Book review – Libby Page – “The Lido” #NetGalley #LoveTheLido

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I have loved being a member of NetGalley so far for the sheer number of excellent books I’ve been lucky enough to read, including some great ones recently. This was a real smasher – so much so that I couldn’t stop reading it – I mean, could not stop, work on hiatus, tears splashing onto the kitchen table as I worked my way through to the end. It’s lovely, and so good for a debut novel, too.

Libby Page – “The Lido”

(12 March 2018 – NetGalley)

Now, there have been a fair few feel-good books out recently, with uplifting topics and lovely communities, and I’m a bit of an old cynic and think some of them are either a bit sugary or a bit airy-fairy. This is neither. Yes, it’s a lovely positive book with diverse characters working to help each other, but nothing is actually unbelievable and it’s all just lovely, but with a tang and depth to it, as all lovely books should have.

I’m also a bit wary of things that smack of writing exercises. Here, the portrayals of the inhabitants of estates in South London or the people who swim at the Lido, some of them a few sentences, little sketches, could be like that. But they’re not. They’re warm, they’re well-observed, and they’re threaded carefully and cleverly through the book, too. The descriptions of swimming are lovely, too, and very well-observed, and make me wish I was more of a swimmer myself. But I also loved the description of the healing power of exercise, which I understand very well.

I’ll admit to a bias here. This book is about Brixton, a place I know reasonably well, and the Lido in question is Brockwell Lido, and I almost rented a flat overlooking Brockwell Park back in the 90s. Of course, this could go both ways – but I think the portrait of the two places is beautifully and faithfully done. Phew! It’s not in-your-face inclusive and po-faced and box-ticking, but fun and diverse and joyful. Really joyful.

Of course, it’s not all joy and fun. If you’ve seen anything about this book (and how can you have not? It seems to be everywhere – but that’s OK!), you will know that the two central characters are an elderly Lido user who has lost her husband and possibly her purpose, and a young journalist who’s terribly alone in London and really just skimming along the surface with The Panic waiting to catch her at every turn. When the Lido is threatened by cuts, they end up teaming up and forming an unlikely but lovely friendship. And all sorts of people from the local community join in, but each has got their secret worry, from the bookshop owners who aren’t making quite enough money to the lad revising for his exams and hoping he’s reversed the turmoil he’d slipped into. And it’s not at all clear that the Lido can be saved.

The local newspaper office is beautifully done and I loved all the different locations in Brixton and Rosemary’s musings on the many identities the shop fronts have taken on over the years (there’s a lovely moment when she visits an achingly trendy cocktail bar, just because …). Intertwined with the modern-day story is the story of Rosemary and her George, whose whole lives can be tracked through their times spent at the Lido.

A special novel about a special and real place. I loved it – and it had me weeping twice, not because of anything terrible, but it was just terribly moving. I hope the author goes on to write many more lovely and life-affirming books like this.

Thank you to the publishers, Orion, for making this available via NetGalley and choosing me to receive it in return for an honest review. This book was published yesterday, in print, Kindle and audio versions, and I urge you to read it.

Book reviews – Georgette Heyer – “April Lady” and Diana Wynne Jones – “Charmed Life”, a #1977club fail and a confession

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Gosh, that’s a long title isn’t it! Two old favourites and multiple re-reads to review today, one of which was for Kaggsy and Simon‘s 1977 club and the other of which is an appropriate title for the month it’s read in, quite by accident (they’re small books, so shorter reviews), an epic fail on a re-read (I was warned! Kaggsy in fact warned me!) and a super acquisition from a lovely friend.

Let’s get going, then …

Georgette Heyer – “April Lady”

(03 June 2017 – Oxfam books)

From 1957, this is slightly later period Heyer, which surprised me when I read it, as there’s such a slew of cant and argot and jargon that slightly obfuscated the plot that I thought it was a less mature one.

It’s also interesting in that I think it might be the only (if not, it’s one of a very few) of her novels where the hero and heroine are already married at the start of the action. However, although they both married for love, Lady Nell Cardross believes her Earl married her for convenience, and still has Another, and the Earl believes she married him for his money. All very sortable-outable were it not for their respective brother and half-sister, both pretty silly, who get Nell involved in all sorts of plots and businesses, so there’s not time or bandwith to manage it. A very short but enjoyable read with all the London atmosphere and detail you’d want and an interesting ending. Although she’s slight, she writes well and I always recommend a Heyer for a comfort read.

Diana Wynne Jones – “Charmed Life”

(1980s – soon to be replaced. An Unfortunate Incident with a long-gone cat in the 1990s which I thought had been cleaned up has left a lasting stain (no odour) on a few of my children’s books, which I’m going to have to spend vast amounts of time and money tracking down and rebuying. So be it!)

This book was published in 1977 and represents my contribution to the 1977 Club (unfortunately, Bruce Chatwin’s “In Patagonia”, which I also have, was too substantial to fit into a very busy reading week, and see below for the other candidate).

A boy who is an orphan and doesn’t think very much of himself, overshadowed by his remaining family and domineering ward, finds out he has something to do with magic. There’s a powerful enchanter whose name must NOT be mentioned, a turrety castle with magical shape-shifting grounds and all sorts of spells designed to annoy other youngsters. Hmm … yet written in 1977, you say?

I’ve spent a lot of time and energy trying to persuade Harry Potter fans to embrace the (in my eyes) superior Diana Wynne Jones books. Her Chronicles of Chrestomanci are well written, funny, engaging and short! This one was a re-read and I hadn’t read it for ages. I remembered some details, like the magic book of matches that has something to do with our hero, Eric “Cat” Chant and the violin that’s turned into a cat, but had completely forgotten the brilliant Janet Chant, brought in effectively from our world as a rapid replacement at a pivotal moment, more used to wearing trousers than Cat’s original sister’s fancy Edwardian style clothes and very down to earth. Love her!

One interesting feature I had forgotten is the magic garden which allows people to slip through into different worlds – this contains things from “the dawn of all the words” and includes a magic doorway which is like a rough stone lintel – reminding anyone of bits from C.S. Lewis’s “The Magician’s Nephew” and “The Last Battle”?

A DNF

I had originally picked Angela Carter’s “The Passion of New Eve” to re-read for the 1977 Club. I loved it (I thought). I’d read it a few times in my younger, brand-new-feminist years and loved the themes of gender identity and gender reassignment. Then I saw Kaggsy hadn’t been keen and asked why. “The unremitting rapes”. Oh, right. Well, I didn’t even get to the unremitting rapes; I gave up in the sado-masochistic manky rat-infested flat in post-apocalyptic New York. I hated the way black people were portrayed, I wasn’t keen on the wish-fulfilment acts of violent Women roaming the streets, and it was just pretty horrible. Sorry, Angela Carter, I’m going to leave you there.

A lovely book confession

I’m still not entirely sure how this happened, but my lovely friend Cari got hold of a print and e copy of this book by the amazing runner, Deena Kastor, and then happened upon her at a race expo in Washington DC and a book event in New York, and somehow she has ended up with a copy she’s read and a signed bookplate to keep and I’ve ended up with the hard copy book signed to me by Deena! Thank you so much Cari! I’ve just discovered Wendy from Taking the Long Way Home’s Book Club and this is her April book, so I’m hoping to fit it in after this weekend (I do have that Readathon I’m doing the last weekend in the month but I fear that’s going to be a Tardis of books shoehorned into not enough time!) and I’ve also requested her May book via NetGalley.


Phew, that’s a lot of stuff, hope you’re still with me! I’m currently reading Christopher Booker’s “The Seven Basic Plots” (which is going to take me some time) and “The Lido” by Libby Page, which comes out today and has had a lot of chatter and which is ABSOLUTELY LOVELY so far (I sat down to read it at breakfast and tore myself away at 33%) – it’s the story of two women who have got a bit lost in life battling to save a Lido, and is set in Brixton and Brockwell, beautifully realised). I really hope it lives up to this first third. I also need to start “Running the Smoke” which is 26 tales of running the London Marathon, a must-read as I go down to spectate for the first time in years, and support my lovely friend Bernice, running her first marathon.

What are you reading? Have you had a booky pinch point this year yet where there are just TOO MANY BOOKS to read in one week?

Book review – Scott Douglas – “Running is my Therapy” #RunningIsMyTherapy #NetGalley #amreading

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Scott Douglas Running is my TherapyI know this blog is all about running at the moment – I promise I’m now reading a Georgette Heyer then an Angela Carter so all will be back to normal soon! This is also about mental health, something I’m interested in, particularly its intersection with exercise, so when I spotted this on NetGalley thanks to a friend, I just had to request it.

Scott Douglas – “Running is my Therapy”

(19 January 2018 – from NetGalley)

I think this might be that elusive thing, a helpful book about the mental health effects of running that includes both personal experience and carefully checked research. Having said that, it is quite reliant on just running being the thing to do, and also goes into more detail of various experiments than a lot of people will be happy to read. However, for me, used to reading popular psychology and sociology books, it came across well and had a good balance.

Douglas starts off discussing how he was looking for this kind of book himself and not finding one, claiming that mental health issues remain unexplored in running culture. This was true but I think is becoming less so, but there was definitely a gap in the market.  He is clear that he’s used running to help his own clinical depression, finding it helps him to “be my best” and that it’s a powerful medicine whose effects he wants to share with other runners. He also makes the point that while running tends to make anybody who does it feel x degrees better, if you’re a depressive person, you can go “from being miserable to content”.

He asks the questions people want to know: how much running, what type of running and for how long is best for lifting your mood long-term. Really, he comes to the conclusion that ANY running is better than none, although there are some degrees of effort and achievement which have been proven to help lift us.

He starts the book off describing what depression and anxiety are and what treatments are available for them. He then goes on to describe the interaction of running and some of those treatments, so we get something about how running intersects with Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, for example, here proving helpful because apparently runners are good at talking themselves out of negative thought patterns, so have an “in” to CBT already. I actually thought this particular point was a bit one-sided, as we’re also very good at talking ourselves into negative thought patterns, allowing our brains to halt our bodies. He also talks about how runners are already good at talking therapy, down to the side-by-side deep conversations we already have, and I can understand that – although he’s also clear on when it’s time to stop relying on your friends and go and see a therapist. He then interviews a therapist who walks and runs with her clients in order to access that level of honesty and intimacy.

The chapter on mindfulness is shorter than the book on mindfulness and running I read a while ago and more useful, just concentrating on thinking about what’s around you rather than engaging in terrifyingly deep, life-changing conversations. Throughout the book, the author relates things to the feeling when you’ve just pushed yourself in some speed work or whatever which link the text back tightly into the reader’s running experience.

As he looks at the research, Douglas is rigorous in applying scientific method to it, explaining what review articles are and specifying when the exercise they put people through is just done for men who ride bicycles and don’t already need a prescription for anti-depressants, etc. This does make you more likely to trust what he says and is the mark of a well put-together and edited book.

The book talks about community and social running and also dips deep into the author’s life, detailing his addiction and how he came back from that. This makes it a curious mix of the very scientific and detached and the intensely personal. The useful appendix summarises his main findings and this section can very well be used to help someone move forward and stay well.

A book that requires some concentration but is useful.

Thank you to the publisher, The Experiment, and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this e-book in return for an honest review. The book is published today, 17 April 2018.

Book review – Katarina Bivald – “The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend” plus book confessions and challenges #readathon @readathon #amreading

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Look at me getting through the books on the shelf with another paperback taken off … and I’ve picked up that HUGE one to start, too. However, there are three confessions under this review. To be fair on me, two of them (with I think two more to come) I ordered on a pre-order thing (a bit like the old subscription model for publishing books) in September 2016, so I can hardly be castigated for clicky-clicky sins committed that long ago … can I?

Katarina Bivald – “The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend”

(03 June 2017)

This was bought as a random purchase in Oxfam and I’m very pleased with it. I do love a small-town America story and so does the Swedish author, and this has the added deliciousness of being seen from an outsider’s perspective. It opens very notably with shy Sara standing on the main street of Hope, Iowa, nose in a book, waiting for a lift to an epistolatory friend’s house in Broken Wheel. But something seems to have gone wrong.

Now, this is a romance to an extent, but a very quirky one, and it fulfils the criteria of two women talking about something other than a man very nicely. Because Sara’s a bookaholic and the one thing she wants to do for the residents of Broken Wheel before her visa runs out is get them reading. She sets up a bookshop, adds brilliant labels to the shelves, and waits to see what she can do. And whether it’s a pillar of the church sniffing out the gay erotica or a broken and pitied man getting a taste for chick lit, it starts to work.

There are the usual quirky small-town characters – I loved Grace from the diner and her outcast tales, and there’s an ex-teenage mum and the owner of the general store, but all seen, as I said, by an outsider. I loved the way it very subtly pushes an integration and diversity agenda into the reader’s mind and the town’s habits. There are some very pertinent points here – the book was published in 2013 but written earlier, and at one point in the action, the gay couple in the book consider a plan for a marriage:

Andy and Carl looked at one another, amazed by how simple it was for heterosexual people to say those words. “She has to get married,” they said to each other quietly.

It’s also blisteringly honest on the microscope of small-town life and the price that’s paid if you go against the norms, whether as a teenage mum or a single woman who had one embarrassing moment early on and has steered clear of men forever more. I liked how the men in the book were caring and vulnerable as much as the women, very balanced but not in a lectury way.

The links and musings on books are lovely, from a random list of first lines that everyone will get something out of to mentions of books you might love, too – I was particularly pleased to see mention of Fannie Flagg’s “A Redbird Christmas” and there’s praise from Flagg on the back, too. Oh, and Iris Murdoch’s “The Sea, The Sea” is inserted into the text on the shelf of books that gives this novel its title – hooray! This isn’t all spoon-fed to the readers – some books and characters are inserted very subtly into the narrative.

Only one shocker – and this made me laugh, after reading this post on Hard Book Habit a few days ago – when I got to the end it turned out to be a Richard & Judy book club choice!


On to the CONFESSIONS. First off, I went to a new hairdresser on Tuesday, having been with my previous one for about eight years. Closer at hand and run by someone from my running club, but it’s still nerve-wracking changing hairdresser, amiright? Anyway, all went very well, I have my hair back to how I like it and it was SO QUICK getting there and back compared to the old one that I somehow fell into the Oxfam Books shop and spotted this one. A book about music by favourite poet and travel writer Simon Armitage? Had to be done.

Then just LOOK at these lovelies. Back in September 2016, I found out that Lethe Press were reprinting author and friend Paul Magrs’ earliest novels, the Phoenix Court series. Think magical realism set around North-Eastern tower blocks and precincts. I loved these and realised a while ago that I’d read them when they were new, getting them out of Lewisham Library when I lived in New Cross Gate. I have such happy memories of reading them and finding a great, new – different, very different – writer, and then a few years later got in touch with Paul after reading his book “Exchange” in 2006 (here’s my 2012 review) and have met him and count him as a friend. ANYWAY, Lethe Press were doing a pre-order thing, kind of like the subscription model that publishing used to use, and what is hopefully the first two of a series have now arrived – what fabulous covers! They have additional material, too, short stories and the like. What a treat!

Finally (sorry for the long post) some challenges. Yes, I know I’m not doing challenges this year.

It’s nearly time for Simon and Karen’s [year] club and this time round it’s the 1977 Club. As I’ve wanted to re-read Angela Carter’s “The Passion of New Eve” forever, I have earmarked that to read on Monday. Hooray!

I’m also going to be reading as much as I can in the 24 hours from 1pm on 28 April to 1pm on 29 April as I’ve realised I’ve got space in my schedule to do Dewey’s Readathon, which I know a few bloggers I follow do. All very exciting. FAQs here and do join in if you fancy it.

Oh, and actually finally, I’ve started reading Christopher Booker’s “The Seven Basic Plots” which is that basically humongous book you can see in my TBR pic at the top. It’s impossible to read apart from in bed, so I’ve also started Georgette Heyer’s “April Lady” (topical!), having finished another NetGalley book which I’ll review over the weekend.

Book review – Ben Smith – “401: The Extraordinary Story of the Man Who Ran 401 Marathons in 401 Days and Changed his Life Forever” @the401challenge @RunBookshelfFB @BloomsburySport

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To say I was excited when I found out this book was coming out would be a huge understatement. Alongside Lisa Jackson, Ben Smith is one of my huge running heroes. He’s definitely the reason I’ve run two marathons and trained for three, and I’d say he has had a large impact (without knowing it) on my ability to pick myself up after DNSing (did not start) my latest marathon due to illness and plan to run one just for fun around the local streets and another organised one.

I’m going to review the book but I’m going to share where my story intersected with Ben’s, first. I met Ben when he was doing two marathons in Birmingham with my running club (Kings Heath Running Club) in December 2015. At that point, I’d done several half marathons having come back to do the Birmingham one in October 2015 and was tentatively considering doing the Reykjavik Marathon. But tentatively, and I certainly hadn’t signed up yet.

Ben turned up in the local park in Florence, his camper van, which he was using to travel around the country. The routes the club had planned for him involved 2 x 13 mile routes per day over two days. This was his second day running with us and some of my clubmates were joining him for the second day. He was such a lovely character, very welcoming. I was quite nervous as I was (am) a pretty slow runner and I knew I couldn’t do a full marathon at that point.

Ben made a point of running and chatting with everyone during the run. He dropped to the back to chat to me (some of my clubmates ran with me, too) and made sure to mention that it was good for him to take it gently. We chatted about marathons and he’d actually done Reykjavik and could tell me about it.

But more importantly than that, he could gently persuade me that yes, of course I could do it, and would enjoy doing it and manage it just fine. He took selfies with all of us after the run, and we repaired to the cafe where he consumed a fair few calories. I then ran home, making that my longest run to date (14 miles) while he carried on for the second loop with some of the others.

And yes, I signed up for Reykyavik Marathon 2016 and did it (and you’ll notice if you click through that I wore my 401 branded buff to run it), and I would not have had the confidence to do it without Ben’s support and kind words of encouragement on that day. He was still running his marathons when I did that, now I come to think of it!

Ben carried on running marathons, and so did I – but not so many! I did the Birmingham Marathon 2017 and enjoyed that, too. I would never have considered myself “a marathon runner” without that first impetus, I wore my 401 wristband for that one and lots of my long training runs. Ben’s a busy chap with lots of friends and fans, but when I posted on the Facebook page to say I’d achieved another target, he said well done. And I was so chuffed when he spotted our kit at the National Running Show and stopped to say hello (he did a great talk at the show, too).

Ben had finished his 401 challenge by then of course – and our running club got to play one final part in it. A large group of us were incredibly proud to stand as a guard of honour at the Sports Personality of the Year 2016 awards show when he was given the Helen Rollason Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Face of Adversity. Lots of tears from both sides there!

So, Ben’s a pretty important figure in my running life and someone I really look up to. I hoped his book would be as honest and supportive as he is. Read on to find out what I thought of it.

Ben Smith – “401: The Extraordinary Story of the Man Who Ran 401 Marathons in 401 Days and Changed his Life Forever”

(5 April 2018)

After forewords from Steve Cram and Paula Radcliffe, both fans of Ben’s, we’re thrown straight into it, 5,000 miles into his epic run around England, Scotland and Wales. From there, we follow Ben’s life, not in strict chronological order, but as it makes emotional sense to disclose what happened to him. Having seen him talk and watched his videos, it’s interesting that more detail is given to his school days and less to his working life, especially the point at which he had the wake-up call of a mild stroke. I think he’s emphasising the journey and the bullying aspects here, and as there’s input from Kidscape later on, I think this was a good choice. And although I know his story quite well, there were plenty of surprises here – I had no idea he’d only just got together with Kyle when Kyle went on holiday for a couple of weeks then Ben went … round the country on his own two feet! What a wonderful testament to a lovely relationship this is, especially when Kyle overcomes his own hatred of running (his mum and dad and mum’s friend also get into running which is lovely to read about and another new factor).

The story of the 401 runs is of course slightly shortened – we don’t get a note about every run or every club, and again, that’s a wise decision for the shape and size of the book. Those of us who ran with Ben know when we did it anyway. This is a blisteringly honest book, with quite a lot of swearing and openness (runners are very used to sharing both swearing and openness and this is on the whole a Good Thing, and I hope the rest of the non-running population get that). But I was surprised to read that …

  • some running clubs promised to do a route and then dropped out and no one ran with Ben
  • some running clubs didn’t want to get involved because of the charities involved (Stonewall and Kidscape) and, as Ben says, they didn’t mean Kidscape
  • some running clubs seemed to want to challenge Ben by planning unpleasant routes or bounding ahead and racing, or runners would ask him to hurry along

This all upset me a bit, although I’d rather know about it, but also …

  • many clubs were like my club, supported him all the way, gave him a hat and arranged pleasant routes with plenty of feeding stations. Hooray! Phew!

The narrative from Ben is interspersed with first notes from his parents and brother, then contributions from people who ran with him, and sometimes their parents. This was lovely, reading about the inspiration he gave them, mental and physical:

He was like some kind of eccentric travelling therapist, doling out great dollops of hope wherever he went. (p. 43)

And the mum of Katie, who’d really suffered after being bullied but found a real supportive friend in Ben summed it up:

That’s an incredible power to have, to be able to give somebody the belief that they can do something. (p.154)

I loved the acceptance that running – and a marathon – is what you make of it and should be enjoyed. This quote by Ben’s “Running Brother” made me smile:

If you had said to me two years ago that a marathon could consist of lunch, a pint of cider and mucking around for six hours, I probably would have said, ‘Nah, that’s not a marthon’. Now, having done it, I can say, ‘It absolutely is’. If it says 26.2 miles on your watch at the end of the day, you’ve done a marathon. (p. 103)

It was also great to read an update from Kidscape about what they’ve spent the money on, always a good thing to know.

Little bits I recognised of course brought a big smile. First of all, my friend Tracie is actually IN THE PHOTOGRAPH of Ben’s last marathon! How cool is that! Naturally, I’d leafed through, looking for a report of his amazing days running round and round with us in Birmingham. Nope. But then he gets to Sports Personality of the Year and …

That’s actually us! Of less immediate connection, he runs with a Mounts Bay Harrier (I have friends of friends in that club) in Cornwall and past the Minack Theatre where my friend Pam works, while going around Cornwall.

The book gives a really good portrait of a lovely man who’s not a saint, but an ordinary chap doing good for the sake of it, not the glory. At the risk of going all literary, and thinking of my other great passion, I think he’s the epitome of a good man according to Iris Murdoch: absorbing people’s pain, quietly doing good, not making a fuss about it.

In summary: This is not a book about running. Not really. It’s about doing a bit of good in the world and about making sure that you do what you love. It’s about overcoming adversity and then giving others a helping hand out of the pit of adversity, too.

Book Review – A. J. Pearce – “Dear Mrs Bird” #NetGalley #amreading

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There’s been a lot of talk about this book, which is unusual for a book I’m reading, although less unusual than in the past, due to my growing NetGalley habit. I used to have a bit of a thing about not reading hyped books but I’ve relaxed that a bit – and rightly so, as this was a lovely book, pitched somewhere between Dodie Smith and “Greensleeves” in tone ad set during the Second World War, with the attendant worry, danger and heartbreak but nothing too explicit.

AJ Pearce – “Dear Mrs Bird”

(NetGalley, 19 October 2017)

This was a charming read, as everyone has commented – but not saccharine and not silly. The author has caught a “Keep smiling through the tears” jolly English tone which sounds a little bit like Ruby Ferguson’s Jill but is nicely done and not grating in any way. The theme throughout is that you have to try to keep seeing the best in things and smiling on through, because to admit fear is almost to admit defeat – although the fear and horror is tackled and it in no way skates over things – the only thing it does do is sort of blur the horror so you can feel safe reading it.

Emmeline lives with best friend Bunty in a flat in Bunty’s grandmother’s London home. Emmy is sick of her job at a solicitor’s, so when a job comes up at a newspaper publisher’s, she’s beside herself and rushes to apply. Then we get to meet a rather splendid office of eccentrics, as she encounters the redoubtable Mrs Bird, author of the agony aunt column, who will not allow Unpleasantness to creep in to her column. But what if Unpleasantness is just the natural mix-ups that war brings on and we should feel sorry for those experiencing in? Well, Emmy does – “I didn’t know the answer to lots of the problems, but I did know that a kind response was better than nothing. I hated having to throw the letters away” – and she gets in some fine pickles as a result.

We also see her and Bunty’s non-work life; Emmy volunteers answering the phones at a fire station and Bunty’s going out with one of the firemen, while Emmy’s fiance is far away and not really writing back to her. They have a few adventures and it’s all lighthearted and then, not to give away any spoilers, they all make plans that, if you know your Second World War history at all, strikes dread into the reader’s heart. But then maybe it’s just a mention of somewhere that, after all, had lots of great nights before something sinister happened …

The atmosphere of almost enforce gaiety and seeing the best in things is captured beautifully:

The four of us were making a lovely effort to be gay about things, even though the news reports about the raids had made sobering reading. By the time we got to the High Street, we were a cheerful party indeed.

But the author also captures the determination of those working to rescue people caught in the Blitz:

One of the crew ran in to take orders. He had the expression on his face that I had been watching for months. It was a funny mixture of looking grave and not being able to wait to get on with it. If the war lasted for twenty years I wasn’t sure I would ever like seeing that.

It’s a clever book, with hilarity mixed in with pathos, and some great secondary characters. Emmeline is a believable heroine and I loved her colleagues and friends. The plot was well constructed and built to a lovely, twisty climax, but not all the ends were neatly sewn in. Really well done, highly recommended and very readable.

This book was published on 05 April 2018. Thank you to the publisher, Pan Macmillan, for making it available for an honest review via NetGalley.

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “An Unofficial Rose” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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This read was a bit of a revelation for me. I’ve always said I feel a bit “meh” about this, that it was a typical Murdoch novel with red hair, weird love quadrangles and the like but a bit forgettable. Well, I must have forgotten about it to an extent, as it was an excellent read!

As mentioned in my introductory post, my copy of it is dated January 1995 inside the front cover so I’m not sure if I’d read it before my early 20s, when I bought this copy. I read my neighbour Mary’s copies of the early books so I might have. I certain read it during my first, incomplete, chronological read-through and my second one in my 30s (I wrote an entirely unsatisfactory review of it in 2008!). Anyway, it IS a classic Murdoch, though with no stones and disappointingly only a fleeting reference to pursuing somebody through a night-time wood/garden.

I’ve had one rather odd cover from the Triad series sent to me but do share with me if you have any more (the first edition cover isn’t great, is it!). Tweet them to me, pop them on Facebook for my attention or use the email address you can find on my Contact Form. And of course do pop a link to your own review or just a full review in a comment below – I know I’m quite early this month but don’t worry, you officially have until the end of the month and really until whenever to read and review this one!

Iris Murdoch – “An Unofficial Rose”

(28 February 2018)

What a complicated and engaging novel this is. Do we really LIKE any of the characters? Does it matter?

This would probably be the first of IM’s novels where it would be handy to draw out a diagram of who loves whom and who’s related to whom – I did this when doing my last readalong, but not for this one. We’re thrust into a world of two houses, one muddled, one pristine, and movements between the two, and am I right in saying this is the only novel set in my own home county of Kent? It’s nice and redolent of the marshes and Dungeness and fairly obviously somewhere Murdoch had actually seen. Of course London has to feature, all those extra flats that everyone seems to have, and the London weather and rain pressing in on the windows.

The opening of the book is very forceful and memorable, based around the words of the funeral service, and we start off in the mind of Hugh Perronet, one of many heads we will live inside during the novel. It feels like we have more experiences of more consciousnesses in this one than we have before, although that’s coming from “A Severed Head”, narrated by one character.

Who is the enchanter and who the saint? Both women, I think. Randall thinks he’s the centre of things but is constantly outwitted and realises who’s the boss. But Emma Sands feels she controls everything, holding all the strings from her nest in her messy flat, constantly restocking it to tempt her companions. Unlike other enchanters, though, she seems more overt and proactive, drawing people into her web and controlling them rather than being created by them as their overlord. Is this a feature of female as opposed to male enchanters? (or can we compare her to Julius in “A Fairly Honourable Defeat”, another manipulator? Naughty conniving Mildred also acts as a lesser manipulator, operating mainly from Kent). Randall does create Emma and Lindsay as his captors, “He idolized the serene quality of their egoism” (p. 59) and he’s also “instantly enslaved” but Lindsay, but I think it’s clear that’s just a standard attraction. Emma’s almost inert, too, she doesn’t join in flattering Lindsay or teasing Randall but just sits there. Hugh is also described as having been Emma’s slave, and this comes flooding back as soon as he considers her again.

Ann is described a lot as being quite “nothingy”. She doesn’t attribute blame and thus blame rushes into the vacuum that is her. She’s “worthy and deserving” but “there was no compulsion of warmth”, thinks Hugh, early on (p. 14).  She has also never had a conception of doing what she wanted (p. 240) and is unpractical and never grasps for anything. Both Felix and Randall see her as quite a negative force. Does this make her a saint? She ends up with nothing except a load of broken mess and a damp cat … But at the end, she will endure and carry on:

She did not know herself. It was not possible, it was not necessary, it was perhaps not even proper. Real compassion is agnosticism; and we must be compassionate to ourselves too. Tasks lay ahead, one after one after one, and the gradual return to an old simplicity. She would never know, and that would be her way of surviving. (p. 280)

Or is it Felix, who only wants to help, tries his best (though trying and striving isn’t usually a Murdoch saint attribute) and quietly removes himself, blaming being “an officer and a gentleman”? He also says that we have a duty to keep on living, as if we’ve been assigned life as a military operation, but maybe as a foil for what I’ve just said about Ann.

There is of course a lot of hair, with Lindsay having the usual coils and also flat metallic hair and Miranda holding up the redhead baton (Ann has faded, of course). No stones, but there is a pond to represent water, odd children and siblings (Miranda and Steve, Mildred and Felix; Penn of course has many siblings but is removed from them). There’s lots of doubling, both overt and subtle: the two houses, the two turret bedrooms at Greyhallock, but also Lindsay with her chin pointing at the ceiling both when being grabbed by Randall and sleeping in Venice.

The descriptions of marriage, which I might be more aware of now, having become married since the last time I read through all of these. This one was pretty damning, on Humphrey and Mildred’s (rather fake) union:

He and his wife understood each other very well. Their relation was intimate yet abstract, a frictionless machine which generated little warmth, but which functioned excellently. (p. 66)

and of course Humphrey is another in the group of career civil servants / soldiers who have sullied their own reputations with a scandal.

There’s plenty of humour – particularly when Mildred visits Hugh to press her suit on him – as soon as she’s in his flat, she’s getting rid of vases in her mind, reorganising things and, while talking to Hugh –

At the same time she observed the shabby state of the loose covers, decided that all the chairs needed re-covering, decided where this should be done and approximately how much it ought to cost. (p. 83)

(one can only assume Murdoch got this from somewhere else, as she doesn’t seem to have had such concerns herself). Of course, this is part of a savagely funny/ironic scene where Mildred totally misreads Hugh’s intentions, which has an element of farce. Murdoch also pricks the bubble of Penn’s love:

While Penn glided after her in tune with the music of the spheres, Miranda was more concerned about the hedgehogs. (p. 206)

We also end up having both sides of a phone conversation but in two halves, something I hadn’t noticed before and which is most amusing. I also liked the touch at the beginning of Part Five where Murdoch points out,

There are few persons, even among those most apparently straitlaced, who are not pleased by the flouting of a convention, and glad deep inside themselves to think that their society contains deplorable elements. (p. 186)

Links with other books are lesser but still nice. Ann is described as needing to keep Randall in her “net” and there’s a fleeting reference to pursuing someone through a dark wood in Randall’s dream in Venice. Although no one really stares in the windows, Hugh spends time out on the lawn when Emma visits Greyhallock. Most noticeable is the point at which Mildred and Felix drink a bottle of Lynch-Gibbon Nuits de Young 1955 (Lynch-Gibbon being the wine merchants in “A Severed Head”. Like in “A Severed Head”, the characters are described as being “like personages in a play” (p. 128), and there is also a business that has been built up but is then pretty well abandoned by a major protagonist. When Ann is struggling with having two loves that seem complementary and both necessary, you’re reminded of Martin and his complementary mistress and wife in “A Severed Head” – these two books do seem quite linked.

So, a better read than I’d remembered. I’d forgotten Steve and a lot of the humour, and thought there was more of the painting and the roses. What did you think? Was this a re-read or a first read?


Please either place your review in the comments, discuss mine or others’, or post a link to your review if you’ve posted it on your own blog, Goodreads, etc. I’d love to know how you’ve got on with this book and if you read it having read others of Murdoch’s novels or this was a reread, I’d love to hear your specific thoughts on those aspects, as well as if it’s your first one!

If you’re catching up or looking at the project as a whole, do take a look at the project page, where I list all the blog posts so far.

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