Friday 31 July 2009

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

It was fun last week, so let's try it again. I had meant to write about a few books I've recently finished, but somehow it hasn't happened. Next week, I promise.

This video is hilarious. I subscribe to communitychannel's videos on YouTube, and though her humour is unfortunately sometimes what Our Vicar's Wif
e would call "near the knuckle" (does anyone else use this expression?) her sketches are usually very amusing. Just watch the sketch at the beginning - I think you'll enjoy it.

2) Do go and see a lovely review of Joyce Dennys' Henrietta's War on the very wonderful blog Paperback Reader. This should even please my brother Colin (who says he reads my blog but 'skips the booky bits') since the blog title is adapted from the Beatles song 'Paperback Writer'. The review takes the form of a letter from Henrietta, and picks out one of my favourite moments in the book, concerning offal...

3) How have I lived this long without buying any of the gorgeous New York Review of Books Classics titles? Possibly because that's such a mouthful. But incentive, if incentive were needed, has arrived - they currently have a 20% off sale. Actually, I had to go to Amazon because I don't have a credit card, and so I don't know what postage costs to the UK are. But any American readers should head that way immediately... I bought Barbara Comyns' The Vet's Daughter, because it's one of hers which I don't have yet and I hate the new Virago cover for it. But they also do all sorts of Stuck-in-a-Book favourites and would-be-favourites including to-die-for editions of Tove Jansson's The Summer Book; Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes; Elizabeth von Arnim's The Enchanted April, and Ivy Compton-Burnett's A House and Its Head and Manservant and Maidservant. All of those should be pictured below, and if I've done things correctly, clicking on the image will take you to the NYRB page in question. My friend Erika says "
They really are lovely editions--the paper is good quality and bright, the binding is tight, and it just has a good feel to it in your hands!" They should put me on commission...



Wednesday 29 July 2009

I knew I loved the Scots for a reason...

I did so enjoy all your thoughts on the Booker prize, both for and against. It does inspire very strong opinions to both sides, and so it's nice to see some moderate ones expressed here.

This article has been doing the rounds of blogs - I saw it first on Kirsty's Other Stories. Well, to be completely honest I saw it on her Facebook wall, but that sounds worse. This woman is my new heroine. (Though it doesn't mention that she's actually read any of 'em...)

In unrelated news, the most perspicacious amongst you will notice that I changed my world map provider last week. This one keeps the data for more than a few days - indefinitely, I think - and I can see that in the last week people visited Stuck-in-a-Book from 51 different countries. That's quite humbling, since I'd probably be hard pushed to name 51 countries off the top of my head. I'm sure that quite a few came by accident, but nevertheless it's quite a bizarre statistic to contemplate from my little room in Oxford. So, welcome denizens of Guam, Mauritius, Romania. Hello to Cyprus, Ukraine and Vietnam. And special greetings to those two readers who came all the way from that little known country 'Europe'.

Tuesday 28 July 2009


So, the Booker longlist is out. It doesn't seem ten minutes since the last one. Lots of places you can find out who's on it, but I'll copy and paste a list too... stole this from dovegreyreader, who has quite a few Booker-related posts for you to peruse, including her predictions before the longlist was announced.

Byatt, AS The Children's Book

Coetzee, J M Summertime

Foulds, Adam The Quickening Maze

Hall, Sarah How to paint a dead man

Harvey, Samantha The Wilderness

Lever, James Me Cheeta

Mantel, Hilary Wolf Hall

Mawer, Simon The Glass Room

O'Loughlin, Ed Not Untrue & Not Unkind

Scudamore, James Heliopolis

Toibin, Colm Brooklyn

Trevor, William Love and Summer

Waters, Sarah The Little Stranger

Quelle surprise, I have read none of 'em. In fact, the only ones I've been at all tempted by are the AS Byatt (very tempted) and Sarah Waters (slightly tempted), both of whom must have known they'd be on the longlist from the moment they signed the publishing deal. At least it's a year free of new books from Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie, both of whom are also guaranteed Booker spots, whatever they write.

Every year the list generates discussion about the Booker - do you follow it? Does it influence your reading? Is it a waste of time or a great part of contemporary literature? Well, I think a list is always fun, and there's no harm in it. It will line the pockets of a few rich authors, and bring some new ones to notice. Yes, it's a bit silly to stratify literature to the extent of calling one the best of the year, and this fascinating article (with interviews with 40 judges from 40 years of Booker prizes) is very revealing about the compromises and third-horse winners the prize entails.

For me, the fact that a book has won a Booker prize is more likely to put me off than not. I'm interested in an outsider's sort of way, but since I read so little contemporary fiction, especially not the sort of fare which attracts Booker nominations, I just know I'd fail with most of these. When I do read modern fiction, I like it to be quirky and surreal, or studying the minutiae of human life - Booker nominations tend to be gritty and all about 'real life', or edgy (not the same as quirky!), or about enormous events. I prefer the James Tait Memorial Prize (which I wrote about here) based on their back list of winners.

Huge generalisations? Should I give them more leeway? Well, I know I don't have time to read all the longlist, or even the shortlist, but perhaps one of my book groups will read the winner. And, at the moment, having read none of them, I predict that will be... The Glass Room by Simon Mawer. I don't know anything about it, but the popular authors never win, and I like that title, and his name is Simon. I wonder if that will reasoning enough to sway the Booker panel...

Thoughts, please! What do you think of the Booker in general? And the longlist in particular? I'd love to hear.

Monday 27 July 2009


I've done the draw for the children's books/magazines, and the winners are as follows:

Swati wins the Story Box

Ann P. wins the Adventure Box

Gill wins the Discovery Box

Congratulations one and all! (And sorry Mum... that picture is adorable.) If you could email your addresses to, I'll get your books/magazines in the post as soon as I'm near a post office which is open...

Sunday 26 July 2009

A Family Affair

I spent this evening at the Oxford Playhouse with Becca from Oxford Reader, and her mother, watching Prunella Scales, Tim West, and Sam West in A Family Affair. The show took the form of a revue, with various excerpts from plays representing the different facets of family. How nice to have a show-business couple who have been married for 45 years, and even better to have a son happy to act with them - and all three are prodigiously talented.

Through the evening we were treated to sections from:

The Importance of Being Earnest - Oscar Wilde
Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
Hamlet - William Shakespeare
It's All Right If I Do It - Terence Frisby
When We Were Married - J.B. Priestly
The Birthday Party - Harold Pinter
A Number - Caryl Churchill
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf - Edward Albee
'Father William' - Lewis Carroll

And Harold Pinter's Family Voices in its entirety.

The event was apparently rather thrown together, since all three have been appearing in plays up and down the country, all performing yesterday and travelling to Oxford today - but that made the event more endearing. They read from a folder, but never did reading seem more like fully rehearsed acting. No, what made it endearing was the odd slip, where both Prunella and Tim called Sam "Sam" when he was playing Stan in The Birthday Party; Sam pointed out Prunella's place in her script when she lost it, and pointed her in the right direction when she was sat on the wrong chair. All very easy-going and, indeed, familial.

A simply wonderful evening - and has made me want to investigate some of these plays further. When We Were Married and It's All Right If I Do It were especially good - very, very funny. They'd chosen comedic sections, for the most part, and the audience roared with laughter. It's my first time seeing Prunella Scales or Tim West on stage, though I have seen Sam West in TS Eliot's Family Reunion. I certainly hope it's not the last time I see any of them, separately or together - a brilliant night out.

Saturday 25 July 2009

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Something new I thought I'd kick off here - at the weekend I'll pick three or four things I've noticed in the week beforehand, and point you in their direction. It'll usually be other bloggers or blog posts which I've enjoyed, but will also include books I've spotted or snippets of information I've been emailed.

1) First off, Libby Cone's novel War on the Margins was published on Thursday by Duckworth. She sent me a copy ages ago, but sadly I've not got to it - but it's definitely the right territory for Stuck-in-a-Book, based as it is in wartime Guernsey. All of us loved Mary Ann Shaffer's The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, didn't we? Lynne at dovegreyreader wrote about War on the Margins here, in its self-published incarnation. Isn't it great when a self-publisher manages to get published in the conventional way as well? Libby sent me a very sweet email asking me to mention that the book was now out, suggesting I say the following: "She's barmy! She's driving me nuts! I haven't been able to read it; read it for yourselves, for goodness' sake, so she'll leave me alone!" But I will read it one day, Libby, I will... see if you can beat me to it.

2) There are quite a few things that readers of Siab agree on, more or less - two of them are that reading is great, and that Virago Modern Classics are wonderful, when they appear in their dark-green covers. Witness the Virago collage I made a while ago:

Well, Verity (of The B Files, see left-hand column) has set up a subsidiary blog, Verity's Virago Venture, documenting her attempt to read as many of the VMCs as possible. I can't remember how many there are, but it's A LOT. Go along and see her progress - authors/books already covered include Barbara Comyn's Sisters By A River (which I wrote about in April) and the works of Antonia White.

3) I'm a little in love with Lisa's blog A Bloomsbury Life, which has (I quote) "sporadic posts about style, travel, food, literature, gardens, eccentrics and their foibles." It's a quirky riot of colour, very stylishly so, and is a simply beautiful place to be. Most adored post recently is this one, in which Lisa compares the photographs taken on her travels with objects and designs around her home - how the one has influenced the other. For example, below - she has drawn connections between the beautiful saris she saw, and the way she shelves her books... beautiful. Do go and read the whole post, with lots of great photographs.

Thursday 23 July 2009

Bayard Books 2

As promised, the giveaway! I'll be sending off these magazines to three winners - each getting two copies of either Story Box, Adventure Box or Discovery Box.

If you have children or grandchildren, or children at your church or wherever - anybody who'd be interested - do pop your name in the comments, or email me at . Oh, and include which of the three Boxes you'd be interested in, please. Story Box is for 3-6 yrs.; Adventure Box for 6-9 yrs.; Discovery Box for 9-12 yrs. Of course the reading age of the child in question may be out of their actual age bracket...

Taking a bit of a risk here, as it's not the usual kind of thing I write about on Stuck-in-a-Book, so please do pop your name in, even if you've not commented before!

Wednesday 22 July 2009

Bayard Books

Before I start - all the books/magazines mentioned today will form a giveaway competition tomorrow - so do come back for that!

I've had a little selection from Bayard Books for quite a while, so apologies for not writing about them sooner. I don't have children, of course, and my own childhood was spent immersed in a diet of Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton and more or less nothing else - so I don't posit myself as a children's books expert. But these look really good quality, well put together, and good fun. Not usual fare for Stuck-in-a-Book, but perhaps of interest...

First off, I must alter my semantics. These aren't actually classified as books, but rather as magazines - they come with issue numbers - but there's so much in them, and they're so durable, that the word magazine doesn't seem to do them justice. At £3.95 each, they're more or less magazine price, but book value. (Gosh, I sound like a marketing wizard...)

Bayard Books sell these magazines for three separate ages ranges.
Story Box: 3-6 yrs. (
Adventure Box: 6-9 yrs. (
Discovery Box: 9-12 yrs. (

Each magazine comes with an astonishing amount of stuff in it, and a great variety. Let's have a little look through one of each of those three categories...

Story Box
-Issue 131 kicks off with a rather adorable story about 'Taffy's bag of secrets', with some really charming illustrations.

-Then onto 'How Are Babies Made?' - gosh, do they really tell 3-6 year olds this now? A sciency section is regular throughout the issues - another has How Do Bones Grow. Given my rather dreadful biological knowledge, I can probably pick up a thing or two.
-SamSam 'the smallest of the big heroes' seems to be an ongoing cartoon - in this issue he deals with cloning, as you do.
-Alligators! Some fun cartoons and facts about them.

-And then, of course, the wonderful old standards of dot-to-dot and mazes, secret codes, colouring spots and picture puzzles. Since this is a magazine, there's even space to send in your own drawings.

Adventure Books

-Cats! The story in Adventure Books is much longer, with more words and smaller pictures, appropriate for the age group. And it's about cats, at least in issue 133, which has instantly won me over.
-CraftBox section - I'm so glad that children still make things, not just play them on computers. Nintendo and suchlike (I would be behind the times, but I never knew anything about computer consoles, we never had one) can't live up to making something from an old plastic bottle, in my opinion. In this case, a cow money box. Economical and ecological - perfect at the moment.

-The rest of the magazine is filled with puzzles and a cartoon. I don't think Adventure Box offers quite the same scope as Story Box, but by the time children are 6-9 this sort of product is read alongside other things (like Enid Blyton! Do it!) rather than forming the majority of their reading.

Discovery Box
And finally...
-Issue 133 looks at volcanoes, with plenty of great illustrations, including a fold-out. There's an interview with a volcanologist, an experiment to try, and so forth.
-Then onto albatrosses!
-And jeans! The range of topics covered by these magazines is phenomenal, and very impressive. Not to
mention thorough - the section on jeans, for example, is far more interesting than I'd have thought the topic could be.
-And then the 'World' section. If there's something I'm worse at than biology, it's geography - I didn't even know where Tanzania was, now I can tell you its capital (Dodoma), the fact that it has 126 different languages (eek!) and, most excitingly for me, it has flamingos. I do love flamingos.
-Oh, I've always loved these - a Choose Your Own Adventure style story, where your choices navigate you through the story (in this case, of an Egyptian Pharaoh).

I hope that's been thorough enough an overview for you! I didn't think I could do justice to the depth and breadth of Bayard Books without doing something like this. While I don't think these magazines (especially the ones for older children) should in any way replace traditional book reading, they are a brilliant way of adding extra reading. Especially if the child in question has a scientific bent - and I definitely got the impression that Discovery Box would appeal to the types of boys and girls attracted by explosions and machines and so forth, which isn't for everyone, perhaps.

If you have children or grandchildren in those age brackets, why not buy an issue or two, and see what they think? Even better, come back tomorrow for the chance to win two magazines. I'll be giving them away in three sets - 2 x Story Box; 2 x Adventure Box; 2 x Discovery Box. See you then.

Tuesday 21 July 2009


I know I promised more posts about children's books this week - and for a taster, see Karen's post today on Cornflower Books, which might well spill over here later - but I realised that I still hadn't written about the Fabiola exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. It's open until 20th September, so if you're in London and have any chance to get to it, I really recommend that you do.

I saw this advertised in The Week magazine, and was hooked by the idea. The artist, Francis Alys, has collected homemade images of the 4th-century Saint Fabiola (patron saint of abused women, I believe) from around the world. They are from flea markets, antique shops, and private collections - and are all of the same image. The original painting - which portrays Fabiola's head and headwear, facing left, in profile - was a nineteenth century work, and has been lost. The image is replicated in all of the 300+ pieces in this exhibition - paintings, embroideries, miniatures, jewellery, even one crafted from seeds.

But, of course, this is not replication. Each version is unique - varying in period, style, talent, resources. It is simply stunning, seeing this image in all the works, but different in each. You can see disparate visions of what beauty is, or what sainthood should look like. It is, quite simply, the best, most affecting, and most striking exhibition I've ever seen. Unforgettable. And think of all the
time Alys must have spent on this - and the triumph and excitement she must have felt when coming across another find in a flea market! Read more about it here, and do beg, steal or borrow to get to London to see it. Oh, and it's free!

Has anyone else seen this exhibition? It's been in a few places around the world, before the National Portrait Gallery. I don't know if all the sites for it have used the same turquoise colour on the walls, but it was a stroke of brilliance to do so - the contrast with the orangey-reds of the works is the final touch to a fascinating exhibition.

Monday 20 July 2009

My School Book Club

At Stuck-in-a-Book I'm always happy to share exciting initiatives, and when Lucy emailed me about a new scheme for schools to run book clubs. I've copied and pasted the press release that she emailed - I'm all for anything which encourages children to read (more on that this week - some children's books I've been meaning to write about for ages, and also the latest Harry Potter film to discuss, which has sent me off on a Harry Potter re-read).

‘The best new idea in school book clubs for years’ – Michael Morpurgo

My School Book Club is an innovative new literary initiative that benefits children, parents and schools.

The My School Book Club project represents the 21st century evolution of the familiar school book club concept. This new online service provides children with an engaging interactive literary community, offers parents direct access to a wide range of quality assured and competitively priced titles, whilst also delivering a significant new revenue stream for schools.

My School Book Club offers free registration and the development of a personalised school book club website. The site is free to run and is automatically updated each month with new titles. Significantly, the school earns 20% of the value of each purchase through its My School Book Club site in redeemable book vouchers.

For Parents...

My School Book Club offers a hassle-free, online book club service. The books are competitively priced, with discounts of up to 50% off the most popular titles, and quality-assured, with each title individually selected by a panel of experienced literacy professionals and leading children’s authors. The books, which include perennially popular classics and the latest works from contemporary authors, are divided into categories covering Baby and Toddler to Age 9 and Upwards, with Pocket Money books for as little as 99p and Graphic Novels for less confident readers. The service allows parents to actively participate in the literary development of their child, whilst also providing the opportunity to enhance the literary environment of their school.

For Children...

My School Book Club presents a child-friendly, interactive literary community aimed at engaging children with books and reading. Each site includes downloadable audio and video clips, informative and entertaining articles on all aspects of reading and literature, competitions, access to signed copies from popular authors and illustrators and a range of carefully vetted literary links.

‘A brilliant way of accessing 60 fantastic titles each month’ – Jacqueline Wilson

The Founder

My School Book Club is the brainchild of David Teale, who founded the hugely successful Red House Children’s Book Club in 1979. He has four daughters and six grand-children and is available for interview and comment.

For further information please visit or contact Digby Halsbyat Flint Public Relations on or 0207 224 8191

Saturday 18 July 2009

Hours and Hours

It is many moons ago that I promised to write about The Hours by Michael Cunningham, and the 2001 film adaptation. And now, finally, I'm doing it - I daresay you haven't been nervously scratching away at the computer keyboard, wondering when it would be posted about, but it's always good to keep one's promises. (On a side note - my surname is Thomas, and my parents used the phrase 'Thomases Don't Cheat' throughout our childhood, in a bizarrely successful attempt to instil partisan responsibility in us. It's only lately that I've been thinking 'Thomases Keep Their Promises' would have been equally noble, with the added advantage of rhyme.)

Anyway. Onto The Hours. Like many people my age, I suspect, the film of The Hours was my first introduction to Virginia Woolf. Having really enjoyed watching it, but remaining rather confused, I went away to read Mrs. Dalloway and the novel The Hours - setting me off down a Ginny track which hasn't stopped, and which has significantly influenced my research at university. Mrs. Dalloway remains one of the books I have read most often - I think four times, maybe more.

Does anybody not know the plot of The Hours? Perhaps. I'll summarise the premise as quickly as I can... the novel follows three separate trajectories. In 1923 Virginia Woolf is writing Mrs. Dalloway; in 1949 Mrs. Brown is reading Mrs. D, and in 1998 Clarissa Vaughan's life in many ways mirrors Mrs. Dalloway's. Michael Cunningham had originally intended simply a modernising of Mrs. Dalloway, the thread with Clarissa Vaughan, but eventually decided to write a more nuanced, and much cleverer, novel. The strands are all complete in themselves, telling in miniature the struggles and triumphs of three different women, but the true greatness of this novel (and it is great) comes from the ways in which the strands reflect upon each other. Mrs. Brown is trying to cope with marriage to the war veteran, popular at school, who feels that he did her a favour by marrying her. The scenes where she tries to pull on the guise of motherhood for the sake of her son, while feeling utterly adrift, are powerful and excellent. Clarissa Vaughan, similarly, is trying to find her place in life - a lesbian regarded by others as abandoning a 'cause', and another slightly bewildered mother, her qualms about the superficiality of her life are those shared with Mrs. Dalloway herself. And the difficulties of Virginia Woolf's life are not secret - the novel opens with her drowning herself, in 1941.

As well as an involving and ingeniusly-crafted novel, I'd argue that The Hours is a fascinating piece of social history investigation, and a not inconsiderable contribution to an understanding of Virginia Woolf. No novel, least of all one with three competing heroines, could wholly encapsulate a novelist's life - but Cunningham certainly develops a credible and well-researched angle from which Woolf can be viewed. (For another excellent portrayal of Woolf's life, through fiction, see Susan Seller's Vanessa and Virginia).

So that is the book, deserved winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1999. Onto the film. Did it do the book justice? Well, my quick answer to that is YES, since it's my favourite film ever. I should add that I am not particularly well versed in film history, and my points of reference are probably not that sophisticated - but it's still my favourite film, and you might well like it too, if you haven't seen it.

Stephen Daldry's direction is spot-on - what is best about the film, and impossible in the book, is the swift comparison of the three strands. This is best demonstrated in the opening sequences, the morning passages of the three women, viewable here (about halfway through). The scenes shift between Virginia, Laura and Clarissa going about their morning rituals, and is done very cleverly, as the actions of all three conflate.

The lead performances by Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep are all quite brilliant, any of them would have been worthy of the Oscar (and, no, Nicole didn't win because of the fake nose any more than she did for the fake hair. Why do people say that about her, and not about the make-up-frenzy - not to mention snooze cruise - that was Lord of the Rings? Cat now officially amongst pigeons). The Hours is one of those rare films where all the casting is incredible. Aside from the three leads, the film can also boast Ed Harri
s, Toni Collette, Claire Danes, John C. Reilly, Eileen Atkins, Miranda Richardson, Stephen Dillane, and Allison Janney. Quite an embarrassement of riches. The way it is shot, the script adaptation by David Hare, the beautiful soundtrack by Philip Glass - The Hours doesn't put a foot wrong. The portrayal of Virginia Woolf may be simplified a bit (film doesn't have the scope for characterisation that novels do) but, again, it shows an angle of her. Both book and film The Hours are exceptional, and should be classics of their respective media for decades to come.

Wednesday 15 July 2009

The Latest

I like to keep an eye on what people are reading, always good for suggestions and just to know what's what - so today I'm simply throwing open the question: what was the last book you bought? Either in person, or which arrived through the letterbox.

And how did you hear about it? A trusty author, a new recommendation, or a complete impulse buy? None of the above?

I'm quite excited about my latest purchase, which arrived in the post this morning - Observatory Mansions by Edward Carey. I loved his novel Alva & Irva last year (and wrote about it briefly here) but for some reason hadn't got around to buying this, his first book.

The cover pictured is the one I have, but there is also a more haunting edition which has lots of outstretched hands on top of one another. Ooo. This one is jumping to the top of my reading pile, so you should hear about it soon - otherwise more info, including a fairly comprehensive review, is at the book's Amazon page.

More importantly - do let me know your most recent purchase, with as many details as you'd care to give! A later post will probably be devoted to your answers.

Prize Draw! (though not here...)

You'll probably have gathered that I'm rather a fan of Henrietta's War by Joyce Dennys, and its sequel Henrietta Sees It Through which I read squirrelled away in the Bodleian. The good people of Bloomsbury are also rather passionate about it - well, they have published it after all - and if you go over to Elaine at Random Jottings you can be in with a chance to win a copy of Henrietta's War. No, sorry, in with FIVE chances - there are five copies to be won if you click on this link.

Elaine does add some conditions - namely that you must read it, and enthuse to everything, animate and inanimate, that you encounter from then on in.

Monday 13 July 2009

Mrs. Palfrey: The Film

As promised, thoughts on the film of Elizabeth Taylor's Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. This didn't actually get general release in the UK, though I believe it did in the US - it's now available on DVD in both countries, though again we Brits had to wait a few years more. What would Elizabeth Taylor say. Or Dame Joan Plowright, for that matter. For it is The Other Dame J who takes the role of Mrs. Palfrey, and she is to the manner born. She perfectly demonstrates Mrs. P's friendliness yet desire for privacy; her surprise at the Claremont; her loneliness which refuses to become melancholy. All are spot on. Only one confusing thing - in the film she answers to the name of Sarah Palfrey, rather than Laura Palfrey. I never know why film makers do these silly sorts of things. I can understand why they change certain elements (more on't anon) but not little things which could be perfectly well left alone.

Grump over. The plot is more or less the same as the novel, for most of the film, so I shan't repeat myself - this post a couple of days ago has all that information. Though they do play around with the novel a bit, changing details and adding a character or two, the main difference between the two is the tone. Where Taylor's novel is quietly, bravely desolate, the film is more likely to make you cry, but in that feel-good way that films do. Equally sombre in terms of plot, the way in which the film treats the characters is more light-hearted, jolly and hopeful. Which is, I think, an acceptable distinction between a novel and its adaptation. Perhaps cheeriness is more expected from films than novels. Not, as I said before, that the novel is relentlessly cheerless - only that it leans more in that direction than the film does.

Plowright is not the only fine piece of casting - Rupert Friend (you may know him as Mr. Keira Knightley) is very good as Ludovic, and only a smidgen too un-bohemian. Anna Massey and Anna Carteret never disappoint, and made the most of their rather slim roles. My only problems with this charming (yes, that word) film are the few actors who appear to believe they're in a sitcom. The porter doesn't do much, but it will all have been much better in a Laurel and Hardy sketch. And don't mention the ra-ra dancing (Mrs. Palfrey, thankfully, not involved). But these small issues aside, the adaptation is a worthy one, and I recommend it. But do read the book first.

How nice

Verity (at The B Files - see my links, now ordered without the definite and indefinite articles, you can tell I'm back in the Bodleian) just emailed me this link. The good people of Cision, whoever they may be, have placed me in at no.10 on their Top Ten Book Blogs. Apparently it's based on visitor traffic, searches, and mentions on other websites - as well as their 'in-house expertise' (which sounds frankly daunting). Thank you very much, Cision!

I'm in good company, with Juxtabook, Farm Lane Books and Dovegreyreader also in the top ten. I don't really know who the others are, but lots to investigate...

... I'm just sorry the first thing they saw, whilst expecting something worthy of literary accolades, was a slanty window. Oh well. Even Jane Austen can't have been brilliant *all* the time.

Sunday 12 July 2009


I know I promised thoughts on Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont film, but my thoughts have all more or less gone to sleep for today... I'll be back with them soon, but for today I'll leave you with an amusing image from

Friday 10 July 2009

Mrs. Palfrey

I read Elizabeth Taylor's Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont a few weeks ago, but was waiting until I'd seen the film as well before writing about it here. Consequently I've forgotten all sorts of details, but I'll do my best...

The novel concerns Mrs. Palfrey at, you guessed it, the Claremont - 'One rainy Sunday in January Mrs. Palfrey, recently widowed, arrives at the Claremont Hotel in the Cromwell Road. Here she will spend her remaining days. Her fellow residents are a magnificently eccentric group who live off crumbs of affection, obsessive interest in the relentless round of hotel meals, and undying curiosity.' So says the blurb on my beautiful Virago edition (I used a postcard of David Hockney's My Parents for a bookmark, see below, and his mother is startlingly similar to the Virago cover Mrs. Mabel Whitehead by Margaret Foreman. Same pose, same hair, everything.)

The characters sharing the Claremont with Mrs. Palfrey are all in various stages of boredom and hopelessness, but Elizabeth Taylor is subtle enough with her pen to show these states as brittleness or insatiable nosiness or indulging in risque jokes. Mrs. Arbuthnot is bossy; Mrs. Burton drinks; Mrs. Post gossips; Mr. Osmond complains of the lack of male company. Into this web Mrs. Palfrey stumbles, her daughter too busy and grandson too selfish to care much about her. Again, Taylor doesn't lay it on too thick - there are no villains in this piece, only humans. The life in a hotel, which acts as a retirement home in all but name, is beautifully observed, and perfectly nuanced. As an example (but how can one exemplify subtlety?) here is a couple of paragraphs from early in the novel:

The chief gathering-place for the residents was the vestibule where, about an hour before both luncheon and dinner, the menu was put up in a frame by the lift. People, at those times, seemed to be hovering - reading old church notices on the board, tapping the barometer, inquiring at the desk about letters, or looking out at the street. None wished to appear greedy, or obsessed by food: but food made the breaks in the day, and menus offered a little choosing, and satisfactions and dissatisfactions, as once life had.

When the card was fixed into the frame, although awaited, it was for a time ignored. Then, perhaps Mrs. Arbuthnot, on her slow progress to the lift, would pause nonchalantly, though scarcely staying a second. There was not much to memorise - the choice of two or three dishes, and the fact (which Mrs. Arbuthnot knew, but Mrs. Palfrey had not yet learned) that the menus came round fortnightly, or more often. There were permutations, but no innovations.

The stumbling minutiae of their lives, delicately and acutely portrayed. The central interest in their lives is the visitation of relatives. Each has a store of potential visitors, and a
n even more valuable reserve of reasons why they haven't been able to visit. Mrs. Palfrey naively makes known that her grandson Desmond lives near the Claremont, and is sure to come and see her... which he does not do. When she falls outside a flat, and a young man comes to her aid, she finds in many ways a substitute grandson. Ludovic Myers (for it is he) gives her a cup of tea, and is kind. A writer, and a bohemian of sorts, he is enough unlike Mrs. Palfrey to make their friendship diverting, and enough like her to prevent it being ridiculous. Both alone, in their own ways, it is somehow not long before he is masquerading as her grandson.

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont does not go in for high drama, and this fraudulence never provides it. What the unusual pairing does offer is a touching, but not saccharine, breath of life into Mrs. Palfrey's old age - but this is no Disney transformation. Elizabeth Taylor brilliantly continues to tread the line between fairy tale and misery literature - the line, I suppose, of reality. And never has reality been more beautiful written nor more honestly and unmanipulatively told.

So, I loved the book. Come back tomorrow to see what I thought about the film...

Wednesday 8 July 2009

Sorted Books Project

Still lots of book reviews to come, some have been intended for months now, but I am a Bear of Little Brain and easily distracted. Today I was distracted by a Booking Through Thursday question from about a fortnight ago, but not one I've spotted much on the blogosphere. It's called Sorted Books, and you can read all about it here. Do go and have a look, for this to make sense - and the link is fun. (Click on each photograph for a whole series by that photographer). Essentially, the idea is to go through your books, and put the titles together in amusing and revealing ways, not at all intended by the authors. My favourite from the website is Primitive Art; Just Imagine; Picasso; Raised by Wolves. Brilliant.

I could play all day. Most of my books are in Somerset, so I didn't have the widest range to choose from - but I still put together three title-stories. Please do have a go yourself - it's such fun, and I can't wait to see what you come up with. If you do have a go, put a link in the comments.

(Speaking of sorting, keen eyes will notice that I've rearranged my blogs-to-visit list so that blogs beginning 'A' or 'The' are no longer under 'A' or 'T', but the first letter of the next word)

The first tells the tale of the Stephen sisters...

Vanessa and Virginia - Susan Sellers
The Girls - Lori Lansens
A Kind of Intimacy - Jenn Ashworth
Cordial Relations - Katharine Moore
Uncommon Arrangements - Katie Roiphe

The sacredness of tea:

Tea at Four O'Clock - Janet McNeill
Jam and Genius - Angela Milne
Here Lies - Dorothy Parker
The English - Jeremy Paxman
Vision and Design - Roger Fry

And this one's about the perils of road rage...

The Lady In The Van - Alan Bennett
Blaming - Elizabeth Taylor
The Crowded Street - Winifred Holtby
Fire in the Blood - Irene Nemiorvsky
Alas, Poor Lady - Rachel Ferguson

Monday 6 July 2009

Lessons in Gender

I'm proud of you all - everyone seems to be out buying their copies. I popped into Waterstones and Blackwells today - found one copy of each new Bloomsbury book in Waterstones, and about a dozen of each in Blackwells. Tick, gold star.

Now o
nto other recent reads - and another Bloomsbury book, actually. One of my favourite books read last year was Yellow by Janni Visman - to read my thoughts on that brilliant book about agoraphobia, jealousy, and cats, click here. It was only a matter of time before I went back and read Visman's first novel, Sex Education. Now, usually I like to post a picture of the book cover, but with Sex Education I'm not going to... it's a close-up of bikini-clad gals (and by close-up, I mean we just see neck-down, thigh-up). Not really the sort of picture I want to put on here, especially after somebody called me 'knowingly old-fashioned' (which I take as a compliment!) So you'll have to make do with a sketch I've done for the occasion.

Sex Education is a tale of competition, jealousy, friendship and passion between friends Maddy and Selina. We see the girls from young childhood, through puberty, to adulthood - all the way through the characters have an uneasy balance of closeness and rivalry. Selina usually gets the better of Maddy, and is the more powerful of the two, destroying while Maddy creates. Throughout the novel various other characters are introduced as appendages to these - another friend, a boyfriend, a parent - but bubbling through is the intense relationship between the girls, and the effects it has on each.

To start with the good - I read it in one sitting, which is unusual for me and my short attention span. A very involving novel, which is very nearly very clever. But, having had Yellow, I can see how Janni Visman was on a stepping stone. The intensity is not quite as intense as Yellow; the insights not so insightful, the tautness not so taut. Occasionally Sex Education feels a little like a grown-up Jacqueline Wilson book. Which is far from the worst thing a book can be, since Jacqueline Wilson writes intelligent, involving children's books - but where Yellow was starkly memorable, Sex Education is occasionally a little predictable. Yes, it's a presentation of the rivalry between friends, and the damaging effects of jealousy - but a quirkier edge would have catapaulted the novel into a higher league. I've no idea how the quirkiness could have been added - but obviously Visman did, because she delivered it in Yellow.

Sunday 5 July 2009

Go! Find! Buy!

I'm pretty certain today, Monday, is the day the Bloomsbury Group books come out - Henrietta's War by Joyce Dennys and The Brontes Went To Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson. Searches for those sorts of words will bring up my reviews of them, but suffice it to say I love them both. Henrietta's War, especially, is a book which should never have gone out of print. I'm really hoping Bloomsbury reprint the sequel, Henrietta Sees It Through, but this of course depends upon the success of Henrietta's War.

Usually I don't force books on people, I just give my view and leave you to decide - but with The Bloomsbury Group I'm going to get a little pushier. It's a bit of a bold move, doing a reprint series, and something we really need to encourage and support. With that in mind, do please buy buy buy these reprints! They're great books, striking editions, and affordable too. Discounted to £5.99 from the Bloomsbury website, and even less from other online sources. How many new novels are that cheap?

Expect this sort of peer pressure at intervals through the year - the Bloomsbury Group are published in three instalments of two. So... buy online, buy in a shop, but get these books and read 'em - you're in for a treat. No, sorry, six treats.

Friday 3 July 2009

Parents and Children

Few authors inspire excessive amounts of love and hate as Ivy Compton-Burnett. I first swore my love for ICB on this blog a year ago, but I do space out my ICB novels (they do have a tendency to be similar) and whilst on holiday I read Parents and Children (1941).

And what a lot of children there are - nine of 'em. I've left the book in Somerset, so I can't remember all their names - actually, there's a challenge, how many can I recall... Honor, Gavin, Graham, Daniel, James,
Nevill [sic?]... and three others. They split neatly into three groups - three in the nursery, three in the schoolroom, three adults. As usual in ICB novels, not much happens - but when it does, it's pretty drastic. Life-changing events are encompassed by lengthy, facetious discussions - gently vicious and cruelly precise, always picking up on the things said by others. Calmness permeates even the most emotional responses, and ICB's writing is always astonishing in its use of dialogue. More or less all of it is dialogue, and though often sophistry, it is somehow also accurate about family dynamics.

Alongside the nine children, two parents and two grandparents are three governesses, various maids, a visiting family of three and a neighbouring family of three siblings. That makes at least 23 central characters - somehow each of them is individual, with their own distinct dialogue and personality. How she does this in fewer than 300 pages is astonishing.

As I said, giving plot would be a waste of time, especially since most of the major events happen in the last fifty pages or so. In fact, the blurb to my copy gave away more or less all the plot. What I will say is that any ICB fans will also love this one - I don't think it as good as Mother and Son or A House and Its Head, so I'd recommend ICB newbies should start with one of those. But any ICB novel is so unlike any other author's, and a real treat. Or, alternatively, a nightmare. Only one way for you to find out...

Thursday 2 July 2009

The Outside of Houses

At the moment Pride and Prejudice is beating Persuasion (which is my way of thinking too) but I'll leave the vote for a few more days to see if you Anne-fans can help her beat our Lizzie.

Yesterday I went with two friends from the Masters course on a road trip to Sissinghurst - we're all fans o
f Vita Sackville-West and/or the Bloomsbury Group in general, so this was a post-dissertation-hand-in treat for us. And we drove for hours, including a scenic tour of Reading (if such a thing is possible?) only to discover that... it was closed. Whoops. We didn't think to check the website... just thought, perhaps, in the middle of summer they'd be open during the week. It's what Vita would have wanted. Regardless, we had a really fun day - we could explore round the outside of the buildings, walk down to the lake, have a lovely picnic and buy lots and lots of postcards. (Note - I will never be happy in future with a picnic unless there is a melon - it was perfect food for the weather). And then we also took a trip to Knole, a Vita tour of Kent - which was, again, beautiful. And there were deer roaming around the park too, so it was like a Magdalen home-from-home.

And I did 7 hours of driving! Including my first proper motorway. When in Devon we were briefly on a motorway, but it was a 50 mph stretch, so the M25 was a different kettle of fish. And it was mostly fine - except for one near-miss. Actually, that was on an A road - and it wasn't even my fault. A van was coming on from a slip road; I was in the left lane and couldn't pull over as there were a couple cars adjacent in the right lane. This didn't deter the van - instead of giving way, or pulling behind me, the driver decided simply to move into my lane, where I actually was. So I had to swerve into the right lane, where the other cars were. Luckily they were both alert, and had also pulled over a bit - we had three vehicles in two lanes. Terrifying moment, but thankfully we were all fine, just a little shaken up. And the van sped off as quickly as possible, having almost caused a big accident. Goodo. (And sorry Our Vicar and Our Vicar's Wife, who are finding out for the first time, reading this - I tried to call you yesterday!)

I must be a proper driver now, I'm complaining about other motorists. But the positives outweighed the negatives - a really fun day out with some good friends, and some great literary sites to be seen.