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

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September 01 2020 TBRI reached the end of my 2019 birthday books with this one (and then I seem to hop to April and quickly to August – I can’t have bought many books in mid-2019, unlike this year!), another Dean Street Press book from their Furrowed Middlebrow and the other one my best friend Emma gave me (follow this link to see all my DSP reads so far). This wasn’t my favourite of Eliot’s novels but is still sharp, readable and engaging.

Elizabeth Eliot – “Mrs Martell”

(21 January 2019 – from Emma)

Mrs Martell looked at him inquiringly, reprovingly and seductively, all at the same time. She managed this by raising her eyebrows, opening her eyes very wide and by throwing her head just a fraction backwards, and on her beautiful mouth – partly opened to show her beautiful teeth – there was a suggestion of a smile. (p. 26)

This tells you all you need to know about the calculated nature of Mrs Martell and her beauty. It’s a fictional portrait of a truly dreadful woman  akin to Elizabeth Taylor’s “Angel” or Mrs Bankes in “Not at Home“, who we meet in her late 30s, a suburban daughter made slightly good but wanting more, a brittle woman who we meet as she speculates on a murder in the shop downstairs, then see in flashback as she grows from her teens then follow as she convinces her distant cousin Laura that she’s mentally ill (there’s a great bit of pacing here where we slowly build and then jump through time so we’re as confused as poor Laura for a moment) so that she can get her claws into Laura’s husband.

There’s great observation of her relationship with her equally disappointed mother, trying to get her attention as she lives out her years by the sea in an Elizabeth Fair-like boring town; it’s all very well-observed and slightly malicious, but doesn’t have that artless first-person voice I’ve loved in the author’s other novels. I did cheer when Laura fought back in her own way, while Mrs Martell is found out when she lets the facade slip and loses her temper (Laura seems without artifice, which is both her problem and her saving grace), and the ending is a triumph for the woman woh can gather herself up and start again.

State of the TBR September 2020 and only a tiny #Bookconfession #20BooksOfSummer20 #paulmagrsathon

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I’m very pleased with the state of my TBR at the moment – yes, there’s a Pile and some Loose Matter, but that’s not major and there were two Piles last time. As I reported in my round up of my 20 Books of Summer project (here), as well as completing my 20 Books of Summer reading with days to spare, I achieved my aim of getting a load of books acquired in 2018 off the shelf and read. Let’s not mention how many books I’ve acquired in lockdown – they might just fill the whole back shelf! In total I read 13 books in August (or finished, as one of them I’d been reading in sections since May) and nine of those were from the physical TBR.

September 01 2020 TBR

Currently reading

I’m currently reading “Horse Crazy” by Sarah Maslin Nir, which the publisher kindly made available to me on NetGalley. It combines a social history of horse-lovers in the US with a memoir of the author’s own obsession with horses. Each chapter is named after a horse she’s loved so I hope it’s not too heart-rending!

I’m also going to be continuing with my reading of Angela Thirkell’s wartime novels, which she wrote and published as the war was going on – so there’s an immediacy there which will be fascinating. I want to have them all read by the end of the year, or earlier if I can, now that I finally have them all! I’ve already discovered the resolution to the cliffhanger from “Cheerfulness Breaks In” in “Northbridge Rectory” (review to come) – phew!

Coming up next …

I need to be reading Kevin Maxwell’s “Forced Out” soon, not least because my friend Gill has loaned it to me and needs to lend it to a police officer next! It’s about the experiences of a Black, gay man who had always wanted to be a police officer but ended up having terrible experiences of homophobia and racism. And my re-read of Paul Magrs’ “Exchange” will be my Magrsathon book for this month (did you read my interview with him yesterday?).

On top of “Horse Crazy,” I want to pick up some other NetGalley reads. I will then make a start on the beginning of the TBR and I’ll be starting “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race” by Reni Eddo-Lodge, which is the new book my best friend and I will be reading together over the next few weeks (watch out tomorrow for a review of the one we read in May-August).

Then, further in the future, apart from continuing with my reading of Angela Thirkell’s wartime novels, this is the start of my TBR – the oldest books on it. Not hugely diverse, I have to say, apart from “A Brown Man in Russia” and “The Good Immigrant” but that aspect should be covered in my NetGalley reading. I was quite clearly in a nature phase during this part of 2019!

Book confession!

I was delighted to receive a copy of Elizabeth von Armin’s “Father” in the post from the lovely folk at the British Library Women Writers publishers. It’s out on September 03 and I won’t have it read and reviewed by then but I will get to it asap! What a pretty copy, too!

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.

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 – Dorothy Whipple – “Young Anne” #20BooksOfSummer20 @PersephoneBooks

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Vriagoes and PersephonesMy first read for All [publishers reclaiming lost women’s works] / All August and Book 14 in my 20 Books of Summer 2020, I was both sad and happy to read the final Dorothy Whipple that Persphone have published – they’ve now covered all her novels, I’ve got them all, now I’ve read them all, over the years, and all I can do now is re-read them!

Dorothy Whipple – “Young Anne”

(25 December 2018 – from Ali)

It’s not a new story, taking us from a rebellious child chewing a pew in church to a bored young wife tempted by an old flame, but Whipple gives us her customary deep psychological insight and understanding of how extended families, friendships, marriages and classes work, even in her first novel. And as the introduction notes, once you’ve picked up a Dorothy Whipple novel, you just can’t put it down, and this is true of this one, too.

As in “Miss Plum and Miss Penny“, the primary relationship in this novel, first love and husband notwithstanding, is that between a woman and her servant, with her since childhood. The scenes where Emily works her notice and the fear that she will be gone are devastating, as before are her worries about what will happen when Anne marries. Anne starts out as a portrait of a writer, even making her own money from her stories, but this gets lost in her wartime work and her marriage, with a glimmer of hope still holding out. In one of the many clever parallels in the book (please let Anne not become like her older, raddled, dissatisfied cousin!), the dreadful Aunt Orchard is also a writer – of “the ‘beautiful letters’ for which she was famous among friends and relations” (p. 121), shown up in a great scene during a family tragedy.

In another parallel, both Anne and her childhood friend and all-round “good girl” Mildred both “lay up trouble” for themselves by engaging in slightly hasty marriages to men who appear their superiors. I did wonder how on earth they would cope with the 24/7 aspect of lockdown – at least they have some agency and are not literally trapped in their houses. In fact, Anne does quite well with her car and her freedom, and Whipple is not too in love with her character not to have her learn some lessons. Oh – the cat is OK even if it’s put in to start off with to feed a comic one-liner.

An excellent introduction by Lucy Mangan reminds us of how much we love all of Whipple’s oeuvre and also makes a passionate plea for her acceptance and celebration as the excellent writer she is – a great addition to the text. Now, which one shall I re-read first?

This was Book 14 in my 20 Books Of Summer project.

Book review – Jon Bloomfield – “Our City” #20BooksOfSummer20 #SpanishLitMonth

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This book is not in the pile pictured to the left! It’s the replacement for the upsetting “Outposts” which I tried to read earlier in the 20 Books of Summer Challenge. As I’ve now eliminated all 2018-acquired non-Viragoes or Persephones from the TBR, I gave myself free rein for my final July book and picked this excellent book about migrants in Birmingham from the June 2019 region. A very good choice and I’m so glad I a) bought it, b) read it now.  I also report on reading my very first book in Spanish for Spanish Lit Month!

Jon Bloomfield – “Our City: Migrants and the Making of Modern Birmingham”

(11 June 2019)

Our cityA magnificent book tracing the effect of post-WW2 migration into Birmingham, which works from interviews with 46 people, first, second or third generation immigrants to the UK and Birmingham, who have come from Hong Kong, Pakistan, Bulgaria, Ireland, the Caribbean … plus some other folk such as city council politicians and one farmer who employs migrant workers. I was thrilled to find they included at least three people I know (Immy from the former Impact Hub, Mo from Kuskus Foods and Mr Rehman from one of the local newsagents! – but that’s One Degree of Birmingham for you (a city of a million people, all somehow connected!).

After a history of the city we take a look at people in various types of jobs, from heavy industry which many came to in the 50s and 60s through the service industries to the dirty jobs people don’t tend to want, such as care home work and work in the food service industries. Then there are themes such as race, religion, education, etc. People’s direct experience is quoted a lot, and we’re reminded who people are well when they crop up again in the book. The author, a historian and expert on urban policy, who used to work for the City Council, perhaps labours the role of the council a little, but it has had a major effect on policy and there is other meat in the book. As with Clair Wills in “Lovers and Strangers“, Bloomfield is himself a product of immigration, his grandparents having been Jewish emigrants from Europe to London, and he brings in some of his family’s story, too.

There’s an emphasis on interculturalism throughout the book – a third way between forced assimilation and policies of multiculturalism which can lead to segregation of communities:

For interculturalism, the issue is not to extol the virtues of each culture but, rather, their relationships, the co-existence of people from different cultures and what is shared among them all. Relationships and interactions are seen as crucial. Thus diversity is recognised as an asset but within a context where it goes alongside equality and positive interaction (p. 225)

This does not mean that specific issues in health etc that relate to particular groups are ignored, but there needs to be more concentration on poverty-related issues and issues of class to help bring up the living standards of all Birmingham residents.

It’s not afraid to address difficult issues and there is a good assessment of some that face the city: although it’s a  positive book in the main, it’s not seeing the city through rose-tinted glasses by any means. We have some of the lowest educational achievement records in Europe, with 17% of people of working age having no formal qualifications. Revitalisation will come from the bottom up, and places like Impact Hub, where several of the interviewees have work places, will help to foster this.

I learned a lot from this book – I didn’t know the Islamic Relief charity was founded here – and it was lovely reading about my city, familiar spaces and places and even people! It was published by Unbound last year and I wish I’d been as assiduous in scanning for new titles then as I am now, as I’d have definitely contributed to the crowdfunding (and I saw a few familiar names in the list of subscribers in the back!).

This was Book 13 in my 20 Books Of Summer project and completes my planned reads for July.


Jul 2020 3It’s Spanish Lit Month this month, run by WinstonsDad, and I’m happy to report that I have read my very first book in Spanish! OK, it’s a children’s book but with the help of my dictionary, I understood every (simple) word of it. “I Love My Mums” by Elias Zapple has been translated into Spanish by Camila Ayala Teran – I didn’t quite realise it was translated so hope it’s OK to use. It’s a sweet book with great role model mums who look after the child when they’re ill and cheer them in egg and spoon races and also know how to mend everything! The only unfortunate thing is that, given the way Spanish (currently?) works, the dedication is to all parents and children – padres e hijos – because the masculine represents the general in this gendered language. Anyway, I did feel a sense of achievement having read it!


I’m currently reading “The Oxford Illustrated History of the Book”, edited by James Raven and full of wonderful illustrations.

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