Thursday 31 July 2008

Famous Last Words

I do believe it's Thursday, and thus Booking Through Thursday time. This week's question:

What are your favourite final sentences from books? Is there a book that you liked specially because of its last sentence? Or a book, perhaps that you didn’t like but still remember simply because of the last line?

This is going to be a tricky one to answer without giving away plot details... also tricky because I can't think of any off the top of my head... I do think the last line of Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker is very moving, but it has to be read in context, as it's simply ' "Miss Hargreaves... Miss Hargreaves..." '. You'll have to trust me on that one. I also love the final line of Woolf's To The Lighthouse: 'Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision'. Lengthier, and more famous perhaps, is that from Northanger Abbey. Our Jane doesn't go for short sentences, mind you...:

To begin perfect happiness at the respective ages of twenty-six and eighteen is to do pretty well ; and professing myself, moreover, convinced that the General's unjust interference, so far from being really injurious to their felicity, was perhaps rather conducive to it, by improving their knowledge of each other, and adding strength to their attachment, I leave it to be settled by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience.

As usual, over to you! More difficult than opening lines, isn't it?

Wednesday 30 July 2008

What on a Wednesday

If my self-splurging the other day weren't enough, you can see another profile of me today! Mark Thwaite, of erudite blog and the Book Depository, asked to do a blog profile of me on the latter. I was very flattered - you may have spotted profiles of dovegreyreader and Cornflower, amongst others, over the past few weeks - and of course agreed. The result can be found by clicking here - and it's also the first time I've revealed a picture of myself, except for sketches and the like.

I mentioned a few books in the interview (who'd have thought!) so might be nice if I provided links to my reviews of them, in case anybody has wandered over from that part of the blogosphere.

Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker
Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers
The Brontes Went To Woolworths - not yet reviewed, will do soon!
The Bestowing Sun - Neil Grimmett
Yellow - Janni Visman
Angel - Elizabeth Taylor
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer
(by the way, for a chance to win the excellent Gu
ernsey Lit. etc, go along to Elaine's blog at Random Jottings and enter her prize draw!)

Tuesday 29 July 2008


This is another one of those posts which will, sadly, exclude non-UK readers of Stuck-in-a-Book. My little map at the side informs me that people across the world have little activity filling their days other than going to obscure destinations and looking at my blog - perhaps it's simply members of my immediate family taking surreptitious holidays, but... perhaps not. Anyway, I wanted to blog about a TV programme which is on Channel 4, and thus available to UK readers if they go to 4 on Demand.

Can't Read, Can't Write is a documentary series about adult literacy. Phil Beadle, for whom the terms 'maverick' and 'rough diamond' were
probably invented, takes a group of adults with reading ages between 0-12, including some who can't recognise or pronounce any letters at all. Over six months, he wants to teach them to read and write - despite never having taught anyone to read before.

If this sounds like a stunt or silly experiment, well, perhaps it once was in the minds of channel executives - but the pupils in the programme put a stop to any of that. They are such involving people, really loveable and make empathy as easy as turning the television on. Granted, we only seem to follow four people (perhaps the others didn't want to be interviewed?) but that's more than enough. There's James, 28, a labourer who has nobody to help him learn at home; Linda, 46, who listens to Shakespeare on audio book but doesn't know her alphabet; Kelly, so keen to attend lessons that she brings her children in the rain when she can't get childcare. The most wonderful, though, is Teresa (above). In her 50s, she couldn't read a word - and, through being introduced to a phonetic method of learning, is quite an able
reader within a few weeks. One of the most moving moments I have ever seen on television was last week, when she finished A Very Hungry Caterpillar. "I've read a book," she wept, "I've read a book." This week she joined a library, and got a copy of Little Women, the book she'd always wanted to read. The joy and pride across her face was stunning to watch, and certainly brought a tear to my eye.

Reading is something I take for granted - I remember struggling a little bit an early age (well, I was slower than The Carbon Copy - probably not very behind, but every minute's difference matters for twins) but it's something which I couldn't do without. That these people have to go through life without reading - usually because of an education system which couldn't differentiate learning methods, and sometimes even having to hide their inability from their families - well, it's shocking. Especially when these are people who really want to read, not lazy drop-outs by any means. I'm glad Can't Read, Can't Write has brought the matter to national attention, but more than that it is a spectacular piece of documentary, and utterly moving.

Monday 28 July 2008

Major Benjy

I'm sure the glimpse of Mapp and Lucia got you all happy and either nostalgic or full of anticipation for the future. Well, the end is not yet in sight. I mentioned Tom Holt's much-loved sequels to the Benson novels - well, there will soon be another volume to add to the flock, to mix metaphors. Step forward Guy Fraser-Sampson, and Major Benjy...

I've been in touch with Guy, and asked him to tell us a little about it all...

-Start with a brief biog, about 40 words, perhaps?

[Guy Fraser-Sampson] Hard on the heels of Sebastian Faulks’s re-launch of James Bond comes resurrectionist news of a very different ilk. Guy Fraser-Sampson, until now known as a best-selling non-fiction author, has written a new Mapp and Lucia book with the full blessing of E.F. Benson’s estate. “Major Benjy” will be published by Troubador on 1 September and will be eagerly awaited by fans around the world, as the original books (made into an equally popular TV series some years back) still command a huge cult following.

-So, how did you first come across EF Benson's Mapp & Lucia series?

[Guy Fraser-Sampson] At the age of 10, listening to “A Book at Bedtime” under the bedclothes! I have to admit, though, that I appreciated them more the older I got. I have re-read them all repeatedly over the years.

-Ok, imagine I've never read any of them - who are Mapp & Lucia, and what are the books about?

[Guy Fraser-Sampson] Fred Benson wrote both “Queen Lucia” and “Miss Mapp” as single books, but then later had the stroke of genius to bring these two dreadful women together, set them up in opposition to each other, and turn it into a series. Set in the mythical town of Tilling (in fact Rye , where Benson lived) they are constantly attempting to out-do and out-wit each other with hilarious results. With the sole exception of Jeeves and Wooster , it must be the most enduring series of comic fiction ever published. It retains a huge cult following to this day, with countless internet fan groups, local clubs and a grand gathering in Rye every September.

-So - where does 'Major Benjy' fit in?

[Guy Fraser-Sampson] “Major Benjy” is slightly unusual in that it is not a sequel in the true sense. It fits into a narrative gap between two of the existing books (“Miss Mapp” and “Mapp and Lucia”) and ties up a lot of loose ends in the process.

-What do you EF Benson would think of them?

[Guy Fraser-Sampson] That’s not really for me to say, but my instinct is that he would love “Major Benjy”. There was a lot of stuff he could not expressly articulate at the time – about gay relationships for example – which I can state, albeit very gently. In addition, I have fleshed out the supporting cast which even his fans admit was a bit of a weak point with Fred himself.

-And the questions to which I always want to know the answer at Stuck-in-a-Book - who are some of your favourite authors?

[Guy Fraser-Sampson] That’s a big question since I don’t have TV and have always been a voracious reader. I consume several books a week. For fiction other than Benson: Durrell, Farrell, O’Brian, Burgess, Davies and Rushdie. For unjustly neglected novelists I would say Hamilton and Raymond (though I see their work is now being re-printed) Derek Robinson and Frank McGillion. For lighter reading, I enjoy Vargas, Pryce, Perez-Reverte, and de Berniere’s South American trilogy.

-what book are you reading at the moment?

[Guy Fraser-Sampson] “Murther and Walking Spirits” by Robertson Davies, bought in a second-hand bookshop in Lyme Regis. I am also re-reading Tilling on Forster and Forster’s “Abinger Harvest”, both bought from my local book stall at Swiss Cottage market. Ditto “Cultural Amnesia” by Clive James bought from Daunt Books in Marylebone.

-And how can I buy a copy of Major Benjy?

[Guy Fraser-Sampson] There have already been some good orders from independent bookshops all over the UK , so please check your local bookshop first. If not, go to For US and Canadian readers, the best option is probably Amazon unless you happen to live near a large bookstore.

Sunday 27 July 2008

Mapp and Lucia

I can't believe I've been blogging for over a year and not made mention of a series of books which I'm sure you all either do love or will love - the Mapp & Lucia series by EF Benson. I've recently had the pleasure of watching Elaine at Random Jottings succumb to Elizabeth and Emmeline, and it has set me off re-reading. I've only read the first four of the six, actually, and if you throw in Tom Holt's well-respected sequels (in the style of EF Benson) then I have only got halfway. More news on Benson sequels very soon...

For those who don't know, EF Benson wrote Queen Lucia in 1920, Miss Mapp in 1922, Lucia in London in 1927 - and by 1931 had the brilliant idea to bring his creations together in Mapp and Lucia. I haven't read the final two books, as I say, but presume that the characters remain united enemies in them. Mapp and Lucia are not likeable characters, by any means - both with their varying pretensions and self-delusions, but both holding sway over their neighbourhood, there is inevitable friction and competition when they meet. And these characters, especially when they meet, are an absolute delight to read about. We laugh at them, we are fond of them, we realise how intimidating it would be to meet them in real life.

My dear friend Barbara-in-Ludlow introduced me to these books, back in 2004, very kindly lending me her beautiful Folio edition. These were returned when I went to university, and I bought up the Black Swan paperback editions. Very nice, even featured in my post about favourite book covers - but I did hanker for the beautiful Folio editions. When I was reading Barbara's, I was so worried I'd get them dirty that I read them with custom-made brown-paper covers. What can people have thought I was reading... Anyway, I found this boxset secondhand in Oxford, and was utterly delighted. Annoyingly, I have to use my glasses to read them (never know why this is true of some books and not others - nothing to do with font size) but it's a sacrifice I'm willing to make.

Advance apologies to anyone who now must go out and buy this edition... but it's worth it.

Friday 25 July 2008

Quiz Results

Well, even after my avalance of clues, the character-as-author quiz remains unsolved... so here are the answers.

Any more novels I should read with characters who write?

1.) Her manuscript was burnt by her sister.
Jo - Little Women by Louisa M. Alcott

2.) Struggling to follow up his masterpiece Jacob Wrestling, he even
tually wrote a novel which began 'The cat sat on the mat'.
Mr. Mortmain - I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

3.) Based on Marie Correlli, this selfish girl wrote romantic sagas, and didn't understand that a large percentage of her buying public was laughing at her.
Angel - Angel by Elizabeth Taylor

4.) This Jewish writer had a typewriter called Minnie.
Toby - The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks

5.) This vicar's wife wrote romantic novels, dictating them to a secretary, and wrote so many at once that she got the plots and characters constantly confused.
Mrs. Sanders - Frost at Morning by Richmal Crompton

6.) Two Victorian poets, whom 20th Century academics discover were lovers.
Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte - Possession by A.S. Byatt

7.) She wrote detective novels about Finnish detective called Sven Hjerson, and was a parody of her own authoress.
Ariadne Oliver - lots of Poirot novels, by Agatha Christie

8.) Having published a 'minute and unpretentious literary effort', her children compare her to 'Shakespeare, Dickens, author of the Dr. Dolittle books' and her husband says 'It is Funny - but does not look amused'.
The Provincial Lady - all the Provincial Lady books after the first one, by E.M. Delafield (these quotations from The Provincial Lady Goes Further)

9.) This detective novelist was arrested for the murder of her lover, and later married a man with a monocle.
Harriet Vane - several novels by Dorothy L. Sayers

Thursday 24 July 2008


My computer is in one of its slow moods (do I have a virus? Hmm.) so I'm not going to give you the answers to the quiz yet - it would require uploading photographs which are not yet on my computer. But I will give you some clues to the ones which nobody has yet got correct - 4, 5 and 8. All of them are in my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About, in the list so far, in the sidebar. That should narrow down the odds from all of literature!

My friend Mel and I spent the day doing a 'road trip' (by wa
y of train, bus and foot) to Marsh Gibbon. We choose our destinations almost solely by their names - in the past we have visited Kingston Bagpuize, Horton-cum-Studley, Goring-and-Streatley, and Thrupp. We took a train to Bicester, and walked from there, stopping for a picnic in Launton. All was going well - we saw a bridleway sign saying 'Marsh Gibbon, 2 miles' - and the pathway took us past some utterly adorable piglets, very tiny and very confused, falling over each other and scampering like puppies. It was after this that the walk descended into anarchy - we wandered through field after field for about two hours, occasionally seeing a footpath arrow, but generally having to make our own guesses. Nothing was signposted, really, and any designated footpath which does exist was impossible to find. Fearing that we'd never see civilisation again, we eventually spotted the roof of some barns. Where there are barns, there's a farm; where there's a farm, there's a road. And there was. We eventually got to Marsh Gibbon, where The Plough quenched our thirst.

I'll leave you with my latest painting effort - Spotlight.

Wednesday 23 July 2008

Everything's Beachy

I think I'll give you another day on the writer-as-character quiz from yesterday, though well done to all the correct responses so far, I'm impressed!

Instead, I'm going to write about The Great Western Beach by Emma Smith, which Steph at Bloomsbury sent me a while ago. Its subtitle is A Memoir of a Cornish Childhood Between the Wars, which is exactly what it is. Before I go any further, I must praise David Mann and Victoria Sawdon - for Jacket Design and Illustration respectively. What a stunning book. In the publishing world, people seem to endlessly copy one another with their covers - hundreds of Joanne Harris/Jon McGregor/Kate Morton lookalikes. Bloomsbury have really done something different, and it is beautiful - Mann and Sawdon must be at the top of their game, or they should be.

Right. Onto the content of the book. Emma Smith was known to me as the writer of a Persephone book, The Far Cry, which I've yet to read. She's also a Shakespeare lecturer at Oxford, but that's a differen
t Emma Smith. I wasn't aware that this Emma Smith was still alive, which sounds rude, but not everyone reaches their 85th birthday. She's (sensibly) waited until late in life (one assumes) to write this memoir of her childhood - and rather brilliant it is, too.

The Hallsmiths, as was their name, aren't an astoundingly unusual family, but have striking points - misanthropic father who resents being in a lowly position at his bank and craves fame; mother who has lost three previous fiancees; twin boy and girl - the boy fairly sickly, the girl stubborn and adventurous; Elspeth, the author. Elspeth's early childhood is spent on and around the Great Western Beach, and the beach, alongside the family's various homes, forms the location
s for this autobiography.

I think the most useful way I can write about this book is t
o describe the style. First person, but neither from the author's current perspective, nor from the child's. It is all written as though she were looking back at the events from a distance of only a couple years - some hindsight and analysis is permitted, but alongside childhood ignorance of certain things, and a child's language. Actually, the vocabulary is an adult's, but many paragraphs end with sentiments such as 'It's not fair! Not fair!' How does Emma Smith make this mixture of voices and tones and persons work? I don't know, but it does. The Great Western Beach isn't irritating or affected; somehow the view of a child is presented convincingly, without losing the slants of wisdom which are the memoir-writer's prerogative.

Despite the comforting title, this is no cosy childhood. Her father is unloving and mean. She watches her brother struggle through a miserable childhood. Twice she is almost victim to sexual abuse from strangers. But The Great Western Beach is as far from miserylit as it is possible to get - where others, with less material, would have written a Tragic Childhood Memoir (WH Smith actually has a stand called this...), Emma Smith writes an honest but calm book - the good alongside the bad. Her powers of recall are frankly astonishingly - presumably the conversations are not verbatim, but I wouldn't be able to write a chapter on my childhood, let alone a book, at a quarter of Smith's age.

Perhaps the most moving section is Smith's Afterword, which unsettles all the assumptions I'd made:

O my parents, my poor tragic parents - my good and beautiful, brave, dramatic, unperceptive mother; my disappointed, embittered, angry, lonely, talented father: locked, both of them, inside a prison they had not deserved, for reasons they didn't understand, by conventions they took as immutable laws. I see them now as they were in my childhood: blindly struggling, trapped by social circumstances beyond their control, governed by inherited prejudices not worthy of them. How I wish I could have saved you, set you free, given you the happiness you once expected, all the success you had hoped and longed for, and never managed to make your own. Forgive me, my father, my mother. I have written this memoir, however much it may seem to be otherwise, out of great pity, and with great love.

Tuesday 22 July 2008

Guess The Writer

I was thinking about books which have characters who are authors... was planning to make a top ten, then realised so many were rather Stuck-in-a-Book specialisms, and that I could remember so few, that instead I'd set a little quiz. So, can you name these characters who are writers, and the books in which they appear? (A browse through the books I've read this year would help you with one or two!) (May be occasional spoilers...)

Also, no.10 is blank - for you to fill! Characters who are writers, to whatever degree.

1.) Her manuscript was burnt by her sister.

2.) Struggling to follow up his masterpiece Jacob Wrestling, he eventually wrote a novel which began 'The cat sat on the mat'.

3.) Based on Marie Correlli, this selfish girl wrote romantic sagas, and didn't understand that a large percentage of her buying public was laughing at her.

4.) This Jewish writer had a typewriter called Minnie.

5.) This vicar's wife wrote romantic novels, dictating them to a secretary, and wrote so many at once that she got the plots and characters constantly confused.

6.) Two Victorian poets, whom 20th Century academics discover were lovers.

7.) She wrote detective novels about Finnish detective called Sven Hjerson, and was a parody of her own authoress.

8.) Having published a 'minute and unpretentious literary effort', her children compare her to 'Shakespeare, Dickens, author of the Dr. Dolittle books' and her husband says 'It is Funny - but does not look amused'.

9.) This detective novelist was arrested for the murder of her lover, and later married a man with a monocle.


Sunday 20 July 2008

Even Stephens

Sorry to be absent for a while - down in Somerset now, and getting a cold (isn't it always the way, when you get time off work?) but enjoying myself nonetheless.

Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers is the book I'm going to chat about today. Whether or not you'll like this book can be largely decided by what your reaction is to that title - if you think "Oo, nice names, sounds fun" then look elsewhere. If your immediate thoughts are "Bell! Woolf! The Stephen sisters!" then you, like me, will probably love Sellers' novel.

Vanessa and Virginia is fictional, but based on real people and events - the childhood of Vanessa and Virginia Stephen, later to be artist Vanessa Bell and novelist Virginia Woolf, and their subsequent lives up to the death of Virginia. It is from the perspective of Vanessa, and addressed to Virginia (though without expecting response). Sellers' style is not an imitation of Woolf's, but it has deep similarities - the same beautiful lyricism, use of abstract images, delving into human emotions with an intelligence and compassion which never stumbles into the saccharine. Had Sellers been a shade closer to Woolf, it would have merely been a false copying - as it is, she stays just on the right side. Like Woolf's writing, though, you have to read a couple of pages every time you pick it up, before you fall into her rhythm. And, also like Woolf's writing, I think Vanessa and Virginia will divide people. I was wrapped in the beauty of the language and never wanted to leave - but I can see how the short sentences and symbolism might rankle.

I came from the position that I knew a lot about the Stephen sisters - from Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf, but more significantly (for this novel) from Angelica Garnett's impressive memoir Deceived with Kindness. As such, I had no problem when a host of characters were introduced, one after another, in the Stephens' extended family and the Bloomsbury Group. I don't say all that to blow my own Eng-lit-studying trumpet, of course, but rather because I don't know how confusing Vanessa and Virginia would be for the uninitiated - I would humbly suggest that people seek out Deceived with Kindness first, as then everything will make sense. Plus Deceived with Kindness is great. I was going to point you in the right direction to read my review of it, but I don't appear to have written one - so it might appear later.

To return to Vanessa and Virginia. The novel is a portrait of sibling rivalry and closeness; competition and understanding; unspoken bonds and unwritten rules guiding a relationship fraught with both love and jealousy. Obviously, I don't know how true this is. Sellers uses at least one or two events (won't spoil it for you by naming them) which probably didn't happen, but are poetically justifiable. From the biographies I've read the sisters seem very close, but perhaps the jealousy side was there with some strength too. It certainly leads to some interesting discussion on the relative merits of writing and painting : "I think of Father's jeer that painting is a bastard sister to literature" [Vanessa] later, "There is no doubt painting is leading the way. Fiction has forgotten its purpose. The novelists circle round their subject, describing everything that is extraneous to it, and then are surprised when it slips from view" [Virginia]. (Incidentally, to my mind, it is just this 'circling around' which makes Woolf such a brilliant writer - she homes in on a person, object, emotion through these descriptions of contiguity, rather than going simply and insufficiently for the heart). In some ways, the literal truth of the events and relationships doesn't matter - Sellers was never going to be able to write Vanessa Bell's autobiography. What she has done is write a beautiful novel which does justice to Bell's perspective as a very talented painter, overshadowed by a very talented novelist sister, in an unusual group and unusual time. I don't know where Sellers can go after this, but I look forward to finding out.

Thursday 17 July 2008

Booking Through Thursday

This week's question is quite appropriate for me, as I've got next week off work, and shall be going home for a few days, starting tomorrow. Might mean blogging is sporadic, I warn you now...

Do you buy books while on vacation/holiday?

Do you have favourite bookstores that you only get to visit while away on a trip?

What/Where are they?

I can just about hear my parents' hollow laugh from here about the first question... yes, I do buy books on holiday! Many, many books. I'm fairly familiar with the stock of my local secondhand bookshops - going away means there are wholly unmined sources. And I mine 'em. I try to leave my suitcase about half empty, to leave plenty of room for all the purchases.

Favourite bookshops visited only on trips? Well, before we moved to Somerset we used to pass by the Bookbarn on our trips to the South West, and that's a truly wonderful place. Now we're close to it, we don't seem to visit all that much. Generally, the pleasure for me is finding bookshops serendipitously. Mmmm books.

Howsabout yourself?

Wednesday 16 July 2008

Letter-Shaped Living

Oh, but you're good. Well done to everyone who correctly identified The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks, whichever method you used to spot it. It feels a bit fraudulent to label a book you May Not Have Heard About, but it's so good that it's going on my 50 Books nonetheless.

I read The L-Shaped Room back in 2001, having bought it on a whim for 10p, and utterly loved it. It was with some trepidation that I returned to it in 2008 - after all, though seven years may not seem like a very long time, I only really started reading Proper Books in 2000, so it's a long time for me. I needn't have worried - this 1960 novel of Jane Graham, unmarried and pregnant, moving into
her L-shaped room, was still brilliant. I was just as gripped this time, though I knew (in surprisingly close detail) what would happen throughout the novel.

Jane is thrown out by her father when he finds out she is pregnant, and she must become independent. She chooses "an ugly, degraded district in which to find myself a room... in some obscure way I wanted to punish myself, I wanted to put myself in the setting that seemed proper to my situation." Determined not to engage with the other occupants of the building, to suffer her solitude, she cannot help learn about them and gro
w to like them. There's John, a kind, black jazz-player in the room next door; Mavis, an elderly spinster with a mania for collecting ornaments; Doris her constantly indignant landlady; even the prostitutes on the basement floor. Most importantly, there is Toby - a writer who hides his Jewishness and is irrepressibly friendly.

Banks' strength is her characters - all of them had stayed in my head from 2001, and it was like greeting old friends. None are
stereotypical (which makes it difficult to describe them, above, truth be told) and none are too nice, either - they are real people, with real motives and emotions and consequences. You love them for it, but it makes their trials and tribulations all the more traumatic for the reader.

I've read the sequels, The Backward Shadow and Two Is Lonely, back in 2001/2, and remember them both being good - though not as good. Last night I watched the film. I do love a black and white film - it makes one feel effortlessly intelligent. If I hadn't just read the book, I'd probably have really loved it - but there are so many deviations. I can cope with a film missing out bits of the book, time constraints and all, but this one changed all sorts of details needlessly. Jane was French (actress can't do an accent, I expect), her mother wasn't dead and we never get to see her father, such an important aspect of the book. And why they gave her a baby girl instead of a boy, I can't imagine. Still, the actors are brilliant - each looks and acts just right. Shame about the writing.

If you've not read The L-Shaped Room, do get a copy. Lots cheap on Amazon. And it's also in print, which is rare enough for the books I recommend as favourites! Jane Graham will stay with you for years, as will her L-shaped room.

Tuesday 15 July 2008

Guessing Games

Tomorrow I'm going to add another book to the 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About - though I think some of you may have heard of this one. Not sure, really. So today I'm going to give you a mini-guessing game, to see if you can identify the book from the brief clues I give.

I've just watched the 1962 film - not a musical, you'll be relieved to hear after yesterday,

The author also wrote children's books.

Something of a Clue....

Monday 14 July 2008

A Personal Low Point

How the mighty are fallen. What would Virginia Woolf say if she knew what I'd just read. Granted, the whole book took me less than an hour, but that's still an hour I could have spent in the company of Laura Ramsay, Clarissa Dalloway, Miss La Trobe.

I've just read High School Musical : The Book of the Fi

My very dear friend Mel bought it for me, since we have shared (ironically, you understand) the rollercoaster of emotions that is Troy (basketball player) and Gabriella (Maths genius) discovering affinity through song. She asked me to write about it on here, and being the slavish man I am...

If you've seen High School Musical, then you've read all the dialogue in this book. N.B. Grace, who appears to have penned all manner of such books (though also looks like a note reminding about the Gospel) has turned his/her hand to writing a book in the easiest way possible. Grab a script, and throw "He said, thoughtfully"; "She said, inwardly groaning" and so forth, throughout. Repeat as needed. Surprisingly, however, it is done unobtrusively, and makes for an enjoyable enough read.

But why do I write about it here? Well, some of you may be the parents/grandparents/friends/siblings of someone who is reluctant to read much. If that person is a pre-teenager, possibly with a crush on Zac Efron/Vanessa Anne Hudgens, then maybe this book would lure them into the reading fold... Worth a shot, anyway.

Happy, Mel? ;-)

Saturday 12 July 2008


I spent this afternoon painting a self-portrait (which is above, and with which I'm currently not very happy, so it may get a bit of an alteration before long) and I thought it would be a good excuse for being unashamedly egoistical doing a self-portrait in words too. I saw the '100 things about me' idea on Sarah's blog, and I thought it was ideal for me. These '8 Random Facts' memes are great, but each fact has to be interesting... like Miss Bates before me, I opt for 100 very dull things indeed. Well, perhaps I choose rather more than her. Do have a go yourself!

1. My name is Simon David Thomas.
2. I was born on 7th November 1985...
3.... in Billinge, Merseyside, UK.
4. I've since lived in Eckington, Worcestershire; Chiselborough, Somerset, and Oxford.
5. I have a twin brother called Colin.
6. I'm vegetarian.
7. I'm a Christian.
8. The countries I've been to, outside of Britain, are Ireland, France, Belgium, Spain, Qatar (briefly), The Philippines.
9. In The Philippines a group of us taught sock puppetry to a group of teachers...
10. I hadn't been on a commercial 'plane until I was 19.
11. But I had been on a four-seater 'plane at our local airfield
12. Blue has been my favourite colour for as long as I can recall.
13. I've never broken any bones.
14. In fact, I've never been to hospital, except to be born and visit others!
15. My favourite singer is Kathryn Williams.
16. I cried a lot as a baby - Mum used to say "If you want to tell which one's Simon and which one's Colin, just lie them both down - the one to cry first is Simon" - !
17. I love spending time in my own company, but only if it's my choice and not forced.
18. I love writing and receiving letters, but am quite slow at doing it.
19. I love weddings.
20. My favourite vegetable is red pepper.
21. My favourite animal is the cat (especially the kitten)
22. Next is the donkey.
23. I'm severely arachnophobic.
24. I don't like the heat at all - if you're cold, you can put on a jumper; there is nothing to be done if it's hot!
25. I have a slightly irrational love of staircases, especially spiral ones.
26. But this is balanced by an irrational dislike of personal storage units...
27. I very rarely read newspapers.
28. I play the piano, violin and clarinet, though it's been so long since I picked up a clarinet that it might not be worth including in that list...
29. Colin and I were once in a group called the 'Elgar Junior Singers' in Worcestershire
30. I don't feel myself in a city - only truly happy in the countryside
31. As far as I'm aware, I'm not allergic to anything except fake transfer tattooes.
32. Spring is my favourite season, and Summer my least favourite.
33. I was a teenager before I realised that hens and chickens were the same thing, despite being brought up in the countryside by the son of a farmer.
34. That grandparent was known as Grandad Tractor throughout our childhood.
35. When I was very young I wanted to be a 'tealady' - though this has recently been trumped by a child who wants to be a 'fire engine'.
36. I once proposed to a girl called Natalie, when we were both five, and gave her the ring-pull from a Coke can. Her Dad conviscated it.
37. Colin and I went through primary school with our initials sewn onto our jumpers.
38. We had to do sets of Work Experience at school - I spent time at an Interior Design company, and a Publisher. And decided against both.
39. My favourite film is The Hours.
40. I can't stand the sound of shelves scraping against ice in a freezer.
41. And I also hate watching weather forecasts.
42. My favourite Bible verse is 2 Corinthians 12:9 - "
But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me."
43. The first song I ever bought was Five's 'When The Lights Go Out'. What a confession.
44. I always eat cereal without milk.
45. My favourite feature is my eyes.
46. They're blue.
47. I can list all the States of America in alphabetical order.
48. Sadly, I bite my nails.
49. I learnt to click my fingers on my seventh birthday.
50. I had a brace on my teeth for three years.
51. The only sporting trophies I have are chess ones...
52. I'd love to go to Venice.
53. I can't speak any other language except English...
54.... but multilingualism is the skill I most admire in others.
55. I love baking, especially if I can make up the recipes.
56. I was a pond monitor in first school.
57. 256 is my favourite number.
58. My least favourite word is 'onyx'.
59. I don't like peanut butter, parsnips or raw tomatoes.
60. I've been on television twice.
61. And was on the front cover of the local newspaper when I was born.
62. I love those TV programmes about house makeovers/buying/selling/building.
63. Despite an A Level in Maths, I still find my 4 times table tricky.
64. My first role in the school play, with Colin, was holding up the 'sea' for Noah's boat to float across.
65. I'm anti-hunting, but not anti-culling.
66. I used the word 'vicarious' inaccurately for years.
67. I'm very squeamish.
68. But I've never fainted.
69. I hate having dry hands.
70. My attention span isn't that long, and I almost always get weary of a film or play about three-quarters of the way through.
71. I planted a silver birch in a garden my Grandad (Tractor) helped to dig, and enjoyed having a growing race with it over the years. It's long since won.
72. Eeyore is my favourite character from Winnie the Pooh.
73. I love painting and drawing.
74. And I always doodle on scraps of paper, or the backs of old envelopes, when I'm on the 'phone.
75. If I had to pick any period to live in, it would be the 1930s, minus the World War.
76. I love torrential rain, when I'm indoors.
77. I sleep with my curtains open, because I like to wake up in the light.
78. Queuing is the British trait of which I'm most proud.
79. I used to go under the alias 'syntrix' on the internet.
80. My friend Andrew and I briefly made a comic in Year 3, including Sqare [sic] Eyes and Daniel the Spaniel.
81. I stopped reading the Beano on my 13th birthday.
82. Growing up in a Vicarage family has made me value privacy a lot, and make definite boundaries between my personal space and other spaces.
83. I don't think I'd be able to leave the house in the morning without having had a cup of tea.
84. I love Ceylon tea.
85. My favourite food is crusty white bread cheese sandwich.
86. I love Ikea.
87. I've kept a journal since 2001, and would hate anyone to read a word of it.
88. I've also kept a list of the books I've read since about mid-2001.
89. I hate getting my haircut, and did it myself for a couple of years.
90. Almost every film makes me cry...
91. I get very shocked if people eat food off their knife.
92. I'm half an inch shy of six foot.
93. I sometimes correct people's grammar when I barely know them.
94. Sight is the sense I'd least like to lose.
95. In fact, I'd rather lose the other four - because nearly everything I like is experienced visually.
96. I once accidentally invited myself on a couple's date - and went...
97. I used to Maypole dance at school.
98. I carry a book with me more or less everywhere I go.
99. I'm quite tired, now, and
100. I found that really hard!

Friday 11 July 2008

Overrated Classics Meme

Kirsty at Other Stories has tagged me for a meme about classic literature (of the famous-and-good rather than Greek-and-Latin variety)...

What was the best classic you were "forced" to read at school, and why?

I never know why people complain about books they read at school, at least not for the most part. But I suppose my English degree pays testament to the fact that I like analysing literature as much as giving it a quick read - two very different activities, one rather more difficult than the other, but love them both. I think the best must be either Much Ado About Nothing by Billybob, or Hard Times by Charles Dickens. Both incredibly funny, though I must confess having a brilliant teacher for Hard Times gave it a good leg up.

What was the worst classic you were forced to endure, and why?
The only one I really didn't like - and couldn't respect, because it was more or less trash literature - was Captain Corelli's Mandolin. But I don't think anybody would call that a classic, would they? I didn't think a huge amount of Of Mice and Men, though I don't regret having read it. I do think they start students on Shakespeare far too early - Macbeth was my first, when I was eleven. What other Renaissance writer would they dole out at that age? Or anyone pre-Victorian, for that matter. Much though I revere Billybob, I'd like to see a wider range of authors from the 16th-19th Centuries. And by that I don't mean a cursory mention of Marlowe...

Which classic should every student be made to read?
I suppose this invites the obvious retort that students shouldn't be *made* to read anything, but let's sweep
that under the carpet for now. I don't think you can truly appreciate the structure of a novel, or the potential for character and language, until you've read Pride and Prejudice. And perhaps they'd be able to hammer into people's heads that it's not a 'girl's book'...

hich classic should be put to rest immediately?
That's a bit tricker. Whilst I don't like Ulysses, for example, I think it stands as an interesting idea and shouldn't be destroyed. I can't quite see the point of The Catcher in the Rye, or why it's been hailed as such a great book, nor The Bell Jar. Hmm. Can't think of any I'd like to see put to rest immediately, but I daresay something will rear its head before long.

Thursday 10 July 2008

Soft amongst the macabre

A couple of review books I've been meaning to write about, with very little in common except that I want to write about them together. These sorts of posts always remind about my favourite tutor, Emma, who had my friend Chris and me in joint tutorials. We'd often written on completely different texts with completely different topics and themes - and Emma would valiantly spend the tutorial trying to draw out unifying points from the two. Should be fun.

The first is Alternative Medicine by Laura Solomon, a collection of short stories published by Flame Books. They also published The Bestowing Sun by Neil Grimmett (which I wrote about here) and Tru by Eric (which I wrote about here). I was so impressed by these two novels that I had to read more from the publishing house. Perhaps I'd set myself up for a fall - while I enjoyed and admired Alternative Medicine, it has a very different feel to it. Those novels were at the forefront of emotional, real modern literature, exploring relationships between families and the elasticity of feelings - Laura Solomon is doing something quite different.

It's always difficult to summarise a collection of short stories, and it's illuminating to see what the writer of the blurb has chosen to represent Alternative Medicine: 'A couple is torn apart by a renegade duvet, an upstaged Santa takes revenge on his rival, a girl's father is abducted by aliens, a man is relentlessly bullied by his sister on their annual holiday, a manufactured genius turns out to be not so perfect after all'. The next paragraph talks abut the 'entertaining and insightful journey into the shortcomings of being human, and the wonder of our graces'; 'masterful central metaphors, sharp wit, and a beautiful simplcity'. For me, the title to today's post says it all for a theme - 'soft amongst the macabre'. I read each story with foreboding, expecting something strange or grotesque at every corner - to inject the writing with this menace is quite a talent - but alongside this was a soft, sensitive understanding of the characters and their motivations.

The Battle for Gullywith by Susan Hill appear
ed on more or less every blog known to man a few months ago, but I've only just finished it. It's my first book by Susan Hill, in fact, though I've read thousands of her words in the form of her blog. It is inevitable that any children's book now will be compared to Harry Potter, so I'm just going to use the words and get on with what I was talking about. The plot is probably familiar to you all, if not, pop over to Amazon (this must be the laziest reviewing ever!) I read The Battle for Gullywith in three bouts, and was thus rather confused at times, but that's my fault rather than the book's. I think it's probably a book one has to come to as a child to truly love - I found it an enjoyable romp, with amusing, slightly predictable characters, some inventive plot aspects, and the most ingenious use of tortoises I've ever encountered. A few too many topical references to feel timeless, but enough good old-fashioned adventure to beguile a child who has exhausted JK Rowling and Enid Blyton. Say what you like about those authors, but I don't think a child can do much better than them.

Wednesday 9 July 2008

Mostly Persephone

More Persephone chat today - because the other day I went to the event I forewarned you about, at Mostly Books in Abingdon. Nicola Beauman, doyenne of Persephone (is doyenne complimentary? It's meant to be) gave a lovely talk on setting up Persephone in 1999, the highs and lows, and the Persephone Classics venture. The room was full with interested people - it was especially nice to meet Moira and her husband, so hello to you both! - and I am never happier than when surrounded by bookish folk. Such a joy to be able to hear and talk about a publishing house which I love so dearly, and books I cherish.

I've heard Nicola talk before, but it is always a pleasure. (Something I note is that, whilst when I was 18 and had loooong hair, people didn't want to catch my eye at a Persephone event, here I obviously looked a lot less off-putting!) If you ever have the chance to hear about Persephone from the driving force behind it, do take it. From Nicola's time with Virago and her book A Very Great Profession (recently republished by Persephone), to setting up Persephone Books, to the surprise bestseller of Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day t
o the Persephone Classics, it is a fascinating journey which I hope to see in her biography one day...

Persephone Classics is where Persephone lovers form two factions. They are further, slightly cheaper, reprints of Persephone's bes
tsellers. The iconic dove grey covers, concealing beautiful endpapers using fabric from the year the book was published, are replaced with pictures of the covers. The content inside is identical. I confess, I was a little wary when I first heard about the venture - but then I saw this cover for Dorothy Whipple's Someone at a Distance.

It is a wonderful book, both very well written and also addictive, which don't always go hand in hand - and what an incredible cover. I think it's the most beautiful book I own, not just to look at, but to hold and to read.

Some of the audience at Mostly Books were resolute that they wouldn't buy a non-grey cover; some were entranced; all were grateful to Nicola for bringing these wonderful books back into print. It's flared up my collectors' instinct again - so many I've yet to own! One of these days I'll give a list of the ones I've read and those I own, and will await your recommendations...

Thank you Nicola, and thank you Mark for organising such a wonderful evening.

Monday 7 July 2008

BAFAB Results!

Thank you Patch for helping me again with the BAFAB draw - highest number of entrants yet, so thanks all for joining. I loved how our favourite book-gifts were almost all ones we were given as children, ones which set us off reading or which we treasured then and now.

Patch took up his usual role of sifting through the entries.

He got a little excited...

But managed to come up with a name...

Congratulations Pamk! Please email me with your postal address -

Sunday 6 July 2008

Colourful World

(Not long to enter my BAFAB draw.... scroll down a bit if you'd like to enter... draw will be Monday evening!)

A bit tired after a weekend with The Carbon Copy (only bought a couple of books - including the Persephone book Operation Heartbreak by Duff Cooper) so a simple question for you. Don't think I've asked this one before...

What is your favourite book with a colour in the title?

For my American readers, feel free to take a 'u' out of the word 'colour'... ;-)

Mine is shown in the picture. Click on it for a review of the book written earlier in the year - but to be honest, I haven't thought long and hard. Maybe there are others which should supplant it?

Thursday 3 July 2008

Mostly Persephone Books

The exciting life of Simon continues apace, as tomorrow I am off to Bath to look round the University library - and, since it is a mere stone's throw from Bristol (if you can throw a stone several miles, of course) I shall be visiting The Carbon Copy for the weekend. All go, here. In fact, my next lie-in looks to be sometime in 2009...

So I thought I'd flag up an exciting event for next week - on Tuesday night I shall be going to hear Nicola Beauman speak at Mostly Books, about Persephone Books. I've met Nicola quite a few times now, and it's always lovely to see her, and hear her eloquent and passionate explanation of the independent publishing house she set up. And it was at Mostly Books a while ago that I met Angela Young and Mary Cavanagh for the first time, and had a jolly nice time all in all. See this
link for my report on it... If you can be in the vicinity of Abingdon next Tuesday, follow this link and come along (I hope tickets are left!) If you're already going, let me know....

A lot of people who read this blog have an obsession with Persephone which is akin to mine. Reprinting unjustly neglected books (often novels by women) from the first half of the twentieth century, they also produce the most beautiful objects. Uniform dove grey covers, concealing individually chosen endpapers appropriate to th
e book. I did some quick sums earlier, and I've read 23 of their books - which is about a third, so I have a long way to go!

Which is your favourite Persephone, oh Persphone readers? Mine would have to be the one which led me to them - Richmal Crompton's Family Roundabout. And then EM Delafield's Consequences, Dorothy Whipple's Someone at a Distance, Elizabeth Cambridge's Hostages to Fortune... oh, there are so many gem

Wednesday 2 July 2008

Half of Two

Lots of time to enter BAFAB - it always surprises me that over a hundred people popped by today, and not all of them want a free book! Do head over to Jenny's BAFAB draw, too. Oh, free books. Gotta love 'em! If you can't use the comments thing on Blogger, email me at, and I'll put your name in that way.

As promised, going to chat about Identical Strangers today. I bought it in Kensington on Saturday, and it leapt right to the top of my tbr pile. I love it when a book comes along which is impossible to resist...

Identical Strangers is non-fiction, by and about Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein. They were both adopted from Louise Wise Services, but it wasn't until Elyse was 35 and contacted the adoption service for nonidentifying information about her birth mother that she discovered... she is an identical twin. Paula was equally astonished when she got a 'phone call : "I've got some news for you. I hate to dum
p this on you, but you've got a twin." Paula tries to 'phone back the director of post-adoption services... and accidentally calls the number for her twin sister. They speak for the first time at 35.

I, as you may know, am absolutely fascinated by twins - in fact and fiction. And I am a twin myself, which accelerates my interest. Even without this predilection for twin literature, I think anyone would be intrigued, moved and compelled by Identical Strangers. Paula and Elyse tell their narratives in distinct paragraphs, alternately headed by their names, and it helps that both have been or are professional film reviewers, and are talented writers. They talk us through the experience of discovering that they are twins, and the first times they speak, and meet. This would be really interesting in fiction, but in non-fiction it is enthralling and honest. Paula is married with a child, and unsure that she wants to add to her family - Elyse, who is single and started the search, can't understand why Paula isn't as excited as she is herself. All sorts of issues about identity and self are reared - they both find it difficult to see their own mannerisms in the other (and think them exaggerated), and begin to feel possessive about their characteristics.

Alongside their journey, they've done some impressive research, and present it well. There are other examples of separated twins; theories on nature/nurture; how twins differ from 'normal' siblings. I lap all this stuff up - though, as usual, as a dizygotic /non-identical/fraternal twin, I'm rather sidelined. We're always seen as something rather insignificant in comparison to identical twins... Colin aka
The Carbon Copy isn't a carbon copy really, you see, though we look similar enough that people still mix us up. Being a twin, I can understand their anger at being separated - and I can't imagine how any child psychologists believed it was the accurate choice to make. Apparently some people believed being a twin was a "burden to the child and parents"... seething doesn't begin to cover it. What would my life be like without having grown up with Col? I don't want to think.

We follow Paula and Elyse through a couple of years - the joy, the excitement, the bickering, the discovering of their extraordinary relationship. A driving force of this book is their quest to find answers to questions - why were they separated? Why weren't their respective adoptive parents told that they were twins? Who idea was it, and what were the theories behind separation? And then they begin trying to locate their birth mother.

A fascinating topic, well told by engaging, honest people experiencing a rollercoaster of events. Do go and check it out.

Tuesday 1 July 2008


I'd forgotten, until I headed over to Cornflower today, that it's BAFAB week! For those uninitiated, that's Buy A Friend A Book - so you all have until the end of the week to put your name in the comments here, and one lucky winner will be sent a fantastic book. Usually I've asked the winner to pick from my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About, but this time I have another trick up my sleeve...

Patch is currently in talks about resuming his role as name-picker. He is unavailable for comment, but early rumours suggest that he will be continuing in a role of some variety.

To make entering your name even more fun, and with a slight twist on Karen's, and even with a theme - when commenting, please also say the best book you've ever been given as a present. You can say who gave it too, if y
ou like. What's mine, I wonder... I think mine will have to be Five Get Into Trouble by Enid Blyton, which was also the first book I ever read 'by myself' (I have my doubts as to how independent this was - I remember Our Vicar's Wife reading a page, then me reading a page, then OVW reading three or four pages because we couldn't wait to find out what happened... I daresay she'll confirm or deny this!)

Well, there you are. Please pop your name in the hat, even if you've never been to this blog before! All welcome.