“The Unicorn” round-up and “The Italian Girl” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch


It’s the last day of the month, so it must be time for an #IMReadalong update. We’re galloping through the oeuvre, aren’t we – and I hope you’re still with me! – so here’s a quick round-up of “The Unicorn” goodness, and a preview of the delights to come with “The Italian Girl”.

“The Unicorn”

I was a bit later with my review of this one, but got it up before the end of the month, so that’s a win, right? And I don’t mind a bit if other people lag behind a little (or a lot!) as long as you’re enjoying your reading. Here’s my review with a great discussion that flourished just at the end of the month in the comments. Jo has reviewed the novel on Goodreads and has some great points to make about the hysteria and fairy-tale of the book. Brona has done a great review with some images of the real landscapes IM based the book on.

My three copies are shown above; Peter Rivenburg and David Mahon both have the somewhat lurid 1963 Penguin (do we think Hannah looks like this? I’m sure she should have more and red hair. Or is it Marian?

and David contributed the blurb, too:

If you have comments to make or links to blog posts or Goodreads reviews to post, you can put them here or (better still) on the review.

“The Italian Girl”

Is this the shortest of Murdoch’s novels? My two paperbacks run to 171 pages, with the hardback stretching out a bit more with some Very Large Print.

I treated myself to the rather odd first, and still have my 1985 Penguin – I remember reading this early, so would have got this a few years after it came out. Then for anyone following our theme of women in white dresses running away through trees, I think we might have bagged one with the Vintage!

This is a classic Murdochian tangle of family secrets and generations of dysfunction, as the blurbs make clear. Much more detail in the first edition than either of the other two, this sums it up really, although I feel it sounds quite like “A Severed Head” in this:

The Penguin has a much shorter blurb than some, but with some good establishment press support:

and as usual, the Vintage sort of blends the two, with a bit from a different newspaper to add a bit of spice (ancient experience, though? Is it based on a myth I’ve not understood?):

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “The Italian” along with me? Are you catching up with the others or have you given up)? What’s your favourite so far?

You will find a page listing all of these blog posts here, updated as I go along.

Book review – Dan Hancox – “Inner City Pressure: The Story of Grime” #NetGalley @4thestatebooks @danhancox


I requested this book via NetGalley, after being notified of it by the publisher, mainly because in my job as a transcriber for music journalists, I often come across (and have to check the endlessly inventive spellings of) the names of grime artists, but apart from seeing Dizzee at the Olympic Opening Ceremony, spotting the odd posse of artists shot against a tower-block skyline and some very fast beats as I surfed the music TV channels and being transfixed by Stormzy’s track Blinded by your Grace, I haven’t known much about this modern, urban genre. I leapt at the chance to find out more, and I can honestly say that this book really opened my eyes and changed my opinion on the music. I’ve even compelled Mr Liz to listen to some Wiley!

Dan Hancox – “Inner City Pressure: The Story of Grime”

(26 March 2018)

An excellent book on the music genre of grime, which sets it brilliantly against the neglect and then externally-forced gentrification of the areas of East and South-East London where it grew up as a result of those pressures. There are plenty of marvellous, apposite and wonderfully written descriptions of the dual nature of the growth of the City and the decline of the inner city, juxtaposed but with a barrier between them that is never crossed.

What comes across most strongly through the whole book, from the beginnings of grime in a pre-social media age to its current incarnations, is the community, communal nature of the genre, starting off with many of its proponents’ parents knowing each other, moving to people inviting each other on to their pirate radio shows (the descriptions of the pirate radio era are fascinating and compelling in themselves), and supporting each other. Another aspect is the DIY nature of the scene, with people selling records and t-shirts out of the car they buy with their first income, or borrowing money from their nan to buy a camcorder then home-producing DVDS. This turns out to be why even now grime videos tend to feature a group of friends in their neighbourhood).

There’s also a refreshing lack of consumerism, embraced sometimes in the mid-period resurgence of more pop-friendly tracks, but rejected as the artists realised they failed to see themselves reflected in these brands’ advertising. Artists have tended to work with brands such as trainers sold in JD Sports, for example, keeping close to their origins and the buying power of their fans.

Regenerating London is beautifully and humorously described, and there’s a real anger at the politicians, well-founded and well-backed up, and a real admiration for the artists and their tenacity and entrepreneurship. Although it’s very much not a hagiography, and details of beefs and violence are not skirted over, the author has been involved in and reporting the scene for a long time and has obviously gained the trust of his subjects through repeated interviews, and can take a long view on their changes and development. He quotes them verbatim, not cleansing their speech too much, which is refreshing and respectful.

There’s some really good material on how grime has been blamed for violent culture rather than reflecting them conditions imposed on its artists and communities, institutional racism and the like (although, as we see, it’s not a monocultural institution itself). There are also good and interesting points made about the multiculturalism of the grime movement: not just black and white artists, but people from a huge variety of African, Caribbean and multi-generational backgrounds (contrasting with US rap, which tends to be less diverse), which the author claims comes from the natural multiculturalism of the working classes on the estates in question, rather than an enforced, establishment version. Hancox carefully picks out the many cultural and musical influences which have come into play in the construction of grime and this is both fascinating and vital.

Wiley comes across as a real hero for donating time and money to the people coming up alongside and after him, but everyone appears to help other people and this is an aspect which is not really found in other music genres. YouTube channels may have replaced pirate radio and grime may have experienced various strands and changes, but it remains lively, funny and very British. The final words of the book sum the whole thing up:

The power of grime comes from transmuting the anxiety, pain and joy of inner-city life into music. That power shifts and bends its form as the world around it changes, and it will continue to do so.

Thank you to 4th Estate / HarperCollins publishers for making this book available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Book review Jane Austen – “Teenage Writings” plus something in the post and a Dull But Necessary thing #amreading #bookconfessions #20BooksofSummer


A bumper post today full of fun … well, and a Dull But Necessary Thing. Shall we get that over with first? Some of my lovely readers receive my reviews and other blog posts by email because they’ve signed up for it. And although it has a double opt-in and you have an unsubscribe message on every email, I had to put it on my GDPR Compliance and Privacy Policy statement, so if you want to read that, pop to the link and otherwise I’ll never mention it again. There’s more to my statement than just this blog, because I run a business and have customers, but I thought I ought to mention it. Now to the review and Acquisition.

Jane Austen – “Teenage Writings”

(06 June 2017 – from Kaggsy)

Kaggsy at The Ramblings kindly sent me this nice Oxford World’s Classics edition of Austen’s Juvenalia – I think she reviewed it for Shiny New Books but am not sure, although I half remember seeing her blog about it. Anyway, here we have those three volumes of Austen’s early, unpublished works that were circulated among friends and family, and the reading experience is a little patchy, I have to say – they were obviously packed full of in-jokes that now need explaining, and some of the very youthful stuff is a bit silly – but it’s still an insight into how she developed her craft and her ability to keep people amused and spellbound. I prefer the later pieces where she doesn’t rely so much on drunkenness and very weird punctuation and opens out into more of herself. “The Three Sisters”, though it does have drunkenness, is very funny especially on what one should expect from a husband, and Lesley-Castle has some sharp and funny comments about friendship, especially epistolary forms where you’ve long tired of the person but keep writing jolly letters to them.

The asterisks marking notes are a bit intrusive – the notes are great but of course cater to the greatest need. I wonder if just putting the notes under their page numbers but leaving off the asterisks and letting the reader decide what to look up might have worked a bit better. Of course, there are introductions, notes on the text, bibliographies, etc. enough to satisfy the most demanding reader. A necessary and good collection that will appeal to a wide range of people.

Now another book in, this time “The Maiden Dinosaur” by Janet McNeill, which I won in a competition (which I have to admit I entered slightly by accident. And look, not only the book but a lovely postcard AND a Seamus Heaney bookmark, all from the lovely Cathy at 746 Books (here’s her review in case the pic whets your appetite: you know this will have got behind all those books from Tuesday unless I alter my book choosing pattern!). Thanks, Cathy!

I owe you and NetGalley a review of Dan Hancox’ “Inner City Pressure” which is a simply wonderful book situating the music genre grime in its sociopolitical context in a way that’s much more readable than I’m making that sound. That’ll come on Sunday, I think. I’ve just opened Paul Theroux’ “Deep South” and am actually enjoying it so far (phew).

Oh, and talking of Cathy from 746 Books, I’m going to be doing her 20 Books of Summer challenge again this year, starting from 1 June. Cathy’s posted a teaser here but the proper sign-up post will come out on 1 June and that’s when I’ll be announcing my Pile. I know I have eight Viragoes and Persephones to add for my August reading but will see where I am in the TBR before I make up the rest of the pile. I’m looking forward to the camaraderie and linkiness, though.

Does one more book break the camel’s back or not? Have you had anything exciting in or won any competitions recently? Are you doing 20 Books of Summer this year?

Shiny new review, Chase E. Robinson “Islamic Civilization in Thirty Lives” and, well, shiny new books! @shinynewbooks #bookconfessions


I’ve got another review up on Shiny New Books, Chase F. Robinson in “Islamic Civilization in Thirty Lives” has written an accessible introduction to the lives of some of the founding figures and important people in the first 1,000 years of Islamic culture and civilisation, with lovely illustrations and a good solid academic framework without being hard to read. Read more here and thank you to Thames & Hudson for sending me a copy of the book in return for an honest review.

I’ve got another full review to publish tomorrow so I’ll add to this by sharing my wondrous Foyle’s bounty from yesterday. I gathered together all the book tokens in the house, including some half-used ones with very odd amounts on, and as the TBR was sort of getting under control and I’d seen loads of things I wanted to buy last time I was in the shop, had a bit of a splurge. But look what I got!

From the bottom upwards …

Simon Napier-Bell – “Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay: The Dodgy Business of Popular Music” – Napier-Bell is a legendary rock manager and this is full of anecdotes and naughtiness. In the sale for 75% off but also exactly the kind of book I enjoy.

Benjamin Zephaniah – “The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah” – I heard about this being out the other day and had to get it, after all, he’s local and I love his novels and poetry. This is BRAND NEW (shocking for me) but had £5 off the hardback price.

Garth Cartwright – “Going for a Song: A Chronicle of the UK Record Shop” – one I’d identified as needing to be bought the other day.

Vybarr Cregan-Reid – “Footnotes: How Running Makes us Human” – this one has been on my radar for a while and read by a few running friends, and I couldn’t not have ONE running book on the list. It’s an investigation of why we run and get so much out of it.

Clair Wills – “Lovers and Strangers: An Immigrant History of Post-War Britain” – a fascinating and important subject and right up to date, but also one of those lovely new Penguin non-fiction books. As is (its partner in the Buy One Get One Half Price deal) …

Harriet Harman – “A Woman’s Work” – had to be bought and will form an interesting contrast / companion to Jess Phillips’ autobiography.

Dave Randall – “Sound System: The Political Power of Music” – a Left Book Club publication which was also 75% off in the sale, finding the ways in which music has been a force for social change as well as a way to keep people in their place. I’ve just been reading a fascinating history of grime music which situates it very much in its socio-political context, so this seems a good buy.

Alan Hollinghurst – “The Sparsholt Affair” – quite a left-field one here, but I dimly remembered the author saying he’d been influenced by Iris Murdoch and this does look like a very Murdochian plot, with a group of friends from university staying in touch down the years. The only fiction book in the pile!

Neil Gaiman – “Norse Mythology” – his retelling, I have been feeling faintly guilty about not having bought this since I bought that other book on Norse mythology in December, so redressed that. These two were also Buy One Get One Half Price and yes, I chose the black cover for this one – more practical than the white.

… and finally, I was in town to meet up with the lovely Claire from the LibraryThing Virago Group, who was up here for a conference. She kindly passed me a Virago Green of Enid Bagnold’s “The Loved and Envied” as an extra acquisition for the day.

Have you read any of these? Which of them should I put first in the (back end of the) TBR?

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “The Unicorn” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch


I was already looking forward to this one (unlike last month’s read) and it didn’t disappoint. I must have read it early on in my Murdoch discoveries and love the Gothic qualities of the novel. Back in 2008, I did such a small review it’s not worth sharing, but wrote loads of notes to share in my discussion group – we all liked this one. As usual, there were some differences from my memories of other readings of the book, but it in no way disappointed, so another good month.

I’ve had the same cover image sent to me by Peter Rivenberg and David Mahon, the disturbing 1960s paperback with a face looking into a mirror – does anyone have any others?

Iris Murdoch – “The Unicorn”

(27 February 2018)

Oh, the opening to this book is the most gothic thing ever, isn’t it – the journey to a mysterious place to be a governess of all things, the mysterious pick-up at the station and odd characters to travel with, the wild castle and appalling scenery (just like “The Bell” and “rebarbative”, this book is definitely brought to us by the word “appalling/appalled”). By the way, I can’t understand why I didn’t realise before it was set in Ireland – lots of things point to that but I’d managed to ignore them before. Just shows what a re-re-reading can do. There’s plenty of doom and gloom and even slightly “Cold Comfort Farm”-y warnings – “No one swims in this sea. It’s far too cold. And it is a sea that kills people” (p. 12). The mentions of seven years being up are frequent and everything does seem fairy-tale and overly patterned, and indeed Gerald mentions “the pattern that is what has authority here” (p. 151)

Once Marian is installed, she tries to work everything and everyone out, as we do, and I felt like this passage was almost a commentary on how we find reading Murdoch’s works ourselves (I didn’t draw out a family tree for this one but started last time quite soon after this!):

There were many matters for puzzlement in the big self-absorbed house and she found herself still, sometimes disconcertingly, unable to ‘work out’ the relations of the individuals to each other. (p. 30)

Marian’s journey from thinking “This is mad” (p. 64) falling under Gerald’s spell as much as if he’d beaten her is fascinating and a portrait of what can happen when you get isolated from real, sensible living conditions and people. It’s a kind of mass hysteria which is fascinating but unsettling to read about. In a way, the small and tight community with its slightly sinister woman overseer reminds me of “The Bell”, but without that book’s honest and useful sense of purpose.

Who is the enchanter? Is it Peter, holding the strings from so far away, Gerald, manipulating and controlling everyone, or Hannah? Max seems to be Effie’s enchanter figure, along with Hannah perhaps, although Effie has come away from the blind adoration he had for Max as a younger man. Hannah is described near (although not at) the end of the action as having “so beautifully sent them all away in their different directions” (p. 208) – although she’s something of a blank at the centre of the novel, used for characters to project their feelings onto, some of them do create her as an enchanter for themselves, Marian and Effie chief among them, and maybe also Max, who is inexorably drawn to Gaze.

One really important feature here is perhaps the first real mention of “Ate” (p. 98-99) and the idea, so central I think to Murdoch’s novels that-

Good is non-powerful. And it is in the good that Ate is finally quenched, when it encounters a pure being who only suffers and does not attempt to pass the suffering on.

Also important to Murdoch’s themes is Effie’s vision, which unfortunately fades,

Love holds the world together, and if we could forget ourselves everything in the world would fly into a perfect harmony, and when we see beautiful things that is what they remind us of. (p. 173)

However, this does get a bit lost and there is no love left at the end, is there, with everyone dispersed, whereas there’s an important hint that Denis is the saint of the novel:

And with Denis’s words she had an eerie sense of it all beginning again, the whole tangled business: the violence, the prison house, the guilt. It all still existed. Yet Denis was taking it away with him. He had wound it all inside himself and was taking it away. Perhaps he was bringing it, for her, for the others, to an end. (p. 262-3)

There is humour still, although maybe not so much as previously (savage irony seems to rule the roost in this one, especially in the plot denouements near the end). I did like it when Effie meets Pip, Denis, Marian and Alice, Jamesie and Gerald and “bristled with dislikes” (p. 85). There’s also a rather amusing scene when Effie, quite unnecessarily, attempts to let Marian down gently.

Looking at our themes, of course water in the form of rivers and particularly the sea is very strong here, and the descriptions of the sea, starting at the beginning, are just magical and amazing. Does anyone write the sea like Iris Murdoch does? I loved the encounter with the seal, too. Hannah has the red curly mess of hair and Jamesie the boy’s curls, although I think Pip’s baldness/wisps are unique. We have the common duality of the two houses, Riders and Gaze (one suggesting movement and activity, one stillness and passivity) and the contrast of town and country in Effie’s horror at being lost in the countryside (his scene in the bog, though, lasted a shorter time and came earlier in the narrative than I’d remembered).  The bog scene is doubled by Marian’s loss of her shoe in the bog early in the novel, and she finds the glutinous pools similar to those Alice and Effie encounter near the end of the novel.

Max is an academic and Effie was and is now in the civil service, with a frighteningly efficient female underling, two very common Murdochian careers, reminding us of “The Flight from the Enchanter”. Stones are represented by Alice’s shell woman on her bed, and there’s a doubling when Alice resembles this herself later on’ the shells in that scene are described as glittering like jewels, echoing back to Hannah’s scattered jewels, left out on the table on the terrace. There’s another echo of the trinity of women encountered after Effie’s bog experience which I can’t really mention without a huge spoiler: don’t read the Introduction in the Vintage edition if you haven’t read the book before!

In links to other books, we don’t follow any women in pale dresses through the gloaming, although we see Hannah flitting away through the gardens. Marian and Effie’s big plan echoes Dora and Toby’s in “The Bell”. Max Lejour is perhaps a precursor of the tutor whose name I can’t recall in “The Book and the Brotherhood” or John Robert Rosanov in “The Philosopher’s Pupil” or even Bruno in his  yellowing age. Hannah’s psychological entrapment is perhaps hinted back to in “The Message to the Planet” when Patrick Fenman has a mystery illness attributed to another character.

Effie’s Humber getting stuck in the mud at the gates of Gaze recalls very strongly Rain’s Morgan getting into the river in “The Sandcastle” and I do love Murdoch’s slight obsession with cars. More subtly, doesn’t the “mahogany erection containing a mirror surmounted the fireplace and reached almost to the dim ceiling in a converging series of shelves and brackets upon which small complicated brass objects were clustered” remind us of James Arrowby’s similar arrangement in his flat in “The Sea, The Sea”? And there’s a very small mention of a mask, when Effie is too scared to look at a figure in case he sees on the face, “laid thereupon, like a hideous mask, the likeness of his own features” (p. 256). He’s also sent away with a Japanese print – does this mean he’s gained some sort of enlightenment, or is it just a decorative feature for him?

So, a powerful and mature work, frightening, engaging and very readable. A fairy-tale where things seem to drive to an inevitable conclusion which is Shakespearean or Jacobean in general in its savage irony of the events that fly in front of us one after the other. The Introduction to my copy agrees with me on the significance of the house names but sees practical “dear” Alice as the saint and as Denis having to go off to redeem himself; there’s more to it than that and I would like to re-read A.S. Byatt’s thoughts, but that’s for another time.

Please either place your review in the comments, discuss mine or others’, or post a link to your review if you’ve posted it on your own blog, Goodreads, etc. I’d love to know how you’ve got on with this book and if you read it having read others of Murdoch’s novels or this was a reread, I’d love to hear your specific thoughts on those aspects, as well as if it’s your first one!

If you’re catching up or looking at the project as a whole, do take a look at the project page, where I list all the blog posts so far.

Book review – Halldor Laxness (tr. Magnus Magnusson) – “The Fish Can Sing” #amreading


Oh dear, it’s all feast or famine with me, isn’t it? If only I’d KNOWN I was going to end up having a somewhat frantic couple of work weeks (with our weekend away in the middle, the reading time of which I slightly wasted reading that blooming Paul Theroux e-book) meaning that I only really had time to work, eat, sleep and run/volunteer, and didn’t get in much reading. What reading I did was devoted to “Islamic Civilization in Thirty Lives”: I’ve submitted my review to Shiny New Books and should be sharing it on here in due course. Things have eased now and I am getting more reading time; this one was a bit of a struggle but I think worthwhile.

Halldor Laxness (tr. Magnus Magnusson) – “The Fish Can Sing”

(03 June 2017, Oxfam Books)

A weird, short novel, set in Reykjavik almost before it was developed at all – there are recognisable street names and some shops and houses, but Danish is prevalent and the majority of people seem to lead very poor lives, with a thin overclass of the gentry bobbing above them.

Alfgrimur, our anti-hero, has a simple life living with his adopted grandparents and helping out with the fishing and running their odd kind of guesthouse, until he encounters two rather alarming women and Iceland’s most famous singer. The latter is an odd character, full of fancies and possibly fantasies, but he seems to see something worth bringing out in Alfgrimur, who he thinks is related to him (but how can he be?).  I love the little snippets of saga style, with its stock phrases, something I remember from “Independent People” (the book of Laxness’ I still like the best), and the euphemisms the characters use are like kennings* in their obscurity: “Runolfr looked into the cubicle and saw how things were” (p. 97). The viewpoint shifts, so someone who is world-famous is suddenly described as having missed his opportunity to become the town bell-ringer. Less engaging is the massive debate about barbers inserted part-way through.

Will our (anti-) hero stay in the weird boarding house with its shifting yet constant characters or move towards the gentry or further? Will he find his own way? Who is he actually related to, and who paid for the cream cakes, anyway? None of these questions are answered in this infuriatingly seemingly simple novel. But why should they be?

* A kenning is …

a much-compressed form of metaphor, originally used in Anglo-Saxon and Norse poetry. In a kenning, an object is described in a two-word phrase, such as ‘whale-road’ for ‘sea’. Read more in The Poetry Archive

I have a horrible feeling that I’ve missed layer upon layer of meaning and reference, but I enjoyed it for what I took from it.

I’ve finally started Iris Murdoch’s “The Unicorn” – hooray! It’s so deliciously gothic so far and I’m looking forward to getting properly into it. Has anyone else started – or finished – this instalment of the IMReadalong yet?



Book review snippets – Rolf Potts – “Souvenir” and Paul Theroux – “Figures in a Landscape” @ShinyNewBooks #Netgalley


Two books from the publishers and sent to me via NetGalley today, one great and one not as expected and not so great. I don’t even know if I can write the second one down in my journal as being finished or DNF as I think I’ve read slightly less than half of it properly …

Rolf Potts – “Souvenir”

(Jan 2018 – ebook)

Exciting Shiny New Books news for this one – my review of “Souvenir” is available now. It was a great book, recommended by my friend (pusher / enabler) Cari, and I think the series looks really interesting in itself. Do pop over and have a read – Shiny are also sharing all sorts of archive stuff as they’ve reached the grand old age of four!

Thank you to the publisher for choosing me to read this one.

Paul Theroux – “Figures in a Landscape”

(26 March 2018)

I thought this was a book of his travel writing, which I do love, but there was more literary criticism than I was prepared for, unfortunately all about writers I’m not really interested in (Maugham, Hunter S. Thompson, Thoreau (of whom he’s very critical). There was a lovely piece about Oliver Sacks and some nastiness about Britain; the piece on Hawaii was very interesting and it’s important to read about how messed up Africa has become but that was upsetting without any form of redemption. I nearly gave up at the long portrait of a New York dominatrix, but the book is, for me, good in parts like the curate’s egg.

This book was published on 08 May 2018. Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for letting me read it in return for an honest review.


Two quick reviews – “Debbie Macomber – “The Bachelor Prince” and Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen – “Oh my God What a Complete Aisling” #NetGalley #Omgwaca


Two quick reviews today – I was hoping to make it three but am a bit slow on my Halldor Laxness (he is deeply weird …). One is the second half of the Debbie Macomber I read half of for the Readathon, and the other a light novel that was a lot of fun, happily received from good old NetGalley (hello, 84% review rate!).

Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen – “Oh my God What a Complete Aisling”

(ebook, March 2018)

I enjoyed this fun and lively book and really liked the use of Irish English as the narrative voice is an Irish woman. I think I grasped the concept of an “Aisling” as that woman who buys new teaspoons for the office and puts up those laminated signs about unloading the dishwasher, and can drink herself to perdition but always finds her way home. I loved the fish-out-of-water sections, not really mocking either sensible Aisling or her more pretentious housemates, but showing the funny sides of both. Of course being chick-lit there’s a tragic bit thrown in as there always is, but it is integral to the plot and character development and worked well. I’m sure this will sell well, how clever of the authors to have a Facebook group first. And I couldn’t tell who wrote what, which meant it was very well put together.

Trigger warning: not one to read perhaps if you have a poorly relative.

Thank you to publisher Michael Joseph for making this available via NetGalley and choosing me to read it.

Debbie Macomber – “The Bachelor Prince”

(18 June 2017)

Quite a silly idea really, a prince comes over from a made-up European country to marry a rich American woman; of course someone completely else wins a date with him in a raffle at a romantic novel convention (perhaps the one the heroine of “A Little Bit Country” was trying to attend) and then he falls for her. There are amusing moments for sure, like when the prince keeps escaping his minders dressed as Elvis, and like the other book in the pair, the two women who think they are rivals are careful to be kind to each other. It’s a tiny bit dated as the heroine appears to have invented the latte in Seattle, and there’s an un-Debbie-like slip up in describing someone as “proving she didn’t generally look like an escaped mental patient” which was a bit odd, as she’s usually very careful. So not one of the most realistic, but a fun story.

I’m currently reading my Laxness and the book on Islamic history, which is a well-written and interesting read (thankfully!). I need to get on to the book of Paul Theroux essays that’s about to be published, and of course am itching to start my new Iris Murdoch …



Book review – Yusra Mardini – “Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian” #Butterfly #NetGalley


Butterfly cover MardiniAn amazing read which I urge people to have a look at. Although it has quite a lot about the warfare in Syria, the information presented is not graphic in the slightest, although the emotional effects and consequences are very strongly drawn.

Yusra and her sister Sara are ordinary Syrian girls – although they have great talent for swimming. Their dad’s a swimming coach, and actually the descriptions of his work with them, including pushing them very hard and ignoring injuries is more graphic and upsetting than when the bombs start.

When war breaks out, they don’t get much news. There’s gossip on the school bus and at first everything seems far away. Then their mum has to stop working at a spa a little way away, because gunfire and bombs are pushing customers away. Then it gets closer. Suddenly they’re being confronted by tanks when driving to grandma’s or finding their beloved training pool is actually being bombed. Among all this, Sara and Yusra are growing up, Sara’s rebelling a bit, they’re not going for the headscarf (and aren’t compelled to) because they compete in swimsuits (this is an issue, but one they can handle). They seem to get more and more bright and sociable as the war intensifies, but something’s got to give and when they can’t go to swimming practice any more, it’s time to think of a solution.

People have been leaving one by one, and they can see paths to take. These are awful paths that no one would want to take, including matter-of-fact finding of people smugglers and paying over of large sums of money (Mardini is clear that only those with some money behind them can afford to do this). The paths involve putting their lives in the hands of people smugglers and bobbing across the Mediterranean in a small unseaworthy boat. But that has to be better than going over the mountains:

‘We’re girls,’ says Sara. ‘We can’t go sneaking around in the mountains, being hunted by police, and waiting to get our legs broken. We can swim, let’s go by sea.’

Sara has said to Yusra that if it comes to it, they’re swimmers, they can save themselves. But of course they can’t do that, and while what Yusra hates is the myth that they towed the boat full of cousins and new friends across, of course it was less simple than that. They got out to make the boat lighter. They swam for hours, trying to keep it straight. Other people swam, too. Horrible. Again, the descriptions are visceral and haunting, but not graphic.

The struggle across the borders to Germany is as you can imagine – unimaginable in this day and age. They are forced to rely on the kindness of strangers and find this humiliating (wouldn’t we?). Once there, they are welcomed and happy but also treated like almost sub-humans, at the mercy of the authorities. Yusra really struggles with the word refugee and the feeling that that’s the only thing she is:

I sit in silence, struggle with myself for a minute. It’s that word. Refugee. It’s the bomb and the sea and the borders and the barbed wire and the humiliation and the bureaucracy. And yes, it’s the painful charity too.

But she realised that, like her hero Malala, she can talk for thousands or millions of people with the spotlight she’s been given, so she steels herself to do that, for which I salute her.

What’s fascinating but also somehow horrible is the role that social media plays in all this. They’re on Facebook, messenger, texting, sharing videos, but the Facebook posts might be to a Facebook group for boats in distress rather than a jolly book group, or you might be finding out that an old schoolfriend has been killed half-way through their escape. It really brings it home how this is a tragedy happening right now, to people like us, and of course that’s really important to know and remember.

There are a lot of positives – the story is really well-told, Yusra’s voice is lively and confident and bold and she’s so one-track-minded about her swimming, even being worried about making it to the Olympics because she’s a refugee rather than because she’s a brilliant swimmer (not that she’s ungrateful, but I love her aggressive ambition. Fair play to her). The moment when they step into the Olympic stadium in the Rio opening ceremony and the crowd just roars is lovely to read – I remember that moment, and it bringing me to tears. The people that help them in Germany are wonderful and we’re told that it was thousands of volunteers supporting the newcomers. The book ends on a positive note emphasising survival, and like I said at the start, there’s no gratuitous or graphic violence, so you can feel safe to read it and to give it to teenagers to read, I’d say.

This book is published on 03 May and I really do highly recommend it.

Thank you to Pan Macmillan for making this book available via NetGalley in return for an honest review

State of the TBR May 2018


Well, I read 14 books in April (OK, one was a children’s book, one was a Georgette Heyer and one was a Debbie Macomber, which helped, and I also had marathon taper time and a cold and marathon recovery time to do Reading). So the TBR isn’t looking too shoddy (the red and white book on a slant represents the end of the front shelf.

I would say I’m currently reading both of these, but in fact I finished the second story in the Debbie Macomber over lunch today, after I’d done my TBR photographing. I still have one from April to review, too (Yusra Mardini’s “Butterfly”, about her journey from Syria as a refugee determined to continue her swimming training). Halldor Laxness’ “The Fish Can Sing” is a bit of an odd one, about a boy growing up in a weird boarding house in pre-development Reykjavik, but it has lovely echoes of the sagas in it so I’m persisting with it.

Up next are these four, well, I’ve started “Oh, my God, What a Complete Aisling” on the Kindle already as it’s out on Thursday. Marian Keyes apparently loves it and it’s a country mouse turns city girl transformation story and amusing so far. I added Beverley Nichols’ “The Tree that Sat Down” to my somewhat ill-fated Dewey’s Readathon pile and didn’t get to it; it’s one of the replacement copies I have recently treated myself to after finding the anti-cat pee treatment didn’t QUITE work in the 1990s and it’s tempting me. The next Iris Murdoch is the marvellous “The Unicorn”, one I remember loving each time I’ve read it (for more, see my preview post here). and I have “Islamic Civilization in Thirty Lives” by Chase F. Robinson, which I was trying to save until I’d finished a job in a similar subject area, but is out this month and being reviewed for Shiny New Books.  A nice varied set of books, though, right?

Coming up after those and two more out-in-May NetGalley books (Paul Theroux’ “Figures in a Landscape” and Dan Hancox’ “Inner City Pressure”, so a book of travel pieces and a history of UK grime music respectively) I have these lovelies (yes, indeed, you wait for a Paul Theroux for years and then two come along). So, classics (Jane Austen’s Juvenalia is the first one), travel, social history (cooking in WWII), sport, novel set in India, classic (Eliot’s “Scenes from Clerical Life”) and sport.

No challenges in May that I recall, just my own Iris Murdoch Readalong, which I am still loving.

What are you reading now? And next? Any challenges?