Book reviews – Harold Nicolson and The Warden

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February 2015 TBRTwo more “traditional” books this time, I think – in fact, I’m more likely to be found reading an older book than a modern one, I think. I do giggle when I note that any “modern” book I have was usually published 3-4 years ago – so it’s had time to come out in paperback and make its way to the charity shop bookshelves or be registered on BookCrossing. Anyway, a lovely biography and a lovely novel, with all the values you expect from an older book: good writing, good editing …

James Lees-Milne – “Harold Nicolson Vol. 1 1886-1929″

(Bought from the book sale in the village square, 21 June 2014)

I’ve got a bit of a “thing” about the Nicolson family and devour anything I see by and about them, although I noted when reading this one that I haven’t read any of Harold’s novels and I am patchy on my Vita Sackville-West oeuvre, too. It’s of course akin to the Mitford and Bloomsbury “things” that one can have – a group of people, different generations, books about and by to acquire, old and new. Anyway, I sprung upon this at a random book sale back in June last year (spending my bus fare money once I’d got safely back home from parkrun!), had been greatly looking forward to it, and was not disappointed.

It’s the first volume of a proper, old-fashioned biography, by which I don’t mean stuffy and straight-laced, but beautifully written and edited and with a healthy liking and respect for and understanding of its subject. Of course, there’s a lot about Vita, too, and her love affairs and their effect on Harold, and the development of their special marriage arrangement. Bloomsbury comes into it, too, but also lots of other figures – Sitwells (another “thing” of mine) and Gertrude Bell, for example.

It uses primary sources to good effect, quoting long passages from Vita and Harold’s extensive correspondence (when he was away on diplomatic duties, they would write at least once a day, receiving letters in batches), and writing in Harold’s voice to a large extent when using indirect quotation. This makes the book extremely intimate and very readable, more so than you would imagine from first opening the close-packed print of this 1980s paperback.

The book is illustrated with Harold’s sketches, which are charming, but I would have liked some photographs, and feel that’s a real lack. It’s also quite detailed on his works of fiction and non-fiction, which, as I mentioned, I’m not terribly familiar with, but the insight into the writing process is still interesting. A very good index rounds off a satisfying book which takes us to the end of Harold’s diplomatic career, told in lively and interesting fashion even when it’s going into the depths of discussions on treaties and ententes. I am desperate to get my hands on Volume 2 now!

Anthony Trollope – “The Warden”

(E-book)

Would you be shocked to find out that I’ve never actually read any Trollope up until now? I don’t know how that happened, to be honest. I think I had him associated with Thackeray, having read but disliked “Vanity Fair” in my 20s. I do tend to have an odd reading relationship with classic authors – take my progress with George Eliot, where I read “Middlemarch” over and over again but didn’t tackle any of her other books until I was given a copy of “Daniel Deronda” a year or so ago, and I’m now happily picking the others up when I see them to prolong the joy of discovering the rest of her books. Anyway, I hadn’t read any Trollope, and several bloggers who I know and follow and like and share interests with had been reading him, so I thought I’d go for it.

Well, again, I wasn’t disappointed. I thoroughly enjoyed “The Warden” and, while it was slightly odd to get to the end of a reasonably substantial book and find that you’re only 5% through the set, reading on Kindle has been absolutely fine, and has given a contrast with paper book reading of concurrent choices. I feel that Trollope falls into the Hardy arena with his small community life and rural chorus, and the Eliot arena with the web of connections and ties in a community, although perhaps, in this novel, on a slightly smaller, more concentrated scale.

He’s human and humane as a writer, with immense sympathy for even his most unlikeable characters. He’s also much funnier than I’d expected, with asides about whistling bishops and a hilarious rant about Dickens in a metacritical aside about an author who has started writing a novel about the situation he is writing about (he also zooms into the picture, taking us into people’s houses and mentioning his dealings with them, in a way that again echoes Eliot).

Trollope seems to use the premise of the book – that the Warden of a set of almshouses is found by a young, thrusting and radical doctor to be profiting unfairly from the charitable estate’s increased wealth, that doctor being the beloved of his daughter, and the bishop in whose gift the position lies being the father-in-law of the Warden’s other daughter (his son and her husband is the Archdeacon) – as an excuse to gather a set of people into one place and examine human nature and relationships. The Bishop and the Warden are firm, sentimental old friends, both afraid of the Archdeacon, and the women in the piece, while not here at the forefront, are their own firm people and rounded and likeable – I’m told that Trollope is good at women, and I look forward to meeting more in the next books.

So, a joy to read, and I’m going to have to eke these out a bit, or else I’ll be reading them all in one gulp – I do want to enjoy them properly so don’t want to race through them. How marvellous to find a new author to love and know that there are books and books and BOOKS of theirs to read! When did that last happen to you?

I’m currently reading another book from that batch of buys, Iain Sinclair’s “Edge of the Orison”, psychogeography in the footsteps of Essex poet John Clare and, because you can never be sure of what Sinclair’s going to come up with next, a rather silly novel set in Delhi which I’m not sure I’ll finish.

Book review – Professor Elemental and Nimue Brown – “Letters Between Gentlemen”

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Letters Between Gentlemen Professor Elemental and Nimue BrownBack in the dim and distant etc., when I lived and worked in London, lost in the mists of my first stint working for a library supplier, I would travel up from Moorgate to New Barnet with my colleague Paul. He was (and is) a lovely chap, maybe a touch eccentric around the edges, and on those train journeys, he would often be scribbling what I believe they call ‘rhymes’ (do they? I don’t know, I’m not in the least hip, let alone hip hop) on an A4 lined pad, sometimes practising them, too. He did ever such a good rap, composed on the spot, on my (first) leaving day and we kept in vague touch.

Several (many) years later, and Paul Alborough, the jolly chap on the train, had metamorphosed into Professor Elemental, beloved and well-known exponent of the ‘Chap Hop’ genre of music. He’d moved from office work to teaching and then on to a full-time music career, and in fact I have been interviewing him in the Saturday Business Chat strand on my professional website for a few years now, most recently a week or so ago. Having branched out into tea, t-shirts and comics, the sensible next move for the Professor Elemental brand would surely be a novel … and so it was to be.

Professor Elemental & Nimue Brown (ill. Tom Brown) – “Letters Between Gentlemen”

I was going to say that steampunk isn’t really my genre, but having read two books in the genre this month (the other being Paul Magrs’ “Mrs Danby and Company“, and yes, I have recommended the two Pauls to one another), I can’t really claim that any more. I would say that I don’t know the ins and outs of what a steampunk novel should be, but I gather from my small forays that it should feature a) wild and unpredictable inventions, b) said inventions being crafted from older materials such as brass and rivets rather than modern stuff, c) time settings in the Victorian/ Edwardian era, d) humour, e) memorable characters, f) a complex and highly amusing plot. If so, this one ticks all the boxes.

With the main characters the private investigator Algernon Spoon, a batty aristo, Horatio Plunkett, and his very amenable sister Maude and Professor Elemental, here a real inventor with a besuited ape side-kick and an unfortunate habit of blowing up and otherwise accidentally destroying his inventions, their users and innocent bystanders, you know that mayhem is likely to ensue. Throw in some badgermingos, a huge metal Professor, some curiously veiled sisters, a tangle of dodgy societies and an even tighter tangle of a plot, and you’re guaranteed laughs and silliness. There’s satire, too, at gender and class relations and learned societies, which gives the book more depth and prevents it from being merely silly (there is a fair bit of innuendo which is not for the very easily offended). On the offence point, yes, there is murder most horrid and the odd disappearing puppy, but it’s done very lightly and nothing upset your feeble reviewer, so is not likely to upset you.

The plot all comes together, there are some read-out-loud and laugh-out-loud moments, and the book itself is a very nice object – I was sent (thank you!) the hardback in a nice slip-case, and the book has a nice feel and some excellent illustrations.

This book will suit: Fans of Professor Elemental; fans of Paul Magrs; fans of Terry Pratchett; general readers looking for an entertaining read.

Disclaimer: I was sent this book for review by the Prof. I was not asked to link to the Professor Elemental website but have done so anyway.

Book reviews – Penguin Portrait and In Chancery

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February 2015 TBRYes, we’re on to books completed in February now, so this horror of a picture of my TBR has to accompany all further posts this month. Eeps! I have taken another one to read from the extreme left of the front row and had a small shuffle-up, so all is not lost. Today I’m reviewing another book bought in April on our trip to the Lake District and the second volume of the “Forsyte Saga” …

Steve Hare (ed.) – “Penguin Portrait”

(Bought 17 April 2014 – Fireside Bookshop, Windermere)

This book is subtitled “Allen Lane and the Penguin Editors” and is a history of Penguin books and particularly the series and imprints that it engendered, with particular regard to the editors who worked on these books and series. The editor himself uses material drawn from the Penguin archives to look at the work of these editors and their series, pulling together internal memoranda, letters between Penguin staff members and John Lane and correspondence between authors and editors.

I particularly enjoyed the sections on Rieu, who edited the first Penguin Classics (which were all works in translation, even though we’re all used to those black-spined and red-topped editions of the Penguin Classics which featured Austen, Eliot, etc., aren’t we?) and Glover, who was taken on after he’d submitted lists of errors as a “mere” reader of Penguin books, and their passion for getting it right, and there were fascinating exchanges with the translators of the early Classics, as well as some on some inadvertently poisonous recipes in Alice B. Toklas’ cookery book (did you know she’d done one? I didn’t!).

The book is very detailed, especially on political machinations within Penguin and the fine points of some series. It perhaps suffered a little from my having fairly recently read “Penguin Special” and “So Much to Tell” – I might be a bit Penguined-out now! But it was a good and valued addition to my collection, and a signed copy, too, which is nice.

This book will suit readers interested in publishing, editing and Penguin; those with a robust ability to tolerate high levels of slightly dusty detail.

John Galsworthy – “In Chancery”

(Ebook, original copy owned since the 80s)

The second volume of the Forsyte Saga, taking place 12 years after the events of “The Man of Property”. The man in question, Soames Forsyte, has a new property in Reading, while his cousin, Young Jolyon, continues to live at Robin Hill, with his three children and their unfortunately ageing dog (sensitive readers watch out for the inevitable here, although it is well-signposted and not gratuitous). Robin Hill is of course the house Soames had built to please his faithless / depressed and trapped (delete as applicable) wife Irene. Irene herself now lives in London, more comfortable on an income provided by Old Jolyon, who became fond of her in his later years.

Now Soames has decided he wants to remarry (primarily to provide himself with an heir – a stark reminder of how different marriage arrangements are now, with said arrangements being made mainly with the young lady in question’s mother), and he must therefore consider the distasteful matter of divorce; this causes Young Jolyon, who looks after the administration of her legacy, to draw closer to Irene and try to protect her, especially as Soames becomes uncharacteristically (apart from where Irene is concerned) passionate about the whole affair and engages in some rather unfortunate encounters with her.

Meanwhile, Soames’ sister faces marital woes and the courts as well, as her dodgy husband proves true to the impression he gives as he enters a mid-life crisis, and their father becomes increasingly frail and querulous. Young Jolyon’s son gets off to a bad start with his second cousin, Soames’ nephew; although both are at Oxford, they revolve in very different circles and find themselves on the opposite sides of both political and personal disputes, showing the Forsytes’ propensity for feuds and fallings-out moving down to the next generation. The Boer War also starts to encroach on the safe and somewhat smug world of the Forsytes.

Cleverly done so that the reader isn’t confused, and fascinating as the cold lawyer must contend with hot passions and the burning embarassment of being on the other side of the life of the Courts. Being not quite a Forsyte turns out to be an advantage where Paris is concerned and there is deep and horrible irony when a company is engaged to follow someone and report back to someone else. The Forsyte ways and attitudes to property are seen to dilute as the generations march on. And someone rather important makes an appearance right at the end …

My previous reviews from 2007  (This does also include a review of “To Let”, the final book in this trilogy, so might contain spoilers). Bridget’s review, Ali’s review and Karen’s to come.

This book will suit people who’ve read the first novel – these aren’t really standalone books but as a series are most satisfying.

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I’m currently reading a wonderful biography of Harold Nicolson by James Lees-Milne which is very entertaining and beautifully written. Once I’ve got a little distance from the Forsytes, it’ll be Trollope time! What are you reading at the moment?

Book reviews – “Joy and Josephine” and “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”

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Jan 2015 To Be Read shelfI’ve left the January TBR up for these reviews of books read in that month, and so as not to scare the easily shocked among you with a re-post of the frightening February TBR … Anyway, at LAST I review “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”, alongside another interesting book which also discusses poverty, social injustice and social mobility. All sounding a bit dry? Well, one of these books was far more entertaining than the other, in my view, and it’s not the way around that you’d probably expect!

Monica Dickens – “Joy and Josephine”

(5 July 2014 – via BookCrossing)

When I picked this up from the BookCrossing stall at the Moseley Festival back in the summer, I was excited to find a Monica Dickens I hadn’t heard of before. I loved her autobiographical works (“One Pair of Hands”, etc.) but I do forget that her novels tend towards the grimmer end of the spectrum, and this is no exception. It pretty much opens with a fire at an orphanage that leaves one baby injured and one baby dead (but which one? – this is an important plot point, but it is still grim and a bit unexpected) and proceeds by way of poverty, genteel and otherwise, family discord, snobbery and reverse snobbery, gangs of unruly children, marital disharmony, the effects on families of having too many children, confused identities, a cat coming to an unpleasant end (watch out, fellow “don’t put animals in books just to kill them” readers) and squalid living places.

The central character – will we ever know whether she’s Joy or Josephine? – is ambitious but not particularly likeable, although she does have any pleasantness squashed out of her by her living situation growing up, which I think is the point, and there aren’t really any sympathetic characters in the book, which isn’t something that normally bothers me too much, but did make for a somewhat dreary read. The discussions, both implicit in the plot and explicit in the characters’ interactions, on nature versus nurture and people’s ability to transcend their genes and/or childhoods are interesting, although a little dated at times. The ending is reasonably satisfying if not conclusive (which is also fine) and lingers in the mind as a reminder of this rather strange book.

Robert Tressell – “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”

(Fireside Bookshop, Windermere, 16 April 2014 – this book has the distinction of being the first in which I wrote my married name on the flyleaf)

I have wanted to read this book for a long time, and I’m quite surprised that I hadn’t done so many years ago, having a penchant for the left-leaning type of politics and being interested in social history. Anyway, when I discovered that it was published in 1914 (although I think not in this unexpurgated form), which was a very poor year for book publishing but the first in my Reading a Century of Books project, I determined to pick up a copy as soon as I saw one (but not go out to seek one – them’s the rules). It wasn’t long before I spotted the nice new paperback edition in a lovely bookshop (which has unfortunately now packed up and moved to Littlehampton) and so it was that a socialist epic novel became the first literary purchase of my married life.

On to the book. I started off a bit confused, I must admit. I had got it into my head (how?) that the poor beleaguered workmen whose lives we follow over a couple of years form some kind of philanthropic society to help their fellow men. In fact, of course, that never happens, and their philanthropy actually lies in their giving their best years, strength and health to their masters and the capitalist system. But it didn’t disappoint me once I’d realised that.

It’s an uneven but powerful book. I understand that most editions have been cut, with this being the first (?) full one. I’m not sure what they would have cut, as the didactic sections, exemplars and speeches are woven together to make a whole. Characters do come and go in and out of focus (and a kitten is introduced which had me worried (see review above) but actually simply ceased to be mentioned part way through, which was a bit odd – I mention that to help anyone else who’s worried, as I couldn’t find anything on it except a note that it’s a Metaphor (well, yes)), and obviously events and set pieces are very much shaped to the purpose of the author. The interspersed scenes from the life of the corrupt Town Council were both reminiscent of that other great novel of town life, “South Riding” and horribly scathing and savage indictments of the people who seek to “run” their fellow citizens’ lives.

The detailed descriptions of work and family life should be required reading for those who seek to dismantle the National Health Service and the Welfare State as well as deregulating laws on working practices (the workers in this book have the original zero hours contracts), and for those who seek to maintain or reform the system. It was pretty horrific to read of soup kitchens and people pawning their good clothes to find money for food, and know that over 100 years later, this sort of situation is on the rise again in this country. There’s also a passage about the use (or not) of reasoning with people with fixed ideas and disordered minds which brings to mind the exhortation not to try to change the opinion of a stranger on the Internet – nothing changes, does it!

Although there are some grim scenes as well as set pieces and discussions which are didactic in purpose and nature, I didn’t find it a dry read, and there’s a humanity and care for his fellow humans on the part of the author and some of his characters that kept me reading, even though I will admit that the writing became a little turgid at times. The descriptions of socialist utopias were of course written before the great Communist experiments of the 20th century got underway, so read as a little over-idealistic at times, but still with good points to make, and so I forgive the occasional unevenness of the writing and plot.

I know a few people were planning to read this alongside me this year, so I hope you are able to comment with a link to your review, either now or when you’ve finished it, or let me know that you’re still planning to read it and will comment when you have. I’d love to hear what everyone else thought of it, as there has been a variety of responses among friends on social media already! I for one am glad I have finally read it.

Book reviews – “Mrs Danby and Company” and “The Secret of Skeleton Island”

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Paul Magrs Mrs Danby and CompanyOne main review and a little one popped in for good measure today – and yes, I know I’m still reviewing books I read in January, but I will catch up with myself soon! These are both fantasy adventures involving going under the sea, but one has a pretend ghost and is rooted in reality, while the other goes off into flights of invention, giving an alternative (literary) history twist to a tale that’s already full of twists and turns. One’s old school and one’s steampunk; both were good reads, although one more substantial than the other. Well, here goes …

Paul Magrs – “Mrs Danby and Company”

(25 January 2015)

I couldn’t resist picking up a copy of Paul Magrs’ new book (even though I still yearn for the days of those early books set on estates in the North East with just a sprinkling of magic and a lot of realism); after 20 years in the business, he certainly knows what he’s doing, and he’s got a charming style that’s hard to pin down, but I’d recognise one of his paragraphs anywhere.

This is a new adventure, featuring a famous detective’s ex-housekeeper, a distinguished vampire hunter and a famed explorer and scientist who encounter one another on a strangely doomed-feeling Atlantic crossing. Undersea and other-worldly adventures ensue, with characters from the Brenda and Effie novels (including some rather sinister furniture) making the odd appearance and providing a nice little moment for long-term fans of the author, while not confusing the new reader. The triple narrative, which has nicely distinguished voices (not something that you can guarantee these days) undermines the narrators, gives the whole story and provides for some giggles.

I would recommend this to people who like their magical adventures with a side order of common-sense – where else would you find a consideration of how to get the remains of recently deceased vampires off your Good Coat? Plenty of twists and turns and there are enough unresolved details to make the way clear for a sequel – hooray!

This book will suit: people who like steampunk with a smile; Paul Magrs fans; people who like a good jolly adventure and a bit of a giggle.

No disclaimer needed: Although I have had tea with the author, I bought this book myself from Amazon. If you fancy reading it, you can find it here!

Robert Arthur – “The Secret of Skeleton Island”

(22 November 2012)

An Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators book (Book 6 in the series) – this one still has Alfred Hitchcock involved at the beginning and end, which later numbers dropped. In a departure from the usual story, Jupiter Jones, head detective, is confined to barracks with a cold, while Pete and Bob are the ones who are put into danger as they try to work out just who is trying to put a film company off using an old theme park on an island – and why. Strangers are mistrusted and a community obsessed with treasure closes ranks – who can and cannot be trusted?

This book will suit: Those who read this series in their childhood; Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys fans

Book reviews – Learn to Sew with Lauren and Sew Fabulous

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Lauren Guthrie Learn to Sew with LaurenTwo easy picks from my TBR today. Now – does everyone treat sewing or other craft books like people do cookery books, buying them, poring over them, deciding what to make … then not getting round to it for ages? Or is that just me? Anyway, I bought both of these books on 6 September last year, when I dashed between two book launch parties, one (Lauren’s) fairly local to me, at her lovely shop, Guthrie and Ghanie, and the other (Stuart’s) in House of Fraser’s haberdashery department in Birmingham City Centre. And they seemed to deserve to be read and reviewed together.

Stuart Hillard Sew FabulousThey’re quite different books, although both aimed at the beginner. Lauren’s has some household items but also simple clothes for adults and children, and Stuart’s concentrates on home decoration, with an emphasis on quilting – and this of course reflects the specialities they displayed on the Great British Sewing Bee. Both books are beautifully edited, I’m pleased to say, especially after my disappointment with the Sewing Bee book itself, and the personality of the author shines through in both. I did make sure to ask both Lauren and Stuart about this aspect when I caught up with them at their launches, but was very pleased to find this was the case when I read them.

So, on with the reviews, and a sneaky confession under those …

Lauren Guthrie – “Learn to Sew with Lauren”

The aim of this book is to take you through first steps of sewing, with a large section on basic skills and materials, which sensibly tells you when to consult your sewing machine manual or pattern and when to follow the general instructions. The projects then run from “Easy Peasy” beginners’ projects through to more tricky pieces (with pockets, yokes and a dress), in a sensible and well thought through progression, and the instructions link back nicely to the Techniques section at the beginning.

Full-size paper patterns are included in a pocket in the book, with some more simple templates in the back and instructions on measuring for blinds, etc. There are good, clear illustrations, and some pictures of Lauren as well as models. I was a little disappointed to see a pretty girl’s summertime set which mentioned little girls getting involved in sewing (why not boys?) then some “Adventure Shorts” which were very firmly aimed at boys – I would think that any active child would like these, so that was a bit of a shame, but didn’t ruin the book for me, of course, and was only a minor point in an otherwise very good book.

It was hard not to compare these books as I read them so close together, and I think Lauren’s has a slight edge in terms of explaining techniques, especially making bias binding and creating piping. I will certainly be trying out some pyjama bottoms and one or two of the bags from this book, and it’s an attractive buy that would make a good present for the novice at sewing (male or female!). I would pair it with one of the starter sets you can buy from the shop as a good gift set.

This book would suit: Anyone learning to sew, brushing up their skills, or looking for some simple to challenging projects to complete reasonably quickly.

Stuart Hillard – “Sew Fabulous”

As I mentioned above, this book concentrates on furnishings and decorations for the house and garden, with inspiring room sets at the beginning of each chapter. Instead of being arranged from easy to difficult, this has a chapter per room, from the entrance hall to the garden, with a chapter on gifts at the end – each project is marked as being of one of six difficulty levels, from no-sew to challenging. This works well and it’s easy to see which projects you’ll be capable of (although I found bunting being marked as a little more difficult than I find it!).

The pictures are very good and Stuart appears in a few. I have to say that this one had me in stitches (ha!) at times, as Stuart’s voice and personality very much shine through in little asides and comments. It’s rare to find a craft book that actually makes you giggle, so extra points there! There is also a very good explanation of the types of fabric to choose for these projects.

As implied in my other review, some of the explanations in the basic skills section are a little more perfunctory than in Lauren’s book – however, this is not designed specifically as a learn to sew book; the explanations work and there are plenty of resources online etc. for learning how to do these things (or just buy both books and flip to Lauren’s if you’re confused about bias binding!). And the instructions in the beginning section and by specific projects using quilting are very good (and if I was doing Lauren’s quilting projects, I’d check on details in here, so swings and roundabouts).

Again, there are full-sized patterns in a pocket and templates to copy, too. A really good book if you fancy making fabric gifts or items for your home, including simple lined curtains.

This book would suit: People looking to brush up their skills with furnishing fabrics and home decoration.

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Paul Magrs Mrs Danby and CompanyA quick confession – well, it would have been rude not to order the new Paul Magrs novel, “Mrs Danby and Company”, given that I’ve read pretty well all of his other books (apart from the brain-eating one, as I am contractually obliged to mention whenever I mention Paul’s books) and he’s gone to the trouble of creating this one himself. It appears very steampunk from the look of the cover and should be a well-written romp through time and space, if the blurb on the back (which is a bit difficult for the older eye to make out) is to be believed. Because this is only just out, I’m going to promote it up the TBR and read and review it soon, to bump up those online reviews and help people get to know about it.

No disclaimer needed: Although I know and have met all of the authors of these books, I bought all of the books myself and have not been asked to write reviews.

Book review – “The Woman Who Stole My Life” and a possible readalong …

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Jan 2015 To Be Read shelfA singleton review today as I’m reading two that really DO go together at the moment and don’t want to lose the reviewing momentum. The book I’m reviewing here isn’t even on the TBR picture, as I borrowed it from my friend Linda, unable to resist the new Marian Keyes. I don’t read much of what gets described as chick-lit, but Keyes is always hilarious and warm with good plots, and I never mind saying I’m a fan. After the review, some talk of a readalong. Having mentioned almost in passing that I had started “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”, I’ve been very surprised at how many people have popped up to say they’ve read or want to read it, and some kind of lose readalong has been posited – see below for more info.

Marian Keyes – “The Woman who Stole my Life”

(borrowed from Linda December 2014)

I was initially flummoxed by this not being about the Walsh sisters, although from a little research, it seems that I’ve skipped a couple of Keyes’ more recent books, and not all of them are about the same family. Anyway, I also wasn’t immediately grabbed by the story, which flicks around a bit at the beginning, with half-mentionings and flashbacks. However, Marian Keyes is like a drug — you keep reading, even if you’re not immediately hooked, for the gems of wry humour and hilarious one-liners, and I gradually got held by the characters and plot.

Although these are new characters, we still find the hilarious older generation, scrapping siblings and bizarre friends, complemented in this case by the rather marvellous Jeffrey, son of the heroine, Stella, who has some very odd ways. I enjoyed her vulnerable men, as I always do (they seem real, like the beardy love-interest chap in the Miranda programmes and indeed Carole Matthews’ novels, which is why she’s another chick-lit author I enjoy), and the cast of supporting characters such as Stella’s hilariously serious brother-in-law add depth.

I can’t talk about the plot because that would give it away, but there are twists and turns and whole sections abroad (some of the plot points there were a little fantastic, but we’ll forgive her for that). Some reviews bang on about the sex scenes, but I skimmed those (not very Keyesian) and didn’t find them too disturbing. A good satisfying ending and a fun read.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists Robert TressellNow for a bit of a possible readalong. I have been kind of sort of hankering after reading Robert Tressell’s “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” for years and years – after all, it’s a classic of Socialist writing and political and social commentary, so right up my street. Then I discovered it was published in 1914. Now, there’s not a lot published that year that I’ve fancied reading, and it is, of course, the first year in my Century of Reading project: I’m not currently “allowed” to just buy books randomly for that purpose only, but I had it in mind, then spotted it in Fireside Books in Windermere when we were on our minimoon last year.

I started reading it when it came to the top of the TBR this month, and was first of all struck by the small size of the type and the large thickness of the book – so much so, in fact, that I veered away to Marian Keyes for a bit of light relief before I started. I then gritted my teeth to have a go, and discovered that I found it a relatively attractive and easy read, its group of tradesmen reminding me a bit of Hardy’s country groupings, and the discussion of whether people had the right to vote if they didn’t understand the issues curiously pertinent to today’s pre-election mitherings.

I mentioned that it was going better than expected on Facebook, and was astounded at the number of people who either said they were planning to read it or HAD read it – people from different circles of my acquaintance, and of different backgrounds and reading habits. It’s not universally liked, but it does seem to attract attention and interest, and probably is a good book to read in the run-up to a General Election. So I posited a readalong.

It’s quite relaxed – if you want to talk about the book, do so in the comments, or write your own blog post(s) and post a link in the comments so we can all see them. Read it now or read it later … but it might be nice to have a chat about it.

Note: my reading has become a little derailed by the introduction of a kitten to the narrative. Especially in a didactic book like this, animal characters are usually introduced to make a point or allow a plot development – and I fear the worst. I’ve had a little flick, through the Google Books version of the book online, but couldn’t find anything horrible. But maybe someone who’s read it and remembers it could let me know (not in graphic detail if there is graphic detail) what happens to the poor thing. Yes, I know there’s other horror, there’s an unwell baby and violent impulses bubbling under in the labouring classes – I’m afraid it’s animal stuff that really upsets me, and that’s probably for another discussion.

Anyway, if you’d like to join in, pop a comment below to mark your intention, then feel free to discuss and post links as you go. Happy reading!

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