Book review – Margery Sharp – “The Flowering Thorn” #amreading #margerysharpday @beyondedenrock

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Books published by Open Road Media

Books published by Open Road Media

The lovely Jane at Beyond Eden Rock runs a celebration of Margery Sharp’s birthday every year on 25 January. Last year, I missed the date by one day, and I was so determined not to do the same this year that this was actually the very first book I read in 2017 (did I write this up then, at my leisure? Did I ‘eck – here I am, frantically typing late on the 24th …). Margery Sharp is an excellent writer and I am very pleased to read her in fact more than once per year. And as you can see from the picture to the left, Open Road Media have republished 10 of her novels in e-book form, which makes them a lot easier to get hold of.

Margery Sharp – “The Flowering Thorn”

(21 December 2016, e-book)

A charming, funny and rather moving novel. Socialite Lesley Frewen decides on a whim to adopt the orphaned Patrick, a somewhat stolid child, much to the surprise and horror of her relatives and somewhat vapid friends. This precipitates a move to the country, and all the travails that come with this – although it’s noteworthy that she always has Help.

Lesley starts, however unwillingly, to slot into village life, with the vicar who’s once horribly ignored by a shrieking house party of hers turning out to be a solid ally. She can’t help but be drawn into the small but very real dramas of motherhood and marriages that permeate throughout the village, but realises that community rather than society can be a good thing.

It’s quite remarkable that Lesley is never really shown as actually liking Patrick, and indeed her benign neglect and lack of fuss is praised as being the right way to raise a child; however, their relationship is sweet and well-drawn, and Lesley’s reactions to the situations village life throws herself into – whether that’s sick vicarage children or a woman in trouble – are funny and believable.

But how will Lesley act when the boy goes off to school and she’s free to live her socialite lifestyle again? Will she lean towards the genuine American friends and the nice people she meets at her first party back in the mix, or return to the shriekers? A lovely read and thank you again, Jane, for reminding us of this fine author.

Lucky me – birthday books!

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I can’t call this “book confessions” because it’s not confessing a terrible clicky-clicky naughtiness to celebrate having lovely friends who buy you super books. So, lucky me instead.

jan-2017-birthday

Look at them in all their glory! So, what do we have? Top to bottom …

Lynsey Hanley – “Class” – I read her “Estates” in 2015, which was a story of housing estates wound around her story of growing up on one in the Midlands, and this is her musings on class itself. An off-wishlist buy which is very welcome indeed.

Simon Armitage – “Walking Away” – I enjoyed his “Walking Home” recently; this is his one about walking around Cornwall, which I stupidly didn’t buy in Cornwall because it was ‘the wrong bit’ (he walks on the north coast and I was on the south at the time). Then I realised I REALLY wanted it.

Alexei Sayle – “Stalin Ate my Homework” and “Thatcher Stole my Trousers” – I love this left-wing comedian and his autobiographies are supposed to be classics, so I was really chuffed to open a parcel and find what I expected to be a loan as a gift.

Gladys Huntingdon – “Madame Solario” – a lovely big Persephone; this is the one set in Cadenabbia on Lake Como, a place where I and Mr Liz have actually stayed ourselves! I know from reading reviews that the characters do some sightseeing, so I’m very much looking forward to reading about the places I saw a hundred years later than the time of the book!

Edmund Gordon – “The Invention of Angela Carter” – this is quite a new publication and I hadn’t put it on the wishlist yet but was straining to acquire it as I know a few people who have read it. I can’t wait to read this, either.

“How it Works: The Cat” / “The Ladybird Book of the Zombie Apocalypse” – two of those amusing re-uses of the classic Ladybird illustrations. The cat one includes the wonderful fact that cats read through their bottoms and that’s why they always sit on our books and paperwork.

David Goldblatt – “The Games” – another off-list one that I was very thrilled to open; it’s a history of the Olympic Games, which I love watching.

Alan Powers – “Living with Books” – wonderful photos of glorious bookshelves in a book I’ve had on the wishlist for AGES.


What treats these all are. Have you read any of them? I even have an Amazon voucher, a full Oxfam Books stampy card and a book token to buy yet more. I feel very lucky to have found these treasures among my lovely birthday parcels.

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

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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”

(1990s)

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.

 

Book review – Miranda Emmerson – “Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars” #amreading

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jan-2017-tbrI was given an e-book copy of this book via NetGalley. It has been published and is out now. I felt that it might have been marketed as a bit of a lighter, fluffier read than it actually is; having said that, I enjoyed it more for having some meat on its bones as it looked at themes of belonging and the experience of moving countries or cities which I’m interested in. Kindle books not included in this picture; turns out the Kindle isn’t very photogenic!

Miranda Emmerson – “Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars”

(NetGalley, 3 November 2016)

This was embargoed until close to the publication date, which was last Thursday. Anna Treadway is a slightly mysterious young women who is dresser for 40 year old actress Iolanthe Green, after living a somewhat rackety but really quite quiet life in London for a while. When Miss Green goes missing, Anna ends up searching for her, along with Aloysius, accountant to various musicians and club owners but a quiet and gentle man, and in parallel with policeman-with-a-troubled-home-life Barnaby Hayes (I think this is a trope of crime books, but it was nicely and delicately done).

So far, so much a standard mystery. But this novel set in the 1960s has a more serious intent, to slow the sleazy and underground side of London, a London of mixed races having maybe too much fun in sweaty clubs, where people can disappear, homosexuality and abortion are illegal but very present, and casual – and often violent – racism is a fact of life. Almost all of the characters have come from somewhere else and are often concealing their true identities: this is handled well and delicately, too, and the facts are allowed to unfurl as the characters come to them. Some of them have come to London for a new life, full of secrets, escaping from something or full of dreams, like Aloysius who expected gentlemen in bowler hats and old-fashioned courtesy and gets police brutality but a kind landlady. He’s dragged into something he’s not prepared for and, labouring with guilt over letting people down, finds the right way to go about things and is the most attractive character in the book.

It’s all cleverly plotted with a good amount of character development for a mystery novel. Anna slowly comes to realise that even her white privilege can’t stop the city’s institutions letting her and her friends down, the Turkish family downstairs start to realise that their daughter has her own London life, and Aloysius realises he’s braver than he thought.

The book is placed very firmly in its city setting and time, with enough mentions of real events and people. There were a few issues around language that I found – there’s an awful lot of swearing in some places and I wondered if an actress at that time would drop the f-word so much, but more troubling was the use of “negro” to describe black people. It did seem to come when we were seeing things through the eyes of one of the characters, and I understand that (or much worse) was used then, and it doesn’t ring so ugly maybe in quoted speech, however fictional. I assume it was a device used on purpose by author and perhaps editor and I’m not sure how else they could have done it – I’ve certainly read worse in contemporary writers writing about that period (e.g. Lynne Reid Banks’ “The L-Shaped Room”, a book I do love, but …). The violence is there but not bad enough to put me off.

The book ends with a satisfying conclusion but also a sub-plot mentioned only at the very beginning resurfacing. I can only surmise that this points to a sequel being on its way. This is a very accomplished first novel, and I would certainly read a sequel.


I’ve just finished the highly contrasting “All Passion Spent” by Vita Sackville-West and have started another NetGalley read on finding purpose and community. I have had a review copy for Shiny New Books appear through the letterbox, so that’ll be up soon, too. Have you read this one? What did you think of it?

 

Book review – “Living on Paper” (ed. Avril Horner and Anne Rowe) #amreading

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jan-2017-tbrThis, like the last one, but for different reasons, is an intimidating book to review. Published in 2015, not only has it thus been reviewed fairly recently in the Serious Papers, but it and those reviews have been discussed by much greater and more academic minds than mine in the Iris Murdoch studies community. In addition, I know not only the two editors, but also those who keep the archive and who consulted on and even proofread the volume, to varying degrees. On top of all that, it’s also the letters of my much-loved favourite author; indeed, I once received a letter from her myself (not so surprising, given the volume¬† of her correspondence), alas lost decades ago in a house move. So I hope I do it justice, and I’m responding to the book here in a personal, not critical way (which does fit in with my use of Reception Theory in my research, right?!).

Avril Horner and Anne Rowe (eds.) “Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch 1934-1995”

(Bought from Foyles, 2 July 2016)

Murdoch’s collected correspondence at last (or at least a small proportion of the huge amount that must be out there), boosted by the acquisition by the Archives at Kingston of several important runs of letters in recent years.

My main reaction to this was that she was so darn busy. She often writes to the same person on consecutive days, and these are big, meaty, handwritten letters. She does say she can’t act without speaking in one letter, and indeed she works out thoughts, feelings, reactions and relationships through the letters. On any one day she appears to be answering letters (for up to 4 hours per day, apparently), carrying on affairs, often simultaneously, being married, making, breaking and remaking friendships and relationships, doing philosophy and then writing – no wonder she and John Bayley let the housework slide a bit!

The other massive point this made to me was the difficulty of making arrangements in a pre-digital era. I remember this – of course I do – but it’s quite shocking to see the amount of time and energy that has to go into, for example, letting people know which address to write to; making silent phone calls to alert people that she needs to speak to them; sending stamped addressed postcards for people (mostly Canetti) to use to let her know if they can meet her (I really don’t like the way she debases herself in front of some people, primarily him, however much he inspired her to create her wonderful fictional monsters); and trying to recall the names of pubs, outside which she will be at 3.40 on 4 March, for instance. I couldn’t help wondering how many more novels we’d have had if she’d lived in the age of the Smartphone, although given her propensity for writing in longhand into the 90s, I wonder if she’d have taken to it. Surely, she’d have loved the intrigue of Facebook Messenger, though?

I was struck by how interwoven Iris and John were into her mother’s mental decline, and this was distressing, imagining how she might have felt as her own brain started to skip words and lose things. Indeed, the final letters show this – or discuss it – hard things to read but I felt just the right representative examples were included, and nothing too intrusive.

On a lighter note, although the novels are not much discussed, save the odd research trip to, for example, Lot’s Road Power Station to research the location of “Bruno’s Dream” and some discussion of points raised in people’s letters, her reading does come up quite a few times, and I was regularly entranced by finding favourites there. She reads Ada Leverson’s “The Little Ottleys” in 1966; I bought the first volume late last year and of course had to download the whole lot; she enjoys Sylvia Townsend Warner’s “Lolly Willowes” in 1967. She demonstrates a good working knowledge of Tolkien, mentioning his magic metal, mithril, and falls in love with Widmerpool from Anthony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time” in 1971. She discovers Trollope at the age of 54, a decade and a bit older than my discovery of him, but finding him more conducive to a good solid read than she did at a younger age. I smiled as she struggles through having to (re) read the whole of Virginia Woolf in a short space of time for a lecture, and was surprised to find her not discovering John Cowper Powys (who I knew somehow to be a favourite author) until 1984 – I have yet to explore him but really want to, as he apparently affected her later novels.

I was very pleased to find her in Iceland at one stage, although she does claim there aren’t any trees – maybe they’ve grown since then. But it’s always nice when your interests overlap. She even meets Halldor Laxness, “a very nice old bean”!

Of course it goes without saying that the introduction to the book, the introductions to the sections, the captions to the letters and the notes are impeccably done. The introductory pieces set the letters in their contexts and also discuss the novels in some detail, which is useful for the reader coming to this book from those. It’s an excellent read, the product of a busy but overwhelmingly warm, attentive and caring person, sometimes very cross indeed but always human and thoughtful.

 

Book review – Barbara Kingsolver – “The Poisonwood Bible”

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jan-2017-tbrGosh, it’s really hard to write a review of a book everyone else in the world seems to have read first! I’m the first to admit – and feel bad – that I’m not very good at reading books about Africa; although it seems a clich√© to say it, they do seem to dwell on conflict and while I completely accept it’s important to read and know about conflict, I’m a fairly wussy reader and can’t deal with scenes of peril and violence. Knowing this was about the bloody history of what started out as the Belgian Congo from the 1960s, I did check with a few friends first as to whether I’d be able to cope with this one, and was reassured. And, it being by a favourite author, of course I found it amazing.

Barbara Kingsolver – “The Poisonwood Bible”

(11 July 2016, charity shop, Bridlington)

An amazing and powerful read, told in the voices of Orleanna Price and her four daughters, who are compelled by their paterfamilias, the misguided and pig-headed Nathan, to move to the Belgian Congo to be missionaries, originally for a year, until history sweeps over their lives. As the women of the house adapt, bend and blend (as well as becoming frustrated, depressed and ill), noticing and learning from their mistakes, he blunders along, making things worse and worse, insulting the villagers they live with and ending up with a “congregation” of misfits and outcasts.

Added to all of this and the biblical plagues that attack the small community and smaller mission, it’s the early 1960s and the fight for independence and also the international fight over the country’s natural resources get underway, leaving the Price family trapped and in danger.

For Orleanna, every day for a long, long time has been a fight to stay within her family, and as the hardships pile up, each woman must make the decision on how to save herself and/or her sisters. The different routes to physical and moral salvation – or not – are explored and the history of the country, shamefully not noticed at the time, has its inexorable effect on their lives in different ways, to greater or lesser extents, but is explained and not forced onto the reader.

Danger and peril are prefigured from the very start and throughout the book, with Kingsolver’s literary skill able to weave tiny references through the text and to show how the smallest bad decision can multiply into disaster. The voices of the women are beautifully differentiated, from spoilt Rachel with her malapropisms to little Ruth May with her small child’s take on events. It’s not entirely clear whether it’s better to try to save yourself or to throw in your lot with Africa and its people – the continent has its effect on everyone and perhaps the most positive characters are those who seek to help without changing, understand without preaching and imposing beliefs, whether that’s the previous missionary who got “too close” to the villagers or Adah with her understanding of medical science.

An ambitious work which does, I think, succeed: it’s not all grim, there’s beauty and wonderful description, and it feels like an important and respectful record of the evils of colonialism.

Phew, done! I’m going to move onto NetGalley book “Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars” next, because I need a light palate cleanser after this excellent read. Do you remember reading “The Poisonwood Bible”? Would you press it upon someone who’s not read it?

Book review – Anna Kessel – “Eat, Sweat, Play”

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jan-2017-tbrOops, it’s been a while, after my flood of posts around the New Year, hasn’t it. Problem is, I’ve been reading one Big Book (Iris Murdoch’s letters, very good, almost done now) and got in a frenzy about getting my book for Margery Sharp Day in on time this year (after a slight fail last year) so read that early on then am saving the review for the 25th. But here I am with a really good book about women and exercise. And I’ve only developed one new NetGalley review copy so far …

Anna Kessel – “Eat, Sweat, Play”

(2 July 2017)

I remember the joy of buying this along with those Iris Murdoch letters and Sylvia Patterson’s “I’m Not With the Band” when I had a book token to spend in Foyles. I’m also pleased I’m only 6 months behind on the TBR dates at the moment.

This is a book about sport and women’s lives, inspiring and frustrating by turns, written with authenticity (to a high degree – see my comments further down) and trying to show the authenticity of women’s sporting lives, whether as participants at all levels, fans or commentators. We meet people from new mums sparring in an old-school boxing gym to Jessica Ennis, from fans who decide they don’t have to know everything about the rules of football to the first woman to commentate on TV (men’s) football.

The book opens looking at teaching of PE and societal attitudes to women and sport, highlighting the fact that women are encouraged to exercise to look good (although being “allowed” to sweat these days) but not to look “unfeminine” or “undignified” or feel competitive or proud of themselves while engaging in sport (it does make the point that men are increasingly facing the issue of exercise and appearance now, but don’t have the same criticism of their looks when competing). Although this is changing, Kessel then looks at women’s sport and exercise as related to menstruation, pregnancy, motherhood and menopause, bringing out some horrific detail about how women’s bodies have been treated in research as an extension of men’s, with almost no research on the effect of periods (or birth control) on women’s performance, likelihood of injury, etc.

On the topic of horrific detail, there is a grim description of a miscarriage which the easily triggered might wish to skip – it is signposted but only very soon before the detail starts. Fair play to the author for breaking the boundaries by including this, although I couldn’t decide whether this fed into the “women are personal, men are impersonal” narrative and whether this will make it more easily dismissed by those who should be taking notice of the very important points raised in the book. I do hope not, as it’s a brave thing to talk about stuff that is just not talked about in public.

We move on to fandom and sports journalism, and here, as throughout the book, Kessel uses her own experiences but broadens them out through networks of women (and men) she speaks to. She’s great on the camaraderie of sport, using her contrasting experiences of running with supportive women and competitive, pushing men (I have to say here that I’ve not had that kind of divided experience myself; I know a lot of kind and supportive male runners, luckily, as well as my fab group of mainly female Sedate Ladies). The groundbreaking images of This Girl Can campaign are highlighted, although she does point out that this campaign is not aimed at the older women and there should be something for them (us?), too.

Inspiring reading, with a good mix of research (nicely referenced) and anecdote: lots to think about here.

On a slight whim, and because in light of Brexit, the Trump presidency and various stuff going on locally I have been thinking about how to do good and community, I responded to a NetGalley email and bagged myself a copy of The Power of Meaning by Emily Esfahani Smith, which apparently “explores how we can begin to build a culture of meaning into our families, our workplaces and our communities”. It was published yesterday so would be next on the list were I not supposed to be reading another NetGalley book published on the same day.

I’m actually reading Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible” which I was unsure of, being as I am not usually keen on books about Africa (they so often seem to concentrate on bloody conflict: if you know of books on the continent which don’t, or non-conflict, non blasted Magic Realism South American books, do let me know!) but love her writing. So far, I can’t put it down!

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