“An Accidental Man” roundup and “The Black Prince” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch


I know I only just posted my review of “An Accidental Man” but it’s now time to round-up reviews of that one and talk about January’s read, “The Black Prince”. Fortunately, my lovely regular readers have come up trumps and started the discussion on the book even though they’ve only had a few days to do so.

Oh, and if you’re coming to this blog new at the turn of 2018/2019, I’d love to have you along for the ride if you’re doing a Centenary Read of Iris Murdoch’s novels: feel free to comment on all the reviews posted so far then read and review along with us, you’re very welcome!

So I had a bit of trouble getting started with this one due to the period, and a few others found the same. I had forgotten a whole pivotal scene which we all found troubling, and I found I’d changed my view of a few characters. A few of us have been discussing on the review and Jo has done her usual excellent Goodreads review.  Do post in the review comments if you’ve reviewed the book on your own website, blog or Goodreads page. I’ll add more links as you let me know about them.

Peter Rivenberg has shared two more odd covers for this book. I suppose the older and newer of mine do show scenes in the book (the poor Owl!) but the middle one still has me lost. Nothing of course beats the Horrible Penguin which Peter has carefully shared (coming up after the US one for the nervous reader who needs to skim) but the contrast between the blurbs on these US and UK paperbacks is very interesting.

Here’s the US paperback cover. Who is this egg-man? Apparently Humpty Dumpty is mentioned in the book. Is it Monkley? Who else has a moustache? It was published in the 70s so does everyone?

here’s the fascinating blurb

I think this is the first time we’ve had a quote from Playboy, right? (I remember being quite shocked when The Sun did a nice little piece when Murdoch died – seemed just odd to see).

And now … the horror of the Penguin cover. Argh!

What? Just what?

And the back is an interesting contrast with the US one.

The Black Prince

On we go to a favourite of mine but the only one my friend Ali refused to finish during our readalong (game for another go, Ali???).

I have the usual three copies and I have to say the front covers of the UK first edition, my Penguin bought on 19 January 1995 (when I was 22) and my new Vintage are not really that exciting, are they?

Well, the Penguin (I’ve never liked that very 90s edition with its rag-rolled border) does have the painting of Apollo and Marsyas on it and the most modern references Hamlet, but given that all the blurbs are quite excited about it being a thriller …

Here’s the first edition:

… and then no one seems to really go off these themes as we get in the Penguin:

and then the Vintage:

I’ve never thought of it as a thriller in the same way as “The Nice and the Good” can be read as partly one, but I suppose it has those elements. Anyway, off we set and I will try to get it read in better time this month …

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

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

Book review – Kevin Crossley-Holland (ill. Jeffrey Alan Love) – “Norse Myths: Tales of Odin, Thor and Loki” @jeffreyalanlove


Sorry that I’m going to be double-posting again today: too many posts to fit into the end of the year! The other one’s an Iris Murdoch round-up – although I will have finished another novel by the end of the day, that one’s going to have to wait for its review until January (I hate doing that: I might delay finishing the book so as not to have to!).

This is a book I excitedly bought between Christmas and New Year last year, so it’s fitting I was reading it on 30 December, a year after I bought it. Must do better with my time between purchase and read!! Anyway, my eyes lit on it in Foyles, Birmingham, and with the subject-matter, my all-time favourite Norse myths and the very striking illustration on the cover, I just had to have it. Since then, it’s been occupying two spaces on the TBR, front and back row, as it’s a large and handsome book, and it had to be read carefully propped on my knees in bed or along a sofa. But what a read.

If you have an older child or know an adult who’s perhaps enjoyed the Thor and other Avengers films (yet hasn’t known to shout “That’s wrong!” “Oh, look, Asgarð looks like an inverted Hallgrimskirkja, cool”) they might very well like to read the origin story of all origin stories.

Kevin Crossley-Holland (ill. Jeffrey Alan Love) – “Norse Myths”

(30 December 2017, Foyles)

A beautiful book, lavishly illustrated on every page by Jeffrey Alan Love and re-told by a man who is now an expert in Norse mythology who admits to having gone to Iceland, fallen in love with the place and gone down a new career path (he’s also done the Penguin Book of Norse Myths which has rushed firmly onto my wish list.

The book takes us through all the major tales including these three figures, and the other gods when they interact with them, so a good full picture of the mythology in general. The illustration and description of the Nine Worlds comes on a double-page spread early on and is captivating. The tales are beautifully retold, clear but with the original language clinging around the edges. It’s engaging and exciting, even to those reading the stories for the nth time, with all the tales you’d expect, held within the framework of visits to the gods to gain knowledge by Gylfi, King of Sweden.

The illustrations add a whole new dimension to the book and really make it. They’re reminiscent of the great fairy tale and myth illustrations from the 60s, or those slightly frightening Eastern European animations that were around in the 70s and 80s (these are both good things) with a limited range of colours that’s really effective, and some quite frightening images. Wonderful stuff.

More books in – my final set of the Vintage Classics reissues with the red spines and introductions arrived suddenly today in a lovely big box also from Foyles. Yes, I’ve stacked them as they came, and yes, some of them look a wee bit more substantial than they were in my usual old paperbacks, but here we have “A Word Child”, “The Philosopher’s Pupil”, “Nuns and Soldiers”, “The Sea, The Sea” and “The Book and the Brotherhood”. The others will now creep in in the older edition from elsewhere, with some manufactured peril being produced by “The Sacred and Profane Love Machine”, which I’m due to read in February, not being due to arrive until the verrrrrrrry end of January!

Will any books take you over the New Year or will you manage to bring a nice tidy end to your reading year?


Book review – Christopher Fowler – “The Book of Forgotten Authors” plus a book confession or three


Well, my Christmas Cold seems finally to be subsiding, but I’ve been keeping wrapped up warm and out of the damp air and continuing to hack my way through my TBR – the only Christmas book left on the shelf now is “Long Live Great Bardfield” which I will at least start tomorrow. So I’m all the way through that left-hand end in the pic, including the big yellow one but not including the large grey one. I’m also quite excited that for the first time in a good few years, I’ll have read more non-fiction than fiction this year. Anyway, on to my most recent read, plus a few that arrived yesterday in the post …

Christopher Fowler – “The Book of Forgotten Authors”

(25 December 2017 – from Meg)

A natural book for me to receive as a present – on my wish list then off again. Amusingly, I think I was alerted to its existence by Simon Stuck-in-a-Book’s review, published exactly a year ago today!

An interesting book listing 99 books that Fowler, working on a column for the Independent and with a focus group of which half had to have not heard of the author, has decided are forgotten. Being alphabetical, it was a bit odd to start with Margery Allingham, who I’ve very much heard of: then again, I’m a big reader in my middle years who had a propensity for the mid-century book, so maybe fewer of them would be forgotten to me. There are also longer essays on the most prolific authors, writers who deserve to be forgotten, etc.

I did take exception to a few of them, not just Allingham. Georgette Heyer is constantly in print and found in The Works among other shops, and Delafield, Comyns and Watson have been republished by Virago and Persephone or other imprints and talked about … but maybe only in my immediate “bubble” I suppose. There were plenty of people I hadn’t heard of, although lots seemed to be crime and mystery writers, so this book wasn’t as hard on my wish list as I’d feared (this is a Good Thing, though!). It was exciting to see Frank Baker’s “Miss Hargreaves” mentioned, as that’s one Simon has always highlighted, and the personal touches were nice and entertaining – Fowler re-buying his own copy of a childhood favourite and getting a mention in the dedication of a republished novel by one of his finds, as well as his use of an Arthur Mee technique for slicing bananas.

An ideal Twixmas read for dipping into.

So it had become time to think about buying some more of the Vintage Classics red-spined Iris Murdoch reissues with their interesting introductions, as I’ve only got one left and they can take a while to come. Imagine my horror when I discovered Vintage are reissuing them AGAIN, this time with flowery covers, presumably for IM’s centenary in 2019. I couldn’t face having my “newer paperbacks” run (this is as compared to my UK first editions run and my “my original paperbacks” mix of Triad Granadas and Penguins, plus my incomplete sets of “early Penguins” and “horrific 70s covers”, hope you’re keeping up at the back!). What does a girl do when presented with this horror? Buys the last 11 (make that 9) all in one go.

Amazon never seem to quite promise to have the right ones, so I ended up buying those that are available with the red spines from Foyles and the rest that aren’t even available in that edition (but do have introductions, apart from the ones that don’t). And Vintage (which is an imprint of Penguin) never did reissues of “The Green Knight” or “Jackson’s Dilemma” so I will have to stick with my older copies of those, leaving me to have 24/26ths of the books in the new editions. The confusing editions are here and I really don’t trust them to do them all, so I’ll stay with what I have (also, where’s there a Swiss Cheese Plant in “The Sea, The Sea”??).

Anyway, here are the first two (non-red-spined ones) to arrive, plus a copy of Ada Leverson’s “The Little Ottleys”, which I bought for Ali for her LibraryThing Virago Group Not so Secret Santa gift then decided I wanted, too (I will pass along my copy of “Love’s Shadow” the first in the set, and that means this one doesn’t count as I will only need to read 2/3 of it, right??

Book reviews – Stella Gibbons – “Westwood” and Beverley Nichols – “The Tree that Sat Down”


I don’t do double reviews very often but I’ve got a feeling I’m going to finish another book tomorrow and I hate to have them roll over into the next year, so here you go.  My stupid cold has persisted so all I’ve felt up to is sleeping and reading and a bit of Super Mario Cart. While reading is never a waste, obviously, and I have got a lot of TBR to get through, it’s a shame I can’t get on with the other stuff I wanted to do during the break.

Stella Gibbons – “Westwood”

(25 December 2017 – from Verity)

The last of Verity’s lovely parcel from last Christmas (the others were read during All Virago / All August) and a lovely big novel set near the end of the Second World War and published in 1946. Margaret, a plain and serious girl who’s a school teacher by happenstance and not vocation, is friends with cheery flibbertygibbit Hilda, busy doing her bit by keeping her service boys happy (and working at the Ministry of Food). Margaret meets an artist and his bohemian wife and brood of children, by accident, and through her, meets her father, the awful Gerald Challis, practitioner of nude yoga and serial philanderer, while Hilda encounters a sad lonely posh man in the blackout and takes up with him out of pity; we of course know they are one and the same and wait to find out what happens when they find out.

Against a wartime backdrop there’s the parallel plot of Margaret’s father’s friend and his daughter, who appears to be living with Down’s syndrome (this aspect is handled sympathetically but as you would expect of a novel from this era, in not a particularly enlightened way to modern eyes; there’s also a very stereotyped although mainly positive and strong female Jewish character so there’s a bit of discomfort in the reading, although not as much as there might have been). Margaret develops her character and becomes more attractive as a result: people keep mentioning that she needs some hardship to temper her and she does indeed blossom when she has actual difficulties to resolve outside of her parents’ unsuccessful and bitter marriage.

It all goes a bit odd in the end: the scales do fall satisfyingly from Margaret’s eyes re the Challis family, but when she’s reassured by Gerald’s mother than Beauty, Time, the Past and Pity will console her if she ends up alone in life, we maybe want a bit of a happier ending for her. Hilda meanwhile suddenly settles down. Gibbons’ wry voice can’t help intruding, especially on the awful Gerald, and that’s what brings the spark to this rather uneven novel.

Excitingly, this fills in another year in my Century of Books. That doesn’t happen too often these days!

Beverley Nichols – “The Tree that Sat Down”

(April 2018)

I bought this second copy of a beloved childhood read when replacing some books that had (long-distant) cat-related damage, and a Radox bath to help my cold brought this off my TBR pile as a second-hand volume that would take a little steam (it was fine).

Nichols, a big favourite of my blogging friend / actual friend Kaggsy, is of course best known for his acerbic novels and essays for an older audience. But he wrote a set of three children’s books in the 1940s and this is the first.

Judy and Mrs Judy, her grandmother, run a delightful shop in a willow tree in an enchanted wood, but suddenly experience unpleasant competition from the horrible Sam and his respective grandparent; Sam just wants to advertise and make money from the innocent animals. All looks to be lost when he brings in a witch to help, but the situation is saved by the kind and loving nature of Judy, who helps a tatty tortoise and gets frankly a somewhat unsatisfying reward at the end.

With its mentions of Bits of Paper which mean one thing in Germany and another in England (this was published in 1945) and its pathetic Russian bear who helps the enemy out of fear, I rather fear this is an Allegory rather than a straight story! I would like to read the unabridged version, however.

I’m currently reading my lovely big book of Norse Myths (mainly because as an oversized volume, it was occupying a space on both the front and back rows of the TBR) and Christopher Fowler’s “Forgotten Authors”, which was a 2017 Christmas gift. Will I get those nicely rounded off by the end of the year? Will I ever stop sniffling and coughing?

Book review – Wendy Welch – “The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap” #amreading @bookstorewendy


I picked up a fairly mild but annoying cold on Christmas Eve, and although it’s hampered my attempts to have a Christmas dinner and get some running and yoga in, it has allowed me to get a good way into my reading. So here’s a review of a book I finished yesterday, and tomorrow we’ll have a book I finished today, with any luck. Also read on for some pre-Christmas acquisitions I made, fairly safe in the knowledge no one would have got them for me for Christmas (and I was correct in that assumption: phew!).

Wendy Welch – “The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap”

(25 December 2017 from my LibraryThing Virago Group Not so Secret Santa, Lisa)

I was attracted by the Big Stone Gap in the title of this book as I loved Adriana Trigiani’s novels set in this small town, but more than that, this turned out to be one of my top reads of 2018 (the reason why I save my Best Of list until 1 Jan: a really good book often creeps into Twixmas).

American Wendy and her Scottish husband Jack decide, on a bit of a whim, to buy a rambling Edwardian house in a small town and set up a bookshop. They cheerfully admit they know nothing and they have no budget and are determined not to get into debt – while carefully checking their privilege as they go and reminding themselves and us that by no means everyone is as fortunate as they are in being able to make these choices – so they have a lovely DIY attitude and rely on their own skills and on slotting into their community (making sure the support flows both ways), easier said than done and with some mistakes and setbacks along the way.

I love the way Welch explains exactly how they went about it (once they’d worked it out for themselves!) including such details as pricing books, arranging swap credits for donations before they’d even opened and working out what to do with bestseller hardbacks that dip in attractiveness almost immediately. She also explains that salient point that you have to love people almost more than you love books (something that some other booksellers approach from a different angle (see, Shaun Bythell’s “Diary of a Bookseller“; I have to say I prefer their attitude) as they, perhaps more than most, become a meeting point for the community and a listening ear for bereaved and hurting people who come in looking for or selling on books.

The sense of community is lovely, from Adriana Trigiani opening the store for them to the day a man comes in needing help and they tap into their network and find it for him almost immediately. They give back to their community of booksellers by touring local states and establishing a network of second-hand bookshops, and there are many thoughtful words about the value of reading and bookstores. Talking of words, there’s a delightful strand running through the book explaining various British words and phrases which is very amusing.

Much consideration is also shown to the town and area they live in. While it’s hard to get a way in sometimes, and local cliques can dominate, they understand the attitude of this poor region which often seems left behind in terms of funding initiatives and has a self-deprecating air: if you’re good and you’re here then you can’t be that good because you’re here, and also anyone who comes in and tries to start something will be treated with suspicion that they’re not in it for the long haul, and is likely to be talked about. They negotiate these issues with care and are honest about their mistakes, and this gives a depth to the book that adds to its bookshop opening genre.

There are lovely animals which are not harmed in the telling of this book – always a worry; in fact, when there’s peril for one creature, it’s actually multiplied rather than lost! An excellent read.

And so to two books bought from Any Amount of Books’ ever-reliable outside racks when I was in London with Emma earlier in the month. Laura Thompson’s “The Last Landlady” is a memoir about an English pub and the loss of such institutions, and by N.D. Isaacs and Rose Abdelnour Zimbardo‘s “Tolkien and the Critics” is a collected volume from 1970 that was hard to resist. I do try not to buy books near to the Christmas-Birthday season but it proved OK.

Book review – Tina Brown – “The Vanity Fair Diaries” #TheVanityFairDiaries:1983–1992 #NetGalley


I have had this book for far too long – I downloaded it from NetGalley on 13 December 2017, so it’s older than any of the print books on my TBR. I was initially interested in it but then thought it might be dull, and kept skipping past it to more recent publications, trying to review them as they came out. Then another book blogger I follow (Rather Too Fond of Books) got round to reading her copy and reviewed it, and it sounded OK, so I went for it. And thoroughly enjoyed it, so there you go!

Covering an exciting decade in politics, celebrity, history and the media in America, this details the journey of the British editor and reviver of Tatler magazine and her journey through the labyrinthine politics of Condé Nast to be the feted and celebrated editor of Vanity Fair. It ends when her tenure there ends, although we find out what happened next, and seems to be a legitimate diary she kept at the time.

Brown states at the start that this is going to be filled more with starry excess than with social commentary, but it does chart variously the AIDS crisis, the change in political and social tone from the 80s to the 90s and the difficulty of sustaining two very high-powered careers and having a family of their own plus making sure her parents are looked after.

The book covers years when I was aware, so the names weren’t too distant for me and people were well-explained anyway. The introduction and epilogue gave a good framework to the diaries and explained the editing and publication process. She explains early on how a diarist doesn’t know what’s around the corner, while a memoir or history writer knows where the text is going in advance, although this does seem a little disingenuous, as she obviously shapes the material to some extent in the editing process, bringing out Donald Trump’s excess and dreadfulness and making sure Boris Johnson doesn’t come out too well, while presumably protecting some people.

Brown is very good on the sexism she encounters and the clear moment when she joins the “boys club” after negotiating a stellar new contract using hard-hitting tactics, but the detail all around is fascinating. She does share errors as well as triumphs and I was personally interested in how the transcript of an interview with Mrs Thatcher was used in a scandal around its publication. Fortunately, she does show awareness of the couple’s good fortune, as otherwise it would be a bit hard to care when they’re struggling to finance their second house … but a better read than expected, well-written and engaging.

Many thanks to Orion Publishing Group for making this book available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “An Accidental Man” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch


I have to admit that I had quite a difficult time getting into this book. I think the time of year (even self-employed, working from home and fairly unsociable as I am, I had a couple of seasonal activities) and the fact that I slightly overworked myself in the last few weeks meant that I didn’t get the discrete slabs of time you need to really worm your way in to a Murdoch novel. I felt like I wasn’t “getting” it and even a bit dim. I even considered whether I should be doing this at all! But I think it was a temporary blip – I’ve never thought that much about this novel in between reads (this was my fourth time with it) and it’s always languished in a middle ground between the favourites and the least-favourites. So let’s push on with my notes and see what everyone else thought about it. I can’t remember if I had such lulls last time I did them all (maybe any readers who were with me then can remember?) but I know I went to one every two months at some stage, which is not going to happen this time as I want to finish in IM’s centenary year!

Iris Murdoch – “An Accidental Man”

(August 2018)

The main idea in this book read this time appears to be that if you associate with someone with bad luck, that bad luck is somehow evil and will rub off on you. There’s also a delicious parody at one point which shows that IM knew exactly what kind of reputation her books were getting. Apart from that, it’s a baggy (before the baggy monsters) book with a lot of characters, all related to one another, and I even went as far as to do an inept relationship map to show this (wait until the end for that …). We do have our favourite themes, including the good old Pursuit Of A Fleeing Woman.

So Austin Gibson Grey is an unlucky man who has a dodgy hand, a dead wife and now a fey wife he appears to have mislaid; he loses his job and ends up renting out his flat and moving in with ex-athlete Mitzi (I do love Mitzi). Meanwhile the Tisbournes extend their tentacles through the book – Clara and George the do-gooders who want to have everyone to live in their house, Clara’s sister Charlotte who is just finishing nursing their mother and continues nursing her bitterness, and Gracie, self-possessed and scary, engaged to nice Ludwig who has dodged the draft. Throw in fey Dorina’s nun-like/ non-nun sister Mavis, Austin’s portly non-monk brother Matthew and a few lower-class characters, plus po-faced Garth, son of Austin and friend of Ludwig and a few extra families, plus a boutique whose rise and fall is charted only through letters and cocktail party chat, and a book that’s partly made up of chapters entirely full of letters and cocktail party chat and you’ve got a recipe for confusion it would take a cleverer person than me to pick through entirely successfully.

We have good examples of Murdochian themes. Who isn’t a sibling? – we have Gracie and Patrick, Ralph and Sebastian, Austin and Matthew, Dorina and Mavis, Clara and Charlotte. Doubling and patterning can then occur, with Matthew having possible affairs with Dorina and Betty, Dorina and Mavis, and Gracie and Sebastian / Patrick and Ralph. More doubling occurs with Austin killing a child and an owl, two innocent children, two large houses, London and Oxford as centres, Britain and America. Garth and Matthew have both seen, and passed by, a violent scene of danger and death, which somehow draws them together. Charlotte and Mitzi both attempt to take overdoses of sleeping pills and end up making friends in hospital; the person who succeeds in taking her own life does it by accident.

Who is the enchanter and who the saint? Is Ludwig a saint? He’s the first person we see surrounded by muddle: “Of course it was no accident that he’d mismanaged the whole thing so horribly. this particular muddle he recognized as, for himself, characteristic.” (p. 7). He quietly does the right thing in the end, but is he really saintly? He also debunks Garth’s odd rantings with quiet simplicity. But then he does basically force himself on Gracie which is not nice at all and quite disturbing. Garth seems to be trying too hard to be saintly, although both of them do seem to learn and change through the course of the book, Garth certainly finding consolation and power in serving others in small ways. Or is Dorina our saint, always in a muddle, “her compassion […] part of her own helplessness” (p. 42)? Then again, Mavis has achieved mid-novel “a sort of colourless see-through blow-through existence, full of tasks and without ties” (p. 47) and it feels like she does end up renouncing Matthew as he’s just too busy to see her. But she eschews “the hot muddled personal unhappiness of the ordinary human lot” (p. 50). I don’t know the answer here, to be fair.

Matthew seems to be the enchanter, with his terrible attractiveness and Eastern accompaniments (he feels a bit like a failed and lesser version of James Arrowby from “The Sea, The Sea” to me). He tries to pass this role on to Garth, leaving him to listen to people, showing his enchantership is created by others, not out of a wish to control. Garth has already described him as “A false prophet […] an entangler. He’ll entangle you if he can. He’s a fat charmer, charming his way to paradise. He’s the sort of person who makes everyone tell him their life story and then forgets it.” (p. 89) (here he reminds me of Julius from “A Fairly Honourable Defeat, who will read your letters but deny it). Matthew comes to the realisation at the end of the novel, however, that the everyday is to be his fate:

He would never be able to share in Kaoru’s mind. From the good good actions spring with a spontaneity which must remain to the mediocre forever mysterious. Matthew knew with a sigh that he would never be a hero. Nore would he ever achieve the true enlightenment. Neither the longer way nor the shorter way was for him. He would be until the end of his life a man looking forward to his next drink. He looked at his watch and drifted down to the bar. (p. 372)

In renouncing his attempts to be good and accepting his lot in life, is he in fact a saint? (I don’t know.)

Gracie is an odd character, determined and almost prissy in her desire to keep away from mess and contingency, whether that’s Austin’s “soupy sort of emotions” (p. 11) or Dorina. Ludwig is constantly surprised by her insight, but she almost seems like a chorus, outside the action (while part of it) maybe like N in “The Philosopher’s Pupil”).

There’s quite a nice lot of humour in this novel, seen from the beginning, when Ludwig is struggling with Gracie’s virginity, her narrow bed with a shelf over it and her “pussy cat” cushions. The horrible path of their courtship and engagement, tramping grimly round London looking at things is funny in a sad sort of way. Charlotte’s view of her sister’s marriage is great:

Had she ever loved George? Perhaps. But now George was just something hanging in the corner of a spider’s web. Clara had eaten and digested him long ago. (p. 81)

The story of Kierkegaard the car, told through letters, is hilarious and the letters in the main can be very funny. They include the wonderful:

It appears that Ralph loves Ann Colindale who loves Richard Pargeter who (currently, he never does anything for long) loves Karen who (although she denies it) loves Sebastian who loves me who loves Ludwig who loves me. So that’s that situation tied up. (p. 210)

Even Charlotte’s announcement that her mother is failing is quite funny: “‘Clare, is that you? This is Charlotte. I think she’s going.’ ‘Oh God. We’re dining with the Arbuthnots.'” (p.30). There’s also the horrible funniness of the struggle to interpret Alison’s last words: trees, priest or Treece? I found a savage humour in Dorina’s constant assertion that one cannot bend the knees too much, mis-remembering this as the words of a wise priest before, in her last moments, recalling that it came from a ski instructor.

Smaller themes that remind us of other books abound: someone has to be writing a book and here it’s Garth and his novel, as well as Mr Monkley and his, and Garth’s is even lost for most of the book. Water doesn’t play a huge part, with some rain and then of course Dorina’s fateful bath, and there are only two sets of stones: Gracie’s enormous diamond and the stones on Gracie and Ludwig’s Irish holiday beach. The canny nuns who don’t want to be lumbered with Valmorama remind me a little of the nuns from “The Bell”, more worldly-wise than you might expect. Matthew’s china is smashed like Mischa Fox’s fish tank and Rupert’s torn-up book. Dorina stands barefoot on the lawn and Austin even manages to climb over a wall and peer in the windows of Valmorama. This echoes so many other books, doesn’t it. There’s the usual amount of letter reading and stealing and a touch of real blackmail (the Monkley sub-plot foreshadows the underworld stuff in “Henry and Cato” to me. Austin’s disgusting state and room remind me of Tallis, however he’s no saint, is he? He sells his stamp collection in a wry nod to Bruno, surely? There’s the lovely dog, Pyrrhus, and his own pattern of belonging to people who break up and I love the paragraph from his viewpoint late on in the novel. And we end up with flight, as in “The Flight from the Enchanter” and “A Severed Head” and several other novels, with Ludwig on his way back to America and Matthew rather oddly following him. Finally, there’s a forward echo to “The Book and the Brotherhood” in that last party piece:

‘Aren’t we all getting grand.’

‘Anyway, we’re still socialists.’ (p. 376)

Relationship map in the back of my Penguin – I obviously thought it was an affair, not a tennis racquet, between Matthew and Betty last time around … Does this help at all?

On re-reading this book, it’s hard to re-read it knowing what’s going to happen to Dorina, somehow, although I had that happening earlier in the book. I think I liked Ludwig more and Charlotte and cheered her renaissance. I’d missed the shock of Ludwig basically forcing Gracie, which was uncomfortable to read this time; I’ve been a feminist since I started reading Murdoch (I did find quite a lot about the role of the single woman as propping up society this time, and how Charlotte could have been more than just a carer, and Clara’s loss of identity in wifehood and motherhood, which could almost be read through a feminist lens I don’t usually find in her). And I was cheered to read Matthew’s description of jogging! I was also pleased to note that Dorina is reading “Lord of the Rings”, having discovered in the Letters that IM enjoyed Tolkien herself – a nice little “Easter egg” for the careful reader.

I have the Vintage Classics edition and Valerie Cunningham’s introduction does cast this as a “bleak” “problem play” where even horror is undermined by farce, the characters despoil Murdoch’s favourite places and art and it’s all a pretty troubling and dark, so maybe I’m not alone in having difficulty with it. What did you think?

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 – D. E. Stevenson – “Spring Magic” @DeanStPress


I’ve been very lucky to have been sent a few review copies by Dean Street Press in their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint which are coming out this January. More to come on the ebooks but I could NOT resist this beautiful edition of D. E. Stevenson’s “Spring Magic”. I already knew I would love it, as I’ve so enjoyed “Mrs Tim of the Regiment” (now republished by Dean Street Press) and “Celia’s House“. I just love the imprint, too, great covers, each with the house frame and then a retro image. Fabulous.

I did finish this a few days ago but pre-Christmas deadlines at work have meant I haven’t had time for book reviewing! Or, in fact, reading, so I’m not too far behind myself, at least …

D. E. Stevenson – “Spring Magic”

(6 December 2018)

An utterly charming read, poignantly published in 1942 with a wartime setting – I’m always touched by books from this period, written when the author obviously had no idea of the outcome of the war.

Frances Field, escapes, with the help of a canny doctor, her Terrible Aunt and goes for a holiday to an obscure but lovely Scottish seaside village. Soon her stay at the somewhat eccentric – and only – hotel is enlivened by the appearance of a platoon of soldiers – and their rather worldly and glamorous wives. A little naive and not used to having a social life, Frances starts to get drawn into their lives – different from hers and each others’. The setting here of searching for houses and furniture and deciding what to do with the children is reminiscent of Mrs Tim, but interestingly seen from the outside looking in.

The war is a background but domestic details really loom larger when it comes down to it. Frances is a really lovely, rounded character and we really root for her: she clearly hasn’t really become a full person yet, and her experiences sensibly allow her to do this and also to learn a little about married life before she’s allowed her romance.

The descriptions of the landscape and sea are lovely and add depth, and Frances’ historical imaginings chime with the contemporary fears and mood. Relationships, especially between women, are carefully drawn with much insight. The book is cleverly written by a real artist, with delicious little foreshadowings and a firm hand on the plot, and it’s overall a charming light read with attractive characters and some serious themes, also a great novel about a small community.

Many thanks again to Dean Street Press for sending me a copy in return for an honest review.


Book review – K.J. Findlay (ed.) – “The Icelandic Adventures of Pike Ward” #amreading #iceland


I have promoted this up the TBR because I couldn’t wait until next October to read it. I’ve been excited about this book ever since Katherine Findlay, who I’m lucky enough to count as a friend and who I’ve had a coffee with in Iceland but never met up with in the UK (yet) started talking about the manuscript she’d come across detailing the adventures of a Devonian fish trader in Iceland.  And then, in October, here it was, and I rushed to buy it but then a few other reading things got in the way (sorry!). I really loved it, as I knew I would.

K.J. Findlay (ed.) – “The Icelandic Adventures of Pike Ward”

(02 October 2018)

The edited 1906 diaries of a Devon fish merchant who instigated such trade with Iceland that he ended up being awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of the Icelandic Falcon. It’s a fascinating look at the country in its very much less developed days, something I imagine like the Iceland of Halldor Laxness’ novels.

The first and most important thing to say about the book is how beautifully it’s edited. Katherine provides an excellent introduction to both the background of Ward’s work and a potted history of Iceland that has just enough detail to let the reader understand what’s going on and what led up to the events described in the book. There’s a great epilogue which details what happened next to both Ward (a house in Teignmouth called Valhalla and full of Icelandic artefacts!!) and the Icelanders he writes about, as well as some intriguing mysteries. There’s also a good map, reproductions of the actual photographs Ward mentions taking (and on proper plates, not just printed on the paper) and useful but not intrusive footnotes, making this an excellent example of an edited manuscript. And this wasn’t an easy job, as the note on the text explains. The references are extensive and there’s a thank you to my friend Chris in the acknowledgements which weaves the Icelandophiles of my circle neatly together.

Having mentioned how the stories of Iceland and Britain were intertwined in the early Middle Ages, we see how the two countries are drawn closer through Ward’s endeavours and those of other pioneers. He comes across quite a few British folk, some managing in the country more successfully than others. I love how his fish are called Wardsfiskur and his bay and farm Wardsvik; it’s also very endearing when he compares the majestic scenery of Iceland to the somewhat quieter views around his native Devon.

As someone who knows Iceland a bit, it was lovely to read about it a century or so ago. Some things are very different, for example the small bay where the quiet village of Keflavik is found (now the site of the international airport), and reactions to a sculpture by a now-revered artist. In the middle is the beginnings of the city of Reykjavik as we know it, as well as details of towns that are all still here today, but very different. And some things remain the same: there’s still a famous lighthouse at Reykjanes, Icelandic horses have a sturdy will of their own and surprise you by when exactly they want to speed up, and Icelanders have a somewhat eccentric and relaxed attitude to playing by the rules (this meant I wasn’t too worried about missing the cut-off in the Reykjavik marathon by a minute or so …).

A really lovely book and a great and entertaining read for anyone who loves Iceland or a good travel narrative (or both).

I’m currently reading the very lovely “Spring Magic” by D.E. Stevenson, very kindly sent to me by Dean Street Press as one of their new Furrowed Middlebrow titles coming out in January. Gentle but absorbing, the story of a woman finding herself after a live of servitude to her aunt in a Scottish village in WW2 is unputdownable. A review soon!

Book review – Samantha Ellis – “How to be a Heroine” #amreading #booksaboutbooks


Well we’re very much into Christmas last year now (although I’ve skipped right ahead for my current read) and here’s a great one from Meg off my wishlist. How was I almost the last person to read this excellent book – “books about books” being a favourite category of mine?

Samantha Ellis – “How to be a Heroine”

(25 December 2017)

A super memoir and book-about-books tracing Samantha’s reading from childhood on and relating it to her progress through education and finally into her career as a  playwright, working with and against her Iraqi Jewish heritage and with a clear eye on this and her relationship to it. She re-reads her old favourites and discusses her changed attitudes to them, always a favourite theme of mine. She also has a long-term reading buddy, Emma, who she gets into all sorts of arguments with – great stuff!

She’s a great, feisty heroine herself, and it’s apt that she ends up writing heroines for others, too. She discovers the Marriage Plot early on but simultaneously rewrites Oliver Twist “so that girls come out top” (p. 71). I love that amidst serious discussions about feminism and sisterhood, re-reading Gone with the Wind makes her use hand cream more regularly. She’s ashamed in retrospect that she saw her illness at university in comparison to Esther in The Bell Jar’s ECT and her family’s persecution and exile, but she also forgives her younger self.

Of course we always like the bits that chime with our own experience, as well as reading to find out about other lives. Emma tells her off for relating details of Salinger’s slightly manky life when it shouldn’t affect her reading of his novels, and she says at one point,

I’m beginning to think all readings are provisional, and that maybe we read heroines for what the need from them at the time. (p. 141)

After her English degree at Cambridge, she’s stuffed full of literary theory and “I was almost convinced that literature was all coded messages about Marxism and the death of the self” (p. 163) and she turns to Valley of the Dolls for light relief and at least something written by a woman. I read a few books by women in my English degree, but had to turn to Arthur Ransome’s full Swallows and Amazons series before I could read adult novels again”

Ellis’ reading of Lace being instructions on how to WORK is genius, and the final chapter marvellously features an imaginary party for her heroines, thought up after making Aphra Behn’s milk punch: a wonderful finale to a great read.

I’m very much enjoying “The Icelandic Adventures of Pike Ward” and should have a review for you on Monday of that one. What a great read and brilliantly edited. How’s your December reading going?

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