Book review – Lennie Goodings – “A Bite of the Apple” @ViragoBooks #amreading


So sorry for the gap in reviews or posts since last Sunday’s short one about running. I’ve been reading quite a nice lot but seem to have got into a reviewing slump (though I did finally finish the amazing “A History of Pictures” by David Hockney and Martin Gayford and submitted my review to Shiny New Books), not the least because I’ve been extremely fortunate enough to be very busy at work (academia and the ghostwriting of celebrity autobiographies seem to be rolling on almost as normal), plus then we’ve had the usual in these times / not usually usual extra time-consuming life admin stuff, which is there to be endured and is fine at the moment, but does take up time. Plus the In These Circumstances kind of tiredness etc. that a good few of us seem to be getting.

Anyway, enough of In These Times, which I am entreating not to creep into my book reviewing and blogging life – here’s a journey back in time to almost the beginning of our beloved Virago Books with an excellent memoir I just had to pre-order to arrive on the day of publication, as it seemed so many of my fellow bloggers had read and received early review copies and whipped me up into a frenzy of needing this book right now!

Lennie Goodings – “A Bite of the Apple: A Life with Books, Writers and Virago”

(28 February 2020)

The memoir of the Canadian woman who moved from the mainstream world of publishing marketing to take a part-time job at the fairly new Virago Books and ended up its publisher, this book shared the political and financial dealings of the publishing house over the years (accepting this is a personal view only) but also delicious details of the authors and books the firm has published over the period.

I love how it was “84 Charing Cross Road,” that lovely book which I think so many of us have read, which helped to draw the author to Britain, and we get all the details of how things work and how her editorial process operates. I particularly liked the idea, pulled out as she worked with people writing their own lives, that everyone has a narrative thread running through their lives (what’s yours?). The details of the dealings around individual books are fascinating (for example, Virago was too small at the time to deal with all the interest and thus sales that would come from the 1979 TV series of Vera Brittain’s “Testament of Youth”, so had to license a mass-market tie-in edition to Fontana).

The personalities are captured bravely: Carmen Callil proves hard to work with from the start, always exacting about her own vision and uncompromising throughout. It IS brave, I think, to write about such people when they’re still around and about, and she does it carefully. Goodings is celebratory of the readers, which is lovely but also politic, given the audience for this book. She shares feedback from people who feel they’ve grown up alongside Virago (I feel that, too, with “Frost in May” being one of the first I read and gulping down loads of their early Modern Classics as a teenager in the 80s), and reminding us that Dorothy Whipple, who Carmen famously refused to republish, was eventually vindicated by Persephone (she is very generous about the other small (feminist and not so feminist) presses) and even mentioning the sad cessation and glorious return during the celebration reprints of the green spine.

The book is careful about intersectionality, sharing the gut-wrenchingly horrific experience of inadvertently sidelining authors of colour from an early event, bringing out the lack of diversity in women’s prize lists and discussing changes which are happening now in the publishing industry. It was good to see Goodings addressing this side of publishing and the care she put into that.

I found this an excellent and fascinating book all round, and one to treasure and re-read.

What’s the narrative thread running through your life? I feel like mine is being behind the scenes, helping organise things but keeping a low profile, helping books get talked about, helping my authors and clients’ words get on the published page while being invisible myself, hopefully being a stalwart support but also a loud and strong advocate for those less able to advocate for themselves, using my privilege for others where I can. Hm, maybe. Aaaaanyway. More reviews to come but I fear I will have review lag again as I have one more novel (my Paul Magrs – I haven’t forgotten my challenge!) and then two sets of three books left to write about this month!

Oh, and one book confession! Matthew has been listening to and loving “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens. I’ve read enthusiastic and not-so-enthusiastic reviews of this but it’s certainly popular and I will give it a go … except the print is quite small and I need new glasses and, while I did get an eye test recently, my new glases have fallen foul of Circumstances and will be arriving direct from the factory and can’t be fitted professionally until Circumstances have eased. So I might not be able to read it for a while yet! At least I’ve got enough books off the TBR this month to justify adding one!

State of the TBR March 2020 plus new acquisitions #bookconfessions


Well, I have got all the TBR on one shelf apart from my little pile of Paul Magrs’ Phoenix Court novels and Icelandic trilogy. But there are Piles. And I’m going to reveal the back row …

Piles of books

Of course, my little challenge for myself still means I just have to get down to one above Rebecca Front’s “Curious” by the end of the year … Anyway, here’s it all put together.

Piles in the back neatly obscured by piles on top of the front row!

I’m currently finishing “Windblown” by Tamsin Treverton Jones, a book about the Great Storm of 1987, telling the story of the storm in great detail and then talking about its aftermath and the remarkable regeneration that has gone on in the places that were destroyed. Not entirely the best book to read in public (on a train, going down to a book launch) as, having been in the middle of the storm, aged 15, it brought it all back in horrible, visceral detail and quite shocked me. I have read another two books this month which will be reviewed next week, taking my total for February to ten, which is not too bad.

These are the oldest books on the TBR so will be picked up next. I can’t really get at the newest ones at the moment, although I might be able to sneak the very newest off the back shelf at some point. Odd that I ended up with two Tolkien books quite close together. At least this has changed a bit since the picture last month!

Also next up will of course be my next Paul Margs – second in his Phoenix Court series, “Does it Show” is another I really don’t remember as I read it last in 1996! And I really need to dive back into the NetGalley backlog on my Kindle, although that does work against the white male writing I’m seeing a lot of right here. So it’s all good, right?

And new books in …

New books in

OK, so I picked up Rakesh Satyal’s “Blue Boy” at our BookCrossing meetup last weekend: my friend Sian brought it and recommended it. Set in Cincinnati in the 1990s, our hero, Kiran, lacks the knack for fitting in – but some divine intervention is just around the corner. Lovely Kaggsy from the Ramblings sent me “Motherland” by Jo McMillan as she knew it was on my wishlist but had been unable to locate it in her stacks. A mother and daughter, the only Communists in Tamworth, go behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany – sounds fantastic. Everyone seems to be reading Lennie Goodings’ “A Bite of the Apple” which is about her work at Virago Books, ending up their editor, and I was pleased this published earlier than expected, as I’d pre-ordered it (why is that such a thing with me when I have so many books? However, this is the one most likely to slip off the end of the TBR and into my reading hands very soon). David Crystal’s “Let’s Talk” is a book about conversation OUP have kindly sent me to review for Shiny New Books. I love Crystal’s books so am so looking forward to this (which will obviously be read and reviewed soon).

Finally, Helen Lewis’ “Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights” I picked up at the book launch, to which I was invited because I worked on the transcriptions of the interviews Helen did for the book. I don’t just work for ghostwriters and this was one of my favourite books I’ve worked on, and I was honoured to find myself in the Acknowledgements! (I only looked on the train home from London, of course). It’s set to be a fabulous book and I was thrilled to meet a couple of the interviewees, as well as Helen, at the launch – I hardly ever get to meet my clients, let alone the people whose interviews I transcribe, so this was a massive treat.

Have you read any of these? Or are you planning to? What’s your March reading looking like?

Shiny New Books review and incoming for review (lucky me!) @ShinyNewBooks #amreading @OUPAcademic @ThamesandHudson


In January I very much enjoyed reading John Gallagher’s “Learning Languages in Early Modern England”. As I’m currently trying to learn Spanish from an app, but have also obviously experienced language learning in school and guidebooks and phrasebooks, I had several ways in to this book and found it fascinating. Although it’s an academic tome published by OUP, I found it accessible in its writing (more so than some of the other works it quoted) and it’s also enticingly full of lovely illustrations of old language learning materials, both printed and written by the learners. I found out lots that I hadn’t realised before, and I was also pleased to see an emphasis on the work of women and the “invisible” servants, etc. who aided language learning (and some people who were both).

Examining the period 1480-1720, the book, “offers a history of linguistic competences in a polyglot context, investigating the methods by which they were acquired, used, tested and judged”. The concept of ‘communicative competence’ is important in the book: the way in which a language speaker could adjust what linguists call their register, just as we have a different phone voice to the one we use in a conversation with our friends, and could use the variants of a language that were considered high-status (the French of the Loire, but later Paris, for example). This means that there’s a fair bit of fascinating stuff on how language teaching materials encompassed ways to behave, often shown through the dialogues that constituted the practical examples.

Read my full review at Shiny New Books here.

And just as I knew my review for that one was going up, my next read for Shiny arrived – one from Thames & Hudson’s lovely Spring 2020 catalogue (and I’m so very lucky that Thames & Hudson indulge my requests from their amazing catalogues, and hope I do them proud in my reviews). This one is “A History of Pictures” by none other than David Hockney and Martin Gayford. Of course I’ve already read one of Gayford’s books, the excellent book of pieces on life as a writer about art, “The Pursuit of Art”, which I discussed here in September and reviewed on Shiny here (and I’m not sure why it wasn’t one of my books of the year, to be honest).

This is a new edition, with more works by Hockney featured, and the blurb from the first edition makes it sound unmissable:

They privilege no medium, or period, or style, but instead, in 16 chapters, discuss how and why pictures have been made, and insistently link ‘art’ to human skills and human needs. Each chapter addresses an important question: What happens when we try to express reality in two dimensions? Why is the ‘Mona Lisa’ beautiful and why are shadows so rarely found in Chinese, Japanese and Persian painting? Why are optical projections always going to be more beautiful than HD television can ever be? How have the makers of images depicted movement? What makes marks on a flat surface interesting? Energized by two lifetimes of looking at pictures, combined with a great artist’s 70-year experience of experimentation as he makes them, this profoundly moving and enlightening volume will be the art book of the decade.

It’s published on 20 February and I really cannot wait to get stuck into this one and to review it and share it with you, here and on Shiny!

What brand new books are you coveting or reading?

Book review – Lara Maiklem – “Mudlarking” plus birthday acquisitions in a lovely neat pile #bookconfessions @PersephoneBooks @ViragoBooks @DeanStPress


I get worried when I borrow books about keeping them for too long, so I dived into this one, loaned to me by Mary Ellen, almost as soon as it was in the house.  It’s a very pretty book with lovely endpapers (more about them later). The same day that Mary Ellen passed me this, I had a small pre-birthday tea with friends, and received some enticing rectangular parcels, and lovely post came on the day itself. I’ve just had my Christmas present from my friend Sian (a mooch around the local charity shops, clutching a “charity shop token” I was allowed to spend on books) and she gave me my birthday present then, so now I have a Lovely Pile of those to share with you, plus the three books I managed to find to buy (isn’t that always the way: I was allowed to splurge and couldn’t find that many books I wanted; last time Sian and I were searching these shops, for Christmas not so secret santa gifts, I bought myself a good few!). Review first, though …

Lara Maiklem – “Mudlarking”

(21 Jan 2020, loaned by Mary Ellen)

A very entertaining book on the treasures to be found in the mud of the River Thames, taking a themed journey chapter-by-chapter from the highest tidal point of the river to the estuary, and looking within each chapter at both general matters and aspects of that particular area. The sense of companionship, both with other mudlarkers and with the people of the past who owned the items she finds is palpable. Indeed, she sensibly won’t go out on the mud of the estuary without someone to guide her and keep watch.

There’s enough of her own history and life to provide a framework, but it doesn’t intrude. She is obviously obsessed with the river and its mud and writes convincingly about how, “It comes knocking at all hours”, and it’s also clear that it’s an escape for her and an opportunity to experience ‘flow’, as she can get lost in staring at the mud or sand for hours. And although she does admit to lying and cajoling and almost abandoning her family for her hobby, she does say of her wife, “[She] likes running marathons, which is an obsession in its own right so she understands” (p. 233).

There’s the obligatory and expected section on human bones and bodies, clearly signposted so not a problem, although I did skip forward to the estuary to get that bit read when I wasn’t reading it over my mealtimes

My one criticism is that, although there’s an image of a historical mudlarker and two maps, and the author does have a presence on Instagram and Facebook, there are no illustrations of her finds, save for a few things on the front cover which might be, the title itself being made up of an Easter Egg that’s created for the book. Those lovely endpapers whose illustrations I shared when I acquired the book turn out not to be her own notes and drawings but those of a colleague, duly mentioned, thanked in the text and acknowledgements and referenced, but still nothing to do with the text and her own finds. She does describe objects well but I think it’s a real missed opportunity not to have any of her own images on at least the endpapers.

An entertaining and interesting read nonetheless.

PIle of birthday books

My lovely birthday books, in order of receipt. I also received some book tokens (hooray, Foyles splurge in around May) and a Pizza Express token I’m going to use for a meal with my best friend soon.

Those two Persephones first – “Expiation” by Elizabeth von Arnim is a ‘lost’ novel of hers about adultery in the suburbs which takes married life and cleverly and ironically unpicks it. Stella Martin Currey’s “One Woman’s Year” is a charming looking book with quotes, diary entries and woodcuts taking us through a 1950s woman’s life. You won’t be surprised to find that these were given to me by the redoutable Heaven-Ali, who also has both of them.

Adharanand Finn’s “The Rise of the Ultra Runners” has been a must-read among the booky runners I know – given to me by a non-running friend, I can’t wait to read about runners familiar and unknown.

Then we have two lovely Furrowed Middlebrow at Dean Street Press books from Emma – Susan Alice Kerby’s tale of magic in WW2, “MIss Carter and the Ifrit” and the new Miss Read, “Fresh from the Country” which is a standalone novel but still about a village teacher. Completing the set of Persephone – Furrowed Middlebrow – Virago, the lovely Verity sent me “The Serial Garden” which collects together all of Joan Aiken’s Armitage Family stories.

And yesterday Sian gave me “Because Internet” by Gretchen McCulloch which was a massive favourite of hers and is all about how the Internet has changed/is changing language.

You want more?

So the books I bought with my Christmas charity shop token (so far: I still have some left!) are Sathnam Sanghera’s “Marriage Material” – a novel set in a shop in the West Midlands, Thurston Clarke’s “Islomania” which looks at our obsession with islands over the ages, and Mark Beaumont’s massive tome, “The Man who Cycled the World” – I’ve watched a documentary about him and recall him having to eat many, many calories to fuel his endeavour and can’t wait to read about the whole thing.

Lucky me!

And my reading up a storm in January and bringing some books from the front and middle of the TBR to read this month have allowed the Christmas books to pop onto the end of the TBR itself (OK, in a pile), and these have all found a nesting place in a pile on the shelf below.

Usual question: have you read any of these? Any recommendations? Or Mudlarking, left all the way up the top of this long post?!

Book review – Vybarr Cregan-Reid – “Footnotes: How Running Makes us Human” @RunBookshelfFB #amreading


Oopsadaisy – I’ve been reading a lot but not managing to keep up with my reviews. I’ve been doing an older book, a new book and an e-book in order to make space for Christmas incomings and then not have too many of them to fit on the shelf when it’s time. Of course, I also just had my birthday, with MORE lovely books (hooray! Dean Street Press and Persephone plus other wish list delights for the win – a post on those coming soon as I think there may be one more to come). And, um, I may have come by a couple of others in the meantime.

Anyway, this was at LAST the last book from that huge Foyles book token haul I had in May 2018. So behind on my reading, but that’s the fault of doing the one old one, one new one, which does also have its advantages.

Vybarr Cregan-Reid – “Footnotes: How Running Makes us Human”

(22 May 2018)

Quite a dense running book which looks at different aspects of why running is good for us, taking in neuroscience, physiology and psychology and visiting researchers and labs, sometimes offering himself up as the subject of the research. You get bits of his life as he goes out on runs and contemplates various aspects – he’s a literature professor so there’s more literary stuff than you might perhaps expect, including some stuff about the Lake District poets and Thomas Hardy. He’s partly a barefoot runner (but not full-time and experiences some issues with that) and spends time on that topic, and it’s always interesting to read his descriptions when the shoes come off on his runs. He has some quite funny experiences getting more weather than he bargained for in the Lake District when trying to emulate the walking feats of the poets, and some frustrating times but also fun doing some mild trespassing.

He seems honest about his personality and failings, for example how he’s good at doing things but not so good at not doing things. He also explores matters that are outside his comfort zone, which is admirable, spending time and effort finding out why some people enjoy going to the gym, even if it’s not for him. I also enjoyed his narrative of his slightly accidental marathon (on the roads, while he obviously prefers running in wilder places) and this rang a bell:

‘Pain is temporary, failure lasts forever’, the wankers will tell you. No! Pain is not necessary for success, a  healthy relationship with failure is. (p. 270)

So quite a dense book which looks in depth at how running can enhance our humanity, with some interesting runs and recognisable features. An interesting read.

Two incomings that are not birthday or Christmas related. Diana Pullein-Thompson’s “I Wanted a Pony” was her first solo effort, and Jane Badger Books has reissued it with the original illustrations. When Jane shared this on Facebook, I just had to order it.

My friend Mary Ellen (of running posts fame) has just finished Lara Maiklem’s “Mudlarking” which is all about the things the author has found on the muddy banks of the Thames at low tide. She thought I would like to borrow it and indeed I would!

What’s lovely about both of these is the illustration. Here’s the endpapers of “Mudlarking” along with one of the attractive line drawings in “I Wanted a Pony”

I’m currently finishing off Blind Dave Heeley’s “From Light to Dark” which is his very good and entertaining autobiography. Still to review is Jess Phillips’ “Truth to Power” and I have finished the excellent “Learning Languages in Early Modern England” by John Gallagher, which I am reviewing for Shiny New Books. I think next up will be “Fresh from the Country” by Miss Read, one of Dean Street Press’s new Furrowed Middlebrow books which they sent me in e-format to review but my best friend Emma sent me in print format for my birthday (hooray!). What a great start to the year this month has been so far!


Book review – Robert Inman – “Captain Saturday” plus a #bookconfession when there really shouldn’t be one!


Because, as we now know, I was unable to shoehorn my new Christmas acquisitions onto my TBR shelf, and also because I was horrified to see I haven’t really read any of my Christmas 2018 books, I decided to continue my sort-of policy of reading one of the oldest books then one of the newest ones, then a Kindle one. So I then picked the fattest one on the pile, because less to file away, and it was a really good one. Hooray! Have you read any of your Christmas books yet?

I continue with a book confession. I try not to buy books during the Christmas/birthday season, in case there’s a Terrible Clash (I came close one year when I was looking gleefully at a Mitford Sisters book in Waterstones, didn’t buy it just in case, then met up with my friends and unwrapped a copy). But there were extenuating circumstances, I promise!

Robert Inman – “Captain Saturday”

(25 December 2019, from Gill)

I loved his “Dairy Queen Days” (which I actually read in 2005 and reviewed on my LiveJournal, which I migrated to here: don’t go looking for a big review!) and put this one on my BookCrossing wishlist. I did actually have a go at my messy wishlists before Christmas and they’re now definitely combined and just on here. I was so pleased to unwrap it on Christmas Day and it was all I hoped for.

So we’re in small-city America – Raleigh, North Carolina – and Will (Wilbur) is the town’s most popular weatherman, secure in this job, with a stable marriage, even though he’s been flummoxed in the last few years by his wife’s sudden ambition and achievement in the world of real estate, and a good enough relationship with his son (a preppy student who never gets into a mess). Well, he’s secure until it all suddenly falls apart quite dramatically, and he learns that small actions can grow and have consequences. When his cousin comes to fetch him back to the old house, a Deep South decaying mansion complete with his other cousin who took her own responsibilities too seriously when she came into them plus an immense set of family archives, he finds he needs to work out who he is and how to repair those relationships. We then go back to see his past, and work over his marriage, too, sensitively done but also funny. I loved the modern-day parts where he had to reinvent his life and pretty well start from scratch again, and his lawyer is absolutely hilarious, changing his look and habits with every big new client, from tweedy anglophile to hard hat and checked shirt. A proper big, absorbing novel.

I also loved that it’s an ex-library copy, but not your standard one, weeded from the American Library in Angers, France!

And that book confession? I first read a Chetan Bhagat book when I came across “One Night @ the Call Centre” in 2006 (my review here and Matthew’s here) and really loved it. A while ago, I found lots of his novels in Kindle versions for not much money and treated myself. So this was not on my wishlist, and I came across it when picking up some books for my best friend Emma the week before last (all my posts since then have been review books) in Oxfam books and snapped it up. It’s the story of a cross-continents love affair and looks great. One off the Kindle TBR, too (right?).

I’m currently reading Abi Daré’s “The Girl With the Louding Voice”, a NetGalley win which is quite astounding. It’s the story of a young Nigerian woman sold as a wife to a much older man, escaping from him and making it to the capital. It’s a pretty grim story, but obviously an important one, and it’s written in a captivating slightly broken English (although I’ll have to read up about that as at least one reviewer has commented on it not sounding authentically Nigerian). Has anyone else read this? It’s not one for the breakfast table as quite grim, as I said, but fascinating and engaging. I’m also reading John Gallagher’s “Learning Languages in Early Modern England” to review for Shiny, and it’s fascinating. Lucky me!

Christmas acquisitions and beforehand incomings I don’t think I mentioned … #bookconfessions


So I said I was going to share my incomings on 1 Jan, but I’ve already got a load of stats, planned books and books of the year to share then, and I have two books on the go at the moment I MIGHT finish and review tomorrow, so why not have a poke around in my acquisitions now, I thought!

Pre-Christmas, these made it into the house and have been sitting around on my desk waiting … for what, I’m not sure.

Well, I know that I should NOT have bought Ada Cambridge’s “The Three Miss Kings” dangerously close to the Christmas’n’birthday season in case someone had already purchased it for me, but it’s a beautifully pristine Virago Green and I could NOT leave it in Oxfam books when I was rooting around looking for gifts for my BookCrossing not so secret Santee. Also, handily, it will work for Australia Reading Month in 2020. Kaggsy from The Ramblings very kindly sent me Joe Moran’s “On Roads” which was on my wishlist but I kept back for similar reasons (I know my friend Caroline will be eying this one for after me). The band Madness’ “Before We Was We: Madness by Madness” and Danny MacAskill’s “At The Edge” were both sent to me by clients for whom I worked as an assistant on the books – I’m very excited to read how they came out (have a look at McAskill’s cycling videos on YouTube – amazing stuff!).

Now on to Christmas. Here’s the whole pile, in approximate order of arrival:

Going from the top, Rebecca Front’s “Curious” is her sort-of memoir and Pamela Brown’s “Maddy Again” is one more of the Blue Door Theatre Adventures reprints, both given to me (along with chocolates and a lovely notebook) by Meg, who was my BookCrossing secret santa, received on 16 December. I’ve popped “The Twelve Birds of Christmas” by Stephen Moss, which takes twelve birds that might have been in the song and tells us about them, into the pile because although our friend Linda gave it to Matthew, I know I’ll be reading it, too. Then Gill did her usual trawl through the books that have been on my wishlist the longest and found me Robert Inman’s “Captain Saturday”, a novel set in the Deep South – I enjoyed his “Dairy Queen Days” very much a long time ago – and “The Kindness of Strangers”, a Lonely Planet title edited by Don George which features stories of kindness when travelling and should be a lovely positive read.  Meg did brilliantly again,  not only buying me a copy of Jess Phillips MP’S “Truth to Power”, which includes ways to challenge power and stories of people who have, but getting Jess to sign it to me (she’s Meg’s MP in the next-door constituency).

Ali very kindly gave me two lovely Persephones – Elisabeth de Waal’s “Milton Place”, a previously unpublished novel set in a big house in the 1950s, and “The Second Persephone Book of Short Stories” which I’m sure will be as wonderful as the first one (reviewed here). Then my LibraryThing Virago Group secret santa gift, as well as including local soap and chocolate and the lovely Milton postcard pictured with a run-down of why she chose the books for me, had Daphne du Maurier’s “Jamaica Inn” (in the same edition as the copy of “Rebecca” I won from Ali during her Du Maurier reading week last week and allowing me to take part even more fully in 2020 than I was going to, and because I said I liked books from where the sender is from, and it was from Cornishgirl!), a copy of Willa Cather’s “My Antonia” which I’ve read but wished I owned, Rosamond Lehmann’s classic novel, “The Ballad and the Source” which I read YEARS ago and don’t own, and Margaret Kennedy’s “The Ladies of Lyndon”, the last in pre-loved Virago Green form and how I love adding my name to the names already written on the flyleaves.

I think the postcard’s message, “Solitude sometimes is best society” might have to be my 2020 motto if I’m not going to have TBR shelf overhand throughout the next year. But what a lovely pile and a lovely problem to have!

I’ve probably seen everyone else’s new book piles by now. Have you read any of these? Any bets as to when I’ll get to them?!

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