Wednesday 30 September 2009

Which book for this cover...

I'll be adding another book to my 50 Books You Must Read... list soon, but I'm re-reading it at the moment. But I wanted to share the cover image with you, just to drop a hint, and get you in the right frame of mind. It's a photograph by Lisa Johansson, with Millennium Images. I'm probably not allowed to reproduce it, but it is for promotional purposes, so perhaps they won't mind...

The book itself only uses part of this image, and oddly I had the impression the girl was facing away from me, in the detail used. Hmm. To see a collection of Lisa Johansson's photographs, which are all similarly haunting and evocative, you can register at the Millennium Images website, and do a search for her.

Any ideas about the book?? A further clue - it was first published in 1962. Don't cheat now...

Tuesday 29 September 2009


I recently finished the extraordinarily good Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill, which I'll write about soon, but it has inspired a few quick posts. A book full of short chapters about Hill's books, reading, books in general, it provides lots of fascinating ideas for blog posts...

Towards the end of the book, Susan Hill decides to compile a list of forty books she'd choose, should she only be able to read those for the rest of her life. Not taking the get-out of Desert Island Discs, the Bible and Shakespeare's Complete Works are not givens - not, in fact, is she allowed to count all of Shakespeare's plays as one book. And so she tries to choose one...

Which led me to thinking: if I could only choose one Shakespeare play to read for the rest of my life, which would it be? Like Hill, I made a shortlist. Unlike Hill, I haven't read them all (though I have read 24 of them, so quite a few to choose from... and that number includes no history plays). Here is my shortlist:

Much Ado About Nothing
The Taming of the Shrew


All's Well That Ends Well



Some I love (like Twelfth Night) I know I would get tired of. Some I admire (i.e. The Tempest) but cannot much like. Some (The Comedy of Errors; As You Like It; Titus Adronicus...) were never in with a chance.

Which to keep. Much Ado About Nothing is my favourite Shakespeare play, but... if I had to read Beatrice and Benedict's exchanges over and over again for the rest of my life, would I still find them funny, or simply infuriating? Would Hero's silence and Claudio's willingness to marry penitently someone who looks a bit like Hero not become more ridiculous each time? Cymbeline... I love the final scene, but that's not enough to keep it. Hamlet. Hamlet, Hamlet, Hamlet. So much there, but... I still just want to shake him, and tell him to stop being a silly little boy.

In the end, I was surprised. The one to keep is not my favourite, but I have chosen... The Taming of the Shrew. Because I am continually fascinated by the question: was Katharine complicit? How should it be interpreted? So much that can be done, so many different readings, and often quite funny, to boot. Who'd have thought? I expect my choice will change in years to come. It'll be interesting to keep track.

And now, of course, over to you. Shortlists, please, and the one play you'd keep...

Sunday 27 September 2009

So, how many books did you THINK I'd buy?

I had a lovely time in the Lake District and Edinburgh - absolutely falling in love with that city, after spending more or less three whole days tramping its streets. I met Karen from Cornflower, which was an absolute joy. We *had* met previously, when I'd only been blogging for only a fortnight... now that we e-know each other quite well, we were able to have a really nice, bookish chat, and delicious lunch. And I was nosey and asked to look at her bookshelves... lots to approve of, and talk about, and generally all very nice!

We popped into a nearby bookshop, where Karen bought one book on my recommendation/insistence (Provincial Daughter by RM Dashwood, a sequel to EM Delafield's Provincial Lady books, and by EMD's daughter, 'Vicky' herself). I bought, um, five... and in the five days I was away, bought seventeen books. Cough. Well, you KNEW this about me when we became friends, you can't judge me now...

Here they are!

1. Everyday Quotations from Shakespeare

Goes through the plays one by one, showing where 'quotations from Shakespeare in everyday use' originated. Amusing to see which quotations were apparently in everyday use in the 1920s.

2. Elizabeth and Her German Garden - Elizabeth von Arnim

I already have the Virago copy, but this lovely little edition from 1905ish was too nice to leave, at a £1

3. The Gate of Angels - Penelope Fitzgerald
Bought on the encouragement of Karen (Cornflower blog). I loved The Bookshop by PF last year.

4. The Moving Toyshop - Edmund Crispin
Again, at least five people have told me to read this. And it came looking like one of the old-fashioned green Penguin Crimes, so I was smitten.

5. To the Is-land - Janet Frame
Volume One of her autobiography. More on Frame below...

6. Nightingale Wood - Stella Gibbons

General view is that this is sub-Cold Comfort Farm, but it was in a charity shop, so I thought why not...

7. The Other Side of the Bridge - Mary Lawson

I was very impressed by Crow Lake (wrote about here) and still get a fair few people coming to S-i-a-b through Google searches for it.

8. Manservant and Maidservant - Ivy Compton-Burnett
I've got my copy!

9. Robert and Helen - Elizabeth Jenkins
Since I was enjoying The Tortoise and the Hare...

10. Faces in the Water - Janet Frame
Been meaning to read this New Zealand author for ages, and I love novels about madness. I think I first saw her name on dovegreyreader's blog?

11. Singled Out - Virginia Nicholson
Why don't I already own this? Already been talked about lots across the blogosphere, I wanted a book by which to remember the great little independent shop in Grasmere - chose this one. The shop, Sam Read's, had only one copy of each book, but they'd been wisely and lovingly chosen. And included Miss Hargreaves...

12. Three Fantasies - John C. Powys
Looks like it might be useful for my research... apparently he uses everyday situations to explore the fantastic.

13. Adeline Mowbray - Amelia Opie
1804 novel based on the life of Mary Wollstonecraft. Need to read more from this period, and having appreciated Janet Todd's non-fiction Death and the Maidens about the Shelley/Wollstonecraft circle, this could be a winner.

14. Drawn From Life - EH Shepard
The second volume of Shepard's illustrated autobiography - I remember the first being charming, the writing as well as EHS's superlative drawings.

15. The Jasmine Farm - Elizabeth von Arnim
Another nice old edition of an E von A..

16. The Egg and I - Betty Macdonald
Heard good things about this, and it had a lovely cover...

17. The Rebecca Notebooks - Daphne du Maurier
I've had my eye on this for ages... every step I take with DdM seems to go downhill after Rebecca, so hopefully this will redress the balance.

Saturday 26 September 2009

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

I'm back from my travels, pleased to see that my posts all appeared when they were supposed to, and delighted to find so many willing Ivy Compton-Burnett readers! Hayley asks whether she's likely to enjoy Manservant and Maidservant after having given up A Heritage and Its History - the answer, probably, is no. In for a penny, in for a pound, with Miss C-B - her novels are all very similar and it's unlikely that you'll hate one and love another. Verity asked whether we could choose a Virago ICB, but having looked on Amazon the four that Virago Modern Classics reprinted are in quite short supply, and quite pricey too, so it will probably be best to stick with Manservant and Maidservant since it's in print in the US. Is that ok? I recommend you go and get copies now, if you fancy joining in, and we'll aim to read it during October/November? Let me know what you think about the plan...
(by the way, it was also published in the US as Bullivant and the Lambs)

More about my trip to Grasmere and Edinburgh, very soon, and apologies if I haven't responded to an email yet - I have 300 waiting in my inbox.

1) The book, for this weekend's miscellany, was waiting for me when I got back from
Edinburgh. I must confess that I hadn't heard of J.B. Priestley's Delight (1949) - also reprinted, and hopefully on its way to me - in which he wrote dozens of little essays (two pages or so each) about things which caused him delight. It sounds an, indeed, delightful book - probably more difficult to write than a Grumpy Old Man collection, but much nicer to read. Well, an anthology has been created in aid of Dyslexia Action and the London Library, called Modern Delight. All sorts of folk have been invited to share things which cause them delight, and it looks like a surprising and happy book. Who knew that Jeremy Paxman liked frogspawn, or Joan Bakewell motorway service stations? John Carey on 'beekeeping' and Lynne Truss on 'perfectly captioned cartoons'; Nick Hornby extolling Bexhill-on-Sea; Erica Wagner proclaiming the delights of peeling chickpeas - how appropriate to choose such a miscellany for my miscellany! Might appeal more to UK readers than non-UK, for the famed people might not be famed beyond these shores. But how nice to see proper, credible names - and many writers - rather than reading that Katie Price likes horses or Wayne Rooney has a fondness for potatoes. Can't wait.

2) The blog post - I haven't been able to read blogs this week, so shall link to something not very bookish, but very yummy: the recipe for the cake Karen aka Cornflower made for my visit to her this week. And it was delicious!

3) The link - Simon B at the Bodleian sent me a link to an article on the BBC's website: What does your bookcase say about you? I can't agree with the included sentence 'books aren't essential' (is this woman MAD?) but there's some fun stuff in there too. I'm very fond of my Argos bookcase, which slopes from five units at the right to two at the left, but the rest of my bookcases were mostly nabbed from my parents...

Thursday 24 September 2009

Ivy Compton-Burnett

A few months ago I wrote about Ivy Compton-Burnett's Parents and Children, and a few of you said you hadn't read the great lady before, but would be interested... I'm looking at you, farmlanebooks, Simon S, Paperback Reader, and Pamela Terry! I recently read Robert Liddell's Elizabeth and Ivy, about the friendship between Elizabeth Taylor and Ivy C-B, after seeing the book mentioned in Nicola Beauman's biography of Elizabeth Taylor (reviewed here). It's an interesting book, mostly because Liddell had the (possibly unique) advantage of being friends with both writers, but it's also rather clumsy at times. He quotes a lot of the letters, and Taylor had a disconcerting habit of transcribing lengthy conversations in her letters... quoting layers of quoting gets rather confusing. Still, a good resource.

But that's not what I'm writing about - since some of you expressed interest in ICB, I wondered if you'd got any further, and whether or not people would be interested in doing a group read of one of her novels? You'll either love or hate, and you'll know by about page 10. I'll do this quite informally, but I'd like to know who'd be interested - we could read, say, Manservant and Maidservant alongside each other, comparing notes, and it will act as a first step into the world of Ivy. And, quite possibly, a last step - but I definitely think you should test the water. For my money, Ivy C-B is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. And trust the prophet not to be appreciated in her own land - scandalously, none of her books are in print in the UK, though the New York Review of Books Classics does a rather beautiful edition of Manservant and Maidservant, pictured. (It was originally published in the US as Bullivant and the Lambs, but has been reprinted under the original, English title).

Let me know if you're interested, and hopefully we'll get something going before long!

Wednesday 23 September 2009

The True Deceiver

Since most of the authors I like are dead, it's unusual for me to wait with excitement for a book to be published. I can normally just buy the backlist from abebooks, and work my way through them... well, Tove Jansson is dead, but she also wrote in Swedish, so I'm having to wait for the wonderful Thomas Teal to translate them. Tove Jansson is one of my favourite writers, and I couldn't wait for The True Deceiver to be published - it's coming out in October, but I begged an advance copy because I just couldn't wait any longer.

All my reviews of Jansson's previous books are under this link, which will take you to my thoughts on The Summer Book, A Winter Book, and Fair Play. Those who don't like Jansson call her books boring - and if you read books primarily for plot, then she won't be the author for you. But if you choose your books for character, writing style, and atmosphere - I've never come across any better writer. As Ali Smith writes in her wise introduction, Tove Jansson is 'the opposite of charming'. Her books do not charm, they are far too honest for that, but they certainly appeal. She does not believe that the opposite of charming is repulsive - the opposite of charming is truth. So many modern novels assume human nature is disgusting, and that the only significant acts are ugly ones - Tove Jansson's writing quietly, mesmerically shows characters who are beautifully real.

The True Deceiver is a little different from the other Jansson books I've read. Still set in snowy Sweden, still focusing on the co-existence of two women (a theme found in The Summer Book and Fair Play), there is more of an edge to this novel. Katri Kling is blunt, friendless, and entirely honest without being malevolent. She is blunt not because of malice, but because she sees truth as far more important than etiquette, and isn't encumbered by emotions. She loves only two things - numbers, and her brother Mats, 'a bit simple'. Katri's character is shown in the way she is said to speak:
'Other people talk, you make pronouncements'. Living away from the village, in 'the rabbit house', is Anna Aemelin. She is a disorganised, semi-reclusive illustrator of children's books (yes, Tove was the illustrator of the Moomin books, but the very opposite of disorganised). Anna's talent is the depiction of the woodland floor, in great, caring detail. But she has to include rabbits in her pictures, and the rabbits are covered in flowers - all the letters from fans, young and old, ask her why they are covered in flowers, and she always makes up a different answer. She never works on these books in the winter, so her paintbrushes are hibernating, as it were.

Katri takes some food up to Anna's house, and develops an interest in the lady... but wh
y? She fakes a break-in at the elderly artist's home, to persuade her that she needs companionship... and so, with her brother and her dog, moves in. The motives for her actions are mysterious; the unacknowledged battle for power between Anna and Katri continues silently and subtly. Who is deceiving whom? And what effects are the women having on the lives and personalities of each other?

Katri starts sorting out Anna's muddled finances and contracts. A portion of each financial victory is set aside for her brother -
'Every time she wrote a captured sum of money into her notebook, she felt the collector's deep satisfaction at finally owning a rare and expensive specimen.' She even perfects the forging of Anna's signature, and her writing style. And yet her motives remain unclear.

"Attention," Anna said. "Giving another human being your undivided attention is a pretty rare thing. No, I don't think it happens very often... Figuring out what someone wants and longs for, without being told - that probably requires a good deal of insight and thought. And of course sometimes we hardly know ourselves. Maybe we think it's solitude we need, or maybe just the opposite, being with other people... We don't know, not always..." Anna stopped talking, searched for words, raised her glass and drank. "This wine is sour. I wonder if it hasn't stood too long. Don't we have an unopened bottle of Madeira in the sideboard somewhere? No, let it go. Don't interrupt me. What I'm trying to say is that there are few people who take the time to understand and listen, to enter into another person's way of living. The other day it occurred to me how remarkable it is that you, Miss Kling, can write my name as if I'd written it myself. It is characteristic of your thoughtfulness, your thoughtfulness for me and no one else. Very unusual."

"It's not especially unusual," Katri said. "Mats, pass the cream. It's simply a matter of observation. You observe certain habits and behaviour patterns, you see what's missing, what's incomplete, and you supply it. It's just a matter of experience. Get things working as best you can, then wait and see."

"Wait and see what?" said Anne. She was annoyed.

"How it goes," Katri said, looking straight at Anna, her eyes at this moment deeply yellow. She continued very slowly. "Miss Aemelin, the things people do for one another mean very little, seen purely as acts. What matters is their motives, where they're headed, what they want."

Jansson's talent lies in showing the great depths of human interaction in the most unassuming ways. Skim through The True Deceiver and it might seem that not much happens, but read at the gradual pace her writing deserves, you realise what an unusually talented writer Jansson is. I haven't read anything better than her collected output, especially in terms of style, from the last fifty years. Of course I am reading at one remove, and I cannot praise Thomas Teal's translation enough - though I can't compare it to the original, the result is so perfect that I can only assume Jansson and Teal are on the same wavelength. A real treat, and I do hope desperately that Sort Of Books continue to publish further translations of Jansson's novels - and in such beautiful editions, too.

Tuesday 22 September 2009


I've been meaning to write about The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher for so long, that I've forgotten absolutely everything I was going to say... but I wanted to hear your thoughts, so this will be a very brief thought about the book, and a wider question about the genre.

For those who don't know, The
Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale - which was hugely popular, won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction, and is still in the bestselling list on Bloomsbury's website - blurs the boundaries between non-fiction and fiction. That is to say, doubtless Summerscale's research is impeccable - but the pace and style of the book borrow much from fiction. It tells the story of an 1860 murder in a country house, 'perhaps the most disturbing murder of its time[...] For the country as a whole, the murder at Road Hill became a kind of myth - a dark fable about the Victorian family and the dangers of detection.'

For it was this murder that kicked off the idea of the detective, which has spawned a whole, beloved genre of fiction. Mr. Whicher was his name, and Summerscale's book is as much about his history, and the genesis of the detective, as it is about the gruesome murder of a young boy. Like the archetypal detective novel, the murder must have committed by someone in the house, one of the supposedly grieving family.

Summerscale's book has the excitement of a detective novel combined with the historical interest of a true, important story - she can use real newspaper articles alongside pacy accounts of the events. It is a brilliant formula, which only occasionally flounders... because it is a true story, there can only be twists as ingenious as actually happened. The ending (for the murderer is unveiled) would doubtless be a dozen times more fiendishly plotted in an author's imagination. But it would be churlish to complain - the idea for the book is very clever; the execution impressive, and Whicher's legacy fascinating.

As far as I know, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is the first book to recreate a true murder in quite this way. And, unusually for such a successful book, I haven't come across any copycat writers trying to reproduce the idea. So I'm asking you - do you know of anything in a similar vein, where fact and fiction blur? I can only think of books like Author, Author by David Lodge, where a true story is openly fictionalised - none where a true story is simply lent the narrative structure of fiction.

And, of course, your thoughts on The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher? A book group favourite, I suspect huge swathes of Stuck-in-a-Book readers have read this, and I'm intrigued to know what you thought... Did you find Summerscale's approach worked? And what on earth is she going to write next?

Monday 21 September 2009

Seriously Useful

I've had A Seriously Useful Author's Guide to Marketing and Publicising Books for ages - I meant to write about it weeks and months ago, but it hid on the shelf, and somehow it never happened... I have the acclaim of *almost* being included in this book, written by my friend and fellow-Oxfordshire-resident Mary Cavanagh. I wrote a bit about blogging and marketing books, which was nearly included... but the cut at the last minute. Still in the acknowledgments, though! But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Mary Cavanagh's first novel was The Crowded Bed, which I wrote about here, and she knows a thing or two about marketing and publicising. More or less single-handedly, she managed to sell a significant number of this novel - published by the apparently erstwhile Transita. She's turned her knowledge to good effect in this Seriously Useful guide.

I'm not an author (not yet!) so I've skim read through this book, but should I ever have a manuscript under my belt, I'll definitely return to Cavanagh's book. She starts off from pre-publication - ideas about the book cover, editing, and generally about the book industry. Then Cavanagh comprehensively looks at all the areas authors can use to promote their books - book launches, using the television, radio, newspaper, literary festivals, superstores, and the internet. Here's where the book bloggers come in - Cornflower, Random Jottings, Dovegreyreader, Vulpes Libris, and Bookwitch have all contributed bits talking about the interaction between bloggers and writers. Certainly, a blogger is far more likely to accept, read, and write about a first-time low-budget author than a national newspaper is, so I think Cavanagh has got the focus just right there.

Though Mary Cavanagh's book will be Seriously Useful to more or less any author, if they don't have a six figure budget for publicity, it is especially handy for self-publishing authors - Cavanagh has published through both an independent publishers and off her own bat, so she knows what she's talking about.

I know most Stuck-in-a-Book visitors are primarily readers, but there might well be a writer or two out there who could use this guide... though, if you're reading this, you've got the blog-reading bit down to a tee already!

Sunday 20 September 2009

On my travels...

Tomorrow I'm heading of to the Lake District, and then onto Edinburgh on Tuesday, returning to Oxford on Friday. So I'm going to try that trick from my last trip, and set up some posts to appear throughout the week...

To kick off, I'll let you know which books I'm taking with me. I'm spending the equivalent of a day on public transport, so will hopefully get through
a fair few! Actually, before I do that, I must thank you for your suggestions for old films. It led me to Amazon, where I bought three of your recommendations in a Classic Films Triple (3 films on one DVD, I think, or at least in one DVD case) - it has The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, and the one I'm really looking forward to, I Know Where I'm Going. I see that the price has gone down from £8.98 to £7.18 since I bought it... Alongside those I bought Gaslight, which wasn't mentioned, but I've been meaning to watch it for ages.

So what books am I taking with me? Along with Susan Hill's Howards End is on the Landing, which is shaping up to be one of my favourite books of the year, I'm taking the following:

The Tortoise and the Hare - Elizabeth Jenkins
For the Cornflower book group... plus it's been on my shelves for years.
Mr. Weston's Good Wine - T.F. Powys The Venetian Glass Nephew - Elinor Wylie
Came across these two whilst researching my masters, and both looked interesting. And the Powys title is a quotation from Emma, so what's not to like?
A Very Short Introduction to Biography - Hermione Lee
My supervisor last year has been busy... a fascinating topic, looking forward to seeing what Dr. Lee has to say about it.
Olivia - Olivia (aka Dorothy Strachey)
I took this on my last holiday, and didn't get around to it. Second time lucky.
Summer at the Haven - Katharine Moore
Apparently a novel set in an old people's home which is also cheerful! Well, being one of Joyce Grenfell's friends, how could it not be?
English Correspondance - Janet Davey
Picked up on a whim, modern novel about letters arriving after a bereavement.

Have you read any of these? Anything to say? By the time I read your comments I'll hopefully have read most of them, but I'd be interested nonetheless... And who knows, I might even find internet in Scotland.

Saturday 19 September 2009

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Happy weekend everyone! I'll be busying myself over the weekend trying to write lots of posts which will appear at intervals over the next week, as I'm off to the Lake District and Edinburgh. Will try to remember to take my camera... and, of course, give you a list of the books I buy along the way. I *might* buy none, of course, but I've already pencilled three secondhand bookshops into my itinerary, and there are sure to be more... Someone said to me the other day that, what with the review books I'm sent, I must never have to buy books anymore... cue hollow laugh from me.

As always, a link, a book, a blog post.

1) The link - Abebooks' Weird Book Room. You've probably all seen those books of strange title collection
s - well, Abebooks have devoted a section of their website to it, and you can submit ideas too. I spotted the link on Liz's blog. I'm especially drawn to Nuclear War: What's in it for you? and People Who Don't Know They're Dead. And who wouldn't want to read Cheese Problems Solved? Towel Origami - just think of those wasted mornings in the bathroom where my towel has been sat, simply folded in half?

2) The blog - not long ago I started reading Claire's blog Kiss A Cloud, which is both beautiful and bookish. More or less any link would whet your appetite, but the most recent post seems a good place to start. It's following a meme from Book Bloggers Appreciation Week - talking about which books you've read because of other bloggers. Claire mentions Woolf, Persephone, and I Capture the Castle amongst her finds, so how could I not be smitten? I so admire bloggers with great camera skills - mine seem to be all taken at night, of books leaning against walls.

3) The book - I'll be writing about this soon, as I'm *really* having trouble resisting it whilst I read the books I
should be reading. It's Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill (a brave choice of title, since I imagine there will be errant apostrophes in 'Howards End' whenever the book is mentioned). Subtitled a year of reading from home, the book is a series of essays a la Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris, which documents Hill's decision to read only books from her shelves, for a year. She explores books she'd forgotten she owned, or had never read, or simply wanted to read again. I've only read four pages so far, but it has some lovely excerpts: 'A book which is left on a shelf is a dead thing but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into new life.' Hill's writing can be a little forthright for my tastes, but I'm sure that won't spoil a book so deliciously, well, bookish. It's out on the 15th October, and doesn't it have a beautiful cover?

Friday 18 September 2009

Miss Hargreaves - winners!!

How lovely to have so many people enter the draw for Miss Hargreaves and the bookmarks. 60 people in total, since I had to excise the two Anonymouses... I do hope you've been inspired to go and read the book, even for those who weren't lucky enough to win today...

Enough suspense. Drum roll, please... the winners are:

Liz!! (of this blog) and fleurfisher!! (of this blog)

The Bloomsbury Group bookmarks go to...

Cornflower!! (of this blog)

I've turned out to be very lucky, since I'm going to see Liz and Cornflower face-to-face... so fleurfisher, could you send me your address, to simondavidthomas @

There were too many names for me to write them all down and get Patch to pick, so instead I made use of the randomiser on, and used the names at the bottom of the list.

If you do review Miss Hargreaves, do send me a link to your review - or, if you don't have a blog, I'd be happy to post Miss Hargreaves-related thoughts on here, from anyone. Or pop a review on Amazon, of course.

Thursday 17 September 2009

The Lady Vanishes

My favourite cinema in Oxford - nay, in the world - is The Ultimate Picture Palace on Cowley Road. True, it's not especially palatial, and the uncharitable might comment that it's only ultimate in the sense that you might die there - but it's head and shoulders my favourite cinema. It even has its own website, but that is its only concession to modernity. That and electricity. I don't know when it was built, but it has an aura of the 1960s about it, inside. I would say they've not updated it since the 1960s, but only yesterday they seemed to have changed the seating. It still feels old.

The first time I went was to see Vera Drake in 2005. I'd spent my first term at Oxford believing it to be boarded up, but discovered that this was in fact simply their decor choice. My friend Phoebe and I went, we were the first people there... we entered this dark, old room - painted inside entirely in very dark red - and it felt rather like something from a horror film. Towards the end the film simply stopped in the middle of a scene - I thought perhaps it was a clever arthouse comment on the film's theme of abortion, but it turned out that the reel had come unstuck, or something.

I love everything about this cinema - from the raffle-style ticket they give you as you enter, to the entire lack of machinery, to the friendly amateur style of those who run it, to the fact that the whole exterior somehow resembles a railway station. If you're ever in Oxford, do try and see it - it holds loving cult status amongst Those Who Know.

And all this is just the charm of its aesthetic. The films it puts on are equally wonderful. The Ultimate Picture Palace does play some recent films, a couple of months after they hit big chain cinemas, but also does a great line in old films, foreign films, and old foreign films.

And so yesterday I went to see Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938). I hadn't seen it before - though I have seen the 1979 remake, on television years ago - and have wanted to for a while. The ticket cost me more than the DVD would on Amazon, but the UPP is such an experience. Only 7 of us were at the screening - perhaps they thought it was The Lady Varnishes, which would be like watching paint dry [a quick credit to my library colleague, another Simon, for that witty quip].

Perhaps everyone has already seen The Lady Vanishes - if not, I recommend you do so. Despite loving 1930s literature, I find it difficult to track down 1930s films with the same success, so it's wonderful when they are available. The plot was taken from Ethel Lina White's novel The Wheel Spins, and is summed-up in Hitchcock's choice of title. A young woman called Iris befriends an old governess in an hotel, and gets onto a train with her - shortly after having been hit on the head by a flower pot. The old lady, Miss Froy, looks after Iris - gives her tea, sits with her in the compartment. The blow which Iris sustained to her head gives her concussion and she drifts off - when she awakes, Miss Froy has vanished - and everybody else in the carriage denies that she ever existed. Is Miss Froy a hallucination, or is something altogether more suspicious going on? With the help of cocky Gilbert (Michael Redgrave in the role which made him a big name) Iris is determined to work out what's happened.

I was delighted to see Dame May Whitty - who was rather wonderful in Mrs. Miniver and is another who'd make an admirable Miss Hargreaves - as the Vanishing Lady in question. The rest of the cast is wonderful, including Margaret Lockwood and Googie Withers, and a wonderful pair of characters called Charters and Caldicott. These very English gentlemen watch proceedings with a no-nonsense, cynical eye, more concerned about the cricket they're missing than the woman who's missing. Exploring Wikipedia, I discovered that the characters, played by Nauton Wayne and Basil Radford, were so popular that they popped up in another two films and several radio broadcasts. The actors also played very similar double-acts in a further sixteen films and radio serials. The days of established double-acts in films, appearing as different characters but always together, seem to have gone.

And, of course, Alfred Hitchcock isn't a bad director either. Some stunning moments - I especially liked one where the train travels over a viaduct, really beautifully shot. You can forgive the opening pan across a toy train and some plastic figures...

I'd love some recommendations for other 1930s, '40s and '50s films to watch. I love Mrs. Miniver (as long as you don't think about the book), Went The Day Well?, and, of course, Brief Encounter. Others in a similar vein, please...


Just a quick note... I'd been spending an enormous amount of time setting up the Browse drop-down menu in the left-hand column, so you can now browse reviews by author... let me know if it's not working, or, indeed, if it is!

BBAW - Barbara's Meanderings

As part of Book Bloggers Appreciation Week, we were paired up with another blogger to do an interview swap. I've just got my questions, so haven't answered them yet, but here is the half to post on my blog. Step forward Barbara, from Barbara's Meanderings. Not my usual sort of blog, since our reading tastes are very different, but a portal onto a different world... I really enjoyed having a look at it, go and have a see yourself.

-Maybe start off by telling us a bit about yourself and the content of your blog?

I have been a serious writer for over ten years. I have been married for 44 years to the same person and we have two grown daughters. My background is teaching and I have a Masters in Reading and Writing K-12. The last year I taught I was a Literacy Specialist. Most of my work is either YA [Young Adult] or MG [erm..? Could someone tell me what this is!], but I do have a few adult pieces as well. My children's story was published online in Story Station and my adult story was published in In addition various memoirs and poems are published online as well. I also have a YA novel ready for publication and I am almost finished with my second YA novel. I am a member of several writing groups on Yahoo including a KidsMuse, a critique group and several other message board groups.

My blog is called "Barbara's Meanderings" because my thoughts wander and though it is mainly about writers and writing and I interview guest authors and review their books, it is also about my life. At times my life becomes very interesting because of the places and things I wind up doing. So I write about that too, as well as some current events and my own political views. I also write about my day-to-day life and how world events affect it.

1.) How did you enter the world of blogging? What/Who made you decide to start?

The idea of writing a blog started on MySpace, but when I moved over to Facebook I decided to make it a more regular blog and joined Facebook Networked Blogs. I am also a member of Blog Catalog. The idea of writing a blog started when I realised that I had a lot to say and nowhere to say it.

2.) How would you describe your taste in books? Maybe give us a few examples of great reads from 2009 so far.

Of course I love to read YA books, so I have read quite a few this year. I like to vary my reading and alternate between adult books and YA. Usually I like to read novels, and I love romances. But I also enjoy well-written non-fiction biographies.

It's hard to remember all the books I've read this year, but the YA book that stands out for me is Purge by Sarah Littman. I have read all the books in The Harry Dresden series by Jim Butcher and wait eagerly for the next one. In addition, I have read the latest Richard Russo book, That Old Cape Magic, and at the moment I am in the middle of Best Friends Forever by Jennifer Wiener. I also review books, so I have read the books of all the authors I have interviewed on my blog this year, starting with Simon Rose, Tim Hooker, Pierre Dominique Rostan, Cynthia Polansky, Penny Ehrenkranz, Jennifer Banash, and my latest interview with RD Larson. Furthermore, I love to read books by authors I love, so I will read any book by John Irving, Nicholas Sparks, Richard Russo, Dennise Lehane, and Barbara Kingsolver.

3.) Do you see yours as a reader's blog or a writer's blog, or do they meld?

I think that reading and writing do meld, but on my blog it depends on the day. When I can, I like to add to things like Quotable Thursday, that one of my friends does, where you need to post a quotation of your choosing. I almost always use quotations abouts writing. When I am reviewing a book, I'm concentrating on reading.

4.) A frequent feature on your blog is weekly author interviews - talk about those for a bit!

What I like about these interviews is how different they are. Many times my questions are the same for each author, but it's fascinating to learn how diverse these interviews are. Authors are given the questions ahead of time and they send me the answers which I post on my blog. Then they are usually available to answer any questions or comments. Very often I have a drawing for a free book from the author from the names of the people who have left a comment. The next post is usually a review of the author's latest book.

5.) Right, pretend I've not read your blog before - could you send me in the direction of three blog posts you'd most like me to read?

Walter Cronkite Dies at 92
Postcard Friendship Friday! With a Polar Bear...
Why I Love Lions

6.) Whilst we're talking links, could you recommend three bookish blogs to me?

This was difficult, but here are three that I think are the best:
Bertram's Blog
Jill Corcoran Books

7.) Finally, the silly question. Since we're celebrating Book Bloggers this week, I'd like you to answer this question using only words which begin with 'B'... how many adjectives beginning with 'B' can you think of to describe accurately your blog?

You could say that my blog is bookish, beautiful, believable, breathtaking, bold, bright, brash, brilliant, Barbara-like, big, and broad!

Wednesday 16 September 2009


Hello if you've come in from the BBAW website! You've come at the right time, because I've got a competition going to win a copy of my favourite novel, Miss Hargreaves... feel free to enter...

I am incorrigible, aren't I?

Let me explain. Amy, who's helping organise Book Blogger Appreciation Week this week, noticed my quick post on the absence of UK bloggers in the shortlists, and asked if I'd redress the balance by writing a piece for her about UK bloggers... Click here to read it on her page, but I've also copied it below. I'm not sure the blog links will work, but they're all in the sidebar anyway... (and, by the way, my tongue is firmly in cheek all the way through)

UK Book Bloggers

George Bernard Shaw (or someone like him) once said that Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language. Since he was Irish, that brings a whole other factor into the equation, and perhaps it’s best to pretend Dorothy Parker said it, and move on… because this is my roundabout way to say that Amy has very kindly asked me to write a bit for BBAW about the UK blogging scene. (Doesn’t the word ‘scene’ make that sound edgy? In half an hour or so, I’m going to join the cup-of-tea-and-biscuit scene. Wow, it works for anything.) Yes, that’s right, the country which brought you Shakespeare and Austen and Dickens and, erm, J.K. Rowling has also been busy a-blogging.

Of course we aren’t wholly divided blogging worlds – some of my favourite blogs are written Stateside, such as Danielle’s A Work in Progress – but most of the blogs I read are UK-based, and, as L.P. Hartley didn’t quite say in The Go-Between, the UK is another country; they do things differently there. For a start, we read different books, because different books are published here. The American blogs I read tend to be of an Anglophile persuasion, so perhaps the disparity isn’t so evident, but UK book blogs often go weak at the knees when Virago Modern Classics are mentioned, or Persephone Books, or proper orange-striped Penguins. UK’s independent publishers are celebrated, not least because they often prove most willing to send out review copies to blogs. We get excited when the Booker Longlist is announced – to American bloggers, Booker might just sound like a Creole equivalent of ‘reader’. We tend not to host reading challenges so much (don’t know why), our style is perhaps a little more dry, and, of course, over here 1800 isn’t very old and 1900 feels like yesterday. Jane Austen was dead before Herman Melville was in short trousers, etc. etc.

But we need some names, don’t we? Being a wee little place, our blogging community sometimes feels quite compact. There are doubtless thousands of literary blogs here in sunny Albion, but the ones I want to write about all more or less know each other – pop around for a cup of sugar, things like that. A whistle-stop tour of my favourite UK blogs always has to start with Cornflower. With a complementary ‘domestic arts blog’, Cornflower’s friendliness and charm comes with great book recommendations and beautiful things to look at as well. Elaine at Random Jottings is another favourite, since we share more or less the same taste in books – also does a sideline in opera-chat. And Simon S of Savidge Reads should get a mention, not just because his blog is always lively and witty and good, but because we follow each other all over the blogosphere – Simon S, Simon T, Simon S, Simon T. Try saying that five times whilst drinking a glass of water. Actually, don’t.

Alongside these old faithfuls, I must just mention one or two newer UK blogs to keep an eye on. I love Claire aka Paperback Reader and am rather excited by a very new blogger, Hayley at Desperate Reader. Of course there are many others – Brit Lit Blogs lists quite a few, though with slightly bizarre weightings given to some, and obscurity to others. Still worth a look, if you can navigate it.

One of the benefits of living on a small island (aside from never being more than 72 miles from the coast: fact) is that none of the UK bloggers are that far apart from each other. I can pop up to Edinburgh in much the same time it would take a Canadian to get a pint of milk. In fact, I will be doing that soon, hopefully, and seeing Karen from Cornflower whilst I’m there. Meeting bloggers in person is one of the fun, unexpected bonuses of writing a UK blog. Seeing the face behind the font is always exciting, and rather easier here than Across The Pond – I’ve met the good people behind Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf, Random Jottings, Dovegreyreader, Cornflower, Other Stories, Oxford Reader, The B Files, and Pursewarden – and there is talk of a UK blogger meet-up before the end of the year, watch this space.

If you can get on a ‘plane and join us, you’d be very welcome – but for now I hope I’ve done my bit for the blogs of Great Britain. Do stop by and say hello, forgive us when we –ise things instead of –izing them, and maybe we’ll make Anglophiles of you yet.

Tuesday 15 September 2009

Do You Want to be a Librarian?

Don't forget to put your name in the draw to win a copy of Miss Hargreaves - I'll do the draw on Friday - but for now there is something rather wonderful to watch... (see above)

Isn't this fantastic? Don't you all want to be librarians now? As a Bodleian employee (now and then) I only wish that Oxford's premier library would get film something similar. I especially love how the people on telephones don't answer the questions asked, or show any sign that they've heard the questions at all.

Monday 14 September 2009

Life and Death of Harriett Frean

Today we're headed to more Stuck-in-a-Book familiar territory - good old Virago Modern Classics.

I've heard quite a bit about May Sinclair (she first used the phrase 'stream of consciousness', doncha know) but not read anything by her - in Thame I came across Life and Death of Harriett Frean, and, being so short, it leapt immediately to the top of my tbr pile. And I read it in a morning - it's got 184 pages but there's so little text on each one that it's more like 90 pages of an average book. And somehow, in this tiny amount of space, May Sinclair manages to include an entire, long life.

There aren't many incidents in Harriett Frean's life, at least not significant ones. She lives her life as a spinster, in the benevolent shadow of her parents - to the end of her days, she proudly and frequently announces
'I'm Hilton Frean's daughter'. The one event of note is a tangled love triangle (doesn't that sound very like Hollyoaks? Obviously it's nothing of the sort.) Her close friend Priscilla always protests that she will never be married, and forces Harriett to pledge the same vow... when Robin comes along, both their resolves are tested. The novel becomes a 'what might have been' - questioning whether moral choices are black and white, and what happens to those who choose the path not labelled 'happy ever after.'

The thread I found most interesting (and one familiar from other Virago Modern Classics such as The Love Child by Edith Olivier, and The Third Miss Symons by F. M. Mayor, as well as Persephone Books' Alas, Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson which I must write about soon) is the life of a spinster with her mother. Or, more importantly, the life of a spinster once her mother has died. These paragraphs are subtly rather clever:

Next spring, a year after her mother's death, she felt the vague stirring of her individual soul. She was free to choose her own vicar; she left her mother's Dr. Braithwaite who was broad and twice married, and went to Canon Wrench, who was unmarried and high. There was something stimulating in the short, happy service, the rich music, the incense, and the processions. She made new covers for the drawing-room, in cretonne, a gay pattern of pomegranate and blue-green leaves. And as she had always had the cutlets broiled plain because her mother liked them that way, now she had them breaded.

And Mrs. Hancock wanted to know why Harriett has forsaken her dear mother's church; and when Connie Pennefeather saw the covers she told Harriett she was lucky to be able to afford new cretonne. It was more than she could; she seemed to think Harriett had no business to afford it. As for the breaded cutlets, Hannah opened her eyes and said, 'That was how the mistress always had them, ma'am, when you was away.'

Lives of mutual self-sacrifice have, in the end, benefited neither of them. Sometimes May Sinclair seems to be dragging her novel into polemic territory - not necessarily a bad thing, but I'd question some of Sinclair's advertised morals on occasion - but that aside, Life and Death of Harriett Frean is a slight, sharp view of so many women's situations in the early twentieth century. Not particularly cheerful, it must be said, but very powerful - the blurb compares it to Woolf, and others which I forget, but they're right - if this novel doesn't quite deserve to be considered a classic of Modernism, it's not very far off. What's more, it's in print from Virago - though if I know you, and I think I do, you'll be hunting for the proper green VMC edition...

Miss Hargreaves Prize Draw

Just to point out, in case you haven't managed to get all the way through the previous post - two copies of Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker are up for grabs - just comment on the post below. A runner-up will get a set of Bloomsbury Group bookmarks, matching Miss Hargreaves and four of the others in the series - if you already have the novel, just say, and I'll only put you in for the bookmarks.

Sunday 13 September 2009

"I abominate fuss..." Miss Hargreaves and Me

I've already written about Miss Hargreaves before on Stuck-in-a-Book, but I felt that a new edition warranted a new review. I've just finished reading the novel for the fifth time since 2003... and I love it all over again.

Just to say at the beginning - this review doubles as a prize draw. I have two copies of Miss Hargreaves to give away, and a set of Bloomsbury bookmarks for a runner up. Of
course, if you already have a copy of Miss H and would prefer the bookmarks, just say that in the comments.

I usually try to put a positive spin on the books I read, so there is a real danger that I'm going to go wildly overboard with superlatives on Miss H, because - along with Diary of a Provincial Lady and Pride and Prejudice - it is the novel I could happily read over and over again, starting as soon as I'd finished.

Norman Huntley and his friend Henry are on holiday in Ireland, when they wander into a hideous church, led by a sexton with a squint.

I turned to the chancel, hoping to find something - however slight - that I could praise. But it was worse up there. Seaweed green altar frontal; dead flowers; lichenous-looking brass candlesticks; pitch-pine organ with a pyramid of dumb pipes soaring over a candle-greased console; 'Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus,' splashed in chrome Gothic lettering over the choir walls; mural cherubim reminding you of cotton-wool chicks from Easter eggs; very stained glass; tattered hymn books, tattered hassocks - it was a horrible church. But there were, mercifully, two redeeming features; those were the dust sheets spread over lectern and pulpit. Somehow you felt a little safer with those dust sheets.
Meanwhile, Squint was rhapsodizing.
"I beg you to observe the beautiful lettering and decoration on the chancel wall. 'I saw the Lord sitting upon a Throne.' You like it?"
He had a habit of hissing like a goose, particularly when he was eager about something.

"Very pretty indeed," I said.
"Original," said Henry.
"Unusual, in a sense."
"Full of feeling."
"Filthy," I said.

The awkwardness of the subsequent conversation forces Norman, on the Spur of the Moment, to make up a mutual acquaintance with a previous clergyman - that acquaintance is Miss Hargreaves.

'And this lady, this Miss Hargreaves, she is still alive?'

'Ten minutes old, precisely,' said Henry.

I trod on his toe brutally.

'The soul of youth,' I said. 'She is a poet,' I added dreamily.

'She would be an old lady,' said Squint. 'Over eighty.'

'Nearer ninety,' said Henry.

'A touch of rheumatoid arthritis,' I said, 'but no more than a touch.'

Having left the church, Norman and Henry continue to embellish Miss Hargreaves' character. A keen musician, she is the niece of the Duke of Grovesnor, has a cockatoo called Dr. Pepusch and a dog called Sarah. Perhaps most wonderful of all, she travels with her own hip bath. Proud of their creation, they continue the joke by sending her a letter, inviting her to visit Cornford...

... and she does.

A telegram arrives, telling them to expect her. Disbelievingly, they wait at the train station:

Limping slowly along the platform and chatting amiably to the porter, came - well, Miss Hargreaves. Quite obviously it couldn't be anyone else.

'At Oakham station,' we heard her saying, 'we have exquisitely pretty flowers. The station-master is quite an expert horticulturist. Oh, yes, indeed!'

'Shall I have all your luggage put on a taxi, Mum?'

'Just wait! Kindly stay! A moment. Accept this shilling, I beg of you. I am a trifle short-sighted, porter - oh, did I give you a halfpenny? Here you are, then. Can you see a young gentleman anywhere about? If so, no doubt but it would be my friend Mr. Norman Huntley.'

I flopped weakly on to a chair.

'Can't see no one, Mum,' I could hear the porter saying.

'Then let us wait! Do not go. What a handsome train - what a most handsome train! I wrote a sonnet to a railway train once. In my lighter moments, porter; in my more exuberant moments. My Uncle Grovesnor was good enough to say it recalled Wordsworth to him. Do you read at all, porter? Tell me. Tell me frankly.'

Isn't she simply wonderful? Frank Baker has given her a voice so unmistakably hers, she is a unique creation and every word she says is a pleasure to read. To have seen Margaret Rutherford play her on stage and screen! I have hopes of the 1960 film turning up one day. Or Maggie Smith to play her now - she would be perfect. And, oh, Miss Hargreaves' poetry! It is as strange and unique as she is, yet has undeniable panache.
Oh why must I go with my green tender grace
To lay all my eggs in one basket?
If I were a mayor I could carry a mace;
My card and address in a casket.


All this goeth on and my mind is a blank,
A capriciously prodigal hostage.
What care I when comforters tell me the Bank
Will pay death-duties, homage and postage?

But Miss Hargreaves is not all frothy excitement and delight - she "abominates fuss", wants things to be just-so, and is unlikely to let decorum of convention prevent her from carrying out her good intentions. 'She had the gift of being able to do unconventional things in the most casual manner, never losing her dignity thereby.' As the novel progresses, while she may retain her dignity, Miss H manages to cause all sorts of trouble for Norman, with his family, his girlfriend, and his colleagues and acquaintances at the Cathedral where he plays the organ. (Music is a hugely important element of the novel - anybody who loves the organ, harp, or violin will find plenty to enjoy here.) She becomes something of a Frankenstein's monster - as Norman's mother says, 'I think one would get quite fond of her, and yet never want to set eyes on her again.'

Miss Hargreaves may be the most extraordinary inhabitant of Cornford, but the others are by no means normal. Frank Baker is not satisfied with the creation of one exceptional character - he has made another, in the form of Norman's father. Constantly talking at cross-purposes to everyone around him, and utterly absent-minded, he throws the most deliciously irrelevant things into conversation: '"Parrots are intelligent birds," said father. "Knew one once that could recite a Shakespeare sonnet. All except for the last line."' He gets irrationally worked-up about a new teapot, uses Browning as firewood in the bookshop he erratically runs, but is also the only person in Cornford who really believe Norman's tales, and, in his own bizarre way, comforts him. '"Get it off your chest, boy. I may not listen, but I shall gather the trend of it."'

I have probably written far too much, and quoted at length, but I just love this novel so, so much. My quotation on the back of the Bloomsbury edition says 'Witty, joyful, and moving but above all an extraordinary work of the imagination' - and indeed it is. Endlessly surprising and captivating, Baker keeps the novel pacy all the way through. The idea could have grown stale, but there are enough twists and turns to keep you hooked. Sometimes sinister, sometimes sad, sometimes hilariously funny - Miss Hargreaves covers more or less all the bases, always
written in the sort of delicious writing which is hardly found anymore. Miss H is one of the best characters of the twentieth century, in my opinion, and I really cannot encourage you enough to find this extraordinary book.

Don't forget, for a copy of this wonderful novel - pop your name in the comments. Two winners will be announced later in the week, and a runner-up will get the bookmarks. If you'd prefer the bookmarks to the novel, just say.

Links to other reviews of Miss Hargreaves:
Random Jottings (warning: a lovely review, but gives away quite a lot)
Oxford Reader
Harriet Devine
Fancy Day