Book review – K.J. Findlay (ed.) – “The Icelandic Adventures of Pike Ward” #amreading #iceland


I have promoted this up the TBR because I couldn’t wait until next October to read it. I’ve been excited about this book ever since Katherine Findlay, who I’m lucky enough to count as a friend and who I’ve had a coffee with in Iceland but never met up with in the UK (yet) started talking about the manuscript she’d come across detailing the adventures of a Devonian fish trader in Iceland.  And then, in October, here it was, and I rushed to buy it but then a few other reading things got in the way (sorry!). I really loved it, as I knew I would.

K.J. Findlay (ed.) – “The Icelandic Adventures of Pike Ward”

(02 October 2018)

The edited 1906 diaries of a Devon fish merchant who instigated such trade with Iceland that he ended up being awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of the Icelandic Falcon. It’s a fascinating look at the country in its very much less developed days, something I imagine like the Iceland of Halldor Laxness’ novels.

The first and most important thing to say about the book is how beautifully it’s edited. Katherine provides an excellent introduction to both the background of Ward’s work and a potted history of Iceland that has just enough detail to let the reader understand what’s going on and what led up to the events described in the book. There’s a great epilogue which details what happened next to both Ward (a house in Teignmouth called Valhalla and full of Icelandic artefacts!!) and the Icelanders he writes about, as well as some intriguing mysteries. There’s also a good map, reproductions of the actual photographs Ward mentions taking (and on proper plates, not just printed on the paper) and useful but not intrusive footnotes, making this an excellent example of an edited manuscript. And this wasn’t an easy job, as the note on the text explains. The references are extensive and there’s a thank you to my friend Chris in the acknowledgements which weaves the Icelandophiles of my circle neatly together.

Having mentioned how the stories of Iceland and Britain were intertwined in the early Middle Ages, we see how the two countries are drawn closer through Ward’s endeavours and those of other pioneers. He comes across quite a few British folk, some managing in the country more successfully than others. I love how his fish are called Wardsfiskur and his bay and farm Wardsvik; it’s also very endearing when he compares the majestic scenery of Iceland to the somewhat quieter views around his native Devon.

As someone who knows Iceland a bit, it was lovely to read about it a century or so ago. Some things are very different, for example the small bay where the quiet village of Keflavik is found (now the site of the international airport), and reactions to a sculpture by a now-revered artist. In the middle is the beginnings of the city of Reykjavik as we know it, as well as details of towns that are all still here today, but very different. And some things remain the same: there’s still a famous lighthouse at Reykjanes, Icelandic horses have a sturdy will of their own and surprise you by when exactly they want to speed up, and Icelanders have a somewhat eccentric and relaxed attitude to playing by the rules (this meant I wasn’t too worried about missing the cut-off in the Reykjavik marathon by a minute or so …).

A really lovely book and a great and entertaining read for anyone who loves Iceland or a good travel narrative (or both).

I’m currently reading the very lovely “Spring Magic” by D.E. Stevenson, very kindly sent to me by Dean Street Press as one of their new Furrowed Middlebrow titles coming out in January. Gentle but absorbing, the story of a woman finding herself after a live of servitude to her aunt in a Scottish village in WW2 is unputdownable. A review soon!

Book review – Samantha Ellis – “How to be a Heroine” #amreading #booksaboutbooks


Well we’re very much into Christmas last year now (although I’ve skipped right ahead for my current read) and here’s a great one from Meg off my wishlist. How was I almost the last person to read this excellent book – “books about books” being a favourite category of mine?

Samantha Ellis – “How to be a Heroine”

(25 December 2017)

A super memoir and book-about-books tracing Samantha’s reading from childhood on and relating it to her progress through education and finally into her career as a  playwright, working with and against her Iraqi Jewish heritage and with a clear eye on this and her relationship to it. She re-reads her old favourites and discusses her changed attitudes to them, always a favourite theme of mine. She also has a long-term reading buddy, Emma, who she gets into all sorts of arguments with – great stuff!

She’s a great, feisty heroine herself, and it’s apt that she ends up writing heroines for others, too. She discovers the Marriage Plot early on but simultaneously rewrites Oliver Twist “so that girls come out top” (p. 71). I love that amidst serious discussions about feminism and sisterhood, re-reading Gone with the Wind makes her use hand cream more regularly. She’s ashamed in retrospect that she saw her illness at university in comparison to Esther in The Bell Jar’s ECT and her family’s persecution and exile, but she also forgives her younger self.

Of course we always like the bits that chime with our own experience, as well as reading to find out about other lives. Emma tells her off for relating details of Salinger’s slightly manky life when it shouldn’t affect her reading of his novels, and she says at one point,

I’m beginning to think all readings are provisional, and that maybe we read heroines for what the need from them at the time. (p. 141)

After her English degree at Cambridge, she’s stuffed full of literary theory and “I was almost convinced that literature was all coded messages about Marxism and the death of the self” (p. 163) and she turns to Valley of the Dolls for light relief and at least something written by a woman. I read a few books by women in my English degree, but had to turn to Arthur Ransome’s full Swallows and Amazons series before I could read adult novels again”

Ellis’ reading of Lace being instructions on how to WORK is genius, and the final chapter marvellously features an imaginary party for her heroines, thought up after making Aphra Behn’s milk punch: a wonderful finale to a great read.

I’m very much enjoying “The Icelandic Adventures of Pike Ward” and should have a review for you on Monday of that one. What a great read and brilliantly edited. How’s your December reading going?

Book review – Karen Joy Fowler – “We are all Completely Beside Ourselves” #amreading


I was given this book for my LibraryThing Virago Group Secret Santa last year and have to admit I’d not fancied reading it, though I appreciated being sent it in a lovely and thoughtful box of books. And I did change my mind, even though I knew the big plot twist. And now, because of the big plot twist, which makes it really hard to review, and because I also don’t really want to think that much about it because of the horrible cat bits in it (why did no one warn me when they saw I was going to read it?) so this is going to be a short review.

Karen Joy Fowler – “We are all Completely Beside Ourselves”

(25 December 2017)

I think this must have been Fowler’s break-out book, mustn’t it, when she suddenly upped her game. I’d enjoyed at least one of her novels, “The Jane Austen Book Club” but this really is a masterpiece of research and weaving together of fact and fiction. She makes it clear in the notes at the back of this edition that this book came from a conversation with her daughter and a “what if” question, and it’s equally clear that she approached the topic with humility and respect and did her best by the subject.

It’s an engaging book with an engaging central character / narrator and a good supporting cast. Everything is believable and the shifting time line easy to follow. It’s not all spelled out for you and she nips back and forth, and I have to admit that, distressing as the Unpleasant Incident is, it is essential to the plot, although distressing.

So that’s it, really – I gave it a go, I enjoyed it up to a point I had to do a little skimming and I don’t want to think about the horrible bit (if you’re going to mention that in a comment, no details, please!)

The book next to it was Francis Spufford’s “Golden Hill” which I gave a go at, but I’m really not great with historical fiction and I couldn’t get a foothold on it. So I’ve started reading “How to be a Heroine” by Samantha Ellis (OK, I started this on Friday because it was small enough to slip into the bag I was taking to town) which Meg gave me for Christmas and which is amazing so far, and I’ve also promoted “The Icelandic Adventures of Pike Ward” edited by my friend Katherine Findlay to the next read because I can’t wait, basically.

Book review – Mark Atkinson – “Run Like Duck” @sandstonepress @montythemole #amreading


A big thank you to the publisher, Sandstone Press, for sending me this excellent running book, and apologies to them and Mark, the author, for missing the publication date with this review. I always like a running book that’s amusing, rings bells, and is useful, and this one is a great example of all three. Many thanks to the always lovely Lisa Jackson for getting it from Sandstone to me.

Aged 32, Atkinson was sedentary and not into sport at all. His friend Dave challenged him to go on a run in their local park, and somehow he ended up doing ultra-marathons and joining the 100 Marathon Club. We’ve all been there, right?

So we get another book about a bloke getting fit and fast. But it’s more than that, because he gives an awful lot of really good, clear advice to the novice runner, 5k runner, 10k runner, half-marathon runner … you get my drift. Best of all, like those jokes put into children’s animations for adults to giggle at, he manages to work in little notes that the experienced runner will pick up on, but the novice will take at face value – which means he’s achieved the position of writing a book for all kinds of runner, which isn’t always easy.

Atkinson is self-deprecating throughout and always generous about other runners and race organisers, while also telling it how it is and calling out bad organisation (this is really useful, as a runner who’s had a bad experience might blame themselves when it’s not their fault (c.f. my injury in the Birmingham Marathon). He has a great section on parkrun, really getting the idea of it all and making sure people understand what to do with their barcodes at the end, even (I told you it was packed full of information). This passage sums up the author and the spirit of runners / parkrunners everywhere:

The climb starts at around the 2k mark where a stitch forced me to take a walk break. The good nature and attitude at parkrun is such that I started running again as so many people stopped to help. I didn’t want to inconvenience them any further. (p. 5)

and extra points for mentioning the lovely LDWA (I did their Canal Canter this year) and their walk/run events.

He’s very cautious in his progression, both for himself and in his advice, giving the correct information about building up slowly, checking your health before you start running, getting kit, etc. He also has a bit of a rant about people wearing headphones in races which immediately makes me a fan (and manages to apologise for having put the word “chicked” (beaten by a woman) in the book then taken it out again: we wouldn’t have ever known but it’s great to have that conversation).

The pre-race / pre-marathon advice is great and it’s the only book I’ve read so far which advises people with long hair to test what combination of bunches etc. to have it in in advance (true story: I rocked a high ponytail on a long run and wore a little patch of skin off the back of my neck with the end of it swishing back and forth for hours: how glad was I that wasn’t during a race!). And talking about marathons and telling it how it is, I found it charming to see a mention of the “loser top” you get from that extra ballot for the London Marathon “to wear on your training runs so everyone knows you’re a loser too and you can share mutual disappointment” (p. 93). He goes through a lot of the big races including the route and what to expect, which is hugely useful, without making it yet another book full of race report after race report.

Oh, and then the icing on the cake: he mentions the lovely Ben Smith, the 401 Marathons man (book review and details on him here) – calling him a running legend and actually encountering him twice in the book (marathons 245 and 399). Lovely and generous to give him a shout-out including mentioning his charity fundraising.

As he moves towards both his 100th marathon and his progression into ultra running there is a bit of timeline confusion (I think he mentions doing a 50 miler and 100 miler before he explains about them which got me a bit confused) but this is a minor point and it’s fine to work it out. You wouldn’t want a blow-by-blow account of every single race so you don’t get that.

In summary, a well-written and well-edited book that would make a super present for the runner in your life (or yourself), whether that’s someone interested in running or a committed hard-line ultra monster. There really is something for everyone here.

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “A Fairly Honourable Defeat” #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch


Here we are at the mid-point of the readalong (oh no!). How have you found it so far? Do you have a favourite and a least favourite so far? What are you looking forward to most in the second half of the project? If you’re joining outside the set months I did this readalong, welcome, and please do contribute your comment or link to your review!

I first read this one in my teens and remember feeling, as with “A Severed Head”, that this was terribly sophisticated, which was obviously rubbing off on me (or not). I’ve read it at least twice since then, and my attitudes to the characters have shifted slightly, though I think I’ve felt the same about the actual story. Talking story – the blurb on my Vintage copy begins with events that occur on p. 404 of 438! What’s that all about?

Iris Murdoch – “A Fairly Honourable Defeat”

(August 2018)

Here we have a comedy of manners, indeed, something referred to as a midsummer’s entertainment. We have a cast of middle-class characters, some conspicuous by their veneer of American sophistication (by association) and some more gentle and doing all the good they can. Beautifully drawn relationships, heterosexual, homosexual and sibling, as well as those among friends, show what can happen when, as arch-would-be-enchanter Julius mentions,

Human beings set each other off so. Put three emotional fairly clever people in a fix and instead of trying quietly to communicate with each other they’ll dream up some piece of communal violence. (p. 419)

Does this not just sum up Murdoch’s novels in general??

We open with the shock of Morgan returning to London after the end of her affair with Julius. She bursts into her older sister, Hilda’s house, where she lives in perfect harmony with husband Rupert. Meanwhile, Morgan’s messy, contingent husband Tallis lives in a decaying house with his ailing father, and Simon and Axel, Rupert’s brother and his partner, fret over decorations and the perfect dinner. There’s a wayward son, Peter, too, for whom I had little sympathy this time around (presumably as I myself grow away from his age). And into this set of situations comes Julius, ready to work some tricks and have some fun. I’ll now look at the usual Murdochian themes and comparisons to the other novels in the oeuvre.

We have plenty of siblings – Hilda and Morgan, Rupert and Simon, and Tallis and his dead twin sister, who still visits him. Rupert and Tallis are both writing books, great unfinished works (Tallis gives up on his and Rupert’s gets destroyed). Pairings and contrasts abound, from Rupert and the hedgehog to Morgan’s comment on her two lovers: “Tallis has no myth. Julius is almost all myth” (p. 52) Quite a few papers are torn apart and scattered and there are two sets of letters – based on two other sets of letters, of course.

We have only a bit of stone action and more water. The stone is the malachite paperweight which Rupert manages to give to both Peter, in childhood, and Morgan, and Rupert holds all his work papers down with stones. The swimming pool holds pivotal scenes and the rain drums down on it with a pivotal thunderstorm, too. Hilda thinks the sea will bring her strength and help her decide what to do, then fails to actually visit it. London is a character as usual, although more benign in its weather. Rupert and Axel are civil servants, and the institution of the museum as well as the civil service and universities, workers’ education and charities all come into things.

It is a funny book in places – not just the savage irony of the plot, but comments such as “Julius might read all your letters if you left him alone in your flat, but he’d be sure to tell you afterwards” (p. 26) and is it only me who finds Tallis’ father’s rants about the revoltingness of being human quite funny at times? Simon’s horror at the sight of a naked Morgan raises a smile, especially the sentence, “He did not find it enjoyable” (p. 154). The teddy bear is funny, especially when poor Simon is trying to get rid of it.

Who is the saint and who the enchanter? Well, Julius is mentioned alongside the word saint on the first page, but is he either? He wants to manipulate, and seeks to control, but then Axel, Simon and Morgan, and poor old Hilda, all do fall under his spell. He’s definitely no saint because he’s busily passing on the pain of his war in a concentration camp by upsetting and hurting people all over the place, for fun.

Tallis is, of course, along with Anne Perronet in “An Unofficial Rose” often mentioned as the classic Murdochian saint. I was actually less annoyed by him than in previous reads, although the descriptions of his kitchen are perhaps best not read over your own meal. Being described as spiritless, a muddler, tired, confused and overborne makes him a classic IM saint. Morgan says of him,

His sanity is depressing, it lowers my vitality … Tallis has got no inner life, no real conception of himself, there’s a sort of emptiness. (p. 52)

Julius points out that he only doubts himself when he considers himself (in this scene, where Julius tidies the kitchen, he does apply attention to Tallis, too, p. 327). He tries to forgive, to help others, even at the cost of himself, to learn about people and to absorb. He seems distracted but has that all-important attention: for example, he’s the only character to spot Julius’ concentration camp tattoo. He has a handcart which feels a bit like a cross, and doesn’t care about appearances or possessions, and has visions of being at one with the world (see p. 199). But for all his meekness, when he needs to act (and Simon has this, too), he slaps the assailant in the Chinese restaurant before anyone can notice he’s moved, and he forces Julius to undo his bad deeds by making him speak to Hilda on the phone. In fact, Morgan is obsessed with him as if he’s an enchanter, but I feel that might be down to Morgan’s character, rather than his, as she is also obsessed with Julius and Rupert …

Is Hilda a sub-saint? She doesn’t pass on suffering and Morgan points out:

Who was always talking about helping people? Rupert. Who was always really helping people? Hilda. Only one failed to notice Hilda’s virtue because she was unaware of it herself. And she treated her good works as jokes. (p. 378)

Julius also seems to respect her in a non-snarky way, saying, “She’s not interested in herself the way the others are. This is what makes her so restful to be with.” (p. 398) I’m not sure I was that aware of Hilda even on the last read. I certainly rate her higher than her sister now: dignified and practical with her help for others.

I love how Axel and Simon’s relationship is treated as entirely normal – in fact described as so – with nothing particular about it actually reminding us they’re gay: it’s just a relationship. This is still quite an early book and I’ve always loved this about this one – and Axel and Simon remain two of my favourite characters in the whole oeuvre. I think they survive because they don’t meddle in other people’s business, and do that consciously, too, talking about it and making a decision, so doing something active there.

In relation to other books, it hadn’t really struck me that Peter was an extension of the Godless young generation that IM discussed in “The Time of the Angels” and will go on to discuss in “The Message to the Planet”. He is described as belonging “to the first generation that’s grown up entirely without God” (p. 12). Tallis’ father seems another version of Bruno, railing against the dying of the light, his illness kept from him, mulling over his life and the grotesequness of age. Hilda and Julius’ conversation at cross purposes (“so you know?“) puts us in mind of similar misunderstandings in “An Unofficial Rose”. Julius’ comments that Hilda will suffer to “spare them suffering” reminds us of poor old Diana being told to step aside and fade into the background in “Bruno’s Dream”. Who is the “philosopher with the funny name that  [Rupert] admires so” (p. 342) – could it be John Robert Rozanov from “The Philosopher’s Pupil”? Axel and Simon and Julius going off to the Continent at the end reminds us of any number of the books, going right back to “The Flight from the Enchanter”.

So, a book with a more attractive premise than “Bruno’s Dream”, perhaps, and a good Shakespearean theme. I feel it’s a more conventional novel, but with so many touches that can only be Murdoch’s. And I still enjoyed it, even though my opinion on the individual characters has shifted once again.

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.

Book review – Marcus Crouch – “The Nesbit Tradition: The Children’s Novel 1945-1970” plus Shiny linkiness


Continuing my mission to read all the books I received for last Christmas and birthday by this Christmas and birthday, this was a fabulous read from lovely Lorraine in my BookCrossing Secret Santa parcel. First I just want to share that I reviewed Cathy Newman’s “Bloody Brilliant Women” for Shiny New Books last week: read my review of this excellent romp through about 150 years of lost and notable women here. Thank you again to publisher William Collins for the opportunity to read it.

Marcus Crouch – “The Nesbit Tradition: The Children’s Novel 1945-1970”

(8 December 2017, from Lorraine)

A lovely ex-John Rylands Library copy of a great book which I thoroughly enjoyed.

It does what it says on the tin, being a survey of children’s books in the post-war, pre-70s years. Notable for chapter heading quotes by Nesbit’s Oswald Bastable, it starts by looking at the books and authors that come just before the dates of the main text, with a good and thorough portrayal of writing in the Victorian and Edwardian eras and their big blooming in the 1930s. It is from this chapter that the book’s title comes, because the author claims that “No writer for children today is free of debt to [E.Nesbit]” (p. 16). And yes, we can see that she did create the genres that still exist today and definitely did during the period under discussion: the family comedy, comic fantasy, the time theme of historical reconstruction and even the theme of family fortunes and misfortunes, in “The Railway Children”.

After this survey of “Foundations”, Crouch takes us on a whirlwind tour of different themes, adventure, sci fi, time travel, comedy, magical lands, the countryside, school, home and family, work and then self and society, which ends up looking at issue-based novels. He takes a survey of the complete period in each chapter, with so many familiar books, and of course some authors popping up in more than one. He also takes care to include overseas authors, which is very interesting, with most of these being less well-known.

My only criticism of the book is that it stops too soon – and of course it does, because it was published in 1972! It was hard remembering that a lot of my favourites were published in the 1970s and 80s, so can’t be included here. It certainly made me want to rush back to my Nesbits and Streatfeilds, my Peytons and my Garners, and I was very glad this was plucked from the obscurity of my mammoth wish list.

I’m currently enjoying my Iris Murdoch of the month (“A Fairly Honourable Defeat” and I’m having some different reactions to characters than I  had last time) and also reading this amusing running memoir, Mark Atkinson’s “Run Like Duck”. However many running books there are, they all have something you can identify with! This is published tomorrow and I’m grateful to the publisher for sending it to me for review and apologise for not getting the review published until after the date of publication (unfortunately work calls me tomorrow so I can’t just lounge around reading all day or even take it for a spin on a static bike at the gym!).

Book review – Mary Webb – “Gone to Earth” #amreading


Well, although I’m not up to books actually unpacked or received on Christmas Day, I am up to 08 December when the BookCrossing Birmingham group had our Christmas do and Not So Secret Santa. The lovely Lorraine drew me and bought me two fine older books from my wishlist, this one and “The Nesbit Tradition”, which I’m currently reading. See a pic of all my Christmas acquisitions here – I have read a few of them already during 20 Books of Summer and All Virago All August, so not too many to get through before this Christmas …

Mary Webb – “Gone to Earth”

(8 December 2017 – from Lorraine)

This novel, with its classic Webb themes of the goodness of nature, its destruction by industry and the ownership of women by men, is unfortunately a bit of a distressing read. We meet Hazel, child of nature, Shropshire of accent, and her fox cub, Foxy, and alarm bells of course begin to ring … as well as (very anti-) foxhunting scenes (we don’t see anything happen in detail but Hazel’s vivid imagination is enough) there’s a wholesale slaughter of songbirds but a man who has seemed a sort of ally but has twisted virginity and love of the land into something very wrong. There’s a love triangle and one man who pushes his nature down and shouldn’t do (reading that Hazel would have loved him if she’d thought him likely to strike her / he was willing to basically pretty well rape her) and one man who lets his nature run free and shouldn’t do (and does both these things though does feel a bit bad about them). There are some lovely scenes but it’s all full of foreboding (yes, Stella Gibbons fans, it’s a bit something-in-the-woodsheddy) and where I have loved her other books for their imagery and beauty, this one was A Bit Much. Mysticism and real-life oppression make this a heady melodrama that is never going to end happily.

I will continue on to read the last one of hers, but this one is not for the fainthearted!

As I mentioned, currently reading “The Nesbit Tradition” though I will be starting my next Iris Murdoch tomorrow. The book on children’s books 1945-75 is a glorious procession through both well-known British and less well-known non-British writers and is wonderful.

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