Book review- Paul Magrs – “Does it Show?” #magrsathon #bookgiveaway @paulmagrs

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Coming in just under the wire on finishing reading this and then getting my review in – I will do better next month! A good read that I enjoyed much more than last time – and huge thanks to Paul who sent me a Word document when I suddenly discovered I had blank pages in my copy of the book!

Paul Magrs – “Does it Show?”

(11 April 2018)

This is one of Lethe Press’s republished Phoenix Court series (you can buy them from their website or on Amazon),  with introductions by Paul and in this one two extra special short stories, too. I had an early copy, and the printing problem was apparently sorted out, so feel safe to buy!

So we’re back at Phoenix Court but with an emphasis on a group of houses, and I can’t work out why in my original review of this I wasn’t as keen as I had been on “Marked for Life” as this was great. I can’t see what I wouldn’t have liked last time in this tale of young gay love revisited, errant bus drivers and terribly glamorous trans folk. It reminded me a bit of Catherine O’Flynn’s “What Was Lost” with its slightly prosaic mystery set among, here, shopping precincts and small areas of natural land among the concrete, gossiped and picked over by the locals.

The women of the neighbourhood are tangled into each other’s lives; Penny, daughter of the newly arrived and glam Liz, and Vince, a young teacher trying to be down with the kis, thing they’re different, but they get drawn and settled into estate life, too. Everyone’s related or linked to everyone else, too. The magic realism is confined to a bit of light levitation, some lucid dreams and some weird tiny creatures (do they appear in one of the Brenda and Effie stories, too?) but they add a shimmering extra dimension. Magrs in the Introduction calls it

A phantasmagorical opera set in the midst of concrete brutalism.

Mark Kelly and Iris from the first novel reappear a couple of times (I think Paul wrote this one first so I wonder if he added them in afterwards or fleshed them out from these mentions for the other book?) and we hear something of how Mark’s life is going (so maybe the former). Class distinctions are minutely dissected by the characters and there’s a heartbreaking moment when Liz tries to communicate with her clever daughter:

“You sound like a soap opera.”

“If I do, it’s because I watch soaps. I don’t read your kind of books. How would I saw what I want to say … how would I say it in your language? The one you like?” (p. 134)

It was interesting to note that Liz is 41 – as with so many of my Iris Murdoch re-reads, I’ve overtaken her in age, closer to Vince and Andy (surely named after Erasure?) than her the first time I read it!

Of the two extra short stories, I preferred “Nude on the Moon”, which follows Liz and Cliff on their escapades in the Lake District and picks at their relationship. “Bargains for Charlotte” was a bit creepy for me!

And I managed to collect two bits of Synchronicity like Bookish Beck’s finds: in this novel, Janet’s mum is about to make a surprising second marriage, and in Jane Linfoot’s “Summer at the Little Wedding Shop” (not yet reviewed), the central character’s mum is about to do the same. And in this novel, Vince likes a completely plain white room with no distractions, which is how Edith in “Tenterhooks” by Ada Leverson (also not yet reviewed) likes her rooms, too!


Are you joining me in the Magrsathon? Some of the books are sadly out of print but second hand copies can be got hold of and the Mars trilogy and the Phoenix Court series are available new.

 

Book review – Lennie Goodings – “A Bite of the Apple” @ViragoBooks #amreading

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So sorry for the gap in reviews or posts since last Sunday’s short one about running. I’ve been reading quite a nice lot but seem to have got into a reviewing slump (though I did finally finish the amazing “A History of Pictures” by David Hockney and Martin Gayford and submitted my review to Shiny New Books), not the least because I’ve been extremely fortunate enough to be very busy at work (academia and the ghostwriting of celebrity autobiographies seem to be rolling on almost as normal), plus then we’ve had the usual in these times / not usually usual extra time-consuming life admin stuff, which is there to be endured and is fine at the moment, but does take up time. Plus the In These Circumstances kind of tiredness etc. that a good few of us seem to be getting.

Anyway, enough of In These Times, which I am entreating not to creep into my book reviewing and blogging life – here’s a journey back in time to almost the beginning of our beloved Virago Books with an excellent memoir I just had to pre-order to arrive on the day of publication, as it seemed so many of my fellow bloggers had read and received early review copies and whipped me up into a frenzy of needing this book right now!

Lennie Goodings – “A Bite of the Apple: A Life with Books, Writers and Virago”

(28 February 2020)

The memoir of the Canadian woman who moved from the mainstream world of publishing marketing to take a part-time job at the fairly new Virago Books and ended up its publisher, this book shared the political and financial dealings of the publishing house over the years (accepting this is a personal view only) but also delicious details of the authors and books the firm has published over the period.

I love how it was “84 Charing Cross Road,” that lovely book which I think so many of us have read, which helped to draw the author to Britain, and we get all the details of how things work and how her editorial process operates. I particularly liked the idea, pulled out as she worked with people writing their own lives, that everyone has a narrative thread running through their lives (what’s yours?). The details of the dealings around individual books are fascinating (for example, Virago was too small at the time to deal with all the interest and thus sales that would come from the 1979 TV series of Vera Brittain’s “Testament of Youth”, so had to license a mass-market tie-in edition to Fontana).

The personalities are captured bravely: Carmen Callil proves hard to work with from the start, always exacting about her own vision and uncompromising throughout. It IS brave, I think, to write about such people when they’re still around and about, and she does it carefully. Goodings is celebratory of the readers, which is lovely but also politic, given the audience for this book. She shares feedback from people who feel they’ve grown up alongside Virago (I feel that, too, with “Frost in May” being one of the first I read and gulping down loads of their early Modern Classics as a teenager in the 80s), and reminding us that Dorothy Whipple, who Carmen famously refused to republish, was eventually vindicated by Persephone (she is very generous about the other small (feminist and not so feminist) presses) and even mentioning the sad cessation and glorious return during the celebration reprints of the green spine.

The book is careful about intersectionality, sharing the gut-wrenchingly horrific experience of inadvertently sidelining authors of colour from an early event, bringing out the lack of diversity in women’s prize lists and discussing changes which are happening now in the publishing industry. It was good to see Goodings addressing this side of publishing and the care she put into that.

I found this an excellent and fascinating book all round, and one to treasure and re-read.


What’s the narrative thread running through your life? I feel like mine is being behind the scenes, helping organise things but keeping a low profile, helping books get talked about, helping my authors and clients’ words get on the published page while being invisible myself, hopefully being a stalwart support but also a loud and strong advocate for those less able to advocate for themselves, using my privilege for others where I can. Hm, maybe. Aaaaanyway. More reviews to come but I fear I will have review lag again as I have one more novel (my Paul Magrs – I haven’t forgotten my challenge!) and then two sets of three books left to write about this month!

Oh, and one book confession! Matthew has been listening to and loving “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens. I’ve read enthusiastic and not-so-enthusiastic reviews of this but it’s certainly popular and I will give it a go … except the print is quite small and I need new glasses and, while I did get an eye test recently, my new glases have fallen foul of Circumstances and will be arriving direct from the factory and can’t be fitted professionally until Circumstances have eased. So I might not be able to read it for a while yet! At least I’ve got enough books off the TBR this month to justify adding one!

Book review – Sheena Wilkinson – “Too Many Ponies” #readingirelandmonth20 @sheenawriter

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It’s Reading Ireland Month 2020, hosted over on Cathy / 746Books’ blog (see the main post here) and I was very pleased to find that I could fulfil this challenge from my TBR, as that’s how I’m doing challenges this year. Gill gave me this book from my wishlist for Christmas 2018 (so it gets an older book off the TBR, too – hooray) and as well as the author being from Northern Ireland, it’s set there, too.

I have got another NetGalley win to report as well as my incomings but I want to leave this post just belonging to Read Ireland Month, so you’ll have to wait until Monday for that one …

Sheena Wilkinson – “Too Many Ponies”

(25 December 2018 – from Gill)

A really well-done pony book by an esteemed Irish YA writer, in fact the sequel to two books about people in the older generation in this one, but I believe her first foray into books for a slightly younger age group.

Winner of the Children’s Book Ireland Award, it tells the story of Lucy – who certainly doesn’t always get it right, although has good intentions – who has started senior school and got in with some mean girls who have shiny co-ordinated ponies who are liveried at a fancy yard and have matching accessories (what?). When there’s an opportunity for Lucy to help win some money to shore up the rocky finances of Rosevale, her friend Aidan’s family’s sanctuary for rescue horses and donkeys, where her own pony Puzzle boards, she leaps at it, but Aidan, already being bullied by the equivalent posh boys at the same school, suffers collateral damage from her relentless campaigning.

Aiden is a great character, conflicted about being a ‘pony boy’ but committed to and brilliant with the rescues; his fear of his dad’s disapproval but real fear of jumping and cross-country riding is portrayed well and convincingly. I liked the parts from his point of view or with him central, and am glad of another pony boy to join Victoria Eveleigh’s Joe.

Yes, there are slightly too-good-to-be-true plot twists along the way, but this IS a pony book and such things are part of the genre. The most satisfying scenes are one of Aidan’s when he has a triumph and the one where Erin, the pony friend Lucy should have made, stands up to her and the mean girls.  An assured and technically good story from a great story-teller, and I’m glad it got promoted a bit up the TBR to be read now.


Have you been doing Reading Ireland Month (I know Ali has!)? Any good recommendations? I am pretty sure this was the only Irish book on my TBR …

Book review – Miss Read – “Fresh from the Country” @DeanStPress

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PIle of birthday booksI was fortunate to be sent an e-copy of this book by the lovely folks at by Dean Street Press from their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint to review, but I knew that, as a Miss Read completist, I was going to need a print copy, so was overjoyed when the print copy arrived for my birthday, courtesy of my lovely best friend, Emma (she also sent me “Miss Carter and the Ifrit” which I hope to read soon, too. It was all that I hoped for: charming, light but with a bedrock of sensible morality, and a worthy addition to the growing FM imprint.

Miss Read – “Fresh from the Country”

(21 January 2020)

An incredibly charming stand-alone novel (so not part of the Fairacre or Thrush Green chronicles, which I am now aching to re-read) about a new young schoolteacher, fresh out of college, facing life in a large but still cramped school in an unattractive, raw new suburb, staying with a hilariously penny-pinching landlady and longing for her weekends and holidays at the family farm, where simple cares and joys reign and people are just basically nicer.

Anna’s colleagues are a bit of an odd bunch, but she warms to some of them and makes some friendships amid the excellent descriptions of how the school actually works (I always like to have this kind of detail in a book). Miss Read does poke fun at a few new educational ideas like the galumphing around to music that goes on, although it’s very sweet when a load of adult teachers have the most fun ever learning how to run a percussion band. She also admires the machinations and appreciates the support of the rather formidable (and surely drawn from life) head teacher.

There’s a hint of gentle romance and she also basically falls in love with teaching and the year group she has (able to read and understand but not yet cynical about life), however different it is turning out to be from her textbooks. She finishes her year with a good, firm idea of where she wants to move forward with her career (rather than just thinking about the chap waiting in the wings), which is refreshing and nice to read. Lovely portraits of the countryside are contrasted amusingly with some rather Joyce Grenfell-esque scenes in the classroom, and the whole is a very enjoyable read. The lovely original illustrations are also reproduced in the print and e-books, and the print book has a smashing cover.


I’m still one review behind, plus I have read and reviewed “Let’s Talk” for Shiny New Books. And I’m currently reading three books … and might have a couple of confessions to share when it’s not a review or (up next!) reading challenge book. How are you doing with your booky Marches?

Book review – Angie Cruz – “Dominicana” #Dominicana #NetGalley

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I’m not tooooo late reviewing this one as it was published on 23 January.  Although I’ve read many novels of immigration over the years, this told a new story of the Dominican Republic in the 1960s and of a young wife reminiscent of the heroine of “The Girl with the Louding Voice”.Thank you to John Murray Press for allowing me to read this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Angie Cruz – “Dominicana”

(16 December 2019, NetGalley)

A powerful and moving novel with at least one absolutely heart-wrenching moment (I wrote that in my notebook first, but actually there are several), centred around 15-year-old Ana’s marriage to Juan, twice her age and just one of the Ruiz brothers who are flipping between New York and the Dominican Republic, full of tales of American riches but in that age-old way trying to form partnerships to get hold of land and young, fertile women and other resources through marriage. Everything is seen as an exchange of goods, money or power/information, and Ana has to learn quickly.

So Ana is whisked off to New York where she must keep all her wits about her, deal with her abusive husband and try to carve out some space and education for herself. It’s heart-breaking when every small mistake can be catastrophic and she’s watched at every turn, and devastating when she can only perhaps be saved when she becomes a qualifying link in the matriarchal line, although her mother is still a strong force of criticism.

Like in “The Girl with the Louding Voice”, Ana, this woman in the 1960s, without paperwork and with every penny saved liable to disappear, has her own powerful voice and personality and an author to champion her untold story – in this case, Cruz’s mother’s story, who said to her,

“Who would be interested in a story about a woman like me? It is so typical.”

And yet it’s a fascinating window into the lives of just one group among many groups of immigrants in the world, and their home country’s history, too.

 

Book review – Annie Lowry – “Give People Money” @EburyPublishing #GivePeopleMoney #NetGalley

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I’m shamefully late with this review – you can probably tell I’ve been delving away in the latter pages of my Kindle this week, as well as reading some of my newer acquisitions, as I felt I’d been neglecting my NetGalley wins. Thank you to Ebury Publishing for letting me read this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Annie Lowry – “Give People Money”

(4 July 2018, NetGalley)

A book discussing the principle of universal basic income – i.e. everyone gets it, it only covers the complete basics, a room, food and transport, and it’s income – how it would address employment, income and equality and what the pitfalls might be.

It’s not too dry (I mean, I don’t find economics dry but some people might do), as it looks at plenty of examples from around the world, although the discussion of the introduction of a UBI is US-centric. It throws into relief the differences of the US from Europe, etc. in terms of attitudes to poverty as being people’s own fault, and in spending on supporting its citizens and in institutional racism.

The basic tenet of the book is that what we think of as economic circumstances are actually a product of policy choices, using North and South Korea as a useful example. Looking at practical examples of UBIs, she points out that 130 of the world’s low and middle income countries provide some form of it, but more wealthy countries decide not to. But she is clear-sighted about the challenges, for example from her time spent studying the topic in India (people’s money being accessible through only one shop; frequent Internet outages …).

The book concludes with the statement that it’s not just a UBI that’s needed, but

A broader change in our understanding of worth and compensation, of work and labor, would also be necessary.”

Fascinating stuff, especially as this was an older book in the roster which obviously I must have been interested in in the first place, but could have been a dud!

 

Book review – Libby Page – “The 24-hour Cafe” @orionbooks #The24hourCafé #NetGalley

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A lovely win from NetGalley which was published on 23 January – the second novel by the author of “The Lido” which both Matthew and I loved in 2018, and more of the same careful observation of London communities. Thank you to Orion Publishing for making it available via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Libby Page – “The 24-Hour Cafe”

(NetGalley, 28 November 2019)

In Page’s second novel, we meet Mona and Hannah, each working a double shift at the 24-hour cafe, conveniently getting half the book each, as we work our way from midnight to midnight, with them telling the story of their five-year friendship. So yes, in their lives there are careers, family and love interest, but the main point of the book is their friendship.

We visit singer Hannah’s life first and her realisation now that she sank too much of her life into her boyfriend at the expense of her friendship with Mona, a dancer, when what they have is really special, friends at first sight, even. Mona’s career is seeing some changes and these could threaten things, too. Meanwhile, we also look through the eyes of various characters who are customers of the cafe, some transient, some regulars. This builds on the little vignettes we had in The Lido and cover all sorts of state of the nation type issues, such as the difficulty of motherhood or worries about one’s immigration status after Brexit. The customers interact with the two women and they interact with their colleagues, sometimes growing closer to them.

The solidarity of the staff when there’s a threat is lovely to read; some of the pieces about the customers feel a tiny bit like writing exercises but I am very allergic to that kind of thing (e.g. could not BEAR “If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things”) and lots of people have been absolutely fine with them, so don’t let my curmudgeonly attitude put you off!

The narrative arc, as I say, being the life of a friendship is unusual and satisfying, and the main subplot around one of the customers adds depth and a nice dash of tension. A good read.

Book review – Craig Childs – “Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession” #amreading

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I’m finally onto the March reviews, but of course while I’ve been finishing February’s reads, I’ve been reading books and building up more! Where will it end? Anyway, this was the earliest book from the front of the TBR that was portable, as I have a slightly fragile book on Tahiti and a large one on the history of running which don’t fit easily into a handbag. So still working away at that Terrible TBR I shared on the 1st, as well as catching up with some NetGalley wins I’ve been neglecting …

Craig Childs – “Finders Keepers”

(23 August 2018 – BookCrossing, delivered in person by Cari)

In an avowed attempt to look at, accept where he could and present all the sides of the on-going and seemingly eternal struggle between the preservation and selling of artefacts, but also between those who advocate always removing archaeological fines from their direct context to keep them safe and those who – like Childs – advocate leaving them in place, Craig Childs travels across the US, with excursions into other countries’ situations, talking to looters, collectors, sellers of ancestral remains and archaeologists. It’s fairly obvious where his loyalties lie, but he does try to explain looters (and looting communities) and diggers and their motivations, which making a distinction between South-Western Americans who plunder the goods of unrelated civilisations and the people of Alaska who have always barely subsisted off the land and sea and are currently doing so by selling off the products of their own ancestral cultures.

Nuanced and full of personal anecdotes (and dilemmas), and indeed full of adventure and characters, it’s a good read. It shows the whole chain from looters to collectors and museums, and the shady links that make up this chain. It covers the effect of “population rebound”, when indigenous groups call for the return of their artefacts as well as the better-known inter-country requests.  The book includes an interesting interview with the author, extracts from his journals and sketchpads and questions for reading groups. Most movingly, near the end, the author describes a box of small artefacts – arrowheads and the like, which turns out to have been handed down from his great-grandfather.

Eric Newby – “A Small Place in Italy” and Tamsin Treverton Jones – “Windblown” #amreading

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A double review because I’m feeling like otherwise I will never get February’s books reviewed before something like May (this may be an over-reaction). Two travel books, anyway, one with a great story.

I thought I knew of / had read all of Newby’s books, as he’s a real favourite of mine, so was excited to come across this one in a charity shop in Penzance the time before last that we visited (yes, still on October 2018’s books – that seems to have been a bumper month for acquisitions!). And a very nice bit of linking came in when I opened it up. I’d picked up a postcard to use as a bookmark, then discovered it had a marketing postcard from a company in St Agnes on the Isles of Scilly called Twisted bobbins slipped into the back. “Aha,” thought I, and yes, indeed, one of my West Penwith and the Isles of Scilly representative in our Project 365 photo-a-day group both knew her! Of course I don’t know whether it was her book or someone who took her card, but do pop and look at the lovely weaving on the link there while you’re here!

Eric Newby – “A Small Place in Italy”

(12 October 2018 charity shop in Penzance)

One of Newby’s smaller works, a lovely story of the dilapidated farmhouse he and the redoubtable Wanda bought in Italy and slowly refurbished and lived in but only during their holidays from work, and their neighbours, friends and, it turns out, occasional enemies.

What would be a standard expat in crumbling farmhouse in Europe with idiosyncratic neighbours book, of which there are of course legion and which I’ve been reading forever is transformed, of course, but Newby’s lovely, funny voice and self-deprecating descriptions.

I loved the update at the end on the families they were close to, although this was also quite sad, given they were there for 25 years. There’s not much I can really say about it: they help with the wine harvest, they go fungus-hunting, Eric walks along some paths where he was in hiding in the Second World War, but it’s a lovely world in which to absorb yourself for a few hours. You get to learn a bit of Italian, too!

Tamsin Treverton Jones – “Windblown”

(08 August 2018)

Interesting and lyrical book about the Great Storm of 1987, thirty (what??) years ago when the book was published. Visceral and shocking descriptions of the events of the storm gave me a real jolt (not that usefully, as I was travelling to London by train at the time!) with accounts of the destruction of Wakehurst Place, etc. – I was living in Kent at the time, right in the middle of it all, and aged 15, so it left a huge impression on me. But it then goes on to look at the regeneration that took place at Wakehurst Place and Kew, etc., including new ways of planting trees to allow deeper root systems to develop, and the different tactics landowners took (it seems it was best to leave fallen trees as they were).

The arc of the book is linked with Jones’ father’s death, but it’s an appropriate link as he made wonderful art about the places they lived and designed an amazing wooden memorial mural which another craftsman (who she tracks down) made. She also goes on a long journey to track down the one almost unknown victim of the storm, a homeless man in central London, going to great lengths to find his family.

I loved little points like the fact that the giant redwood trees at Wakehurst survived the storm unscathed – a good friend of mine at the other end of our village lived surrounded by these, and the days we were cut off from the world were anxious ones, but hers didn’t fall, either!

There are a few epilogues which tell in detail the Zebrugge Disaster (the ship involved was being towed away when the storm happened) and the story of Sri Lankan refugees and the lawyer who helped them (in two chapters; they were on a holding ship that was decommissioned after the storm) as well as the holding ship itself. I can see she did the research and wanted to honour these stories but it seemed a bit too much, trying to include everything. The notes and bibliography were great, though.


Who’s your favourite travel writer? For me, it’s Newby, sulky old Paul Theroux and those brilliant women who trek all over the place like Dervla Murphy.

Book review – Sarah Reinertsen – “In a Single Bound” #amreading

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My friend Cari has been a book friend for well over a decade: we met through BookCrossing but only actually met in August 2018 when she came over to the UK and spent a couple of days up here – and she’s also a running friend now, so we went for a run then and swap inspiration and support in that area of our lives, too. Cari’s excellent at sending book parcels over here, or bringing piles of books in person, it turns out (I am less good though have sent her some real crackers, and did ‘enable’ her doing some good purchasing in charity shops. So this book was the ideal cross-over of a BookCrossing registered book about a runner, passed to me with a few others when we met!

Sarah Reinertsen (with Alan Goldsher) – “In a Single Bound”

(BookCrossing/Cari 23 August 2018)

Sarah had a congenital defect which left her with one smaller leg, and made the decision to have it amputated to give a better chance of using more useful prosthetics. After a few false starts, she was introduced to a disability sport mentor then took up athletics, first as a sprinter (and a world-record-winning one) and then, when she became frustrated with the lack of numbers in the sport whihc led to farcical races between a field with too many different categorisations at the Paralympics, triathlon and marathon.

As a trained journalist, she notices and describes all aspects of competitions, from the officials to the media surrounding them, as well as her own trials and tribulations and those of the people around her, which gives an extra depth to her descriptions.

I liked her honesty most, from her descriptions of her dysfunctional family and the hard work they put in to mend (or not) to her tales of her wilder student days (and mention of the band The Violent Femmes, which doesn’t happen often!) and her thoughts and thought processes on re-encountering her old football coach, whose behaviour she’d talked about in lots of presentations and in the book. I also loved her comparison of a triathlon to a wedding day (the expense, it lasting approx 18 hours, your family seeing you whizz by for about 6 minutes during the whole day …)!

I’ll be sharing this on with other running readers who I’m sure will appreciate it as much as I did.

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