Book reviews – Jane Smiley – “Champion Horse” and “Star Horse” #amreading #books


Two in one today as these two books are the final two in a five-part series and follow on from one another without a gap. By the way, this pile is looking pretttttty good now: all that’s left are the Sagas, the Earlene Fowlers and one IndriĆ°ason. So the TBR shelf has receded a little, but the Pile is practically gone!

Jane Smiley is famous for writing each book in a different genre, and she’s worked her way through the campus novel (“Moo”), the unreadable Icelandic saga (“The Greenlanders”), romance, Shakespeare re-workings, all sorts. She did one about racehorses which I really liked, then started on YA pony books – and of course, being YA pony books, you can’t just have one, you have to have a series, so she did one. As I’ll explain, the blurbs don’t really fit the books, but they’re good reads for the more serious pony book fan.

Jane Smiley – “Champion Horse”, “Star Horse”

(7 April 2017)

The final two of her Abby books and a nice read, although the puffs on the front and back covers would likely leave more excitable readers a little disappointed. On the first, we’re asked whether Abby can tame this feisty horse, and on the second, told that she is offered opportunities away from the family farm, which isn’t the whole story by any means. The horses on the covers are also surrounded by stars and sparkles, whereas a nice thing about Abby is that she’s resolutely ungirly and not bothered about all the high school fuss. Anyway.

The books are written in the somewhat flat, plain tone of the other novels – which is fine, as Abby is a plain thinker herself, and this works as she negotiates High School and its changed priorities (suddenly you have to select a special hairstyle in which to present yourself, for example), as well as her horsy responsibilities and her religious family (this last is presented sympathetically although with pity, as the world slips from easy distinctions and rules).

In “Champion Horse”, she has trouble getting her own horse, True Blue, to jump, but does well with friend Sophia’s Pie in the Sky. But why is Sophia not riding her horses herself? The eating disorder theme in this book is treated wisely, with the effects on the person’s friendship group and family looked at and a tentative but not fairytale solution shown in the margins of the story.

In “Star Horse”, Gee-Whiz, an ex-racehorse, comes to the ranch and Abby uses some of the techniques she’s learned with Blue (and rejects others even though they’re presented by an expert, with support from her friends) to teach him to jump. She also has to face saying goodbye to Jack, the surprise foal of an earlier book, when it’s time for him to start his racing training.

There’s a lot of detail about training horses here, including descriptions of lessons and practice sessions, which I found interesting but would probably bore a non-horse person. Especially in the last book, the modern world – pop records! Vietnam! – start to intrude into the family’s world. And then … it just stops. But good reads.

I’ve read two more books since these so be prepared for more reviews. Two cracking ones up next! What are you reading? How ARE you?

Book reviews – Mark Ellen “Rock Stars Stole my Life!” and D. E. Stevenson “Mrs Tim of the Regiment” plus … #amreading #books


Two more books from my massive reading stint today and a funny pair but one that ended up at the front end of the TBR shelf. Both offered a good, dense amount of text that took me a little longer to get through, so perhaps these offered more reading “value” than the crop of novels from yesterday’s reviews, although I needed that lighter stuff, too.

Mark Ellen – “Rock Stars Stole My Life!”

(03 October 2016 – Penzance)

The music journalist and magazine editor (and fan, and bass guitarist) writes his autobiography. Although full of rock’n’roll excess and excitement and almost as indiscreet as promised on the cover (he certainly writes openly of his feelings about the management of publishing companies; I suspect that the part of my job that makes me a transcriber for music journalists interviewing various musicians has inoculated me against indiscretion in that area), it’s fundamentally a story of a an essentially kind, decent and loyal person who appreciates the path he’s gone along. He’s generous in his praise of his colleagues and I loved reading about the ins and outs of magazine life – especially the gone but not forgotten Word magazine. A good example of the rock write biography (OK, there are only two I can think of and both have been good) and very enjoyable.

D.E. Stevenson – “Mrs Tim of the Regiment”

(03 September 2016 – from Astley Book Farm, the last remaining read from that trip!)

An absolutely charming book and I’m raring to read the three sequels (although I sadly find they are v expensive second hand and not reprinted (yet?) – I will keep a firm look-out for them). A little like the Provincial Lady in that it’s in the form of a diary of a nice lady with children and servant problems, but Mrs Tim is an Army Wife, used to moving at the drop of a hat and also taking a pastoral role with the wives of the lower ranks while dealing with the angels and horrors at her level and above.

Mrs Tim has admirers but professes not to realise this – she comes across as sweet rather than annoying in this, luckily. There’s a move and all the horrors that entails, social calls that are almost unbearable but lovely neighbours, and a delightful interlude in Scotland when she gets to take a little holiday with one of these neighbours (plus the woman’s lovelorn son and completely batty relative).

Not much actually happens in the novel: some love is found and lost, yearnings happen, ghosts might be seen and there are episodes with the children; it’s a little uneven, too, mainly episodic and veering at times between farce that’s more farcical than the Provincial Lady and lyricism that’s more lyrical, but it’s a lovely, engaging and attractive read and fabulous as a whole.

One addition to the TBR shelves has come in the form of Jess Phillips’ memoir / polemic / call to action, which my friend Meg very kindly got for me (and got signed for me) at her book launch. I had to start it almost straight away and I think it’s brilliant – straight-talking and honest and explains how she got to be how she is and where she is (MP for a local constituency and loved/hated in equal measure).

Book review catch-up: Debbie Macomber and Jenny Colgan #amreading #books


Hello after a bit of a gap – I have got lots of reviews for you now as I’ve been doing LOTS of reading. I’m going to revert to my multiple-books-in-one-review strategy for a post or two otherwise I’ll never get caught up again! Unfortunately, I was a little under the weather last week: I’m OK and nearly back to full strength and it’s done wonders for the TBR and its associated Pile (see my May TBR post for the Terrible Pile).

Debbie Macomber – “Alaska Skies”, “Alaska Nights” and “Alaska Home”

(April 2017)

A set of six books (two in each volume – she does this a lot) plus a novella detailing a couple of years in the life of the fictional small town, Hard Luck, Alaska, North of the Arctic Circle and suffering from a bit of a population imbalance. The three O’Halloran brothers decide to recruit some women to work in their town, mainly to keep the pilots from their air service occupied with some new people to meet, although it turns out the brothers are more interested in keeping the ladies to themselves. Some women move to the town to find love (they don’t usually last long), some to escape, some for the challenge, and some for other reasons, as the wise cafe owner, Ben, finds out. It’s not too stereotyped – the men are gently mocked for being rubbish at romance or showing they care rather than just being strong, mean types, and there’s gentle humour and affection throughout. There is a bit of a similar pattern in the romance is threatened, will they, won’t they type stuff, but that showed up more because I galloped through these all one after the other in a couple of days. The novella, set about 15 years after the main books, gives a great resolution to people’s stories and is nicely done.

There are different characters to enjoy and the small-town community, as always, is done really well and attractively. Alaska, with its long nights and snow but flower-filled summer tundra, is almost another character and is charmingly presented. A great comfort read.

Jenny Colgan – “Class”

(29 October 2016, Buxton)

Originally published under the name Jane Beaton, these didn’t do as well as they would have under the author’s real name, so they’ve been republished, with at least one more in print and maybe others to come.

This is described as the school story for grown-ups that the author wanted to read, and it certainly is that. It takes the tropes of the girls’ school by the sea, the strange mix of teachers and the new intake of students, jostling for position, but views most of it from the point of view of Maggie, newly moved from Glasgow with a chip on her shoulder about entitlement, and the head teacher, who has a past of her own. There’s a scholarship girl as well as the usual mean girls and trendies, a bit of traditional peril, and a handsome teacher from the boys’ school along the coast, so a good mix without being too silly or melodramatic.

I did find an emphasis on weight loss but a jokey dismissal of eating disorders which doesn’t make it suitable for all readers (although the girl in question doesn’t lose weight and proves to have sporting prowess, so maybe that balances it out a bit). But the range of characters and stories is good and I will definitely look out for the next volume.

To come, we have Mark Ellen’s autobiography (at last!), Mrs Tim of the regiment and some pony stories. What have you all been up to? I know I’m behind on my blog reading (and my own competitions, sorry!!) so share some fun facts about your reading over the last 10 days or so, please!

Book review – Diana Mosley – “A Life of Contrasts” #amreading #books


To be read April 2017Another Mitford Sister today, this time “the other right-wing one”, Diana, who married Oswald Mosley, he of the Blackshirts, and hung out with Hitler and other senior Nazis alongside her sister Unity (“the REALLY right-wing one”, perhaps). It’s always interesting to read about the same lives from different perspectives, something you only usually get reading about the Bloomsbury set and other large groups of people.

Diana Mosley – “A Life of Contrasts”

(04 October 2016, the Cook Book Shop, St. Just, Cornwall)

This unprepossessing-looking autobiography, published in the 1970s with quite a dull cover, was actually in the main a lively and interesting read. She certainly had the writing skills of her sisters and I find it so interesting, as I said in the introduction, to read the words of several of the sisters, getting different angles on both their lives and those of their sisters and parents.

Here, of course, we gain insight into her and her husband Oswald Mosley’s (her first husband is dismissed quite summarily: she fell in love with Mosley, decided to throw in her lot with him and got divorced; her first husband remarried and lived happily ever after) imprisonment during the Second World War, including the way they had to live and how their family pulled together to look after their children. There is a stark contrast between contemporary reporting of their conditions and the harsh environment they had to endure, even when under house arrest.

There is at this point and at the end of the book (which does feel like filler) quite a lot of political and historical chunks. There’s not too much (but a little) that is actively distasteful, by which I mean very unpleasant social ideas, but most of it is political and economic history and just a bit dull. She also doesn’t mention some of the sisters much – Debo only in the context of their life in Ireland, Pam as a reliable sort everyone wants in a crisis, and Decca a remote presence (and furthest from her politically, of course).

But there is a lot about Unity, naturally, as they were the closest in politics and age, and Nancy, as they both lived in France. There are also pleasing details about Gerard Brenan, who crops up in SO many books I read about the period, and Lytton Strachey and Carrington. So a good read overall.

This book fills in the year 1977 in my relaxed and fairly natural Century of Reading. “White Ladies”, by Francis Brett Young, which I am still currently reading, fills in another year, and that will make it up to 66/100! My largest remaining gaps are in the 1940s, 1960s and 1980s – do pop over and have a look and recommend me a book that will fill in one of my years if you have a moment!

State of the TBR May 2017 and a small confession


I’ve had a good reading month in April (1o read in total, not all reviewed yet) but I have to confess that I’ve lagged in my competition admin – everyone waiting for the “Girl Up” draw, I promise I’ll do that soon. Events have been conspiring to send me all the fabulous reading, work and running opportunities recently and something has to give.

So, I think the TBR’s looking rather good – the front shelf only goes up to “The Gallery of Vanished Husbands” and is looking much better. I have some real crackers on there, too, that I’m very much looking forward to reading.

However, I haven’t shared a picture of The Pile recently (I’m not sharing the Kindle: that’s a step too far) so here it is in all its glory. The pile is meant for books that a) I’m reading bit by bit (the Sagas of Icelanders), b) books in series that I want to keep in order (the rest of them – nearly done with the IndriĆ°asons!) and c) books in series where I haven’t read the ones that come before them but after the last one I read (I have given up on this with the Earlene Fowlers and am going to read these soon, otherwise they languish for EVER).

Of course, review books hover around on here or on top of the shelf: do you have separate areas of your TBR or is it one great big mass of joy?

“Whiteladies” by Francis Brett Young, in this rather delicious Worcester Pear edition, is what I’m reading at the moment. I’ve only just started but it looks to be a sweep of a saga set just outside the Black Country as industrialisation and capitalism hit the Midlands. I love this writer, and yes, this is a signed first edition, but it’s unlikely I’m going to stumble upon a “reading copy” of it so I’m reading my first edition. I don’t like to be too precious about such things and it’s not in perfect condition to start off with. I know I have a few FBY fans among my blog readers; if you haven’t tried him, he does lovely big, meaty books full of great characters and if you know the Midlands well, a lot of them are set here, which is marvellous. If you use the Search function you will find my earlier reviews; I haven’t read one for a while and I’m really looking forward to settling into this one.

These are the next books to read: I’ll be taking the D.E. Stevenson and Mark Ellen on a short trip this week where paperbacks are easier to deal with than a big 1930s hardback, and then more music, Woolf-ness, microlending, light fiction and that tempting book on bookshops bought on my trip to Buxton (I forgot that when I mentioned the London trip in the last blog post: of course I went to Buxton with the lovely Laura and did the bookshops there, too!). Jools might need to shuffle down a bit, actually, however much I usually read books in acquisition order, because I don’t like to read two similar books next to one another (do you? probably not, I imagine). Anything take your fancy there?

Naturally, I’ll also be reading from my Kindle, as I have two NetGalley books and four Elizabeth Fair novels still to read (and the rest!).

And a final April confession, picked up in the naughtily tempting The Works and books I would have bought anyway, honest. But they’re on the TBR and it’s not too big, so …

How was your April reading and what’s May looking like for you?

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