a standalone. I wonder how people who have read the biographical novel got on with this one.

Harold Nicolson – “Diaries and Letters 1939-45”

(January 2016)

The middle volume, which I had to pick up second-hand having found the first and third in Macclesfield last March. Again wonderfully edited by his son, Nigel, this is fascinating reading, written as it happened, every day, so full of the immediate thoughts of an MP and landowner during the war. Nigel does an amazing job of giving a potted history of what is going on, explaining any misconceptions or errors and even keeping track of where he and his brother were when they went out to fight.

It’s a good mix of the daily diaries plus letters to and from Vita, holding the fort in war-torn Kent with the Battle of Britain raging overhead and stray bombs dropping regularly, and letters to Ben and Nigel in service overseas. He is specifically writing for his grandson or great-grandson, and rather sweetly makes a point of writing out his predictions, or his activities during a day, to dispel the idea that it’s just about lunching and socialising.

Harold attempts to do well in the House of Commons but finds himself out of step on occasion; however, being close to the action, he gives huge amounts of detail about Churchill, the exiled French leaders, etc., which all comes alive as you read it. And it’s all interspersed with the everyday life of Sissinghurst, with neighbours, bees and planting, as well as politics, history and warfare. Excellent reading and I can’t wait to start the next volume.

Jessica Ennis – “Unbelievable”

(18 May 2015)

Biography written with Rick Broadbent taking her from her family life and childhood dreams through to glory at the London 2012 Olympics. It’s got all the people, events, injuries and training, but unfortunately it doesn’t massively come alive. I know from working with writers that these can be a struggle for both writer and subject, and I think this would have been a difficult one to put together – maybe she’s just really reserved and didn’t want to talk about herself, which is fair enough.

One for the fans. My copy had some extra photos and also a random letter from an athletics club to a non-famous person inside. If anyone is a big fan, I’ll be happy to pass this along, as it must have been a review copy.

Debbie Macomber – “A Country Christmas”

(26 March 2016)

“Return to Promise” is the 8th and final Promise, Texas novel. We’re a few years on again since the last volume, and we go back to Doctor Jane and rancher Cal, separated by family illness originally, but then by miscommunication and an unpleasant young woman, not to mention small-town gossip.

In “Buffalo Valley”, we’re back in North Dakota for the eponymous series, and there’s quite a lot of rounding up of how all the couples got together as there had obviously been a gap since Macomber last wrote about this town. There’s a threat from a superstore chain and a battle for the heart of a corporate man who falls in love with the town and one of its inhabitants (this theme sounds familiar but I’m not sure which other book I’ve read it in).

We know how both books are going to end, but they’re comforting reading, like a warm Radox bath.

Currently reading – I’m on another Margery Sharp at the moment, then I will pick up the next Richardson – and it’s on to Harold Nicolson Vol 3!

Shelf by shelf: the TBR spectrum


I still have shelving to do, but I got inspired by Annabel from Annabel’s House of Books’ post on her TBR rainbow to whip my TBR out onto the floor (having photographed it first so I could maintain the order) and put it in the order of the rainbow! And here it is! Sadly, it’s come out a bit blurry, but hopefully you get the idea.

March 2016 spectrumIn its usual form, books do butt up against each other oddly, as I keep it in order of acquisition, and I do tend to acquire fairly randomly, unless a set of Viragoes arrives with me, all neat with their green spines (and all together here, too). Sporting biographies have come together but Edith Sitwell nestles next to Mark Twain, some books on Iceland are still together (Laxness and Byatt’s Ragnarok) and some which weren’t together are now (Butterflies in November, Moon Country and The Greenlanders).

Even though the Viragoes are all of the same vintage, the colour variations show up, and although it’s heavily weighted towards green by them, does everyone have so few purple books, or is it just me?

March 2016 monochromeAnd, of course, there isn’t just a rainbow – white, cream, brown, grey and black feature, too. So here they are. These seem very varied, London War Notes meeting an explorer who might find a novel cure in reading about pop music.

Well, there we go – that was fun, and I got them all into the correct order again. Anyone else for a go? And did anything surprise you from the back end of my TBR that doesn’t usually see the light of day?


Reading round-up and reviews of 80/20 Running and Promise, Texas


Mar 2016 TBRI’ve had a slightly frustrating period of reading recently, as I’ve read three books, one I didn’t finish (more on that below), one was to review for Shiny New Books, the new issue of which isn’t out quite yet, and one I have to save the review to publish nearer to the (re)publication date. I then came down with a mild version of my husband’s cold, which meant that I had to temporarily abandon Dorothy Richardson (I’m finding “The Tunnel”, Volume 4 of the “Pilgrimage” sequence, quite heavy going and not the kind of thing you can read when you can’t concentrate) and my plans for some Virginia Woolf, and retreat to a Debbie Macomber.

The Prose Factory D J Taylor

This is how committed I am to good-quality reviewing

I took this photo for my photo-a-day challenge to show all the post-it markers I’d inserted into my copy of D. J. Taylor’s “The Prose Factory”, which is the book I’ve been reviewing for Shiny. It was longer and more detailed than I’d expected, but very good and interesting. Luckily, it turned out that many of the themes and points were repeated (in a good, historical writing sort of way – here’s an example of x here, and here it crops up again), so I didn’t end up submitting a 5,000-word essay on the book! I’ll pop a note up on here when the review is out on Shiny New Books, so you can pop over and read the result of my labours!

I very much enjoyed Margery Sharp’s “Cluny Brown”, having read “The Foolish Gentlewoman” in January. As I mentioned a little while ago, Open Road Media are republishing a selection of Sharp’s novels in e-book form on 12 April. The publishers were kind enough to contact me and offer me two books (“Cluny” and “The Nutmeg Tree”) pre-approved through NetGalley, and I absolutely loved Cluny, so watch out for those reviews in a few weeks’ time, as they have asked people to help build interest by releasing reviews closer to the publication date.

So, some reading that I CAN talk about …

Matt Fitzgerald – “80/20 Running” (DNF)

(Bought January 2016)

This isn’t a running blog, though I have blogged about runs and you might spot the odd race report, and I won’t go on about this, but I’m planning on running my first marathon in August this year, and I picked up some books that had been recommended by running clubmates to see if I could pick up any hints (PS, yes, my knees are fine).

This one promises to help you run stronger and race faster by training (on your long runs) slower. The general principle was very sound – running at a more comfortable pace for long distances increases your stamina for more sustained faster running. But it spent the first half of the book justifying the approach (which I do get that some people need), then got very complicated and prescriptive, using a mixture of heart-rate, perceived effort, mileage, speed and running (or, to be fair, cross-training) six times a week. This was far too circumscribed for me – I get myself all wound up if I try to follow a very detailed plan. So I gave this to a friend, and am going to stick to my increasing distance gently and doing lots of yoga plan!

This book would suit: people who like to have a plan they can nail to the fridge door and tick off with coloured pens (maybe newer runners or people new to distance running). There’s nothing wrong with it, it just didn’t suit me.

Debbie Macomber – “Promise, Texas”

(22 March 2016)

Amusingly, this arrived in a big parcel along with a load of running gels and recovery bars! It’s the seventh in the Texas series, apparently written a while after the others, and actually Macomber’s big break-through novel which helped her realise how much people like a series. Oh, this should be a book confession, too, shouldn’t it …

We’re back in Promise, Texas, a few years after the end of the last book. The small town’s population explosion and renewal have brought in a vet, a bookshop owner and another doctor plus a midwife, so there are plenty of people to stock the stories of friendship and romance. The older generation is not left out, as Dovie, the owner of the antiques shop, becomes worried about her oldest friend, as do the woman’s family.

All cosy and satisfying, some situations you just wouldn’t find yourself in, but some lovely escapism!


I’m currently still so enjoying the second volume of Harold Nicolson’s “Diaries and Letters” – it’s a blow-by-blow contemporary account of World War Two, and fascinating for that, with good notes by his son and editor, Nigel, covering what was known about the background and outcomes in the mid-1960s (obviously some governmental stuff didn’t come out until later). Once I’m tippy-top, it’s back to Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf, although I think the odd sports biog might get a look-in, too.

Shelf by shelf – the fiction shelving pile


I’ve been inspired¬† by this post on the Hogglestock blog to think about whether posting pictures of all of my bookshelves might be fun. What do you think? Would you like to see that?

However, to do that, I will need to do some shelving. So today I give you my fiction (re)shelving shelves (they’re not normally this organised; I put them into alphabetical order for this photo and to ease the shelving) …

Shelf by shelf shelvingI hope you can see all of these OK. They represent something quite specific: they are …

  • fiction books
  • which I have acquired to read (most of them)
  • or acquired to give to someone else then it arrived damaged so I got them something else and kept that for myself because I couldn’t send them a damaged book (“This Little World” – I wonder if the recipient can guess who they are)
  • or pulled out to re-read (“The Bell”, “To Kill a Mockingbird” and the Virginia Woolfs)
  • and which I am keeping, i.e. I would consider I would have a good chance of reading again
  • and are not teen / YA / children’s fiction, which have their own shelving pile

Looking at these two shelves, they are pretty representative of my general fiction reading – 20th century classics, Virago reprints, books by authors I collect (Sackville-West, Murdoch, Tyler, Binchy), books by people I know (Paul Magrs, Professor Elemental, Helen Cross), very few very modern books, horse books (the Jane Smiley), books from second-hand shops.

So, would there be interest in having a look through my bookshelves every now and again? Say a shelf every week or so? I’m not going to post the reviews to all of these, as they’re fairly recent reads and you can use the search option to the right of this post, but I might link to a few or talk about the authors a bit. What do you think?

Book reviews – Harold Nicolson’s Diaries and Letters 1930-39 and All in One Basket


Mar 2016 TBRTwo books by what one might term poshos today, really. But what poshos – lovely Harold Nicolson and lovely Deborah Devonshire. So not the braying old-Etonians who are trying to destroy our society, but two people who cared about the warp and weft of (especially) countryside society and community and thought carefully about books, gardens and other people. Oh, and they were both bought (an old book and a new, in Oxfam and The Works) on a lovely trip to Macclesfield with friends back in March 2015. Note how I’m less than a year out of date now, too!

Harold Nicolson – “Diaries and Letters 1930-39”

(Bought 28 March 2015, Macclesfield Oxfam)

As a long-term fan of the entire Nicolson family, this was a wonderful find (I found volumes 1 and 3 and have recently supplanted them with volume 2) and excellent, entertaining reading. It’s beautifully edited by his son, Nigel, to the extent of having the running headers change on each page to describe what’s going on on that very page – not something you find now, I think. There’s a very good biographical summary, skilled interpolations to explain the background or activities described, and great footnotes explaining who people are, too.

Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West’s love and mutual respect shine through the book, which also includes some of her letters, for context: their only real falling-out is when she refuses to play the candidate’s wife when he’s standing in the General Election. It’s lovely to see their purchase of the Shiant Isles, about which their grandson Adam has written so beautifully (see my review of his “Sea Room“) as well as Harold and Nigel’s mutual love of the classics, which has also followed down the generations (I haven’t read Adam Nicolson’s book on Homer yet, but I will do). That’s what’s lovely when you’ve read biographies, novels, letters, diaries, etc., etc., surrounding a family and its generations, seeing patterns and places – dear Sissinghurst, of course, too, bought in this book and starting to develop – and people all moving along through the century.

Harold is witty and entertaining but serious and perceptive where he needs to be; we have an insider’s view of the Abdication Crisis and he’s fascinated by the House of Commons when he eventually gets there. Nigel is not hagiographical, being clear, for example, about Harold’s view that “true civilisation existed nowhere outside the inner circles of certain West European capital cities,” but it wouldn’t do to agree with everything that people you like think and say, and there is very much to like here. I’m already reading volume 2!

This book would suit: Anyone interested in 20th century history and politics, or houses and gardens, or the Bloomsburys and Nicolsons.

This book fills in a year in my Century of Re-Reading (although the 60s are quite sparse at the moment, so I’m not sure which volume will be the final one to be included!).

Deborah Devonshire – “All in One Basket”

(28 March 2015 – The Works, Macclesfield)

This jolly book by the youngest Mitford Sister draws together in one volume “Counting my Chickens” and “Home to Roost” with some additional essays and the original introductions by guest writers (including Alan Bennett). It’s a lovely collection of diary entries, short pieces, longer pieces (for example on the Kennedys), book reviews and fragments of memoir. Many of the pieces were written in her later years: she was obviously a doughty female who didn’t suffer fools gladly, and this shines through in her no-nonsense but often shriekingly funny prose.

Her love of place is evident, and her descriptions of Derbyshire lovely. Some of her pieces on modern language and ways are a little self-conscious, and I don’t agree with some of her more conservative views, but I loved the pieces on the experience of living in a stately home that’s run as a business, and the pieces about family (how did I not realise she was Emma Tennant’s mother?). All in all, it was a lovely, fresh and readable collection.

I was reading these two books at the same time, so it was lovely to come across a couple of mentions of Vita Sackville-West, her gardens and her gardening writing – I love it when that happens.

This book would suit: People looking for an easy, countryside-based read; fans of the Mitford Sisters.


So now it’s on to some heavy reviewing – I have the fascinating looking “The Prose Factory” on the go to review for Shiny New Books, and the republisher, Open Road Media, has kindly offered me two Margery Sharp novels to review through Netgalley (they’ve asked me to release those reviews near to the publication date, so watch out next month). I’ve had a look at the next Dorothy Richardson and it’s a biggie, so I’m hoping I will get some good solid reading time in during the next week or so! I am marshalling at a cross-country running event tomorrow – maybe there will be big gaps between competitors … (only joking).

Book Reviews – To the Lighthouse and The Fly on the Wheel (Virago) and a DNF


Mar 2016 TBRTwo books for two challenges today, although I will admit here that I heard about Reading Ireland Month, thought I didn’t have anything on the TBR for it, then looked down at the book I was reading at the time and caught the word “Waterford” and thought, “Oh, yes!” The other is, of course, for Heaven-Ali’s #Woolfalong, which I’m really enjoying – and I’ve got more Woolf coming up, having done a bit of a Kindle clicky-clicky (that doesn’t count for the TBR, right?? So here we go. Oh, a DNF, too, today. Literally, as I started it this morning between an early breakfast and a long run, and put it down almost immediately!

Virginia Woolf – “To the Lighthouse”

(Bought ??? seem to have always had it; know I read it while at university)

What CAN you say about Woolf – she’s one of those difficult ones where you write a sentence or an essay. Another point I notice with her is that, presumably because of my interest in Bloomsbury and associated characters, I do find myself thinking, “Who is this supposed to be?” when reading her books, even though I claim to cling to the “Death of the Author” way of looking at things where the author’s life Does. Not. Matter. Anyway, here goes …

A happier read than Mrs Dalloway, even though some difficult things happen, but there are obvious parallels in the central characters of a middle-class woman, worrying about her home and family, and the effect of the First World War on families and attitudes.

I hadn’t read this since university in the 1990s, and curiously, I remember writing an essay about Lily Briscoe – and I think the passages describing the process of her artistic creation (and its echoes in some passages about Mrs Ramsay herself) are some of the most effective and profound in the book – but I had set the novel in Cornwall (when it’s clearly the Hebrides and mentioned as being there), and had forgotten about the leap in time between the two main sections. I’d also forgotten the moving passages about the gradual destruction of the house, which a few reviewers have mentioned.

I found myself thinking quite a lot about the Dorothy Richardson novels I’ve been reading lately (all reviews can be found here – this search for “Dorothy Richardson” should give you all mentions of her on this blog). Like in “Pilgrimage”, the most important events happen off-stage, and marriage is looked at closely and rejected, with the bubble of romance pricked mercilessly.

The relationships of ‘peripheral’ characters – women, whether servants, servant-wives or unmarried women, and children – to the patriarchal characters, who must be pandered to and bolstered up, however unprepossessing they might be, felt key this time of reading. However, there is warmth in the portrayal of marriage, too, and I loved the passages about how Mrs Ramsay, while knowing her husband would welcome verbal expressions of love, can only express it herself through deeds – a foreshadowing of the ‘languages of love’ that people talk about now.

An absorbing read and one that took a while, for such a short book, as indeed others have mentioned.

This book would suit: It’s a good introduction to Woolf, having lots of her central themes but being understandable and with a range of characters that can be identified with or just identified as familiar.

I read this book for the #Woolfalong challenge. You can read what everyone thought about “Mrs Dalloway” and “To the Lighthouse” here.

Katherine Cecil Thurston – “The Fly on the Wheel” (Virago)

(12 February 2015 – from Karen / Kaggsy)

reading ireland month

Isabel Costello, with her Spanish blood and blatant disregard for tradition and what the neighbours might say, blazes into Waterford and immediately comes up against the forces of society and the influential Carey family. She’s just got engaged to the penniless Frank Carey, and his oldest brother, Stephen, who raised his brothers in difficult circumstances, is outraged by her appearance … and horribly attracted to her.

Stephen is married and has bent himself consciously to convention, having once had wild ideas like the young lads around him now have. Mrs Power, a force stronger than that of the Careys, takes Isabel up, thinking it best to absorb her into society, but then she’s thrown into Stephen’s presence, and also Owen Power’s, who is a bit of a flirt who can make reputations in a different way from that of his mother. Stephen’s sister-in-law, Mary, is also in the mix: she’s a feminist voice and rather bitter commentator who will nonetheless grab her own chance in the marriage market, able to go only so far in defying convention herself.

When Stephen acquires a motor car, it seems to give him the recklessness he’s tamped down for years. It’s down to the saintly Father James, hub of the community for years but portrayed as a kindly force for good rather than a gossip bending people to convention, to try to sort things out. But matters come to the sort of crisis that involves late nights, long journeys on foot and chasing around the countryside, lost reputations and martyred wives. The foreshadowing of the story of Aesop’s fly on the wheel means there can only be one conclusion. A powerful psychological novel and a page-turner. I did find the author’s comments on ‘the Irish character’, especially its childishness, a bit odd, but she seems to have been Irish and to have lived there, so maybe that was more innocuous than I found it.

This book would suit: Lovers of a literary page-turner, people looking for an Irish read.

I read this book for Reading Ireland Month 2016, co-hosted by Cathy at 746 Books, although I didn’t know that was what I was doing when I started it!

Philip Hensher – “The Missing Ink” (DNF)

(28 February 2015 – from Matthew)

I was really looking forward to reading this book, subtitled, “How handwriting made us who we are”, but unfortunately it was extremely disappointing, and I didn’t get past p. 25. I’m afraid I didn’t get on with the author’s style of writing at all – he makes numerous asides and “jokes”, and, indeed, rants, which are not amusing, and in fact I found some bordering on the offensive. Interestingly, some of the reviews on Amazon (looked at afterwards) picked out the very things I didn’t like about it. I couldn’t bring myself to keep reading something that was so nasty, seemingly for effect and out of place in a book about handwriting and pens, and have put it aside.


I’m currently reading a wonderful omnibus of Debo, Duchess of Devonshire’s memoirs, which is most entertaining, warm and generous, and the second volume of Harold Nicolson’s Diaries and Letters (review of the first volume coming next).

What are you reading? Have you read “The Missing Ink” and did you agree? Are you doing Reading Ireland or Woolfalong?

State of the TBR – March 2016


Mar 2016 TBRWell there is light at the end of the tunnel, honest! Because, yes, my TBR is still two shelf-worths stacked in front of each other, but can you see the gap to the right of Freddie Flintoff? See? There’s a gap. It’s not too bad. I did only read five and two halves books in February, but that means I have two half-books to finish and lots of time for more, so all is good, right? Right?

Mar 2016 currently readingI’m currently reading these two lovelies (see how the yellow and grey highlights match my tablecloth?). I’m thoroughly enjoying the Harold Nicolson Diaries and Letters and can’t wait to get on to the other two volumes – these are my Dinner Table Reads for the foreseeable. Lovely to dip into, so well written and so well edited, too, a complete joy. I also have (not pictured) a Virago on the go (so that’s five and three halves last month). I’m enjoying “To the Lighthouse”, too, although I can see that I need swathes of time for it, so need to settle with it in an armchair for a bit. Actually, we don’t really have armchairs in this house, thinking of it. Weird. Hm. Anyway, moving along …

Mar 2016 coming upNext up need to be these two, an unread running book (do all runners do that, is it like cook books, bought and then never read?) and a lovely book I’m reviewing for Shiny New Books (which I thought was a more slender volume than this, oops!).

Then of course the next volume of Dorothy Richardson’s “Pilgrimage” (and we’re on to a new physical volume) plus for #Woolfalong I may or may not have loaded “The Voyage Out”, “Between the Acts” and “Night and Day” onto my Kindle. Those are for March AND April however.

Mar 2016 next on shelfAnd looking ahead, these lovelies. More Nicolson, and what I see is quite a lot of other biography and non-fiction and not a lot of fiction, so there might be some more Icelandic noir coming in, or some jolly Debbie Macomber …

There we go. How was your February? What’s your March looking like? How are your themed reads going if you’re doing them. Oh, and what did you think of my new look to my reviews (possible new look) if you haven’t already responded? I would like to know. See the first new one here.