Book review – Thomas Williams – “Viking Britain: A History” #amreading @WmCollinsBooks @Battlescapes

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Viking britain Thomas WilliamsA wonderful book on Viking Britain, both its contemporary history and its effect on the land and imagination, highly recommended. This is my personal review, as it’s a topic I’m highly interested in, and a more professional review will appear on Shiny New Books, coming soon.

Thomas Williams – “Viking Britain”

(14 August 2018 – from the publisher)

Williams opens this book with a marvellous appeal to take the Vikings seriously. He sets out the idea that they’re seen as one-dimensional and cartoonish, a stereotype listed alongside gladiators, pirates, knights-in-armour and even dinosaurs,” contrasted with our attitude to the Romans as civilised and worthy of study. He shares a review of the Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition at he British Muesum, which he curated, which slams it for having no “gory recreation” and not appealing to fans of “Horrible Histories”. Would this person criticise an exhibition on the Romans for not making them more exciting and appealing to children? He thinks not. He sets out his intention to rehabilitate this attitude, and to share

the story of how the people of the British Isles came to reorient themselves in a new and interconnected world, where new technologies for travel and communication brought ideas and customs into sometimes explosive contact, but which also fostered the development of towns and trade, forged new identities and gave birth to England and Scotland as unified nations for the first time. (p. xvi-xvii)

He says, “I hope this book may help to restore to the Vikings some of the dignity that they have too often been denied,” (p. +xix) and I think he succeeds in this. He also states that it’s not supposed to be an academic or a definitive book; as a non-academic book I appreciate the care he still puts into the referencing.

Williams writes fascinatingly of the way in which the Vikings slotted in to a place between the past, when they encountered their enemies at barrows and ancient sites, and the future, where the writers of the 19th century studied and spoke about them and formed our current view of these people, right through to now, when so many of the sites and words we see and use hark back to these times. He uses contemporary or near-contemporary texts, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and others, to describe the events from the first raids on the East Coast to the Norman Conquest, carefully and meticulously comparing and evaluating his sources. He discusses the way in which the breadth of the cultural and historical changes the Vikings wrought in Britain and around the world have been reduced by

half-digested Icelandic sagas, Wagnerian wardrobe cast-offs, classical ideas of barbarian virtue and a good dose of romantic nationalism (p. 43)

and in the process have lost the detail and ambiguity – why, he asks later, were both Viking-style and traditional Northumbrian boots being made in York at the same time and what can we tell from that about the mix of the cultures (not much: he’s always careful not to make assumptions).

Once he’s covered the later reincarnations of the stereotypical Viking warrior, we get down to the often convoluted history of the happenings from the first raids onwards. He examines events from different viewpoints where he can – which is fascinating. Scotland and the north get their own treatments, even though the history of Scotland in particular has got lost in the mist of time – again, it’s very clear when we just don’t know who someone was or what happened somewhere. He talks about the Danelaw and Ragnarok with equal authority and is a completely trustworthy companion through this maze of history, never putting a foot wrong.

One curious and I thought very well-done feature is short pieces of creative writing or translation, gleaned from the sources and stitched together, and – I THINK – written only in language that would have had its roots in the times he’s discussing – so no Latinate words. This is a risk, placing fiction in a non-fiction book, but it’s clearly marked and I think it comes off.

I loved the little pieces of pop culture that Williams weaves in, not in the rather odd way that some references were made in “Sacred Britannia” but wryly popped in in a way that doesn’t disrupt the narrative but enhances it – Tolkien and William Morris are mentioned, of course, with their readings of Norse culture and the like, but Douglas Adams’ Slartibartfast and his liking for fjords comes in, and he even manages to compare the somewhat morose writer of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles to Marvin the Paranoid Android, also from Hitchhiker’s.

I also liked the little bits of personal narrative – not so much as in MacFarlane’s works, for instance, but giving a really raw and present sense of being in the landscapes of the Viking age now – which is, after all, one of his points, that a lot of the places and the feelings of being in those places exist now, too. He’s not afraid to insert his own opinions on current as well as older scholarship and I like this bravery and sense of him being very much on his subjects’ side even when he’s being clear-eyed about their cruelties and flaws. I really liked it when he bewailed the fact that the Manx lawspeaker declaims the year’s laws in Manx Gaelic and English (“But not, alas, in Old Norse” (p. 221) – exactly the reaction I would have had).

I loved the little notes pointing to the breadth and depth of the author’s knowledge, which sometimes feel like little personal rejoinders to those of us who have studied the Norse world ourselves, for example an aside on p. 168 when talking about a war banner raised in a battle:

There is a great deal that might be said about ravens and banners, weird sisters and weaving, and their place on the Viking Age battlefield.

I’d like very much for him to say that one day, and will be on the lookout for more books.


Many thanks to the publisher, William Collins, for sending me this review copy in return for an honest review. A slightly different review will appear on Shiny New Books in due course: I wanted to be able to share a more personal review as well as a more professional one.

 

Book review – Bart Yasso – “My Life on the Run” #amreading #running @RunBookshelfFB

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I pulled this book out of order (I only acquired it last month, from the lovely Cari, when she was visiting) because it was the Runner’s Bookshelf book of the month. But in truth, it’s no hardship to pull a book on running off the shelf a few months (OK, a year) early. I ended up feeling a little ambivalent about this one. Oh, but who else pores over race training plans that they never intend to use? It’s a bit like reading cookery books from cover to cover, isn’t it! Does this happen in other genres, too?

Bart Yasso – “My Life on the Run”

(23 August 2018 – via BookCrossing, from Cari)

The autobiography and race reports (for some races, though: an Antarctic marathon among others!) and training plans in the back (including an interesting 10-day based plan: what??) from the Runner’s World Ambassador and massive distance runner who invented the Yasso 800 (basically, the average of 10x800m repeats will echo your marathon time: run 800m in an average of 04:25 and your marathon time will magically be 04:25:00).

I liked his story of his own redemption from a hard-living lifestyle, especially as he later teaches a group of prisoners to run (although he doesn’t disclose his history to them), and the humility he shows in discussing his Lyme Disease and his decision to make every run he has left count, basically by going out in perfect conditions, doing races and pacing that he really cares about, but limiting general runs to a few miles. This must be an awful trial for someone who’s been up there doing Death Valley runs and whatnot. I like his emphasis on running as a form of therapy in his recovery, and his depth of experience means he can tell tales of running in the Boston Marathon of 1982, 50 minutes behind the epic Salazar/Beardsley battle.

But I wasn’t so personally sure about his early exhortation to “Run on the edge of death” and “Run until you puke” – not my style at all and I found that off-putting (I do realise that one has to try hard and that I don’t like pushing myself, but I don’t think this emphasis is particularly helpful), and his drip feed of attitudes to women being based around them being “cute” or not is wearing. To be fair, he is respectful of those women he lists in his running heroes section, and he’s friends with Amby Burfoot, whose own weird attitudes I detailed in my review of his book. But when, talking about his wedding, he inexplicably feels he has to mention that they’re married by a mayor, who happens to be a woman (“That makes her a mayoress” (it doesn’t)), it does grate a bit.

One other thing I did like to round up this slightly ambivalent review: under the newbie’s marathon training plan, he mentions that next time, “You can … improve either your time – or how easy your time is” (p. 230) and he does mention that the effort to do a 6-hour marathon is just as important as faster efforts, so that’s encouraging.


I’m currently reading “The Vikings in Britain” and thoroughly enjoying it. I’ve had quite a lot on and am really hoping to get to my Iris Murdoch read for the month soon – I know at least two of the Readalong-ers have already finished it!

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 …

Book review – Joanna Cannan – “Princes in the Land” #20BooksOfSummer #Amreading @PersephoneBooks

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My last Persephone read in August (I note there is a Persephone Reading Week in October so might be able to slot “Long Live Great Bardfield” in then. I enjoyed the other Joanna Cannan I’ve read, “High Table“, though found it a little dated: although this is set in interwar England, the sentiments and experiences are fresh and relevant today.

Joanna Cannan – “Princes in the Land”

(25 December 2017 – from Ali, who reviewed it here)

A quietly desperate book which is beautifully done but raises the question very forcefully about how valid it is to pour all your love and care and concern and friendship into raising children when they will apparently throw it all off at seemingly the first opportunity. And we’re not talking a smothering mother here but a fair, friendly and liberal one who offers opportunities for free and frank discussion and growth. Or thinks she does. Kind of the opposite of the mother in “Guard Your Daughters”.

In this smallish book told in episodes that jump forward a few years to a decade or so in time (very clearly delineated), we first meet Patricia and Angela and their controlling, anxious mother Blanche on their way to (have to) live with their paternal grandfather after their father’s death. The forbidding old man takes a liking to fiery, unfeminine Patricia, who rides unsuitable horses and hunts (sorry, not one for the non-lovers of hunting, although there are no actual Unpleasant Scenes, just mentions), while bored by compliant Angela and Blanche, who never forgets they are there on sufferance and keeps a tight-lipped, passive-aggressive lid on herself. Living honestly is the key here.

Patricia meets a spiky working class man as she rushes around impulsively making friends on trains (the very idea!) and then we watch them transform – and I’m struggling to think of another book I’ve read recently that portrays so well how the cocoon of marriage and parenthood transforms lively young things into, here, a watchful, resourceful and domesticated mother and a complacent Oxford don, consoled by the fact that everything that happens has happened before in history.

The narrative is quite unconventional and experimental in parts, sometimes mentioning Patricia in the present tense, as though the narrator/author is a friend of hers, and memorably including a paragraph detailing the thoughts of the family horse. But it’s not so experimental that it’s tiring to read, if you know what I mean, just a little quirky.

One by one, Patricia’s children betray her and her careful raising of them, submitting to the cheaper lure of suburbia, getting embarrassingly religious or proving to shockingly NOT be horsy, and as she ages (to my exact age – oh no! She is missing some teeth but not as decrepit as the heroine of “A Lady and Her Husband“) she despairs. Will anything jolt Patricia out of her malaise?

A devastating, quiet portrait of the change that family life brings to especially women (husband Hugh’s family and catalyst appears to be the university, although he claims to have deep feelings about the family). Poor Patricia is blind to both the interior, independent lives of her children and the disdain her academic neighbours have for her old-money, upper-class ways, but she tries so hard and we long for a resurgence of her old life and vigour.

This was Book 19 in my #20BooksOfSummer project and the last book in All Virago and Persephone / All August.

 

Book review – Enid Bagnold – “The Loved and Envied” (Virago) #20BooksOfSummer #amreading

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I’m fairly galloping through my 20 Books of Summer now and I really think I’m going to do it, as I’ve almost finished “Princes in the Land” and then I only have one to go by the end of Monday! I have enjoyed my reading and seeing what other people have been doing, although it’s always bittersweet to know that the end of summer is coming along with the end of the challenge (having said that, it’s been very autumnal here for the past week, so that’s not particularly surprising).

Enid Bagnold – “The Loved and Envied”

(22 May 2018 – from Claire)

I feel a bit sad because my lovely friend Claire passed this to me when we met up with her in Birmingham, and I didn’t massively enjoy it. I think Bagnold is quite an odd writer: there’s “National Velvet” which you read as a child and it’s fine, but it’s actually pretty peculiar and very overwrought, then there’s “The Squire“, which is all milky and full of babies, then there’s this roman a clef which uses people from Bagnold’s own circles but adapted.

I have to admit here and now that I’m not keen on novelisations of real events and people. It’s fine, in my book, to put portraits of people you know in books, but a whole book based around the life (but not EXACTLY) of a real person just doesn’t appeal. I noted from the back of the book that this was based on Lady Diana Cooper, but then I couldn’t see how the heroine, Lady Ruby Maclean as she becomes, was English, and her husband certainly didn’t seem to be a diplomat. Isabel Colegate does point out in the introduction that it’s “best seen as a tribute, rather than a serious character study” (p. viii), which is useful. But then Bagnold uses her friend Count Albrecht Bernstorff as the Duca Alberti, and I wasn’t clear whether he and Lady Diana knew each other. In fact, these two affectionate portraits produce what I feel is the emotional heart of the book, a long and loving friendship, even though I think the theme is meant to be one’s relationship with one’s beauty, or mothers and daughters.

I was left confused and, I’m afraid, cold. The narrative skips about in time and place, with Ruby’s daughter making an unsuitable marriage and going off to Jamaica and then we start back with Ruby’s childhood. I lost track of who everyone is, and a sub-plot of Rose, eternal mistress, served to confuse even more. The warmest portraits and relationships seemed to be of and with dogs. There were flashes of insight over how the famous beauty wasn’t a very feminine woman and her daughter’s relationship with her mother’s beauty, and it’s interesting when Ruby finds it hard to identify herself with her own face. Miranda just wants looking after and nearly makes two bad mistakes, but you can’t really warm to her.

This just didn’t work for me and I’m not sure I would rush to another Bagnold novel.

This was Book #18 in my 20BooksofSummer project and another in my All Virago / All August project.


So nearly done with “Princes in the Land” – which I’m finding quietly devastating – and that should be done for review tomorrow. Apologies in advance for doubling-up which may happen: I have my Iris Murdoch round-up to post tomorrow, my State of the TBR on Saturday and my running update on Sunday, plus two reviews to post by the end of Monday, so something will have to be over-stuffed.

How are you doing with your reading projects? Did you do 20 Books of Summer and how’s it going?

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

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