Book review – Ammon Shea – “The Phone Book” #20BooksOfSummer20 plus #BookConfessions

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On briskly to another book of my 20BooksOfSummer and this is the one that should have been Book 8 and starting July, were it not for the DNF on Book 7.

Ammon Shea – “The Phone Book”

(25 December 2018, from Gill)

I will admit that after having read this author’s “Reading the OED” (take a moment to view that review and marvel over the empty wastes on the front shelf of June 2013’s TBR!) I thought this was going to be more of the same and a book about reading the phone book. But even Ammon Shea stops short of that excess, although he does have an interesting time reading part of the white and yellow pages from his youth, reminiscing about the people and places of which he’s reminded. This is mainly a history of the (US) phone book and yellow pages, well done and informative but lightly written as usual. I liked the pieces about collectors and artists best.

A bit oddly arranged with some strange repetition or re-mentions, maybe because the book was re-ordered at the last minute or something. And I couldn’t work out why he went all coy when mentioning other people’s reading quests without mentioning his own OED read. But it was entertaining and I’m glad I was given it and read it.

This was Book 7 in my 20 Books Of Summer project.

Book confessions!

I had fun times spending a load of book tokens from lovely friends on the Foyle’s website (while I would have loved to buy some of these books from Black-owned independent bookstores online I could not find any that had stock and took book tokens at the time I wanted to spend them. You can find a great list of Black-owned independent bookshops in the UK here. It’s great that books around anti-racism and helping the world heal and grow are selling out at the moment; I do hope people are reading them.

I didn’t want this to be a performative post about my great anti-racist book-buying antics, because a) I’ve always bought a range of books b) there’s no need to virtue-signal, so I did order a decent wider range of titles, then I’ve been waiting and waiting for my other book on Iceland to arrive and I just gave up, photographed what I had so far and put it on the TBR. So imagine there are four books on Black history, race, class and Empire and dismantling racism, one on gender and TWO on Iceland …

Six books from Foyles, all titles and authors in the textI’m going to read “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo after I’ve read “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” which I bought a month or so ago, and then I’ll read Layla Saad’s “Me and White Supremacy” and work through the workbook questions. I might not read these one after another but that’s the order as I think it will help to work through any knots I get into with the workbook. We watched David Olusoga’s TV series “Black and British” and I can’t wait to read the much more detail there looks to be in this lovely large tome. Akala’s “Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire” has been recommended to me by several very different people, which is always a bonus.

Moving on to gender and transgender, I picked up Juno Dawson’s “Gender Games” idly as it sat on the dining table after coming out of quarantine and before it got upstairs, and then could not put it down. It reads very accessibly and makes difficult topics clear with personal experience and input from experts.

Finally (for now), Tory Bilski’s “Wild Horses of the Summer Sun” is about Icelandic horses and the author’s relationship with them and her horse-loving friends. I have been fortunate enough to go riding on an Icelandic horse once, the fulfilment of a long-held dream, and yes, it felt like I was in a saga. So this looks very enticing.

Amazingly, with only one pile remaining on the back shelf, I have managed to fit all these and my other new acquisitions onto the TBR shelf, thanks to a lot of movement at the older end of things. You’ll be amazed at my photo of my TBR tomorrow (if you follow such things).


Have you read any of these books? How has your first month of 20BooksOfSummer/Winter gone?

Book review – Laura Thompson – “The Last Landlady” plus a slightly shocking DNF #20BooksOfSummer20

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Yet another from my 20BooksOfSummer pile (pictured, although it’s already been read in a different order AND now there’s a change of book due to a Did Not Finish and a substitution for July. Shocking all round!). This is a book that I picked up from the outside shelves of Any Amount of Books on Charing Cross Road when doing a pre-Christmas visit to Emma, and I think the last from that set. I might even make it out of 2018 at some stage!

Laura Thompson – “The Last Landlady: An English Memoir”

(13 December 2018, Any Amount of Books)

An interesting Unbound book (and is it an early Unbound as it’s a proof copy and also explains the concept on a page at the beginning), that’s both a memoir of her pretty amazing, resourceful and strong pub landlady grandmother, Violet, and a potted history of the English pub. The pub is in the middle of the countryside and offered a challenge to an urban woman who had failed to be able to secure the licence for her father’s pub (“the old pub”) when he passed away: she became the first English landlady in her own right.

Thompson’s childhood memories and those of the time when she slid over to the pub side of the sitting room door are vivid but authentic-sounding, and while Violet seems like a typical pub landlady in many ways, she carefully unpicks her from the stereotypes. It’s perceptive on the English being “not at their best with unregulated pleasure” (p. 119) and the usefulness of opening hours and carefully distinct bars within a pub.

A rich and fascinating portrait of a redoubtable woman and an interesting history.

This was Book 6 in my 20 Books Of Summer project.

Simon Winchester – “Outposts” (DNF)

(20 December 2018 – BookCrossing Not So Secret Santa gift)

This was on my wishlist although looking at my spreadsheet of my reading journal pre-blog, I read this from the library in December 1998 (I think I’d forgotten that) and I have also read his “The Map that Changed the World” in 2001. Interestingly, my first read of this would have been the old edition, lacking the updated introduction that sent up red flags this time around.

So it’s a book about his travels around the islands that are still (or were in 1985) part of the British Empire. OK, so far, so neutral. But the introduction to the revised edition of 2003 basically starts lavishly apologising for Empire, stating that we “meant well” and helpfully pointing out that we did some good stuff and helped the colonies to organise themselves. Hm. He also usefully (!) points out that “our” former Empire has done “better” than those of, for example, the French and Dutch.

So far, so problematic.

I started reading and we had Tristan de Cunha, where he apparently got a bit too misty eyed over some Tebbibly British Scout who welcomed him onto the island, then he goes for Gibraltar, has to get a ferry there from Morocco and describes the ferry captain as “a fat and unshaven Moor” (p. 98), at which point I laid the book aside.

I am sure I would have found all this problematic anyway, as I do keep an eye open, certainly in books from earlier times, for jingoism and Empire-praising. But in a book revised in 2003 and read in these times? Unpalatable and grubby and not to be read by me. Ugh.


So that was supposed to be Book 7 in my 20 Books of Summer. Instead, I read Ammon Shea’s “The Phone Book” which was going to be Book 8 starting off July. I will either add “A Brown Man in India” or “Our City” to the list in July – I’ll see how I’ve done through the month and if I’ve already read one of those anyway!

Book review – Camryn Garrett – “Full Disclosure” #FullDisclosure #NetGalley

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Full Disclosure Camryn Garrett book coverAnother NetGalley read and one I won back last year – not the oldest one on the pile but I have been trying to pull out the books I have that are a bit more diverse as I work my way through my curiously non-diverse 20 Books of Summer list. This one couldn’t be more diverse, as you’ll see in the review – you can pretty well always trust YA books to be delving into today’s issues and they’ve been doing that since they became a named genre, and this one is no exception.

Camryn Garrett – “Full Disclosure”

(14 August 2019, NetGalley)

First of all, this is the second book I’ve read this year that opens with a Black woman at a gynaecology appointment (the other being “Queenie“. One for Bookish Beck’s coincidences, although I didn’t read them at the same time.

Simone is just your average 17 year old American high school student, obsessed with musicals and busy directing the school play. But she moved to this school when her HIV+ status was disclosed at her last one (via the girl she was seeing who she thought she could trust); now should she tell her two new best friends and the boy she fancies (these two sets of people are given equal status at this point, although one is prioritised over the other later)? Can she trust them? Meanwhile, the only people she knows who really understand are in a pretty cringeworthy group she has been attending at hospital for years (there’s good satire of the well-meaning group leader in these sections). And her two dads are a bit over-protective and have their own issues with family, too, one having split off from his family and the other having a son from his marriage to a woman who pushes against the family narrative of that marriage being a mistake. Their overprotectiveness does however mean that when Simone starts getting anonymous notes threatening to “out” her as positive, she doesn’t tell them.

I really liked the way characters were naturally described rather than labouring over their skin tone or ethnicity (I think I read about that on someone else’s blog or in an article and I’m struggling to think where now – if you recognise that, please let me know). For example, Simon’s friend Lydia is introduced as having a bag featuring “I love Taiwan pins from her trip to visit family last summer”. Lydia also identifies as asexual (or “ace”, which I love), which is not something I’ve encountered in work of fiction before. Certainly although there’s a trope that YA books are known for looking at issues and identity politics, it’s lovely to read something in which so many different people will see themselves reflected (as the three girls attend an LGBTQIA and allies meeting weekly at school, there’s even room for a quick mention of nonbinary identity, which does complete a sort of set of diversity but is acceptable as part of the intent of the book to be inclusive, just like Dr Khan the HIV specialist and her revolving collection of child-friendly hijabs with elephants and other patterns).

Racism and white privilege are addressed naturally: the love interest, Miles, is part of a lacrosse team which is mainly white apart from one Japanese American boy and Miles, and Simone experiences outright harassment when she meets them, although she models a good response to their unsavoury remarks about always having wanted to date a Black woman:

“I’m not a cultural experience for some random white boy,” I say, folding my arms. “And, before you go looking for one, I don’t know any black girl who wants the position”.

Simone seems more used to a more diverse background to her life than Miles does, keener to be among different sorts of people but more nervous when in a majority white environment, definitely not wanting to pretend she’s who she’s not, and I think this aspect could have been developed more in a longer book.

The thing I didn’t like is that Simone basically dumps her friends for her boyfriend, and although they call her out on it very firmly, the issue is somehow magically resolved (after she’s accused them of sending her the notes, which is also pretty bad) because she starts talking about coming out as bisexual. While her friends accept that as a difficult thing, they do seem to forgive her a bit quickly. The denouement of who sent the notes also seems a bit rushed and not foreshadowed in the earlier text, but then this is a fairly short novel with a lot of plot and characters, so it probably isn’t in truth.

The book, alongside its diversity, is very sex-positive, and that’s a great thing for teenagers to be reading about, validating their experiences and desires. So it’s not one to read if you’re not keen on detailed descriptions of teenagers’ sex lives and experimentation, but it’s important for this aspect to be talked about to the actual audience for the book. I would have learned a lot about sexualities, families and race and the experience of people different to me in those aspects if I’d read it aged 17, although 17 year olds are probably a bit more knowledgeable about the world in general these days than 30 years ago!

Thank you to Penguin Random House for selecting me to read this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Book review – Neil Isaacs and Rose Zimbardo (eds.) – “Tolkien and the Critics” #20BooksOfSummer20

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Hungry Hobb CafeAnother of my 20 Books of Summer and although I don’t think I’ll have seven finished by the end of Tuesday, it will be six and a half at least, which keeps me on track. Still can’t share my Foyles incomings as I’m waiting for one of them to arrive and of course it’s one of the ones that gives balance and dilutes the performative aspect of having bought a few from my wishlist that were also on BLM recommended lists. So come on, Saga Land, and hurry up and arrive! This book jumped into my hand from the outdoor shelves at Any Amount of Books on the Charing Cross Road on a pre-Christmas trip to London to visit my best friend Emma and to stock up on Persephone books).

And the photo is to prove that I do indeed live quite near the Shire! This cafe is close to Sarehole Mill, which is slap bang in the middle of the Shire and about two miles from where I live. Note the name: it was called the Hungry Hobbit for years then the film people (not Tolkien’s people!) slapped an order on it.

Neil Isaacs and Rose Zimbardo (eds.) – “Tolkien and the Critics”

(13 December 2018, Any Amount of Books)

A 1968 volume so very early in Tolkien criticism, and this gathers together published and new essays by the likes of C.S. Lewis (on the dethronement of power), W.H. Auden (on the quest hero) and Marion Zimmer Bradley (on the levels of hero-worship in the books) and other less well-know critics, covering everything from Tolkien’s theory and practice of fairy tale to a Freudian reading. Zimbardo’s own essay on morality takes a religious frame that is mentioned elsewhere (the same quotations do tend to crop up repeatedly but that’s bound to happen in a volume like this) with even Sauron being a sort of fallen angel rather than inherently evil. John Tinkler brings out all the Old English in the land of Rohan and makes a rather snooty point that there’s an extra level of enjoyment in the books for those of us who know OE. Mary Quella Kelly does a close reading of the poetry of the various men, hobbits, elves and dwarves and Burton Raffel says the poetry is bad and the books not literature in a very narrow definition (but actually they are, at the end); his piece is notable for foregrounding Tolkien’s assertion of Reception Theory, in that he only sketches in mountains and landscapes because the reader will see the words and immediately see their own favourite example in their mind’s eye. Charles Moorman does a good job of defining the work as springing from Nordic myth.

A good read that makes me want to go back to the books, and I am also keen to read that great big exhibition catalogue volume I bought a couple of years ago.

This was Book 5 in my 20 Books Of Summer project.

Book review- Paul Magrs – “The Diary of a Dr Who Addict” #magrsathon @paulmagrs

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Liz with almost all her Paul Magrs books

Me with almost all my Paul Magrs books

A re-read of a book I first read back in 2014. I was going to pick up a few of Paul’s novels that I didn’t have to read during my Magrsathon, but unfortunately quite a lot of the older ones are now out of print and I’m feeling (temporarily I hope) a bit funny about second-hand books, even ordered online and quarantined. But what a joy to go back to this one and spend a Sunday afternoon in the company of a boy working out what his place in the world might be.

Paul Magrs – “The Diary of a Dr Who Addict”

(08 December 2013, BookCrossing Not-So-Secret Santa gift)

A re-read of this lovely, warm little coming-of-age tale where David must adjust to a new stepdad plus his American mum (one of those great older adults who love books and reading who often crop up in Paul’s novels) as well as his emerging sexuality, the development of his writing and his troubled relationship with his former best friend, Robert, who appears to be moving away from him alarmingly. One major place this shows up is in their relationship to Dr Who – as Peter Davison becomes The Doctor, and they get the chance to go to the big exhibition in Blackpool, Robert starts to see the home-made, contingent feeling of the show (The Show) as a failing, not a strength.

There are as usual some fabulous strong women characters in the book, with Robert’s sister particularly trying to break out of the standard mould, and a big theme of the fine line between over-protection and too much freedom. Robert and David’s differing personalities and experiences are beautifully summed up:

Robert is an anarchist. He read something about being one in the NME and now he gets cross about most things we have to do, especially at school. I find the whole anarchist thing interesting, but quite hard to get a grip on. The idea of no rules at all makes me feel a bit unsteady. (p. 41)

We do have a positive ending as David dares to break free a little but in a controlled way, just as he wants it; as he watches Robert showing off with a pint, he meets a quite different friend, a role model and one who, amazingly, doesn’t mock David for his interest. Hooray!


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 plus Paul’s excellent books about creative writing are available new.

 

Book review – Philip Marsden – “Rising Ground” plus some #BookConfessions #20BooksofSummer20

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The fourth book in my 20 Books of Summer challenge and I bought this in the Edge of the World Bookshop in Penzance (website here and a lovely shop it is, too) on our holiday to Penzance and the Isles of Scilly in October 2018 (here‘s the post I wrote about the books I bought there, now all read, hooray!) as a very appropriate local read set in the West Country from Somerset westwards. And appropriately enough, there will be some book confessions after the review!

Philip Marsden – “Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place”

(12 October 2018)

A wonderful book going West from Somerset via Glastonbury and Tingagel into Cornwall, with lots of time spent on Bodmin Moor and a trip on the King Harry Ferry, and then getting into well-known and beloved places like West Penwith and the Morrab Gardens and Library, then on to the Isles of Scilly themselves.

Interspersed with the restoration of his own dream house and his parents selling theirs and moving on, he walks, camps and trespasses, spending time alone, in present-day company and with literary figures (the chapters on these last, while interesting, were the least engaging for me, reminding me of my struggles through Iain Sinclair’s “Edge of the Orison” about John Clare, although they came more alive when meeting people now who knew of them). His walks along the Fal reminded me of a fellow-blogger Tredynas Days‘ nature walks in lockdown.

I found it fascinating when Marsden explained the new idea of the ‘sacred landscape’ that is coming into play in archaeology and pre-historical studies, tracking the changes from seeing ridges as ramparts to seeing them as places of ritual. The standing stones, figures and landscape alterations now lead to a

focusing on the monuments’ position, what would have been visible from them, how they relate to nearby rivers and ridges and prominent hills. (p. 33)

and he walks some of these sight-paths with notable outcomes and effects.

He treasures incursions, whether that’s of foliage inside his house, by humankind into their environment or himself when dropping down to rivers through china clay workings both operational and abandoned, and I love that about the book, which is tightly structured in one way, loosely wandering in another. His comments on West Penwith, having described the area through a few different people’s eyes with its agglomeration of ritual landscapes and mysterious stone circles, seem very apt to this outsider but lover of the area:

All the ages are rolled into one, a post-modernist bundle of residual beliefs, re-interpreted customs, hazy site-myths, ancient stones, recollections and folk tales. (p. 230)

How I wish I’d been able to read this book sitting on my favourite bench on Penzance prom, by the bandstand in the Morrab Gardens or in the cosy cottage we’ve stayed at a few times. But it was a lovely evocation of this land even read in the very middle of England.

This was Book 4 in my #20BooksOfSummer project.


I’m currently reading “Tolkien and the Critics” and “The Last Landlady” for 20Books, plus Camryn Garrett’s “Full Disclosure” from NetGalley because I was eating a pizza last night and needed a book I could read on Kindle and didn’t have to hold (true reason!). And I need to report on some books in, although this isn’t all of them!

I went to visit my dear friend Ali (of the Heaven-Ali blog) the other weekend – it was so exciting to see her and our friend Meg, even though it was an 8.5 mile round trip of a walk for me and I caught the sun a little. I had taken a book gift over to Meg and was delighted to have these two thrust into my bag (from a safe distance, naturally). Francesca Wade’s “Square Haunting” about Meckelburgh Square and five overlapping residents is a hefty hardback that she was having trouble with, wanting to justify picking up an easier-to-handle Kindle copy, and she knew I was keen on reading it, and she’d somehow ended up with two copies of “My Husband Simon” by Mollie Panter-Downes in that very enticing new British Library Women Writers series which Simon/Stuck-in-a-Book is curating so kindly passed one to me (everyone seems to have been reading this one!).

Then Bloomsbury have been supplying us Shiny New Books reviewers with some temptations and the first of the three I’ve bagged arrived recently. Nick Hayes’ “The Book of Trespass” chimes nicely with the book I’ve just been reviewing, as it’s about the efforts folk have made to open up some of the 98% of the UK that is privately owned and not accessible to the general public. This looks like a lovely big satisfying read.

And THEN you might remember that the lovely Dean Street Press sent me a review copy of Ruth Adam’s “A House in the Country” which is one of the lovely set they’re bringing out in August, and that they had offered me “Miss Mole” which I had already read. Well they have very kindly sent me two more from this batch to read and review – Dorothy Evelyn Smith’s “Miss Plum and Miss Penny” and Celia Buckmaster’s “Village Story”. You can read about all these new ones on the Furrowed Middlebrow blog post about the August reprints.

Finally, I have had half of a lovely Foyles delivery, entirely paid for by book tokens I’d gathered over Christmas and birthday and a few Foyalty Points; however I was very careful about not being “performative” and only buying and sharing books with a Black Lives Matter theme and had made sure to buy some in that area, one on transgender matters and then two on Iceland. And of course I’m now waiting for the two on Iceland to arrive so I can share the whole lot with you!

How are your 20Books or other projects going? Have you bought anything recently?

Book Review – Brit Bennett – “The Vanishing Half” #TheVanishingHalf #NetGalley

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It seems like half the world is reading this book at the moment, so we all probably know that it’s a book about two very light-skinned (and wavy-haired) Black sisters whose lives divide when one chooses to live as if she were white – “passing over” as it’s called in the book. I absolutely loved this book and could not put it down; although it was obviously written before the massive surge in reading of BIPOC people’s lives, it has a timeliness about it and the differences between Black and non-Black experiences that serve as useful education. However, I have read numerous comments about it being important to still read books for their literary or entertainment value, rather than just because they teach us some kind of po-faced lesson, and this book certainly ticks those boxes, too – I couldn’t put it down towards the end and sat up late again to get it finished.

So, Stella and Desiree are twins growing up in a semi-mythological town (it doesn’t appear on maps; why this happens does get explained) town in the Southern US which has basically bred darkness out of its own population; they are in fact descendents of the town’s founding father. The town acts as a kind of chorus in the book: for example, when Desiree, who has seemingly married the darkest man she can find, brings her daughter back home,

Each time that girl passed by, no hat or nothing, they were as galled as when Thomas Richer returned from the war, half a leg lighter, and walked around town with one pant leg pinned back so that everyone could see his loss.

Stella, on the other hand, having had a couple of dry runs, manages to pass as white, and although she slips up a few times and has a very awkward relationship with her only Black neighbour, who she is drawn to even though she has been instrumental in trying to stop her move in, and is in fact instrumental in having her driven out (I’ve seen some reviews describe her as becoming a ‘good white woman’. While I appreciate the 60s were a different time, and while it is interesting to have her in a fairly standard rather than, for example, overtly racist family, I do think there would have been white women then who would not have done those two things), she doesn’t get found out by her own actions. However, even not found out, she is sort of hollowed out, with no real friends, no sister and mother, not able to relax for a moment.

We pass to the stories of their two obviously very different daughters, and things get even more interesting, plot and character wise. We also find out more about two men who love two of the women who are not on the path of canonical masculinity but offer different perspectives on manhood and created as opposed to blood families, Early in one generation, Reese in another. I just love these kind people and the additional layers they add to the book, and also the range of different life experiences in changing and dressing, from Black women passing as white through a teacher with a twice-monthly drag act to a convincing and lovely trans character. And yes, in a way you have to go to the big city to find this variety, but that’s a trope of the small town coming of age story genre this novel also belongs to.

A quote that sort of sums up the all sorts of powder kegs that could be lit in this book:

She regretted the words as soon as they left her mouth, but by then, it was too late. She had rung the bell, and all her life, the note would hang in the air.

This book exists in the context of other books like Nella Larsen’s “Passing” but adds new layers to that, and brings it up to date. Another context I would put this book into in terms of my own reading preferences places it with Ruth Ozeki, Larry McMurtry, Michael Cunningham, Terry McMillan and Gish Jen. Yes, two white males there, but I’m by no means saying it’s good because it’s as good as them, I hasten to add. Like I like in my music a certain American whimsical whine in the singer, one strand of things I really like in novels is a clear, matter-of-fact voice that offers often astounding but also everyday experiences in a sort of reportage style, as if it was just plainly stating the facts. While still beautifully written, this book fits in with those others that I have loved for years, and I will certainly be picking up the author’s other novel and looking out for more.

Thank you to Little, Brown Book Group for providing me with an e-copy of this book in return for an honest review. “The Vanishing Half” was published on 11 June.

Book review – Phillipa Ashley – “A Perfect Cornish Escape”

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Well, there’s a tale here … I won the second book in this three-book series on NetGalley and got hold of the first book so I could read them in order, which I duly did, and I reviewed them here back in November. Past Me must have got wind of this, the third installment, being due in June, so pre-ordered it. Then forgot. So I was surprised last week to get an email from Amazon to say my pre-order was on its way. I sort of realised what had happened at that point, but was surprised, as I usually only pre-order big expensive new books I’m longing for (“The Testaments” etc.) not a perfectly nice novel I can pick up anywhere late (esp as I was doing this before lockdown removed access to the charity shops and The Works). Imagine my surprise, then, when I got ANOTHER email saying the same; picking through the history, it seems that February Past Me also decided to pre-order this book! Fortunately I managed to cancel one copy and get a refund. But then I thought I should read the thing, given that I’d obviously been keen to get it the moment it came out (actually, I think it’s more a question of knowing I’d forget it was going to come out and never getting round to reading it).

Phillipa Ashley – “A Perfect Cornish Escape”

(12 June 2020)

A pair of cousins, one living a quiet life in a small Cornish town, bereaved after a boating accident seven years ago, one escaping from a poor choice and scandal in London and the loss of her high-flying career in journalism, meet two essentially decent but flawed men who always seek consent (as they should, and as is nice to see through all of these books), one escaping from his own demons and PTSD after an accident, one really not keen on journalists after being stitched up. But will they all be able to heal and work their way through to a brighter future? I did like the theme of healing taking a long time and being a process, and people getting things after hard work, not luck or attractiveness, and it’s a kind and generally positive book as this author’s reliably are. I liked the characters from the other two stories popping up in this one so we can see what they’re doing. The first series I read, the Cornish Cafe ones, followed the same characters through all three books, while the Little Cornish Isles ones concentrated on a different person each time, with the others popping up – this one is more separate but still does have those nice links, which I really like. A good sense of community, too, and of the community having each other’s backs and pulling together.

I did feel very sorry for the author in one respect. It’s a series, and there were dates in the other two, so this one has one section in the past and then it starts off being set in … April 2020 and running through to September. But of course it was written way before lockdown and none of the events could have happened in social isolation conditions. But what a massive shame. I’d have been tempted to change it to April 2019 and not worry about people being cross over the timeline going wonky but I’m sure they had their reasons for not doing that.

I was also disappointed in a more problematic sense that the diversity that I found and really enjoyed in her previous books was completely gone here, even in a character who appears here but had previously had a story around her ethnicity. Yes, we don’t need to bang on about things all the time, but it was odd to see that remain unacknowleged and to not have the inclusive characters we had before. I wonder why that is and hope it’s not some focus group business.


Has Past You ever presented you with books you’d forgotten about?

I’m over half-way through “The Vanishing Half” at the moment and pretty well unable to put it down, and very much enjoying the quieter charms of “Rising Ground”. Is your 20BooksofSummer list still going well?

The #WolfsonHistoryPrize winner and two @ShinyNewBooks reviews @AllenLaneBooks @WolfsonHistory @ThamesandHudson

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Well, much excitement last night as “my” book from the shortlist for the Wolfson History Prize only went and won it! I reviewed David Abulafia’s “The Boundless Sea”, which is a history of the oceans from prehistory until 2000 earlier in the month for the blog tour, and I also wrote a slightly different review for it for Shiny New Books which was published last week. In that review, I dared to say

I felt it was a strong contender, in terms of the depth and breadth of the scholarship and research, and the global reach of the descriptions.

which I don’t think I dared to say in my review on this blog. I was very taken with it, though, and really appreciated its purposeful concentration on other than European sailors, traders and adventurers, the intelligent appraisal of the role of the slave trade in world economics and history, while unequivocally decrying it, and the repeated insistence that coming across a land that is already inhabited does not constitute “discovering” it. A good counter to previous narratives, then, as well as a great book in itself.

Do please pop across to read my review on Shiny New Books here, and you can read the announcement about it winning the Wolfson History Prize here.

Thank you again to the Wolfson Prize people and Midas PR for providing me with a digital copy to read in return for an honest review.

When I review a book for Shiny New Books, I don’t always review it here, too, although my kind editors never mind if I do. I have another review in Shiny today that you haven’t read about first on here, this time for a rather different book, “Home Computers: 100 Icons that Defined a Digital Generation” by Alex Wiltshire and John Short. We read about 100 computers used in offices as well as the home, but mainly the home:

While the first two are early kits, the rest are machines you could buy and take home, dated from the 1960s to the early 1990s, with one leap forward to compare the design features of the Apple iMac with the sometimes highly utilitarian beige boxes that came before it. Each computer has at least one double-page spread, with details of the manufacturer, date, country of origin and some technical information, lovely colour photos and text explaining the machine and its inventors/designers. Some major pieces like the Spectrum have a larger section, and there are also great photos of the handbooks and ephemeral pieces that came with the machines, which can give a thrill of recognition after all these years.

As you might gather from the end of the review on Shiny New Books (which you can read here), my husband Matthew has been reading it too and has got more and different things out of it than I do, as he knows many more of the computers.

Thank you to Thames & Hudson for sending me this book in return for an honest review.

Book review – Nancy Marie Brown – “The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman” #20BooksofSummer20

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Third book in my 20 Books of Summer and although I’m currently still reading Book 4, I have gone off-piste a little with some novels in between. We’re only half-way through the month, though, so what can go wrong? I think my friend Cari recommended this one to me, however that would have been almost two years ago so who really knows. It was right up my street, anyway – travel in the footsteps of a previous traveller, in Iceland and Greenland …

Nancy Marie Brown – “The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman”

(01 October 2018)

Ostensibly a biography of Gudrid, a Viking woman who made several voyages to Greenland and America from Iceland and gave birth to the first European born on American soil, as well as going on pilgrimage to Rome, because of the lack of clear evidence from the sagas or archaeology (although they have found and Brown works in some of her possible houses), it covers general issues around exploration, the origin of the Icelandic and Greenlandic settlers, the coming of Christianity, etc. It also brings in other sagas than the Vinland ones, carefully explaining how they all fit together.

The book opens memorably with the author standing on the threshold of Gudrid’s house, looking at a view she could have looked at, but is honest about the debate over the historical accuracy of the sagas, as well as the shifting attitudes to them and their locations by Icelandic archaeologists. I loved her assessment of events in the sagas that happened contemporaneously (for example, Gudrid would have known Gudrun the Fair from Laxdaela Saga), and also her use of several historical documents or travelogues from different centuries about the same place in Iceland or Greenland. She certainly knows her sources. I also enjoyed the details from the scientists and experts on weaving etc. (although some diagrams on how looms worked might have been useful), adding in what would have been found of these looms in the archaeological record.

There’s a great annotated bibliography which would be a brilliant guide to the topics covered, although a bit out of date now as this book was published in 2007.

The book is summed up almost at the end:

Digging that summer at Glaumbaer, I didn’t find anything Gudrid had dropped. But as I explored the archaeology of Gudrid’s days, the economy of the farms where she lived, the technology of her time – how to make cheese, how to weave, how to sail a ship and build a wall – I learned new ways to tell Gudrid’s story, to pick up where the sagas leave off. (p. 265)

This was Book 3 in my #20BooksOfSummer project.


I’m currently reading “Rising Ground” but haven’t really read long enough chunks to get a proper feel for it – it is excellent, though, as far as I can tell. One light Cornwall novel done and I’m going to go for Brit Bennett’s “The Vanishing Half” before continuing with the 20Books.

How are your 20Books or other projects going?

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