Book review – Bill Jones – “The Ghost Runner” #amreading @RunBookshelfFB

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This was possibly my most recent acquisition when I went to take it off the shelf, or I was trying to read it to take to last Saturday’s running club awards night for the swaps table (that obviously didn’t work). The one from the new end, one from the old end, one off the KIndle reading pattern is sort of working, although the oldest book is now backed up until May 2018, which makes me twitchy. I might just try to power through a lot of the TBR then start again with a single shelf (hollow laugh). Anyway, a book review. This was the only book I bought in a five minute charity shop dash in Alderley Edge after we spent too much time having lunch and chats and not enough time book shopping.

Bill Jones – “The Ghost Runner”

(24 October 2019, Alderley Edge charity shop)

The biography of John Tarrant, a talented long-distance runner who ran marathons and ultras well before they were mass-participation events, and did so numberless and sneaking onto the course, because before he became a runner, he took a small amount of payment for boxing expenses, therefore could never run as an amateur. His life was one long round of training, running and campaigning, and even when he secured a part-victory, it was never enough, as he wasn’t able to run for his country.

Tarrant ended up helping to break apartheid in South African sport, running Comrades Ultra as a ghost runner three times along with Black South African and Indian runners, but also taking part in integrated training and races. He died young after a battle with stomach cancer (linked to battles with his digestive system throughout his running career: perhaps not one to leaf through at the table) and the author makes a decent book out of a difficult man who wrote quite a bad memoir himself.

A testament to the love and support of his wife and brother, both of whom didn’t get off lightly on the sidelines of his single-minded pursuits, and it’s nice that the author was able to visit some pretty elderly runners who were competitors of Tarrant’s in his glory days – and all supportive of him, which is how he managed to do it.

State of the TBR – December 2019

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So this is the time of year when I get my TBR down so I can fill it with lovely Christmas and birthday books and book tokens. Um …

shelf of books

My TBR …

Well, it’s still on two shelves and some piles above and that’s better than that time in November when I had to put all the paperbacks on shelf 1 into a vertical pile (right?).

I finished ten books in November, which is nicely back to a normal level, though helped by our holiday in Spain. I also really enjoyed taking part in Non-Fiction November.

I’m currently reading (and just about to finish) “The Ghost Runner” by Bill Jones, which I bought in Alderley Edge in a charity shop and is about John Tarrant of Buxton, who was refused admittance to running clubs and races because he was a ‘professional’, having won a small amount of money boxing as a teenager. It’s a good read – the author has done a good job of writing an approachable and interesting book about an asetic and difficult man with a one-track mind – and I should have a review of it tomorrow.

Coming up, I have some review books – two Patricia Leitches kindly sent to me by Jane Badger (and I fear I may have forgotten to mention my interview with Jane which was published in Shiny New Books last month – do pop and have a read to find out how she goes about republishing old pony books!), a short book on Impressionism from Thames & Hudson and  “Learning Languages in Early Modern England” by John Gallagher, which I have in e-book format, as well, of course, as a number of lovely NetGalley books.

In print books, it’s the last book in my readalong of Iris Murdoch’s novels, “Jackson’s Dilemma”. Previews here if you’re interested, though it’s not the book of hers I’d necessarily start with.  To take the sadness away, I’ve lined up “Iris Murdoch: A Centenary” edited by Miles Leeson and “Iris Murdoch’s People A to Z” by Chris Boddington (yes, it’s a list of characters (and pubs and places and real-life people), yes, I will read it cover to cover) so that the whole project goes out with a bang and some lovely reads. I’ve so enjoyed doing this readalong, along with other readers, including three who have been with me the whole way through since November 2017.

Around Christmas time I will be reading Paul Magrs’ “Stardust and Snow” for a pre-read leading up to my Paul Magrs-athon in 2020. It’s a little book he wrote to distribute privately, about a magical encounter with David Bowie, which has been picked up by Obverse Books.

I’m also planning to read these lovelies, “Anything for a T-Shirt” alongside my friend Cari, who is a big fan of Fred Lebow, and “Noel Streatfeild’s Christmas Stories” on Christmas Day afternoon. I also have a couple of light novels featuring Cornwall Christmasses which I will try to get to, too. I’ve let my clients know I’m going to be working part-time from 21 November through to 1 January, so should get in some lovely reading time then.

Did you have a good November of reading and what are your plans for December?

 

Book review – Annie Darling – “Crazy in Love at the Lonely Hearts Bookshop” and “A Winter Kiss in Rochester Mews” #amreading

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A double review of two good reads I’ve powered through this week. The first one got me through the flight from Spain back to the UK and the second had to be picked off the TBR and devoured so I found out what happened to all the characters. I’ve already read and reviewed the two previous books in the series: I bought “The Little Bookshop of Lonely Hearts” because I’d won “True Love at the Lonely Hearts Bookshop” on NetGally, and, in fact, I spotted “A Winter Kiss” in The Works and bought a second-hand copy of “Crazy in Love” so I could slot that one in and read them in the right order!

Annie Darling – “Crazy in Love at the Lonely Hearts Bookshop”

(18 Oct 2019)

Each book of this series focuses on one member of staff of the romantic fiction bookshop and their loves and losses. We already have Posy, who inherited the bookshop and the owner’s grandson, and introvert Verity, who rules online ordering and health and safety with a rod of iron, settled down, and now we get to know Nina better. Nina’s all tattoos, innuendo, pastel hair and extravagant retro wardrobe, but she’s becoming a bit fed up with her life of app dating. Just to throw her woes into focus, the shop has a management consultant come in to see how things could be run better. With his sober suits and ever-present iPad for notes, Noah, is bound to rub Nina up the wrong way – but surely she knows him from somewhere. Well, she does, and when she realises from where, she gets all caught up in a web of lies by omission, just as they draw closer.

I loved Nina’s personality and her friends, the tattooist and retro clothes pusher, were a nice new couple of characters. I also really like all the Easter Eggs the author inserts – the pub they all go to after work is The Midnight Bell, which is the pub in Patrick Hamilton’s novels (I really hope that was on purpose, anyway!). Verity stays on brand and refuses to tackle Nina’s packing and there’s a lovely trip to one of her favourite places.

Annie Darling – “A Winter Kiss in Rochester Mews”

(09 October 2019)

In this novel we concentrate on half-French Mattie, who runs the tea shop next to the bookshop with the assistance of pensioner Cuthbert and his granddaughter, Little Sophie (who has been in the books since the beginning). Next door, the only person not now paired up is tweedy Tom, whose home life and background are a mystery and who has always been acting a bit posh and ‘lofty’ around the other gossipy and oversharing staff. When Nina decides to move out of the flat above the shop, there’s a fight over her room and then an uneasy truce. Will being flatmates thaw Mattie’s icy reserve or bring Tom down a peg?

Tom turns out not to be the lothario he appears when set against his very amusing friends, the Bantmeisters. Funnily enough, if you have been watching carefully, Tom was hissing about heteronormativity when it was assumed he knew the answers to the football questions at the pub quiz because he’s a man. And in fact this book is quite a lot about the performance of masculinity, with the Archbishop of Banterbury (aka Phil) getting lessons on not objectifying women and Tom correctly identifying a gaslighter. Although these are light novels to pass the time with, my library and information studies senses prickled (my unfinished Master’s dissertation research was on where best to put information for women experiencing domestic violence) as, much as another dissertation mentioned in the novel says, there’s more depth to romantic fiction than meets the eye.

We have more Easter Eggs – someone has parents called Margot and Jerry! – and commentary on romantic fiction, as Mattie discovers a whole slew of fiction written about women starting bakeries and cake shops: if you’ve ever wandered into The Works you can see quite clearly the trends that sweep across the genre.  Even Virago Modern Classics and their green spines are mentioned, when Nina creates a Christmas tree for the shop window out of books.

An ideal Christmas read, but do read the others in the series first, they’re very much worth it!


A couple of lovely incomings which bookended (haha) our Spanish trip. Cari sent me Ron Rubin’s “Anything for a T-shirt: Fred Lebow and the New York City Marathon” with the aim that we read it together (although her copy hasn’t arrived yet). Fred is a big hero of Cari’s and she recently ran NYC so I’m really looking forward to finding out more. And waiting for me when I got home was Noel Streatfeild’s “Christmas Stories” which is a lovely-looking collection of stories Streatfeild wrote for various magazines and annuals, never before collected together, sent to me by dear Verity. I definitely plan to read that on Christmas afternoon.

Do you have a Christmas reading plan? Any series of books I should know about? (I have another set of Philippa Ashleys, one of which features Christmas, and another light novel, so will have a bit of a theme around the day for once!

Book review – Auður Ava Olafsdottir – “Miss Iceland” #MissIceland #NetGalley

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A good read, the second by this author that I’ve read (the first one was Butterflies In November), read on our recent holiday in Spain (so a slight contrast in locations). It’s refreshing to find an Icelandic author who’s not writing crime and noir, although there’s some uncomfortable material here as in her first novel, and a sad bit I’ll come on to in a moment.

Audur Ava Olafsdottir – “Miss Iceland”

(16 November 2019)

In this novel we meet Hekla, an aspiring writer named after a volcano, who flees her small village to move to Reykjavik and live with her best friend, Jon John. The book is set in the 1960s, and for all the liberal freedom we think of when we consider the Nordic countries, Icelandic society is rife with both sexism and homophobia (as well as the usual accompanying dose of racism). Jon John is gay in a hyper-masculine society and he gets sick of having to play a role and jumps ship to escape to Denmark. Hekla ends up working in a hotel dining room where she’s harrassed from all sides and constantly exhorted to be a beauty queen. The boyfriend she ends up with turns out to be a dodgy stalker who can’t stand that she’s a better writer than her, and a contrast to the life she’s trying to lead is provided by her best female friend, living in misery in a small flat with a husband and small child, her only solace the big paintings of the landscape she clings to. Other role models are offered by the bitter colleague or her ex-beauty queen friend, sent to warn Hekla.

Jon John shows Hekla another way, sending her books like The Bell Jar and encouraging her writing. She is able to nurture – her friendships and the cat she adopts (alas, the cat doesn’t end well: this is sort of necessary for the plot but there’s quite an upsetting bit before the plot can continue) but she has to decide between the man and her writing.

Meanwhile, we have a fascinating backdrop – Hekla’s father is obsessed with volcanoes and writes for news of them, Surtsey erupts and forms its islands and the big church of Hallgrimskirkja is being erected. I recognised lots of street names and even a bookshop that’s still there in Reykjavik. The sagas are constantly mentioned and Icelandic literature, saga writers, novelists and poets, is discussed, honoured and mulled over. Hekla is fully able to rescue herself, yet her life isn’t able to be fulfilled yet, as she’s burning too bright, too early. Will she find a way out and will Jon John offer her a hand up out of the sexist pit she’s found herself in?

It was fascinating to read about a time in Iceland I knew nothing about, newly independent and trying to carve its own way in the world but expecting people to buckle down and fulfil their gender and heteronormative roles.

This book is published on 16 June 2020.

Thank you to Grove Press for making this book available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Non-fiction November: New to my TBR #NonfictionNovember #NonFicNov

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I’m a bit sad that Non-Fiction November is nearly over, however my bookshelf will remember it for a while. This week’s theme is New to My TBR, hosted by Rennie at What’s Nonfiction and here’s the challenge:

It’s been a month full of amazing nonfiction books! Which ones have made it onto your TBR? Be sure to link back to the original blogger who posted about that book!

And of COURSE I didn’t note down who had mentioned what while I knew this week was coming and had been carefully adding to my list and creating this post in drafts. Sorry, people – maybe you’ll recognise and claim “your” book! If you see yours, please add a comment and I do apologise!

In my case, because November to the end of January is typically a time when I don’t add to my bookshelf myself (I’m in three not so secret santas, two of them booky ones, then there’s my birthday in January and I have booky real-life friends, and I don’t want to buy something someone else might have bought me) I have added these to my wish list, most of them highlighted in bold to show I really would like them. I’ll pick up some I haven’t unwrapped during the season using any book tokens that might appear …

Thank you to everyone who’s followed this blog or taken part in NF November and posted marvellous things. I’ll definitely be back next year!

Added to my wishlist during Non-Fiction November as a direct result of someone’s blog post:

Tori Bilski – Wild Horses of the Summer Sun

Stephen Bourne – Mother Country: Britain’s Black Community on the Home Front 1939-1945

Mikita Brottman – The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men’s Prison

Juno Dawson – The Gender Games

Gretel Ehrlich – The Solace of Open Spaces

Lori Gottlieb- Maybe You Should Talk to Someone

Dan Koeppel – To See Every Bird on Earth: A Father, a Son, and a Lifelong Obsession

John Marshall – Wide-Open World

Fatima Farheen Mirza – A Place for Us

Julie Summers – Uninvited Guests: The Secret Lives of Britain’s Country Houses 1939-45

Paul Theroux – On the Plain of Snakes

Laurence Wright – God Save Texas

Book review – Sandi Toksvig – “Between the Stops” #BetweenTheStops #NetGalley

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I originally just “Wished” for this on NetGalley, having seen it on one of their emails listing generally good books that are in the pipeline so was thrilled to receive an email telling me I’d been randomly selected to read it. And – hooray – it’s published by Virago! Thank you to Virago / Little, Brown for choosing me to read it via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

Sandi Toksvig – “Between the Stops: The View of my Life from the Top of the Number 12 Bus”

(14 October 2019)

Toksvig didn’t want to write an ordinary memoir: she doesn’t come across as a showy person at all and she thinks it would be showy to do so. Instead, what she’s done is write this book, and as she says,

This is about some parts of my life, but it is also about travelling through London on the Number 12 bus.

It reminds me a bit of Jo Brand’s “Born Lippy” in that you get facts and other stuff and snippets of memoir in between, but enough to get a good picture of her life. But instead of that much feminist advice, there’s lots of information about the people and places along the bus route. This is a bus I have caught myself from Peckham, although it starts in East Dulwich and continues through Camberwell into central London, but she picks lots of tiny bits of information out and weaves them together, sometimes despairing that she retains all kinds of peculiar information.

In the details of her life that we get there are funny stories but also serious parts about bigotry she’s seen and experienced and the tabloids hounding here, and sometimes wistful, sometimes funny stories about her journalist father. She’s had a very mobile life, which I hadn’t somehow grasped, starting off in Denmark and spending time in the US before being sent to a British boarding school and going on to Cambridge. We learn where she got her accent and how she got her start in telly and the almost accidental career she’s built since.

There’s just enough about her partners and children to explain things, and yes, you get Bake-Off and QI – one great thing about this book, which is over 430 pages in paperback so a good, solid, read, is that she takes us right up to the present day, so there’s no waiting for the sequel to find out what happened in the next half of her career. There is gossip and fun about shows and people, but never gratuitous, and it’s careful and respectful while being read-out-loud funny at times. She does mention people’s (large) size a bit in a way that feels quite uncomfortable, in an otherwise gentle and non-mocking book: it was the only slightly off note in an otherwise excellent and uplifting read.

 

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “The Green Knight” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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Iris Murdoch's The Green Knight

It’s time for us to talk about “The Green Knight” – this was always one of my favourites and happily remains one. I bought my paperback copy on 19 Jan 1995, so presumably not long after it came out, and I presume this was my fourth reading of it. Although I felt a bit of confusion around who exactly was reading the John Cowper Powys novel that’s mentioned, I don’t see any lessening of IM’s powers here and it’s a great read with some memorable characters – and, like “The Philosopher’s Pupil”, some scenes narrated by a dog. I read it in my original Penguin paperback as there’s no fancy new Vintage edition; this proved to be useful as I could bung it in my holiday suitcase without worrying, as it has the rings of multiple cuppas on it!

If you’re doing the readalong or even selected books along with me, or of course some time afterwards, do share how you’re getting on and which have been your favourites so far.

Iris Murdoch – “The Green Knight”

(18 January 1995)

Loosely based around the Arthurian legend of Gawain and the Green Knight (it’s almost a shame when Clement realises this and spells it out), we come in in the middle and go back to the beginning, having learned that Lucas Graffe has unintentionally killed a man, then going back to the scene, witnessed by his brother (by adoption) Clement. When a man returns and claims to have returned from the dead and now to want retribution, Clement and Lucas have to work out what to do. Is there a miracle? Is there a saint? There’s certainly a big fancy party and lots of rather strange goings on. And alI the while, Louise is waiting for her three daughters to find their fates and leave her, while other characters move between various handy flats and think about religion. I think his book revolves around whether people are who they say they are and counters of retribution, injury and fate. There are two brothers and three sisters, related folks and their offspring in one of those courts that exist in IM’s novels, plus a seeker of truth and religion and his self-created guru. So lots of classic Murdochian stuff.

Lots of pairings and oppositions exist, from Aleph and Sefton the intellectuals versus Moy, the arty, fey sister through Lucas the sneering professor and Clement the people-pleasing actor to Louise the good mother (and girl) and Joan the bad mother (and girl). There are innumerable fatherless people, including Bellamy, who loses his spiritual father. Louise and Clement meet originally in an empty theatre and then their pivotal encounter occurs in another one. Clement, Anax and Bellamy all fall asleep in cars. Clement faints in his sleep and then when Mir challenges Lucas. Bellamy loses his faith and so does Father Damien, although Mir regains his Buddhist faith. Of course the plot includes double encounters for the Graffes and Mir.

Water exists in terms of tears, fog, and rain, and also the sea at the cottage everyone thinks Bellamy is going to give up. Stones are mainly concentrated around Moy. She also makes masks, a small theme which crops up in almost every novel. London is a strong character with lots of different routes taken and described in detail so you could map them. Harvey and Joan provide hyacinthine curls and red tresses, and Moy cuts off her plait as she matures into her next stage in life.

Characters are divided into those who open windows and those who don’t, and now I feel the need to check the whole of Murdoch to find out if this was a theme I’d not noticed in the rest of the novels.

We have a man waiting outside houses looking in, in this case Peter Mir and various houses, and he’s seen by people looking out. Bellamy chases Mir through the wet streets, providing that common aspect of the novels. Harvey watches outside Lucas’ door and thinks he sees his mother, echoing a similar scene in most.

There is humour in the book – some savage irony e.g. Harvey damaging himself at the end of his ordeal, not during it, but also some funny moments, as when Clement puts on a pompous voice to give his speech which reminds him of the one people put on to play Polonius. The pub landlord is also amusingly very Australian.

Who is our saint? I rather think it is Louise. She is described as leading a life which

even after its great catastrophe, was quiet and calm, a sensible rational life, a decent satisfactory cheerful life, as presaged by her kindly gentle parents and her orderly high-minded school. (p. 3)

and she has a classic IM saint characteristic, there in the books since at least “An Unofficial Rose”:

… her kindness, the way in which … she instinctively made things better, speaking no evil, disarming hostility, turning ill away making peace: her gentleness which made her seem, sometimes, to some people, weak, insipid, dull. ‘She’s not exactly a strong drink!’ someone said. So secretly did she work in her courtesy. (pp. 64-65)

Clement craves her company, “to get a whiff of ordinary good life” and she absorbs his and Harvey’s emotions while not interfering in her daughters’ lives (although she humanly wonders if she should have).

She says Clement wants to suffer for Lucas, but in fact Peter “dies” “for” him and not only once. But I’m not sure Peter is a saint, as he seems to enchant and live in enchantment, and he’s “other” to the characters and their world, like an “alien”. Bellamy is described by Clement as a muddler, which is another saintly attribute, but that doesn’t really go anywhere. Emil exhorts him to “attain your open busy life, helping other people. Why not have innocent happiness as well?” (p. 426) and I feel like Emil echoes N from “The Philosopher’s Pupil” helping others behind the scenes while remaining unencumbered.

Who is the enchanter? Lucas has certainly been created as that by at least Aleph, Sefton and Clement, Harvey, who is “fascinated” by him, and perhaps Peter. It feels in a way that everyone’s been looking for Mir to appear in their lives, but he’s very much a paper tiger or a voice behind a curtain. Is it just that everyone’s seeking something to believe in and control them.

In relationships to other books, of which I found many, as you’d expect near to the end of our project, the girls’ tears might recall the Tears of Blood of Moy’s children in The Sandcastle, who cry at will. Moy’s ducking in the sea recalls the weir scene in “Nuns and Soldiers” and the near-drownings in “The Nice and the Good” et al. The seals at the end which give Moy and Bellamy enlightenment echo Charles Arrowby’s in “The Sea, The Sea”. Moy’s telekenesis links to other novels with supernatural elements – “The Nice and the Good” with the UFOs and “The Philosopher’s Pupil”. The standing stone Moy returns the smaller stone to recalls the stone in “The Message to the Planet” and the lingam stone in “The Good Apprentice”. Anax missing Clement in the park recalls various missed encounters, including in “A Word Child”. The various ordeals gone through by the characters recall again the weir scene in “Nuns and Soldiers”. Tessa’s left-wing writing and women’s refuges reflect various other women who do good on the margins in several other novels. Clement watches Louise sewing and, although he doesn’t say so, we know he likes to. Thus she joins the ranks of Murdochian women observed with a needle and thread. Clement dreams of playing Hamlet, taking us back to “The Black Prince”. The broken telephone, fizzing away, recalls a litany of broken telephones from “The Black Prince” through “The Book and the Brotherhood” and elsewhere. Is the empty, small, steeply raked theatre where they meet Sadie’s theatre from “Under the Net”? I’d love to think so. Going back to this novel, in Clement’s car dream, the darkness is like “lots of knitted steel nets” (p.84). The hospital recalls the one in “The Message to the Planet” and Bellamy is described as a “seeker” which links it, too – maybe this novel is ‘about’ an inmate come out, whereas the previous novel is about being an inmate?

I don’t think my reading of this one has changed that much, although I took note of Louise and her reality a bit more and was less forgiving of the machinations of the younger characters, perhaps. I had forgotten some key outcomes while remembering little details like Moy’s plait.

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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