Book reviews – The Song of the Lark (Virago) and 88 Days in the Mother Lode #books #amreading


Sept 2016 TBRTwo books today that are set in the American West, partly or fully (Colorado and California) and involve the effect of those places on the artistic careers of the main characters, a fictitious opera singer based on a real one and a writer who was in the middle of changing his name. I’m enjoying alternating those substantial Viragoes with other books and it’s certainly bringing up some interesting contrasts and links!

Willa Cather – “The Song of the Lark”

(23 October 2015, from Verity)

A wonderful and readable chunkster (like Edith Wharton, I find Cather extremely readable) detailing the life and creative development of Thea Kronberg, of Swedish extraction and born in Colorado. Although the author apparently came to dislike the way this book “tells all”, I really liked this detailed aspect showing exactly how she kept her talent safe and growing and exactly how she learned her craft – the book is based partly on interviews with a Swedish singer and that level of research shows in the detail but is cleverly woven in and doesn’t make it any less delightful to read. I loved the descriptions of her different teachers and what they bring to her, and how she’s always really yearning for the old days and the friends of her youth.

As with Wharton, Cather has her heroine defy convention, but in Thea we see a woman whose character develops unevenly, leaving her mature in some aspects but almost childlike in others. However, she loses her family and any sentimental connections in her single-minded pursuit of her dreams – but then again, how many other women written about at this time (the book was published in 1915 but set 20 and more years earlier) were able to do that to the detriment of a “normal” life?

The secondary characters are lovely and beautifully if a little sentimentally drawn, and Thea’s complicated relationships with them are laid out for us to see. The whole is nicely tied up in the closing scenes and epilogue. Don’t let the size of this book put you off: it’s a great read!

James Fletcher (ed.) – “Mark Twain’s 88 Days in the Mother Lode”

(25 December 2015 – from Tedd)

This was a Not So Secret Santa gift from someone in my Photo A Day Facebook group – I always say I’m happy to receive books set in or about or by a writer from the person’s home town, and this one ticked all those boxes, even coming from and containing the bookmark of a new and used bookstore in Sacramento, California, which was lovely.

It’s a very carefully researched and put together account of Samuel Clemens’ / Mark Twain’s (he was just starting to use the nom de plume) time hiding out in a California cabin with three brothers, gathering stories of the gold rush that would kick-start his rise to national and international fame. His career before (especially on the river boats) and after are filled in and the information and reminiscences are drawn together from various contemporary sources. Some of Twain’s own pieces are included, especially a famous jumping frog story (poor frog) that brought him his initial fame. A couple of hours of interesting reading with some good photographs.

I’m currently reading “Belinda” by Rhoda Broughton which is an intriguing 1885 Virago with a shy heroine who everyone sees as cold and horrible, quite a modern view really and a good read.

Book reviews – Dashing Through the Snow and Connecting in Iceland #books


Sept 2016 TBRTwo books which are about travelling a long way in difficult circumstances today, even though one’s a novel and one’s a memoir / travel narrative. Both of them also arrived with me at Christmas time as part of a Not So Secret Santa gift. I’m reading my TBR a little out of order at the moment because I have a big wodge of substantial Virago novels at the front of the shelf and need to space them out with a few things. And the Macomber was perfect reading when I was suffering from a bit of a cold earlier in the week (I seem to be better now).

Debbie Macomber – “Dashing Through the Snow”

(03 December 2015, from Sam for Christmas)

This is a VERY silly short Christmas novel – but, of course, there’s nothing wrong with very silly short Christmas novels! Ashley’s trying to get home for Christmas and the improbably but usefully named Dash is heading to an interview in the same place. When Ashley mysteriously can’t get a plane ticket and there’s only one car left in the hire place, they’ll have to do the odd couple thing and travel together. Their enforced road trip – with added puppy, as  you do – is enhanced by a peculiar sub-plot involving a wanted terrorist a police officer is trying to track down. Is it a case of mistaken identity … or not? Silly but fun.

Mark Archer – “Connecting in Iceland”

(03 December 2o15, as above, a great find!)

An oddly large-format (you can see it sticking out from the back row in the TBR picture above) self-published travel memoir in which the 58-year-old, unfit author decides to fulfil the dream of a lifetime and trek across Iceland, going right across the central highlands if he can make it.

It’s basically a good book, honest about the struggles both physical and psychological (I reckon I’d be OK, but if you’re the kind of person who needs people around you, and the author has just left a teaching job, which would highlight this even more, it would be tricky, I can see), but the humour is a bit laboured at times (just as Bill Bryson’s, an author he says he admires, is at times, to be fair) and …

OK, I’m an editor and I do notice stuff; I can’t help it. Normally I let things go by unless they’re really prominent, and I certainly don’t shill for work by pointing out when people need an editor, because I have sufficient work of my own without doing that (and that policy actually rarely works). But this book is quite badly let down by its lack of editing (the author thanks a relative for help with proofreading, so I’m going to assume there wasn’t an editor). There’s a lot of redundancy in the text, a lot that could be pruned, and an awful lot of writing /grammar / punctuation issues, all of which basically let what could be a good read down quite badly. In my opinion, the book could be the same thickness and a standard size and retain what is good about the text, and that’s a shame.

The book shares exactly what it’s like to trek across Iceland, with its uncertain weather conditions and difficult terrain, and does a good job of describing the people he meets along the way. The chorus of birds is interesting and well done and the descriptions of the birds themselves engaging. The technical details of his traverses of rivers and the summary of how the kit did are great, and the kit list at the back useful. I also personally loved reading about the bits of Iceland I’ve read about and some places I’ve actually been, once he got back to the south-east, and there are good descriptions of the mental efforts involved, too.

I’m currently still loving “The Song of the Lark” and looking forward to exploring a new (to me) Halldor Laxness novel next.

Book reviews – The Gods Arrive and Dawn’s Left Hand (Virago) #books #virago


Sept 2016 TBR*** Spoiler alert *** If you’re planning to read or in the middle of reading Edith Wharton’s “Hudson River Bracketed”, this post contains a review of its sequel, “The Gods Arrive” which will, of necessity, include spoilers for the earlier book. I’ve reversed the review order so you can read the one of the Dorothy Richardson then ignore the second one, so hopefully won’t enrage anyone. Although, now I come to think of it, that one has spoilers, too! I’ll even say up here that I’m currently reading Willa Cather’s “The Song of the Lark”, another hefty Virago but she’s terribly readable, like Wharton, isn’t she, so I’m whizzing through it, with our musical heroine just dipping her toes into the heady world of Chicago at the moment. I’m so happy with the lovely books my friend Verity sent me last year! Do let me know how your September reading is going.

Dorothy Richardson – “Dawn’s Left Hand”

(28 March 2015)

The TENTH volume of “Pilgrimage” and I can’t believe we’re nearly there, especially as I have a matter of around 400 pages to go now, which is shorter than a lot of the single novels I’m reading at the moment.

But this one was really confusing, even if we do advance the actual plot quite a long way. Once we’ve got back from the holiday of Oberland (for once, this one runs straight on from the last, so you’d think there were no surprise events that have been missed out), it starts off with Miriam dotting around London meeting up with old friends and getting news of others, and I got a bit lost here – should have made a list of characters and their relationships! People are described as being “Oberlanders” without actually being the people she met on holiday (I THINK), but those dreaded Lycurgans and the mysterious Club also put in appearances.

It’s not all damp confusion and mists. The descriptions of the end of her experiment living with her roommate and returning to her old digs are well done, and the dawn of new experience when she finally launches into her long-foreshadowed affair is well described and probably quite shocking for the time, but the random French woman, constant harking back to what was effectively a two-week holiday and lack of a family base for Miriam in this novel make it quite hard work.

Edith Wharton – “The Gods Arrive”

(23 October 2015 – from Verity)

The sequel, as mentioned above, to “Hudson River Bracketed”, some people have found this disappointing, but I just found it sad and a little frustrating, but understandable and well done.

Having finally got her man, so to speak, Halo, who was always a bit of a goddess on a pedestal and was able to discuss literary works with perception and acerbity, sinks into a secondary role and basically subsumes her whole self, body, mind, intellect and social position, to Vance. It’s a very perceptive study of what happens during Happily Ever After and when the thrill of the chase (and of being pursued?) is over and normal humdrum life sets in. It’s not even that normal and humdrum, as they hang around all sorts of bohemian and arty types, but as seen in the first volume, you can’t really change what you were born into, and neither fits particularly happily into these worlds, Halo being contrasted with those who it is possible to just hang out with and not marry, and Vance getting his kicks where he can but not able to settle to his work.

Vance, who seemed clueless but essentially kind (whatever Marilyn French thought in her Afterword to the first book) in “Hudson River Bracketed” is here just monumentally selfish – but does Halo allow and encourage him to be so, too, by biting her lip, trying to be the perfect ‘wife’ and stopping her former brisk criticism of her friend? It’s, of course, Halo upon whom society’s disapproval mainly falls, and who really suffers from that as well as Vance’s obvious disappointment and insulting behaviour. She tries to break it off, wants to go it alone, but has various men – including her ex-husband – try to protect her, and the ending shows the sour note behind the fairy tale.

So, a bit of a bleak book but so clear on how society works and the pressures on women to behave in the ‘correct’ way while men get off virtually scot-free. There is some great writing, especially when Wharton uses her technical skill to present events, such as the fate of Halo and Vance’s only friend in the South of France, obliquely or in flashback or discussion. So a good read.

Book reviews – The People’s Songs and Life, Love and The Archers #books


Sept 2016 TBRTwo books, I would dare to put forward, by authors who are fairly generally beloved by my demographic of 40-something, literary-minded, music-loving type folks. Two books we would fall upon with excitement and joy. Unfortunately, both of them have disappointed a little. The reason for the second one disappointing may be that I read it with a cold, but the first was started a while ago. One good thing: I’m typing this on my new laptop – in budget, nice and small and light (unlike my original one, the ULL or Unfeasibly Large Laptop) and seeming to work quite nicely. So that’s a positive.

Stuart Maconie – “The People’s Songs”

(10 October 2015, from Sian)

I was really looking forward to reading this “Story of Modern Britain in 50 Songs”, adapted from a radio series where I THINK they were done in a random order, which explains some of the repetitions when they’re put into date order here (imagine if this had been in random order!). I was unfortunately a bit disappointed; it was terribly arch, which is normally OK in Maconie’s writing but seems annoying here (too many examples of “As one [insert full or original name of pop person] found out …”). The referencing is also dreadfully inconsistent, with some footnotes giving author and book, etc., some of that in the text, some reporting of hearsay or comments, one of which at least I know from a source of mine to be based on the serious reporting of a joke discussion, and some clear quotations not even linked to a person’s name.

There’s plenty of good pop writing and amusing anecdotes, and it’s nice to be reminded of various bands and songs, but some of the essays also felt like they were going through the motions a bit (“We need to have a chapter on x and y”).

Wendy Cope – “Life, Love and The Archers”

(3 Dec 2015 from Sam in the BookCrossing Birmingham secret santa)

I thought this was the lovely poet’s autobiography when I added it to my wishlist (and Cope is one of the few poets I enjoy reading) but it’s autobiographical fragments, and other writings – book reviews, prefaces and columns on TV programmes, the last of which were very ‘of the moment’ so not massively interesting. She’s spoken (and is indeed speaking at the Birmingham Book Festival) about her years in analysis, and that’s great for consciousness-raising, but in the end, I felt I would rather her editor had not as described, gone rummaging through the archive she sold to the British Library to put this book together, as it just made me feel a bit sad, even though there are some lovely pieces about her teaching days and children’s literature, etc. Just not quite what I was expecting, I suppose.

I’ve also just finished “The Gods Arrive” and this month’s Dorothy Richardson, so I’m not actually reading ANYTHING right now, but I have picked a nice easy read off the shelves for an early night. What are you all up to? What’s the last book that really lived up to your expectations / excited and pleased you?

Book reviews – Hudson River Bracketed and Ragnarok: The End of the Gods #20BooksofSummer


20 books of summer 2016

ORIGINAL 20 books of summer 2016

Well, I’ve gone and done it! The two books reviewed here are Books 18 and 19 in my #20BooksofSummer project. Book 20, “Blómin á þakinu”, has NOT been read in its entirety: I didn’t actually expect to do that. As it’s in Icelandic and is being used as a project to improve my Icelandic by laboriously translating it, and it takes an hour or so to work on each page, I was always going to end up with that one as a work in progress, having established a routine to work on it regularly and improve my language skills. So that’s a win in my book! Anyway, two great books to finish up with, and as these reviews are quite long, I’m going to do a 20Books round-up tomorrow, if Cathy doesn’t mind! … and No Confessions today, although my last two confessions are in the post and should arrive soon!

Edith Wharton – “Hudson River Bracketed”

(23 October 2015 – from Verity)

This was one of the set of five lovely big Viragoes my friend Verity kindly sent to me when she was having a clearout (I’m pretty sure I did a donation to Mind for them). It’s a bit of a chunkster, but being Wharton, that’s not a problem as it’s easy to read and just skips on by.

The central character is Vance Weston, a boy from the Mid-West who’s from a family that’s commercially and religiously minded but not providing him with the intellectual stimulation he needs – or rather that he doesn’t truly realise he needs until he encounters a distant cousin who’s grown up in entirely the opposite milieu in the house of another distant cousin which is full of books, poems and cultural references he has never before come across. His vague yearnings to create a new religion and to write poetry are now subsumed beneath a desire to acquire the knowledge he would have gained from a combination of being a man and having his cousin Halo’s education.

There are a few false steps, and he does end up spending some time back home trying to fit into a journalism role he’s not happy with, still yearning for the intellectual environment that’s been dangled before him. But also, it’s the emotional outpouring after witnessing his grandfather’s bad behaviour that gets him his first literary break, and it’s the world of the motions, from his impulsive marriage to a wife who seems to exist wholly in the world of emotions, the impulsive expression of needs that draws Halo towards him and the brief trend for his grandmother’s brand of emotional evangelism that prove to shape Vance’s life far more than intellect and the world of the brain.

Of course, Vance can never return home once he’s had a second taste of the literary life and the emotional blending of a marriage, however impetuous. He’s distanced himself through both intellect and emotion, and I think the author may be pointing out that you need a decent balance of both, as he teeters between the two ends of the spectrum. Wharton pays little attention to convention, and although the Afterword suggest otherwise, I think she draws a portrait of a man with insufficient early education in the subtleties and control of both the emotions and the intellect, bewildered and attracted by both. Society’s expectations are also denigrated in Wharton’s social commentary: Halo and others are effectively bought, and all kinds of society work on commercial exchange rather than love or honour.

I was put off by mention of this being inspired by the early life of a writer, as I don’t tend to like novelisations of real-life events, but her portrayal of 1920s literary life in New York and a flawed hero drew me in.

This was Book 18 in my #20BooksofSummer project

A.S. Byatt – “Ragnarok: The End of the Gods”

(25 December 2015 – from Jane at Beyond Eden Rock, Virago Not So Secret Santa gift)

As part of Canongate’s retelling of the great myths by various writers, Byatt cleverly frames her reworking of the Norse creation and end-of-world myths by using a small child (herself), evacuated during World War II and seeking comfort from a German book about the Norse myths and legends.

Comparison is made between the gentle Christianity she’s presented with in the parish church, the more violent and basic myths and the claims she rejects of a link between the two made by the German editor of her book. The writings of the myths are superb, with all the right stuff in muscular, absorbing, dense and rich prose which uses alliteration and repetition to echo the language of the originals (but not in a pastiche, with an inventiveness all its own). The description of Loki, student of chaos, and his demonic offspring, especially the snake, is just wonderful, and it’s a tour de force indeed, attractive, multi-layered and thoughtful.

Messages about women’s roles in war and peace and about ecology are not too laboured, the Afterword reveals Byatt’s own childhood engagement with the topic, and the bibliography shows that she read the translation of the Edda done by my own Old Norse tutor, which pleased me. An amazing book.

This was Book 19 in my #20BooksofSummer project

I’m currently reading Stuart Maconie’s “The People’s Songs” which is as excellent as I hoped it would be, and about to start my next Dorothy Richardson. How are you doing with your challenges?


Book reviews – Sweet Tomorrows and Recollections of Virginia Woolf #books #woolfalong


Virginia WoolfTwo very dissimilar books here just squeaking under the end-of-month line (I don’t like having reviews spill into the next month, although it’s often not preventable and I don’t mind if other people’s do). Not on the 20 Books of Summer list (of course they’re not – I must have read 40 books of summer by now!!) but both good reads suitable for the times in which they were read, and of course the second one fits into #Woolfalong, too!

Debbie Macomber – “Sweet Tomorrows”

(22 August 2016 – from Linda)

Linda and I both love Debbie Macomber’s easy-to-read community orientated novels and I’m keeping the collection for both of us. This one is the last Rose Harbour book and the reviews contained the dreaded word “bittersweet” so I was glad to have Linda read it first (there’s a dog in the series. Note: the dog is fine).

Jo, owner of the Rose Harbour Inn, is mourning Mark, the handyman turned beloved, who has apparently walked out of her and Cedar Cove’s life to settle a matter of principle, and is trying to start afresh yet again. Emily moves in as a long-term lodger and the women form a bond – she also provides a plot device to allow Jo to get some time away from the Inn now and then. We’re reminded of – and sometimes meet – people who have previously stayed, Jo receives a message from Mark, but is it all too late, and all in all, it’s a good way to wind up the series.

Joan Russell Noble (ed.) – “Recollections of Virginia Woolf”

(4 August 2016)

Top marks to Karen from Kaggsysbookishramblings for mentioning and then reviewing this one; I know there lots of Woolf books out there but this one’s been around since 1972 and I’d have loved to read it before now.

The book, published at a time when Bloomsbury was not in fashion, with the writer’s diary recently out and Woolf having a reputation as a bit nasty, seeks to redress the balance by gathering together tales of Woolf from those who actually knew her, whether central parts of Bloomsbury, people from outside like Rose Macaulay, people who worked for the Hogarth Press (I loved the views of this by different employees, one of my favourite parts of the book) and Leonard himself in a late interview; there’s also a very moving piece by Louie Mayer, who worked for the Woolfs for 30 years.

I learned some charming things about Virginia Woolf – she almost took her honeymoon in Iceland; she worked at a standing desk (apparently because someone said that her sister worked physically harder, being an artist, than she did as a writer) and she taught herself French from gramophone records but refused to speak more than a sentence in the language when in France with Vita Sackville-West. These glimpses, as well as the more commonly recorded flappy outfits and hooting laugh remind us of the real person behind the myths. Rebecca West excitingly says that Woolf was seen as being derivative of Dorothy Richardson, but reminds us the chronology doesn’t support that, so that was a nice link.

As Karen also mentions, there is a lack of context for the pieces in the book – their ordering seems fairly random, the acknowledgements state in a big block that many of the pieces came from books, others from a 1970s TV series, but it would have been useful to have that context with each piece, and there’s nothing about why particular people were chosen to be used. It appears that people were asked or the editor particular looked for pieces about Woolf’s perceived genius, and the echoes on that topic resemble those reflecting each other’s recollections.

A lovely and valuable book which will please fans of Woolf and will definitely be re-read.

This book was read for #Woolfalong Phase 4 – Biographies.

I’m currently starting to read Edith Wharton’s “Hudson River Bracketed”, which is my fourth All Virago / All August read and #20BooksofSummer Book 18 (handily, the summer continues until September 5). This has been a vintage reading month for me, with 14 books completed (if you count the Kynaston omnibus as two, which it is, and then count them both for this month as the first one hasn’t been counted anywhere else). I put this down to the two trips to Cornwall and Iceland, with their associated journeys, but it’s been very nice. The TBR is looking good (look out tomorrow) although I fear it’s about to expand again …

Book reviews – The Reef and August Folly (Virago) and some #20booksofsummer swaps #avaa #books


Aug 2016 TBRTwo books from my #20BooksofSummer project here and they are also two Virago books, so feed into All Virago / All August (which has been very much Some Virago / A Bit of August but I do feel I have taken part, at least!). “August Folly” wasn’t originally on my 20 Books list, but I swapped it in for Jane Smiley’s “The Greenlanders” – see below for a very short DNF review on that one. I’ve done one more swap, too, info and a photo below. I feel I’m doing quite well with #20BooksofSummer and, given that we’ve got until 5 September to complete the challenge, I think I’m likely to do it this time!

Edith Wharton – “The Reef”

(26 September 2015)

The reef of the title is SEX, which lurks under civilisation, however civilised it seems, and affects everyone’s emotions to some degree.

Although the book is set in Paris and a chateau in the French countryside, all the main characters are American. George Darrow is headed to a reunion with his old love, Anna Leath, who is widowed and lives with her very strict and dictatorial mother-in-law, stepson and daughter. She puts him off, and while at a loose end, he encounters the beguiling but ultimately rather shallow Sophy Viner. The plot then conspires to throw everyone together in a miasma of lies, half-truths and imaginings which threatens to destroy relationships and bring heartache to everyone.

The excellent introduction by Marilyn French brings out the contrast between French and American ideas on love, marriage and fidelity, and poor Anna, outwardly always so cold, is thrown around in a storm of emotion and conjecture. Brave in its subject matter for 1913, as there is no doubt about what goes on, even though it’s not mentioned explicitly, this is a page-turner and tour de force, even with the coincidences that surely could actually happen in a smallish ex pat community.

This book was Book 16 in my #20BooksofSummer project.

Jane Smiley – “The Greenlanders” (DNF)

I do love Smiley’s brave attempts to write each book in a different genre, and she’s had some really good successes. This book opens exactly like the Icelandic sagas it emulates, is hundreds of densely packed, small-margined pages long and is apparently horribly bleak. I would really prefer to spend the time with a REAL Icelandic saga (see the photo at the top of this post for a  big, thick book full of the things) so I abandoned this one only a few pages in.

This book would have been Book 17 in #20BooksofSummer but I swapped it for …

Angela Thirkell – “August Folly”

(25 December 2015 – from Ali)

The fourth of her Barsetshire novels, and I enjoyed the first three and asked for this for Christmas. It’s quite charming, but perhaps not entirely sure what it’s trying to be.

It’s August in the village of Worsted. Richard is sulkily back with his embarrassing parents, plus their insufferable donkey and his ignored sister, after fearing he’s failed his Finals, and of course the local Big House is putting on a play, with various cousins and village people roped in.

Love blossoms in unlikely places, there’s a dreadful earnest curate and a presumed confirmed bachelor confidant, and the locals play up (like in “Between the Acts”, which this book does not otherwise resemble). There are some sweet characters and perceptive descriptions of their psychology, and I loved the gentle satire of academics personified in Mr Tebben, always writing in to the Snorri Society and reading the Saga of Burnt Njal to his children as a bedtime story. But Thirkell plays the book for laughs more often than not, and this leaves it a tiny bit uneasy, somehow. Not enough to stop me reading the rest of the series, however!

This book WAS book 17 in my #20BooksofSummer project.

20 Books of Summer update / swaps

So, as you can see, that’s books 16 and 17 completed, and we’re nearly there. I have A.S. Byatt’s “Ragnarok” and Edith Wharton’s “Hudson River Bracketed” left to read, and one Icelandic book to finish.

August 2016 1As I’ve mentioned, I swapped the very odd “The Greenlanders” out and put “August Folly” in, and I’ve done another swap, too, with my Icelandic books. My lovely friend Deborah accidentally bought an Icelandic children’s book for her grand-daughters, meaning to buy the English version. She passed it to me, knowing I am learning Icelandic, but as the English copy I found in Iceland was horribly expensive, I hit on the plan of translating it, printing out the translation and sending it back to her. Blómin á þakinu (Flowers on the Roof) has the advantage of being shorter than the previous incumbent, Af Hjervu Gjosa Fjoll?, so I’m hoping I’ll be able to get most of it read by the end of the project.

In other news, I’m reading the rather lovely “Recollections of Virginia Woolf”, which is quite moving in places and a good read. I should have that done for the end of the month, which satisfies the section in the #Woolfalong project that covers biography and autobiography.

How are you doing with your summer projects?

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