Book review – Horatio Clare – “Icebreaker” @ShinyNewBooks @ChattoBooks #amreading

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My review for this wonderful book, which I read last month, is available on the Shiny New Books website now. One of the things I really enjoyed about this book was reading about places I know about through my work – I work for a couple of translators in Finland, working over their (already very good) English to make sure it reads as if a native speaker wrote it, and lots of the companies, towns and other details that are mentioned here were weirdly familiar to me.

Anyway, whether you’ve always secretly wanted to visit Oulu or you’d like to have an insider’s view on icebreaking ships, or you just want to find out what it’s like to be stuck in isolation in a small crew on a small ship, have a look at my review and look out for the book.

Read more here.

Book review – Edmund Gordon – “The Invention of Angela Carter” #amreading


A review of a book that took me ages to read and has been the first completed book of the month (I have finished another since then, and am half-way through the next one). I’m still, somewhat horrendously, on last January’s books, but I seem to recall a book-buying hiatus at some time in the year, so am hoping to hop forward at some point and not be 11 months behind! See below for the first of the Christmas influx – and what a lovely beginning …

Edmund Gordon – “The Invention of Angela Carter”

(21 January 2017, from Ali)

The first proper biography of the author, even though it’s 25 or so years since she died, and very much concentrating on, as the title suggests, her own self-invention and people’s invention of her myth. Gordon takes as one of his themes her own idea that we all dress up in our personalities and perform femininity, etc. and aims to show this through the book; it’s a good theme to use, especially as he points out at the end that “She’s much too big for any single book to contain”.

He does also talk about her unreliability in her writings about herself and points out in the text when two accounts she makes in, say, a letter and an article don’t agree, or her stated memory clashes with one of her friends’. This make it an interesting and shifting work. He’s taken pains to track down old friends, editors and lovers and is clear about his process; I did find it odd, then, that at one point he mentions how “she would have viewed” A.S. Byatt’s work – surely better to quote from a source or leave that out, given the attention to reliability of sources (the endnotes are done in that modern way of quoting a page number and bit of text but there was nothing for this). Gordon also annoyed me near this assertion by implying that Barbara Comyns (loved by many fellow bloggers as well as me) was just a precursor to Carter and is not read much now. Humph.

There is an awkward encounter with Iris Murdoch, which I love, although (sorry, another although), IM appears in the index several more times relating to very light references that I wouldn’t necessarily have expected to be indexed, once for a reference to John Bayley being her husband. This seemed a little OTT but better too many than too few entries, I suppose. To be more positive, I loved her friendship with Salman Rushdie (and had no idea he accompanied Bruce Chatwin on his “Songlines” travels) and her dealings with Virago when that came about, and it’s meticulous on her contracts, contacts and trips and will be a great resource for scholars in itself.

I can’t say I warmed to Angela, not that I need to adore the authors whose work I enjoy, but I also wasn’t moved to go towards the books of hers I haven’t yet read, although I do intend to re-read “The Passion of New Eve” next year and I’d be interested in picking up some of her collected non-fiction. The rise of her mythical status as a white witch or fairy godmother (mainly seemingly based on her letting her hair grow out white) was well explained and her relationship with her main nurse brings a different angle to her last illness.

A decent book which I just didn’t love as much as I’d have liked to. But I learned a lot.

We had our BookCrossing Christmas meal on Friday and I was absolutely thrilled to receive from my friend Lorraine (who we’ve known since way back in 2005 when we moved to Birmingham) two wonderful pre-loved books from my wishlist. “Gone to Earth” by Mary Webb will be a wonderful dark Shropshire tale and Marcus Crouch’s “The Nesbit Tradition: The Children’s Novel 1945-1970” is so far up my street.

And look inside:

The Nesbit book used to belong to Manchester University’s John Rylands Library and the Mary Webb has the signatures of a past owner and a photo pasted in of the woman who played Hazel Woodus in the film. In fact, one of Lorraine’s relatives was an extra, too, as were many of her friends in the village. How wonderful (the bookmark, hand cream and (not pictured) 85% dark chocolate were all  most welcome too. Let the Book Flood begin!

Book review – Tim Ferriss – “Tribe of Mentors” #amreading #netgalley @EburyPublishing


Timothy Ferriss – “Tribe of Mentors”

(eBook from NetGalley, downloaded 10 November 2017; published 21 November 2017)

I have had a bit of an on-off relationship with Mr Ferriss’ books – his famous “4 Hour Work Week” had some really good points about controlling the need to read new emails as soon as they come in etc but I wouldn’t want to do my job for only four hours a week and I found some of his methods a little iffy … but my interest was piqued by this new project, in which he asked lots of people he knew several carefully crafted questions to draw out their life experience and advice. He makes it clear that the hardest part was sorting the questions out, and they are good ones, for example what’s the best thing you’ve bought recently for under $100, what investments have you made that have made a difference, what book do you give to people, etc.

He interviewed over 100 people and claims that any reader will be inspired / have their life changed by at least 17 of them, while rejecting around half. I’m not sure I found 17 to change my life, but there were some really good ones, and the range of interviewees, from Ashton Kutcher to Icelandic cross-fit champions via Dita von Teese and Neil Gaiman was interesting.

Common points came out time and again: invest in noise-cancelling headphones; take up meditation; do yoga; and walk or run outdoors. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s good that these relatively small efforts help a lot of people, and the repetition reminds us of their worth. I found it a bit odd that he asked some of the cross-fit and power-lifting more questions to do with those specific disciplines, and thought that unbalanced the book a bit. There was a bit of woo and Paolo Coelho enthusiasm which I skimmed: he does talk to a lot of tech and marketing gurus so that will come through.

Some people only had a few questions and pages, others a lot of detail, and it wasn’t clear whether this was because they only chose to answer a few or some bits were edited out. I was disappointed not to have more by Temple Grandin and Gaiman, but that’s a personal reflection.

Things I really liked were the repeated advice to treat invitations as if they were going to happen tomorrow: would you be excited about them or not? Then decide whether to say yes. I also liked Ariana Huffington’s assertion that burnout is NOT a good thing, Temple Grandin’s concentration on “project loyalty”, as in you do a good job and make the project work regardless of the obstacles placed by others, and Steven Pinker’s list of advice to a bright young college graduate: find a balance between something that’s common knowledge and something only you are interested in; ignore advice to follow your intuition without thinking things through properly; and focus on the effectiveness of your actions, not your own self-actualisation. I liked best Jocko Willink’s very practical advice from life as a Navy SEAL – you need discipline to attain freedom, in all sorts of spheres, and when you feel overwhelmed, pick off the thing with the biggest impact and deal with that first. Kristen Ulmer advises to honour your moods by letting them be and then pass, which is something I’ve been trying to do for a while now.

So I did find a lot to like but there were a few repeats and a bit too much info on lifting very heavy weights …

Thank you to Ebury Publishing for making this book available via NetGalley.

Book review – Angela Thirkell – “The Headmistress” @ViragoBooks #amreading


I started this book last week for the Undervalued British Women Novelists Facebook Group’s Angela Thirkell Reading Week. Unfortunately, the Reading Week finished yesterday and I finished reading this book today, but I’m still going to post it there and I’m glad I read it. This was the book that Ali had posted me to surprise me when I returned from our Cornwall holiday, and she read the book (in a different edition) at the same time as me – see her review here. We had quite similar views (and reservations) about this book, so it’s nice that we’ve reviewed it on the same day, too.

Angela Thirkell – “The Headmistress”

(7 October 2017 – from Ali)

One of the Barsetshire series, read slightly out of order, although that doesn’t seem to matter too much as it didn’t feature characters centrally that I’ve come across in others of her books. It’s set during the Second World War, and I always find it terribly poignant when a book set at that time was published, as with this 1944 novel, before the end of the conflict. Thirkell wouldn’t have known what was going to happen to her characters any more than we do (maybe a Thirkell expert can comment on whether we meet the Boltons again in a later novel).

A girls’ school has finally found a place to live in Harefield Park, and although this means the Bolton family have had to move out and rent it to them, the rent comes in very useful and they actually enjoy living more centrally in the village (although renting from one of their tenants!). The headmistress of the school, Miss Sparling, is an asset to the small community, making friends with the residents and providing a point of interest (is she a perfect headmistress or TOO perfect a headmistress?) and her girls weave their way into society, too, seen on the edge getting up plays or going skating. Miss Spurling also ends up with two special men friends, and I did like the way romance delicately blossomed for this lady in late middle age.

There’s much to like – a reference to Trollope’s own Barsetshire resident, Dr Thorne, early on, the real pathos of Mrs Bolton’s feelings about her sons and daughter, all rushing around doing dangerous war work, and the psychological acuity on relationships between the women of the village, shown up most during their working parties, and the schoolgirls, not to mention the relationships between the Bolton family members, and the lovely eccentrics, most notably the accident-prone but charming Mrs Updike.  The details of life during the war, too, are beautifully portrayed, with the Vicar trying to work out how to paint a line round the bath to keep down his water usage and the make-do-and-mend and trying moments when all the help has gone to the armaments factories.

However, there’s the trademark Thirkell snobbery, most obvious in the tradesman in his bear-like tweeds and his unattractive daughter, Heather (although she has pathos and does show promise and strength) and the servants that still remain (although, again, the one put-upon maid might just prevail and get her moment of romance after all). Unlike Ali, I didn’t mind the new brisk woman doctor with her new-fangled ideas, mainly because I felt she was only made into a female character in order to produce one effect on another character to do with hats, but I did take exception to a moment where Mrs Bolton cheerfully tells her daughter’s fiance that Elsa could do with a good beating: this seemed out of character for both author and character. There’s also some really quite nasty casual racism around the ‘funny foreigners’, the Mixo-Lydians and Slavo-Lydians, OK just about when they’re a pet project of the silly doctor’s wife, but presented in such a way as tiresome refugees with ancient rivalries that feels like what would now be a somewhat Brexity attempt at the time to humour people who were presumably tiring of real refugees from the war. I heartily wished those sections excised.

However, the good outweighed the bad and I certainly enjoyed reading this more substantial Thirkell and will keep reading her others.

I’m still working my way through “The Invention of Angela Carter”, another gift from Ali – I’m just not liking Carter at all (OK, you don’t have to) and have a few issues with the way the book’s put together. We’ll see. I need to start “The Icebreaker” next to review for Shiny New Books, and I have won two more NetGalley books (leaving my reviewed books percentage hovering neatly at 80%!), Tim Ferriss’ “Tribe of Mentors”, which has inspiring stuff from entrepreneurs and other achievers, and Jan-Werner Muller’s “What is Populism?” which claims to help us understand the rise of populist movements around the world, but I fear might be a bit heavy for me.

Book review – Mary Beard – Women and Power @ShinyNewBooks #amreading #books


I am a bit Behind at the moment: I’ve been reading Angela Thirkell’s “The Headmistress” for the Under-rated Female Novelists Reading Week which ends today, and haven’t finished it, let alone reviewed it, and I have another book to read for Shiny New Books, too (which I will get to soon).

Anyway, I was fortunate enough to be sent this book by the publisher, by the great scholar and avowed feminist, Mary Beard, to review for Shiny New Books. It’s a short read but an impressive and powerful one, and you can read my full review over on the Shiny New Books website.

Book review – Iris Murdoch – “Under the Net” #IMReadalong


I noticed I was a little nervous about posting this first review, under the bright gaze of all the people who are joining me in this readalong. So I think it would probably be useful to state here and now that I’m very much not setting myself up as some kind of expert: Murdoch is my favourite author and I get a lot out of reading her, but I am a fan more than I’m a scholar. And these threads and this project welcomes everyone’s opinion: the expert professors and researchers who have read everything multiple times and spent an academic lifetime studying literature in general, Murdoch in particular, the fans like me, the first-time reader and the person who doesn’t get what the fuss is about. While I’d rather keep things positive than inspire a well-spring of anti-Murdoch ranting, I am very clear (and should be, given my own research on the value of the “common reader”) that everyone’s opinions are equally valid. I hope we all approach this project in a spirit of sharing and that dissent, where it arises, is respectful.

By the way, thank you to the people who have kindly shared their book cover images with me. I will use these in my round-up post at the end of the month.

OK, on to the review.

Iris Murdoch – “Under the Net”

(14 October 2017)

It’s always a good sign when you’re rereading a book for the umpteenth time and you STILL can’t put it down, isn’t it (I recall my husband asking me why I was gasping at a point in “Jane Eyre” when I’d clearly read it a million times before). I read this alongside said husband, so tried to keep to an even pace, but really, I could have sat and read and read and READ.

In essence, the thing that really struck me this time (and I think this is my fourth time of reading – once in my teens, once in my 20s, in around 2008 when doing my last readalong and now, and having, I suppose, read all of her other books more recently than I had at each other reading of this one) was that it felt so very much like an overture, a distillation of all her themes. Of course I know that she did not go back in time and write this one last, as composers do with overtures, weaving in her themes, but it felt weirdly like that.

The themes I spotted in this book, recognised with glee, included: London, London vs. Paris, animals, siblings, pairings, opposites, pubs, river/wild swimming, artificial women, coils of hair, hairstyle changes, farce, complicated plans and procedures (the entry into the hospital in particular), stones (OK, one monolith), humans needing to live by “clear practical means”, Jewish people and Irish people, men with massive head, philosophers, “good” people absorbing pain and information (I’m thinking Mrs Tinckham here), Eastern objects and Buddhas, the virtue of detachment, pondering life in front of art works, Hamlet, weird sidekicks (Finn), institutions (the cold cure clinic, the theatre, the hospital), depictions of working life, chaotic rooms. I always felt that Murdoch’s oeuvre revisited many themes over and over: there are few here that are missing (incest, the sea, (although water obviously still figures), country vs city) but it’s really striking how many of them are already here.

Jake reminded me of Charles Arrowby from “The Sea, The Sea”, in his pronouncements, maybe more than Bradley in “The Black Prince”. And his description of Anna very much reminded me of descriptions of Hartley: “She was plumper and had no defended herself against time. There was about her a sort of wrecked look which was infinitely touching. Her face, which I remembered as round and smooth as an apricot, was become just a little tense and drawn, and her neck now revealed her age” (p. 41).

It is also a funny read – with Jake and Hugo arranging “to have the cold alternately” in the cold cure clinic (p. 71), Jake asking himself whether he belongs to the social class that steals tins of foie gras (he does), and having a morbid fear of losing his trousers. I had remembered this but had forgotten some of the concentration on romance, chasing a woman he thinks is Anna through Paris, and falling on Sadie with a whoop (not that romantic, as such), having considered it to be more about male friendship, philosophy and London adventures. Is there another character like Mrs Tinckham in the whole of Iris Murdoch’s novels?

I felt that Jake had accepted the contingent at the end, not knowing the answer and being happy – even amused – not to know. I don’t think I’d have thought that before, as that follows me having done more reading and conference-attending. So it’s very nice to feel that my engagement with the secondary literature and the IM Society have informed my reading. The author of the Introduction to this book (I bought these new copies in part for their introductions) considers this to be her best novel: I’m not sure I agree with that, but I did very much enjoy it, and I can’t wait to read on.

Matthew’s views

My husband is not going to read all of the novels alongside me: he has already read and loved “The Sea, The Sea” and “A Good Apprentice” and not loved “The Book and the Brotherhood”. He read this on audio book (read by Samuel West, as noted by a commenter on my first post – thank you – and had some comments to make, which I summarise below. He’s very much not an Iris Murdoch reader and although he’s read Russian classics prefers sci fi and modern novels to mid-century stuff, to give some background. He states he would not have come across IM, much less read her, without my influence.

Was Finn real? That was a great question I’ve never considered before! And who was the person Jake was considering going to live with at the end? Do they (like Hugo Bellfounder) pop up in another novel? He also thought Jake seemed like Charles Arrowby at the start, but became less self-centred. The book didn’t seem like it was written by a woman (when pressed, he said he didn’t feel the empathy he’d expect from a female writer). They are definitely books that need analysing and you can understand why people want to read them more than once. They don’t give up their secrets or intentions easily. The philosophy and politics went over his head, but then he’s not particularly interested in those for the sake of it.

OK, over to you! Please feel free to either place your review in the comments, discuss mine or others’, or post a link to your review if you’ve posted it on your own blog, Goodreads, etc. I will gather these together in a round-up post at the end of the month. If you have a cover image to share, please post it on your blog or email it to me using the email address on the contact form. I’d love to know how you’ve got on with this one and what you think of it, and if you read it having read others of Murdoch’s novels or this was a reread, I’d love to hear your specific thoughts on those aspects.

Book review – Colleen McCullough – “The Ladies of Missalonghi” and some book confessions #AusReadingMonth #amreading


I’m very excited to be able to take part in #AusReadingMonth for once – hosted by Brona’s Books and she has loads of lists of books, divided by non-fiction and fiction and by state, so do pop over to find out if you fancy taking part. I don’t think I’ve ever managed to join in with this one, even though I have read a fair bit of Australian fiction in my time. She talked about “The Ladies of Missalonghi” a while ago, and when I found out it was about small-town Australia and had a feisty heroine with one chance of escape, well, I had to click and order a copy, didn’t I.

I read this one before “Greensleeves” but that one had to slot in first for reasons of challenge dates. And didn’t I say I wasn’t doing any challenges this year? Hm, see below the book confessions to read how true that is!

Colleen McCullough – “The Ladies of Missalonghi”

(12 October 2017)

This is a fairy tale really, but a lovely one where you really root for the heroine, and you also do get quite a lot of detail about the fate of impoverished genteel ladies trapped in small-town Australia, unable to earn any money in all but the most indirect ways and vulnerable to being preyed on by even their male relatives. As the narrator, speaking in Missy’s internal narrative says,

The Missys didn’t know enough about men, and the smidgen they did know lay in the realm of generality. All men were untouchables, even jailbirds. All men had choices. All men had power. All men were free. All men were privileged.

And of course, just like we’re seeing a bit at the moment with all the sexual harassment scandals, the worst enemies of women turn out to be other, more privileged women, blind to their plights or to the reality of their lives. This is reversed quite satisfactorily here, though, as we hope all the way through the story.

Missy Wright lives with her mother and disabled aunt, and you know she’s going to be a good heroine because she’s a big reader, even though she’s tearing through romances at the moment. She turns out to be over 30, kept in a sense of suspended girlhood, from which the only escapes, literally, are illness and marriage – and it looks like she might have ended up getting sent down the former route. When divorcee Una starts working at the library (and passing her these contraband romances), she gently enlarges Missy’s horizons, and when a stranger shows up in town, Missy determines to grab her only opportunity (it doesn’t harm her plans that he’s both handsome and kind).

There are some great set-pieces with the more wealthy side of the family (basically, the whole town is populated by the Hurlingfords of various branches) which are satisfying, and a great, if fairy-tale, conclusion. There are a few slightly rude bits among the genteel organ-playing and sewing, but they are fitting and amusing in turn as the fates of two spinsters of different kinds are decided in two contrasting ways. A good read I’m glad I picked up.

November has started with some Book Confessions already, oops! My lovely friend Cari sent me a gorgeous parcel of three excellent looking books: another Dean Karnazes (amusingly, in the UK edition, he’s fully clothed!) and a book she’s approved about running faster (I don’t necessarily need to run much faster than I do, but could do with picking up things a tiny bit). The Iceland one looks interesting but is apparently a little patchy – I am a sucker for anything Iceland, so we’ll see with that one.

Then I met my friend Gill to re-stock one of our BookCrossing shelves and there was Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian”, describing life on and off an American reservation, which had been on my wish list for ages and came recommended by her and two others. So …

Obviously I finished this novel a few days ago and have read “Greensleeves” since. I’m currently devouring “Under the Net” – isn’t it great when you read a book for the fourth or fifth time and you STILL can’t put it down – and I’ve also started that lovely big bio of Angela Carter, to make a bit of room on the poor neglected physical TBR. I have “Radio Free Vermont” to read for NetGalley (published today, oops) and “The Headmistress” for Angela Thirkell Reading Week with the Undervalued British Women Novelists (see what I meant about challenges, but Ali sent me this one so it would be rude not to, right?).

Have you read any of this gallimauphry of books reading and planned to be read? Are you taking part in AusReadingMonth?



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