Bank holiday bonus! An interview with Paul Magrs #magrsathon @paulmagrs

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Paul Magrs and Liz Dexter in Manchester in 2013

Paul and Liz in Manchester

As part of my Paul Magrsathon, in which I’ve been reading, and encouraging other people to read, the novels of Paul Magrs during the year, Paul kindly agreed to do an interview with me and here it is as a bank holiday bonus!

When I read “Exchange” (which I’m reading and reviewing next month), I got all over-excited when I came across its mention of BookCrossing, tracked Paul’s work (at the time) email address down and emailed him! Over the years, we’ve become friends, and I actually got to meet Paul back in 2013 (we had afternoon tea in the cafe of Manchester’s Art Museum and a poke around a few bookshops, of course).

I hope you enjoy this little view into Paul’s writing life …

Phoenix Court and beyond

Hello, Paul! So, what was it like revisiting Phoenix Court for the Lethe Press reprint?

It was very moving to return to them. I wrote them in my early twenties – and I felt so brave then! Mixing characters of all kinds of sexualities and bringing in magical realist effects, and writing about the streets and the towns in the North East of England that I grew up in. These books had wonderful reviews and they have fans, too – but like so many books they were allowed to drop through the net and go out of print – almost straight away. I thought they were gone forever, and I had resigned myself to that. But Steve Berman and Matt Bright at Lethe Press were determined to do nice new versions of them.

It was so exciting when they brought them back out and of course I rushed to take part in the pre-order! Did you change or edit the novels at all?

I decided not to alter the text of the books at all. I toyed with the idea, but it seemed somehow the wrong thing to do.

Fair enough! Who was your favourite character when you wrote them and how did that change?

My favourite character was always Penny, I think – the teen with the telekinetic powers. I brought her back as a grown up, years later in ‘Hell’s Belles’, and she joined the cast of the Brenda and Effie Mysteries. I love all my characters, though, and it’s hard to pick one out over another.

How did you decide which short stories to include in the reprinted volumes?

That was easy to decide on, but tricky to do. I dug out all the stories that were published in magazines and anthologies during those same years. Some of them complemented the novels rather nicely – ‘Nude on the Moon’ was commissioned by Lisa Tuttle for a collection of stories with an erotic theme, and it picked up Liz and Cliff’s story, so it was natural to put that in with ‘Does it Show?’  And ‘Patient Iris’ led to the publication of my first book, and it was obvious it should go at the start of ‘Marked for Life.’ Others have a more complicated history, for example the story ‘Jep’ – about the leopard-skinned baby – belongs to the middle of ‘Could it be Magic?’ It was cut (wrongly maybe?) at the edit stage, and finds its place now as a dreamlike flashback at the end of the book.

Oh, that makes sense. I think it should have gone back in but it’s great as a story, too. Tell us how “Fancy Man” got lost and how you reclaimed it.

It was a dreadful experience, having that cancelled. I was in the middle of various house moves and I was lecturing and writing and working too hard – and files and boxes of papers were put in the wrong place. What I thought was the complete manuscript of the book turned out to be only the first half – a very messed-up copy, ruined through rewriting. And I had no idea where the complete book was. I shrugged and moved on. ‘Fancy Man’ was clearly cursed. Books often fall by the wayside, and sometimes it’s for the best…  But then, years later – I found a fat folder of loose sheets. Foxed and spotted with damp and mould. And there it was! My lost novel. Just as Lethe was gearing up to do my first novels again. I think it was the process of looking out those ‘extra short stories’ that my missing fourth novel came back into my life…!

What’s your favourite book out of all the ones you’ve written?

This changes each time I’m asked the question. As of now – July 2020 – I would say it’s ‘The Story of Fester Cat.’ It’s so personal. It was so immediate and direct and a book that I had to write, there and then, working in a blaze of energy that’s quite rare. I was very proud of that book. Penguin US brought it out, and I was hugely disappointed it never came out in this country. It seems like it’s in limbo now, which is a shame. People really love that book.

Would you change any of the books you’ve written, looking back on them now?

Very interesting question! I’ve developed and changed in so many ways. I’d write all of them completely differently now. I’d be stricter with plotting, probably. I’d take fewer crazy detours and be less experimental. But I’m not sure that would improve them!  I think I’d make many of my books *longer.* I think, being slightly older, I find I want to stay in the story longer than I did. I don’t want to leave those stories.

Is there a book by someone else you wish you’d written?

Many! But then they wouldn’t be mine, or theirs, any more. I read to escape my own writing, and I write to escape other people’s.

I love that! What’s the best bit of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

‘Keep it on camera.’ From the tutor of my MA Writing Course, David Craig, in 1991.

That’s brilliant! And you do. You teach and write about writing: what do you think the best bit of writing advice is that you’ve given someone?

Write every day.

Good advice. Who are your top five favourite authors and why?

I love writers who feel as if they’re sitting down and telling me *stuff.* Who are saying to me: ‘Oh, it’s you again – hello! Here, listen to this…’  And I’d say – Anne Tyler, Armistead Maupin, Truman Capote, Natalie Goldberg, Alan Bennett.  Many, many others, too. I read a lot. And I’m always listening for that chatty, confiding, trusting voice.

Ah, I’m re-reading all of Anne Tyler next year! Is there anyone else who writes like you, who “goes with” you? Someone who “If you like Paul Magrs novels, you will like this”?

I really, really don’t know. Aspects of what I do you might get elsewhere, in other people’s books. But I’m not really like anyone. That’s what people in publishing often say – like it’s a terrible and difficult thing. But I think it’s a good thing. It’s a Tigger kind of thing.

And you know what? I think you’re right!

Thanks so much to Paul for taking the time to think about and write down the answers to these questions – very illuminating and interesting!

You can find Paul online at Life on Magrs and he also has a Patreon for exclusive new content.

Book review – Joan Aiken – “The Serial Garden” and #20BooksOfSummer20 round-up @ViragoBooks

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Vriagoes and PersephonesI’ve done it! This is my last 20 Books of Summer book and I finished it on Friday night, with three days to go! Was this aided by the fact that it was a book of stories for children? Maybe, but it was still a proper book with 438 pages. I summarise my 20 Books of Summer experience after my review.

Joan Aiken – “The Serial Garden”

(01 February 2020)

Not a 2018 or even early 2019 book at all, but at the time of putting together my Pile, this was the next Virago on my TBR.

This is the collected Armitage Family stories, starting with a prelude which explains how this extraordinary family ends up having so many adventures – especially on a Monday – and setting the down-to-Earth tone which gives the magic such a delicious base in real life: having accidentally summoned a sea serpent while on holiday …

With great presence of mind, Mrs Armitage said, ‘Not today, thank you. Sorry you’ve been troubled. Down, sir. Heel. Go home now, good serpent, I’ve got nothing for you’. (p. 5)

The introduction by Aiken’s daughter explains that the stories range from her very first published one to some of her latest, and there was always one in every collection she put out. I remembered at least aspects of some of them. On reflection, if I’d not been reading this for a challenge I think I’d have spread it out a bit and read something else alongside it, just because they’re short stories with a lot going on and it gets a bit hectic-feeling. The last stories got a bit complicated and I did rush through them a little.

There’s lots to love here, from the ingenuity of the tiny family who do some Borrowers-style making do to the resourcefulness and capacity of Harriet, just as in control and brave as her brother.

In a nod to Bookish Beck’s collection of booky coincidences, this book featured my second Aubusson carpet in two books!

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

20 Books of Summer in summary (summery?)

Thank you to Cathy over at 746 Books for running this project once again. I was really glad to get my 20 books done, and you can see a list of them with links to all the reviews (and lists for all the previous years I’ve attempted the challenge) here.

I made sure I prioritised the books from my pile each month: I had a clear idea of which ones I wanted to get to and I also, as I traditionally do, devoted August to All Virago (and other publishers reclaiming lost women writers) as part of the project, as this is a challenge I have enjoyed doing with a LibraryThing group for years. I got the right books done in the right months with nothing hanging over.

Did I achieve my aim?

Apart from reading 20 books, my main aim with this, as you can see in my pre-challenge post (here) was to power through the older books on my TBR, so that at the end, I had almost nothing left that I’d acquired in 2018 (as I try to read my books in acquisition order, it was a bit shocking to me that I still had books from then!). I knew I would have a couple of Angela Thirkells left over, as Virago have republished them out of order, so I was waiting for some new ones to arrive on 20 August that would interleave with the older ones. In fact, swapsies meant I read one of the new reprints as Book 19, which means I have now started its sequel, meaning I only have one book from 2018 left on the TBR! Success!

This was my TBR shelf at the start of June:

June TBR

… and here it is at the end of August:

So although it’s still very full, even maybe fuller than in June (although you can see a Pile nestling on the back row in June) it has certainly got more up to date (you can see Karamo has shifted up from nearly at the end to the right to a third of the way along from the left).

Did I read everything on the original pile?

Not quite. But swaps and changes are positively encouraged in this lovely, open and inclusive challenge!

In June, I gave up on Simon Winchester’s “Outposts” and added Jon Bloomfield’s “Our City” instead at the end of July.

In August, I swapped out “The Three Miss Kings” by Ada Cambridge because I want to read it for Australia Reading Month in November and swapped in Marianne Grabrucker’s “There’s A Good Girl”, which achieved a Women In Translation Month read as well as being by The Women’s Press.

Also in August, I rebelled at the idea of reading a third book in a row published in 1922-24 and swapped out “The Camomile” for Angela Thirkell’s “Cheerfulness Breaks In”.

What did I read? 

7 Fiction /  13 Non-fiction

16 Paperback / 4 Hardback

12 By women / 7 By men / 1 By one of each

Diversity – none by People of Colour, one including People of Colour as a major theme (but I did redress the balance in the other books I read during the months).

What else did I read?

So my pile was made up of books from my TBR, real, physical books. I got rid of 21 of those, with the aforementioned abandon and swaps. I actually finished 42 books during June-August (with one more to possibly finish by the end of this month). The others were made up of review books, ebooks (mainly from NetGalley, some bought), and books for my ongoing Paul Magrsathon, and the odd additional print book, especially as I wanted to keep the diversity of my reading up.

Book review – Margaret Kennedy – “The Ladies of Lyndon” #20BooksOfSummer20 @ViragoBooks

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Vriagoes and PersephonesWell, it looks like I’m going to do it. Here I am with the penultimate in my 20 Books of Summer pile and I’m already part way through the final one. And it’s two lovely Virago books to finish off the challenge, too! (Will I get one more in for All Virago/All August?) This one came in my LibraryThing Virago Group (Not so) Secret Santa gift from Cornishgirl and I’m very glad she sent it to me.

Margaret Kennedy – “The Ladies of Lyndon”

(25 December 2019)

A fascinating novel which starts with the joining of two families and the resulting couple’s establishment in Lyndon, a beautiful stately home crammed with lovely objects. But is it enough for our rather elusive heroine? We follow the lives of the various ladies who flit through the house, from the grandparent generation through some formidable mothers / stepmothers to a selection of the younger generation, from the last years or the Edwardian era to just post-war, allowing us to see the menfolk go off to war or profit from it in various ways, and the women to get some measure of independence of work or spirit.

Most interesting is the portrait of James, brother of our heroine’s husband and kept at Lyndon (if the new couple will have him) as someone who is described as “mentally defective”. However, unlike the poor cipher child of the Thirkell I just read, this is a fairly clear portrait of a man living (happily, once he gets going) on the autism spectrum, who is totally vindicated, with the help of various characters who are redeemed by being supportive of him, and leads the happiest life of all the characters in the book.

The daughters of the two houses marry various types of men for various reasons (the society chap, the capitalist …) and their mothers continue to run matters. Jumping forward a few years with each new section, we can observe in merciless details the scales falling from people’s eyes and the realisation of the life they have chosen – although the book is also notable for secrets and truths held back. It’s pretty cynical (or realistic) and the most startling scene is between Agatha, our heroine, and her mother, late on in the book:

‘Don’t make the mistake of supposing that you have a noble character because you would like to have one. It’s rank folly.’ (p. 288)

Ouch. An absorbing novel, written just after the end of the period it covers, making it even more immediate.


This was Book 19 in my 20 Books Of Summer project and as I mentioned above, I’m reading Book 20 at the moment so think I will get done – especially as Book 20 is essentially a book of children’s short stories.

Book review – Angela Thirkell – “Cheerfulness Breaks in” #20BooksOfSummer20 @ViragoBooks

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Three Thirkell novelsI think this is the first actual Virago book in my All Virago (etc.) / All August pile, and it’s a swap in my 20Books of Summer after I was a bit bamboozled when facing three books in a row published in the early 1920s. This one was first published in 1940 so fits into that poignant set of books I seem to quite often come across which were written and published when war had broken out, but the outcome was not at all clear. This is one of Virago’s gradual repreints of Thirkell’s Barchester series; rather oddly, they published ones that come in between these three first, two of which I’ve already read, but feel I want to re-read now so I can get all of the Second World War ones done in sequence. Not least because this one ends on a massive cliffhanger and I’ve already read the next one.

But first, a content warning.

Angela Thirkell – “Cheerfulness Breaks in”

(20 August 2020)

Angela Thirkell presents problems to the modern reader – or at least I hope she does. There are large problems with this book and many of her others, and I always feel I need to raise these when discussing her, as I would hate anyone to think I condoned some of the attitudes she espouses in her books. Yes, she is very much “of her time,” and in fact I’ve found almost exactly the same problem as one of the issues with this one in the next book I picked up (published 1923). But it makes it difficult to read her sometimes and standing silent is the same as being complicit.

So, Thirkell does go in for a) casual and not-so-casual racism (not so evident in this one, and in fact there is a joke at the expense of a missionary that puts his African congregation in the position of power (hooray! but rare) including introducing an entire central European race just to mock them. b) massive overweening snobbery (again, this one is not so bad with that and a character mentions they fear they are being snobbish). c) (a new one in this one I think), very outdated and offensive language around a child living with a developmental disorder. These things are of course unacceptable to the modern reader, and you very much have to put a firm “of those days, thank goodness she wouldn’t get away with this now” hat on.

So why do I continue to read her? Good question. Writing as she does at the time of the events in the book, we get almost reportage on the minutiae of village and country life at the outbreak of the war, from spivs and dodgy folks with too bright headlights on their petrol-filled cars to inventive curtains to keep the blackout, from girls desperate for more than a blackout injury in their hospital to older schoolboys and clergy who feel useless and embarrassed not to be fighting. And there’s an added poignancy to the rumour mill that’s constantly working, as it does today in our times of pandemic. There is real emotional depth in the responses of families sending their sons away and, especially, the masters and old boys of the boys’ school being sent off to fight. We find a celebration of unconventional, strong women, from capable spinsters to the moving development of Lydia Keith from bumptious schoolgirl to serious housekeeper running an estate and a house and doing much volunteering as her mother ails.

More poignancy comes from the rather lovely Noel’s realisation of his feelings for a character he thought of as a friend, when he sees her worn out and wants to support her. and there’s a touching and underplayed scene at old Lord Pomfret’s funeral, where the congregation will never see each other all at the same time again.

There’s also a lot of humour, with some terrible characters being nicely squashed and a perfect scene when the Birketts are treated to an unforeseen proposal:

When they compared notes afterwards they found that noting better than tags from Victorian novels had floated into their minds (p. 261)

This reminded me irresistibly of the time Mr Liz was running a Terrible Temperature and I phoned NHS 111 to ask for advice, then found myself saying, “Ah, the fever will break, will it” which I then realised I had got entirely from Victorian novels.

So, there is more to like than to dislike in this book, for sure, and while it’s important to note the dodgy details, register them, talk about them and make sure they’re not dusted under the carpet, it would be a shame to censor them when the intelligent and fair-minded reader should be able to separate out the wheat from the chaff.

This was Book 18 in my 20 Books Of Summer project. I’m reading Book 19 at the moment so I might even do it!

Book review – Marianne Grabrucker (trans. Wendy Philipson) – “There’s a Good Girl” #20BooksOfSummer20 #WITMonth @GenderDiary

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Vriagoes and PersephonesThis one didn’t feature in my original Pile as I thought I was going to read “The Three Miss Kings” as part of 20BooksofSummer and All Virago (etc.) / All August. Then I realised August was Women in Translation month AND this was the only book in translation I had on my bookshelf, AND it’s published by The Women’s Press therefore suitable for inclusion in All Virago (etc.) AND I could then save “The Three Miss Kings” for Australian Lit month in November …

Marianne Grabrucker – “There’s a Good Girl: Gender Stereotyping in the First Three Years of Life, a Diary”

(22 October 2019 – presumably bought second-hand online when I realised I couldn’t find my original copy)

I was reminded of this book, which I owned, but presumably lent out at some point, when I read the excellent “The Gender Agenda“, a modern book which built on the idea of examining gender stereotyping and gender policing. I had read it a couple of times before so got hold of a replacement copy.

A child is born. A new woman has arrived. And her future is going to be different.

This is the opening of the book, and is very powerful, although it’s a moot point as to how different her future was. Translated by Wendy Philipson with useful footnotes on some aspects of German life and culture, this is the classic text on observing raising a girl from pregnancy to three years old, looking at conscious and unconscious gender bias which is introduced into the girl’s life.

The Introduction states what she intended to do and what happens and also interrogates contemporary thought on the presence or not of innate gender differences – as the introduction to the third edition, it also talks about the book’s reception in the 18 months since it was first published. It mentions the new translation and wonders what the British response will be. I have no idea when this book first came to my attention: probably not long after it was published in 1988 and I would have been lured by The Women’s Press on the spine.

Grabrucker picks up on her own stereotyping behaviour (most noticeably, I think, the fact that because she is not interested herself in engineering and technology, she doesn’t react to or encourage her daughter’s interest in machines and vehicles) as well as others’. Her partner and Anneli’s father is not mentioned much unless he directly interacts with the child and her friends, because it’s an intensely personal work, I suppose.

Unlike in “The Gender Agenda” which is about a brother and sister, there is just Anneli, so her childhood experiences are compared with those of friends’ boys and other girls, and there are also some interesting passages when Anneli has short hair and “passes” as a boy and the different reactions from people who encounter her. Also interesting is that Anneli defines  herself as being a boy when doing active and strong tasks, and talks about growing up to be a boy, although there’s no mention of any gender issues and she’s still defined as being her “daughter” in her teens on a website I found.

Grabrucker is really good at bringing out the unconscious bias inherent in the most liberal of parents who think they are raising their children in a non-gender-biased way. Later in the book there are some fascinating moments when people change tack, usually because they have read and discussed the diary in detail and have become more aware of the tiny moments and behaviours that children pick up on.

It’s rather sad to read in the Epilogue that Grabrucker did not have time to continue to make all these detailed and rather beautiful observations once she’d returned to her legal work. There is a call to start a new gender approach with boys to allow a change in the relationship between the sexes, something that’s echoed in “The Gender Agenda” with its critique of practices of toxic masculinity.

There’s a New Statesman article about the relationship between this book and “The Gender Agenda” here. I found Ms Grabrucker’s website but there’s no information on what happened next, somewhat frustratingly.

This was Book 17 in my 20 Books Of Summer project and the only book I have read for Women In Translation Month.

Book review – Edith Ayrton Zangwill – “The Call” #20BooksOfSummer20 @PersephoneBooks

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Vriagoes and PersephonesI have quite a comforting pile of Persphones to read on my shelf – I do love their reassuring grey bulk and the knowledge that they’ve come from dear friends as birthday and Christmas presents, usually representing a lovely trip to the Persephone Shop in London. So much more than just a book. Here’s The One About The Suffragettes, substantial with over 400 pages but oh-so-readable!

Edith Ayrton Zangwill – “The Call”

(21 January 2019 – from Ali)

We follow the fortunes of Ursula, who starts off as a scientist, not keen on the social whirl her fluffy mother wants her to engage with, shut up in her top-floor lab and attending lectures as a guest at male-only events. Throughout the course of the book, the choices women must make are drummed into us, as she variously has to chose between love and science, science and the suffrage movement, then love and the suffrage movement. Can she have all three? Um, not really.

Her radicalisation is skillfully done, from being handed a magazine on a boating trip and making a connection with a beautiful suffragette to witnessing a demonstration and gradually, gradually getting caught up in it all – there are some fairly dark moments when she’s imprisoned, although thankfully forcible feeding is left to the imagination or prior knowledge of the reader. I also loved the way the book both doesn’t ignore the domestic aspects of women’s lives pre- and during the First World War, with details of the daily round, including an arresting opening where we’re taken up through the levels of a house with its carpets and rooms, but also portrays different lives women can choose, after having their lives chosen for them. Ursula’s professor’s downtrodden wife is bored and hysterical with only the housework and her lost babies to think about, but comes into her own running a wartime canteen (apparently the author addresses what happened to such workers after the war in another book) and Ursula’s gentle and genteel mother has a core of steel that she displays not only in managing her second husband, but in the war effort.

In contrast, Professor Smee’s sister-in-law is a traditional housewife with a brood and remains that way, but she tells some home truths and cuts through the unnecessary talk:

‘Menfolk is born silly but that’s why we women ‘as got to stand up for each other. Ain’t that what suffrage mostly means?’

‘Yes, that is what suffrage mostly means,’ Ursula agreed slowly. (p. 294)

There’s yet another reminder of “Miss Plum and Miss Penny“, when in a sub-plot that has the effect of bringing Ursula to the magistrate’s court and a new awakening to the way women’s lives of other classes work, she saves a woman from drowning herself and has to take charge of and responsibility for her herself. A bit odd to find this theme in two books within a couple of months!

There are also points of huge relevance to today. Where we have raised the idea of the suffragette’s violent means to an end in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement, here the original objections to their means are put into the mouths of other characters, and the words used to push back on this, that they have used all fair and legal means, that they’re not doing anything legally wrong, that the violence comes from their oppressors are familiar, too. During the War, two maiden ladies manage to coordinate the supply of sandbags better than the War Office can, and this uncomfortably echoes the massive effort of home sewers to make masks and scrubs for NHS staff during the current crisis.

An excellent read in its own right as well as an important record of both the general campaign and in fact many aspects of the author’s and her stepmother’s lives, this became unputdownable and its heroine never let me down. Do not be put off by its grey bulk!

This was Book 16 in my 20 Books Of Summer project.

Shiny new books and a Shiny New Book @shinynewbooks @OUPAcademic #bookbloggers #bookconfessions

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Oxford illustrated history of the bookEarlier this month I finished reading “The Oxford Illustrated History of the Book”, edited by James Raven, and what a smashing read it was. This is, I think, apart from the amazing illustrations (even in the PDF copy I got to read pre-publication), what I liked the best about it:

The book itself takes a thoroughly global perspective, with major chapters on South and East Asia, China, Japan and Korea and the Islamic world and one late one on the globalisation of the book trade, including a lot of detail on censorship and copyright, and areas such as South America are also included, especially in discussions of the oldest forms of books, which were suppressed by colonialists. Colonialists also sought later to drag countries that were happily using wood block (xylography) and other non-moveable-type technologies such as lithography, both of which suited their writing systems better, quite happily into what they considered their modern ways, and the interplay between the two streams is fascinating. Other tensions, such as the change from paganism to Christianity in the Western world being echoed by a transition from roll to codex, or the sacred nature of the Islamic manuscript and calligraphic arts and the lack of a need for print techniques in a Mughal Empire set up with a network of scribes are also brought out.

Read my full review here.

New books in

I had a bumper crop of books pop through the letterbox today!

Three Thirkell novelsFirst off, the latest three Angela Thirkells to be reprinted by Virago. I pre-ordered these about a million years ago but I had checked the date of publication recently as I was considering some 20BooksofSummer swapping, so I did know they were due. Weirdly, they had already republished the ones that come between these, so I already had those. Even more weirdly, they’ve suddenly decided to print these with dark green VMC-style spines, where all the other ones had wraparound spines with the images/colours of the fronts. And confusingly, I appear to have read a couple of the intervening ones out of sequence. So this is the order of the next few including what I have sitting on the TBR shelf now and what I’ve already read – I’m not going to re-read those, given the state of the TBR at the moment!

  • Cheerfulness Breaks In (1940) – just arrived
  • Northbridge Rectory (1941) – read in September 2019
  • Marling Hall (1942) – on the TBR
  • Growing Up (1943) – just arrived
  • The Headmistress (1944) – read in November 2017
  • Miss Bunting (1945) – on the TBR
  • Peace Breaks Out (1946) – just arrived

I am going to pick “Cheerfulness Breaks In” as my next #20BooksOfSummer read as the two Virago books I had selected for it were published in 1922 and 1923 and one is about women not toeing the line, and I’ve just finished “The Call”, published in 1924 about an unconventional woman, which seemed like too much of a good thing, frankly!

two BLM books

Following my sort of policy of buying some serious, hard-hitting books full of statistics and info and some lighter ones … I followed a bit of a rabbit hole from a post in a Facebook group I’m in and found “White Privilege: The Myth of a Post-Racial Society” by Kalwant Bhopal, which does actually look at systemic racism in the UK as well as the US. Published by Policy Press, so all the trappings of an academic work with the right referencing. Then I discovered Huda Fahmy’s cartoons about living as a hijabi woman in the US, “Yes, I’m Hot in This” through a fellow editor on Facebook, followed her page, loved her cartoons and found there was a book, so ordered that from Hive, too! Edited to add her Facebook page and Twitter.

I just want to note that I will be reading more of my BLM themed books soon – I was committed to doing my Virago and Persephone reading this month, which, after all, is reclaiming lost women writers, and with a couple of larger non-fiction reads for Shiny there hasn’t been a huge lot of room for reading outside those two areas. But as soon as I’ve finished Book 20 I’m going to start popping some diverse reading back in there and am looking forward to that. I think “The Good Immigrant” will be up next, and that reminds me that I need to see if the US version is out yet.

Have you had a Thirkell delivery, too? Any cartoonists you can recommend (I know about XKCD and Nathan Pyle already)?

Book review – Rose Macaulay – “Dangerous Ages” #BLwomenwriters @BL_Publishing #bookbloggers

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Rose Macaulay Dangerous AgesA review of one of the British Library’s new, beautiful Women Writers reissues today, on the day of publication, no less! I was very pleased when British Library Publishing offered to send me a copy, and the books are so pretty, with lovely patterned, textured covers, a silhouette of the author and French flaps! Inside you get nice accompanying matter as well as the text itself – a lovely package that works beautifully as a treat for oneself or a gift. And my friend and fellow blogger Simon from StuckinaBook is series consultant, which make it all even more exciting!

Rose Macaulay – “Dangerous Ages”

(23 July 2020)

This excellent novel centres on the theme that there are particular ages for a woman that are more dangerous than others. Telling us early on that we won’t be seeing much of the men in the book (although this is not exactly true), we proceed to examine the lives of Neville (apparently Macaulay went in for giving her heroines masculine names), who is 43 and still fit and active but with her children about to fly the nest, her sister Nan, 33, who is starting to think she might consider settling down, her daughter Gerda, 20 and just starting to burst into independent life, with the fixed ideas and social conscience of her age, and Nan and Neville and their brothers’ mother, 63, with nothing left in her life and bored silly (we also get her mother, but she’s 83, and has reached a stage of contentment and a rather sardonic wisdom that Macaulay enthusiastically celebrates).

There’s a great metafictional, authorial intrusion to the book which I do like, for example,

It will be obvious to any reader, but not interesting, that Neville now made herself some tea. (p. 4)

It sets the distanced and satirical tone but also reassures the reader that they are trusted to understand what the author is getting at.

During the course of the book, Neville tries to re-establish herself in the medical studies which she had to give up when she married Rodney, terrified that she’ll end up like her mother if she doesn’t give herself some intellectual stimulation. Nan decides to settle down and Gerda decides to become a bit more independent, with clashing results caused by their relative closeness in age, and Mrs Hillary takes up psychoanalysis in the funniest strand in the book. Macaulay is known for a striking sentence, and I laughed out loud when she had Mrs Hillary’s son Jim say,

She had found a new interest in life, like keeping a parrot, or learning bridge, or becoming a Roman Catholic. It was what they had hall always tried to find for her in vain. (p. 87)

Gerda’s pursuit of free love at the other end of the spectrum is mocked roundly as is Mrs Hillary’s lack of a logical mind, and it’s interesting that Gerda’s knocked out of her position on this by the comments of her brother, who has been out in the world a bit more and seen people adjusting their principles. This is not before she has put a huge barrier in front of her own love life by insisting on it – as her to-be-partner says,

‘It’s very awkward,’ [he] continued, ‘my having fallen in love with you. I hadn’t taken your probable views on sociology into account.’ (p. 148)

I did find this novel from 1921 to be very reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” and I’d be interested to know if anyone else sees this. A lot of it is set around Marazion, on the other Cornish coast from Woolf’s actual lighthouse (I know the book one is in the Scottish Isles), there’s lots of swimming and looking at the sea here and elsewhere, and we see a family from different angles and through their musings on themselves and their relationships. There’s even a character with the surname Briscoe who comes in from outside but is almost part of the family and reacted to in different ways. I thought this was there, anyway.

The additional matter in this edition includes a timeline of the 1920s, a piece on Macaulay’s life, a Preface by Lucy Evans, Curator of the Printed Heritage Collections considering how women’s roles have and haven’t changed, and an Afterword by Series Consultant Simon Thomas concentrating on the psychoanalysis theme – all very worthwhile having.

Thank you very much to Thomas from British Library Publishing for sending me a print copy of this book in return for an honest review. I look forward to reading many more in this series (I already have “My Husband Simon” on the TBR …

Book review – Elizabeth Eliot – “Henry” #20BooksOfSummer20 @DeanStPress

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Vriagoes and PersephonesI’m feeling like I’ve fallen behind a bit on my 20BooksOfSummer while reading some marvellous but substantial non-fiction to review for Shiny New Books. I was supposed to be reading the solid Persephone “The Call” for my next read, but chose this slimmer Dean Street Press book as a quicker win (I’m now reading “The Call” and very much enjoying it). This is my one  Dean Street Press book from their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint I’m reading for 20Books, the aim of which was to get older books read from my TBR, although I have read and reviewed three others in the last month or so that they’ve published more recently (use the search area and add Dean Street Press or follow this link to see them).

Elizabeth Eliot – “Henry”

(21 January 2019 – from Emma)

Another highly entertaining novel written in this author’s rather flat, artless style, and again, as with her “Alice“, seeing the eponymous hero through the eyes of one of the side characters in their lives (in this case, Henry’s sister Anne), but living the novel with that side character as the main character. It’s a nice way of doing things, allowing for a rounded view of the character and some acerbic asides as the gilt gradually wears of Henry for poor old Anne.

I love the acerbic family dialogue discussing WWII, over not too long ago:

‘Of course, it was different for the men, they were fighting.’

‘Some of them weren’t, some of them were just going round with the milk, like Henry.’

My mother said that was not a nice way to speak of my brother, and that the Royal Army Service Corps was a very important part of the army. (p. 9)

All three siblings are a disappointment to their parents, but the family’s slender resources have been poured into Henry, so it’s even worse when he turns out to be a feckless charmer, hopping from woman to woman and racecourse to racecourse:

Henry wasn’t at all the sort of son that father had wanted. I don’t think he was even the sort of son that father had deserved. (p. 39)

Like “Dangerous Ages”, which I’ll be reviewing on Thursday, we have a discussion on freedom and free love, particularly in relation to Henry and his mistress – and once again, convention wins over freedom, even published 30 years later. I was also reminded of other just-post-War books and “Old Baggage” looking at ex-suffragettes, where women who have been liberated into powerful positions temporarily are thrown back into ordinary life and find it hard to cope:

Most of them had nothing but their belief in their organising ability and their pieces of uniform. (p. 192)

and indeed Anne’s employer has everyone in uniform, however unflattering, and not really needed in an office.

Various schemes of Henry’s seem to end with whimpers, and Anne starts to see that he’s just too old to be showing promise any more. What will happen when his looks start to go? In the slightly odd epilogue, two years on from the main ending, nothing seems to have changed, and the book sort of peters out, but it’s such a fun and absorbing read in that voice I love so much in authors.

This was Book 15 in my 20 Books Of Summer project.

Book review – Tan France – “Naturally Tan” #amreading

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TBR shelf AugustSorry for the lull in reviewing here – it’s all feast or famine and I really should space my reviews out a bit more when I have them … although expect some crowding this month as I try to get my remaining 20 Books of Summer read and reviewed! I’ve been reading some big review books for Shiny New Books – the Oxford Illustrated History of the Book took up a chunk of the start of the month, and I’m now into the marvellous Trespass, as well as having read Rose Macaulay’s Dangerous Ages, the review for which I’m holding over until publication date later this week. Anyway, with all the serious non-fiction, and working with my plan to read and showcase books by people of colour as I go along, I picked the memoir by Tan France (of Queer Eye) fame off my shelf to read (you can see it there at the end of the Virago, Dean Street Press and Persephone books so it’s not a huge jump forward in the TBR order!).

Tan France (with Caroline Donofrio) – “Naturally Tan”

(20 June 2019 – at his book signing / event)

Tan France with Liz at book signing

Not awkward at all. Nope.

And I’m contractually obliged to share this not at all awkward photo of me and Tan at his book signing. Reading about how he doesn’t like getting too close to people, well done to him for hugging that huge line of people!

Caroline Donofrio does an excellent job of capturing Tan’s voice, so it’s an almost breathless rush of confiding details, sweary bits and style and manners instructions, running headlong and taking a little while to settle into. It’s warm and full of detail, satisfyingly taking us right up to the Queer Eye days (apart from the excellent recent book on Madness, where it works, I prefer my celeb autobiographies to not be divided into before fame and after fame volumes. Maybe you know some others where it does; I suspect Brett Anderson’s two are creative and literary enough to do it well).

Anyway, this has a great description of intersectionality as it applies in people’s lives very early on – let’s have a quick definition from Oxford Dictionaries of intersectionality

the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.

and Tan puts it thus:

Over the years, I learned to hide away any trait that might give away my sexuality, because I was too busy trying not to make my ethnicity such a big issue. I didn’t need a fucking double whammy in my life. I was too busy being brown to be bothered about who I’d eventually end up wanting to marry. (p. 9)

So ironically in someone who now spends his life encouraging people to “do you” he had to suppress one part of his identity just to cope with another part of it. This education on life as a gay person of colour is introduced almost by stealth throughout the book, using humour to the most part but with a serious message, for example when he’s just started his first business, has found out about a big order while on a trip and needs to get through the airport quickly, he mentions casually that one of the things a brown person can’t really do is run through an airport with a backpack.

I loved all the detail about building his businesses while working a succession of day jobs and his advice on building a business (work in the area at first to learn it, only hire people when you’re making real money) as well as his advice on what to do when you’ve suddenly got more money than before (don’t waste it). This plus a lot of style tips in the book add depth and value. I also have to say I love that his first fan interaction was with Jon Bon Jovi, who’d just seen QE a couple of days previously when they were on a chat show together! The snarky remarks he wishes he could make in reply to frequently asked questions are a hoot, and there’s a lot of interesting stuff on how QE works behind the scenes and also differences between US and UK culture (although I was bemused by his claim that we don’t use the term pawn shop in the UK, which he uses in a joke but just isn’t true!).

A good read with a solid underpinning and a great writer who is acknowledged on the title page and in the acknowledgements. Plenty about QE for the fan, too.

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