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!

It’s competition time! Win one of two fab books from @LethePress #competition #winabook

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Well, there were exciting happenings in the week, when my final two books in Paul Magrs’ “Phoenix Court” series arrived in the post. The full set of books includes “Marked for Life”, “Does it Show”, “Could it be Magic” and the previously unpublished “Fancy Man” and they’ve been reissued in lovely new editions by Lethe Press (more about them below), with additional material in the form of words from Paul and exclusive short stories!

Now, I read the first three of these books in the 1990s – I remember so clearly going round to Lewisham Library on the bus (the number 36 from New Cross Gate, which was still a Routemaster with the open platform at the back – sometimes I’d go round the back of the High Street, shoot straight past the library and up the High Street before I could get off, trudging back down the way I’d come with my big bag of books, because we could take either 9 or 12 books out at a time – and my golly, I did).

This wasn’t long after Paul wrote the books. I loved their North-East of England magic realism, a land of tatooed gentlemen swooping through precincts (precinct is a word I very much associate with Paul). I’d known some Birmingham regional writing and this was regional writing par excellence, taking the known and twisting it into a fun and fabulous unknown that you could get lost in.

Paul has of course gone from strength to strength, producing the much-loved Brenda and Effie novels, “Aisles”, which features Iris Murdoch as a character, and “Exchange”, which featured BookCrossing and led me to track Paul down with an email and make friends with him!

But these books I have remembered all those years, and yearned to have them. How could I resist when Lethe Press reissued them and I could subscribe (just like the old, original model of novel publishing!) and have them. And here they are.

But even more excitingly, due to a slight mix-up with my order, Lethe Press very kindly sent me MORE books. And being the generous lady I am, I thought I’d share them with you, my readers, and hopefully get Lethe a bit more well-known in the process.

Lethe Press

Lethe Press, who you can find here, publish “The strange, the eerie and the queer”. They’re big on speculative fiction and are devoted to ideas that get ignored or forgotten by the bigger, mainstream publishers. I think it’s brilliant that there are so many small presses dealing with topics that get pushed to the side – I read about so many of them on everyone’s blogs and it’s a lovely feature of today’s publishing world, I think.

The books

What fab covers, first of all!

Here are the blurbs:

“The Kissing Booth Girl” by A.C. Wise

“Ladies and Gentlemen: I give you the Kissing Booth Girl! Lips that beguile. Oh, I promise, the nearest thing to nuzzling an angel can be yours—today!—for a shiny round Seated Liberty I know you carry in your very pockets as I speak.” But to mechanically-inclined Beni, is the ethereal girl who fell from the sky a wish come true or false hope for life beyond the confines of the odd carnival called home. Her story–as well as tales of an order of deep-sea diving nuns caring for a sunken chapel and a high school boy asked to prom by the only dead kid he’s ever met–can be found in A.C. Wise’s newest collection of the fantastical, the weird, the queer and the poignant.

“The Spellbinders” by Aleardo Zanghellini

1299 AD. In the shadow of Canterbury Cathedral’s spires, a fateful encounter brings together Edward, teenage heir to the English throne, and a darkly handsome soldier from Gascony, Piers Gaveston. Youthful infatuation gives way to a bond more powerful than any attempt at keeping them apart. Edward and Piers enter a pact of sworn brotherhood. A decade later, Edward’s spirited new Queen, twelve-year-old Isabella of France, quickly becomes smitten as much with her royal consort as with his dashing lover. But the power-hungry Earls resent Gaveston’s monopoly of royal favour and his defiant self-assurance. Political intrigue mounts and the Earl of Lancaster has Gaveston murdered, leaving Edward devastated and thirsting for revenge. A debut novel, a historical epic with its foundation in the story of England’s most infamous homosexual prince, will captivate readers.


Now, I know I’ve got lots of lovely lady readers who like a jolly good mid-century forgotten women’s author, and so do I. But I like other stuff, too, and I know they do. Some have been exploring works in translation from all over the place, others live in Russia in their heads for years on end. And I’d like to bet I’ve got some adventurous readers or visitors who would just love to try one of these excellent reads.

How to win a book

To go into my marvellous prize draw, just comment below with a note of which book you’d like to try for (you can put down both!). I’ll leave it open until the end of the month then do some kind of random number generator business and post it off to you. Good luck! If you’re non-UK, I will need to send your book surface mail, but this is open to everyone. All I’d ask is that you promise to give the book a read and review it somewhere – anywhere, to help Lethe Press along, too. And do share my Tweet and Facebook post about the comp, too!

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.

 

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?

 

“The Time of the Angels” roundup and “The Nice and the Good” preview #IMReadalong @IrisMurdoch

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I’m so sorry this is a day late – I was basically working or doing yoga or getting laundry on the line all day yesterday and there was no time to put this together. I hope I’m forgiven. At least I got outside, unlike good old Carel …

So today we round up discussions on “The Time of the Angels” so far and then look ahead to “The Nice and the Good”. I’m really excited about this month’s read – this is what I consider a ‘classic’ Murdoch with its group of disparate characters all clustered around one couple and all linked through loves and relationships old and new. We might even need to draw a diagram!

“The Time of the Angels”

We had a really good discussion over on the review for this novel, looking at the writer of the introduction’s assertion that it would have been different if Carel had got out more and examining how frightening it is. I have to say I’m not quite as alarmed by it as when I first read it as a mid-teen, but it’s still very unsettling.

Jo has submitted an excellent, full review on Goodreads and the discussion on my review also gave her some food for thought. I will share links to any more Goodreads and other blog post reviews here in time.

In cover-sharing, David Mahon contributed this US first edition from Viking Press (1966) which came with a library card in it.

Peter Rivenberg’s 1975 Penguin cover is as disturbing as it should be

Buried in Print contributed a very subdued Penguin version

and Maria Peacock has the Vintage Classic before mine, complete with angel (the detail on the front is from Annunciatory Angel by Fra Angelico) and Maria mentioned that IM might have something to say about the hair!

This has the same blurb as my red-spined one.

If you have comments to make or links to blog posts or Goodreads reviews to post, you can put them here or (better still) on the review.

“The Nice and the Good”

And now we move on to an early favourite of mine (sorry about the terrible photograph, but my first edition is covered in a thin plastic that will not stop picking up lights). Again, I felt terribly sophisticated reading it in my mid-teens: it’s got a thriller aspect, a group of intellectuals and misfits in a sort of commune, a cat and a dog, an exciting scene of peril …

Here’s the blurb from my first edition:

I really like the reference to Midsummer Night’s Dream and mention of the duality of locations and think this sums the book up very well.

My Penguin is the 1986 edition, bought presumably in my first flush of IM discovery, and has this to say:

“No one in the book is good” – hm. One to discuss later. It IS a feast, however – well done, The Guardian.

And my Vintage Classic, well, I don’t think it has much to say about the book, actually, although it does spell out Octavian and John’s relationship.

But a quote from John Betjeman – that was a surprise.

Are you going to be reading or re-reading “The Nice and the Good” along with me? Are you catching up with the others or have you given up)? What’s your favourite so far? Your least favourite?


You will find a page listing all of these blog posts here, updated as I go along.

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