Book review – Chrissie Wellington – “A Life Without Limits” plus some unseasonal confessions

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Having committed to a slightly unusual way of reading my TBR, I picked off the NEWEST book that had come in at the time to read next.* This was one given to me at the county cross-country championships by my friend Kate from the running club, after I’d asked to read the copy she was offering to people.

I also had a walk up the high street in the week which ended up with me somehow buying three Christmas books. But they’re set somewhere lovely, so that’s fine, right? Read on to find out about those …

Chrissie Wellington – “A Life Without Limits”

(05 January 2019, from Kate)

Several people have touted this as the best running/sport book they’ve read (it’s actually a triathlon book, and she came to the sport from the swimming side, but there’s plenty about running in it). Unfortunately, I can’t quite agree – I really didn’t find her relatable, although there’s a huge amount about her to admire of course, and I had difficulty reading about some of the issues she faced.

It’s clear that Wellington has always been incredibly driven, and this is why she managed to excel in a sport she only took up relatively late.  She’s stubborn and she admits she rushes into things, leading her to injure herself often and not get on well with her teammates in her first professional set-up. More importantly for me, in the early part of the book she details falling into two different eating disorders, with rather too much information about how this happened: I find it difficult to read about such things and although she does explain how she climbed out of them and acknowledges the help she had, it does feel rather that she swapped one compulsion for another, having previously enjoyed sport for the social side and then become driven to the point of, for example, swimming with a broken wrist inadequately waterproofed and getting an infection.

The book does open well with a description of her first Ironman World Championships with some visceral writing. A good word there: runners are usually very open about their toileting issues, etc., among themselves, and I’ve certainly read some other very “open” accounts, but she takes the discussion of GI issues and antics to a whole new level, which shocked even me (and I’ve been to the (staff) toilet in a tile shop during a DIY marathon, so very little shocks me!). This sentence, although a bit different from her other experiences, sums up the book for me:

The big day dawned, and I was encouraged by an unusual steadiness in my bowels. (p. 253)

Okaaaaay! I liked her race reports and enjoyment of racing with amateurs (she even has a chapter dealing with various charity fundraising, adversity overcoming and brave amateurs she admires). She mentions her mum taking an exam in swimming timekeeping and judging, which is the first mention of this kind of thing I’ve seen in a book (though she fires a gun to start a race in the book so must have done some exams herself!).

An unusual and late-developing talent is still torn down then built up again by a first coach who is very harsh indeed, and while this was interesting to read about, it was so alien to my experience or anything I’d want to experience that it was very hard to read (I know people have different ways and we can’t all be the same, but it was just alienating to read it).

So a decent and interesting book but not the best book on sport I’ve ever read. I was glad to have the chance to read it, though!


Those naughty books – so we have “Confetti at the Cornish Cafe” by Phillipa Ashley, about a cafe holding a wedding (no, you don’t say); “Christmas at the Little Wedding Shop” by Jane Linfoot, and “Christmas on the Little Cornish Isles” by Phillipa Ashley again – this one set on the Isles of Scilly! I rather suspect these are all some way through series, as they were all out on The Works’ Christmas themed shelves (and now reduced to £1 each) so I might be forced to look for the others or might save them for my next trip to Cornwall or Christmas and read them all then. Anyone familiar with the series?

And how do you read YOUR books?

Next up, Iris Murdoch’s “The Black Prince”. I’m a bit late starting it already …

* Because Grab the Lapels does something similar but not exactly the same, she has asked me to share her link about her way of doing it, which I share gladly here.

Book review – D.E. Stevenson – “Mrs Tim Carries On” @DeanStPress #amreading

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As regular readers know by now, I’ve been very fortunate to have been sent some lovely books published by Dean Street Press in their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint: I’ve already reviewed “Spring Magic” and “Alice” and here’s the third one, and what a treat it was. This is the follow-up to “Mrs Tim of the Regiment” which was republished by Bloomsbury and which I read last year (just after I’d had an operation: no wonder I didn’t remember much about it when I was reading Heaven-Ali’s review of the same book!). This was published in e-book and print form on Monday and I feel bad for not getting my review out more promptly, but the lovely people at Dean Street Press are very forgiving so I hope they don’t mind.

D. E. Stevenson – “Mrs Tim Carries On”

(12 November 2018)

The lovely first sequel to “Mrs Tim of the Regiment”, detailing the life and surroundings of a British Army wife from the 1930s onwards, this one is both written and set during the Second World War, a circumstance I always find very moving and poignant.

Although the upbeat and funny “Provincial Lady” tone prevails, Mrs Tim is careful to explain to her friend Grace exactly how it is she carries on and doesn’t become unnerved or hysterical, in a passage which describes so accurately SO MANY books and diaries from the period:

None of us could bear the war if we allowed ourselves to brood upon the wickedness of it and the misery it has entailed, so the only thing to do is not to allow oneself to think about it seriously, but just to skitter about on the surface of life like a water beetle. In this way one can carry on and do one’s bit and remain moderately cheerful.

Faced with crises on the home front, including an exciting interlude while out in the countryside and a lack of gloves to send the men at the front, but also a more serious concern about Tim himself, she passes the test with flying colours, smoothing over skittish servants and dealing with her two precocious and amusing children,  plus her statuesque house guest, Pinkie (I do love the portrayal of female friendships in the book) and her complex affairs, friends far and near and characters from the first novel and even an influx of Polish airmen with whom she has to communicate in her schoolgirl French.

A trip to London to see her brother before he goes to war and then on to Essex to visit Tim’s uncle and aunt (brother and sister) contrasts with the fairly quiet time they have been having at the army base in Scotland, with the London blackout and a bomb crater being converted into a rockery respectively. Uncle Joe’s speech about his reaction to the threat of invasion is very moving and the book captures very well the spirit of carrying on and not complaining, but with many funny scenes and set pieces.

Although this book itself seems to come to an interesting and settled idea for a conclusion to their vagabond lifestyle, there are two more books to come in the series, and I’ve already put a paper copy of this one and the two sequels on my birthday list!

Thank you to Dean Street Press for sending me an e-copy of this book in return for an honest review.

Book review – Anne Tyler – “Vinegar Girl” #amreading

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I pulled this off the TBR a little out of order because it was the first smaller book on the shelf which would bear rattling around in my rucksack for a day out officiating at cross-country: I knew I’d have a bit of reading time while my friend Dave zipped round parkrun on the way. My lovely friend Laura bought this for me when we met up last year as a birthday present – how lovely to march round the charity shops of Stafford demanding books!

I have a new plan for reading my TBR which might happen and might not: the oldest, the newest and one from the Kindle, in rotation (apart from my Murdoch a month and any review books that are in). Might work, and will let me get to my latest acquisition sooner (see more on that below).

Anne Tyler – “Vinegar Girl”

(15 February 2018 – from Laura)

Not a standard Anne Tyler (and I thought it would be her last when I got it, as she’d announced that she would stop writing: I will be getting the paperback of her new one as soon as it comes out …) as it’s a retelling of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew”. Now, while I remember the main characters and their characteristics, and the vague outline of the story, I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow comparison. I love Tyler and I found myself just reading it for that aspect, as a novel by a favourite author. The retelling is in there, though, and cleverly done, although her characters are always quirky and you can’t think that just any woman would behave as Kate does.

So it worked as a novel on its own and was entertaining and a good read. Kate was believably mardy, as she is supposed to be, but her home set-up with her dad and his systems and her very different sister was completely Tylerian. The family and their relationships, including with aunts and uncles, are as beautifully done as you would expect, and the overseas characters are drawn carefully and their accents got across through their grammar, which we’re however reminded is not the only thing about them, but is used to show Kate’s thinking and noticing (I’ve just been reading a blog post from Louise Harnby about how to express accents in fiction (here) which is why this struck me, I think). A good read.


I did mention this on my running round-up post on Sunday, but for anyone who skips those, a new acquisition. I have to mention that only I could be officiating at a county cross-country match and STILL manage to acquire a book – my friend Kate from running club had offered to pass it to me but we’d not coincided until now, so she managed to get it to me in a gap between a race starting and me timing it through at the finish, after her own race. Good work! “A Life Without Limits” is meant to be one of the best sporting autobiographies ever and I can’t wait to dive into it: I know I really enjoyed her book on how to do triathlons even though I have absolutely zero interest in doing a triathlon!

 

Book review – Christopher Fowler – “The Book of Forgotten Authors” plus a book confession or three

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Well, my Christmas Cold seems finally to be subsiding, but I’ve been keeping wrapped up warm and out of the damp air and continuing to hack my way through my TBR – the only Christmas book left on the shelf now is “Long Live Great Bardfield” which I will at least start tomorrow. So I’m all the way through that left-hand end in the pic, including the big yellow one but not including the large grey one. I’m also quite excited that for the first time in a good few years, I’ll have read more non-fiction than fiction this year. Anyway, on to my most recent read, plus a few that arrived yesterday in the post …

Christopher Fowler – “The Book of Forgotten Authors”

(25 December 2017 – from Meg)

A natural book for me to receive as a present – on my wish list then off again. Amusingly, I think I was alerted to its existence by Simon Stuck-in-a-Book’s review, published exactly a year ago today!

An interesting book listing 99 books that Fowler, working on a column for the Independent and with a focus group of which half had to have not heard of the author, has decided are forgotten. Being alphabetical, it was a bit odd to start with Margery Allingham, who I’ve very much heard of: then again, I’m a big reader in my middle years who had a propensity for the mid-century book, so maybe fewer of them would be forgotten to me. There are also longer essays on the most prolific authors, writers who deserve to be forgotten, etc.

I did take exception to a few of them, not just Allingham. Georgette Heyer is constantly in print and found in The Works among other shops, and Delafield, Comyns and Watson have been republished by Virago and Persephone or other imprints and talked about … but maybe only in my immediate “bubble” I suppose. There were plenty of people I hadn’t heard of, although lots seemed to be crime and mystery writers, so this book wasn’t as hard on my wish list as I’d feared (this is a Good Thing, though!). It was exciting to see Frank Baker’s “Miss Hargreaves” mentioned, as that’s one Simon has always highlighted, and the personal touches were nice and entertaining – Fowler re-buying his own copy of a childhood favourite and getting a mention in the dedication of a republished novel by one of his finds, as well as his use of an Arthur Mee technique for slicing bananas.

An ideal Twixmas read for dipping into.


So it had become time to think about buying some more of the Vintage Classics red-spined Iris Murdoch reissues with their interesting introductions, as I’ve only got one left and they can take a while to come. Imagine my horror when I discovered Vintage are reissuing them AGAIN, this time with flowery covers, presumably for IM’s centenary in 2019. I couldn’t face having my “newer paperbacks” run (this is as compared to my UK first editions run and my “my original paperbacks” mix of Triad Granadas and Penguins, plus my incomplete sets of “early Penguins” and “horrific 70s covers”, hope you’re keeping up at the back!). What does a girl do when presented with this horror? Buys the last 11 (make that 9) all in one go.

Amazon never seem to quite promise to have the right ones, so I ended up buying those that are available with the red spines from Foyles and the rest that aren’t even available in that edition (but do have introductions, apart from the ones that don’t). And Vintage (which is an imprint of Penguin) never did reissues of “The Green Knight” or “Jackson’s Dilemma” so I will have to stick with my older copies of those, leaving me to have 24/26ths of the books in the new editions. The confusing editions are here and I really don’t trust them to do them all, so I’ll stay with what I have (also, where’s there a Swiss Cheese Plant in “The Sea, The Sea”??).

Anyway, here are the first two (non-red-spined ones) to arrive, plus a copy of Ada Leverson’s “The Little Ottleys”, which I bought for Ali for her LibraryThing Virago Group Not so Secret Santa gift then decided I wanted, too (I will pass along my copy of “Love’s Shadow” the first in the set, and that means this one doesn’t count as I will only need to read 2/3 of it, right??

Book reviews – Stella Gibbons – “Westwood” and Beverley Nichols – “The Tree that Sat Down”

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I don’t do double reviews very often but I’ve got a feeling I’m going to finish another book tomorrow and I hate to have them roll over into the next year, so here you go.  My stupid cold has persisted so all I’ve felt up to is sleeping and reading and a bit of Super Mario Cart. While reading is never a waste, obviously, and I have got a lot of TBR to get through, it’s a shame I can’t get on with the other stuff I wanted to do during the break.

Stella Gibbons – “Westwood”

(25 December 2017 – from Verity)

The last of Verity’s lovely parcel from last Christmas (the others were read during All Virago / All August) and a lovely big novel set near the end of the Second World War and published in 1946. Margaret, a plain and serious girl who’s a school teacher by happenstance and not vocation, is friends with cheery flibbertygibbit Hilda, busy doing her bit by keeping her service boys happy (and working at the Ministry of Food). Margaret meets an artist and his bohemian wife and brood of children, by accident, and through her, meets her father, the awful Gerald Challis, practitioner of nude yoga and serial philanderer, while Hilda encounters a sad lonely posh man in the blackout and takes up with him out of pity; we of course know they are one and the same and wait to find out what happens when they find out.

Against a wartime backdrop there’s the parallel plot of Margaret’s father’s friend and his daughter, who appears to be living with Down’s syndrome (this aspect is handled sympathetically but as you would expect of a novel from this era, in not a particularly enlightened way to modern eyes; there’s also a very stereotyped although mainly positive and strong female Jewish character so there’s a bit of discomfort in the reading, although not as much as there might have been). Margaret develops her character and becomes more attractive as a result: people keep mentioning that she needs some hardship to temper her and she does indeed blossom when she has actual difficulties to resolve outside of her parents’ unsuccessful and bitter marriage.

It all goes a bit odd in the end: the scales do fall satisfyingly from Margaret’s eyes re the Challis family, but when she’s reassured by Gerald’s mother than Beauty, Time, the Past and Pity will console her if she ends up alone in life, we maybe want a bit of a happier ending for her. Hilda meanwhile suddenly settles down. Gibbons’ wry voice can’t help intruding, especially on the awful Gerald, and that’s what brings the spark to this rather uneven novel.

Excitingly, this fills in another year in my Century of Books. That doesn’t happen too often these days!

Beverley Nichols – “The Tree that Sat Down”

(April 2018)

I bought this second copy of a beloved childhood read when replacing some books that had (long-distant) cat-related damage, and a Radox bath to help my cold brought this off my TBR pile as a second-hand volume that would take a little steam (it was fine).

Nichols, a big favourite of my blogging friend / actual friend Kaggsy, is of course best known for his acerbic novels and essays for an older audience. But he wrote a set of three children’s books in the 1940s and this is the first.

Judy and Mrs Judy, her grandmother, run a delightful shop in a willow tree in an enchanted wood, but suddenly experience unpleasant competition from the horrible Sam and his respective grandparent; Sam just wants to advertise and make money from the innocent animals. All looks to be lost when he brings in a witch to help, but the situation is saved by the kind and loving nature of Judy, who helps a tatty tortoise and gets frankly a somewhat unsatisfying reward at the end.

With its mentions of Bits of Paper which mean one thing in Germany and another in England (this was published in 1945) and its pathetic Russian bear who helps the enemy out of fear, I rather fear this is an Allegory rather than a straight story! I would like to read the unabridged version, however.


I’m currently reading my lovely big book of Norse Myths (mainly because as an oversized volume, it was occupying a space on both the front and back rows of the TBR) and Christopher Fowler’s “Forgotten Authors”, which was a 2017 Christmas gift. Will I get those nicely rounded off by the end of the year? Will I ever stop sniffling and coughing?

Book review – Wendy Welch – “The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap” #amreading @bookstorewendy

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I picked up a fairly mild but annoying cold on Christmas Eve, and although it’s hampered my attempts to have a Christmas dinner and get some running and yoga in, it has allowed me to get a good way into my reading. So here’s a review of a book I finished yesterday, and tomorrow we’ll have a book I finished today, with any luck. Also read on for some pre-Christmas acquisitions I made, fairly safe in the knowledge no one would have got them for me for Christmas (and I was correct in that assumption: phew!).

Wendy Welch – “The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap”

(25 December 2017 from my LibraryThing Virago Group Not so Secret Santa, Lisa)

I was attracted by the Big Stone Gap in the title of this book as I loved Adriana Trigiani’s novels set in this small town, but more than that, this turned out to be one of my top reads of 2018 (the reason why I save my Best Of list until 1 Jan: a really good book often creeps into Twixmas).

American Wendy and her Scottish husband Jack decide, on a bit of a whim, to buy a rambling Edwardian house in a small town and set up a bookshop. They cheerfully admit they know nothing and they have no budget and are determined not to get into debt – while carefully checking their privilege as they go and reminding themselves and us that by no means everyone is as fortunate as they are in being able to make these choices – so they have a lovely DIY attitude and rely on their own skills and on slotting into their community (making sure the support flows both ways), easier said than done and with some mistakes and setbacks along the way.

I love the way Welch explains exactly how they went about it (once they’d worked it out for themselves!) including such details as pricing books, arranging swap credits for donations before they’d even opened and working out what to do with bestseller hardbacks that dip in attractiveness almost immediately. She also explains that salient point that you have to love people almost more than you love books (something that some other booksellers approach from a different angle (see, Shaun Bythell’s “Diary of a Bookseller“; I have to say I prefer their attitude) as they, perhaps more than most, become a meeting point for the community and a listening ear for bereaved and hurting people who come in looking for or selling on books.

The sense of community is lovely, from Adriana Trigiani opening the store for them to the day a man comes in needing help and they tap into their network and find it for him almost immediately. They give back to their community of booksellers by touring local states and establishing a network of second-hand bookshops, and there are many thoughtful words about the value of reading and bookstores. Talking of words, there’s a delightful strand running through the book explaining various British words and phrases which is very amusing.

Much consideration is also shown to the town and area they live in. While it’s hard to get a way in sometimes, and local cliques can dominate, they understand the attitude of this poor region which often seems left behind in terms of funding initiatives and has a self-deprecating air: if you’re good and you’re here then you can’t be that good because you’re here, and also anyone who comes in and tries to start something will be treated with suspicion that they’re not in it for the long haul, and is likely to be talked about. They negotiate these issues with care and are honest about their mistakes, and this gives a depth to the book that adds to its bookshop opening genre.

There are lovely animals which are not harmed in the telling of this book – always a worry; in fact, when there’s peril for one creature, it’s actually multiplied rather than lost! An excellent read.


And so to two books bought from Any Amount of Books’ ever-reliable outside racks when I was in London with Emma earlier in the month. Laura Thompson’s “The Last Landlady” is a memoir about an English pub and the loss of such institutions, and by N.D. Isaacs and Rose Abdelnour Zimbardo‘s “Tolkien and the Critics” is a collected volume from 1970 that was hard to resist. I do try not to buy books near to the Christmas-Birthday season but it proved OK.

Book review – Tina Brown – “The Vanity Fair Diaries” #TheVanityFairDiaries:1983–1992 #NetGalley

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I have had this book for far too long – I downloaded it from NetGalley on 13 December 2017, so it’s older than any of the print books on my TBR. I was initially interested in it but then thought it might be dull, and kept skipping past it to more recent publications, trying to review them as they came out. Then another book blogger I follow (Rather Too Fond of Books) got round to reading her copy and reviewed it, and it sounded OK, so I went for it. And thoroughly enjoyed it, so there you go!

Covering an exciting decade in politics, celebrity, history and the media in America, this details the journey of the British editor and reviver of Tatler magazine and her journey through the labyrinthine politics of Condé Nast to be the feted and celebrated editor of Vanity Fair. It ends when her tenure there ends, although we find out what happened next, and seems to be a legitimate diary she kept at the time.

Brown states at the start that this is going to be filled more with starry excess than with social commentary, but it does chart variously the AIDS crisis, the change in political and social tone from the 80s to the 90s and the difficulty of sustaining two very high-powered careers and having a family of their own plus making sure her parents are looked after.

The book covers years when I was aware, so the names weren’t too distant for me and people were well-explained anyway. The introduction and epilogue gave a good framework to the diaries and explained the editing and publication process. She explains early on how a diarist doesn’t know what’s around the corner, while a memoir or history writer knows where the text is going in advance, although this does seem a little disingenuous, as she obviously shapes the material to some extent in the editing process, bringing out Donald Trump’s excess and dreadfulness and making sure Boris Johnson doesn’t come out too well, while presumably protecting some people.

Brown is very good on the sexism she encounters and the clear moment when she joins the “boys club” after negotiating a stellar new contract using hard-hitting tactics, but the detail all around is fascinating. She does share errors as well as triumphs and I was personally interested in how the transcript of an interview with Mrs Thatcher was used in a scandal around its publication. Fortunately, she does show awareness of the couple’s good fortune, as otherwise it would be a bit hard to care when they’re struggling to finance their second house … but a better read than expected, well-written and engaging.

Many thanks to Orion Publishing Group for making this book available to me via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

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