Saturday 30 January 2010

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Hello there, hope you're well, do take a seat and have a cup of tea. I can do normal, Earl Grey, and... er, water. More miscellany for you - and on the right day of the week as well (though I'm actually typing this on Friday - sshh, don't tell anyone).

1.) The blog post - is a myriad wonder... featuring several posts from a fairly recent blogger who seems to be reading all the books I want to read, or re-read. Here's one on Mariana by Monica Dickens; one on Can Any Mother Help Me? by Jenna Bailey; one on The Enchanted Places by Christopher Milne - go, enjoy, and welcome Claire aka Captive Reader to the blogosphere.

2.) The link - comes with a warning, this weekend. I found this hilarious... others were not, shall we say, 'exceedingly diverted'. Click here to judge for yourself.

3.) The book - I don't know if I've always made this
obvious, but 'the book' section in this weekend miscellany is for books I've heard of, or which have come through the door, but which I haven't read. Usually they're ones I don't think others will have heard about yet - but this week I've gone for one that I somehow missed, but hope you have heard of - White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi. I was very impressed by The Icarus Girl back here, and have The Opposite House on my shelves, but somehow didn't notice that White is for Witching was published back in May 2009 - and is coming out in paperback in April, I think. Reviews aren't great at Amazon, tis true, but I'd rather hear your views... the publishers say "A remarkable, shape-shifting tale... The narrative oscillates between the mundane and the supernatural, and it is this skilful blend of the fantastic and the everyday that makes it resonate so chillingly... In the end, this isn't a fantasy about ghosts and witches. It is really about memory and belonging, love and loss." Over to you...

And a little extra - I'd love contributions to this in future, if you hear any - Best Bookish Quotation of the Week. I'm not talking quotations from books, I'm talking quotations about books which you've said yourself, or have heard friends say. I hope my friend won't mind me using hers - I'll keep her anonymous until/unless she hoves over and approves...[edit: she now has, and you can find out who it is in the comments!]
"I recite my Book Depository preorders to myself at night if I'm having trouble getting to sleep!"
rivalled only, this week, by my own confession to my housemate:
"I once bought a book solely because I liked the smell..."
If you have any others - let me know!

Friday 29 January 2010

Woolf in Winter... oops

I had so intended to join in with Woolf in Winter today, and their joint read of To The Lighthouse - I decided to read it slowly, and luxuriate in it... but... I read it too slowly, and on about p.30. Oh dear. I'll write about it properly when I've finished (I'm loving this slow pace, and will continue) - but click here for more Woolf reactions.

Thursday 28 January 2010

What's in a name?

Keep those prize-draw entries coming, still plenty of time to win Scandinavia's finest!

Today's post is a question that's only for bloggers, I'm afraid. I love all you folk who visit without your own blogs, but I want to ask a question to bloggers, about their blog names... how did you choose it??

I guess in a lot of cases it will be obvious what the name means, but I'm interested in how you chose that particular way of naming your blog, and which alternatives you considered first.

Back in 2007 when I was rooting around for a name to attach to my blog, I hit upon 'Stuck in a Book' quite quickly. My criteria were - something with 'book' or 'reading' in the title, to make it obvious what my blog was about; and something beginning with 'S'. That might sound a little silly, but because my name (Simon) begins with 'S', it would have felt funny to be called something which didn't...

And then I had a bit of difficulty, because somebody had already taken (for an inactive blog which has now disappeared, grr!) hence the addition of hyphens. I did think that people would always forget the hyphens, and end up at Mysterious Blog of Inactivity, but thankfully you're all cleverer than that. Unless there are legions of dissatisfied people coming up against a 'This Blog Has Been Removed' wall...

Perhaps I should mention my favourite blog name. Well, you're all great of course - but the favourite name I've come across so far is... *drum roll please* makedoandread! What an accolade to win. I just love how evocative of the blog it is - the (belated) wartime spirit, the reading priority, the humour. Wonderful.

So, over to you. Why did you choose your blog title, and which other ideas did you discard? And for those of you with obvious blog-name provenance (I'm looking at you, Harriet Devine's Blog, as my example!) what made you choose your name rather than an alias?

I'm hoping for lots of interesting answers - fire away!

Wednesday 27 January 2010


It's been a while since I did a giveaway - and this isn't even a publishers freebie, but a spare copy I had that I was going to give to a friend, who turned out to have already read it. Step forward, A Winter Book by Tove Jansson.

This wonderfully evocative collection of stories is set in Sweden and Finland, and though mostly in winter, also features stories from all the year round. I almost never feel a sense of place in what I read, but I did in A Winter Book.

And then the writing - Tove Jansson is never sentimental, but her writing is very honest, and very beautiful. Not floaty or over-wraught - I haven't encountered a style like hers, in fact, so I am at a loss to explain it - but I do know that she is one of my favourite writers, and that I love this collection. Not to mention the beautiful book itself, as are all the Sort Of Books publications I've encountered.

I wrote about A Winter Book - gosh - two and a half years ago. You can read what I wrote here, and it's got some little excerpts from the book too. But, let's face it, it's a free book we're talking about!

Pop your name in the comments, and at the weekend (or thereabouts) I'll do a draw and send A Winter Book flying off somewhere - feel free to enter wherever you are in the world. If Thomas Teal can translate this book, I can post it abroad. Ready, Steady... Go!

Tuesday 26 January 2010

Hurrah for Mrs. Tim!

You know how it is - you start a book in October, and... you finish it in January. I don't quite know how that happened, but there it is, Mrs. Tim of the Regiment by DE Stevenson has been on my bedside table for at least three months, dipped in and out of, and yesterday evening I read the last page. It certainly wasn't because I didn't enjoy it, but perhaps because I wanted something light, enjoyable, and reliable on the bedside table. All the books I've read in the Bloomsbury Group series have been gems, and this was no different.

The first thing to say, which Elaine and others have noted in their reviews, is that Mrs. Tim of the Regiment is very much a book of two halves. Though not signposted, this novel is actually Mrs. Tim of the Regiment and Golden Days put together, but they have been that way since 1940 odd - it wasn't Bloomsbury's decision. The two books are very different in style - both are about Hester Christie (aka Mrs. Tim) an army wife, looking after her husband and two children, and being witty and self-effacing and coping with everything that's thrown her way. But, though it all takes diary format, only the first half really feels like a diary - the second half is far more narrative driven.

And the second thing to say is - how very like the Provincial Lady this is! Well, the first half especially. Sometimes I had to remind myself that I wasn't reading an unknown fifth PL book. Take, for instance, this sizeable quotation:

Suddenly the spell is broken, the door of our compartment is pushed ajar, and through the aperture appears the fat white face of Mrs. McTurk. Of all the people in the world Mrs. McTurk is, perhaps, the one I least want to see. I can't help wondering what she is doing in the train, and how she found me. She must be - I suppose - one of those peculiar people who walk about in trains. Why couldn't she have remained peacefully where she was put by the porter amidst her own belongings in (I have no doubt) a comfortable first-class compartment?

"Is this really you?" she says

I reply that it is. The woman has the knack of saying things which invite a fatuous answer.

"Well I never!" she says.

I fix a false smile upon my countenance, whereupon she insinuates her cumbrous body through the door, and sits down beside Betty.

"So you are going north for a holiday," she says.

Betty bounces up and down on the seat. "Do you know Mummie?" she cries excitedly. "Fancy you knowing Mummie! I thought Mummie didn't know anybody in Kiltwinkle. Of course I knew lots of children at school, but it was awfully dull for Mummy. Mrs. Watt said there would be lots of parties, and Mummie bought a new dress, and then nobody asked her."

I plunge wildly into the conversation, wishing, not for the first time, that Betty were shy with strangers.

I suspect the Provincial Lady's Vicky and Mrs. Tim's Betty never met - but what good friends they would have been, had they done so. I also suspect that DE Stevenson had read the Provincial Lady books (the first of which was published just a couple of years before she started her Mrs. Tim books) and I don't blame her at all for wanting to emulate them.

Mrs. Tim, especially these early sections, is deliciously moreish. Not a great deal happens, not in the way of linear plot - the attempts to find a house were hilarious, looking round increasingly unsuitable properties - this is mostly the quotidian, finding humour and pathos in the everyday. As the second half of the book arrives, Mrs. Tim heads up to Scotland sans husband, and becomes embroiled in the confusing love lives of various young folk. She even becomes an unwitting object of attraction herself (Stevenson rather cleverly using the diary format to show Hester's oblivious innocence even while letting the reader know what is going on.) But, of course, Hester has eyes only for her husband.

Mr. Tim himself is rather more likable than his Provincial Lady counterpart - you feel that the Christie marriage has more laughs in it than the PL's. At the same time, he is as bad as Robert when it comes to recognising quotations from Jane Austen...

Like all the rest of the Bloomsbury Group series, Mrs. Tim of the Regiment is a delight to read, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. Being honest, it
doesn't maintain the high level throughout - I much preferred the first half to the second, as has probably become clear - but it's just the sort of book you'll want to read once you've exhausted EM Delafield's superlative Provincial Lady series. And if, somehow, you've not read the PL books yet - hie thee to a library!

Apparently there's a whole series of Mrs. Tim books - and I'm told they're also more narrative-driven. Though I don't think I'll be using up my Project 24 allowance on them, they're certainly going into my Amazon Marketplace Basket to be pondered over for 2011... (edit: no they won't! I've just seen the prices!)

Oh - and if you've got this far, do pop in tomorrow for a giveaway of... a mystery title! All will be revealed tomorrow....

Monday 25 January 2010

Cats and Books

So, that book Elaine gave me in Colchester - frankly I'm surprised that nobody has given it to me before - it's Simon's Cat by Simon Tofield.

I came across the YouTube channel for this cartoonist a long time ago, possibly on one of those days when I was feeling a little glum and so was looking at YouTube videos of kittens, and then this lovely book came out. Do go and have a look at the cartoon videos here, they're a mixture of the very observant and the very silly. Observant about cats, that is - the way they move, the things they seem to be thinking. And the book is the same - I love this picture, and the oscillating friendship between Simon's Cat and the Garden Gnome which is seen throughout the book... all very silly and fun. Thanks Elaine!

There seems to be a correlation between literary bloggers and cat-lovers. Not everyone is wise enough to see that cats are the best and greatest creatures on God's earth, of course, but those of us who recognise the fact are also often well aware that books are the best inanimate objects on God's earth. It's just common sense, really. There are probably quite a few bloggers who weary of getting their most excitable comments on posts which are simply photos of their pets, rather than their well-thought-out book analyses - but I'd take a photo of a kitten over the best book review, any day.

Luckily for us, there seems to be a whole industry of cat cartoon books. A while ago I 'reviewed' Everyday Cat Excuses by Molly Brandenburg, and my favourite of this subgenre is Jeffrey Brown's wonderful Cat Getting Out of a Bag and other observations.

It's a must for any cat lover - gently very amusing, and certainly the most observant as to how cats behave, getting across all their little ways, silly and dignified alike. I did buy it for my friend, but then my friend became my housemate, so I get to look at it too. Only eleven months til Christmas, why not pick this one up now... then you have eleven months to enjoy it before you give it away.

Sunday 24 January 2010

Project 24... oops

Project 24 - #2 & #3

So, on my travels to Suffolk, Mum and I had three things definitely factored into the itinerary - aside from seeing her sister, of course. Firstly was the spectacular (and spectacularly cheap) hot chocolate at the Essex Rose in Dedham - a three-mug jugful for £2! - second was meeting up with lovely Elaine of Random Jottings, more on that tomorrow, and last was... Castle Books in Colchester. Back in 2001 we had a family holiday in Felixstowe, and popped over to Colchester. Castle Books was where my AA Milne liking developed into an obsession, as they had quite a few of his books, quite cheaply. And I've had fond memories of it ever since.

It didn't disappoint - a wonderful stock, very reasonable prices, and enough temptation to tip me halfway through February on my Project 24 restrictions... that's right, I bought two. On any other day I'd have happily bought ten, so I do count it as *something* of a success... no?

First up is I. Compton-Burnett by Pamela Hansford Johnson, a little booklet about ICB's novels from 1951 - it looks like an interesting snapshot of response to ICB by another interesting novelist.

And second is a beautiful book called More Talk of Jane Austen by Shelia Kaye-Smith and GB Stern. I've flicked through Talking of Jane Austen once or twice, though I don't own it - the books look like a lovely mix - informal chat about Jane Austen from the mouths of those with know-how. Indulgent without being unscholarly - think this'll be one to curl up with soon.

So, there we have it! Numbers 2 and 3 in my Project 24. I also bought a little book about EF Benson in Castle Books, but that was a gift for Elaine - who, in turn, gave me a book - which you'll be hearing more about tomorrow...

Calling UK Book Bloggers!

And another short post - because I have been musing, for some time, on the possibility of having a UK Book Blogger Meet-Up. We live on a small island, and it makes sense to use that to our advantage. One of the loveliest things about blogging has been meeting lots of bloggers in person - using blog names, I've met Random Jottings, Cornflower, Other Stories, Savidge Reads, Geranium Cat, Oxford Reader, Dovegreyreader, Pursewarden, Embarrassment of Frivolities, The B Files, Books Please, Harriet Devine, Paperback Reader, Writing Life and the Universe, and apologies to anybody I've forgotten.

What's been wonderful about every single meeting is how much online friendliness and book enthusiasm carries over into face-to-face encounters. And, thought I, this would incredibly fun to make into something even bigger!

I haven't been in touch with anybody else about this yet, not officially, but in my mind I'm thinking somewhere in London on Saturday May 8th 2010. That just sounds far enough away to mean we can get sorted.

This is open to absolutely anybody, and to express interest please email me at with the subject heading Book Blogger Meet-Up. You're not committing yourself to anything yet (haven't even thought about venue!) but once I've begun to gage (or perhaps gauge, I can never remember) interest, I'll Get More Organised and hopefully you'll all be on board, inviting other bloggers, ready to meet, greet, and possibly even wear name badges...

Obviously not all UK Book Bloggers read my blog, so when we've got a venue and things a little more organised, I'll be asking people to advertise the event on their blogs - between us we know a lot of people!

No Miscellany - Immortality Instead

Yes, this weekend I'm afraid I've ditched miscellany (ran out of time) and introduced immortality - not a bad exchange. I've been at a housewarming party this evening, and just got in, so heading straight to bed... but before I go, I thought I'd ask your opinions of Immortality by Milan Kundera? My book group are supposed to be reading it for February, but quite a few have mutinied (mutinyed?) and given up. I've only read ten pages, but I love it so far - it seems to say so much, so precisely about life. The sort of sentences 'were often thought, but ne'er so well expressed', in the probably-paraphrased words of Pope. But it's very postmodern, and perhaps I'll be confused and irritated soon? Has anybody read Immortality? Or, perhaps more importantly, has anybody got to page 20 and given up?

Thursday 21 January 2010

Project 24: Book One

Project 24 - #1

As Susan spotted the other day, the first book of 2010 has found its way to my little home - and it's Roofs Off! by Richmal Crompton. Possibly, though I won't swear to it, the first novel I own with an exclamation mark in the title (quick trivia question: what's the only place name in England with an exclamation mark in it? That's not a trick question, by the way.)

I have some abebooks alerts which, indeed, alert me to various books which I might want. And one of them is Author=Crompton and ~william (hello Mr. Boolean, I hope you're feeling well). As you probably know, I'm rather a fan of Richmal Crompton's novels, and quite a few of them almost never come up in the virtual marketplace. In the six or so years I've tried to find Crompton's novels, I've never seen Roofs Off! advertised, and it was a fairly reasonable price - I feel it's a good start to Project24.

I'm tippy-tappy-typing this a few days in advance, and when you read it I'll be off in Suffolk with Our Vicar's Wife - and, if all goes to plan, soon to be meeting up with Elaine aka Random Jottings. And maybe, perhaps, buying book no.2....

Fellow Project24-ers, or anyone on book restriction - how's it going? Be strong! Or, if you give up, make sure it's a really good haul...

Tuesday 19 January 2010

Choosing books...

I was having a conversation with my housemate the other day, and she said she doesn't really have a type of book that she likes to read, she'll sample more or less anything. Which is doubtless very admirable, keeping ones horizons broad and so forth - but, wherever you stand on the virtues of broadminded reading, my question was: how do you choose what to buy?

I suppose it's worth noting that she's one of these insane individuals who only has the number of books they can feasibly read at any one time, and doesn't remember every town in England based on the presence or absence of secondhand bookshops. Imagine. But still... I tend only to buy books if I've already heard of them, or the author - usually from recommendations of like-minded friends. Very, very occasionally, I'll buy a book I nothing about. So what do you base this on? If you're ever browsing old or new books, and pick something completely unheard of? I was chatting about blurbs yesterday with Harriet Devine, and we agreed that they were mostly useful for putting you off buying something. Here are some words that will make sure I put the book straight back on the shelf:

  • "This touching coming-of-age story..."

  • "Dystopic vision"
  • "disturbing"
  • "...politically astute..."
  • "It is Ireland in 1890..."
  • "...twenty-four hours to save the world."
  • "You'll learn to live, love, and laugh once more."
  • Any character name which wouldn't be found in My Big Book of Baby Names
  • Any character name which includes asterisks or hyphens or exclamation marks
  • "If you liked Louis de Bernieres..."

So what do I look for? I do base a lot on the cover. Proverbially you shouldn't, but a whole industry is involved in cover design and it would be silly to ignore them. There's a reason they've chosen the cover, and it tells you whether or not you'll like it, probably more than the blurb will. If I'm enticed, I'll flick to an arbitrary page and read a couple of paragraphs. And that generally makes up my mind - bad writing, especially bad dialogue-writing, is pretty clear pretty quickly.

And then? Usually I shelve them and forget all about them... but I have had a few successes. That's how I first read the very excellent The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks, Yellow by Janni Visman, and Alva & Irva by Edward Carey - all of which have since become favourites (browse through the Authors tab, or click here, for reviews those books)

And I know at least three of you will tell me off for being a snob, or something, but - there are so many books out there! I need to be a little discerning, and if I know the sort of books I like (and it's still pretty wide, and covers a few categories - I love quirky novels, for instance, but 'quirky' so rarely seems to come without 'grotesque') then I save myself a lot of time and money. And to those who think I'm a book snob, let me tell you that I've recently started The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan. It's got more pages than I've had hot dinners, and it's fantasy, doncha know.

Anyways - let me know your book-choosing techniques, which blurb-words make you run for the hills, and whether you've had any great successes on books bought out of the blue.

Monday 18 January 2010

The Unspoken Truth

You know that disclaimer often put at the beginning of films or novels, 'The plot and characters in this work are fictional, and any relation to actual people alive or dead is coincidental'? (I saw it the other day at the beginning of a Bollywood film about a camera which can see the future, where I thought it was perhaps superfluous... but if you are at a loose end, check out Aa Dekhen Zara, it's good fun). Well, perhaps wisely, Chatto & Windus haven't used that at the beginning of Angelica Garnett's new book The Unspoken Truth: A Quartet of Bloomsbury Stories. You might recognise her name from her autobiography Deceived with Kindness, over there on my 50 Books You Must Read - as Vanessa Bell's daughter (and consequently Virginia Woolf's niece) she has a unique and invaluable viewpoint on the Bloomsbury group - one which sees them all as people as well as icons. 26 years after publishing that autobiography, and over ninety years old, Garnett is back with a book marketed as fiction, but just as clearly based in her experiences growing up.

Which, of course, is no bad thing - Garnett had such a fascinating childhood. We get unexpected glances on the legacy of her parents, throughout all the stories - 'It may seem strange that, brought up in an eminently intellectual atmosphere, I learned only how to feel and not to think.' These stories are roughly chronological, covering different sections of Garnett's life. The first is called 'When All The Leaves Were Green...' has Bettina as the heroine, and looks at growing up in a bohemian, artistic household, without any companion of Bettina's own age. It's a great depiction of Charleston, through the lens of fiction. I love this first excerpt, which brings across the vivid quality of living amongst those who sought beauty so avidly, and lived so vibrantly. It also shows how this feeling for beauty has found its way into Garnett's writing style. The second excerpt shows more the confusion and isolation which a young child can feel amongst bohemian adults.

In those years the house and the whole of life was bathed in colour: it mottled or streaked the walls and furniture and sang silent but powerful songs from room to room, space to space. In the morning, the pink and yellow curtains drawn across the window mendaciously promising a fine day even when the sky was water-filled, blowing inwards as the breeze explored the room, momentarily filling it with air, and the colours she knew so well answered each other like a game of ping-pong - they glowed and sizzled and almost shrieked with the pleasure - the black, the Indian red, the peacock blue or yellow ochre. She could never think of the house without them: it was as though they had grown there and when, later, she returned year after year, though imperceptibly faded, they rose again and struck their strange chords like a forgotten musical instrument.

When Nan said something, Bettina knew she meant what she said, and nothing else. It was dull, but there was at least no need to worry that she hadn't understood. In the world of the drawing room or the studio, however, every word meant at least two things, and the uppermost meaning was the least important. Most things were said as jokes, but there was always a lick at the end like a cat's tongue, which ruffled the petals inside her, and sometimes jerked something out of her which she wished she hadn't said.
The second story, and easily my favourite, is really a novella, at around 150pp. It is the only one where the story never feels dutifully paced, but flows - again, surely autobiographical, but feels more free than the others. It tells of a shy girl who goes to stay with friends of her parents in France, Gilles and Juliana, in order to perfect her French. We feel her discomfort at joining a family and society she does not know, but also the first flourishes of independence, and a portrait if an outsider's view of a marriage:
Gilles returned from London and our life resumed its previous pattern. I began to note the difference between Gilles and Juliana, his rapier-like decisiveness, her slow deliberation. Both witty and cultured, it was Juliana who occupied the centre of the scene, Gilles the wings. When Juliana was talking seriously she disliked interruption, but Gilles always broke in, fired into disagreement or wishing to qualify her statements. His manner was the opposite of hers - quick and concentrated, intense but rather as though, with each sentence completed, he had finished with it. Juliana, on the contrary, talked as though she were building a tangible structure, and when she paused, you could almost see it sitting on the table.
I was going to talk about all four stories, but I'm going on a bit... the third is very short, and the fourth is about a friendship that went a bit sour. That will have to do! I think that 'Aurore' is the best reason to buy The Unspoken Truth, to be honest, and the other stories - good though they be - are bonuses to me. The long short-story is perhaps the most difficult length to do well, and the most difficult to find the right concentration for, but 'Aurore' is successful. It doesn't feel like an abridged novel or an extended story, but rather the right content for its length.

As I said at the beginning, The Unspoken Truth is clearly heavily autobiographical - but it isn't clear where the line is drawn. Anybody reading this book, even if they hadn't heard of the Bloomsbury Group, would realise it is autobiographical, because the structure so clearly cries it out. So linear, and chronological, with arbitrary incidents introduced and never mentioned again; characters who come in for a paragraph or two, and fade away - all the sort of anecdotes which make sense in an autobiography, but not really in fiction. But somehow this isn't just another autobiography - given the label 'fiction', Garnett flies in a different direction from Deceived with Kindness. Not compelled to give an overview of the famous names she mentions, The Unspoken Truth has richer writing, more introspection, a greater use of imagery. It's not always wholly successful, and where it lags it doesn't have the excuse that an autobiography does, its chronicling responsibility - but for the most part, these stories are quietly beautiful, and add another new dimension to an understanding of Garnett's extraordinary family.

Saturday 16 January 2010

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Claire (aka Paperback Reader) reminded me that I haven't done Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany since... well, for a long time anyway. That wasn't a deliberate decision, as I enjoyed doing a little round-up (and I hope that you enjoyed reading it) but somehow I only remembered about it in the middle of the week. But better late than never, and since we still have a little bit of the weekend left, here it is, in all its multi-coloured infinite variety! (Oh, and I've bought my first book of the year... but it was online, so I'll give you an update when it arrives. If it ever does, given the current state of Oxford's postal service - I've not received a parcel in ten days. Hmm...)

1.) The blog post - is without doubt the first round of Woolf in Winter, this fortnight reading Mrs. Dalloway and hosted by 'What we have here is a failure to communicate' aka Sarah. Click on that link to take you to her thoughts, and a list of other people who've read the book. This scheme has been set up for both first-time Woolf readers and those (like me) who secretly think that Ginny is one of their best friends. I'd especially like to point you in the direction of Claire at Kiss a Cloud and her wonderful thoughts about reading Woolf for the first time. She's bowled over by the novel in the same way that I was when I first read it, and it's like reading my own thoughts from 2003 - only rather better worded. Though I haven't re-read Mrs. Dalloway this time (I have read it four or five times) I might get on board for the next session, To The Lighthouse. Click on the picture for more details...

2.) The link - you might have already seen this on Elaine's blog, Random Jottings, but I'm sure she won't mind me copying it across here, in case you missed it. It's about Waterstone's, the UK bookshop chain, returning to its roots... click here for more. The cynical side of me realises any move they make is going to be motivated by commercialism rather than altruism, and it's a terrible pity that so many genuinely local bookshop
s have gone to the wall, but still - the move can only be a good thing, right?

3.) The book - is a review copy from Oxford University Press that I'm definitely going to read before too long, but I might read it quite gradually, and I wanted to tell you about it sooner so you wouldn't have to wait. It's called Nine Wartime Lives: Mass-Observation and the Making of the Modern Self, by James Hinton, and uses the Mass-Observation diaries of nine ordinary people, during the Second World War, to look at the effects of the war to the individual as well as wider social issues. These people include Nella Last - I'm currently reading Nella Last's War, about two years after everyone else did, and am stunned by how fascinating and how brilliantly written it is. That's a strong early contender for 2010 favourites, and Nine Wartime Lives looks as though it might be equally interesting. (Warning: a bit pricey, might have to track it down in the library). More analytical than Nella Last's War, but hopefully not textbook-style. From the outside, and from flicking through it and reading the odd excerpt, I'm hopeful.

Friday 15 January 2010

Janet Frame: A Note on the Russian War

Well, nobody did request this story, but I thought I'd type it out anyway - the title is a little off-putting, but if you find this at all striking, then you'll probably want to read more of Janet Frame's work. I must confess its brevity appeals as much as its other qualities, when it comes to typing it out...

A Note on the Russian War

The sunflowers got us, the black seeds stuck in our hair, my mother went about saying in a high voice like the wind, sunflowers, kiddies, ah sunflowers.

We lived on the Steppes, my mother and the rest of my family and I, but mostly my mother because she was bigger than the rest. She stood outside in the sun. She held a sunflower in her hand. It was the biggest, blackest sunflower in Russia, and my mother said over and over again, ah sunflowers.

I shall never forget being in Russia. We wore big high boots in the winter, and in the summer we went bare-foot and wriggled our toes in the mud whenever it rained, and when there was snow on the ground we went outside under the trees to sing a Russian song, it went like this, I'm singing it to myself so you can't hear, tra-tra-tra, something about sunflowers and a tall sky and the war rolling through the grass, tra-tra-tra, it was a very nice song that we sang.

In space and time.

There are no lands outside, they are fenced inside us, a fence of being and we are the world, my mother told, we are Russian because we have this sunflower in our garden.

It grew in those days near the cow-byre and the potato patch. It was a little plant with a few little black seeds sometimes, and a scraggy flower with a black heart, like a big daisy only yellow and black, but it was too tall for us to see properly, the daisies were nearer our size.

All day on the lawn we made daisy chains and buttercup chains, sticking our teeth through the bitter stems.

All day on the lawn, don't you remember the smell of them, the new white daisies, you stuff your face amongst them and you put the buttercups under your chin to see if you love butter, and you do love butter anyway so what's the use, but the yellow shadow is Real Proof, Oh you love early, sitting amongst the wet painted buttercups.

And then out of the spring and summer days the War came. An ordinary war like the Hundred Years or the Wars of the Roses or the Great War where my father went and sang Tipperary. All of the soldiers on my father's side sang Tipperary, it was to show they were getting somewhere, and the louder they sang it the more sure they felt about getting there.

And the louder they sang it the more scared they felt inside.

Well in the Russian War we didn't sing Tipperary or Pack up your troubles or There's a long long trail a-winding.

We had sunflowers by the fence near where the fat white cow got milked. We had big high boots in winter.

We were just Russian children on the Steppes, singing tra-tra-tra, quietly with our mother and father, but war comes whatever you sing.

Wednesday 13 January 2010

In the Frame

Thanks for all your contributions on the previous post, that was both interesting and reassuring - I thought I might be single-handedly holding up the biography market! I couldn't think of any better way to express why I chose to read biographies (and their ilk) except the rather obvious one 'to find out more' - but Karen put it so adroitly when she wrote in the comments "A good auto/biography tempts a different part of the appetite from that which fiction satisfies."

Onto another section of that appetite tonight - short stories. Those in the collection The Lagoon by Janet Frame, to be precise. I've said it before - every time I blog about a book of short stories, I come up against a brick wall, and find it more or less impossible to write coherently (or, rather, cohesively) about the book. But I'll do my best...

I have Lynne (aka dovegreyreader) to thank for bringing Janet Frame to my attention, which she did with one of these posts. I'd been meaning to read more New Zealand authors, and so the name was stored in the back of my mind... when I found The Lagoon in an Oxford charity shop, I pounced. And I thought it was very good. This is Frame's first published work, from 1951, and it went on to win the Hubert Church Award - which basically saved her from a leucotomy operation, which had been due to take place at the psychiatric hospital where she'd been diagnosed as schizophrenic. Gulp. As I wrote yesterday, an author's life and experiences probably oughtn't overly influence how I read their work, but with Frame she makes no secret of it. A lot of the stories take place in institutes,
and the themes are often of seeking mental freedom, of experiencing life in independent and rich ways. This excerpt from 'Snap-Dragons' is quite representative:
If you were free did you always fly away? Or were you ever free? Were you not always blundering into some prison whose door shut fast behind you so that you cried, let me out, like the bee knocking in the snap-dragon, or the people beating their hands on the walls of their ward.
Frame often uses a sort of off-kilter stream-of-consciousness intended to reflect an mind going through imbalance, using structure to unsettle. Sometimes it works, sometimes it gets in the way of the narrative a little... it was a technique which didn't really succeed for me in Emily Holmes Coleman's A Shutter of Snow, but with Frame it is more subtle, and only sometimes irksome rather than effective.

A more successful way of unsettling the reader is Frame's tec
hnique of disconcerting endings to her stories. They often end disjointedly, suddenly touching another topic or emotion. For example, 'The Pictures' is about a girl and her mother visiting the cinema. All the emotions they feel in response to the film are explored, and the world outside once they leave the cinema, and then the final words are: 'But the little girl in the pixie-cap didn't feel sad, she was eating a paper lolly, it was greeny-blue and it tasted like peppermints.' It introduces a new tone, and shows that the close of a short story is only really the reader turning to face something else, it isn't really an end.

I usually write in reviews of short story collections that they're not as good as my first experience, with Katherine Mansfield - Janet Frame is no different, but she is perhaps closer than anyone else I've read. These stories, like Mansfield's, are often very short, very perceptive and affecting. One of my favourites was one of the shortest - 'A Short Note on the Russian War'. If people are interested to sample Frame's work, I'll type it out and post it in a day or too? Anyway, I wholeheartedly second Lynne's recommendation. Once you've exhausted all of KM's output, there is another New Zealander worth putting in the Frame...

Tuesday 12 January 2010

Biographies - do you or don't you?!

I've just got back from Book Group, where we discussed Dear Fatty by Dawn French. Not much to say about this autobiography - general consensus was that we expected it to be funny, and it wasn't much. Interesting in places, but mostly very guarded - and we were left wondering why she'd written it, since she seemed to hate revealing details about her life. But passed the time well enough...

But the reason I mention it is that the discussion acted as a springboard for today's post - since I seemed to be the only person there who read biographies and autobiographies. For some people, this was the first biography they'd ever read - and I was rather surprised. I don't read many, and the ones I do read tend to be by or about novelists, but I thought that every reader would pick up one now and then. It just seems logical, to me, if I've enjoyed an author's books - to go and read a bit about their life. Not to judge their fiction-writing based on their life, but just out of interest. And if it's not biographies, I always have some diaries or letters on the go (mostly because they're broken up in good bathroom-size sections...)

I thought this was the norm for people who read quite a lot of books - but was I wrong? Or perhaps I'm fooling myself - when I look at my reading in 2009, I see that I only read twelve books in the biography/autobiography/letters/memoirs category. But that's still a good 7 or 8% of my reads last year. And, having taken over a new bookcase on the landing at home with biographies etc., I know that I certainly own quite a few. It's a genre that's more or less impossible to recommend, because only the very best are of interest unless you're interested in the person already. Biographies/autobiographies worth reading regardless of your initial interest in the person include, in my opinion, Shakespeare by Bill Bryson, The Great Western Beach by Emma Smith, anything by Claire Tomalin, It's Too Late Now by AA Milne, The Enchanted Places by Christopher Milne. I'm sure there are others. (Links to posts on all of these can be found here).

Tell me I'm not alone in reading these sorts of books! What are you habits with biographies, and why? Let me know...

Sunday 10 January 2010


Approximately forever ago, Lisa at A Bloomsbury Life (the sort of blog which makes you wish you could become someone else for a while, namely her) tagged me in a 'ten random things' meme. I've put it on the back-burner, but since I did 100 Random Things about myself back here, I thought I'd put a little spin on it. And then invite you to do the same...

1.) Go to your bookshelves...
2.) Close your eyes. If you're feeling really committed, blindfold yourself.
3.) Select ten books at random. Use more than one bookcase, if you have them, or piles by the bed, or... basically, wherever you keep books.
4.) Use these books to tell us about yourself - where and when you got them, who got them for you, what the book says about you, etc. etc.....
5.) Have fun! Be imaginative. Doesn't matter if you've read them or not - be creative. It might not seem easy to start off with, and the links might be a little tenuous, but I think this is a fun way to do this sort of meme.
6.) Feel free to cheat a bit, if you need to...

I've tagged some people at the bottom of this post, but obviously anybody who wants to is welcome to give it a go.

I've no idea if this will work or not... mine won't be wholly representative, because most of my books are at home in Somerset, and most of the ones I have in Oxford are those I haven't read yet, but... here goes!

The Virago Book of Twins and Doubles - compiled by Penelope Farmer
I couldn't have started with a better choice, but I promise you I didn't cheat! I'm a twin, and love reading about twins - mostly to see whether or not I agree with the author's depiction of being a twin. This anthology has many sections - Birth, Like Twins, Unlike Twins, Love and Hate, Separation and Death, Twins as Curiosities, The Myth of the Twin, Other Doubles...

The Cross of Christ - John Stott
I'm more of less acting out my little bio now! As well as being a twin, I'm a Christian. I haven't read this book yet, I will confess, and it does look like it would need a lot of concentration, but I will before too long.

The Dangerous Book for Boys - Gonn & Hak Iggulden
And I'm a boy! This was a Christmas gift for Santa - this book is incredible! It has everything in it. I can now learn my naval flag codes, types of tree, tricks to teach a dog... even what a noun is, though I think I've got that covered already.

In Tearing Haste: Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor - ed. Charlotte Mosley
I love reading letters, usually have a book or two on the go - and I love writing letters. Nothing beats getting a letter drop onto the doormat through the letterbox (or in the mailbox at the end of the drive, if you're American). And then I can keep the letters in boxes on my shelves, rather than impersonal inbox folders...

The Sandcastle - Iris Murdoch
I never used to cry while watching films, until I saw Judi Dench's amazing performance in the biopic Iris. That seemed to open the floodgates, and now I cry at every film I see. I've been known to cry at adverts.

The Leavises on Fiction: An Historic Partnership - PJM Robertson
I suppose this represents my study of English. I realised I wanted to study English when I was about ten... This turned to toying with applying for English and History, but I realised I didn't love History in the way I love English - and look at me now, five years of university down the line, and no sign of stopping...

Vanessa and Virginia - Susan Sellers
I read my first Virginia Woolf novel in 2003, Mrs. Dalloway, borrowed from the mother of a family for whom I used to babysit. She's since become one of my favourite authors - and this book also represents my blog, since it came as a review copy.

Vera - Elizabeth von Arnim
I bought this in a charity shop - Oxfam, in fact - in Evesham, the town where I went to school. As well as representing my love of Virgao Modern Classics, and the recommendation of dovegreybooks online reading group, this links to the my first job. I volunteered for Oxfam (in Pershore - a little nearer home than Evesham) sorting men's clothes on Saturdays. When I asked if I could sort the books, they told me that they threw away any with yellowing pages... and I didn't think I could do that.

Casting the Runes and other ghost stories - MR James
Tenuous on this one... I used to be obsessed with the Goosebumps books by RL Stine, and then the Point Horror books, and now I am completely incapable of reading anything scary. But my friend Clare loves MR James, so... I'll read this when it's very sunny.

So Long, See You Tomorrow - William Maxwell
No fact about me to accompany this one - but it does seem a fitting way to end!

Right - tagging ten people, but do have a go whether or not you're tagged - and link to your results in the comments. Enjoy!

1. Elaine at Random Jottings
2. Simon at Savidge Reads
3. Karen at Cornflower
4. Rachel at Book Snob
5. Lyn at Prefer Reading
6. Hayley at Desperate Reader
7. Claire at Paperback Reader
8. Thomas at My Porch
9. Darlene at Roses Over a Cottage Door
10. Danielle at A Work in Progress

Saturday 9 January 2010

Print on Demand

Has anybody else dabbled with Print on Demand publishers? That sounds like some sort of cult, but of course it is not... I have a few 'abebooks alerts' which tell me when certain books become available (like 'richmal crompton' + ~william - that's Boolean searching right there, thank you Mr. Boolean, whoever you may be) and increasingly they've been obscure titles, with the addition 'this book is printed especially for your order, and may take longer to arrive.' Or something like that.

Anyway, the most recent one I got (not this year, I hasten to add) was Lovers in London (1905) by AA Milne. I have read this, but I had to do it in the Bodleian... it's more or less impossible to find in non-print-on-demand editions. It was his first book, a series of little sketches of Amelia and the narrator having whimsical courtship and visits to the zoo, that sort of thing - later he decided he didn't like it, bought back the copyright, and refused to let it be republished. Now, he died in 1956, and under copyright laws his books aren't in the public domain until 2026, so I don't know how they've managed to get hold of it - but Kessinger Publishing have reprinted it.

I saw reprinted it. What they've done, it seems, is photocopy a 1905 edition of the book, and stuck it in some cheap card. It's even got a shelfmark written on the first page, so it was clearly from some library or other. Inside, the book ha
s that beautiful font they so often used in the early 20th century - outside it's about as cheap as a book can get, with a fairly flimsy cover and no cover design to speak of. Or even of which to speak.

So... what do you think of this phenomenon? If a phenomenon it indeed is? I would never choose this quality of book over an original edition, but I think it's great for things like Lovers in London which I'd never be able to afford otherwise. It's a way for publishers with tiny budgets to get obscure things 'in print' - though it will never create a buzz about the
book, or new-found popularity for the author, in the way that Persephone Books or The Bloomsbury Group have the potential to do with their reprints. But it means I have a copy of Lovers in London on my shelves, which I wouldn't have had a chance of otherwise - unless I resorted to larceny of course.

Have you bought any Print on Demand books? I'm thinking novels, rather than the other fields P-on-D works in. Or does their cheapness (in quality rather than price, I assure you) put you off? Or has the whole concept just never crossed your mind?

EDIT: do read the comments - my experience with PoD publishers isn't very vast, and there are some good links and advice about better quality ones. Thanks for your comments, guys!

Friday 8 January 2010

Project 24: Redux

My attempt at a banner thingummy was a little, er, amateur - but lovely Elisabeth at Babbette's Book Blog made this for me to use:

Thanks Elisabeth!

Thursday 7 January 2010


Before I forget - my dear friend Lyn has recently set up a blog. She's been reading lots of blogs for years, and I'm delighted that she's taken the plunge - do go and pay her (and her beautiful cat Abby) a visit: Prefer Reading.

Oxford is submerged in more snow than I've ever seen in Oxford before. Or, possibly, anywhere. Sadly I didn't take my camera around with me today, but Harriet (who also lives in Oxford) has posted a couple. I should be experimenting with new referencing software I downloaded, but more of me wants to be reading this:

I mentioned it in one of my hauls the other day, and nobody yelped in recognition, but perhaps somebody has heard of Ib Michael? Do I have any Danish readers?! According to my 'Around The World' thingummy widget I've had 54 visits from Denmark since July. Doesn't that seem incredible? Almost all my comments seem to come from the UK and US, but apparently people in countries like Bahrain, Namibia, Estonia have visited... in fact 147 countries worldwide. How many countries *are* there? And is 'Reunion' really one of them?

I'm getting off topic - what I was saying was that I feel like some wintery reading. The book I absolutely recommend, when it's chilly, is Tove Jansson's
The Winter Book - hopefully Prince is from the same school. Maybe I'll find out tonight, if the lure of BiblioExpress doesn't work.

You'll be pleased to know that I'm still on no-bought-books, but I have already been given two. Becca gave me a late Christmas present of Novel Destinations: Literary Landmarks from Jane Austen's Bath to Ernest Hemingway's Key West, which looks brilliant - in fact, I almost bought it for myself a few weeks ago, but decided to wait and see if anybody had got it for me for Christmas! And yesterday I met up with Simon S, who very kindly gave me An Expert in Murder by Nicola Upson. Since he's buying approximately 24 books fewer than me this year, I think he's very brave, and slipped him a book too...

I have a feeling that a lot of my friends will be receiving book parcels from me this year, as I need to feed my book shopping addiction support the book industry somehow...

Tuesday 5 January 2010

In The Springtime of the Year - Susan Hill

In the run up to Christmas, we briefly discussed Festive Reading, and I was relieved to see that I wasn't the only one who didn't prepare that much, and had never really thought about it. It doesn't get much more unseasonal than the book I was reading in late December - Susan Hill's In the Springtime of the Year. Look, another season is right there in the title... and, do you know what, I rather wish I had read it in Spring now. (I also rather wish I knew whether or not seasons should be capitalised, so answers on a postcard please. Or, alternatively, in the comments box.)

I've made no secret about my love of Susan Hill's Howards End is on the Landing, and shortly after reading that I made my first acquaintance with one of her novels, the captivating and unsettling The Beacon (more here) - I can't remember who recommended I try In The Springtime of the Year next, but thank you whoever it was - it's another short, sad, and often rather brilliant book. Published in 1974, it's theme is eternal - the loss of a loved one. In this instance, it is the sudden and accidental death of a young man called Ben, killed by a falling tree in the opening pages of the novel. The novel follows his wife Ruth, in her early twenties, coping with his death, and coming to terms with it.

I daresay that sounds quite slight as a synopsis, but some of my favourite writers are those who can weave an involving narrative without huge set pieces or plot turns. The biggest event having happened in the first few pages, this novel is more a study of grief than a rollercoaster of events. From the immediate aftermath; the funeral; Ruth's difficult relations with Ben's family; closer kinship with Ben's younger brother; dealing with Ben's possessions; moving onwards to the future without him - each stage is subtly and intimately shown - never too much introspection, and always writing of so high a standard that it doesn't feel like cliche. This sort of writing (especially in the days of soap operas) must be incredibly difficult to do, for the path is so strewn with cliches, but Hill makes it look easy.

She thought suddenly, I am alone, I am entirely alone on this earth; there are no other people, no animals or birds or insects, no breaths or heartbeats, there is no growing, the leaves do not move and grass is dry. There is nothing.

And this was a new feeling. No, not a feeling. Loneliness was a feeling, and a fear of the empty house and of the long days and nights, and the helpless separation from Ben - feelings. This was different. A condition. A fact. Simply, being absolutely alone.
My one problem with the novel was that everybody in the village seemed to feel Ben's death incredibly deeply - the novel states that even those familiar with death were especially affected by his. I suppose that isn't a problem, but it might have been more realistic to contrast Ruth's deep grief with those around who, though sad, cannot feel it to the same extent. For that is how such deaths affect neighbourhoods, is it not?

Nobody very close to me has ever died, not yet, and I still found this novel incredibly affecting. I also felt - though, again, I cannot support this from my own experience - that In the Springtime of the Year could be a huge comfort to anyone going through that. Or perhaps to those around them, to help them understand. I'm in danger of getting emotional here, aren't I? And I shouldn't forget that Susan Hill hasn't set out to write a grievance counselling book - though there may be overlap, this is primarily a very well written, subtle, and touching novel, and that is certainly achievement enough.