“The Italian Girl” round-up and “The Red and the Green” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch


Welcome back to my Iris Murdoch readalong and we’re fairly galloping through them, aren’t we. Today we review the small and not very much discussed “The Italian Girl” and preview another book considered “minor”, I think it’s fair to say (partly because Murdoch herself apparently changed her mind on it), “The Red and the Green”.

“The Italian Girl”

I reviewed this one nice and early in the month here and we’ve had a bit of discussion in the comments already. Bookish Beck reviewed it on her blog but did comment that she felt she got more out of my assessment than out of the book itself. Annabookbel read her late mum’s first edition and reviewed it here. Jo has written a very thoughtful review highlighting Edward’s use of female stereotypes here.

Bookish Beck also submitted this great cover image from the 60s – one of the pretty horrific series of covers they did for her, which I secretly really like.

Maria Peacock has the 1967 Penguin with a fairly disturbing cover (who is this supposed to be?) and interesting blurb:

8 Maria Peacock Italian Girl 1967 Penguin blurb8 Maria Peacock Italian Girl 1967 Penguin

Peter Rivenberg again steadfastly sent me his cover images, noting the art on them, too. This is the late 70s Penguin with Botticelli’s Primavera (who is that supposed to represent or can we read meaning from the picture):

And also the 2000 Vintage Classic before my edition, featuring The Fall by Hugo van der Goes, so a range of themes overall!

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 Red and the Green”

Murdoch’s Irish historical novel is set in a very different Ireland to “The Unicorn”. It’s a mix of sexual farce and serious history which received mixed reviews on publication and I’m not sure is read much today (although I’m sure I met someone who said it was their favourite of her novels once).

I have the usual three copies: a first edition bought for this project, a 1990s Penguin (bought on 19 January 1995 when I was 23, presumably with a Christmas or early birthday book token; I had a habit of catching up with Murdoch purchases around January each year) and the new Vintage classic:

The cover image on the Penguin is Lady Lavery as Cathleen in Howihan by Sir John Lavery. I really don’t like the first edition image in the middle – what is that supposed to be? and I really like the gloomy and dread-filled new Vintage cover.

The blurbs: the first had a long description which you might not be able to make out, covering all the characters and themes. Perhaps they thought the book needed explaining:

There’s a lesson in first edition value, here, too, in the flyleaf:

I paid the very much lower of the two prices for it.

My Penguin is quite brief:

and then the new vintage takes its description of Millie (my favourite character, I remember) from the first edition, which is nice:

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “The Red and the Green” 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 – Clare Balding – “Walking Home” plus @ShinyNewBooks news #amreading #20BooksOfSummer


I’ve been getting on really quite nicely with my reading this month, with twelve books read – it’s a shame only five of those have been 20BooksOfSummer project books, but I kind of knew that would happen. I only have one NetGalley book and one book for Shiny New Books that I absolutely HAVE to read next month (OK, plus my Murdoch A Month) so that should allow me to get through a few more, and I have some slim novels and running books coming up.

Clare Balding – “Walking Home”

(21 August 2017, Oxfam)

Not the second volume of her autobiography we’d really like, but a book based around her popular (but unheard by me) Ramblings radio programme, describing people she’s met and walks she’s walked along the course of presenting it, and weaving in tales of some family walks around her parents’ home village and bits of her life here and there.

There’s a lovely chapter on the London 2012 Olympics (why does even reading about the opening ceremony still make me cry?) and her torch-bearing exploits and reporting on the swimming, and also a great chapter on the Walking Cure where she explores research and practical examples of the mental health benefits of walking (something I care about sharing deeply, as I help support a local Run and Talk initiative which encourages people to walk, jog or run and have a chat). She goes to Cornwall and doesn’t walk in areas I know but does talk about the Minack Theatre, where a friend of mine works, and she generally meets inspiring and fun people and has a good old walk. There are nice maps and photos, too. There is a very sad section about the loss of her puppy which I had to skip, but otherwise sweet and engaging and a fun, pretty light read with some serious messages.

This was Book 5 in my 20BooksOfSummer project.

Shiny goodness!

I reviewed Benjamin Zephaniah’s new autobiography on here recently, but I also submitted a less personal and more measured review to Shiny New Books, which was published this week. Do click through and use it as a springboard to find more fun new books to read!

I’ve now started reading Robert McFarlane’s “The Old Ways”. When I posted my original 20 Books Pile, a few people told me they’d been a bit disappointed by this, and to be fair, I set its bulk aside for the lighter Clare Balding book when I was having a slightly taxing week. But I’ve now started it (and discovered it’s almost like a heavier, more serious version of “Walking Home” anyway, being about, well, walking, the history of walking and people he meets along the way) and I’m finding it just marvellous, lyrical, full of lovely terminology and birds and landscape. I was a bit worried it was going to be the kind of book you have to immerse yourself in with swathes of time to read it, like on holiday, but actually I’m finding dipping in at mealtimes gives a lovely escape into a different world for a moment.

Book review – David Weir – “Weirwolf” #20BooksOfSummer #amreading


Look at me getting on with my 20 Books of Summer list like a pro. OK, it is 26 June as we speak and I’ve only read four of them, but I’m sure I’ll catch up. Certainly having worked on my work schedule, I’m finding more time for reading at the weekends at least, and some more time during the week.

It’s also been lovely to get some reading in the GARDEN done – outdoors, in the sunshine, soaking up that Vitamin D. We have managed to get the garden reasonably tidy, too, keeping on top of the lawn, weeding and deadheading – there isn’t much to our garden and gardening isn’t a joy to me, but it’s nice to keep it tidy. At the moment, the hedges in the back are large and fuzzy, but we have birds nesting in them and I’d rather have lovely birds than neat hedges and no birds! Would you like a bonus bird picture? I’ll pop one at the end.

Oh, and look at the date of acquisition of this book – I’m only 11 months behind at the moment!

David Weir – “Weirwolf”

(31 July 2017 – Poundland)

Poundland do have a shelf of books and you never know what you might find – the slightly out-of-date autobiography of the UK’s most decorated wheelchair athlete for starters!

This is an honest and open autobiography (written with David Bond, who gets a credit on the title page and a bio at the back) full of exciting race report but also reflecting on disability, disability sports and training regimes. It was published in 2013 so is a bit out of date, but also positive, pretty well ending on the high of his London 2012 triumphs.

We open, as all London 2012-based sports biographies do, with him preparing to race in the Paralympics. He explains exactly how he gets into and stays in his racing chair and I appreciate the level of detail throughout the book on the technical details of steering, etc., which adds a good level of depth to the narrative. We’re then back to a chronological telling of his story, from his father’s uncanny ability to recover from effort when in the Army, which he shares, through is early life fitting in with the other kids and not considering himself disabled.

Weir, who went to a special school, speaks of changes in attitudes towards disabled people since mainstream schooling as a default came in, however I was pretty shocked to read him state he would consider terminating a pregnancy if a child of his was disabled themselves: “… because I was brought up disabled, I wouldn’t want a child to be brought up in the same situation as me” (p. 147). I suppose he has the right to his opinions, and it’s great that he’s honest, but I was still shocked.

Moving on, it’s a book full of respect and praise for his coach, Jenny Archer – whose advice he prioritises over that of UK Athletics even when that gets him into trouble – and mentor Tanni Grey-Thompson. He’s pretty scathing about the different treatment given to disabled athletes in comparison to able-bodied ones, but at least he has sought to address that by setting up the Weir-Archer Academy to help young disabled athletes, including people who want to take part in sport for fun and to keep fit (I particularly liked that bit).

Weir is open and honest even about less positive aspects of his own life, such as his long-past recreational drug use and his debilitating fear of flying. He’s obviously an anxious man and it’s refreshing to see him share this, as well as his concerns about and for his children. In the end, I enjoyed most the bits about the technicalities of racing, shouting across to his friend Josh Cassidy about getting boxed in (I never knew they could call out to each other during races), etc. A good read.

This was Book 4 in my 20 Books of Summer project.

I’m currently reading “Sacred Britannia” which is excellent on the mixing of religions in Roman Britain, absolutely fascinating and I can’t wait to write up my review of it for Shiny New Books. Then it’s on to the next 20Books book …

Oh, bonus bird pic. HOW many sparrows?

Book review – George Eliot – “Scenes of Clerical Life” #20BooksOfSummer #amreading


Alas, I fear my cunning plan to leave review books (Shiny and NetGalley) off my 20BooksOfSummer pile is not doing me any favours (did anyone see THAT coming??). So far this month, I’ve read and reviewed eight books, of which three were NetGalley review reads, one was for a Shiny / here joint review, one was just a normal read left over from last month, one was my Iris Murdoch for the month and two were for 20BooksOfSummer. Hm.

And this one, well, a bit disappointing (and that’s after having given up entirely on “The Accidental Apprentice”). I love George Eliot and I’ve been gradually reading all her books, after a phase (lasting 20 or so years) when I only read and re-read “Middlemarch” – as I find them, to make them last, and I do still have a few left to get hold of. I found it hard to get into this one and hard going; I don’t mind working for a classic but there wasn’t much to get hold of here, I found.

At least I’m now under a year behind in the gap between acquisition and reading … That’s something, right?

George Eliot – “Scenes of Clerical Life”

(29 July 2017, Oxfam)

Like other early books (that Jane Austen book from the other month springs to mind, and early Hardy in a way), this felt hard to get into, especially the first story, nad a bit over melodramatic, although the writer of the introduction of my copy seems to claim she’s realistic, not melodramatic. Because of the short story format, the characters are by definition not as well-established as in her novels, and although the web of society is there, it’s not fleshed out so much.

“The Sad Fortunes of Amos Barton” took a lot of getting past some old people visiting each other before we got to the story. There’s some good observation of our central vicar character, including sharp comments about how a tallow dip candle that belongs in the kitchen candlestick doesn’t match as well the silver candlesticks kept for best, and I liked Eliot’s boldness in concentrating on a fairly ordinary man and situation; her careful exactness on the effect of the gentry turning the head of a local vicar and the scene where the maid rebukes the fine lady are nicely done. There’s a weird bit of random criticism of the reverend’s hair, odd in a book that was apparently written from the life. We hover over house calls and clerical meetings in a style that will be familiar to those used to Eliot, and we also have a fair bit of her authorial voice and metafiction.

“Mr Gilfil’s Love-Story” gives us the back-story of someone mentioned in the first story, and as it’s told in flashback, we know it’s going to be a tragedy. It’s a bit odd and melodramatic, with Eliot really too far outside her main characters to make them attractive to the reader: she’s best on the controlling instincts of the old man of the family and there are some great scenes between the abandoned and new loves. Mr G is a truly, rather Iris Murdochian, good character and it’s interesting to see how Eliot develops him.

“Janet’s Repentance” is the longest of the stories and covers domestic violence (it’s very good on why Janet remains trapped in her awful situation) and alcoholism. I loved the narrator, an invisible but present figure who is there in church and chapel with Janet but then torments his younger sister with impressions of some of the characters. He reminded me of Murdoch’s narrator in “The Philosopher’s Pupil” – how can he see inside all the houses? Anyway, unfortunately there are too many women characters of a certain age to not confuse me, and the plot relies on having a fairly detailed knowledge/understanding of religious sects and divisions which is perhaps retreating further and further from the modern reader: Eliot does fill in the background but I was a bit confused there, too. Mrs Crewe and Mr Jerome are, again, selfless and good characters who work for the benefit of others, and this redeems the story.

So, sorry, George Eliot, this didn’t hit the spot for me. I’m sure many other people have read this and can change my mind … maybe.

This was Book 3 (oh no, oh woe!) in my #20BooksOfSummer project. Find the whole pile here.

Next up I need to be reading “Sacred Britannia” by Miranda Aldhouse-Green (about the intersections of religions in Roman Britain) to review for Shiny New Books (see a pic here), but I’ll admit to going in for a palate cleanser first so have picked up David Weir’s “Weirwolf” to read first. The story of his Paralymic success opens at the 2012 Games and is very readable so far. That’s Book 4 in #20Books …

How’s your #20Books going? Am I wrong about this Eliot?

Book review – Benjamin Zephaniah, The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah: The Autobiography #amreading


A wonderful book bought only recently (you can just see it behind the pink and black Thirkell in the pic), but read out of order because a) I wanted to and b) I offered to submit a review to Shiny New Books. That will be published later (I’ll link to it here as usual) and will be a more distanced and serious affair. This post is more my personal reaction to this book. As Zephaniah is about a decade and a half older than me, his protest and political poetry has been with me since my own political awakening in my mid-to-late teens. He was already a hero of mine; fortunately, this book has only made him more so.

Benjamin Zephaniah, The Life and Rhymes of Benjamin Zephaniah: The Autobiography

(22 May 2018)

You have to love an autobiography that starts with the words, “I hate autobiographies”. For a man who has lived a life based on authenticity and rawness, the fakeness of other people’s works of memoir is an annoyance, especially those who want to tell you about their side of the story when they’ve committed bad deeds, or people who are very young and write them just for the publicity.

His attitude to authority is established early on, in what has become a famous quote from the book. When asked by “a rather intimidating moustache attached to a uniform” what he wants to be when he grows up, he only has one answer, and then one reaction to the response:

’A poet!’ shouted the moustache. ‘A poet? When was the last time you saw a poet skin a rabbit? Think of something better, and when you do you’ll be one of us.’

I knew then and there that was never going to happen. I was never going to be part of the authority culture. (p. 17)

He does speak with love and affection of his father figure, his mum’s partner Pastor Burris, who acts like more of a dad than his dad does, leading him to repay this debt at the end of the pastor’s life.

The first part of the book does detail quite a lot of criminal activity – not gory detail but there’s plenty of it and stories of people who are lost to gang warfare and other activities. He also describes taking part in a ‘gay-bashing’ episode, falling victim to peer-group pressure, and hitting a guy in a wheelchair – I personally found it OK that he’d put these in, as he’s obviously ashamed of these actions and wants to make amends, and explains how it happens, perhaps to help other people make better decisions. He also explains a lot about the martial arts practice, running and meditation that he works on every day, seeking balance and peace in his life, so I think that balance is there.

A vegan before he knows the word vegan (and beating up someone who calls him one before he realises), he gets involved in animal rights activism but is asked to stop coming along to active operations because he’s just too recognisable, what with the massive dreads and the habit of breaking into spontaneous poetry. The book is full of amusing episodes like this, certainly not put in to glorify the subject (I also loved it when he got mistaken for Bob Marley on a plane).

There were loads of little points that made me smile. He did quite a lot with the wonderful Attila the Stockbroker in the early years of stand-up poetry in the UK when he was one of the few other ‘ranting poets’ (you can read my review of Attila’s autobiography here) and he’s also friends with the linguist David Crystal, borrowing his “just a phrase I’m going through” from Crystal’s autobiography to describe his early use of a lot of biblical imagery in his work. I was also very pleased with his little rant about self-publishing – thank you!

These days I’m not that keen on self-publishing, as I think a writer always needs an editor, and a lot of self-published books are full of spelling mistakes and use terrible typefaces. (p. 144)

Having said that, he put his first pamphlets of poems together himself and advises anyone planning to publish to have their own idea of what they want to do and to rough it out at least. He’s also a feminist, reading bell hooks and Simone de Beauvoir, even though as he admits he didn’t treat women well originally. Again, he admits his error, and he points out very forcefully that when he goes to a new country, he looks for the women to ask about life there, as the men will often be more free and not give the full picture (he does also suggest that to know a country well, you should have sex in it and get arrested – preferably not at the same time …

As he gets more famous,  he has to work out his media identity, as he finds that ranting about political topics doesn’t always get him very far. But he still does it whenever he has an audience, and good for him! He has an interesting take on the recent and 1980s riots, seeing it as all part of Thatcherite greed and wondering why the bankers get away with swindling the banking system but ordinary people loot a telly and the whole of the law comes crashing down on them. The points he makes about disenfranchised youth are close enough to those put forward in the grime book I read recently to make joined-up sense.

There’s loads more than this: him discovering Nelson Mandela read his poetry in prison and meeting the great man; John Peel’s concern when he does a gig in Harlow; meeting the Wailers; and becoming friends with Tony Benn.  There’s also a lot of very interesting musing on men’s infertility. Sometimes I felt I’d really like to see him in conversation with Robert Webb about boys’ upbringings and men’s need to suppress their emotions. But if you are interested in this stuff then you’ll read the book, won’t you. But I don’t just want to think of this book preaching to the choir: even if you don’t know who Benjamin Zephaniah is, I highly recommend this excellent read.

This was not on my #20BooksOfSummer list, but was picked off the shelf to review for Shiny New Books, with a more personal review here. I have rejected my first #20Books book, as “The Accidental Apprentice” opens with someone on death row and seems to involve kidney harvesting and is Not For Me. I haven’t swapped it as such, I’ll just add another fiction book in I was going to skip over. I’m currently reading George Eliot’s “Scenes from Clerical Life” and am enjoying it now, though found it a little hard to get into. What are you up to?

Book reviews – Lissa Evans “Old Baggage” #OldBaggage and Chloe Coles – “Bookshop Girl” #BookshopGirl #NetGalley


Two reviews of NetGalley reads for you today, because both are feminist texts that give voice to the struggles of the past and perhaps give a new generation ways to see the past and set out the future. They’re also two entertaining and fairly light novels.

Lissa Evans – “Old Baggage”

(Downloaded 20 April 2018)

It’s 1928. Mattie is an ex-suffragette, full of memories of beatings and action, force-feeding and prison, giving talks that don’t really fire people up any more, assisted by her adoring and practical companion, Florrie, “The Flea”, who took an admin role in the struggle, too. Mattie is a domineering character who believes in the power of direct action and shouting, a great character who you have to love, and Florrie is much quieter, goes along smoothing the way and achieves just as much through subtlety and careful good works. They make a great team, although Florrie has her secrets and sorrows and Mattie is constantly thinking of her lost brother, Angus. Although they’re not interested in marriage for one reason or another, both are firmly part of the generation of “extra women”, their menfolk lost in the First World War.

Fate throws a Fascist youth organisation in their path (and a rather splendid pair of villains) and they start a group for young women, flinging clubs and words around on Hampstead Heath (which is almost a character in its own right). Their maid is pulled into this, although class differences start to tell. Then another character from the past breaks through and all threatens to be pulled apart.

A quieter read, something other reviewers have commented on, but I enjoyed that aspect (reminiscent of Katharine d’Souza’s novels). Nothing shocking but there are some great scenes. I liked all the ex-suffragettes and Mattie’s indomitable spirit, but clearsightedness about how the struggle was. Set on the eve of the extension of the vote to women over 21 who were not householders, this is a good time for this book to be out, and I recommend it. An interesting time period to set it in.

This book was published yesterday. Thank you to Random House UK/Doubleday for making it available via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Chloe Coles – “Bookshop Girl”

(Downloaded 26 April 2018)

The amazingly named Paige Turner and best friend Holly work part-time in Bennet’s bookshop while waiting to escape the small town they’ve grown up in. When it’s threatened with closure, they set up a social media campaign, helped by some more experienced, older activist women who they meet at a life drawing class, and the slightly less useful but VERY handsome Blaine, self-declared anarchist and artist, who Paige of course embarrasses herself in front of at every turn.

I loved the feminist and activist statements woven skillfully throughout the book – it’s not didactic at all, with lessons learned already expressed strongly and new lessons learned about activism and craftivism. Small-town life is also captured nicely, but the feminism lifts it above a standard YA novel. There’s certainly as much discussion of sit-ins and protest between Holly and Paige as there is chat about boys. My favourite scenes were where bookshop worker Maxine terrifies some thugs (there are lots of older female role models, which is lovely) and when Paige finally realises what’s what and makes a passionate speech about the value of books.

This book was published yesterday. Thank you to Hot Key books for making this book available via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Amit Katwala – “The Athletic Brain” and some book confessions #20BooksOfSummer #amreading


I’ve managed to read the second book in my #20BooksOfSummer challenge, even though I’m slightly frantically alternating challenge books and other stuff I need to read and review for Shiny and NetGalley. A little bit of acquiring has gone on, too (oops, not oops) with two books from different publishers coming in for Shiny review and one being bought yesterday at a talk and book signing (rude not to, right?). But first let’s have a look at this book, enticingly subtitled “How Neuroscience is Revolutionising Sport and Can Help You Perform Better”, superimposed on a graphic of a running track. Oh – you’ll notice from the date that I’m JUST keeping to a year’s gap between acquisition and reading. I’m going to say that there will be a jump forward in that, because I know how “good” I usually am in the late summer, autumn, but we’ll have to see, won’t we …

Amit Katwala – “The Athletic Brain”

(12 June 2017)

I apparently ordered this one because someone mentioned it in the Runners’ Bookshelf Facebook group I’m in (although I can’t now find that mention of it). It’s written in an informal and accessible style and is obviously a work that has grown out of a great interest of the author’s; it’s just a bit of a shame that, for me, it overlapped a bit too much with other books I’ve read fairly recently, most notably Matthew Syed’s “Bounce”. He credits that very book in the bibliography and notes, so I’m in no way suggesting anything nefarious, it’s just that something must have been in the water and lots of similar research came out and got mulled over and informed these two books and probably others.

So the talking about training versus talent, and flow and the unconscious, automatic responses and movements that come with hours of practice was all stuff I kind of knew about already – however, nicely done and with good reference to a wide variety of both academic sources and interviews Katwala has done as a sports journalist. As well as the important sections on the role of brain research on visual acuity and the ability to make decisions rapidly through a variety of tools, and the way in which sports clubs of various kinds are using these techniques to train their athletes to do better, there’s also quite a lot about scouting, risk-taking and brain injuries, which, while important and interesting, make the book feel a little disjointed. But again, the research and synthesis is done really well.

I particularly like the author’s handiness with an analogue: for example, and there are lots of examples, the allocation of neural resources is described as being

on the general principle of ‘use it or lose it’, like overlapping games of cricket in a crowded public park.

and w meet some interesting and different people during the book, like the snowboarder, Billy Morgan.

Notwithstanding the running track on the front cover, there’s not that much for the runner here, as visual acuity and fast decision-making are more important in team sports or ones with an opponent. For our rugby, football and tennis playing friends, the most important things seem to be keep flexible, train your peripheral vision and have a go at focusing your attention more on, for example, the hoop in basketball before you shoot for the goal. The main bit about runners, apart from some interesting stuff about VO2 max capacity in twin studies and grit in general is about resilience and keeping going, with a suggestion that you train when tired (for example doing your long run after a day at work). I know that I used that tactic during my winter training for my last marathon and it worked well, so was pleased about that.

So, the author seems really nice and enthusiastic and has done a good work of research. I only felt a bit “meh” about this book because I’d read “Bounce” first. If I’d read them the other way around, I would have felt the other way around about them.

This was Book #2 in my 20BooksOfSummer challenge.

New in, first off my Shiny books. “Sacred Britannia”, by Miranda Aldhouse-Green and sent by Thames & Hudson, is about the clash and mixture of religions in Roman Britain. Sally Bayley’s “Girl With Dove” from William Collins has been popping up all over and was sent kindly along with another book, however I don’t feel I’m the best reviewer, so I’ve sent it along to one of the Shiny editors. And “King of the North Wind” by Claudia Gold is about Henry II. What do you know about him? Nor me – but I’m looking forward to finding out. Some beautiful books here and out in June and July so reviews coming relatively soon.

I was lucky enough to attend a talk and book signing by Blind Dave Heeley, the Black Country marathoner, ultrarunner, triathlete and all-round amazing and entertaining chap. I shared my story with him where I’ve seen him at so many races and cheered him on as he’s stormed past me that when I encountered him at the Road Relays earlier in the year, I assumed I knew him and greeted him with an “Orright, Dave,” as I ushered him down the funnel in my role as Official in Training. He said to give him a shove next time so he knows I know him. OK! Anyway, book purchased, massive guide dog patted, and here’s another good read (and his co-writer is listed on the front cover!).

I’ve just started reading “The Life and Times of Benjamin Zepahaniah” which is SO GOOD. I’m going to be reviewing it here and for Shiny, as it’s one of those books I think I will have a personal and a more academic reaction to. Oh, but it’s good. So entertainingly and honestly written. The first words? “I hate autobiographies” …


Book Review – Amy Clipston – “Room on the Porch Swing” #Tnzfiction #NetGalley


A light read after my Iris Murdoch readalong book and in the midst of quite a concentrated book about neuroscience and sport, I will say now that I refuse to class things as “guilty pleasures” but I do find myself fascinated by the life of Amish people and enjoying this fairly simple and wholesome genre.

Amy Clipston – “Room on the Porch Swing”

(01 June 2018 – NetGalley)

The novel opens with, as signposted already in the book description, the death of a young, just married woman and new mother. The loss of Savilla eventually throws Laura, her best friend, and Allen, her widower, into closer proximity than some would like, although Laura’s family is supportive, as Savilla’s mother helped them through the loss of Laura’s mother. I loved Laura’s family and the realistic group of siblings. I also liked the way the wider community is portrayed and things like the details of Allen’s buggy repair business. Another well-done point of interest is how the relationships between the men work, with friendship and mutual support paramount, and you can tell a bad’un by the way he backs away from his bereaved friend. Women have their own agency and skills, too.

Some books like this feel they have to load in lots of explanations of everything Amish, which can feel a bit grating and even patronising (I think if you pick up a book like this you’ve probably read others and know at least some of the stuff). This one avoids that, but with a useful glossary in the front, just in case. The Englisher neighbours are there, like the reader, as a benign outside presence, and the story of love developing but gossiped about and forbidden is nicely done in this gentle story with a heart.

This author is quite like Debbie Macomber, in that she draws people, their relationships and their place in their community very well, making an undemanding read a pleasure of a good, reliable quality. I would read more by this author: I think she has a series set in an Amish bakery, which sounds enticing.

Thank you to Zondervan Fiction for making this book available via NetGalley ni return for an honest review.

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


This is a very small book, I think Murdoch’s shortest? but my goodness, it packs a lot of Murdochian stuff in, almost like a distilled Greatest Hits (a bit reminiscent of “Under the Net” which I likened to an overture back in November). My copy is now festooned with post-it tabs so I hope I can make sense of my thoughts on this one. What I will say is that I kept thinking as I read it, “This is either a masterful portrayal of the complexities of family life and addiction or it’s a load of rows over sex and infidelity with a dodgy uncle thrown into the mix”. Maybe in someone else’s hands, it would be the latter, but we’re safe with Iris, aren’t we?

Iris Murdoch – “The Italian Girl”

(27 February 2018)

Well, if we’re looking for people chasing other people in white dresses through damp and dark woods, we’ve got them in bundles here, haven’t we (does this make up for the one book that missed one of these chases?) It’s even on the front of the Vintage reprint! Of course, we open with a classic return scene, almost another fairy tale, like “The Unicorn”, and indeed Edmund is requested by Isabel to be the healer in the household, surrounded by overgrown vegetation like Sleeping Beauty’s castle, reminding us of the talk of seven years that have passed in that previous book.

A note on the re-reading aspect: how had I forgotten that this is one of the male first-person narrator novels? I’m not sure IM loves Edmund as much as the narrators of “Under The Net”, “The Black Prince” and “The Sea, The Sea” (and, of course, “The Philosopher’s Pupil” – how I long to reach that one again) but he’s certainly a dry and seemingly self-aware but foolish chap, maybe reminding us of Martin Lynch-Gibbon from “A Severed Head”.

Those chases: Edmund starts out following his own dewy footsteps on the lawn. Then he follows Flora to the pool, observing the different colours in her pale skirt as they go. This pale dress appears and disappears among the trees in a very familiar way. Only a few pages later and he’s chasing Elsa through the rather revoltingly wormy lawn: “I seemed to see the fleeing figure somewhere in front of me”. He finally follows Flora on her final flight (in the rain, by the pools), and then Maggie back again, although he catches up with and carries her – this is obviously important.

Like in “The Unicorn” and indeed “A Severed Head” we are given a load of portents and warnings early on, in Isabel’s cluttered room that is different from the rest of the house particularly, which is full of images of overpowering fire. In fact, the large garden is there because there was previously a large house which had been destroyed by fire, and Lydia is described as having been obsessed with the fear of a fire, which is why Isabel has her big open fireplace in the first place.

Who is the enchanter and who the saint? Dead Lydia is said several times to be the only person who can control somebody (Flora, Otto …) and has a peculiar hold over Edmund and Otto even after she’s passed. Was Edmund’s father, the artist, a saint as well? He’s described thus: “Your father is not a good man, he is merely a timid man with unworldly tastes” (p. 17) and held in contempt, which usually indicates a saint. Isabel says of Edmund, “You lead a simple good life. You help people. Oh, I know about it. I wonder if you think it’s easy to be like that” although Edmund immediately counters that he’s selfish, so maybe he’s just filling a space in her pageant of types. Again, in this conversation he mentions that his father was a much “finer” man than he, so maybe in this novel both the enchanter and the saint are dead? Maggie also says Edmunds’s good, though, again countered by him saying that she is (and she’s quiet as a mouse, often a sign of someone good yet existing almost as a non-presence. Edmund talks about having been captured by magicians and being enchanted in the summer house when he misses his breakfast with Flora, but this sounds like an excuse to me, although then Otto talks about the siblings as being fairies or demons when he claims to have cast them out.

Attention comes up again, when Otto and David tiptoe around each other in the hospital, treating each other with “a gentleness, a tenderness almost, which in the midst of such grief on both sides seemed a miracle of attention” (p. 147) and we have Isabel’s moment of clarity in the hotel room where she sees the tabby cat in the garden when normally she wouldn’t have seen it. She has grown and changed and has new life to begin, unlike many of IM’s previous characters who just seem to travel the path they have been given; although she does describe life in the house as a “merry-go-round” with the implication that you can’t get off it. Mind you, Edmund also feels trapped “Some pattern too strong for me was taking me away, curving away back to the old lonely places” (p. 166) and then with a huge effort frees himself.

There’s humour again, just touches but they do raise a smile: I loved this description of the house from near the beginning, which recalls the furniture plans in “An Unofficial Rose”:

The dim electric light revealed the big landing, the oak chest and the big fern which never grew but never died either, the fine but entirely threadbare Shiraz rug, the picture which might have been by Constable but wasn’t which my father had got at a sale at a price for which my mother never forgave him … (p. 15)

There are Otto’s ridiculous dreams, with telephone dials turning into all manner of things, too, and Otto is described in a savagely funny way as like a gorilla, and needing to ingest similar amounts of foliage.

As to our other themes, Flora has the red hair this time; Maggie has a long bun, which seems odd, but unravelling buns are a theme and of course she gets it chopped off, another common occurrence. Isabel’s hair seems odd and complicated and adds to her strange charms, seeming to grow and acquire extra bits out of nowhere. Elsa also had flat metallic hanks of hair which someone else had in another novel – anyone remember? And she is the classic artificial woman who IM often seems to dislike, in her case revoltingly grubby and greasy. Otto has the big face and cherub-gone-bad features but might be the most revolting specimen we encounter in the oeuvre, and David Levkin is another prancing, merry Jamesie but with a darker side, perhaps.

Doublings are found in the two sets of siblings, in Edmund’s two mothers (Lydia and the stream of Italian girls). In a memorable description, we find that Otto is a wet-lipped man and Edmund a dry-lipped man. Otto and then Flora cry in front of Edmund and so indeed does Isabel. Edmund bangs on the summer house door and then Flora’s door. Edmund is expected to heal the household but only heals the cracked blocks of wood – and then I think leaves them there. He encounters Isabel and then David stripped to the waist in another uncomfortable couple of scenes. Water is there early on in the diverted stream in the garden and then of course the pool and waterfall that Flora climbs to escape. Again, some of the most beautiful descriptions are of this water. IM’s dislike of psychoanalysts slips through in a statement of Edmund’s:

My relations with women always followed a certain disastrous and finally familiar pattern. I did not need a psychoanalyst to tell me why: nor did it occur to me to seek the aid of one of those modern necromancers. I preferred to suffer the thing that I was. (p. 24)

There are some ivory water buffalo in Isabel’s room which seem the only nod to Chinese or Japanese art, although they’re usually linked to wise people, which I’m not sure she is.

In other nods to the other novels, Maggie loses (or “loses”) her shoes in the mud, recalling Marian’s adventure in the bog in “The Unicorn”. The chases under the trees, of course, echo most of the books and Edmund’s fawning over Flora remind us uncomfortably of Randall and Miranda in “An Unofficial Rose”. He is creepy, isn’t he, or are we just reading this with a modern mind: “All that came into my mind was the image of Flora. How exceedingly pretty she had become. I wondered how old she was” (p. 27). Isabel’s display of herself to Edmund reminds us of Annette’s dress getting ripped open in “The Flight From the Enchanter”.

I’ve just realised there’s no special introduction in this book (which basically means I’ve bought a fancy cover wrapped around the text of the 1980s copy I already had). I wonder why this is!

What would I say in conclusion? Yes, it’s an odd novel and a lot of it a bit distasteful, with gross images of sweaty grubbiness. But there is a way forward and a resolution, and a musing on attention. Is this one even read much any more? I’m not sure. But I did enjoy it.

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 – William Sitwell – “Eggs or Anarchy” #20BooksOfSummer @amreading


So my first #20BooksOfSummer book is done and dusted, and I’m quite relieved, as I do have a bit of a reading schedule going on this summer! I have a few review books on their way and some more NetGalley wins. So I think I’m going to alternate 20Books books and non-20Books books for a bit and see how that goes. Gulp. Anyway, here’s Book 1.

William Sitwell – “Eggs or Anarchy”

(10 June 2017; The Works)

A biography of Fred Marquis, later Lord Woolton, covering his whole life but concentrating on his time as World War II Minister of Food. It’s full of fascinating details about how food supply and rationing worked from the controlling rather than consuming side, so acts as a good complement to all those social history books we read about coupons and queuing.

It turns out that Woolton’s enemy wasn’t only Hitler, but much closer to home; although he was appointed by Chamberlain, it was Churchill who was his boss for most of his time in the Ministry, and Churchill assumed he was going to fail and also proved an annoyance in his dislike of going over details and his dislike, in fact, of rationing (I mean, no one likes it, obviously, but he was very against it, even when it was clearly the sensible thing to do). We also get lots of detail on the whole Ministry’s evacuation to Colwyn Bay (including a special extra railway halt for Lord Woolton to descend), and the Tube trains that delivered food supplies to the people sheltering in the underground bomb shelters. I also didn’t realise that people ate out a lot more than they did in peacetime, often at the British Restaurants that Lord Woolton invented and his wife, Maud, went around opening – all interesting stuff.

In other surprises, I had no idea that there was only one type of cheese that was allowed to be produced (Government Cheddar) until the end of rationing in 1954, which apparently set the indigenous cheese producers right back. Is this correct? The internment of “aliens” is of course better known, but I’d not really thought about the massive effect on hotels and restaurants, who often had Continental European maitre d’s and staff.

Simon and Karen will be pleased to note a cameo from Beverley Nichols, who was sent to interview Lord Woolton. Unfortunately, our hero didn’t get a very good impression of the writer (of novels, gardening books and mysteries, according to the author):

It’s amazing to see what poor specimens of mankind these popular writers are.

Apart from a few typos, this book was good and well-done, my only reservation being the slightly odd ordering of the end sections. The War finishes and Lord Woolton moves on, but then we get quite a lot about the health of the nation and sugar taxes now, plus a double epilogue covering the experiences of two shopkeepers during the War (which is very interesting), before we get back to the end of Lord Woolton’s life. This does feel a bit confusing in what is otherwise a competent book on a less well-known topic.

This was Book #1 in my 20 Books of Summer 2018.

True to my plan, I’m currently reading my Iris Murdoch readalong book, the (thankfully) very short, “The Italian Girl”, which is a cracking read so far. Then it’s on to “The Athletic Brain”. If you’re doing 20 Books, how are you getting on? If not, what are you up to instead?

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