Book review – Gladys Huntingdon – “Madame Solario” @PersephoneBooks #20BooksOfSummer #PersephoneBooks #amreading


At last, the final book of my #20BooksOfSummer challenge, and also the last book in All Virago (and Persephone) all August, and yes, I do know it’s after the end of 20Books and after the end of August, but as I explained last time, it couldn’t come to the Iris Murdoch conference with me in the end so had to be finished when I got back. A really good read, though, and it’s always lovely to read a book set somewhere you know, in this case the town of Cadenabbia on Lake Como in Northern Italy – we had a holiday there in 2009 and I include some photos to illustrate the review.

Gladys Huntingdon – “Madame Solario”

(21 January 2017 – birthday present from Ali)

A pretty long book, set mostly in Cadenabbia and the associated small towns and villas dotted around Lake Como. Like a two-week holiday, we get sucked into the loves and lives of the exclusive set at the hotel, noticing who is after whom, who arrives on the boat and who leaves. Cadenabbia is a small community of hotels and you can see who’s coming from a mile off, but you can also walk up into the forests above the hotels and get some peace and quiet.

cadenabbia madame solario

We see everything first through young Englishman Bernard Middleton’s eyes – he becomes popular with the young set but is seen as, variously, someone who needs to be looked after and a mere child by some of the older men who have been through war, etc. The middle section of the book, which does go quite slowly, is from the viewpoint of the mysterious, beautiful Madame Solario and her brother, returned suddenly from exile after a family scandal, although it’s noteworthy that we never enter into the interior life of Natalia, viewing her always from the outside as a sort of screen onto which others’ desires are projected. Then the rather languorous action suddenly springs into life again with the third section, again with Bernard.

There’s acute social observation in this book, published anonymously post-World War Two but set in 1906, and also “acute observation” of the guests, by the guests – really, nothing gets past anyone and gossip spreads like wildfire among the multiple social groupings and nationalities:

In that forcing-house for situations everything was noticed, and conjecture was lush.

Of course, this might just save someone’s bacon in the end; you never know.

The narrative is punctuated by picnics, some in the Villa Carlotta’s beautiful grounds:

Villa Carlotta, Cadenabbia

Villa Carlotta, Cadenabbia

and other events at the Villa d’Este (still a location for social whirls), including dances and balls. There are often dangerous undercurrents flowing and social or financial ruin, amusing or otherwise, always seems close at hand. Middleton is a dear and his best moments are when he is as intimate as he ever is with his Madame Solario, observing her cushion case and her many hats and accoutrements. Should Bernard heed the warnings and stay with “his own”?

Perhaps I have read too much Iris Murdoch, but I picked up on the hints of the shocking denouement early on, although you have to search for it carefully amidst the chaos of the later scenes. An intriguing book, quite a long read, but a good one.

This was part of my All Virago (and Persephone) / All August challenge, but most importantly, Book 20 in my #20BooksofSummer challenge. All done, only a few days late!

Book review – Alexei Sayle – “Stalin Ate my Homework” plus #20BooksOfSummer update #amreading #books


A little bit of a gap until my first reviews this month – I was away at the Iris Murdoch Society Conference (write-up here if you missed it) and of course was reading on the train journeys there and back. As well as this one, I’ve read Daniel Tammet’s new book of essays, “Every Word is a Bird we Teach to Sing” but that was to review for Shiny New Books, so more on that one later in the month.  Unfortunately, going to the conference meant I’ve failed ever so slightly in #20BooksOfSummer – a report on that below.

Alexei Sayle – “Stalin Ate my Homework”

(21 January 2017, from Sian)

A birthday book, chosen (slightly out of TBR sequence) for the journey because it was a smaller paperback and should be an easy and engaging read – which it was. There’s a comment on the front that “It’s not like other comedians’ memoirs. It’s funny.” from The Guardian, and while I have read some other amusing ones, yes, it’s funny.

Sayle is witty about his odd family, ever-smiling Dad and extremely volatile Mum, his own failings and life in general being raised as a Communist where, if you believe in Leftist principles anyway, the only way to rebel is to become a Maoist. There’s loads of interesting detail about how it actually was to be a Communist, including trying to have holidays in Eastern Bloc countries. They have a couple of trips to Czechoslovakia where, ironically, they are treated like the royal family, with nothing too much trouble, and he even invents a country based on the state, mainly because, as he memorably says, “Being an only child was a bit like taking an extraordinarily long train journey: you were always trying to find something to do to pass the time”. Love it!

He has a talent to entertain but sadly doesn’t really use it in the right ways – I love how he’s genuinely surprised to get kicked out of school at one point. I really enjoyed his tales of growing up within the party system, finding a Communist to help wherever they went and having various adventures in the Eastern Bloc, thanks to his railwayman dad’s concessionary rail pass (most of his colleagues just use it to go to Blackpool: they head for the edges of the Soviet Union). It’s not all silliness and Communism, though: there’s a real sense of developing his comedy skills (being in Liverpool, he has the advantage of a tradition of careful critique of all comedy) and of the family pulling apart, especially when his dad’s health declines.

We leave young Alexei going off to art college, where I’m pretty sure he’s going to cause mayhem. I have the second volume on the TBR (great move, Sian, thank you) and can’t wait to get into it.

#20BooksOfSummer update

Well, gentle readers, I’ve failed. #20BooksOfSummer ended a few days ago and I have yet to finish “Madame Solario”. It’s a great big (500 page) Persephone and I just wasn’t able to pack it for the conference in the end (and even if I had taken it, there wasn’t that much reading time in the end). The days before the conference were full of working extremely hard in a busy patch at work, and it’s still not finished.

Here’s my original post with my selection, and below documents what I achieved:

Dorothy Whipple – Every Good Deed and other Stories – Book 1 read and reviewed

Mitch Prinstein – Popular – Book 2 read and reviewed on the blog and for Shiny New Books

Jane Gardam – Old Filth – Book 3 Did Not Start, replaced by Helen Mitsios – Out of the Blue – read and reviewed

Barbara Taylor – Eve and the New Jerusalem – Book 4 read and reviewed

Natasha Solomons – The Gallery of Vanished Husbands – Book 5 read and reviewed

Eric Newby – Something Wholesale – Book 6 read and reviewed

Nick Baker – ReWild – Book 7 read and reviewed on the blog and for Shiny New Books

Francis Brett Young – The Black Diamond – Book 8 read and reviewed

Stuart Maconie – Long Road from Jarrow – Book 9 read and reviewed on the blog and for Shiny New Books

John-Paul Flintoff – Sew Your Own – Book 10 read and reviewed

Miriam Toews – A Boy of Good Breeding – Book 11 read and reviewed

Farahad Zama – Mrs Ali’s Road to Happiness – Book 12 read and reviewed

Adam Nicolson – When God Spoke English – Book 13 read and reviewed

Susie Dent – How to Talk Like a Local – Book 14 read and reviewed

Mollie Panter-Downes One Fine Day – Book 15 read and reviewed

Scott Jurek – Eat and Run – Book 16 read and reviewed

Zora Neale Hurston – Their Eyes Were Watching God – Book 17 read and reviewed

Amber Reeves – A Lady and Her Husband – Book 18 read and reviewed

R.C. Sheriff – Greengates – Book 19 read and reviewed

Gladys Huntingdon – Madame Solario – Book 20 currently reading

It’s a lovely challenge; you’re never made to feel you’ve actually failed even if you don’t finish at all, and I definitely started and was reading Madame Solario within the time period. All of the books were good reads and entertaining and/or thought-provoking, and I enjoyed seeing what other people doing the challenge were reading, and will look forward to their round-ups.

State of the TBR – September 2017


Well the TBR is as large as ever but I have made progress on it since August – it’s shuffled up a lot but a few have joined at the end. I did pull out the Persephones for All Virago / All August and #20BooksofSummer but I’ve also read quite a lot in August – hooray (11 books, which is quite high for me these days)

I’m currently reading Gladys Huntingdon’s “Madame Solario” which is set in Cadenabbia on Lake Como, a place I have actually stayed. It’s very absorbing and gossipy, like being in a hotel and watching the other residents. This is Book 20 in my #20BooksOfSummer project – you can see my progress here and even though I am not actually taking it away with me to the Iris Murdoch Society Conference (too bulky – I’ve popped Alexei Sayle’s “Stalin Ate My Homework” in instead), I should get it finished by the September 4 deadline for the end of 20Books. I’m about to start (and have packed) Daniel Tammet’s “Every Word is a Bird we Teach to Sing”, which is about language – I’m reviewing it for Shiny New Books and very much looking forward to reading it.

Coming up next on the shelf are these lovelies. I have the NetGalley TBR down to 10 books now (and have won my 25 books reviewed badge, which you should be able to see on this blog; I think I have two books to go until I’m back at 80% reviewed, too) so should get to a few of these. I know Ali has the Angela Carter bio so we might read that together. These represent the end of Christmas and the beginning of my birthday books – so I’m finally reading books I acquired this year, which always seems like a bit of a triumph!

What does your September reading look like? How’s the old TBR?

Book review – R.C. Sherriff – “Greengates” @PersephoneBooks #20Booksofsummer #amreading


20 books of summer pile 2017Another fantastic Persephone – I’ve read Sherriff’s wonderful “The Fortnight in September“, unfortunately not in the Persephone edition because I bought it before that came out (a decade ago, I notice), and I was very pleased to open this from Ali on Christmas Day last year.

R. C. Sherriff – “Greengates”

(25 December 2016 – from Ali)

You wouldn’t think you could get a whole book out of a retired couple buying a house, but this is the master of making the everyday fascinating and it’s an absorbing and poignant read.

It opens with Tom Baldwin’s last day at work in an insurance office in London, where he has to be ‘surprised’ by a retirement gift giving the pattern of which he’s seen infinite numbers of times before. We see him retire at 58 (lucky him!), full of ideas for the future and plans to make his mark on the world, and then at home, gleeful in his possession of a house and land:

A vast wedge that tapered slowly away until as a minute pin-point it met everybody else’s land.

– who, after reading that, will think of their garden in exactly the same way again? But then he very quickly upsets their long-standing maid (who contributes much of the poignancy to the book, aching for her mistress’s sorrows and, when the time comes, doing the right thing neatly and unobtrusively), and his wife Edith starts to very much regret the assumption that when he retires, she retires, too, losing her light lunch and her afternoon naps with much reluctance and guilt:

The slave to a habit that showed its teeth when it was disturbed.

They gradually fall into bitter despair: Tom sees that his historical researches are going to go nowhere and realises it’s hard to make your mark on the world, and Edith is driven down by his depression and her inability to make 12 hours’ worth of conversation a day. Tom even starts to be drawn to the comforts of becoming semi-invalid, and as they leave the house to take a walk, one of the neighbours pegs him as someone who’s a potential suicide, something linking back to a newspaper article he read on his final train journey home (we’ll see more of these clever little links later).

But in fact, they’re about to embark upon a life-changing experience, and we will them on as they scrape the money together and hope they will be able to negotiate a new life in one of those new developments that sprang up in the 1930s (that we’re all aware of now). will they manage to sell their house and achieve their new dreams, and will those dreams, once fulfilled, actually be all they hoped?

There are some lovely side characters and flashes of deep emotion and humour – such as when Tom categorises a new friend by how he refers to his wife (“The wife” is worse than “My wife”). The charming epilogue rounds things off and provides an interesting contrast: when they are first described looking at the landscape, which Edith is criticised for preferring to castles and other historic monuments, her knowledge of the trees is shut down by her husband. Yet when their garden has finally burgeoned, it’s because she has taken it over and, presumably, balance has been restored.

This book falls into the All Virago/Persephone All August category AND is Book 19 in my #20BooksofSummer project.

Book review – Amber Reeves – “A Lady and Her Husband” @PersephoneBooks #20BooksOfSummer #amreading #Persephone


I’m very much enjoying my little whirl of Persephones towards the end of this month – here’s my review of “A Lady and Her Husband” and I’m currently reading “Greengates”, which is proving lovely so far, with “Madame Solario” to go. What treats! I’ve also been buying books again, but I think that’s for a different post. So here’s my review of a book which Ali bought me for Christmas last year and I suspect I might have bought it for her, too. I link to her review at the bottom of mine – I saved it up to read when I’d written my review!

Amber Reeves – “A Lady and her Husband”

(25 December 2016 – from Ali)

An excellent feminist novel, written in 1913 so looking forward quite confidently to women getting the vote but still perhaps looking at the quieter and more subtle ways in which women can effect social change. It certainly celebrates both socialism and suffragism and people’s commitment to society – not a surprise when you consider that Reeves was the daughter of the authors of the wonderful “Round About a Pound a Week” which I read back in 2010 and lover of HG Wells (a sister in arms of Miriam from “Pilgrimage” as well, maybe, in that case).

Mary – considered old and faded at 45, which shocked me a little, reading it amidst hard work and marathon training at the age of … 45 – is encouraged by her daughter to take an interest in the firm her husband runs, but of which she owns half. She has a secretary employed for her who is a bit of a caricature of a man-hating New Woman socialist but to whom Mary becomes closer, and, reluctant at first, she has her eyes opened to the conditions under which the tea-shop girls have to live. I was expecting here more details about the running of the tea shops, maybe thinking of Dorothy Whipple’s “High Wages” about shops, but it’s a different kind of book, exploring a marriage and a dawning consciousness.

Rosemary, Mary’s younger daughter, is a proud socialist and rather strident, but Mary possibly achieves more in her quiet way. I loved her assessment of her daughter and her principles:

Fortunately, it was not of much importance what Rosemary believed – she was a dear, good girl under all her modernity and could be trusted not to act on her convictions.

While James’ assessment of “Little Mother” Mary is patronising and awful, this seems to be more clear-eyed and affectionate, and indeed, Rosemary eventually succumbs to married bliss, having protested a little, although Mary now wonders how long that will actually last. I liked Rosemary a lot and wondered how her marriage would indeed go.

So, Mary doesn’t really want to be mixed up in James’ business, he sees a little role for her which will not interrupt his masculine workings, and both of them continue in their belief of the different spheres men and women occupy in business and life – this feels like very much a product of its time and you wonder what a different book it would be if written just half a decade later. Mary charmingly educates herself, meeting different kinds of people, reading books recommended by Rosemary and giving herself space to think and join up her half-remembered, rather patchy education.

A couple of significant scenes awaken Mary’s practical knowledge of the darker side of life and she’s brought to see that ‘luxury’ can consist of being protected from this as well as lying in houses and possessions. “A long forgotten curiosity awoke in Mary and urged her to see for herself what the world was like” – she decides she won’t let herself be persuaded she’s an invalid and i love that she goes out to learn about the world and business and economics rather than ‘awakening’ into just love affairs and whatnot. By the end of the book, she’s coming to terms with using the power she didn’t realise she had all along and has expanded her view of her duties towards her fellow people. An excellent and unusual read.

You can read Ali’s review of this novel here.

This was Book 18 in my #20BooksofSummer project. It would have covered 1914 in my Reading A Century project had I not already read the equally excellent (and perhaps companion-piece), “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists“. It’s also part of my annual All Virago / All August project!

Book review – Scott Jurek – “Eat and Run” #20BooksOfSummer #amreading #books


Another book in my #20BooksOfSummer project and the final non-fiction one, joining quite a few books about running I’ve read recently. It’s coming up to the anniversary of me running my first marathon and although I’m in the middle of training for my next one, I do feel a bit nostalgic remembering the fun I had in Iceland last year (I was very chuffed to have my race report featured on an Icelandic running blog along with a few other people’s!).

Scott Jurek – “Eat & Run”

(05 December 2016 from Jen for Christmas)

This autobiography of a famous ultrarunner and vegan has inspired me … never to run a dangerous and scary ultra where you could fall off the edge of a mountain or even have to scramble up anything (an ultra is anything over the 26.2 miles of the marathon and there are nice road-based ones which I probably will eventually tackle. This guy does serious, terrifying stuff).

However, we can all enjoy reading about things we will never do, and this is a well-written and affecting read which is honest but never manipulative, even though there’s some pretty heavy stuff in here. It takes us through Jurek’s early life, when he used the woods to escape from his domineering father and his mother’s serious illness (he credits both with teaching him lessons in strength and endurance) and then takes us through his running career to date, emphasising his grit and determination and also willingness to learn and share over merely being first and fast. He shares the hallucinations Dean Karnazes had during the Spartathlon, interestingly, and highlights lots of other runners and their strengths and achievements, too, which makes it a generous book.

The most important relationship in the book is Jurek’s with his running mate and race pacemaker / supporter, Dusty. He freely admits that Dusty could have been the better runner, had he not been more concerned with chilling out, epic sessions and women, and there’s a feeling of real grief when the relationship between them threatens to go awry. It’s rare to see men writing about their friendships and this gives both laughs and a feeling of worry.

Jurek includes a running tip and a recipe at the end of each chapter, but makes it clear, especially with the recipes, that these are only suggestions, and he doesn’t try to force his opinions on the reader (I actually thought he would  be more forceful than he was, but of course, like the other runners whose books I’ve read recently, he’s a pretty humble and self-effacing chap). He explains how moving to a vegan diet made him feel and how it affected his running, but there are plenty of doubts at the beginning and it’s more a case of showing than telling.

Being of the opinion that it’s not worth saving up advice and learning points for yourself when you can share them and help others, he usefully lists his four points for dealing with issues that crop up – and these are valid for life issues as well as on-the-run ones: 1. Let the feeling go; 2. Take stock; 3. Ask yourself what you can do to remedy the situation; and 4. Separate your negative feelings from the issue at hand. This is really useful and something I will try to remember.

Jurek wins even more points in my estimation by encouraging people to try volunteering, and he also not only credits his co-author, Steve Friedman, on the cover and title page, but shares the author bio page with him and thanks him AND his assistant in the acknowledgements – as someone who works with ghostwriters and co-authors, this is something I’m always very happy to see.

A great read, whether or not you’re planning to do an ultramarathon and/or become a vegan.

This was Book 16 in my #20BooksOfSummer project.


Book reviews – Mollie Panter-Downes – “One Fine Day” and Zora Neale Hurston – “Their Eyes were Watching God” (Virago Books) #20BooksOfSummer #amreading #books #Virago


A double review today or I’m never going to get caught up, basically! However, they do go well together. For a start, they’re both published by Virago. I was given both by the same person for Christmas (thank you, Belva!). They are both part of – get this – my #20BooksofSummer challenge (books 15 and 17) and my All Virago / All August reading month AND my Reading a Century project (covering 1947 and 1937). That brings me up to 68 books covered in my Reading a Century project – no more coming up in my TBR so I might have to start doing some judicious book-picking soon. And they both evoke a very intense sense of time and place, which gives them a link that otherwise a book about the black experience in 1930s Florida and a village in post-WW2 England might not have. Both also have sudden amazing lyrical passages but a real sense of what being in that situation would actually be like.

Mollie Panter-Downes – “One Fine Day”

(25 December 2016, from Belva in my Virago Group Not so Secret Santa)

Set on one day in 1946, this perfect short novel examines what it feels like when war and danger are over and people have to settle down into a peacetime life that is both familiar and horribly new. Like many Virago and Persephone heroines, Laura has had to get used to mucking in and doing for herself when her servants went into war service; now husband Stephen is back, his job in London a mystery but his anger at the state of his once-perfect garden palpable. Daughter Victoria is alternately clingy and coolly observing and has her own complicated life at school and with friends.

There is some absolutely beautiful lyrical descriptive writing, often describing the landscape but also often, in the manner of poetic writing, inserting a clever reminder of death and destruction woven through it, so we find “sandbags pouring out sudden guts” which are contrasted with the timelessness and relative unconcern of the countryside itself.

The book reminded me of “Mrs Dalloway” – yes, the writing was just this side of that good – with Laura considering an impending visit from her mother and ruminating on her house and its demands and us inhabiting her head, so the subject-matter and the style are reminiscent. Meanwhile, social commentary comes in with the fact that the manor house is being vacated for a boys’ school, the old guard moving cheerfully to smaller quarters.

Will Laura dare to carve out a few moments to live her own life? A trip to the local gypsy’s camp to retriever her naughty dog (there is also a very neat and disdainful cat) gives her an opportunity which might also give a jolt to their carefully polite family world.

This was Book 15 in my 20BooksOfSummer project and completed 1947 in Reading A Century.

Zora Neale Hurston – “Their Eyes were Watching God”

(25 December 2016, from Belva in my Virago Group Not so Secret Santa)

An amazing and absorbing novel: don’t be put off by the dialect as it’s a very good story and a wonderful portrait of a particular place at a particular time. The dialect is fairly internally consistent, so you get the hang of it quite quickly, and there are sections of narrative which are smoother reads. Oh, but it’s worth it anyway, so worth it.

Must of the novel is set in Eatonville, Florida’s first incorporated black town, and this provides a fascinating portrait of the birth of a town, as Janie, the central character, and her husband arrive just as it’s being set up and he takes charge … as he always takes charge.

We follow Janie from girl to woman, age 16 to 40, through a series of husbands, the first two of whom crush her spirit and the third of whom, however unsuitable he seems, lets her spirit fly. We know from her return – watched and commented on by the chorus of the town’s gossips, head held high – that something has gone wrong in her life, but the book then takes us chronologically through her life to that point, with Janie’s history stretching right back to the time of slavery, through her grandmother’s stories, and also giving her the genetic heritage that leads to some fascinating discussions with other women about race and wealth. This, more than her relationships – or this and her sexual and self-awakening – will be what looks like a story of a woman progressing through marriages an important text for black American writers and feminists.

Janie is a fabulous, rounded and flawed character and the narrative moves briskly through her outer life while at the same time building her inner life. Some parts near the end might seem a little melodramatic but are still believable – it will take me a long time to forget the vivid description of the storm and flood and there are also some strikingly lyrical passages of nature description which seem to echo Janie’s sexual awakening.

I loved this and highly recommend it.

This was Book 17 in my 20BooksOfSummer project and completed 1937 in Reading A Century.

I have read Scott Jurek’s “Eat and Run” which was Book 16 in 20BooksOfSummer, in case you were wondering where that had got to, and am now reading Amber Reeves’ “A Lady and Her Husband”, a Persephone, which is excellent so far. This lady has no work to do today and is about to dive back into it!


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