Book review – Tove Jansson – “The True Deceiver”


jan-2017-tbrNow I need to say first off that I am not a fan of the Moomins. I’ve always been a bit scared of them, to tell you the truth. But a good few of my friends have raved about Jansson’s books for adults, and I received “Sun City” from my Virago Secret Santa back in 2011 (read my review here) and was kindly sent this one by the lovely Karen from Kaggsysbookishramblings last summer. Of the two read so far, I think I preferred this one, as the setting was more appealing to me. Read on for some lovely BRAND NEW book buys, too …

Tove Jansson – “The True Deceiver”

(13 July 2016, from Karen)

An atmospheric and somehow slightly chilling (even though nothing awful actually happens, and the dog lives on) novel that in its sparseness (in a great translation by Thomas Teal) pleasingly resembles an Icelandic work.

In a cut-off village in Sweden in the depths of winter, when the snow won’t stop and no one bothers to get up because there isn’t really a morning as such. we meet Katri, a mysterious, yellow-eyed woman who’s not from these parts and is into going on very long walks with her equally mysterious and nameless dog by her side. She’s ostracised by the village but then they also seek her mathematical brain and common-sense advice. There’s also her brother Mats, known to be “simple” and hanging around the boat-builders, and the elderly artist, Anna, who writes a book about rabbits covered in flowers every spring and is perhaps oppressed by the memory of her parents, who lived in the same house.

It’s Katri’s wish to move into Anna’s house and secure Mats’ future: the chorus of boat-builders, shop-keepers and village women of course have something to say about this. Who is cheating whom; is the dog with no name happy or sad; what will happen when spring comes this year?

There’s no clear resolution to this atmospheric and beautiful book – not that it requires one. Beautifully written and carefully translated: a small jewel of a novel.

I was lucky enough to have a book token for my birthday and had a Waterstones token hanging around, so I took myself off to the lovely (one remaining) big Waterstones in town to have a spend. I did pretty well – and oh, yes, I went to the BookCrossing meetup for about five minutes (the cafe we meet at having suddenly been flooded with vegans after an event: I have no problem with vegans, how could I, when I cheerfully eat their cakes, but it all got a bit full) and picked up a book there.


Stuart Maconie – “The Pie at Night” is about how the North of England takes its fun. Sian nearly gave this to me for my birthday, and I recalled Mr Liz asking me whether I had it … and now I do!

That’s the BookCrossing one. These two were Buy One, Get One Half Price:

Mo Farah – “Twin Ambitions” – his autobiography, updated to cover Rio 2016. Obviously this will have been ghostwritten, as most of such books are; he (OK, also the publisher) makes this clear on the title page, so I’m OK with that.

Matthew Syed – “Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice” – takes a look at what makes “talent” in sport (in particular) and whether it’s all down to nature vs. nurture.

… and I treated myself to this one, which was £5 off!

Bruce Springsteen – “Born to Run” – I obviously can’t get away from the running theme, can I! He DID write this himself apparently, and it looks great.

So the TBR shelves are now officially bursting and what am I reading at the moment? A Kindle book. Oops.


Book review – Sylvia Patterson – “I’m Not With the Band”


jan-2017-tbrI bought this book brand new and in hardback in a book-tokened splurge back last summer (the Iris Murdoch letters and “Eat, Sweat Play” were bought at the same time). Although I’d been aware of its publication, I was inspired to buy it by transcribing an interview with the author done by one of my music journalist clients. As this is the autobiography of a music journalist, you’ll see why I was interested in it, and I did have more of an insider’s interest, always keen to know what goes on around the taped conversations I get sent to type up.

Sylvia Patterson – “I’m Not With the Band: A Writer’s Life Lost in Music”

(2 July 2016)

A fascinating insight into the life of a music journalist – not, in fact, one I’ve worked with – over three decades from local Scottish publications to a staff job on Smash Hits through life at the NME and a precarious freelance life. It’s very interesting to read how the music business has changed over that time, as well as the magazine publishing industry, with journalists now unlikely to be able (or asked) to ask the rather odd but hilarious questions that Smash Hits thrived on in what were indeed clearly more innocent times. While people like Prince and Beyoncé have been very guarded throughout their careers, all musicians on all levels now seem to be protected and censored themselves, and those who write about them forced to follow a line they might not even agree with (when Patterson has to do this, she works very hard against it, and given the financial peril she appears to have been in quite often, this is extremely commendable).

I loved the chapters on her repeated interviews through various musicians’ careers, from Kylie who never gives much away to Eminem threatening violence and worse for no good reason, and the excerpts from transcriptions are excellent, with Paterson often gamely trying to drag the conversation back to where she needs it to go. All the little details are fascinating, and she’s a warts-and-all storyteller, unselfconsciously talking of mistakes, bad judgements, alcohol and tears, which is refreshingly different to the overcontrolled, ghostwritten memoirs that can appear from the people she’s writing about here (this is no judgement on the wonderful ghostwriters I work with, of course: I understand that the parameters given to them by stars and PRs are often very strict and confining). As someone who’s on the other side of all this and just gets the taped conversation and not much of the context, all the details were really engaging.

Patterson’s personal story is also covered, again bravely and openly, with its share of tragedy and poverty but also strong and abiding friendship, something which I’m not sure is written about or celebrated enough, so good on her for talking of those gangs of 20-something flatmates, still friends a few decades on. I did find some of the text a bit hard to read – she uses a Smash Hits style with lots of in-jokes, ‘inverted commas’ and banter, which is really entertaining and well done but can wear slightly over numerous pages. But it’s serious where it needs to be and well-judged on the whole – and it is a long time since I last read ‘ver Hits’ so maybe I’m just out of the habit …

Recommended to those who grew up in the 80s and 90s and love music and music writing. It’ll be interesting to compare Mark Ellen’s book, which is sitting a few along on the TBR.

I’ve just finished Tove Jansson’s “The True Deceiver” – a bit of a contrast there – and I’m working my way through that NetGalley book on living a meaningful life, which is quite interesting. What are you up to with your reading? Enjoying working on a challenge … or NOT working on a challenge? Do tell!

Book review – Margery Sharp – “The Flowering Thorn” #amreading #margerysharpday @beyondedenrock


Books published by Open Road Media

Books published by Open Road Media

The lovely Jane at Beyond Eden Rock runs a celebration of Margery Sharp’s birthday every year on 25 January. Last year, I missed the date by one day, and I was so determined not to do the same this year that this was actually the very first book I read in 2017 (did I write this up then, at my leisure? Did I ‘eck – here I am, frantically typing late on the 24th …). Margery Sharp is an excellent writer and I am very pleased to read her in fact more than once per year. And as you can see from the picture to the left, Open Road Media have republished 10 of her novels in e-book form, which makes them a lot easier to get hold of.

Margery Sharp – “The Flowering Thorn”

(21 December 2016, e-book)

A charming, funny and rather moving novel. Socialite Lesley Frewen decides on a whim to adopt the orphaned Patrick, a somewhat stolid child, much to the surprise and horror of her relatives and somewhat vapid friends. This precipitates a move to the country, and all the travails that come with this – although it’s noteworthy that she always has Help.

Lesley starts, however unwillingly, to slot into village life, with the vicar who’s once horribly ignored by a shrieking house party of hers turning out to be a solid ally. She can’t help but be drawn into the small but very real dramas of motherhood and marriages that permeate throughout the village, but realises that community rather than society can be a good thing.

It’s quite remarkable that Lesley is never really shown as actually liking Patrick, and indeed her benign neglect and lack of fuss is praised as being the right way to raise a child; however, their relationship is sweet and well-drawn, and Lesley’s reactions to the situations village life throws herself into – whether that’s sick vicarage children or a woman in trouble – are funny and believable.

But how will Lesley act when the boy goes off to school and she’s free to live her socialite lifestyle again? Will she lean towards the genuine American friends and the nice people she meets at her first party back in the mix, or return to the shriekers? A lovely read and thank you again, Jane, for reminding us of this fine author.

Lucky me – birthday books!


I can’t call this “book confessions” because it’s not confessing a terrible clicky-clicky naughtiness to celebrate having lovely friends who buy you super books. So, lucky me instead.


Look at them in all their glory! So, what do we have? Top to bottom …

Lynsey Hanley – “Class” – I read her “Estates” in 2015, which was a story of housing estates wound around her story of growing up on one in the Midlands, and this is her musings on class itself. An off-wishlist buy which is very welcome indeed.

Simon Armitage – “Walking Away” – I enjoyed his “Walking Home” recently; this is his one about walking around Cornwall, which I stupidly didn’t buy in Cornwall because it was ‘the wrong bit’ (he walks on the north coast and I was on the south at the time). Then I realised I REALLY wanted it.

Alexei Sayle – “Stalin Ate my Homework” and “Thatcher Stole my Trousers” – I love this left-wing comedian and his autobiographies are supposed to be classics, so I was really chuffed to open a parcel and find what I expected to be a loan as a gift.

Gladys Huntingdon – “Madame Solario” – a lovely big Persephone; this is the one set in Cadenabbia on Lake Como, a place where I and Mr Liz have actually stayed ourselves! I know from reading reviews that the characters do some sightseeing, so I’m very much looking forward to reading about the places I saw a hundred years later than the time of the book!

Edmund Gordon – “The Invention of Angela Carter” – this is quite a new publication and I hadn’t put it on the wishlist yet but was straining to acquire it as I know a few people who have read it. I can’t wait to read this, either.

“How it Works: The Cat” / “The Ladybird Book of the Zombie Apocalypse” – two of those amusing re-uses of the classic Ladybird illustrations. The cat one includes the wonderful fact that cats read through their bottoms and that’s why they always sit on our books and paperwork.

David Goldblatt – “The Games” – another off-list one that I was very thrilled to open; it’s a history of the Olympic Games, which I love watching.

Alan Powers – “Living with Books” – wonderful photos of glorious bookshelves in a book I’ve had on the wishlist for AGES.

What treats these all are. Have you read any of them? I even have an Amazon voucher, a full Oxfam Books stampy card and a book token to buy yet more. I feel very lucky to have found these treasures among my lovely birthday parcels.

Book review – Vita Sackville-West “All Passion Spent” #Virago #amreading #books


jan-2017-tbrThe lovely Virago Group on LibraryThing has decided not to do a big challenge this year (other years, we’ve done Elizabeth Taylor or Barbara Pym, for example), but to vote on an author to read per month, and then you can read anything by that author during that month, but dip in and out as you want. January came up with Vita Sackville-West, and as she’s a beloved author AND I wanted to do more re-reading this year, I decided to re-read “All Passion Spent”. I am not sure when I bought this – I have it in a slightly annoying to read hardback omnibus, and it’s got a pencil letter in which implies I bought it at either a book sale in Kent or one in Greenwich that I used to frequent. Anyway, I’m pretty sure it was one of the early Viragoes that I read, and I can’t think I’ve revisited it for a couple of decades. I’m glad I did.

Vita Sackville-West – “All Passion Spent”


An absolutely charming novel which completely vindicated my picking it up for a re-read, with the somewhat unusual central character an 88-year-old woman, Deborah Slane. The book opens as her husband has died, her pretty dreadful children have gathered, Something Must Be Done with the jewels, and Lady Slane needs to play her part. But she doesn’t want to play her part; aware of her extreme age, she resists being parcelled out among her children, refuses to see any of the great-grandchildren and claims her right to do whatever she wants to do, accompanied by her lovely French maid, Genoux, who has been with her for 70-odd years and speaks a charming Franglais (sample: “l’homme aux muffins” – all of her utterances are left untranslated in my edition, which I was fine with, but I’d be interested to find out whether footnotes are now supplied).

So Lady Slane and Genoux set out on a very small adventure, and our heroine mulls over the past and the life she’s led as an accessory to an important man. It’s hard not to think of Shakespeare’s sister from Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” when we learn that Lady Slane had ached to be an artist, and I also wonder if Vita was indulging in a bit of what-if when she describes Lady Slane’s life in the diplomatic and political worlds (I know I don’t like to bring an author’s life into their books, but she herself refused to travel with her diplomatic husband or help him with his political campaigns, refusing to be “wheeled out”, and created her successful writing career in those spaces). Lady Slane is not a feminist, however, and she puts the loss of her own career down to it being a marriage of “a worker and a dreamer”, while admitting her gender might have added a slight touch of extra difficulty. It’s worth noting that men are seen as needing to fit in, too, with one man who stakes his own claim to his life marked down as odd forever.

Lady Slane’s children are horrified by her “misbehaving” and patronise her and the two children she can tolerate madly, but she gives as good as she gets and delights in twisting their expectations. She makes some most unsuitable friends, who we can only hope will have the last word. When she has a slight crisis of conscience about denying the younger generations, she wonders if she will be given a chance to make amends. What is most important, though, the military parade or the butterflies? Lady Slane is not sure as she considers her long life.

This is such a lovely, funny and life-affirming book, even though there are a number of deathbeds found within it. A real masterpiece.


Book review – Miranda Emmerson – “Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars” #amreading


jan-2017-tbrI was given an e-book copy of this book via NetGalley. It has been published and is out now. I felt that it might have been marketed as a bit of a lighter, fluffier read than it actually is; having said that, I enjoyed it more for having some meat on its bones as it looked at themes of belonging and the experience of moving countries or cities which I’m interested in. Kindle books not included in this picture; turns out the Kindle isn’t very photogenic!

Miranda Emmerson – “Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars”

(NetGalley, 3 November 2016)

This was embargoed until close to the publication date, which was last Thursday. Anna Treadway is a slightly mysterious young women who is dresser for 40 year old actress Iolanthe Green, after living a somewhat rackety but really quite quiet life in London for a while. When Miss Green goes missing, Anna ends up searching for her, along with Aloysius, accountant to various musicians and club owners but a quiet and gentle man, and in parallel with policeman-with-a-troubled-home-life Barnaby Hayes (I think this is a trope of crime books, but it was nicely and delicately done).

So far, so much a standard mystery. But this novel set in the 1960s has a more serious intent, to slow the sleazy and underground side of London, a London of mixed races having maybe too much fun in sweaty clubs, where people can disappear, homosexuality and abortion are illegal but very present, and casual – and often violent – racism is a fact of life. Almost all of the characters have come from somewhere else and are often concealing their true identities: this is handled well and delicately, too, and the facts are allowed to unfurl as the characters come to them. Some of them have come to London for a new life, full of secrets, escaping from something or full of dreams, like Aloysius who expected gentlemen in bowler hats and old-fashioned courtesy and gets police brutality but a kind landlady. He’s dragged into something he’s not prepared for and, labouring with guilt over letting people down, finds the right way to go about things and is the most attractive character in the book.

It’s all cleverly plotted with a good amount of character development for a mystery novel. Anna slowly comes to realise that even her white privilege can’t stop the city’s institutions letting her and her friends down, the Turkish family downstairs start to realise that their daughter has her own London life, and Aloysius realises he’s braver than he thought.

The book is placed very firmly in its city setting and time, with enough mentions of real events and people. There were a few issues around language that I found – there’s an awful lot of swearing in some places and I wondered if an actress at that time would drop the f-word so much, but more troubling was the use of “negro” to describe black people. It did seem to come when we were seeing things through the eyes of one of the characters, and I understand that (or much worse) was used then, and it doesn’t ring so ugly maybe in quoted speech, however fictional. I assume it was a device used on purpose by author and perhaps editor and I’m not sure how else they could have done it – I’ve certainly read worse in contemporary writers writing about that period (e.g. Lynne Reid Banks’ “The L-Shaped Room”, a book I do love, but …). The violence is there but not bad enough to put me off.

The book ends with a satisfying conclusion but also a sub-plot mentioned only at the very beginning resurfacing. I can only surmise that this points to a sequel being on its way. This is a very accomplished first novel, and I would certainly read a sequel.

I’ve just finished the highly contrasting “All Passion Spent” by Vita Sackville-West and have started another NetGalley read on finding purpose and community. I have had a review copy for Shiny New Books appear through the letterbox, so that’ll be up soon, too. Have you read this one? What did you think of it?


Book review – “Living on Paper” (ed. Avril Horner and Anne Rowe) #amreading


jan-2017-tbrThis, like the last one, but for different reasons, is an intimidating book to review. Published in 2015, not only has it thus been reviewed fairly recently in the Serious Papers, but it and those reviews have been discussed by much greater and more academic minds than mine in the Iris Murdoch studies community. In addition, I know not only the two editors, but also those who keep the archive and who consulted on and even proofread the volume, to varying degrees. On top of all that, it’s also the letters of my much-loved favourite author; indeed, I once received a letter from her myself (not so surprising, given the volume  of her correspondence), alas lost decades ago in a house move. So I hope I do it justice, and I’m responding to the book here in a personal, not critical way (which does fit in with my use of Reception Theory in my research, right?!).

Avril Horner and Anne Rowe (eds.) “Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch 1934-1995”

(Bought from Foyles, 2 July 2016)

Murdoch’s collected correspondence at last (or at least a small proportion of the huge amount that must be out there), boosted by the acquisition by the Archives at Kingston of several important runs of letters in recent years.

My main reaction to this was that she was so darn busy. She often writes to the same person on consecutive days, and these are big, meaty, handwritten letters. She does say she can’t act without speaking in one letter, and indeed she works out thoughts, feelings, reactions and relationships through the letters. On any one day she appears to be answering letters (for up to 4 hours per day, apparently), carrying on affairs, often simultaneously, being married, making, breaking and remaking friendships and relationships, doing philosophy and then writing – no wonder she and John Bayley let the housework slide a bit!

The other massive point this made to me was the difficulty of making arrangements in a pre-digital era. I remember this – of course I do – but it’s quite shocking to see the amount of time and energy that has to go into, for example, letting people know which address to write to; making silent phone calls to alert people that she needs to speak to them; sending stamped addressed postcards for people (mostly Canetti) to use to let her know if they can meet her (I really don’t like the way she debases herself in front of some people, primarily him, however much he inspired her to create her wonderful fictional monsters); and trying to recall the names of pubs, outside which she will be at 3.40 on 4 March, for instance. I couldn’t help wondering how many more novels we’d have had if she’d lived in the age of the Smartphone, although given her propensity for writing in longhand into the 90s, I wonder if she’d have taken to it. Surely, she’d have loved the intrigue of Facebook Messenger, though?

I was struck by how interwoven Iris and John were into her mother’s mental decline, and this was distressing, imagining how she might have felt as her own brain started to skip words and lose things. Indeed, the final letters show this – or discuss it – hard things to read but I felt just the right representative examples were included, and nothing too intrusive.

On a lighter note, although the novels are not much discussed, save the odd research trip to, for example, Lot’s Road Power Station to research the location of “Bruno’s Dream” and some discussion of points raised in people’s letters, her reading does come up quite a few times, and I was regularly entranced by finding favourites there. She reads Ada Leverson’s “The Little Ottleys” in 1966; I bought the first volume late last year and of course had to download the whole lot; she enjoys Sylvia Townsend Warner’s “Lolly Willowes” in 1967. She demonstrates a good working knowledge of Tolkien, mentioning his magic metal, mithril, and falls in love with Widmerpool from Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” in 1971. She discovers Trollope at the age of 54, a decade and a bit older than my discovery of him, but finding him more conducive to a good solid read than she did at a younger age. I smiled as she struggles through having to (re) read the whole of Virginia Woolf in a short space of time for a lecture, and was surprised to find her not discovering John Cowper Powys (who I knew somehow to be a favourite author) until 1984 – I have yet to explore him but really want to, as he apparently affected her later novels.

I was very pleased to find her in Iceland at one stage, although she does claim there aren’t any trees – maybe they’ve grown since then. But it’s always nice when your interests overlap. She even meets Halldor Laxness, “a very nice old bean”!

Of course it goes without saying that the introduction to the book, the introductions to the sections, the captions to the letters and the notes are impeccably done. The introductory pieces set the letters in their contexts and also discuss the novels in some detail, which is useful for the reader coming to this book from those. It’s an excellent read, the product of a busy but overwhelmingly warm, attentive and caring person, sometimes very cross indeed but always human and thoughtful.


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