Book review – Vita Sackville-West “All Passion Spent” #Virago #amreading #books


jan-2017-tbrThe lovely Virago Group on LibraryThing has decided not to do a big challenge this year (other years, we’ve done Elizabeth Taylor or Barbara Pym, for example), but to vote on an author to read per month, and then you can read anything by that author during that month, but dip in and out as you want. January came up with Vita Sackville-West, and as she’s a beloved author AND I wanted to do more re-reading this year, I decided to re-read “All Passion Spent”. I am not sure when I bought this – I have it in a slightly annoying to read hardback omnibus, and it’s got a pencil letter in which implies I bought it at either a book sale in Kent or one in Greenwich that I used to frequent. Anyway, I’m pretty sure it was one of the early Viragoes that I read, and I can’t think I’ve revisited it for a couple of decades. I’m glad I did.

Vita Sackville-West – “All Passion Spent”


An absolutely charming novel which completely vindicated my picking it up for a re-read, with the somewhat unusual central character an 88-year-old woman, Deborah Slane. The book opens as her husband has died, her pretty dreadful children have gathered, Something Must Be Done with the jewels, and Lady Slane needs to play her part. But she doesn’t want to play her part; aware of her extreme age, she resists being parcelled out among her children, refuses to see any of the great-grandchildren and claims her right to do whatever she wants to do, accompanied by her lovely French maid, Genoux, who has been with her for 70-odd years and speaks a charming Franglais (sample: “l’homme aux muffins” – all of her utterances are left untranslated in my edition, which I was fine with, but I’d be interested to find out whether footnotes are now supplied).

So Lady Slane and Genoux set out on a very small adventure, and our heroine mulls over the past and the life she’s led as an accessory to an important man. It’s hard not to think of Shakespeare’s sister from Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” when we learn that Lady Slane had ached to be an artist, and I also wonder if Vita was indulging in a bit of what-if when she describes Lady Slane’s life in the diplomatic and political worlds (I know I don’t like to bring an author’s life into their books, but she herself refused to travel with her diplomatic husband or help him with his political campaigns, refusing to be “wheeled out”, and created her successful writing career in those spaces). Lady Slane is not a feminist, however, and she puts the loss of her own career down to it being a marriage of “a worker and a dreamer”, while admitting her gender might have added a slight touch of extra difficulty. It’s worth noting that men are seen as needing to fit in, too, with one man who stakes his own claim to his life marked down as odd forever.

Lady Slane’s children are horrified by her “misbehaving” and patronise her and the two children she can tolerate madly, but she gives as good as she gets and delights in twisting their expectations. She makes some most unsuitable friends, who we can only hope will have the last word. When she has a slight crisis of conscience about denying the younger generations, she wonders if she will be given a chance to make amends. What is most important, though, the military parade or the butterflies? Lady Slane is not sure as she considers her long life.

This is such a lovely, funny and life-affirming book, even though there are a number of deathbeds found within it. A real masterpiece.


On re-reading and weeding


Pile of books for book reviews

It could be a pile of books to read, it could be a pile of deaccessions!

I had a big weed today. Oo-er: careful how you read that! A big weed. A big deaccession. Out of a shelf of books and my travel section, I have about 20 to join the reshelved children’s books section in the guest room, and about 20 to go off into the world via BookCrossing. Added to the Biography weed I had a few weeks ago, and the great Wendy Perriam chuck-out of early January, that’s about 50-60 books off the shelves.

While I would like to say that that’s 50-60 books I can ADD to the shelves in the future, it’s more like the piles of books in front of their relevant sections can move onto the shelves, the sports books are all shelved vertically and Social History, Villages and Books About Running a Hotel have their own tidy section. There are a few gaps, though.

Why all this weeding? I blame (thank) the Month of Re-Reading that I do every January and July. OK, it slows up my TBR demolition, but planning my re-reading and then doing it has made me focus on what books I keep. Before Bookcrossing, I used to keep pretty well everything, unless it was utterly rubbish. I discovered Bookcrossing when I came to move up to Birmingham with Matthew, realised that about 80 books had languished in my storage unit unread and unwanted for a couple of years and was looking for creative ways to pass them on, and since then, I’ve been pretty good at not keeping anything that I wasn’t likely to re-read in the future.

However, that left books purchased before 2004 (i.e. Before Bookcrossing), plus ones that I thought I might want to re-read in the future. Going through picking books to add to the Month of Re-Reading has really seemed to focus my mind on what I do want to read again, and has made me less anxious about getting rid of books I won’t read again. Sometimes, re-reading a book to check whether I still like that author has led to deaccessions – but not as many as these latest culls have produced.

The mind works in a funny way, doesn’t it, and I note that it was when I was popping downstairs for a work break drink that I suddenly found myself picking books off the travel section and making a pile to give away, rather than in early January when I was picking re-reads. But, whatever: it’s another reason why I’ll be continuing those Months of Re-reading!

Have you done some deaccessioning recently? How has it felt? Do you find it easy to pass books along?

Book reviews – Jude the Obscure


Reread Jan 2014For once I’m doing a singleton review, not really for any reason other than the fact that I’ve got two pairs of Viragoes and two non-fiction books coming up, and this one really belongs to the Month of Re-Reading. I’ve talked about how I felt the month went on my last post: it was enjoyable and I did have some real highlights, although I was disappointed to find one author did not bear re-reading (then again, I now have an attractive patch of empty bookshelf to fill) and another was not as I’d remembered.

This one, however, was also not how I’d remembered … but in a good way!

Thomas Hardy – “Jude the Obscure”

(not sure when I acquired this: it’s a Penguin Classic but a bit more battered and faded than I’d assume from the fact that I’ve only read it once before. No date written inside. Let’s just call it a mystery.)

I was slightly dreading reading this one, but I had read all of the other books in Ali’s Thomas Hardy project, so it seemed right that I attempted it. I don’t think I was avoiding it by leaving it to the last in my Month of Re-Reading pile: each book in the Hardy project has two months allotted to it, so I knew it was OK to let it spill into February. Anyway, I recalled it as being relentlessly miserable, with one scene in particular sticking in my mind (OK, one scene, total. I don’t think I’ve read this since I was about 19, mind. There have been a lot of books under the bridge since then).

In fact, of course, there’s much to enjoy in this tale of a man struggling against his class, family background and education and failing in his self-imposed task about being a self-made man. The epigraph of this book could be “A little learning is a dangerous thing”, actually, as Jude is maybe given ideas he can’t ever fulfil by his reading, and his Sue is full of half-digested readings and understandings which make her get in ever such a muddle. Is that patronising? I don’t know. But this book is full of ideas about one’s station, as well as about the changing society of the time at which it’s set. Actually, I’m very glad that I was reading this for pleasure and not for study, as my Eng-Lit-trained mind kept noticing echoes and predictions, but I was able to bat them away to a large extent and just enjoy my read.

It’s a fairly hefty novel, but a page-turner. In addition, the descriptions of both the North Wessex countryside and the great city of Oxford are beautifully done. Instead of the rustic chorus of the earlier, entirely rural, novels, the chorus here is of ladies of doubtful reputation and working men who frequent pubs, and they fill just enough of the background not to irritate.

The story is a good one, although to me, Jude seems sometimes to be something of a cipher, a figure full of meaning and metaphor, but curiously passive, inertly succumbing to the wills of the more assertive females in the book, even to the last. The weird child, Father Time, as the introduction to my copy of the book confirms, is not particularly believable and just has to be swallowed, like the more unlikely events in a Restoration Tragedy: I found his character and actions almost Dickensian, or maybe he feels like he belongs in one of the short stories, which can be darker and more odd than the novels.

But Hardy has too many things to say about the restrictions that marriage and convention impose on love and, particularly, women (I did like the part where they fled the Register Office owing to its dismal aspect), and on women’s right to independence, as well as progress and the ‘modern’ world to be spoiled by a peculiar plot device, and so I can forgive him for it. I also found Jude an attractive character, but must admit more of a regard for Arabella than for the over-thinking Sue, a lesser woman, I feel, than the magnificent Tess or other Hardy heroines.

All in all, I’m very glad that I re-read this novel. I couldn’t, in the end, put it down, even when breakfast and work were calling me – the mark of a good book, indeed.


Currently reading: I’m reading the excellent “Rip it up and Start Again”, an exhaustive study of the history of post-punk music, and having a slight Virago-fest, brought on by (finally) reaching the rich seam of dark green spines put in place in July with our holiday in the Lake District.

Book reviews – The Crowded Street (Persephone) and Mansfield Park


Reread Jan 2014It’s back to the re-reading after a brief foray into the world of e-books and review copies, and what a pair of excellent books with which to continue! Neither of these disappointed, and I loved the tie-ins with previous Month of Re-Reading posts, as Winifred Holtby was of course Vera Brittain’s great friend, and I’ve been reading a Jane Austen novel during each Month of Re-Reading so far. Both of these books treat unconventional women; Holtby’s is almost as strictured as Austen’s through much of the book, but she manages to make her escape from the clutches of conventional society in a more modern and – perhaps to the modern reader – satisfying way.

Winifred Holtby – “The Crowded Street” (Persephone Books)

(25 December 2013 – From Ali)

A brilliant novel, full of stories and ideas and a careful consideration of what is really meant by society, duty, family, morality, love and women’s place in the home and wider world.

A quiet, Jane Eyre-like central character is contrasted with her more impulsive, emotional sister and the one emancipated woman in the village, who she feels is a version of herself that she could never hope to be, as well as her glamorous half-French school friend, who has all the worldliness there could be but does not understand English small-town life in the years around the First World War. Can she achieve escape from the stultifying half-life of helping her mother run a house that doesn’t need that much running and offer herself – still in service – in a more meaningful way? Dare she develop a ‘temperament’ and a personality of her own? Will she just go from one form of subjugation to another?

Holtby does seem here to value the quiet virtue of home-making and service as a way of life, as we will see that Austen values the quiet, timid goodness of  her heroine. But will Muriel speak out and speak up, even flourish on the lecture platform, as she needs to? And then, when offered what she has been conditioned to believe she has always wanted, will she make the right decision? It’s a heart-in-the-mouth moment when she does that, and a very satisfying ending.

A novel of ideas and one that depicts some important times in the development of the women’s movement, charting the state of flux that always seems to exist between the sides of the home-maker and the non-domesticated activist.

I last seem to have read and reviewed this in July 1997, although I was at pains to point out then that it was already a re-read:

“(Library) Read before. Story of woman’s realisation of her own needs away from family and community. A bit over-metaphorical, but told with good plot and character.”

Hm, not sure what to make of that. Onwards …

Jane Austen – “Mansfield Park”

(1988, School Form Prize)

A re-read of perhaps the Austen I know least well. And of course, many people seem to cite it as their least favourite, especially given the ‘prim’ heroine, Fanny. Well, maybe it’s the quietness of age, or maybe it’s the influence of lovely Muriel in the Holtby, but I found a lot to like in quiet Fanny, trying to do the best she could, trying to stick by her morals and those of the age, in the face of the rather dodgy influences that come into play around her.

We all know the story, of course – Fanny is taken in by  her uncle and aunt, raised to feel inferior to her cousins and to be a support to her aunt. She observes the wickednesses that ensue when Mary and Henry Crawford enter the vicinity, with their play-acting and flirtatiousness, takes refuge in her little room full of books but no fire, is flirted with herself, has a difficult trip ‘home’, loves her one decent cousin, witnesses further wickednesses (at one step removed) and finally prevails.

There is a lot in the Penguin Classics introduction about how Fanny represents the status quo of the old order before war and money broke in and changed society, and in showing her quiet, decent heroine winning through, she reminds me of Hardy’s promotion of the good, gentle and quiet above the passionate and those who seek to break society’s mores. She does stand up for herself, quietly and firmly and, while the younger or more lively reader, keen on the wittiness and reversals of “Pride and Prejudice” and the like, might find her boring, I found her intriguing. It’s so clever to write a novel with such a quiet, almost non-existent heart, and the foreshadowing of more concrete events in plays, trips to a park and seemingly innocuous card games is so masterfully done.

Although I was heard to complain that things were going a bit slowly in the first half of the book, I will remember next time to look out for those small, revealing moments.

I have to include a photo of the bookplate and bookmark in this copy; I took this photo to contrast the school prize bookplates in my copy of “Mansfield Park” and a book that I hoped was published in 1914 (but proves to be from 1908, with a bit of research):

Jan bookplates

Currently reading: I’ve really finished the Month of Re-Reading now, I’m going to have to get on with the rather large history of post-punk music that I started in December, but I am about to start re-reading “Jude the Obscure” for the Hardy project, so one more, even if I am unlikely to finish it this month …

Book reviews – Talking for Britain and Frost on my Moustache


Reread Jan 2014I’m managing to read a bit more at the moment and am slipping behind with my reviews a little – but here are two non-fiction books that I added to my pile for my Month of Re-Reading. One of them was sadly a bit disappointing. One of the purposes of the Months of Re-Reading was always to check whether I do in fact still need to keep certain books, authors or even genres, but I’ve already weeded out one author this month, and now I fear I’m about to remove another! Oh well, I’ve had some cracking reads, still too …

Simon Elmes – “Talking for Britain”

(26 December 2006 – from my parents-out-of-law for Christmas)

I was partly inspired to read this by passing my language and literature shelves every time I go in or out of our bathroom, and partly by a conversation with my father-out-of-law where he mentioned that he has been re-reading the popular science books I like to give him for Christmas. This book is a survey of the dialects of the United Kingdom, informed by a 1980s survey and older works on the particular dialects and then a new survey done in 2005.

It did have a lot of interest and was a worthwhile re-read. However, I did feel that it wasn’t able to go into enough detail, as of necessity the chapters had to cover a wide geographical area and many variations between, for example, rural and urban speech. For example, in the chapter on the South East, London was lumped in with all of the rural accents of the Home Counties, and I felt that Kent, for instance, didn’t really get much of a look-in at all. Conclusions were drawn and comparisons made that linked the chapters at times, but there were no general conclusions about language change and spread. I did also wish that the examples of transcribed speech used the standard phonetic alphabet rather than an approximation of the accent made up with the common alphabet. I do accept that this was all done to make a book that could actually be handled and enjoyed by an ordinary reader, and it’s also interesting to note that I must be even more obsessed with language than I was before I started working with the English language all day, every day in my job!

Having put down all those criticisms, there was much to enjoy and it was a good basic introduction, with the interest of words for the same things being extracted from regional speakers in each area, giving a good point of comparison and indication of how much general terms have spread and where regional terms still hold strong. I was particularly pleased to note “coupy down” for squat in the West of England section – I have always used this (especially, I’m afraid, for the kind of squat necessary to the archaeologist, field-walker, rambler or birdwatcher out in the wild) and wasn’t sure if it was my own or a family phrase, as no one else seems to understand it. But there it was, resplendently inherited from my Dorset forebears, just like my Spanish colouring! All in all, an entertaining and lively read.

This is what I thought of it when I originally read it in March 2007:

“A wonderful book looking at the dialects of each region in turn, historically and now, with a short glossary at the end of each section. Well and engagingly written and endlessly fascinating.”

Tim Moore – “Frost on my Moustache”

(31 March 1999)

Narrative of Moore’s travels in Norway, Iceland and Spitzbergen in the footsteps of Lord Dufferin. I like this kind of ‘in the footsteps of … ‘ book, and thought I remembered really loving this book first time round, but I struggled with it more than a little this time.

Although it is funny, it’s a bit TOO funny, even silly, and trite. It’s sub-Bill Bryson (or at least I hope it is and I haven’t gone off BB, too) with too much flailing and vomiting and not enough solid information or deeper entertainment than a man being a bit silly and making a fool of himself. There were some genuine laughs, but too many laboured puns and foolish moments took away from the balance of the book for me.

I will keep it because of the bits set in Iceland, but I’m not sure about the others of his books that I still have (I didn’t fancy the latest one at all).

What I thought of it when I last read it in May 1999:

“Very, very funny book about the author’s rather unwilling journey in the footsteps of Lord Dufferin, Brysonesque in the best way – self-deprecating, insightful and laugh-out-loud funny.”

Oh dear – have I become humourless in my old(er) age?


Currently reading: I just finished the wonderful “The Crowded Street” by Winifred Holtby and am starting on “Mansfield Park” again, now, as I do like to get an Austen in during each month of re-reading …

Book reviews – Testament of Youth and 1914 and Other Poems


WWISense a theme here? I was inspired by Heaven-Ali’s Great War Theme Read, which is based on the latest of the LibraryThing Virago group’s successful and enjoyable themed reads (a closed group so I can’t link to that), to pick up Vera Brittain’s “Testament of Youth” to read in this Month of Re-Reading. Now, that’s not the assigned read for this month, I know, but basically I’m taking inspiration but am not keen enough on war books in general to read them all through the year. So I thought I’d do my own form of In Memoriam and pick out books I love to re-read this year.

I was only going to do the Brittain, but then she mentions Brooke’s poems in her book, and so I felt drawn to pick up this lovely copy that I have of his “1914 and Other Poems” to read through, too. I’ve since picked that wonderful compilation of First World War poems, “Up the Line to Death” to read slowly through the next few months, too. I don’t think I’ve read that since I did a First World War poetry course during my degree, and I did that because I’d studied them in great detail for A and I think O level (my copy of “Up the Line to Death” is somewhat worryingly inscribed with my class name and room, although it has the pencilled-in price and Other Person’s Name indicative of a personal second-hand purchase). But I thought it would be interesting to do that, too.

So, two First World War re-reads (and reviews of other reads coming soon – I have been reading since my last review, I promise!)

Vera Brittain – “Testament of Youth”

(25 May 2009, from my friend Julie, who was moving back to Australia. She gave me some boxes of books for BookCrossing but I saved this nice hardback for myself)

Her famous autobiography, covering the First World War and the terrible personal toll it took on her as she lost family and friends as well as suffering the horror and privations of being a nurse in England and France (I think everyone knows what happens but won’t give details just in case). Beautifully written, of course, having been constructed out of real letters, poems and diaries as well as novelised and mulled over for a decade or two before this was written and published. The distance shows, as she is able to view her and others’ changing feelings about the war with the objectivity gained from mature reflection, while representing the immediacy of those feelings through the vivid first-hand sources.

Even though this was at least my third time of reading, I had forgotten that there’s a long pre-war section and a presentation of her life as an undergraduate returning to Oxford changed beyond belief after her experiences. The psychological and physical effect that 1914-18 had on her are laid out without self-pity, and we get to enjoy her growing friendship with Winifred Holtby as well as her romance with her future husband, as well as her and Winifred’s work writing, lecturing and working for the League of Nations, that unfortunately doomed precursor to the UN. This had the effect of making it more contemplative and less harrowing, looking at the long-term effects of the war and people’s attempts at constructing their own and a world peace. It’s also a more feminist book than I remember from last time, with a good description of the worries of contemplating marriage when you’ve had a life of your own (more marked then than now, of course, but interesting in the context of some of my own recent experiences) and the pleasures of that rare thing in those days, a room of one’s own, however basic, freezing and rife with domestic dramas.

My review from my last re-reading in December 1997:

“Bought 1 June 1997. I had read this before, but a long time ago. Almost unbearably moving – at one point I was reduced to unstoppable tears, because of both the losses she experienced and the damage to her.”

I have to admit there were no unstoppable tears this time, but at times it was very hard to read and so poignant, especially a sentence about her eventual wedding. I’m really glad that I re-read this.

Rupert Brooke – “1914 and Other Poems”

(bought late 1980s)

As I mentioned above, I picked this off my “nice books” shelf to red because Brooke’s poetry is mentioned in “Testament of Youth”, as is Brooke himself. This has the famous early war poems, and was originally published in 1915, although I have the 30th impression from 1923. (I bought it at a book sale or Halls Bookshop in Tunbridge Wells for £3. It bears the ink inscription “To Bert Hewson, WIth every good wish, from Margaret Croker [?] 30.6.24”. I probably bought it because I was in my late teens and in love with R. Brooke. This led me to unsuccessfully apply to King’s College, Cambridge, who rejected me because I didn’t want to take a year out. Anyway …)

This volume lacks the slightly more disillusioned poems that Brooke wrote later in the war, when he’d experienced the conditions we all know about, so has the purity of those early poems of patriotism, written when there really was that idealism about a noble death for one’s country. It’s important to remember that that is how people felt (or were made to feel by the political and military leaders) before the reality and horror set in, and also to remember that he was representing a commonly held belief. He wasn’t a fool and he did realise, but he also died very early in the war, in 1915.

The war poems are almost unbearably poignant to read now, with the pages of history turned and the outcomes for Brooke and his compatriots and fellow soldiers of all nationalities known and mourned. I found myself feeling glad that he’d had the sunny, happy interlude in the South Pacific whence originate some of the “Other Poems” of this volume. “Grantchester” is included, too – I had completely forgotten how long it was and the humorous list of other places in Cambridgeshire – it’s really rather an odd poem.

Reading this volume has led me to pick up “Up the Line to Death” again, an important collection of poems published in chronological order of their writing, which records the progress of the war and the shared idealism of the early days so very well. I recommend that volume as a very good companion to this year of remembrance.


Reread Jan 2014Currently reading: I’m working through my re-reading pile although I haven’t had quite as much reading time as I would have wished (I rather foolishly wished out loud that I could test out my new keyboard, leading me to get a massive load of transcription jobs in). Coming soon, reviews of some language and travel books, and some non-re-reads which I won this month from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme. I’m currently reading Tim Moore’s “Frost on my Moustache”, which is unfortunately sillier than I’d remembered, but is about Iceland in part … .

Book reviews – Life’s Little Ironies and Moo, a DNF and three acquisitions


Reread Jan 2014Welcome to my first book review post of 2014! I have a good solid reading schedule for my Month of Re-Reading in January, although I’ve already Not Finished one novel (and made a nice space on my bookshelves) and realised I should have added another to the pile. Today we have one leftover from 2013 – I usually like to finish my last book of the year before midnight on 31 December, but I didn’t manage it last year and I didn’t manage it this year, either. Oh well. It’s two works of fiction, anyway, one new to me, one a re-read. After those, news on my first DNF of the year and some newcomers to the TBR shelf …

Thomas Hardy – “Life’s Little Ironies”

(Borrowed from Ali)

I think we’ve only got three more books after this one to go – and the next one is a re-read so will come soon. I’m really glad that I’ve manage to read all of the Hardys, even though I thought I was going to pick and choose initially. I am a bit confused, however, as this book has one of the “Wessex Tales” in it that we’ve already read, while two of its original stories have moved to that volume, so I hope I haven’t missed anything.

Anyway, this is an excellent and very readable collection of short stories, noticeably full of Hardy’s common interests or obsessions – fate, country folk, the countryside, doomed love and family mishaps. For all of this, and even though some were sombre indeed, they are all enjoyable, particularly ‘On the Western Circuit’ and the set of interlinked stories in ‘A Few Crusted Characters’ with their deep irony, horrible fates and linked histories told by a group of travellers in a handy but believeable framework.

Many of the stories felt as if they could be the germ of a longer novel – something I like in a short story, although I know that objectively that’s not seen as a mark of the best in the form, which should stand alone. I feel that they do this, but also fit into the rise and fall and preoccupations of his oeuvre. A nice palate cleanser before the rather darker “Jude the Obscure”, up next in the Hardy readalong …

Jane Smiley – “Moo”

(22 January 1997, bought with a book token given to me by my then boyfriend, I carefully noted in the inside front cover – the day after my birthday!)

I will have to admit right here at the beginning of this review that this book could never live up to my memory of being one of the best books that I’ve ever read. I’m forever recommending it to people, but I don’t know that I’ve ever actually read it from March 1997 (it turns out) to now. When I complete my index to my reading journals, I’ll be able to confirm that.

Anyway, what it is is a perfectly good and readable campus novel, featuring a range of students, professors, administrators, secretaries, campus wives and farming folk in the local community. The shifting viewpoints of this wide range of characters show us every aspect of the campus, university, academic environment, industrial sponsors and local community, including but not limited to grants, rivalries, love affairs, committees, set pieces, financial woes and rows with the funding bodies and government which are very apposite today and, in the centre of the novel and of the campus, an abandoned, old-school, closed department housing a large, white, sentient tenant – a hog, whose inner thoughts are described movingly and believably. (Yes, there is a bit of sad animal stuff, but it’s integral to the plot and not at all gratuitous.)

Interestingly, there are quite a lot of horses in this book, something that is a real theme in Smiley’s writing, and enjoyable. A good re-read in the end, however much I was slightly disappointed initially.

And that March 1997 review?

“Campus life and intrigue in a third-rate US university. V good – reminiscent of Tom Sharpe [hm – it’s far less farcical and dirty]? Characterisation done well, everything tied up at the end, multi-narrative worked. Satisfyingly long – a good, solid read.”


A Did Not Finish now: I’d picked Wendy Perriam’s “Of Woman Born” off the shelves to see if I still liked this novelist I read an awful lot in the 1990s but not since. Turns out that, although her writing style is similar to Paul Magrs (perhaps a North-East England idiom?), her subject matter seems very rooted in the 1980s, all sex and ascetic religious people and white nighties and taboo-breaking. Ninety-three pages in to six hundred-odd, I was bored, and I both put it aside and took her other books off my shelves to Bookcross (carefully!). This is a positive result: if you’ve been following the progress of my Months of Re-Reading, I do like to read some books / genres to check that I still want to re-read them. If so, good; if not, shelf space!


Jan 2014 1And now some additions to the shelf. Katharine D’Souza’s “Deeds not Words” is her second novel; I enjoyed her “Park Life“, set in Kings Heath, back in December 2012 (was it really that long ago?). I met Katharine at a book event I went to last month, and just had to pick up this one – unfortunately the first copy was delivered damp and I had to have it replaced, although the process to do this did go more smoothly than I’d feared (I had to buy the print edition from Amazon but was happy to support a local writer even though I am trying not to buy from Amazon these days).

The other two were from my visit to the Kitchen Garden Cafe with Gill this afternoon – the Paul Magrs is last in the Brenda and Effie series and was promised to me when she opened her Not So Secret Santa gift at our BookCrossing Christmas meal. The other is a history of the telegraph in Australia – what’s not to like??


Currently reading – I’m a little way into Vera Brittain’s “Testament of Youth”, picking my reading time carefully as I know it’s an upsetting and powerful read. For a less fraught time, Simon Elmes’ “Talking for Britain” about the different dialects in the country. What are YOU reading? Are you re-reading along with me?

State of the TBR and A Month of Re-Reading in January


Jan 2014 bWell, I’ve been a busy lady and have had to save this state of the TBR post for the second day of the month, as I spent yesterday talking about my Top Reads of 2013 and my planned book challenge for 2014 and beyond.

I’ve also renamed this blog as I feel it’s more about the reading and writing and less about reports from the front line of self-employment, so reflects the blog better. AND I’ve added a blogroll in the right-hand column which pulls together the best book review blogs that I read on a regular basis. I was looking at everyone else’s blogrolls, thinking this blog wasn’t on them, thinking this blog didn’t have a very suitable name to be on such lists, and thinking that I should do my own list … and it all came together into a bit of housekeeping!

Dec 2013 3Here’s the TBR as it is now (above), with my Christmas books added. Not too bad, actually! Only one of the Christmas books went into A Month of Re-Reading in January, but I’d done sterling work getting through some good reads in December, so plenty of room. If you can’t see it clearly, the Virago to the right of the tall grey book is the last one on the front row.

Of course, not only did I add Christmas acquisitions from the BookCrossing Christmas meal and Christmas Day itself; I also received an extra book on 31st December – a gift from one of my Russian clients, sent via Amazon. And such a good book, which I hadn’t heard about before but which would definitely be on my wish list if I had. Hooray!

A Month of Re-Reading in January

Reread Jan 2014 aAs has become customary, since July 2012, I’ve been doing a Month of Re-Reading every July and January. I’ve really, really enjoyed revisiting some old friends, checking that I want to keep the authors and genres that I’ve been keeping all these years, and seeing whether my opinion of books changes over the years (I have paper reading journals going back to 1997 and can remember what I thought about a lot of my favourites earlier than that). I feel it’s a valid and worthwhile thing for me to do, stepping off the conveyor belt of the To Be Read pile and enjoying some different reads from around my shelves.

Although I teased my Facebook friends with my first Project 365 photo of the year (pictured left), I did intend to reveal my choices, and can do so now …

Reread Jan 2014So, from top to bottom, we have …

Winifred Holtby – “The Crowded Street” – received for Christmas in the Persephone edition but I know that I’ve read it before so off the TBR and onto the January pile!

Simon Elmes – “Talking for Britain” – a survey of British regional language, received and read around 2006. This sits on the English Lang & Lit shelf outside the bathroom and was a late addition when I spotted it after making the pile shown above left.

Jane Austen – “Mansfield Park” – I’ve done an Austen in each Month of Re-Reading, and as I have “Murder at Mansfield Park” coming up on the TBR, it seemed appropriate to take this one to read this time.

Thomas Hardy – “Jude the Obscure” – handily this is the Hardy Project read for Jan/Feb, so reading this achieves two aims. At the beginning of the Hardy project, I wasn’t keen on re-tackling this one, but I’ve read all the books so far and got back into Hardy’s way of looking at things, so really quite looking forward to it now.

Jane Smiley – “Moo” – I was reminded of this marvellous campus novel when discussing “The Art of Fielding“. Smiley famously writes in different genres and I’ve read most of her books, but haven’t re-read this one since I originally read it back in 1997, it seems. I’ve started this one today.

Wendy Perriam – “Born of Woman” – I used to love this writer back in the 90s, with the heady mix of women’s freedom, religion and taboo-breaking. She sits with Marilyn French and Erica Jong in my memory. Anyway, I’ve got a lot of them, all quite substantial, so this is one of my tests to see if I want to keep her books or pass them along …

Molly Moynahan – “Living in Arcadia” – this is another ‘woman breaks free’ road-trip novel. I selected it for last July but never got to it, so re-added it for this month. If I fail to read it again, I think that’s telling me something and it will have to go!

Brian Hinton – “South by South-West: A Road Map to Alternative Country” – bought and read a while ago, I probably know more of the bands he talks about now.

Tim Moore – “Frost on My Moustache” – his first travel book, where he travels to Iceland. I’m going there this year, so want to up my reading on the country.

Anthony Powell – “To Keep the Ball Rolling” – his memoirs. As we read “Dance to the Music of Time” last year, this seemed appropriate!

Vera Brittain – “Testament of Youth” – this will be my third read of this heartbreaking narrative of the effect of the First World War on the families and women at home. I remember sobbing over it last re-read, in my flat in Brockley. This is a beautiful edition gleaned from a set of books my friends Julie and Barry left behind with me for BookCrossing etc. when they returned home to Australia, and is being read to honour the 100th anniversary of the start of the War.


Anyone else doing any re-reading this month? It’s not a proper challenge and you don’t need to do more than one, but I do recommend a hearty re-read! And do let me know what you think about the new blog title and shuffle around of the side menus … Happy reading!

Book Reviews – Regency Buck and False Colours and review of the Month of Re-Reading


July 2013 coming up Two last reviews from my Month of Re-Reading – the second of these was finished in August but started in July. And a little round-up too, of how I’ve got on with this latest Month of Re-Reading. First off, two jolly good Heyers. I have to admit cheating slightly, as I pulled three Heyer novels off my TBR, knowing that I’ve read them all. If I hadn’t had so many on my TBR, I would probably have replaced one or two of them with something else. But there you go!

Georgette Heyer – “Regency Buck”

(18 March 2013)

Judith and Perry, orphans, discover that their mysterious guardian is an odious and fierce man with whom they have both previously had rather embarrassing encounters. Trying to launch themselves into London society, they come into contact with him quite a lot, but are comforted by their supportive cousin, hitherto unmet owing to a rift between their fathers. But who is after their fortune and trying to bump off Perry?

We all start to suspect this shady guardian as the plot thickens … but is all as it seems? This one really does embrace the mystery genre that Heyer also wrote in – books that I’ve not read and don’t really fancy. This is close enough to her usual Regency romances to be OK, though. There’s lots of detail about the royal family, Beau Brummell and Brighton which adds to the weight of the book and adds more layers of interest – although it’s funny reading about the Duke of Cambridge from those times when the modern one has been so much in the news recently!

Georgette Heyer – “False Colours”

(18 March 2013)

My last Heyer TBR! This one’s an absolute charmer, if slighter than the last read. Kit and Evelyn are the identical twin sons of a still-delightful if flighty mother who is in a bit of a financial tangle. The only solution Evelyn can see is to get married and release the trust that is being kept from him at present because he, too, is a bit flighty. When Kit reluctantly agrees to impersonate his brother for what is supposed to be just one evening, he is dragged into further intrigue and realises to his horror that the lady in question is not right for Evelyn … The romantic storyline comes to a head somewhat earlier than is customary in Heyer’s books, which can leave it to the last page, leaving the rest of the book free to work out how matters are going to be resolved in the fine-mannered society in which they revolve. This also gives the heroine (or one of them) the chance to shine and be more than just a cipher.

There are some truly marvellous characters in the senior generation of this book, well worthy of an Austen supporting cast (there, I’ve said it, but you get some really funny secondary characters in Austen, don’t you!) and this makes it a real delight to read.

Month of Re-Reading: a Round-up

I had a very enjoyable month of re-reading again. If you click on the Month of Re-Reading category, you’ll be able to skim through all of my reads this month (and in previous sessions, too). I re-read 16 books in total (one started in June and one finished in August), which is way more than I usually finish in a month these days, but then 11 of them were novels and only 5 non-fiction, and we did have a week’s holiday early in the month.

Did I read all the books I set out to read (see the picture at the top of this post)? No, I did not. I never got to the Molly Moynahan to see if I wanted to keep it. But I did read all of the others, plus one by Stuart Maconie and several extra Barbara Pyms, because of going to the BP conference and worrying that I hadn’t read them all recently enough. Stand-out reads would have to be Magnus Magnusson’s “Iceland Saga“, Adam Nicolson’s “Perch Hill” and Jane Austen’s “Emma”, although there really weren’t any duds this time! I’m still reading “A Dance to the Music of Time” alongside Matthew and will finish that later in August (hopefully).

For August, I’m hitting the All Virago All August theme. Next Month of Re-Reading will be January 2014. I wonder what I’ll get up to then …

Did you do any re-reading in July? Because of this theme of mine or do you re-read throughout the year anyway?

Book Reviews – The Choir and Iceland Saga


July 2013 coming up My Month of Re-Reading  is drawing to a close, although I hope to fit in another Georgette Heyer (or two!) before the end of tomorrow. I’ll do a round-up post right at the end, but I have done really well, I think, only missing one out and not finishing one (which is allowed, as I’m reading along with Matthew and neither has he!), and adding in an extra one plus a whole load of Pyms.

So, a pair of books for which I cannot find any link, save they are re-reads and were bought within two or three years of each other …

Joanna Trollope – “The Choir”

(30 December 1993)

Her first novel, and perhaps she chose to consciously ape her distant relative, Anthony, in setting this in a Cathedral Close. We meet a variety of characters, all connected to the Cathedral and its boys’ choir in one way or another, from the school headmaster to the old school left-wing city councillor who happens to have a grandson in the group. As money tightens and passions run high, splits appear in all sorts of likely and unlikely places. Will anyone be able to save the day? Will broken relationships be repaired? Does anyone actually want them to be?

What’s interesting about this book, looking back from a perspective of having read almost all of her contemporary novels, is that this doesn’t really feel like a first novel. It just feels like a Joanna Trollope novel. All of her stylistic quirks are there: people start padding around almost immediately, and “They all,” she thought as she wrote her review, “split their utterances in a weird way” (I once wrote a whole review in her style – deary me!). She has women who are not good wives, women who have Agas, children, hapless men … all as in all of her books. It’s quite an achievement to have such a homogenous whole and very comforting to her fans.

I picked this one up for re-reading precisely because I wanted to check whether I should keep these. And I still don’t know. It’s not like the “quest” books, where a re-read of a Dave Gorman has reminded me how fun those are – I really am torn. I’ve had these and my Mary Wesleys (in a similar edition) for 20 years. But with pressure on the bookshelves and these not exactly invisible on the charity shop and library bookshelves, do I NEED to keep them? I don’t even have the later ones, even though I’ve read them: I didn’t need to keep those! The jury is still out!

Magnus Magnusson – “Iceland Saga”

(1991 – I would have bought this when I was in the middle of my degree course, as my subsidiary subject (worth 20% of my whole degree!) was in Old Icelandic)

This was a real treat to read. I love Iceland, I loved some aspects of studying Old Icelandic and did get a love of the sagas from doing so even if the endless translation was a little wearing. I like reading books about Iceland (and have done during other Months of Re-Reading) and I do hope to go there one day.

This book does nothing to prevent that happening. It’s sensible, literary, literate, well-written and enjoyable, with interesting asides and a style that is reminiscent in many places of the sagas it discusses. It provides a view of the geographical structure of Iceland, its place names, topographical features, archaeology and existing towns and homesteads, always weaving them in to the sagas and other writings that still live so vividly in the culture of the island until the modern day, with most of the sagas happening in recognisable locations that can be visited today. He takes historical themes such as the settlement of Iceland and the coming of Christianity, deals with important personalities like Snorri Sturluson, and tells the stories of some of the main sagas.

The book’s strength lies in the combination of a supremely knowledgeable author and a very good editor. Mentions of historical characters in one place are tied back to other chapters in which they appear. People who pop up more than one story or saga are cross-referenced so you know where they fit in. This is masterful work and I wonder if that quality would be found in a book published today. Some lovely photos and a good index complete a marvellous book which was a real joy in the reading.

Best of all, perhaps, at the beginning of each chapter was a little bit in Old Icelandic with its translation underneath. Covering up the translations, I managed to make out more of the Icelandic than I thought I would – obviously I’ve not forgotten as much as I feared. This bodes well for brushing it up if I ever go to Iceland myself (Old Icelandic and Modern Icelandic are closer than Shakespearean and Modern English, as they didn’t have a Great Vowel Shift (ouch!) like we did, and the vocabulary has been carefully controlled).

My last books will probably both be Georgette Heyers, or at least one. I’m off to read it now, having started it in the gym, on the exercise bike. I’m so enjoying my Month of Re-Reading, but my thoughts are now jumping ahead to All Virago All August …

Older Entries