Book review – Simon Armitage – “Walking Away” plus as it’s about Cornwall … #books #amreading


I took this book on holiday specifically to read in or coming out of Cornwall, as it’s set in Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, and in fact read it on the train home, going through those exact counties! A triumph of themed reading. And as he visits Godrevy, St Ives, Newlyn and Penzance in the book, I’ll share a few photos from our holiday after the book review.  There’s no sign of the reading / reviewing slacking off, by the way – it’s marathon time on Sunday and so I’m resting up as much as I can, and will have a v quiet Saturday, then I’ll be recovering from the big effort (I forgot to do that for a bit last time: big mistake), so I hope you all don’t mind almost-daily single-book posts as opposed to the doubles I used to do.

Simon Armitage – “Walking Away”

(21 January 2017 from Sian)

The follow-up to his wonderful “Walking Home“, but this time he walks the same distance around the South West Coast Path, starting in Minehead and doing the northern coast, giving poetry readings for whatever people feel they should pay as he goes along.

Full again of his laconic observations, people-avoiding and random poetry happenings, and with a new suitcase and old friends, this is a real joy to read – easy to read but not facile or shallow. I loved when the radar dishes he passes turn from menacing, sinister structures to white cereal bowls on the drainer after the washing up as he sees them from a different angle and in different weather conditions, and chuckled at his issues when presented with a special apple by an expert (he doesn’t like apples but when he goes to give it to a horse, remembers he doesn’t like horses much, either).

A few poems occur in the text (I think ones he wrote inspired by the journey) and more are mentioned – he does some Gawain and the Green Knight for some children at breakfast one morning, which was fun. Finding fewer birds inhabiting the cliffs than he’d expected, he treats us to a wonderful description of Bempton Cliffs, north of Bridlington, which we’ve visited a few years ago; it’s always lovely to find places you’ve been and things you know in a book, isn’t it (more of that later). He bemoans the up and down-ness of the endless river valleys working their way to the sea and longs for the moors, feeling ungrateful all the way – I love how he includes the bad as well as the good, or maybe I just like a moany traveller (cf. Paul Theroux).

The views of St Ives from Godrevy and visit to the seal beaches, with their charming signs asking people not to talk too loudly directly mirrored my experiences only that Wednesday, and it’s rounded off with a visit to the Scilly Isles, where I haven’t been yet (he doesn’t encourage me with his description of the boat over, although it’s lovely that he previously visited the shipyard where the Scillonian was built). A lovely and appropriate read.

A few photos that are appropriate for this post …

Mousehole in the sunshine, the furthest point from home on my 10-mile run on Tuesday. I banked lots of good memories and feelings for the marathon on this relaxed run which ended with a local friend joining me on her bike.

The Scillonian coming in to harbour:

Towards St Ives from Godrevy:

Godrevy Lighthouse (that’s Virginia Woolf’s lighthouse and I took the photo for Ali):

Godrevy seals. I heard them calling, too! A lovely friend took me there and it was magical.

Birds in Penzance, I love the fuzzy Ringed Plover in particular:

Reading on the prom: my happy place:

Sunrise from our holiday cottage:

The Birmingham Jewellery Quarter Pavement Trails 2 – The Charm Bracelet Trail


Jewellery quarter pavement trail charm braceletIn my first post, I talked about the basics of the Jewellery Quarter Pavement Trails and shared photos of all (but one! Noooo) of the Findings Trail. That made for a long old article, so I decided to pop this one into another post. So, here we have the Charm Bracelet Trail. My best friend Emma and I decided to walk both Jewellery Quarter trails, clutching a camera (Emma) and a damp leaflet (me) in the drizzle – a perfect British Day Out as I’m sure you’ll agree. It was great fun being tourists in my city, and doing something you wouldn’t necessarily do (I have been to the Pen Museum, and that’s very good, too).

We actually did half of the Findings Trail, then up and down the Charm Bracelet trail in the wrong order, then the rest of the Findings Trail. I’ve posted these in the order in which they appear in the leaflet, starting at the bottom of Newhall Hill, intersecting with the other trail at the junction with Graham Street, but then continuing up Frederick Street into the heart of the Jewellery Quarter.

The Charm Bracelet Trail

This trail was designed by artists Mick Thacker and Mark Renn. Where the Findings Trail has squares let into the square-paved pavement, this one has a rather charming (aha) brick shape which fits in with these pavements. The designs are flatter and they all feature some chain links at the top that would form a chain joining all of the charms.

You start this one at the bottom of Newhall Hill and it takes you all the way to the top of Frederick Street on the right-hand side as you walk up. The pieces aren’t numbered or lettered but they are quite easy to spot.

The key, is, of course, the start of the trail, and this one also includes the thanks to the funders.


Then we have the Silent Boot, which refers to an 1890s design of police boot designed to help catch wrongdoers. In the photo at the start of this article, you’ll witness our delight at my Doc Marten’s shoe fitting into the design: here’s the unadorned version:


Did you know that Washington Irving, who wrote Rip Van Winkle, stayed in the Jewellery Quarter and wrote his book there in 1818? I will admit that I didn’t know this.


Hooray for the reforming Chartists – a huge crowd gathered here working towards reform in 1832 and this one celebrates them:


I also didn’t know that the FA Cup was made here but it was, and here it is, looking a little damp.


The whistles for the Titanic were made by J. Hudson Limited – they still make the same whistles and they’re called Acme Whistles, which is pleasing (they also make the Acme Thunderer, which is a football thing). We loved the little whistles on the chain.


Matthew Boulton, our famous industrialist, is commemorated next. That’s a file profile, isn’t it.


As well as a pen nib manufacturer, there was a Turkish Steam Bath near to the Argent Centre.


This anchor commemorates the Assay Office, the anchor being the hallmark symbol for Birmingham. This is commemorated in the beer bottle plaque in the Findings Trail, too.


I love these nib displays – they have ones like this in the Pen Museum, which is fab and well worth a visit. You can make a nib from scratch and play around with quill and dip pens. This commemorates Joseph Gillot, another overlap with the Findings Trail, but it’s lovely to have these names mentioned and remembered.


The Hockley Flyer is the quarter’s trade magazine and is still going strong and making interesting reading:


We get into World War Two and the Jewellery Quarter now, with this piece commemorating a badge-making firm targeted by bombers during the war …


… and this absolutely lovely Bits For Spitfires piece, celebrating the fact that both commemorative medals and parts for the planes were made here. Emma and I liked the way it looks like an Airfix model.


The famous School of Jewellery is celebrated on Frederick Street:


We also really liked this piece commemorating the Vittoria Restaurant, which apparently featured “peas like emeralds” – as we’d just had our lunch when Emma photographed this one, we decided to feature our toes (and Emma’s skirt) in the photo.


The last piece in this trail is the Chamberlain Clock, the famous landmark celebrating Joseph Chamberlain which was erected in 1903. Not sure why we added ourselves into this one, too, but it was a lovely ending, within sight of the clock itself.


We managed not to photograph the clock or the rest of the JQ, marching back down Frederick Street with a plan to get round the rest of it before tea time. A quick mention should be made of The Button Factory, which is a great pub on Frederick Street, in an old button factory and keeping a lot of its detailing. We had a lovely lunch there, and they do all their frying in rapeseed oil, which is brilliant for any of us on low-cholesterol diets. I do like chips. It was really quiet on a December Monday but friendly and warm.

The Button Factory Birmingham Jewellery Quarter

Do pop and read all about the rest of our exploits that day taking in the Findings Trail as well!

All photos taken by Emma Volante, all food and drink paid for ourselves. More info about the Pavement Trails and a link to the leaflet can be found here.

Is it just actually that I read too MUCH?


tall pile of books

This many! This is how many I’m reading RIGHT NOW!

No, no, of course I don’t mean I read TOO MUCH in general, too many books over the course of the year. There’s no such thing, is there? There’s no better thing than reading lots of books (hobby: no better hobby; obviously it’s better to be running around giving all your possessions to Good Causes and generally doing good, but you know what I mean).

But I haven’t really finished many books recently – my last review was THIRTEEN DAYS ago and I’ve only finished one book since then, which is waiting to be reviewed. I do have gaps, but this seems particularly shocking. So I have started to wonder if it’s the number of books I am reading concurrently that’s messing things up a bit.

Here’s the thing: do you read one book at a time, or many? And, here’s the most important thing: do you think you’re more ‘productive’ if you only read one at a time – do you actually get through MORE books that way?

This is what I’ve always said I have on the go at any one time:

  • One larger or more “special” book (maybe a Persephone or hardback) which I read in the house, at the breakfast table, etc. This sometimes extends into two books, for example I won’t read a Persephone while eating, so I might have a Persephone on the night stand and a political biography, say, at the table.
  • One smaller and more portable book for in my handbag when popping into Birmingham or going on longer journeys. Now I’m trying to actually READ the books I have packed onto my Kindle, this can take electronic or paper form.

That should be doable, shouldn’t it. But the problem is, it doesn’t really work like that. Here’s what I’m reading at the moment …

  • Friday to Saturdayish I’m reading the New Statesman on my tablet at the table. Sunday to Tuesdayish, it’s the Saturday Guardian newspaper. Sometimes there’s a bit of struggling slowly through an Icelandic newspaper going on with the tablet, too, although that’s usually upstairs near my dictionaries. I LOVE the New Statesman and I have not once, in the year I’ve been subscribing, experienced Mag Lag with it (when you are still reading the last issue when the new one arrives), even though it’s an (almost) weekly. I like the e-version of the newspaper because I can skim it more. But these two do take away time from reading at the table.
  • I’m currently reading a big fat 19th century novel on the Kindle, which a friend lent to me in paper form, but I wasn’t doing well with the huge unwieldy paperback, so I downloaded a free copy from I’m reading this at the table and in bed, and on the bus.
  • I have a book of essays from newspapers that I’m reading at the gym. Often the gym book is the same as the handbag book, but I don’t want to sweat all over my Kindle, so started this. I cycle and read for about an hour to 90 minutes a week, so that’s not going to get through much book, even at my speed of reading (for those concerned about my ability to read and exercise vigorously, I do an odd and self-invented form of interval training whereby I pedal very much harder every 5th page).
  • I have a hardback book on the history of the Tube which I picked off the TBR to look at and haven’t really looked at properly yet.
  • I have the terrible, terrible shame of Iris Murdoch’s book on Sartre, which isn’t very big but is a bit too difficult for me – so it’s “being read” but then being hidden on the back sofa under a pile of handbags …

I think that’s it, and it doesn’t seem too bad. Is it just because I’m reading a  big novel that I’ve got a bit stuck and low on the reviewing front? Should I just knuckle down and read one at a time? After all, I don’t have a problem with “having” to read a particular book, as I read my TBR in acquisition order and don’t get to make many choices based on reading mood there. Or should I carry on as I am?

How do you do it? Have you noticed yourself getting through more books using one method or the other, single or many reads, if you’ve tried both? Or should I just go on holiday or get a cold and get them all finished?


Book confessions … and launches!


I had a rare little bit of time off yesterday (6 September) as I’d decided to do a book launch extravaganza. Well, two book launches in one day. Two of my favourite contestants from The Great British Sewing Bee, Lauren Guthrie and Stuart Hillard, were having launch events for their new books on the SAME DAY, both in Birmingham. I couldn’t resist that, could I?

I started off at Guthrie and Ghani, Lauren’s lovely haberdashery and sewing supplies shop (with a lovely training room upstairs) in Moseley. It’s not far from where I live, so I popped up on the bus, met up with my friend Jen, and checked out the shop downstairs (of course) before popping upstairs to see Lauren and have her sign her book, “Learn to Sew with Lauren”.

Lauren Guthrie with her new book, "Learn to Sew with Lauren"

Lauren Guthrie with her new book, “Learn to Sew with Lauren”

Lauren kindly signed my copy, after we’d browsed through a rail of makes from the book (some lovely bags, pyjama trousers with contrast pockets and a skirt I will customise to be slightly longer for the more mature lady) and oohed and aahed over some new technology to make constructing folding blinds easier – I am SO going on her course on that. Downstairs were some lovely sewing starter kits, too.

Lauren signing her book

Lauren signing her book for me

See how lovely and light the workroom is! There was tea available, and snacks, and it was lovely to see people enjoying their visit and making some attractive items while they were there. I had a photo with Lauren, too …

Liz Dexter and Lauren Guthrie

Liz Dexter and Lauren Guthrie

The lovely workshops were going on all day – a friend of mine made a lovely bow hair slide – and what a good idea for a launch day! You can find the full list of the upcoming workshops here.

Stuart Hillard ready to sign his book "Sew Fabulous"

Stuart Hillard ready to sign his book “Sew Fabulous”

Then it was time for Launch Number Two! I said goodbye to Jen, and hopped on the bus into town, nipping up to House of Fraser in the city centre to see how Stuart was getting on. I missed the giant poster of him which was displayed somewhere around the building, but zipped (ha) on up to Haberdashery, and found a lovely table of shiny books. And there was Stuart, bounding over, not showing any signs of exhaustion from being in the middle of a fairly comprehensive tour of John Lewises, House of Frasers, independent bookshops and independent sewing shops. The department had laid on drinks and nibbles, and of course there were plenty of enticing items around on sale, too.

Stuart signs my book

Stuart signs my book

I didn’t get a pic of me with Stuart, as he was esconced behind his desk, signing away, but here’s the one I got last year at the Guthrie and Ghani shop launch as an added bonus (if you call seeing two pics of me on one blog post a bonus …):

Liz Dexter and Stuart Hillard 2013

Liz Dexter and Stuart Hillard 2013

I had to rush back home to put my headphones back on and start transcribing, but what a lovely little trip and two luscious books, both very different with different kinds of project (Stuart’s is all home and garden furnishings and decorations, Lauren’s clothes and accessories, and yes, I perceived NO rivalry between them about their books). Both books seem to have good production values and have been edited well, at first glance, with both Lauren and Stuart confirming they had full control and input all the way through the process. I will be reviewing them soon and will link to the reviews here when I’ve done them.

You can buy Lauren’s book “Learn to Sew with Lauren” from Amazon and from her own online shop. You can buy Stuart’s book from Amazon and his publisher’s website, which also has details of the rest of his tour.

Sew Fabulous and Learn to Sew With Lauren

Sew Fabulous and Learn to Sew With Lauren

Note: I bought these books at full price and I’ve written this blog post off my own bat because I like these people and want to support their hard work.

I may have bought other books recently, too – these two jumped into my hands in Poundland and The Works on an innocent trip to the cafe with my husband on Friday …

How's Your Dad and Vikings

How’s Your Dad and Vikings

Any confessions from my readers? Did you go to either of these launches? Have you read any of these books?

Book reviews – The Manning Sisters and The Mystery of Mercy Close (and a small rant)


Dec 2013 TBRThese two books are another pair that go together. And some people would call them ‘chick lit’. And some of those people would say this in a disparaging way, with a sneer. They might suggest this is trashy. Not worth reading. That people who read them are a bit rubbish, a bit lightweight. Not proper readers of proper books. Not ‘proper’ readers of ‘proper’ books. They might make the little quote mark movements with their hands and everything.

Well, to be honest, I’m a bit sick of that. OK, I don’t read a lot of ‘genre’ books myself. That’s mainly because I’m a bit feeble, so thrillers, mysteries, crime novels, sci fi, horror – they all have a bit too much guts and violence for me. Though I like a cosy mystery with a lady who does quilting and an off-stage corpse. I read a lot of different books. I read travel books, biography, autobiography, psychology, books on music, popular fiction, literary fiction, Virago books, feminist books, books on computers and business and running a hotel, books on books.

I read different books for different purposes. We all do, don’t we. I like some authors who are seen as ‘chick lit’. I don’t like others, just because I’m not hugely keen on formulaic books about women choosing between the dangerous stranger and the sweet friend. But you know what? Some of the best books I’ve read have been genre books. Connie Willis’ “To Say Nothing of the Dog” – alternate history / sci fi / fantasy. “Flowers for Algernon” – sci fi. Some of Marian Keyes’ books, the one reviewed below in particular. And I can tell you something else. Some of the so-called ‘literary fiction’, the ones we’re meant to aspire to, the ‘good’ reads, have been rubbish. And, if we’re going to say it as it is: formulaic. How many of those housewife-pressured-to-be-perfect-in-a-stifling-marriage books have you read that claim to be good literature. How many books that read like self-conscious writing exercises, like the written equivalent of those paintings you do for A-level art where you have to capture the reflection of an old lady and a striped apron in a piece of tin foil?

Sometimes you need something easy. Sometimes you need to escape. Sometimes you want a challenge. Sometimes you want to learn about something – and actually, if that’s learning exactly how to run a cake shop or market handbags (I’m looking at Carole Matthews for that last), you can learn as much from a ‘light’ novel as you can from a work of non-fiction. Some ‘literary fiction’ tells us NOTHING; some ‘popular’ fiction tells us, for example, exactly what it’s like to be depressed.

I try not to criticise people for what they’re reading. Hell’s teeth: they’re reading. I don’t really care what people read. I read Young Adult fiction: does that make me childish? I don’t think so. Stop beating up other people for their reading choices. As long as something is well written (by which I mean tells an effective story; does it without too many distracting mistakes; entertains you and does any other job you ask it to do) then who is to say what someone else should be reading. On the other side of the coin: no more guilty pleasures. Do I feel guilty curling up with a slightly silly romance that I know a good friend in a difficult situation is also reading? No, I do not.

Rant over. Here are some book reviews!

Debbie Macomber – “The Manning Sisters”

(13 November 2013)

I read this one because I bought a copy for a friend and she was also reading it. I love readalongs! (And I read it in November but it went so well with the next one …) This looks like a satisfyingly fat novel but is in fact two bound together. However, they’re related to one another, with their heroines being sisters, and it was nice reading them together (although, editor’s note, one seemed to have a slightly changing hair colour across the two books!).

The first book centres on Taylor, who  has run away to Montana to take up a teaching position and escape a broken heart. But then she meets unreconstructed cowboy, Russ, living with his teen sister and trying to control her ways. Nature, naturally (ha) runs its course … In the second book, Taylor’s sister, Christy, comes to visit, and meets Russ’ best friend, Cody, the sheriff. But she’s got a fiancé back home – what’s a girl to do?

Although these are a bit more romancey with a less detailed setting and background of town life than the Macombers I most enjoy, they are competently done and have a nice line in side characters and some details of life in Montana (didn’t one of her Cedar Cove characters go there, too?). Absorbing, and very handy when you need something light and undemanding but competent and nicely done. Not as good as Cedar Cove, but I’ll carry on with the other two (four) books in the series.

Marian Keyes – “The Mystery of Mercy Close”

(4 May 2013)

Private investigator Helen Walsh’s world is collapsing around her. The economy has crashed, she’s back at home with the hilarious and terrifying Mammy Walsh (who’s celebrating all of her daughters leaving home by giving up cooking entirely and living on cake), she has a lovely boyfriend but he has the kind of baggage she never really wanted, and to cap it all, the seagulls have started turning into vultures (again).

Known for being no stranger to depression herself, Keyes manages to describe in this novel exactly what it’s like to sink into depression (and not only that, but to sink BACK into depression, which is just as scary in a different way as the first time it happens) and all praise is due to her for getting this into a book which will appeal to those looking for a light read and maybe educate a few people who weren’t expecting this and might not read non-fiction books, memoirs or even the various brilliant cartoons on the topic. She even gets in people’s (non-useful) reactions and what the medical profession do to help, but this is all packaged neatly into a fun-filled and eventful plot with lots of other things going on, so it doesn’t drag you down and, while integral to the plot, doesn’t overwhelm.

The rest of the book is about Helen’s attempts to track down a missing boy band member, with plenty of satire and laugh-out-loud moments and clues just as likely to come from Mammy Walsh’s close readings of Hello! magazine as the scary stock villain down at the local pool hall. All the Walsh sisters we’ve met in the other novels are here, plus the usual playful language, set pieces, shoes and attractive gentlemen. A masterclass in working an ‘issue’ into a book in a seamless way that is actually useful and worthwhile.


I’m currently reading Sebastian Coe’s autobiography, which is really good, although could have done with an editor’s pen over it, and just finished another travel book with an unusual twist. Hope you didn’t mine the rant up there: what do you think? Are all genre books rubbish and should their readers be forced to read more ‘worthy’ tomes? I don’t think so … but you might, gentle readers. Who knows? Do tell!

Book reviews – Campbell-Bannerman and Caucasian Journey


Nov 2013 TBRI’m catching up with my November reads – one more to go after this review, but I wanted to save that for another themed post. Anyway, today we have two works of non-fiction which, while a biography and a travel book, do have something in common, and that something is politics. No, no, don’t look away, I’m not going to get all heavy and political on you (I’ll save that for my rant on genres coming next); these two books have a unifying theme, but they were also both enjoyable reads.

Roy Hattersley – “Henry Campbell-Bannerman”

(02 April 2013 – from Any Amount of Books on a London trip)

Originally from a box set of the 20 prime ministers of the 20th century (how handy!), this is a really competent and well-done life of a little-known politician who did some really important things, not least introducing Road Tax! It was a trip down memory lane for me as, although I didn’t remember much about CB himself, we covered this period very heavily in O-level history (so heavily that we ended up skipping through the other end of the syllabus, WWII, on bandaed sheets (remember those, if you’re over 40?)). So I was shouting along with “We want eight [Dreadnoughts] and we won’t wait” – in my head, luckily for other members of the household.

There are good descriptions of the machinations of power, Victorian and Edwardian politics and politics in general, and good illustrations, although I would have preferred these to have been captioned rather than just referenced at the back.

Negley Farson – “Caucasian Journey”

(From Bridget, 17 March 2013)

In a manuscript revisited by the writer and edited by his son, this redoutable foreign correspondent and traveller makes a journey across the Caucasus by horseback alongside veteran Russophile and travelling companion (who prefers to walk), Alexander Wicksteed, notable for his aversion to baths and habit of storing provisions in nests of tins and boxes.

It’s the 1920s, and Farson looks back at this time through the lens of subsequent political events, adding an evocative and tragic dimension to this description of what is effectively a lost way of life, as the Russian leadership sought to standardise the peoples and wipe out dissent, moving ethnic groups like pieces on a chessboard. He chronicles their way of life and the coming of the first Communist enthusiasts (mainly tedious people who ask too many questions), but also life on the road, with its oddities and amusements, the welcome to visiting strangers and the endless haggling over the price of meat. An absorbing and interesting read, given the extra historical and political dimension which removes it from the standard class of travel book.


Currently reading: I’ve just finished a Marian Keyes novel, and I’m reading another travel narrative about the Silk Road and Sebastian Coe’s autobiography. Watch this space for reviews (and the odd rant coming up …)

Book reviews – A Cottage by the Sea and The English Riviera Global Geopark – plus new purchases!


Nov 2013 TBRTwo books set beside the seaside today, as you do. OK, one’s a novel set in South Wales and the other a guide to a bit of Devon, but you know how I like to have a theme … These were two relatively “easy” reads, with the Carole Matthews being read on a trip down to London and back again in one day, and the guidebook accompanying my irregular hairdrying sessions in the spare room. But really, where would we be without the odd “easy” read, eh? As long as you get a good mix, that’s all that counts, just like always eating sliced white bread or meringues wouldn’t be fun if we did it all the time.

Carole Matthews – “A Cottage by the Sea”

(e-book, bought on sale, can’t remember when)

Ella, Grace and Flick get together at Ella’s inherited cottage along with their partners. Grace is reassessing her marriage as she looks in slight horror at what it seems to have become, and Ella and Flick are reassessing their priorities and changing their ways – or seem to be. They slot into the same roles they’ve taken since they met at University, 10 years ago, but are maybe even starting to question those. Throw this uneasy mix into a rural setting with long walks, no mobile signal, too many pubs and the odd emergency, and you’ve got a potentially explosive situation.

Carole Matthews is adept at creating leading men with a sweet vulnerability and kindness rather than the chest-beating alpha males of traditional romance (at least in the books of hers that I’ve read). In fact the two alphas of the group come over as a bit pathetic, chasing a free existence or the bottom of a wine bottle … She’s also very good at subtly letting her readers guess plot points before the characters do, leading to a nice sense of clever satisfaction. You kind of know that it’s going to work out in the end – somehow – and there are some very enjoyable scenes before it does. A good relaxing read with some laughs along the way and believable characters and relationships.

“The Official Guide to the English Riviera Global Geopark”

(07 March 2013, Paignton)

Taking in the geology, geography, social development, flora and fauna of the area, this is a useful guide to the Torbay region with good explanations and plenty of illustrations. It suffers from a lack of copy-editing, especially towards the end, but is useful and has a handy fold out map section.


New acquisitions …

Nov 2013 5aI was out shopping for Not So Secret Santas for the LibraryThing Virago Group and Birmingham BookCrossers’ group (and also picking up odd others for people) when I happened across this one. I’ve been wanting to read this ever since I realised it’s set in Moseley in 1998-91, a time when I was around in South Birmingham: oddly, this fact and author had escaped me, even though I have heard of the book, and my friend Ann knows the author / my friend Sarah is thanked in the acknowledgements, and my friend Karen and her husband taught the chap! So, when I spotted it in the Oxfam bookshop, it would have been rude not to have added it to my pile (and it wasn’t on my wishlists, so I haven’t denied anyone the opportunity of buying it for me, hopefully!)

Nov 2013 5bAnd then I was at the BookCrossing meetup on Saturday when this one surfaced – I’ve been wanting to read it for a while, and there it was, and here it is on the TBR shelf!


Currently reading – I’m currently reading Debbie Macomber’s very romancey and easy “The Manning Sisters”, which a friend who’s in hospital at the moment is also reading, hence my promoting it up the TBR pile. Readable fluff. I’m not reading anything else at the moment, but I’m sure that will change soon …

Book reviews – Happy Accidents, Mistress of Charlecote, a DNF and some lovely new volumes!


Nov 2013 TBRI’ve got two works of autobiography for you to read about today, both by strong and doughty women, both very much of their time, and both interesting in different ways. Then there’s a DNF that I bet you saw coming, and news of some incomers to bring the balance of the TBR very much into it customary format. So, we’d better get on, hadn’t we!

Jane Lynch – “Happy Accidents”

(13 March 2013 – Poundland)

The last of my celebrity autobiographies picked up in Poundland (and enjoyed as a gift from M but all but one going to new homes), this was one of the better half of the deal. A good autobiography of the actress made famous to me in the Christopher Guest films (“Best in Show”, etc.) and to the world as Sue Sylvester in “Glee” (duly covered), this is clearly written, fairly clearly by Jane Lynch, and with self-knowledge and humility. It takes us all the way from her childhood to her work on “Glee”, via a plethora of stage, film and TV appearances, and also concentrates on her personal development, including some self-confessed nightmare behaviour years and an issue with alcohol.

The self-knowledge and happiness she has now is shown to have been hard-won, and she makes no excuses for herself, detailing her challenging behaviours and attitudes as she moves through her life, but ultimately positive about the opportunity for change and her long-term friendships and marriage. Good reading.

Mary Elizabeth Lucy – “Mistress of Charlecote”

(17 March 2013 – from Bridget at a BookCrossing afternoon)

My friend Bridget has a habit of bringing tempting books along to the cafe of a Sunday, and I snapped up this life story of a Victorian matron, edited and commented on by the wife of her great-grandson. This starts off as a charming portrait of girlhood and family, with the requisite giggling over suitors and ‘coming out’ balls, then encompasses her marriage and creation of a formidable family of her own. Rather more domestically than nationally inclined, and very much written for her grand-daughters, this is a remarkable document. However, the life expectancy and mortality rates of the times mean that it becomes somewhat of a harrowing read at times, with her husband, siblings and children dying younger than one would hope and in often distressing circumstances, so not one to read if you’re feeling a bit delicate. Remarkable and interesting as the surviving memoir of a very different way of life.

Edith Sitwell – “English Eccentrics” (DNF)

(06 March 2013 – Dartmouth)

Oh dear – I tried, I did. It’s such a pretty book, too, but it is going to a good home with an American friend. I really wanted to love this Folio Press edition by a favourite mid-20th century figure, but it was pretty dense and oddly written, bouncing from obscure eccentric to obscure eccentric with barely a pause for breath. About half way through I was confronted with all sorts of unpleasant descriptions, with more to come, and I had to draw a line and give up!


Nov 2013 4aNew acquisitions time now. I went a bit over the top in The Works the other day. I was only looking for some grown-up colouring books, honest! First of all, I found the next in Debbie Macomber’s “Cedar Cove” series., “1022 Evergreen Place”. That’s (I think) the 12th book in the series following the fortunes of a number of people and families in a small town in Washington State. Each concentrates on a particular household, thus bringing in the title / address. She’s a go-to for comfort reading, and she used to be US-only but is now all over the UK.

Nov 2013 4bI then found this set of three in a series, too – “The Manning Sisters”, “The Manning Brides” and “The Manning Grooms”, and thought they’d be ideal for a friend who also likes this gentle author (in fact, I bought the second two for her in error, then had to rush back to buy the first one for her … and then bought a set for myself, too).

Nov 2013 4cThen, I spotted this gem – “Mapping the Railways”. I like railways, I like maps, I like history, and I still had some Bank Of Matthew money (a sum of money given for a present but left through the year for the purchase of treats and nice things all year round, there is also a version called Bank Of Liz, of course) left over from my birthday back in January, so I treated myself to this lovely looking and quite thick book.

Nov 2013 4dAnd then, well, books know when to flock (or herd), don’t they, because no sooner did I have these lovelies ensconced in the house than I went and won a Jane Badger Books competition and this book, “The Marvellous Mongolian”, one of the only ones ever written about Przewalski horses, plopped onto the doormat. Oh well, the TBR shelf is looking pretty svelte and, well, it’s only books, isn’t it!

Currently reading – I’m currently enjoying the “Great British Sewing Bee” book, although unfortunately the main text doesn’t seem to have been copy-edited, as it’s full of errors that are making me FUME. The instructions seem OK, though, and I’m currently fooling myself into thinking I can make myself a jacket. Hm. Also about to start “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach, a campus novel that’s had good reviews but does apparently have quite a lot of baseball in it …

Book reviews – Torbay, An Academic Question and more acquisitions!


Nov 2013 TBRTwo books with absolutely nothing in common to review first, although I suppose I’ve had both for a comparatively long time. The Torbay book highlights why I do try to keep the TBR down to manageable proportions – if you read books in order of acquisition and then acquire so many books that books bought in March get read in November, there can be an unseemly time lag that makes for an oddly dislocated read when you do get to that book bought months ago. I’m currently reading another one bought on the same holiday, and I will learn my lesson and promote such time-dependent reads next time.

Jack Whitton – “Torbay: The Visible History”

(7 March 2013 – Paignton Bookshop)

A slight volume, almost invisible on the far left on the TBR picture above, bought as a holiday memento. It explains the history of the Torbay region in terms of what can be seen now, with a concentration on Torquay as the main town, but enough information about the rest of the area and some nice reproductions of maps.

Barbara Pym – “An Academic Question”

(2 January 1993)

I’ve heard quite a few Pym-ites say that this is not good, or not their favourite, and, to be fair, it was stitched together from two drafts by Pym’s literary executor and friend, Hazel Holt, but I have always liked it. I think it was one of the first ones I read, and I certainly bought it just after I graduated, so I’ve known it for just over 20 years if not longer.

I like the picture of an academic wife amidst trendy changes in higher education (which could be said to be giving the opposite side of the story to Bradbury’s “The History Man”). Life in a small university town and smaller academic community is well drawn and the tensions of modern life (and, indeed, life with a small child and Swedish au pair) are assimilated well into the more traditional portrayal of the old guard (I feel that Kitty and Coco could have been happy in an Elizabeth Taylor or Anita Brookner novel – do you agree?).

Not so much echoing of previous characters here, but we do see Esther Clovis’ memorial service again (surely an extreme case of re-using a character!) and there is an encounter with two middle-aged spinster sisters, just retired from jobs in London, who have to be either the Bede sisters or Barbara and Hilary themselves. And the librarian and his office must surely be a reference / homage to Pym’s friend, Philip Larkin, mustn’t they?

Some plot elements may be a little unsatisfactory, but it does have a decent plot, and the asides about titles of journal articles and the like are hilarious. So, I liked it, and I’ve now read all of Pym’s novels this year, as I’ve already read Civil to Strangers, the last posthumous collection, in July.


Nov 2013 2Now for some new acquisitions. I went to a “Tea with Barbara Pym” event at the Library of Birmingham yesterday – which turned out to be a dramatisation of the whole of “An Unsuitable Attachment”, cleverly done by Pym Society archivist Yvonne Cocking and acted by some local students and alumni (the chap playing Mervyn Cantrell was marvellous). It did bring out the romance which I always feel is a bit buried in the book. Anyway, there was (of course) a book table and on it (of course) a book I didn’t have, so Ali and I literally emptied our purses to get one each.

Nov 2013 3aOn the way home, I dropped by Waterstones as I wanted to investigate Icelandic dictionaries. Annoyingly, I can’t find the Old Norse dictionary I used to have, which contains all the grammar stuff (I wonder if my friend Nick still has his copy …) but I needed to update my vocabulary anyway, so I picked up this book, which amazingly does seem to be the most up-to-date one you can find.

Nov 2013 3bIt looks OK on the outside, but inside it seems to be photocopied from something from the Ark! And now I’ve gone and learned the Icelandic for linoleum. Oh well. Anyway, guide books should have the modern stuff, I have a language learning app that my friend Sandy told me about, and I certainly can’t run to the £150 for the serious dictionaries, so this will have to do. Watch for a review of my book in Icelandic soon!


Currently reading – I’m STILL on “English Eccentrics” and am trying to get that done before starting anything else. I’m over half way through now, and it is interesting, just seems a bit hard to get into and stay in …

Book reviews – London: A Life in Maps and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and an acquisition


Nov 2013 TBRTwo excellent books that I really can’t find any way to link today! A book telling the history of London through the maps drawn of the capital, and that marvellous classic, “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”. So, I think we’re just going to have to jump in and review them. Watch out for this week’s book acquisition below the reviews …

Peter Whitfield – “London: A Life in Maps”

(02 Feb 2013 – birthday present from Sorcha)

An exhaustive history of London told through historical maps, both well-known and obscure, most from the collection of the British Library, who also published this book (I wonder if it accompanied an exhibition. If so, I wish I’d seen it!). The illustrations are a little hard to see in detail, even in this larger format book, although it’s difficult to see how this could be addressed, apart from having the book published as an app for tablet or computer.

I would have liked a few more modern maps and mention of the A-Z perhaps (copyright issues probably came into play here), and the ordering is a little odd, skipping around in the chronology a little, but overall it’s a fascinating and absorbing read. I particularly liked the various schemes for improving the layout of the city, including one for straightening the Thames and leaving the redundant loops, converting them into docks, and of course the glimpses of my own old haunts.

I learned a lot from this book, and enjoyed understanding how particularly the large aristocratic estates shaped and formed the city as these tracts of land were developed.

Thomas Hardy – “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”

(Bought late 1980s – dated from Penguin Classics ‘red-top’ edition covered in sticky-backed plastic)

I still can’t quite believe that I had never read this before – but reading it through, I know I really hadn’t – and I’m grateful for Ali’s Hardy Project for compelling me to do so (a bit late, although I did START it in October …).

Her father’s ridiculous pride on discovering their ancient family connections sets Tess on one of Hardy’s inexorable paths of fate, and if you’ve read any Hardy before, you’ll know that she will be crushed by her fate in one shape of form. Mind you, I did think I knew the story, and found  that I didn’t. She can’t escape the family that is her downfall, and as her birth family and her ‘family’ both start to collapse in on themselves, she is thrown on her own, not inconsiderable in terms of physical strength and fortitude, resources. The choices she makes are not optimal, but are logical and believable given the personality she is described as having, and rather a lot is made of the fact that her lack of education and then half-education have a role to play in her eventual fate.

Some of the content of the novel is decidedly gothic, with sleepwalking, horror and mystical elements. We also have the usual wandering oddities, but I personally like the fact that the silly country-folk are toned down here into some realistic if doomy maidens and some farming folk. By the by, this does slot into that rural gothic genre inhabited by Mary Webb – the two cross artistic paths on many occasions.

The ending is mystical, powerful and affecting, coming quickly but not exactly brutally when it comes. The descriptions of nature and the countryside are worth mentioning, too – there is a portrait of the coming of winter on the farm that is sublime and unforgettable.

The introduction makes the point – reasonable in my view – that Hardy himself is in love with his heroine. She is certainly an unforgettable member of his tribe of passionate and troubled women. As I always say, the thing about Hardy is that he gives you a blooming good read, alongside the layers of personality, fate and landscape, and this is what he does here.

Nov 2013 1And now to my book “confession”. Well, I’m going to have to keep the category and tag as otherwise I’ll mess up links I’ve put in other posts, but reading this post over at A Musical Feast did make me stop to think about using the word “confessions”. Because it’s not actually BAD to buy books, is it? There are worse addictions, aren’t there? And what better gift than a book? This little beauty came courtesy of my lovely friend, Sian. She knows I’m plotting and planning a trip to Iceland, and want to brush up my Icelandic (I studied Old Norse at university for three years; as Icelandic didn’t have a Great Vowel Shift like English did, it’s pretty much the same language now, but there’s obviously a slight issue around vocabulary, seeing as all I read for three years were myths and sagas – good for dogs, swords and torture, not so good for, well modern life). She was in Grant & Cutler in London and had found their Icelandic section – did I need anything? A few texts later (and after she’d been told off for taking a photo to send to me to see if I wanted her to, well, spend money in the shop!) and this was on its way to me. It’s perfect – lots of vocab on geology, fairly obviously, but also colours, geography, and it’ll get me back into how the sentence structure works. I’d better pick up a dictionary now, though!


Currently reading – I’m still working my way through “English Eccentrics” and am half way through now. I’m also reading my last Barbara Pym of the year, “An Academic Question”, for the LibraryThing Virago Group Pym readalong, and enjoying that more than some others are!

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