Thursday 31 January 2008

I Love Hesperus

I don't know how to insert that little heart picture, otherwise today's subject title would be a play on the film 'I Heart Huckabees'. I know nothing about the film other than that the title is fun, so perhaps I wouldn't want to parody it.

ANYWAY. Somehow my posts often seem to stray into the irrelevant and slightly silly, but perhaps that's part of the charm. I certainly try to use it to full effect in Real Life and Real Work, since it covers a multitude of sins. No, ca
n't see how to turn on the printer - but I'll charm you so you don't notice. Where's Room 312, you ask? Couldn't tell you, but here's a dollop of charm. I do, of course, jest - which I should mention, as I believe some of my Bodleian superiors read this page anonymously from time to time.

ANYWAY. (I wonder how often I've used the term 'anyway' on
this blog?) ANYWAY. I'm talking about Hesperus Press and the very lovely Ellie, who responded with alacrity and generosity to my nonchalant enquiry as to the possibility of more books. I just mentioned a few authors I'd espied whom, you know, she could send, if she liked... please pretty pretty please. Well, the need for beautiful editions of unusual texts by classic authors was clear in my voice, and four stunners were sent speedily. Speedily on their side, that is - the good ole Royal Mail kept them at the post office for a while, and under the auspices of my housemate they remained at the post office for a while longer. But now they're in my hot little hands, and ripe for the reading. Just look at 'em.

Jerome K. Jerome - The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow
The first one I'm going to read - loved Three Men in a Boat, have Three Men on a Bummel waiting in the wings, and have heard excellent things about this gem. Can't wait for the woman's reply, Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Girl by pseudonymous Jenny Wren, which Hesperus republish in March.

Elizabeth Gaskell - Cousin Phyllis
I liked Liz even before the BBC got their hands on her, but have yet to read this one. Won't be long... I need a nice dose of Victorian.

L. P. Hartley - Simonetta Perkins
A little disturbed to discover what my Christian name would be, is feminised, but The Go-Between was a joyous read last year - this will hopefully prove the same.

Fyodor Dostoevsky - The Eternal Husband
What a good title. And finally I am reading some Dostoevsky! Perhaps I should have started with one of the bulky classics, but I like this back-door entrance to the Great Man.

If there is a publisher making more beautiful books at the moment, I want to hear about them. Well, Persephone Books fight it out for the top spot - but Hesperus' are undeniably stunning. Go on, look at their website. If there's nothing you want there, then you might just be reading the wrong blog...

Wednesday 30 January 2008

Year In, Year Out

There are two authors whom I often talk about and get little response. Not on here, specifically, but in all the bookish circles (both internet and face-to-face). They are Virginia Woolf and AA Milne. I think that's to do with preconceptions: Woolf is "that difficult feminist writer who killed herself" and Milne just wrote that children's book/Disney film. Neither are true, of course, and it would be a shame to leave them unexamined. Not that I can blame anyone - though The Carbon Copy never tires of exhorting me to read Lord of the Rings, my preconceptions (aided by the film) persist, and I resist and desist and subsist and all other sorts of similar words.

But today we shall turn our attention to Milne. I may well repeat bits of
a letter I recently wrote to my friend Barbara-from-Ludlow, but I'm sure she'll forgive me for that. I've just finished a re-read of Year In, Year Out which, according to my notebook, I first read in early 2001, in the brief period before I kept more accurate records that year. It was Milne's last book, published in 1952 (Milne died in January 1956) and Our Vicar will be pleased to know it is non-fiction. How to describe this book? It is a miscellany of musings, some whimsical, some political, some incidental. The sorts of things which couldn't really be developed into anything more than a thought or an anecdote, and are thus collected together, divided fairly arbitrarily into twelve months. He points out how frequently trains would have to run in The Importance of Being Earnest; he also discusses the history of his pacifism. He covers The Art of Saying Thank You ('The schoolboy's "Oo, I say, thanks frightfully" sets the standard. It is difficult to better this, though you may throw in an awed "Coo!" if you feel that it comes naturally to you'); he berates the food subsidies and supertax. My favourite sections are anecdotes concerning his earlier work - never Pooh et al, but his plays or his poetry.

It is improbable that such a book could ever be published now; it is indeed improbable it would have been published then, had it not been
for the debt Methuen felt they owed Milne. Pooh had raised them rather a lot of money, and they felt prepared to indulge the whims of an aging author. That's what lends Year In, Year Out its pathos - though often cheery and witty, it is also unconsciously nostalgic, not in the sense of thinking in the past, but in thinking the present can be turned into the past. His best days, authorially and in every other way, have happened - and Milne perseveres with his wonderful, inimitable, light-but-serious tone.

Year In, Year Out probably isn't the best place to start reading non-children's Milne, but I encourage you to give something a whirl. He did it all - plays,
poetry, sketches, essays, detective novel, literary fiction, autobiography, non-fiction work on pacifism. Something for everyone.

Something special about Year In, Year Out, though, is that it is the last collaborative work of A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard - in fact, Pooh and the gang appear (with some assorted others) in the little illustrations for January and December. Somehow that seems a fitting, and wonderful, culmination of Milne's writing career.

Tuesday 29 January 2008

Favourite English-Language Novelists?

Everyone likes a nice poll, don't they? It is supposed to be the male brain that likes a list, but I daresay it's a fun thing for everyone - and Norm of has obliged. Listen up, though, because closing date is 31st January i.e. very soon.

See his post here for the original question - or just read my little summary. It's quite simple: choose your ten favourite English-language novelists. Favourite, not best. English-language, not necessarily English. Novelists, not any other sort of prose or poetry (which is why I had sadly to relinquish Katherine Mansfield). Norm will compile the entries and provide a run-down, I imagine, though I think (and hope) that there will be lots of authors receiving one vote each. As I mentioned in this week's Booking Through Thursday, obscure writers hold a special place in my heart.

The ten don't have to be in order, but the top three do. I.e. give 1st, 2nd, 3rd and then another seven, unsorted.

Once you've racked (or perhaps wracked?) your brain, send in answers to - but don't take too long about it!

And my answers? To be honest, I can't remember.
Let's see.
Woolf and Austen definitely fought it out for top spot. Hence today's sketch. Sorry it's a bit blurry.
Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, E.M. Delafield, Richmal Crompton, Dorothy Whipple, Monica Dickens, Oscar Wilde (for that one novel), AA Milne, Frank Baker... that's nine. Who on earth was my tenth? Might have been Anne Bronte. She was a definite contender. Or Daphne du Maurier. Or Dodie Smith. Or perhaps David Lindsay or Edith Olivier. Truth be told, could be any of 'em... if you're feeling more decisive, give Norm an email!

Monday 28 January 2008


I don't know how often you peruse the links down under 'People To See', but if you've ever decided to start at the top and work down, you'll have come across 3191. I saw the link on Karen's site, when I was performing a similar run through, and fell in love.

The site started when two e-friends, 3191 miles apart, both took photos and compared. From then on, they took a photo every morning and, without comparing or conferring beforehand, uploaded them to their website. As well as both being excellent photographers, there were often coincidental links between the two pictures. My favourite coincidence was when both contributors had taken a photo of a pair of pink shoes. More often than not, the eye is drawn to a small link - the same shade of blue; a line drawing the eye across; two contrasting but beautiful materials. On their own, each photographer would have produced a delightful record of their year - together, this is something special.

I, along with lots of others, kept my fingers crossed for a book. And our hopes have been realised! It shan't be out until Autumn (or 'Fall', as they would have it) and possibly only from the US, but a copy has my name on it from now. Because of this publishing deal, with Princeton Architectural Press, the Year of Mornings (as their project was called) is no longer viewable online. The pictures here are from this website, telling about the book, and - though good - are far from their best, in my opinion. But fear not! They have now started a Year of Evenings. Equally beautiful, though very different, and I hope to buy the book in Autumn 2009, perhaps...

It may seem a little odd to devote a whole post to someone else's blog, but 3191 is a really special website - and that book is going to be a real treat when it comes out. Do go and enjoy a Year of Evenings alongside them.

Sunday 27 January 2008

A Life Less Ordinary

The dovegreybooks group I chat about a lot has been discussing something, which I thought I'd allow to tumble over onto my blog. Sometimes my brain just won't think of new topics every night... plagiarism is just a word for people who don't copy enough different people...

Biographies. Particularly literary biographies (which, I'll be honest, are more or less the only ones I read). I have of Fanny Wollstonecraft (yes, Fanny) which I'm going to start very soon, expect reports back in a week or several. A literary biography w
ell done is a wonderful thing, offering new lights on a writer's work, and allowing one to engage with their life, surroundings and acquaintances. So far, so good.

But readers are not rational creatures. I know it shouldn't matter whether or not an author is 'nice' (whatever we choose
that to mean) - if a novel or play or poem is great, then that should be it, but of course this isn't the case. If someone discovered a beautifully written ode by Hitler, I doubt I could consider it a favourite. So, today's point to muse and respond to - has a writer's biography or autobiography ever spoiled the way you read their work? Or maybe improved it?

For me, a couple have been compromised. I adore Katherine Mansfield's short stories, but Claire Tomalin's biography left me not fond of the woman. Virginia Woolf, as you may know, is a firm favourite - but Hermione Lee depicts
her as quite selfish and arrogant (though other biographies have made her seem much more gentle, self-deprecating and witty). On the other hand, biographies of Jane Austen, Richmal Crompton and AA Milne have only made me like them more. I'm determined to avoid Margaret Forster's biography of Daphne du Maurier, after Our Vicar's Wife said it spoilt the novels for her somewhat. So, it unquestionably does make a difference to me, what an author was like as a person - but should it? And does it for you?

Saturday 26 January 2008

Went The Day Well?

There is something about black and white films which makes everything classier, isn't there? Although colour television has been around all my life, it was a b/w television I took to university (belonging to Our Vicar's Wife) and I enjoyed my monochrome world for a while. A little more distant, perhaps, but so entertainment ought to be - I'm suspicious of this High Definition thing coming in; I don't want to feel as though I'm 'in' the television. I want to escape there for a bit: not the same thing.

The b/w film I watched tonight was Went The Day Well? which several people recommended after I watched Mrs. Miniver some time last year. Really enjoyed it - quite pacey, which is the one thing many older films lack. Made in 1942
, it depicts what could have happened, had German troops infiltrated an English village, under the guise of being British soldiers. Lots of British Stiff Upper Lip and "There is a war on, you know" attitude. People sacrifice themselves for others all over the place, and there are genuinely touching moments to remind of a all-for-one England which probably never quite existed to the propagandists' extent. Amazing to think that the original audiences wouldn't have known how the war would end, nor whether or not England would be invaded.

Quite an emotional film - you definitely get caught up in the lives of these villagers, and it isn't comfort viewing, really, especially in 1942 I'd imagine.

Other reasons for watching this film:
- It's filmed in a village in Buckinghamshire called Turville, where The Vicar of Dibley was also filmed. And Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and more or less everything else.

-One of the main characters is a young Thora Hird!!
Don't know how well she is known outside the UK, but here she is renowned for chairlift adverts, Songs of Praise, and a sitcom about the elderly, Last of the Summer Wine. Difficult to believe she was ever young, but here she is, still rather older than I am, in the war.

Any other classic b/ws to recommend? Not necessarily from the war, but b/w please... I've had a few 'digitally remastered' or somesuch - such a disappointment! That feeling of class doesn't come from colour...

Thursday 24 January 2008


This week's Booking Through Thursday could have been written for me.

What’s your favorite book that nobody else has heard of? You know, not Little Women or Huckleberry Finn, not the latest best-seller . . . whether they’ve read them or not, everybody “knows” those books. I’m talking about the best book that, when you tell people that you love it, they go, “Huh? Never heard of it?”

Anyone paying attention here on Stuck-in-a-Book will not be surprised when I offer a resounding "yes!" It always comes as a shock to me if anyone has heard of the books I like. Of course, there is the odd Jane or Virginia to balance out the rest, but in general my favourite books are obscure, usually out of print. In fact, being obscure adds to my enjoyment - more exclusive; I feel like I've made the discovery myself; just special. Everyone knows Pride and Prejudice is brilliant - Miss Hargreaves is a little more personal.

And that's given the game away. Miss Hargreaves is my favourite obscure book. But I have given the matter a little more thought, as I hope regular visitors will have noticed. Down the left-hand column is 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About. (BYMRBMNHHA if you like). Does what it says on the tin -
though we're a long way off 50 at the moment. It's not in any particular order, but clicking on any of the titles will take you to my comments and advocations.

And so, my little Mwuh?-test. How many of the 17 BYMRBMNHHA had you heard about before I mentioned them? Comment, and let me know... and don't worry, zero is an anticipated answer!

Wednesday 23 January 2008


Happy 200th post!

There are some discrepancies between my Blogger homepage and the actual Stuck-in-a-Book webpage, due to draft entries I think, so my own mini-celebration was a few days ago. Now you can all enter in the fun - 200 posts!

I usually steer clear of 'widgets' (funny little applications and things one can add to a blog) but spotted one on several blogs which I couldn't resist - the Feedjit thingy down on the left. It has a map of the world and dots over it where recent visitors have come from. Unsurprisingly, half of my recent visitors are from the UK, but these are all the countries which have had a look in recently:

UK, USA, Japan, Canada, France, Australia, New Zealand, The Netherlands, Portugal, Brazil, Bulgaria, Italy, Cyprus, Belgium, Norway, South Africa, Puerto Rico, Finland, Germany, Poland, India

If you have a blog, I recommend popping this in. It's incredibly easy to insert, doesn't seem to slow the page down much, and I'm learning! My geographical knowledge wouldn't impress a five-year-old - as I once famously declared, while sick with Geography homework and the importance attached to it: "Geography isn't the world, you know!" So I'm discovering just where Bulgaria is, and that Puerto Rico is a nation and not just something in Westside Story. For the brighter amongst you, perhaps you can learn about the nations' flags...

Tuesday 22 January 2008

Nothing to hold a Candleford to...

BBC i-player really is a wonder. I don't know if it's available to people outside of the UK, but it is rather ironic that the only channels which benefit from my television licence payment are also the only channels I can watch without having a television.

I have just caught up on Episode 2 of Lark Rise To Candleford. Now, throughout my book buying career there have been two books which have followed me around everywhere. Put down the 'phone, I'm not a shilling short of a pound, let me explain. In nigh on every bookshop or charity shop I go, these books are there. Such is their ubiquity that I have stubbornly refused to either purchase or read the books. Just a natural perverseness (perversion seems such a horrible word) and being-difficult-ness. Those two books are South Riding by Winifred Holtby, and Lark Rise To Candleford by Flora Thompson. I had no idea either had anything of a following, and so was surprised to see the latter on the BBC schedules.

Perhaps they're grabbing anything in sight? As has been noted by a lot of people, including Elaine quite recently, the BBC are doing bucketloads of costume drama, and casting the same half dozen people in all of 'em. If you include the other channels, we've recently had Cranford, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, Oliver Twist, Old Curiosity Shop, Ballet Shoes and probably a few more I can't remember. I love a costume drama, but perhaps too much of a good thing? Well, perhaps not. If it's done well, there's always room for more - so long as television producers realise a few bonnets and "thee"s thrown hither and thither don't amount to character, writing or plot. Sometimes they make the mistake of believing a period setting will excuse deficiencies in every other part of a production - though usually the vague glimmers of a novel, beneath an adaptation, are enoug
h to save a series. Novel writers just seem much better at all aspects of writing than scriptwriters. Which makes me wonder - why do we so rarely get period productions which aren't adaptations? I can't think of any.

Having not read Lark Rise to Candleford I can't judge on how faithful the BBC's version has been thus far, though I would wager not very, since Flora Thompson was writing autobiographically and the events have been pretty far-fetched. I'm firmly in the camp that an adaptation should be as close as possible to the original, and certainly not add or change things, but perhaps exaggeration and extension is the
order of the day. Like most BBC costume dramas, it is the combination of background novel and foreground cast which make desirable watching - for Lark Rise To Candleford step forward Julia Sawalha, Linda Bassett, Liz Smith and Dawn French. I wonder if the lovely Julia, whom I first encountered as Lydia Bennett, has ever acted without a bonnet...
Anyway, it's been enjoyable watching, but not ground-breaking - but has pointed me in the direction of the book. Will I succumb the next time I come across it? Maybe. But I certainly shan't buy a TV tie-in edition.

Anyone else been watching this? Or have you had a surfeit of costume drama?

Monday 21 January 2008

50 Books: The Love Child by Edith Olivier

I bet you never expected to read the words 'love child' on Stuck-in-a-Book... well, if you've been paying careful attention, you'll have seen them a couple of times already. Edith Olivier's novel The Love Child came in at no.3 on my favourite books read last year. I've just realised that I've been referring to Olivier as Oliver for a long while, and thus may have misled people... I must go back and alter.

This novel has had mixed reception - I've only 'tried it out' on a couple of other people; one liked it and one wasn't so sure. I
know Lisa at Bluestalking would love it and am waiting for her to clear space in her schedule to read it! (That is, unless she already has, and kept quiet about not liking it...)

Agatha Bodenham, at 32, finds herself alone for the first time, after the death of her mother. She has been kept quietly at home, and has no real friends or chance of marriage. She turns her attention instead to an imaginary friend of her youth, Clarissa - who then appears, 'gathering substance in the warmth of Agatha's obsessive love until it seems that others too can see her', to quote the blurb. Though a great joy to Agatha's lonely life, as Clarissa begins to explore the more exotic features of 1920s life (tennis, dances, boys) something of a
power struggle develops, and it is unclear who possesses whom...

There are similarities to one of my favourite books, Miss Hargreaves, though Baker's novel was funnier and less affecting. The Love Child (1927) is a touching portrait with edges of surrealism and heartache. A very slim novel, it contains many intriguing ideas about love and possession and neediness - I also found the writing to flo
w beautifully. I'd love to discover other fables of this ilk - where Miss Hargreaves and Lady Into Fox also fit.

My Virago copy (bought on a whim for 75p in an Oxford charity shop) has an introduction by Hermione Lee which is illuminating. And, like so many other authors, Edith Olivier was related to a clergyman. Daughter, in this case. She spent nearly all her life in her native Wiltshire, except for some time at Oxford University on a scholarship - and The Love Child, where it does not wander into fantasy, appears to be influenced by autobiography.

Like all the other books so far in my 50 Books... I really recommend that you seek this novel out - it may well become a treasure you'll remember for a while.


Well, that didn't last long...
I realised that I was getting a tiny bit sated by modern fiction, not review books per se, and have been plying a lovely publisher or two for reprint fiction or literary crit/letters etc. Wonderful how a night's sleep can make one remember how wonderful receiving review books is!

Sunday 20 January 2008

Reviewing How I Review

This wonderful picture came from - go and have a look!
Lynne has been sharing the secrets of her success, as it were, talking about how she reads and reviews - and, along with a few other things, it's got me thinking.

The first time I was offered a review book I was beyond excited - thank you very much lovely Ellie at Hesperus Press, and if you ever want to send some more..! - and I still get a little joyous at the sight of a review request in my inbox. I'm not inundated with them, so every one is still a nice surprise, and I have only turned down one so far, because it was an area of non-fiction which I didn't feel qualified or interested enough in to read.

That's the thing, you see - unlike Lynne, I haven't got to the point where reading every book sent, cover-to-cover would be impossible, and so I can maintain my strict reading of everything that is sent. Perhaps it is the dizzy naivety of a 22 year old who believe that an eternity of reading lies ahead of him, or something like that, but I can't start a book and leave it unfinished. Yes, yes, I know that liberation of putting aside reads which don't satisfy, and it is a trait I almost admire, but I feel I have made something of a contract with the author. Let's ignore Reception Theory for the moment (and forever, if that's ok) I just think to myself "Hmm, well, if I'd spent months writing this book, the least I'd expect would be for the reader to spend a few days on it." Which isn't espeically rational, but is fixed in my head nonetheless.

Don't get me wrong, it's not a chore to read the books I'm sent - far from it. Some have become firm favourites. But I can't cope with many more!
I was recently asked to have my name put down as a blog reviewer in an article which would be circulated to vast numbers of writers, and, with regrets, I had to decline (well, first I excitedly accepted, but then my sensible hat came out of the wardrobe and was dusted thoroughly). I never thought I'd turn down piles of free books, but I'd feel obliged to read them - and I don't have the time to read many more than I do, especially with a potential Masters looming. I'll still accept everything sent to me, trust me, I just won't court attention for hundreds... and writers can be content in the knowledge that I will read nigh on everything sent to me, though sometimes it may take a while...

My other issue - almost everything I'm sent has been written in the last year or two, unsurprisingly. And I want variety! Hence the picture - I'm embroiled in some wonderful re-reads... However wonderful a novel is, a modern writer can't write it in 1840. So what I'd really love is more reprint publishers to send me things... can anyone recommend a reprint publisher who might be pleased with some publicity? Or perhaps I should get back in touch with my first firm friends, Hesperus Press...

Friday 18 January 2008

The Crowded Bed

As promised, a review of Mary Cavanagh's The Crowded Bed today. For those keeping tabs, Blogger appears to have once more changed the format for posting, so we'll see how this goes...

"Good evening, dear friend. I'm extremely pleased to see you, but I'm sure you'll understand why I can't give you my full attention. Joe Fortune is just about to kill his father-in-law, and I've no intention of missing this long awaited event."

So opens The Crowded Bed...

Gosh. From the first sentence I sensed this wouldn't be an uneventful novel - and, genre-wise, it's a canny decision by Cavanagh. If it hadn't been arranged thus, we'd have had a Hamlet-esque tussel over whether or not Joe wanted to kill his father-in-law - and let's face it, who hasn't watched Hamlet and thought "to be or not to be, don't care, just get on with it!"

I digress. The Crowded Bed follows Joe, a Jewish boy and later doctor, from childhood through various relationships and to just after the pivotal moment described. Like many recent novels I've read, the na
rrative jumps about a bit, so 'the present' is shown parallel to various sections of the past - though, like those novels too, it's not confusing. I found Joe a fairly repugnant character, but I think that's ok - he has manifold sins under his belt, and more or less his only redeeming trait is a deep love for his son. And an abiding love for Anna.

She's the other lass. Liked her. Despite her name, she's not Jewish - she's more like Botticelli's Venus, as shown on the cover. My favourite sections of this novel were the opening chapters, when the childhoods of Joe and Anna were depicted alongside each
other, and thus contrasted. Where Joe has indulgent and proud parents, Anna had a vicious father and a passive mother. And a twin brother, a theme popping up in quite a few recent reads. Reading their childhoods in this comparative way is so revealing about the characters and the way they interrelate.

The path isn't smooth for Joe and Anna. That crowded bed gets pretty crowded as the novel progresses, and I'll keep schtum over whether or not they manage to kick everyone else out but, suffice to say, the shocks keep coming to the very end. Cavanagh has written a novel which is both gentle and vicious, warm and unsettling. It's hard to like many of the characters, but that doesn't stop being compelled to find out more - and the rollercoaster they go through is dramatic but believable. Certainly not comfort reading (though someone recently described The Kite Runner as that, so it takes all sorts) but is a very engaging and perpetually surprising novel. Oh, and it features Oxford, which is always exciting!

Thursday 17 January 2008

Booking Through Thursday - Reviews

There's been something of a change in the Blogger-post-writing malarkey, which probably doesn't make any difference for reading the blog, but is rather exciting and confusing. If anything goes wrong - not just in the blog, but in the world - let's pretend it's the new format's fault. I love blaming technology for things - think of all that it (probably) perpetrates without us noticing, it's only fair to redress the balance.

You'll be impressed to note that I'm doing Booking Through Thursday on a Thursday, if only just. I h
ad intended to write a review of Mary Cavanagh's The Crowded Bed, but you'll have to wait for tomorrow now. Suffice to say, it'll be quite positive.

And that brings me neatly to this week's BTT:

How much do reviews (good and bad) affect your choice of reading? If you see a bad review of a book you wanted to read, do you still read it? If you see a good review of a book you’re sure you won’t like, do you change your mind and give the book a try?

I'm going to take it as read that we're talking about Blog Reviews, since I don't read any others. Without wishing to open the can of worms that is the blogger vs. literary critic debate, on a personal level I get very little from newspaper reviews. More specifically, The Times, since it is the only newspaper I have occasional access to, being the one my family reads. (I don't read the newspaper myself - takes up too much other reading time, and the experience is inherently transitory, I reckon.) The reviews printed in The Times are always too long, too unconnected with the book, and too highbrow for me. They muse around topics vaguely in the same area as the book, present their own opinion as though it were fact, and end up telling me almost nothing about whether or not I'd want to read the book - unless, of course, they just give the end away. And as for the books they review... worthy biographies are not my staple. Plus, quite naturally, they review only recently published books.

The blog acts as an opposite to almost all these points. I'm n
ot arguing that they are more intellectually qualified etc. etc., but rather they serve the purpose I have in mind. Will I like this book? Will I value reading it? There are certain bloggers I trust as having similar opinions to me - Elaine, Karen, Lisa, Danielle and Margaret are all likely to influence whether or not I buy a book. To be honest, though, if a book immediately doesn't appeal, even the most glowing appeal will leave me cold. If a close e-friend adores it, but it still doesn't appeal, I'll probably dither and buy it if ever seen in a charity shop, and read it four years later. I might read around thirty blog book reviews a week, most of them positive (because we tend not to comment if we've not enjoyed a book) and I can't read the lot.

Oh, and blogging has the immense advantage that reviews ta
lk about books from the last three hundred years, not the last three weeks. Anything could come up.

So what does a blog review do in terms of convincing me to read a book?
  • catapaults ones I already own up the tbr pile
  • convinces me to buy ones which sort of appeal already
  • puts books in my mind... if I hear about them another two or three times, I'm done for...

Wednesday 16 January 2008

Unusual Book

This book arrived this morning...

In the middle of all other sorts of books, so shall have all sorts of new comments in a flurry at some point. To link to yesterday, one is a re-read, one is a new read by an 'old' author, and one is a new read by a 'new' author! And, what is more, I'm enjoying the lot of 'em.

Tuesday 15 January 2008

New Authors For Old

Getting late, so quick post today.

Something I forgot to add in my little meme about 2007's reads - old and new authors. I mentioned that six of the books were re-reads, but haven't brought up the issue of whether authors are first-time-reads or not.

So I had a look at last year. 53 of them were books by authors I hadn't read before. Hmm. Quite a few of those were for review but, still, quite interesting. And does leave over 30 which were by familiar authors.

Both have advantages - a familiar author is a known entity. They can surprise, sure, but you more or less know what you're getting. Perhaps they exceed expectation - like Vita Sackville-West's All Passion Spent - or perhaps they disappoint a little - like Frank Baker's Before I Go Hence. The fact remains that an expectation of some variety or other is there, and you can't help comparing. On the other hand, a new author (new to you, that is) has untold possibility... or lack thereof.

A very short post today, I'm afraid, but something to get you thinking - which do you look forward to more? An author you know you'll like, or a new author you might well love? Anticipation or safety??

Monday 14 January 2008

May I Introduce...?

I'm doing this week's Booking Through Thursday rather late. Well, you could probably work that out from the day... Never mind, eh, let's just pretend I spent the past few days pondering the question.

  1. How did you come across your favorite author(s)? Recommended by a friend? Stumbled across at a bookstore? A book given to you as a gift?
  2. Was it love at first sight? Or did the love affair evolve over a long acquaintance?

Well, as Margaret po
ints out, this question involves the very tricky decision as to favourite authors. Since I shan't be compiling a proper list today, I'll just mention the ones which are undoutedly favourites, and any others which come into my head.

-Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker - this is the one I yammer on and on about! See the 50 Books... Well, this was loaned to me by my piano teacher, after a chance conversation.

-The Diary of a Provincial Lady by EM Delafield - Though this is quite well known in the world of middlebrow interwar fiction, and still in print, I came at it in rather a roundabout way. Bought 1940's Modern Humour because it had a sketch by AA Milne in it - read the others, and read two by EM Delafield. Those exact two should be available through a link on the excellent EMD website but that address isn't currently working on my computer... Anyway, loved these sketches (actually from As Others Hear Us) and sought out other EMD things from our local library - step forward Provincial Lady.

-the non-Pooh works of AA Milne - saw a Winnie-the-Pooh cartoon early in 2001, and re-read the books. Then sought out Christopher Milne's The Enchanted Places, then AA Milne's Year In, Year Out, then his autobiog, then everything else...

-Persephone Books - found a Richmal Crompton novel in a local bookshop and, having loved William, thought I'd give it a go. Loved it, and read many. Later saw a newish looking copy of Family Roundabout at the library
, which led me to Persephone...

-Sometimes I just pick up a book more or less at random, and love it. Examples include The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks; The Love Child by Edith Oliver...

-Most books I read are through some sort of connection. A LOT are recommends from dovegreybooks Yahoo Group (responsible for my penury). Some are recommended by parents or friends - though I haven't had a recommendation from Mum for a while. If you're reading this, Our Vicar's Wife, recommend me something!

And for 2) - yes, they were all favourites after the first read! I'm afraid I rarely re-read, and certainly not something I didn't enjoy much the first time.

Before I go, Nancy asked about the film Amazing Grace - I'll quote The Carbon Copy's blog from March 07, when he saw it: "
I went to see Amazing Grace last night, the new film based on the life of William Wilberforce (and there's no real excuse if you don't know who he is) and I was pretty impressed; not sure how close to the truth it was, but I enjoyed it - and was moved by it. Nice to see a strong(ish) Christian message coming through, and the idea that Wilberforce needed the love of a good woman before he could help abolish slavery is one that I like, even if it's almost certainly untrue. A worthwhile film."

Sunday 13 January 2008


You'll be delighted to know that my failsafe computer tactic - ignore the problem and it will go away - has once more worked its magic. My 'b' key, though needing a tiny bit more persuasion than the others, is almost as good as new. All through the magic of ignoring the issue. Trust me, if restarting the computer doesn't fix the issue, then try ignoring it. Like all other dangerous animals, it secretly craves attention, and will right itself if is starved of it.
So why is this particularly pertinent today? Well, I realised I hadn't blogged properly about Shakespeare by Bill Bryson. That's a lot of 'b's, especially when you remember that William is known fondly as Billybob by myself and others who took the Shakespeare paper alongside me in finals.

The Carbon Copy bought me Shakespea
re for my birthday, along with the wonderful and moving film Amazing Grace and, possibly my favourite, a little picture of Eeyore receiving his birthday balloon. My previous experience with Bill Bryson is positive - loved Mother Tongue, which I read about five years ago. Fascinating stuff on the evolution of the English language, and incredibly readable.

'Readable' always sounds a bit like damning with faint praise - cereal packets deserve the same honour - but it really isn't. Take it from one who had to read a lot of literary criticism, readability (is that a word?) is a must. Shakespeare follows suit - Bryson has obviously done a great deal of arduous and scholarly research, and the resulting book manages to be both deeply informative and incredibly amusing. Tricky combination.

So why do we need another book about Shakespeare? Bryson is honest enough to tell us how many thousands are on offer. Can't remember the exact amount, but enough to make sure I could comfortably be reading a book about Shakespare every week for the rest of my life - not mentioning the rate at which they're still being published. What sets this book apart is that Bryson's character and authorship is expressed through style and wit, not groundless speculation or wide context. Shakespeare is only about 200 pages long, but it is an essential and reliable tome. Everything we know about Shakespeare is in here. A few theories and possibilities are mentioned, but they are shown to be just that, and not argued as certain. The funniest chapter is the final one, on Anti-Stratford theorists i.e. those who, for some reason or other, refuse to believe Billybob wrote his plays. Littered with such scathing lines as "an excellent theory, if it weren't for the complete lack of evidence to support it," and "X demonstrated amazing foresight in, seeing as he died before many of Shakespeare's plays were written, secreting enough manuscripts that they could be gradually released, and correctly estimating the time period between his own and Shakespeare's death". I paraphrase, but you get the gist - very funny.

For the rest of the book - the first chapters sketch out Shakespeare's life; where he was, different instances at which he is mention in some document or other. A nice touch is that Bryson often details the person who discovered a new fact about Billybob, often through laborious and painstaking reading of many manuscripts and documents. Credit where due, is Bryson's motto. Subsequent chapters talk about the plays and the sonnets - not lit crit, but where they were performed or when they were first published. All very interesting, and if it sounds dry (and to me it doesn't!) then Bryson's wit and charm will fascinate you.

There have been thousands of books written about Billybob, and I daresay there will be thousands more, but for the facts in an engaging and funny way, this can't be bettered.

Friday 11 January 2008

Free the Rice!

Sorry, been feeling sleepy of late. Clearly the lengthy time-off I took has left me unprepared for the world of work - or, more specifically, the early wake-up time. I consider myself quite a morning person, but there are limits. Once I have a cup of tea inside me, though, I'm bright n' breezy.

Thought I'd share a couple of things today, in lieu of anything particularly bookish to report (though am immersed in The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters and may not emerge for some time)

1) Handed in my Masters Application for English Literature 1900-Present! Yes, back here I annouced my intentions (sounds like I'm an Austen hero requesting a lady's hand in marriage) and, but a short 2.5 months later, I handed the forms in. Nine days before the deadline, mind, which in my book is organised. Should find out whether or not I've got a place in about two month's time.

Not in the sense of freeing injustly imprisoned rice (though that is also a worthy cause) or even the United States Secretary of State. This website, which can speedily become addictive, combines both a love of language and charitable giving. It's basically a game of synonyms - a word is given, you choose between four possible definitions/synonyms/vaguely-related-words-sometimes - ever
y time you click, the companies which advertise on the site will give rice to United Nations World Food Programme. I don't know the ins and outs of this organisation, but it certainly seems more + than - . And the worst that can happen is that I procrastinate for a few minutes.
Go try. The words get harder as you get more correct (and easier if you get them wrong) with a running 'vocab level'. This goes up to 50, but I haven't got higher than 45... very addictive game. But with the added bonus of absolutely no guilt.

Wednesday 9 January 2008

What's Simon Booked?

I've booked some of these lessons:

What do you reckon it is? No, not golf.


Ha ha ha. Ha. Ha...
(I warn you - my knowledge of golf begins and ends with that pun).

Watch out motorists and pedestrians of Britain, I am going to try to learn to drive. Eek. Quite, quite terrified, truth be told, and also rather poorer fiscally. I'm doing it a bit late (nice to know I can be old for certain things) mostly because I was too scared to try before, but I've realised that my dream of a rural idyll would be rather compromised by not being able to get to and from it. So, shall spend three weeks at a 'simulation centre', whatever that is (six hours in these three weeks, you understand, not the whole lot) and then hit the road... agh!

P.s. stories of how you and all around you nearly died whilst learning to drive not particularly welcome right now...

Tuesday 8 January 2008

The Kite Runner - and a pondering...

I read The Kite Runner for Book Group last week, and after a few people raved about it, I was expecting something brilliant. Well, I quite liked it - there we go, nothing if not effusive! The first 100 pages or so were great - a very vivid and complex portrait of an unequal fraternal relationship. Fascinating glimpse at issues of servitude, power, jealousy, love and a very believable pair of main characters. For those not in the know, Hassan is the son of Amir's father's Hazara servant - so the boys are the same age, and very close, but in very different circumstances. Perhaps their relationship is best shown in the sport which gives the novel its title - Amir flies his kite in an important local competition; Hassan is one of those who run after the cut-down kites, to keep as prizes. Hassan runs after them in order that he can give the kite to Amir - and his loyalty is such that he will endure much rather than relinquish the kite.

There is an event about 100 pages in which changes the lives of the central characters, the natu
re of the relationship, and the rest of the novel. To be fair to Khaled Hosseini (the author) the event doesn't feel signposted in any way. I'm always annoyed by pages which scream "Look! Most Important Event Happening Here! Get Ready For Everything To Change!" But after it happens, the main force of the novel is lost. I waded through the remaining 200 or so pages with some interest, but The Kite Runner had rather, ahem, run out of steam.

And it got me thinking. Much of the reason I didn't enjoy the second half of the book, aside from its having lost momentum, was the violence and gore it involved. Don't get me wrong, this wasn't a slasher-horror or anything, it was just rather too much for a reader with as squeamish an imagination as mine. I think that political situations are best told through character, rather than graphic description. It's easy to write something fairly disgusting (it's farcically easy to write something which will make m
e feel ill) but difficult to write in such a way as creates true empathy.

So what was my pondering - it was about novels being challenging. Challenging mindsets and emotions rather than using long words, of course. I've always just assumed that they should (sometimes) be challenging - and in some areas I still do. I love it when novels change the way I think, especially the way I think about people, but I will no longer feel guilty for squeamishness. I always thought the fault was with me, being put off by novels too 'challenging', whilst now I think they're just difficult to read without feeling ill.

Hmm. I'm still not entirely sure, though.

Monday 7 January 2008


It's fair to say that I'm pretty excited.

If this were the only thing to come from my blog, then it would all be worth it. Not that blogging is a chore. But I can't ask for much more than came thr
ough my letterbox - the paperback version of Angela Young's wonderful Speaking of Love. It was one of my favourite reads of last year, and the original review can be found here. Do go and see what I thought.

Angela read my review and wrote about it on her blog, and obviousl
y her publishers - the aptly named Beautiful Books - also got to hear about. Then a while later I got an email asking if I would mind them citing me on the back of the paperback - did I mind! You can guess that, not only did I not mind, but I was deliriously happy. This is still Angela's wonderful, sensitive, emotive, beautiful book - but I like to think I share a tiny, tiny fraction of the cover, at least. Here I am:

So now you have two reasons to buy it. Not yet, though - wait until March. I'll let you know when, of course.

And for those counting, this doesn't contravene my self-imposed restriction on book buying during January, since this was a gift. Canny, no?

Sunday 6 January 2008

Sense and... Seriously?

Andrew, Andrew, Andrew...

First of all, thank you to those who sent messages - I
am healthy (just about; cold on its way) and my computer is more or less healthy; I have been back in Somerset for a few days and forgot to tell you - sorry. It was a brief visit, but another very nice one. Now I'm back in Oxford, but thanks to my enormous amount of leave taken at Christmas, shall not be back at work until Wednesday.

And now back to chastising Andrew Davies. I watched Sense and Sensibility last week, or whenever it was on, and was impressed. Great casting, good script. A few holes, but not everything can be Cranford, can it? And Davies had proved himself with the 1995 Pride and Prejudice. What happened? I have a theory that Andrew started reading the novel, got to the end of chapter three and, like so many high schoolers before him, thought watching the film would suffice for the rest. I mean, what happened? There was so much wrong with today's episode, both in how it related to the novel, and in itself. Did Marianne passionately kiss Willoughby? No. Should any couple kiss in slow motion? No. Did Elinor hide in caves or wander along cliff tops? Probably not. Do we want suggestive scenes of waves crashing against shores? Er, no. Would Edward Ferrars pop out for a bit of log chopping in the middle of tea? Dare I say it, no. This scene, I understand, was supposed to be the Colin-Firth-in-lake equivalent, but to me just looked like a silly man getting soggy.

What did I like? The Misses Steele were good. The Palmers - for my money, the funniest couple in all of fiction - were shamefully underused. Mrs. Jennings continued to be funny; Margaret was quite sweet. But that's not enough, Andrew - please give the novel a proper read before you adapt it, and don't presume that you're better at plotting than Jane is. Contrary to the opinion of marketing agents, Jane Austen is not "all about sex!!!" Yes, sexual attraction holds considerable sway, but she ain't Barbara Cartland.

Disappointed, Andrew. Could Do Better.

Wednesday 2 January 2008

Two Ravens - The Books!

Sorry for some technical difficulties yesterday - I'm going to blame my faulty internet connection. The USB Wireless thing was sticking out the back of the computer, when I accidentally smashed it against the window sill, and it came apart. Now works only sporadically. I went into Argos today but they didn't have any in stock, so I shall have to be patient.

Anyway, as promised, here is my report back on three books published by Two Ravens Press. As always, the absence of 'b's is not intentional... I'll write about these novels in the order that I read them - which also, coincidentally,
happens to be the order I'd place them evaluatively.

First off, Parties by Tom Lappin.
It took me some time to notice the pun on 'parties', despite the fact that the cover, with its ballgown and political rosette, give the game away. Yes, this is about parties of both a social and a political nature, and specifically Beatrice, Grainne, Richard and Gordon. I'm going to be
brutally honest - after the first chapter I had made up my mind. I wouldn't mention it on my blog, because I don't like being critical about new books, especially those published by small presses, but I did not get along with at all. It was only the fact that I'd been sent the novel that made me continue at all. Thank goodness I did.
I don't know what it is, but the first few pages seem like another novel to the rest - or perhaps I just needed time to get into Lappin's world and writing. Either way, I encourage potential readers to persevere - having read a couple of other reviews, I see I wasn't the only person who almost gave up. Keep going.
Parties is structured so that each chunk of the novel has a one-word subtitle - Crisps, Coffee, Champagne, Beer etc. - and
the following section is divided again into Beatrice, Grainne, Richard, Gordon. Not always that order. And what Lappin has done, one gradually realises, is write a magnificent bildungsroman - but in actual fact four of them in one. There are four protagonists, each so rounded and stunningly, painfully accurate and whole that it is difficult to believe they are not real.
Beatrice is a very beautiful part-Italian who bewitches men (mostly her tutors) but has a wry intelligence and discontent which the reader sympathises with, and allows her to be approachable as a character. Grainne is a little podgy and has manages to combine dreaming optimism with self-loathing and realism - she is paired with Gordon, a political climber who will exhaust everything and everyone to reach his pinnacle. R
ichard writes musical journalism and has listless relationships, while always admiring Beatrice.
It is hopeless to define these characters so briefly, since they are comp
lete and can only truly be understood when the novel is read. I found Beatrice and Grainne the stand-outs of the four, but really all four are needed. Though their paths throughout the novel are dogged with disilluion and dissatisfaction, there remains an undeniable warmth and truth to the novel throughout. Quite unlike the sort of novel I usually read, but so utterly engaging that the characters remain in my head several months after I read Parties. Not for the faint-hearted, perhaps, but a striking work which I would foist on you - if you can get through the first pages. Oh, and I am the most apathetic person in the world when it comes to politics (which I'm sure would displease the author immensely) so if you have the slightest interest in that area, you'll probably value Parties even more.

Next, Nightingale by Pet
er Dorward
I shan't talk as much about the other two novels, as they didn't affect me
as much, but this is still an admirable book. Rosie is in Italy on the journalistic track of a 1980 bombing. She is also encountering her father, Don, for the first time in many years. And he was a witness at the bombing. Political thrillers, again, aren't top of my list of favourite genres, but Dorward presents this one as a tale about relationships, trust, lies, self-exploration and the like. It is divided into three - the first section sees Rosie exploring and interviewing, and recognising her own inability to tackle all the issues head on. The second section flings us back to the time of the bombing, and the exploits of Don. Eventually we are back with Don and Rosie as the mysteries are settled.
I found the first and third sections the most satisfying - perhaps because it is easier to sympathise with Rosie's position as investigative, confused, intelligent but naive. Don's plight was rather more self-enduced, and tales of sex, drugs and longing, though not paramount, were less able to grip my attention.

Finally The Most Glorified Strip of Bunting by John McGill

A novel about the United States Polar expedition of 1871-73? This is what I meant about Two Ravens Press publishing things you wouldn't see elsewhere, and a topic I wouldn't have dreamt of reading about unless it had been sent to me. This trip was doomed, as may or may not be common knowledge, and this novel has a predicated ending of deaths a-plenty. Throughout a fairly witty narrative, sections of a court case (or rather interviews in a criminal investigation) are interspersed, surrounding a potential poisoning. I think, given another time and place, I might have really liked McGill's novel, but I just found it difficult to connect with the subject matter. Perhaps because it was close to Christmas and I fancied something cosy. Even having said that, I didn't dislike the novel, and it was obviously well-researched, but with character always at the forefront, and never sacrificed to facts and figures.

Two Ravens Press

Here's another shot at a post which didn't seem to work yesterday...
I have been rather lax this year already - not just that I missed posting on the first day of 2008 (only by
45 minutes, though) but in writing about Two Ravens Press. I've been meaning to do it since October, I think, but better late than never.

Quite a while ago I was sent three of their books to read, and I decided that I wanted to be able to write about all three of them at the same time. That meant quite a lot of reading, and that had to happen alongside lots of other books which needed to be read right-this-minute for all sorts of reasons. Well, the books have now been read! But they're going
to wait until tomorrow. To give Two Ravens Press their proper due, I shall write today's post about the company in general - and tomorrow tell you about the three books I've read.

Two Ravens Press are an independent publisher, and can be found at - they, like many independent presses, have
een rather remiss. No, not just missing the first day of 2008 on my blog (only byone main rule for what they publish - they have to love it. Literary fiction, poetry and non-fiction are all considered, their central consideration is... well, I'll let them speak for themselves. This is from their website:

Everything that we publish, we publish with passion. We love each of our books. They say something about the author, they say something about us and they say something about the time and the place they were born into. Each book is a person we like being around. Because each, in its own way, fights back against formulas and homogenization, against the analgesic washing-out of colour that threatens to fade our bright thoughts.

What made this publisher stand out for me? Well, as you may know by now, I tend to j
udge books by covers. Or at least let them lead me in the right direction. I certainly look at book covers to tell me what sort of publisher I'm looking at. And well done Two Ravens Press! Their covers are strikingly attractive while also being a little edgy and uncompromising. Very cutting-edge, but with humanity and beauty too. Good signs. I went straight to novels, as they are the area I know best, and the ones listed all look so different from anything else I've encountered. Probably the bigger presses didn't know quite where to place them in their marketing - Two Ravens Press can simply market them as individual books, with passion. That's not to say I adored all three, but it's a definite good sign when I'm intrigued and surprised by the description of a book - genuinely unable to think of a precedent, let alone a genre full of near identical books, as is sometimes the case.

Do go and check out the website; their novels are listed here. And tomorrow you can find out what I thought of some of them...!