Book review – Jackie Kay – “Red Dust Road” plus holiday book confessions #amreading #bookconfessions

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I’m just back from a holiday in West Cornwall and on the Isles of Scilly – had a lovely time, with lots of walking, some running, a bit of horse-riding (once every two years is about my record on that one) and, of course, plenty of reading. I read all the books I took with me and left them in our two hotels, but of course acquired more while down there from some favourite shops and the great charity shops of Penzance. And then finished reading one of the acquisitions on the train home!

Jackie Kay – “Red Dust Road”

(12 October 2018 – Penzance charity shop)

My friends in the Very Small Book Group had read and raved about this a while ago (Ali will let me know when, I’m sure) and so when I spotted it in a charity shop I couldn’t resist. Ostensibly the story of her finding her Nigerian father and family, it’s also an autobiography and tribute to her adoptive parents.

It’s a lovely, warm, self-deprecating but strong read, and I did indeed love it. I giggled at times and I did have a tear in my eye at one point. I really loved the stories of her mum’s down-to-earth Scottish reactions to the more outlandish parts of her “journey” as well as the heartfelt descriptions of her meetings with her birth mum and dad and musings on what it is to be adopted and the howling wind-filled centre of your mind that is never truly still. As a poet and novelist, Kay is full of stories, of course, but she shares this with her mum and talks movingly of how the two of them wove together a story of what happened to her birth parents that sustained them and drew them closer: “It was a big bond, the story” (p. 44).

Kay is so honest, especially sharing how she’s an open and trusting person and so all the secrecy around her adoption really got to her. She’s thrilled to meet her Highlands of Scotland aunts and draws interesting comparisons between the Scottish and Nigerian villages she originates from. She’s generous in her thanks to the people who support her along the way, and while it’s not an easy read as such, the pages slip by. I will be looking for some of her poetry to read now.

Here‘s Ali’s review of the book, which brings out some quotations I loved, too.


We had a sort of “extra” day in Penzance on Friday, as our boat from the Isles of Scilly was moved forward because of storms coming in on Friday and Saturday. We didn’t do much (we had a trip out on Sunday, instead, which we thought would be our down day) but I scoured the charity shops and the wonderful Edge of the World Bookshop for lovelies. Eric Newby’s “A Small Place in Italy” is about restoring an Italian house and not one I had or had even read! The Jackie Kay we now know about. “Bird Watching Watching” by Alex Horne (who we know from the rather wonderful programme Taskmaster) is about a year birdwatching with his dad and was not to be resisted.

I bought Philip Marsden’s “Rising Ground: A Search for the Spirit of Place” because it centres around West Cornwall, where we were. This seemed the ideal book to buy there. I love this shop so much – website here – it’s so friendly and has a marvellous stock, and has just moved a few doors up the road into larger premises. If you’re ever in West Cornwall, do pop to Penzance to pay them a visit.

There are a couple of other lovely bookshops in Penzance. Barton Books does art and design and children’s books and lovely notebooks, and Newlyn Books has a wonderful selection of second-hand books and art books, including a wonderful local collection.

Amusingly, I bought a copy of Colin Duriez’ “The Oxford Inklings” there – I say amusingly because of course Tolkien was a son of Birmingham, and last time I went to Newlyn Books I bought a Francis Brett Young book (another local). This has very good reviews by a number of scholars and looks like another good addition to my shelf.

The final addition to my TBR came when we got home. A running and reading friend had asked if I could help the publisher out by taking on a review copy of Mark Atkinson’s “Run Like Duck: A Guide for the Unathletic” and as we know, I’m always up for a running book (plus this one mentions ultras) so I was very happy to find it on the doormat when we returned (along with the Iris Murdoch Review, which includes a lovely review of my book “Iris Murdoch and the Common Reader”, and Saga Book from the North Atlantic Research Society, so I’m going to be a busy Lizzie for a while!

What have you been up to while I’ve been away? I’ve tried to keep up with blogs though had to catch up first!

Book review – Gurjinder Basran – “Everything Was Good-Bye” #20BooksOfSummer #Amreading

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I’ve finished the 20 Books of Summer Challenge! It finishes today, I finished the last book today and here I am reviewing it. Hooray! What fun as always. Cathy has done a round-up post of her own experience with it here.

Gurjinder Basran – “Everything Was Good-Bye”

(25 October 2017)

Everything in Meena’s life can be viewed in two ways. There are six daughters in her family but only five of them are mentioned after Harj ran away. Aunties watch your every move and the family unit is protected, but domestic violence is witnessed and ignored. Meena wants to be a writer but her writing is used against her. Unconventional, arty Liam says he’ll wait for her and doesn’t.

Set in the Canadian Sikh community from 1990 through into the 2000s, it’s threaded through with pop culture – mostly music – references that will resonate with anyone but imbued with a special sense of what it is to be embedded in a community within a community – and with a precarious position within that inner community. When Meena is criticised for this, you wonder what her other choice would be. Very difficult, whatever the reason.

It’s very well done, especially as I think it’s a first novel, and we’re pulled into caring for Meena as she tries to negotiate life without much support, navigating the arranged marriage to another bad boy that she’s accepted, her only real ally – even when Liam reappears in her life – her childhood friend Kal. And he’s her husband’s cousin, so which side is he supposed to be on?

I guessed one of the plot points but it’s a really good, engaging read.

This was Book 20 in my #20BooksOfSummer project and rounds off the project.


A couple of quick confessions. I nipped up to ASDA and went past a few charity shops. How could I resist this terrible, lurid 1971 Iris Murdoch cover (the book is reviewed here, it’s not exactly as described!)

It’s a 1971 Avon Bard Books imprint book and it looks like they did a few titles in the US. I didn’t want to start collecting weird IM editions but I couldn’t help myself with this one!

This is more conventional: a history of running by a Norwegian, published in the early 2000s so not completely up to date but it does look interesting – Thor Gotaas – “Running: A Global History”.

Did you do 20 Books of Summer and finish it? What’s the next challenge? I’m reading Bart Yassos’ “My Life on the Run” at the moment but it’s quite … visceral, so I need something else to read at the table. Probably the next Iris Murdoch …

State of the TBR – September 2018 #amreading

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Oops. Well, I have read nine books from the standing-up books and one from the Murdoch pile but I’ve also had quite a few book confessions this month. Oh well, my new plan of trying not to work at the weekends is going well, so I do have more reading time, and I can’t wait to get stuck into lots of these. Actually, it’s not as bad as it has been, as I note I can fit the whole Pile in at the side in its normal order, not with the shorter books carefully at the bottom and the bigger ones overhanging!

What’s up next? Gurjinder Basran’s “Everything was Good-Bye” is literally waiting on the kitchen table for me to start. It’s the final book in my #20BooksOfSummer project (see the list and all the reviews here) and it seems fitting that I did manage to fill August with Viragoes and Persephones (and one Iris Murdoch) as I’d planned, for All Virago (and Persephone) / All August, and am starting this final read in time to (hopefully) finish it by the end of Monday, when the challenge ends.

Then, although I’ve got lots of lovely books coming up (and some to review, see below), I can’t help but think that I’ll be diving into Murdoch’s “The Nice and the Good”, one that I adore and am really looking forward to re-reading again. Whatever happens, it will be read and reviewed early in the month.

I’m not sure whether I’ve shared these three brilliant review books with you. Kindly sent by the publishers to review on Shiny New Books, they all look like the kind of read I’m going to have a personal, emotional connection to, so I’ve arranged to do a full review on here and then a more serious and literary review for Shiny (thank you, lovely Editors, for allowing me to do that). Thomas Williams’ “Viking Britain” deals with the history of the Vikings in Britain (oddly enough) and looks fascinating and readable. Cathy Newman’s “Bloody Brilliant Women” deals with unsung heroines of the 20th century, and Joni Seager’s “The Women’s Atlas” (which I know I haven’t told you about, as it arrived yesterday) looks at various reproductive, safety and health statistics for women worldwide and presents them in an accessible infographic form – it will be of course both depressing and uplifting, but it’s certainly an important book and looks to have been done excellently.

I have also got a few NetGalley books that are coming out soon; notably, Ingrid Fetell Lee’s “Joyful” (about being more … joyful, taking joy from small things etc.), Roxane Gay (ed.) “Not that Bad” (a book of essays about rape and sexual assault, again, necessary if uncomfortable and dispiriting), Nancy Campbell’s “The Library of Ice” (travel in the ice of the Far North, I saw this reviewed on Bookjotter’s blog and she kindly gave me a link when I couldn’t find it myself!) and “Life Honestly” which is a collection of essays and writings from the writers at The Pool (I love their honest articles so this looked great). These are all not out yet; I do have a shameful backlog of books published a while ago now.

Coming up apart from all these review copies, this is the beginning of my actual TBR – running, memoir, light reading, mid-century reading, a book on E Nesbit (ee!) and two books that got a lot of blogspace when they first came out but I’ve come to later in their lives. And yes, anyone with an eagle eye or the patience to search or an eidetic memory will note that in this picture I get up to CHRISTMAS 2017! So there’s an achievement of sorts.

As I’m usually in a few Not-so-secret Santas which start building up in September/October, this is traditionally a time of reading and not buying, but I’m not going to limit myself in that way as we all know what that leads to.

Anything catch your eye here? Anything you’ve read and can’t wait for me to read?

 

Book review – Stella Gibbons – “Starlight” #20BooksofSummer #amreading

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This is the book I started reading accidentally a week or so ago, mistaking it for a Virago somehow. But hooray – Virago published Stella Gibbons’ “Nightingale Wood” so she counts as a Virago author and I’m counting her therefore in my All Virago / All August total. I am saving the Persephone “Long Live Great Bardfield” for the time after #20BooksOfSummer when I’m just working my way through my TBR again.

So the picture to the left does not represent this book but is the pile of books I put together initially for my 20BooksOfSummer. I haven’t done one of these where I haven’t swipped and swapped, so it’s all good! And I’m excited that I only have three books to finish by 3 September, they’re all reasonably short, and I’ve even started Book 18 already!

Stella Gibbons – “Starlight”

(25 December 2017 – from Verity)

Well, I have to say this is a Very Strange Book, and I’m not entirely sure how it got published. The heroines are a pair of elderly and dotty sisters, Gladys and Annie, who live a precarious existence in a falling-down “cottage” in Highgate, London, with an elderly even-more-eccentric upstairs and a family downstairs … until the building is sold to what they identify as “the rackman”, Mr Pearson (after the notorious slum landlord), and he installs his beautiful, ailing wife there. Meanwhile, their daughter Peggy is a sort of assistant to a wealthy woman and her dogs, while her son sniffs around, trying to grab a squeeze and a kiss. A pair of clergymen in a fairly desolate vicarage, an odd German teenager who has been somehow sprung from an itinerant life by Mr Pearson, and a parishioner and friend of Gladys who is tempted by esoteric religion and wants her fortune told by Mrs Pearson and her accompanying spirit, make up the rest of the curiously unattractive cast.

It is an interesting read, as Gladys and Annie become more worried about Mrs Pearson and her odd “fits” and Peggy sits and waits for her life to begin, instigates it beginning and is slapped back down. Some kind and honest characters get a good fate, others really don’t, and it builds very slowly then suddenly all the cards fall and there’s a pretty melodramatic ending, including an exorcism, before suburban and rural life grab hold again and everything sort of smooths out.

The descriptions of Hampstead Heath are lovely and reminded me a bit of passages in “Old Baggage”. The perilous life of the unconnected poor and the attempt to subsume Erika the German girl into English life are shown in detail and convincingly. Details are beautifully done – when the Vicar, Mr Geddes, is being thoroughly frightened by the decidedly un-English Mr Pearson about his wife’s possible possession,

… as he spoke, he was very aware of the stout old cupboard that contained the choir surplices. Its glossy bulk was comforting. (p. 243)

and his mother’s arrival and adoption of the vicarage cat as well as the relationship between Mrs Corbett and her dogs and son are very nicely done, too.

But it’s an odd book, and I can’t deny that.

This was Book 17 in my #20BooksOfSummer project and also falls into All Virago / All August. Read Ali’s review here.


I’m currently reading Enid Bagnold’s “The Loved and Envied” and getting mixed up and confused by all the French and Scottish characters, but I’m sure it will come good.

One small confession: I ordered myself a second-hand copy of Charles Thomas’ “Exploration of a Drowned Landscape: The Archaeology and History of the Isles of Scilly” as we’ll be going there in the autumn and I wanted to read up on the Iron Age etc. sites. My friend Liz recommended this one by a friend of hers, I picked it up at an OK price from Abe Books (I don’t want everyone rushing to look on Amazon and seeing how much it goes for there!) and it looks amazing. I did like the stamps on the package, too, the Brownie and Guide one dating from 1982!

 

Book review – Angela Thirkell – “The Brandons” plus book confessions #20BooksOfSummer #amreading #ViragoBooks

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I’ve continued my reading for 20BooksOfSummer with Angela Thirkell’s “The Brandons”, which also counts for both All Virago / All August and the LibraryThing Virago Group’s author for this month. Go me! I’ve swapped out that great big Tirzah Garwood’s “Long Live Great Bardfield” (the largest of those three Persephones) for Stella Gibbons’ “Starlight” – although my copy isn’t a Virago, Gibbons is a Virago author thanks to “Nightingale Wood” so, as I’d started it after “Summer Half” by mistake, I’m finishing that and leaving the Garwood for a more leisurely read in the next few months.

In book confessions news, I’ve had an old friend newly actually met visiting: she brought me several books and then we managed to buy some more, pics and details below the review …

Angela Thirkell – “The Brandons”

(25 December 2017 from Verity’s marvellous parcel)

I’ve read “Pomfret Towers” a while ago, which seems to come between this one and “Summer Half” so I’m all out of order and will need to do a proper re-read when I’ve collected the set. But this was great fun and near enough to my read of “Summer Half” that it was a joy to come across some of the same characters.

This is the story of the Brandon family: fragrant widow Lavinia, on whom everybody inevitably gets a crush, tall, handsome son Francis and daughter the deliciously bloodthirsty girl with a heart of gold, Delia, and their cousin (ish), Hilary Grant and his hilariously dreadful mother. The plot hinges around the decline, death and legacy for the monstrous aunt-by-marriage, Miss Brandon, and the Vicar and Miss Brandon’s companion, Miss Morris, who turn out (of course they do) to be sworn enemies, play important roles, too.

The Keiths from “Summer Half” and Laura and Tony Moreland (an older, wiser and more attractive and self-aware character again) also make notable appearances: Lydia Keith has been to Paris but it doesn’t seem to have taken the edge off, and we can admire her marvellousness as much as ever. Will she end up with Tony or Noel, I wonder? And of course, there being a Vicar, there’s a summer fete, leading up to and at which much of the action takes place.

There’s some patronising of the lower classes but thankfully no Eastern Europeans and Hilary’s Italy-obsessed mother is a type that is very amusing indeed. Nurse and Rose, doyennes of the Brandon household, are celebrated for their mastery over all who come into their orbit.

Mrs Brandon’s little mischievous moments and attempts to introduce drama into the proceedings are seen through by her son and her old friend Sir Edmund, although she still manages to invite confusions and confidences, and there’s a very funny scene where Sir Edmund feels moved to protect her from the Vicar.

I love Miss Morris’ dream, the dream of many characters in the gentle but sharp novels I love to sink into, Thirkell, Pym et al:

A parish, every detail of which was under her hand and eye. (p. 272)

Will her dream be fulfilled? I love how it’s respected, even if being gently smiled at, but pretension, controlling and calf love are pricked and deflated.

This was Book 16 in my 20BooksOfSummer project.


My friend Cari has been visiting – I’ve known her for years and years through BookCrossing and, later, running, having been cheering her on from across the ocean as she’s learned to run and learned to love running. When she was coming to London for a week, it was possible to arrange for her to come to see us, so she has had a whistle-stop tour of Birmingham (yesterday) and Stratford-upon-Avon (today). Being a BookCrosser, she brought me some books; being us, we then bought some more in Stratford (even though we didn’t comb through all the charity and second-hand bookshops).

Top two from Stratford, the rest from New York!

Sarah Henshaw – “The Bookshop that Floated Away” – the story of the famous British Book Barge

George Eggleston – “Tahiti” – a 1950s travel book with lovely hand-drawn maps

Lisa Tamati – “Running Hot” – female ultra runner takes on the Badwater Ultra

Craig Childs – “Finders Keepers” – investigating the ethics of where archaeological artefacts get to be kept

Bart Yasso – “My Life on the Run” – famous road runner shares wisdom and insights

Sarah Reinertsen with Alan Goldsher – “In a Single Bound” – para-athlete and triathlete’s life story

Cy A. Adler – “Walking the Hudson” – guide to walking the Hudson River

Book review – Ellen Glasgow – “Barren Ground” and some book confessions #20BooksOfSummer @ViragoBooks

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I approached my first Virago of this summer with a little trepidation, given that it was a bit of a hefty tome and by an author whose last book I had a bit of a problem with (read the review of “Virginia” here) but actually it was really readable and I steamed through it with relative ease, enjoying both the what-happened-next aspect and the detail and descriptions. Phew.

I also accidentally fell into The Works as I was leaving next door’s Holland & Barratt (vitamin pills and running recovery bars) and came out with three paperback novels for a fiver. My Cornish friends will know why I couldn’t turn at least one of them down …

But first to my first All Virago / All August read.

Ellen Glasgow – “Barren Ground”

(25 December 2017 – Not So Secret Santa from my Virago Group santa, Lisa)

As mentioned above, while more books by this author had been firmly on my wishlist, I was a bit intimidated by it, esp as I’ve sort of Fallen Behind a bit with 20 Books of Summer. No need to worry, though, as I plunged into the world of the strong Dorinda Oakley, seduced and abandoned, who re-forms herself in New York then returns to take over the family farm in Virginia. What a story, and I loved how it was written by Glasgow in her early 50s, the age Dorinda has reached by the end of the book.

It’s very powerful on how people get trapped by the land and their circumstances, needing a big injection of innovation and cash if they want to haul themselves out of the desperate struggle to keep going. Hard work isn’t enough, as Dorinda’s parents find: some luck and open-mindedness, plus cash, are needed, and hardly anyone gets this. It’s a small community where Dorinda and Jason’s names will be linked forever: will she be able to perform a final act of charity? A few pretty dresses have to come at the expense of a new cow, everyone knows everyone’s business and the broomsedge, pine and life-everlasting will take over lost fields, one by one.

The innovative and compassionate are praised but don’t always do well; and a bad character doesn’t condemn you as much as weakness and fear (Jason’s problem is that he’s neither good nor bad enough). Dorinda is ripe to fall in love with the first man who comes along, and her love is described in aching detail – but so is her rebuttal of love and reliance on land and hard work that comes afterwards. The scenes in New York are a bit reminiscent of “Pilgrimage”‘s dentistry sections, but the whole book, with its strong sense of predestination, its chorus of rural dialect and brooding landscapes reminded me of Hardy – and I was happy to be vindicated on this when Paul Binding pointed out in the introduction that Glasgow met Hardy and was very influenced by him. There’s a good level of detail on exactly how Dorinda improves the farm, which will always attract me to a book.

As to the problem I had with “Virginia”, well, the black characters are a little infantilised and you have to read with gritted teeth, reminding yourself this was people’s attitude in the 1920s. However, it’s not nearly as bad, and we have characters such as Fluvanna who is pretty well Dorinda’s equal in the running of the house – really, her wife, and definitely most constant companion.

These two quotations sum the book up for me:

She could never be broken while the vein of iron held in her soul. (p. 141)

and

At twenty, seeking happiness, she had been more unhappy … than other women; but at fifty, she knew that she was far happier. The difference was that at twenty her happiness had depended upon love, and at fifty it depended on nothing but herself and the land. (p. 365)

An enthralling book with a heroine the equal of a Bathsheba Everdene and more highly recommended than you would think at first glance.

This was Book 1 in All Virago / All August

This was Book 12 in #20BooksOfSummer


I’m currently reading Angela Thirkell’s “Summer Half” which is a delightful school-set romp I’m highly enjoying. Reading that, I’m not sure why I thought I needed some light relief, as what is more fluffy than an Thirkell, but I picked these up anyway …

Tracey Corbett’s “The Summer Theatre by the Sea” is set in Cornwall and features a picture of the famous Minack Theatre on the front cover. My friend Pam works there, so how exciting! Laura Kemp’s “The Year of Surprising Acts of Kindness” is about a Welsh village that gets rejuvenated by a mystery benefactor, and Clara Christensen’s “Hygge and Kisses” is about finding happiness in Denmark. All very much part of trends that are going on at the moment but I’m sure I’ll have a tired and delicate moment these will fill nicely.

What are you reading? Have you bought any new books yet this month?

Book review – Peter Ginna (ed.) – “What Editors Do” #20BooksOfSummer #amreading @KOKEdit @DoctorSyntax

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I’ve been a bit absent on this blog this week – sorry! I finished this book ages ago and have been absorbed in Henry II (you’ll have to wait for my review of “King of the North Wind” until it’s out on Shiny New Books, and no, I haven’t quite written it yet. Or finished the book). I’ve had a lot of work on this week and just don’t seem to have got round to writing this review, especially as it’s quite a special book.

Being Book 9, you can see the white spine, well, well over half way up the pile you can see in the pic. So I’ve probably got fewer pages to read before the end of the challenge than I’ve read already (right?).

You see, I basically bought it because it had a chapter by a friend of mine in it. Whoo hoo! But I read it all because it was fascinating, engaging and useful. Hooray!

Peter Ginna (ed.) – “What Editors Do”

(15 October 2017)

The book’s subtitle – “The Art, Craft, and Business of Book Editing” very aptly sums it up. Oh, and it’s beautifully edited itself, too. After an excellent introduction giving us useful definitions (trade, mass market and scholarly publishing, for example) and the three phases of editing (acquisition, text development and publication), Ginna shares that he is optimistic about the profession, which sets the scene for a fascinating and engaging read. We then have a series of wonderful chapters covering the bigger themes of acquisition, the editing process, publication, categories and varieties of careers in book editing. Although I am an editor, I only cover the text development side of things (and then narrower categories within that, as I tend towards line and copy-editing and proofreading rather than developmental editing) so it was a revelation and great learning experience for me to find out more about how the publishing industry works as a whole.

All of the chapters are fascinating in their different ways, and the chapters aren’t too long and are full of personal experience and honesty (with lots of people admitting all sorts of mistakes along the way, with Matt Weiland even outlining a Terrible Error he made with someone’s book, which is very refreshing but very like the edibuddies I’ve come to know during my career), so it’s engaging and attractive to read all the way through and never dips or drags.

The book is full of great, down-to-earth advice. Some things appear more than once, so are obviously hugely important, the two main ones I noticed being never buy a book you don’t love and there’s a lot of emphasis on making sure the writer’s voice and intent shine through in everything you edit which I think would reassure writers.

The categories or genres section is full of really interesting case studies – especially the one on developing and editing the different kids of children’s books by Nancy Siscoe. I was pleased to read that Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” (which I reviewed here) was the best memoir that Jonathan Karp has edited, and I enjoyed Betsy Lerner’s experience of being edited herself (I wrote about my experience of that over on my work blog here).

I enjoyed Carol Fisher Saller’s piece on the nuts and bolts of copyediting (I read her book a while ago and loved it), especially her comparison of different ways in which different style guides expect editors to format abbreviations, etc. and her discussion of “the mistaken belief that there is a single ‘correct’ way to render a piece of writing” (p. 110). This is something I’ve encountered with some of my own clients and I’ll be quoting from the piece when I write an article for my work blog on this topic: it was great to see it treated here.

Katharine O’Moore-Klopf’s chapter on making a career as a freelance editor, which is of course is super, is what I bought the book for and how I knew about it, but I stayed to read all the chapters and the whole thing was a complete delight.

I would recommend this book to all editors, writers and people generally interested in the process of how books get from ideas to the printed (or electronic) page. The chapters I’ve singled out are by no means the only stand-out ones: it’s of a very good quality and level of interest throughout.

This was Book #9 in my 20BooksOfSummer challenge.


I’m currently finishing off “King of the North Wind”, and very good it is, too (I’m learning an awful lot about this not-well-known king) and I’ve just started on Prajwal Parajuly’s “Land Where I Flee”, which promised to be a very good and entertaining culture-clash story about returning to one’s roots. What are you reading? How are you doing with your 20 Books of Summer or other challenges?

 

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