Thursday 29 April 2010

The Behaviour of Moths

Thank you all for vindicating my purchase yesterday - you lot are probably a poor choice for the voice of my conscience, but I'm certainly happy to stick with it(!)
Ever onwards, ever in - and onto The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams. Everyone else read this ages ago, I think, and indeed I had a review copy from Virago languishing on my shelves - but it wasn't until the novel was picked for my book group that I got around to reading it myself.

The Behaviour of Moths should have been a perfect novel for me - all about the tensions in families, Gothic houses, and an unreliable narrator: tick, tick, and tick. Ginny is a lepidopterist (moth expert, in case the title doesn't give the game away) still living in the old family mansion in her sixties. The novel centres around her younger sister's return home after 47 years - Vivien arrives, but there are all sorts of unanswered questions and secrets between the two, which the reader hopes to disentangle...

That's the novel in a nutshell - I won't elaborate, partly because there are reviews all over the internet where you can read about the plot; partly because not a huge amount happens. Instead, we are left to piece together the sisters' lives (and try to understand their parents, from the piecemeal information which emerges) as the narrative jumps back and forth from present day to their childhood and adolescence. One of the first recollections is when Vivi fell off the bell tower:

My heart leapt but Vivi must have lost her balance. I watched her trying to regain control of the toast that danced about, evading her grip like a bar of soap in the bath. For those slow seconds it seemed as if repossessing the toast was of utmost important to her and the fact that she was losing her balance didn't register. I've never forgotten the terror in her eyes, staring at me, replayed a thousand times since in my nightmares, as she realised she was falling.

The fall leaves Vivi unable to have children; another catalyst for the events which unfold. And so it ambles on, with secrets gradually becoming exposed, and the relationship between the sisters coming to light.

But I was unconvinced. And not just because it was set near Crewkerne, close by where I live in Somerset - which Adams claims is in Dorset, and has a bowling alley. No, it doesn't, Poppy, love! No, the reason I was unconvinced is because The Behaviour of Moths tries to do the unreliable narrator thing, but it all comes in a huge rush with a big twist towards the end. And then you wonder quite how we were supposed to read the rest of the novel - but there weren't enough clues laid down, and the picture isn't properly developed. All the details about moths are doubtless engaging, but they seem to have taken the place of a coherent narrative arc.
The Behaviour of Moths has done very well, and my lack of enthusiasm for the novel won't trouble Poppy Adams particularly, but I do wonder quite why it's been so popular. I found the whole thing... how shall I put it... quite bland. The blurb talks about 'Ginny's unforgettable voice', but that's the problem: it wasn't unforgettable, it was literary-fiction-by-numbers. The style is almost ubiquitous across novels of this type - and though there were Gothicky elements (especially in the depiction of the house) which impressed and set the novel a bit apart, for the most part The Behaviour of Moths was a common-or-garden specimen. Not a bad novel by any means, and passes the time adequately, but could have been so much better. I do look forward to seeing what Adams does next, but if she couldn't win me over with a novel which has all my favourite ingredients, then I don't hold out huge hope.

Simon S has started suggesting similar reads at the bottom of his reviews, and I love the idea - and asked him if he wouldn't mind me nabbing it! So from now on, I'll try and think of books which I think did similar things better - or, with positive reviews, do similar things equally well! And link to my thoughts on them, naturally...

Books to get Stuck into:

Angela Young: Speaking of Love - family secrets and tense relationships are as subtle and engaging as they get in this wonderful novel
Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle - the unreliable narrator and the Gothic house taken to a whole new level in this brilliantly addictive novel

Wednesday 28 April 2010

Project 24...

Project 24 - #9

Just when it was getting to the end of April, and I was congratulating myself by being on track with my book count, I made the foolish mistake of wandering into the £2 bookshop in Oxford... and being confronted with this:

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, may I make my defence?

- it's Sylvia Townsend Warner, an author I love (and who has made an appearance in Project 24 already, you may recall, with Summer Will Show)

- it has a foreword by William Maxwell, another much liked author in these parts.

- it was only £2

- it's so preeettttty

I rest my case. I think.

Tuesday 27 April 2010

Bits and Pieces

A few bits and pieces today, all or a more or less bookish nature... something for all the family, I daresay. First off, I may have misled you in saying I'd handed my thesis in - it's only actually my 'transferal of status' essay, so they can decide whether or not to keep me on...

Read on for: Meet-up, Quiz Results, and the chance to be in a Postal Book Group.

---The UK Book Bloggers' Meet-Up (I keep changing my mind about the apostrophe... does it need to be there or not?) is taking place on Saturday 8th May in the evening. I *had* thought we were at capacity, but we've had a few cancellations, so if you want to be proud owner of a badge (oh, and meet other UK bloggers!) then email me at for details and we'll see if we can fit you in...

---Peter/Dark Puss gave us a cat-themed quiz the other day - congratulations Mary, who has been contacted to arrange her prize - for those scratching your head, here are the answers (and click here for the questions):

  1. Harry Cat from The Cricket in Times Square by George Seldon
  2. Peter in Jennie by Paul Gallico
  3. Saha in The Cat by Colette
  4. Behemoth in Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  5. Yan in Yan and the Christmas Tree by Jun Machida

If you got more than none, then you did better than me!

---And finally, I have mentioned in the past that I'm part of a postal book group. There's a circle of readers from across the world; we post on a book every two months to the next person in the circle, and thus each book makes its way around the group. You get your own book after a year (or however long) with a notebook full of comments - and have read lots of interesting books, of course.

Well, Shannon wants to set her own up, and she's hoping you'll join her! Since Stuck-in-a-Book readers have, by and large, quite similar reading tastes, it seemed a good place to try and find readers to join in a worldwide postal book group.

Although I'm sure Shannon is happy to be a bit flexible, here is what she writes about her own reading tastes. If yours are fairly similar, and you fancy giving a postal reading group a try (and it's great fun!) then get in touch with her on [not as I typed earlier, sorry!] :

"I'm interested mainly in pre-1960 books or books that could have been written then. I like books about everyday life, relationships, humour, the way in which we do or don't make connections. I'm also okay with books that are haunting, such as Victorian ghost stories. I'm not interested in books about terrible childhoods or abuse...

Some favorite authors include W. Somerset Maugham, Carol Shields, Penelope Lively, Barbara Pym, Saki, P. G. Wodehouse, A. A. Milne, Joanna Trollope (bit of a guilty pleasure, that), Carson McCullers, Willa Cather, Dorothy Parker, Edith Wharton, Harriett Doerr, Muriel Spark, Jane Austen, Henry James, Anthony Trollope."

Monday 26 April 2010

The Art of Gardening

No, I haven't come over all horticultural (my current back garden is entirely laid to concrete, although I did once grow a few nice flowers in pots - cue unnecessary picture of them, taken a year ago).

So, where was I - not horticultural, but almost equally unusual for Stuck-in-a-Book, because today I'm talking about poetry. I'll confess, I don't know much about poetry - but every now and then it just hits the spot. And today the poetry is The Art of Gardening by Mary Robinson. The collection is inspired by a whole spectrum of things - nature, memories, other writers such as George Orwell and Karel Capek - and even a series inspired by Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space, chunks of which I read last year.

The Art of Gardening was sent to me by the publisher (Flambard Press) but I have to be completely open about this and say that Mary Robinson is a family friend I've known all my life. The Robinson family lived near us in Merseyside - and, while we've moved further and further southwards, they went northwards, and we're now at the extremes of the country. As a family with an arty Mum, a vicar Dad, and twin sons, they're not dissimilar from the Thomas family...

Anyway - that's the picture set, and it would feel far too weird for me to write a review of the collection, so instead I'm just going to type out my favourite poem in the collection and encourage you to go and get yourself a copy!

Apple Blossom

Don't go my mother said
standing under the apple blossom
wearing that long baggy cardigan
snagged and pilled like a neglected paddock.

How could we not go?
I was doing a last round of the house
checking for something forgotten
but in reality saying farewell.

The removal men had gone.
I looked out of the wash-house window
and there she was, unchanged
after twenty years.

The spring before I started school
she had shown me the alphabet
under the apple tree - pale petals fell on the paper
as she traced the shapes with her self-taught hand.

Years later I was reading my own books.
In the evenings she banged out campaigning letters,
the old manual typewriter resounding to the clack
of rage and the rasping roller of frustration.

Now my last sight of her will always be
under the apple tree -
Don't go she said.

Sunday 25 April 2010

Places to be, books to read...

As I mentioned the other day, I have a pile of books I've been meaning to read for ages and ages - and I'm taking this week off to indulge in them! Some are review copies, most are recommendations I snapped up a while ago. And here's the pile, as it stands... Let me know if you've read any of them, or have them on your tbr piles...

Brother of the More Famous Jack - Barbara Trapido
The lovely people of Bloomsbury sent me all Trapido's novels last September, and I've been keen to read them - but somehow more urgent books have always got in the way. Not any more, Trapido, love...

Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
My book group is reading old Jude for next month... to be honest, this could take most of my week, but I've been meaning to read it for at least five years and am glad to have a deadline proffered.

26a - Diana Evans
I'm afraid I can't remember who recommended this, but apparently it's one of the best depictions of twins in recent novels - and is written by a twin. Bonus.

Fragile - Chris Katsaropoulos
A review book I've been really intrigued by... which has now w
orked its way to the top of the review pile.

The Sandcastle - Iris Murdoch
I am absolutely DETERMINED to read some Iris Murdoch this year, having meant to since I saw the film Iris, gosh, nearly a decade ago. I can't remember who recommended this one, but I think perhaps it was my friend Lorna?

Secret Lives - E.F. Benson
I yield to few in my love of Mapp & Lucia, but have yet to read any other of EFB's novels. I'm pretty certain Nancy told me to read this one, but I could be getting my names mixed up...

It's a nice group of books, covering a wide span of years... half by men, half by women. Let's see how many I get through this week - kicking off with Trapido.

Oh, and you'll have noticed that Project24 has remained at 8 for the whole month, more or less - so I'm back on track!

Year Four: Book Reviews

Adams, Poppy - The Behaviour of Moths
Atwood, Margaret - The Penelopiad
Baker, Frank - Stories of the Strange and Sinister
Barbal, Maria - Stone in a Landslide
Barbery, Muriel - The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Barford, Mirren & John Lewes - Joy Street: A Wartime Romance in Letters 1940-42
Beauman, Ned - Boxer, Beetle
Benatar, Stephen - Wish Her Safe At Home
Benson, E.F. - Secret Lives
Brown, George Mackay - Andrina and other stories
Buck, Pearl S. - The Good Earth
Christie, Agatha - The Murder at the Vicarage
Comyns, Barbara - The Vet's Daughter
Comyns, Barbara - The Skin Chairs
Crompton, Richmal - Matty and the Dearingroydes
Delafield, E.M. - Gay Life
Delius, F.C. - Portrait of the Woman as a Young Mother
Dench, Judi - And Furthermore
Devine, Harriet - Being George Devine's Daughter
Devonshire, Deborah - Wait for Me!
Foer, Jonathan Safran - Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Forster, E.M. - Howards End
Forster, E.M. - The Machine Stops & The Celestial Omnibus
Gallico, Paul - Love of Seven Dolls
Giono, Jean - The Man Who Planted Trees
Gordon-Cumming, Jane - The Haunted Bridge
Hardy, Thomas - Jude the Obscure
Hare, David - The Hours (screenplay)
Hill, Susan - A Kind Man
Hunt, Rebecca - Mr. Chartwell
James, Henry - The Turn of the Screw
Jansson, Tove - Travelling Light
Johnston, Jennifer - The Gingerbread Woman
Kaye-Smith, Sheila & G.B. Stern - More Talk of Jane Austen
Laski, Marghanita - Little Boy Lost
Laski, Marghanita - Love on the Supertax
Macaulay, Rose - Dangerous Ages
Macaulay, Rose - Personal Pleasures
Manguel, Alberto - Stevenson Under The Palm Trees
Mankowitz, Wolf - A Kid For Two Farthings
McHaffie, Hazel - Remember Remember
Miller, Arthur - All My Sons
Mills, Magnus - The Maintenance of Headway
Milne, A.A. - Once A Week
Milne, A.A. - The Dover Road
Mitchell, David - The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Morley, Christopher - The Haunted Bookshop
Munro, Alice - Too Much Happiness
Murdoch, Iris - The Sandcastle
Myers, L.H. - Strange Glory
O'Grady, Rohan - Let's Kill Uncle
Olivier, Edith - The Love Child (various)
Pheby, Alex - Grace
Playfair, Jocelyn - A House in the Country
Porter, Adrian - The Perfect Pest
Read, Herbert - The Green Child
Robinson, Marilynne - Gilead
Robinson, Mary - The Art of Gardening
Sagan, Francoise - Bonjour Tristesse
Shaw, Ali - The Girl With Glass Feet
Shelley, Mary - Frankenstein
Sheridan, Richard B. - The Rivals
Solomons, Natasha - Mr. Rosenblum's List
Spark, Muriel - The Driver's Seat
Spark, Muriel - Loitering With Intent
Streatfeild, Noel - Saplings
Szymborska, Wislawa - People on a Bridge
Todd, Barbara Euphan - Miss Ranskill Comes Home
Trapido, Barbara - Brother of the More Famous Jack
Tsiolkas, Christos - The Slap
Vanbrugh, Irene - To Tell My Story
von Arnim, Elizabeth - The Caravaners
Waters, Sarah - The Little Stranger
Waters, Sarah - The Night Watch
Waugh, Evelyn - The Loved One
Whipple, Dorothy - High Wages
Young, E.H. - William

Friday 23 April 2010

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

So, my thesis is all handed in, and I'm taking the week off! I've amassed an implausibly high tower of books to read this week. I wonder how many I'll get through - since one of them is Jude the Obscure, I wouldn't be surprised if the answer is something around 'one'. There is (as my mother always told me) a time and a place for everything - and Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany is not the place to tell you all about the books I'll be reading. Look out for a picture of a tottering pile sometime on Sunday evening... and then you can weigh in and tell me the order in which I should read them.

Where were we? Oh, of course - the ole book, link, blog post malarkey.

1.) The book - is Ellipsis, arrived yesterday, and is a little unusual for these parts inasmuch as it describes itself as 'a disturbing thriller'. But I was intrigued by the blurb, and by the fact that the author (Nikki Dudley) shares her name with a girl who was at my school. I presume it's not the same person, but that's because I like to pretend nobody younger than me has achieved big things yet. Anyway, here's the blurb - it's not something the Provincial Lady would read, but perhaps intriguing enough to make a change?

"Right on time," Daniel Mansen mouths to Alice as she pushes him to his death. Haunted by these words, Alice becomes obsessed with discovering how a man she didn't know could predict her actions. On the day of the funeral, Daniels' cousin, Thom, finds a piece of paper in Daniel's room detailing the exact time and place of his death. As Thom and Alice both search for answers, they become knotted together in a story of obsession, hidden truths and the gaps in everyday life that can destroy or save a person.

I feel a little on edge just typing that... let's move onto a link.

2.) The link(s) - University Reviews Online keep emailing me, and at first I thought it was spam but now it looks like not. Persistance should be rewarded, should it not, so here is their link to 10 Important Writers Who Went To Jail For Their Work. Off the top of my head I can think of one (Oscar Wilde - yes, it was for 'immoral thought' in Dorian Gray not for, erm, anything else) but he doesn't make the list... and in fact I've not heard of any of them, but interesting nonetheless.

A few other bits and bobs to put under this umbrella, playing fast and loose with the normal arrangement of these weekend miscellanies...

---A new website called Books & Media has been set up by BDS: 'a new web-based subscription service for anyone who wants to know what the media is saying about books and authors'. There's a free trial period of two months on at the moment, could be worth a look. I'm not sure how useful this is for readers, as opposed to professionals, but... nice to know books are getting some attention!

---Carte Noire are trying to find their Ideal Reader. Not entirely sure how they're going about it, and I think - as someone who doesn't like coffee - I'm unlikely to be it, but there are more details on their website. I got side-tracked by watching celebrities read from the classics - fancy hearing Joseph Fiennes read Thomas Hardy or Dominic West read Pride and Prejudice? Well, there are some rather arty sepia-shots of them doing so (even if Mr. West wrongly states that Jane and Bingley were engaged before Bingley went off to London).

3.) The blog post - Danielle aka A Work in Progress is starting a read-along of Anna Karenina by Mr. Leo Tolstoy (are there two schools of thought on pronunciation of 'Karenina', or are my friends just wrong? I'm Kah-ren-ih-nuh all the way, none of this Kah-ruh-nee-nuh nonsense for me). See her first thoughts on it here... I'm tempted to join in, but with my pile of books to read next week... it'll have to go on hold for now.

Thursday 22 April 2010

The night before the day after...

Just a quick post to say that I'm in the final throes of editing my thesis - tomorrow is my big deadline for the year, and so I shan't be writing anything much here tonight!

Instead, I shall leave you with a lovely little song with a lovely little video, which I first heard here... no real reason for the post, other than that I was listening to it today! See you on the other side!

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Fragile Feet

Better late than never, I have finally finished Ali Shaw's The Girl With Glass Feet - which I heard about because Simon S chose it as one of his books for Not The TV Book Group. I had nearly finished when I discovered that (a) Ali is a man, and (b) he worked for the Bodleian Library, like yours truly!

I don't think it's necessary for me to write a proper review, because there is such a good discussion over at Savidge Reads, so instead I shall offer you a link to that discussion and tell you that I liked the book a lot, with some reservations. Indeed, I shall give you a very, very short review, and tell you to pop over to that discussion.

I liked:
--the quirky ideas: glass feet! cow-moth-things! a bird that turns things white!
--a generally impressive and engaging writing style
--Shaw didn't just use a crazy idea for novelty value, it was well developed and quite beautiful

I didn't like:
--jumping around between narrative strands and not quite knowing where we were, or what the time setting was
--the dialogue felt a little clunky sometimes - too many 'ums'

A quotation:
"She could feel the encroachment of the glass like an animal feeling the tremor before an earthquake."

These quick reviews could be the way forward! I can go to bed now...

Tuesday 20 April 2010

Professionally speaking...

Following on from the review yesterday, I was wondering: what's the weirdest or most unusual choice of profession you've come across as the focus of a novel? (I feel that could be much better phrased, but I can't think of anything at the moment.)

I think the strangest one I've read is in Edward Carey's Observatory Mansions, where the protagonist is one of those living statues, entirely covered in white.

Beat that, if you can!

Monday 19 April 2010

You wait all day for one book about buses...

...and, to be honest, there's still only one book about buses that comes along. Bloomsbury sent me a copy of The Maintenance of Headway by Magnus Mills ages and ages ago, probably around the invention of the first bus, but somehow I've only just read it. Such is the state of my tbr mountains (which are already looking nervous about the idea of moving house in three months' time.)

The Maintenance of Headway is a very short book (you know how I like short books) all about the politics of bus driving and the interaction of bus drivers. I really like novels about unusual professions - not that bus driving is inherently unusual, it's just unusual for a novel to focus on a bus driver - and so was intrigued about how this one would work.

Well, the unnamed narrator works amongst a group of fellow bus drivers who must adhere to the various Bus Driving Rules. Mills was apparently a bus driver himself, so he should know what they are. Chief amongst them - and iterated as chapter headings throughout the book - is 'There's no excuse for being early'. And then, of course, there is the Maintenance of Headway, intended to stop that phenomenon where three buses turn up at once. These rules are sprinkled throughout the novel, and I'm certainly going to feel more sympathetic next time I hop on a bus - but any action that came alongside was so understated that I think I missed it. There are some interesting touches about the hierarchy of driving, about drivers' various idiosyncrasies, and some nostalgia for old-fashioned buses. All understated. Understated seems to be Mills' thing.

I hadn't heard of Magnus Mills when I received this novel, but everyone else seems to have - he was nominated for the Booker, and has all sorts of accolades on the back of the copy I have. Indeed, he is variously compared to PG Wodehouse, The Office, Brave New World, the Coen Brothers, and Alan Bennett. What an intriguing mix. What do they all have in common? That they're all funny - and that's the thing, I just didn't find The Maintenance of Headway particularly funny. Interestingly, the one bit I wanted to quote is the bit a few other reviews have quoted:

There was a man standing in the road holding a large key. He was surrounded by a circle of traffic cones, in front of which was a red and white sign: ROAD CLOSED. I pulled my bus up and spoke to him through the window.

‘Morning,’ I said.

‘Morning,’ he replied.


‘Will be in a minute,’ he said. ‘I’m just about to relieve the pressure.’

His van was parked nearby. He was from a water company.

‘Would it be possible to let me go past before you start?’ I enquired.

‘I’m afraid not,’ he said. ‘I’ve already put my cones out. Can’t really bring them all in again.’

I counted the cones. There were seven in total.

It had some interesting quirks, but it wasn't quirky in the way that someone like Edward Carey is... somehow it just meandered. For a short novel, it went an awful lot of nowhere. Which isn't to say I didn't enjoy it - I think it would be closer to the point to say that I didn't understand it, or tune into its wavelength. Even after reading two brilliant reviews by Kim and John, I know I'm missing something - and I'd like to read some of his earlier novels to see if that 'something' doesn't elude me there.

Magnus Mills has a whole raft of interesting-looking novels in fact - All Quiet on the Orient Express, although I know little about it except its title, has already found its way into my Amazon wishlist. Although The Maintenance of Headway didn't bowl me over, I'll certainly be looking out for more Mills in the future...

Sunday 18 April 2010

Cats, cats everywhere

A little while back Dark Puss/Peter wrote a piece about Croc Attack! by Assaf Gavron. Not a man to overload himself with books, he's devised a little feline competition to send the book off to another - UK entrants only, I'm afraid, although non-UK readers are very welcome to have a go at the quiz sans prize. (N.B. - for obvious reasons, don't put the answers in the comment section!) Over to you, Peter...

Croc Attack! Competition

With Simon’s encouragement I have set a small literary competition for you. Here are five quotations from books of fiction containing cats who play significant, or dominant, roles in the story. All the books are from the 20thC, three are translated from another language, two might be described as “children’s literature”. If the name of the cat explicitly appears in any of the quotations I have replaced it with “****”
The rules are simple, email Simon ( with the name of the cat and the name of the book for each of the five quotations. Simon will draw the winner from a hat if more that one person ties for first place. I’ll then post off “my” copy of Croc Attack when Simon sends me the winner’s postal address. Have fun!

Book 1
’I’m very pleased to make your acquaintance’, said **** in his silky voice. ‘Hello’ said Chester. He was ashamed because of the fuss he’d made. ‘I wasn’t scared for myself. But I thought cats and mice were enemies.’ ‘In the country, maybe,’ said Tucker. ‘But in New York we gave up those habits long ago. **** is my oldest friend. He lives with me over in the drain pipe. So how was scrounging tonight, ****?’

Book 2
From somewhere behind him a soft voice said, ‘Ah well, that’s better. I’m glad you’re alive. I wasn’t sure at all. But I say, you are a mess!’ Startled, for the memory of his encounter with the yellow cat was still fresh, **** rolled over and beheld the speaker squatted down comfortably beside him, her legs tucked under her, tail nicely wrapped around. She was a thin tabby with a part white face and throat that gave her a most sweet and gentle aspect heightened by the lively and kind expression in her luminous eyes that were grey-green, flecked with gold.

Book 3
A bend in the path and a gap in the leaves allowed Camille to see Alain and the cat once more from the distance. She stopped short and made a movement to retrace her steps. But she swayed for only an instant and then walked away faster than ever. For a while ****, on guard, was following Camille’s departure as intently as a human being. Alain was half-lying on his side ignoring it. With one hand hollowed into a paw, he was playing with the first green, prickly August chestnuts.

Book 4
The moment she saw the cat climb onto the tram, she screamed with a rage that made her whole body shake:
’No cats! No Boarding with cats! Scram! Off before I call the police’
Both the conductress and the passengers were oblivious to the heart of the issue: not that a cat was clambering onto a tram, which would be half the trouble, but that he intended to pay!

Book 5
However in my absence, the fir tree had grown a little and I could not reach to put the silver star on the top of it, even if I stood on tiptoe. You’re probably thinking that it should be fairly easy for a cat to climb a tree, But the tree was so small I was worried it would not bear my weight. So I went off to fetch one of those wooden boxes I’d seen lying around in the station. I hung the decorations on the tree, carefully threading the thin wires over the branches. Then I climbed up onto the box and tied the silver star to the very top with another piece of wire.

Friday 16 April 2010

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

I can't believe it's the weekend already - which probably is a sentiment which could only be expressed by a student. It also marks a week since my library book was due back... oh dear. And I've only just started it. The money I'm saving on not buying books has gone straight to paying fines for borrowing books...

It's been a little while, but I'm sure you all remember the
drill with the Weekend Miscellany. We keep it simple it here - one from each shelf, please. Here we go...

1.) The blog post - Is Simon S's wonderfully enthused review of Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One, which has definitely moved it a couple hundred places in my tbr mountain. I've read a couple Waughs before, and will again (you could say this is my inter-Waugh period, a-ha-ha-clunk).

2.) The book - came through the door yesterday, and is Tarzan and the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I was amused to see this back at the fore of Oxford University Press' marketing - I walked past their shop on the high street yesterday, and there are dozens of copies in the window, I wish I'd had my camera with me. Obviously I've heard of Tarzan, but my main experience with him of late has been QD Leavis' dismissal in her rather snobbish and wholly fascinating Fiction and the Reading Public (from 1932) that ‘to the highbrow public “Ethel M. Dell” or “Tarzan” should be convenient symbols, drawn from hearsay rather than first-hand knowledge’. Ouch! I'm looking forward to getting my first-hand knowledge, thanks Queenie, love.

3.) The link - is sort of cheating, because it's to a blog. But it's a whole blog, rather than an individual blog post, because the whole thing is just so wonderful. And the blog in question? I think I've mentioned it before, but was reminded of it this week on Facebook (thanks Meg!) It's called Colour Me Katie. Well, in actual fact it's the American equivalent of that, but I can't bring myself to take the 'u' out of 'Colour' - sorry! Clicking here will take you to it. There are no books involved, for once - Katie is a freelance photographer and street artist, and basically does exciting little projects involving lots of colour! She's chalked footprints down the street, painted Pac Man characters around walls, spontaneously put up paper balloons... it's all so lovely and joyful and definitely colourful. I'm getting a bit of life-envy here... Oh, AND she has a cat. Go and become happier!

Thursday 15 April 2010

"Experience doth take dreadfully high wages..."

On the off chance that you'll have me back, after Mel and Dark Puss have proved me completely dispensable over the past month, I'm going to turn my hand to another book review! And this time it's a Persephone book, which always curries favour. I am getting a little ahead of myself, what with Persephone Reading Week coming up around the corner, but I thought it would cheating to review this then, since I actually finished it in the middle of March.

Dorothy Whipple's High Wages (1930) is the latest Whipple novel to be published by Persephone and the third that I've read - the other two being the very wonderful Someone at a Distance and the pretty wonderful They Knew Mr. Knight. [edit: I forgot that I've also read Greenbanks, but don't remember much about it...] High Wages focuses on Jane Carter, who takes a job working for Mr. Chadwick who runs a draper's shop in Tidsley. She's doing it on account of a stepmother, but we don't think about her much after the first chapter, and she only really acts as a catalyst for what follows. Jane enters the politics of a small town and a small shop, dealing with the meanness of her employers, the lovesickness of her colleague Maggie, and the quiet friendship of poor-wife-made-good Mrs. Briggs.
Persephone's write-up of the novel is very interesting, far more than just description of the book, and I recommend you give it a read by clicking here. They include this thought:
She is not, of course, a 'great' writer. You could not take one of her sentences, as you can with, say, Mollie Panter-Downes, and hold it up to the light. But she is serviceable, perceptive and humane.
I agree on all counts - while Whipple's prose is a cut above a lot of her contemporaries (and almost everything I flick through in the bookshop now) she isn't a notable stylist. She even veers towards the saccharine or predictable on occasion in this novel (though not in the other two I've read) - I definitely blame the romance plot, which High Wages could have done without, and would have been a better novel for it. I wouldn't be surprised if Whipple's publisher leant on her to include it... but it just got a little silly towards the end. (Query: is it possible to write the dialogue of people desperately and recklessly in love without sounding like a mediocre soap opera? Then again, I'm quite fond of mediocre soap operas...)

That aside, there is plenty to love. How could you not like a book with the following sentiment? :
Oh, the comfort of that first cup of tea! The warmth and life it put into you! They held their hands round the cups to warm them and their eyes looked less heavily on the bleak kitchen.

'What do we do now?' asked Jane.

'We have another cup of tea, said Maggie'
The day-to-day runnings of the shop make excellent material for a novel, and that's what I enjoyed most in High Wages - the hierarchies in the shop and those of the customers, and how Jane negotiates them. Such is the minutiae that Whipple does so well, and so perceptively.

An interesting sideplot is the maid Lily and her abusive husband. That sounds very gritty, but Whipple has a way of taking gritty plots and making them pretty cosy... And I do have a weakness for dialect-driven, unselfconscious servants in interwar novels - the best being Nellie in another Persephone, Cheerful Weather For The Wedding. For a taste of Nellie, click here - otherwise, back to Lily:

Lily arrived. She whimpered as she lit the fire, and as Jane reappeared at intervals in the kitchen, she told her Bob wasn't like a husband at all.

'Aren't you going to love me a bit I says to 'im this morning, and 'e says with such a nasty look, "To 'ell with you and your love." Just like that.'

And when she tried to kiss him good-bye, he'd thrown a plate at her.

'Whatever do you want to kiss him for?' asked Jane, squeezing out the wash-leather for the shop-door glass. 'Throw a plate back at him, my goodness.'

She thought she herself would make short work of such a husband.

'No...' Lily shook her head as she dipped the bald brush into the blacklead. 'I couldn't do that. Bad as 'e is, I love 'im. Besides, it's me as 'as to pay for the plate.'

Well, quite.

Throughout High Wages there is fairly strong divide between rich-bad-people and the 'onest-'umble-poor. Mrs. Briggs bridges the divide - in that she's rich, but always harks back to the simpler times before her husband (whose name I forgot, but which I presume is Alfred or Albert; this sort of man is always called one of the two) got rich. I did find that all a little tedious... but that's a small quibble. And is really mentioned as way of bringing up rich-bad-Sylvia, and this amusing description of her:
Sylvia, poor child, hadn't a grain of humour in her composition. Not what he called humour. She didn't like Punch. That was his test. She laughed at hats sometimes, but he couldn't remember that she ever laughed at anything else.

All in all, High Wages is an enjoyable novel, though not one I think Persephone would have reprinted had it been Whipple's only novel. I recommend you start with Someone at a Distance, if you've never read a Whipple novel before - but High Wages doesn't do any damage to the credentials of Persephone's most popular discovery.

Wednesday 14 April 2010


I'm getting lazy in my old age, and always on the look out for friends to write guest posts here - especially when it means getting down my piles of review copies. A while ago I mentioned Grace by Alex Pheby in one of Stuck-in-a-Book Weekend Miscellanies (which never happened at the weekend when I remembered it was my Blog Birthday, sorry!) - well, it sounded like it would suit my housemate Mel, who has written a great review, below... (Oh, and do comment and say whether or not you're intrigued, because I definitely am!)

I'm not really sure how to review a book, so I'm tempted to say: 'it was good' and leave it there. But I think Simon will give me a withering stare.

So.... Grace tells the story of Mr Peterman (his first name has become irrelevant), who has been in a secure psychiatric hospital for a long, long time. He escapes, is badly injured, and is nursed back to health (and sanity?) by the reclusive occupants of a weird, filthy little house in the middle of a forest, full of animals, dirt, and the clothes of dead Nazis. They are 'Granny', an old lady of ninety-nine who is a no-nonsense communist philosopher:

“I see you are shocked,” the old woman smirked, “but I will not apologise for the squalor. I have long since passed the age when I had energy to waste maintaining an illusion of cleanliness, if indeed I ever had it. Even the most pristine home is, in truth, a swarming mire of microscopic filth... The body must acclimatise to this fact, not deny it. Do you agree?”

Peterman clutched his leg defensively.

“I don't know.”

...and her nameless twelve year-old 'granddaughter'.

Being treated like a normal person in their house, away from his medication, Peterman becomes quite sane, recovers his character, and begins to tell them his story in return for theirs. I don't want to ruin the whole thing for you. But the distrustful old woman and the innocent girl come to trust him, believe he is sane, and believe he is innocent, and eventually he starts to agree with their opinion. And most importantly, love comes back into his life.

I love books about crazy people. Let's put that another way: I love books that deal with the issue of whether or not somebody is sane, where you can never quite be sure whether to trust the narrator and what is true and what is imagined. Maybe it's the psychologist in me. Anyway, this is one of those stories, skilfully done.

'Part Two' of the book was my favourite – it's a graphic portrayal of life in the secure hospital, and so well written that you start to doubt Peterman's sanity yourself, even though for the first half of the book you have been totally convinced that he's okay. Everything you've just read is thrown into question. These chapters made me worry that a sane person really could end up trapped in a world that believes they're crazy. Once Peterman is inside and everyone believes he's delusional, there's no getting out by telling the truth...

Or IS it the truth?!

At this point, the book was so good that I almost missed my stop on the train.

So, my only slight reservation about this novel is that I was a bit disappointed by the ending. I'm not going to give it away. Upon reflection, this must have been a pretty difficult novel to end – Pheby was left with a choice between twee and unbelievable, devastatingly tragic, or some ambiguous third way. I won't tell you which he chose. But I'm not sure what else he could have done. Oh, and I was also irritated by not being able to work out which country it's set in. The UK, I think, but there seems to be way too much snow. I probably needed to just let that go... The ending aside, this is still a book that will really stick with you for a while... I am still thinking about it and it paints some vivid pictures you won't forget in a hurry.

It's a bit depressing when someone write a first novel this good. Basically, read it, it'll be a worthwhile use of your time.

Tuesday 13 April 2010

Creatures Great and Small

Thank you so much, everyone, for your lovely and wise comments yesterday. I'm glad quite a few of us are in the same boat, and found all your comments reassuring and generally lovely. Thanks!

In amongst all the blogging chat, I was interested to hear your favourite woodland creatures... mine (and I have given this some thought, you can tell) oscillates between red squirrel, badger, and deer. Today it's the badger - you and me, Bloomsbury Bell, we know where it's at.

If any of you are ever in the North of England, you must pay a visit to Freshfield - we used to go there sometimes as children. It's a forest filled with red squirrels! Not sure how they've managed to keep the grey squirrels away, but it's quite a wonderful place - in my memory anyway. One of the few places I would sit quietly, apparently... these squirrels will come towards you, and eat food from your hand - oh I *need* to go on another visit there. Do you think a 24 year old would be out of place there?

Anyway. I do feel a little sorry for grey squirrels, because everyone now hates them for killing off red squirrels. Hence the sketch today (hope you like).

My housemate Mel is sitting next to me at the mo, and has plumped for the bat as her favourite woodland creature. We look for different things in animals... fluffy cuteness vs. 'mad skillz'.

I realise that today's post has had absolutely nothing to do with books... but after yesterday's intense thinking, we needed a bit of light-heartedness didn't we? If you're *desperate* to be bookish, you can think of book with a squirrel in the title. Good luck... back tomorrow with proper literature and whatnot.

[Edit: I've just remembered something! When I was searching for 'Simon Thomas' in the title-search on the Oxford Library catalogue, the nearest result was 'Simon The Squirrel Who Wouldn't Wash'...!!]

Monday 12 April 2010


I don't usually do these sorts of blog posts, worrying that they'll turn into the stereotype of blogging which I never actually see in book blog circles, but which hover on the horizon of my mind like a cautionary tale (y'know, the 'why does nobody sit next to me on the bus?' type blogs)... but I've seen quite a few posts about blogging recently, like Eva's and Simon S's and I thought maybe you'd indulge me, just one time...

Eva started off her (very lovely and affirming) post by mentioning that quite a few bloggers have decided to stop blogging of late. I hadn't actually noticed this, perhaps because none of my favourite bloggers *have* decided to do this, but I'm sad to hear it. It's a funny old world, this blogosphere, and I certainly went through a stage where I couldn't really think of anything to write, and did it partly out of obligation... but that was a long time ago now, and thankfully I'm enjoying it as much as ever now! I think I'm enjoying it mostly because I've realised there is no pressure for me to make my blog anything other than what I feel like it being. I don't have to review all the latest books, I don't have to accept all the review copies that I'm offered, I don't have to post everyday if I'm too sleepy - and also I can write about funny little books that nobody else will know about, or even want to know about, because *starts singing tunelessly* "it's my blog and I'll cry if I want to!" No, wait, that's the wrong message...

I suppose every blogger has moments of thinking 'why is that blog more popular than mine?' or 'why did I get no comments on that post?' - it's just a side-effect of putting yourself out on a stage of any variety, and waiting to see what people's response is. I happen to think that the people who read this blog are the nicest people in the whole wide world, so I've been very fortunate in that respect - it's only occasional that I try to look at my blog with an objective eye, and wonder... 'is it looking a bit tired?' or 'Am I the only person who hasn't moved to Wordpress?!' I try and change things around every now and then, but let's face it... I'm old!

Yes, my third birthday party seems to be akin to a 80th in terms of blogging. I try to keep up, but my joints just don't work like they used to... just kidding, of course, but I do feel a bit of an old-timer around the blogosphere now. Which is lovely in one way, but rather odd in another. I see all these wonderful blogs start up, make those hesitant first posts, then find their voice, and then get dozens of comments on all their posts and write the most wonderful reviews - aren't I sounding more and more like a great-grandparent every moment?

I'm not even sure where this blog post is heading, and I'm sure it isn't coherent. I suppose I want to say how much I enjoy blogging, how many wonderful people I've met (either in person or virtually), how many wonderful books I've found out about, and how great in general the experience has been. And is continuing to be, don't worry, I'm not stopping! But I also wanted to see if other people find the whole thing a little odd sometimes, and a little self-exposing... bloggers are often shy people, and sometimes it does feel out of character to put oneself 'out there' for anyone to read, and then wait to see who *does* read it...

Someone asked me at the Sceptre event whether I was 'ambitious' for my blog. And my instinctive answer was a definite 'no'. I don't want it to be my whole life, I don't even want it to dictate my whole reading life - I've found my level, my niche, my lovely readership and I'm happy to stay where I am. But someone else there also said that it must be a lonely experience - and it really is the opposite of that. I've met more like-minded people through blogging than I could ever have imagined, and hopefully you're like-minded enough not to mind this sort of splurgy-post... promise it won't happen again! But I would be interested to hear your feedback on any or all of it, if you can make head or tail of what I've been trying to say...

Yes, this shouldn't just be a ramble. I'd love to know:
  • Your experiences with blogging - do you go through peaks and troughs of enthusiasm?
  • Does the stuff I've written strike a chord?
  • Do you secretly wonder why your stats fluctuate, and what's affecting them??
  • More positively - what's your favourite thing about blogging?
  • And... what's your favourite woodland creature ;-)

Take care, folks, and thanks again for making the blogging experience so great - often quite unexpected and surreal, but definitely great.

Sunday 11 April 2010

The Haunted Bridge

First things first, thank you for all your lovely birthday wishes! And now onto another review...

Despite having a card index system of all my books (yes, sorry, I do) I am usually a disorganised person. Just ask my family, who claim to love me, disorganisation and all. Some bloggers have very complex systems with the books they receive for reviewing - shelved in date order, say, or kept in a separate part of the house from their other books. I sort of have a shelf for them, but the shelf was filled about a year ago, and the rest get put wherever I can find some space. And so, of course, I often forget I have them. Ironically, something placed on my 'must read very soon' shelf (only it's not a shelf, it's a bit of my desk next to a CD player and a mug-in-a-jumper of pens) is likely to be overlooked for a long time.

This is all a long run-up to saying that, somehow, it took me ages to read Jane Gordon-Cumming's The Haunted Bridge and Other Strange Tales of the Oxford Canal, despite the fact that it appealed as soon as it dropped through the letterbox. Jane G-C, you may remember, wrote the funtastic [spelling error deliberate on my part, in an attempt to be youthful and hip] A Proper Family Christmas, which I reviewed back here. This time she has turned her attentions to ghost stories...

Now, if your first response to the words 'ghost stories' is - like me - to curl up under a duvet and repeat happy thoughts to yourself over and over again, then fear not. The stories in this collection - well, except 'Landscape of Ghosts', the final one in the book - aren't scary. They're interesting and fun and send a tiny little shiver down your spine, but not in a hide-behind-the-curtains way. This coming from a man who was incapable of watching Scream 2 - and, indeed, the spookier episodes of Doctor Who. So, fear not... and read on, as Mr. Bennet would say.

Each story is nice and short, quick impact, and takes place along the Oxford canal. There is a nice touch (suggested by Colin Dexter, no less) of a map in the front, indicating where each story takes place, and the collection is organised geographically - moving up the river.

My favourite story is 'Flying With The Angels', which takes place at Shipton-on-Cherwell (drove past there today on a return visit to Jane's Teas) which has parallel stories of a Victorian girl and a modern woman travelling along the same track on Christmas Eve in 1874 and 'today' respectively. I wanted to type out a section for you, but I think any chunk would actually spoil the impact, so I shan't...

All in all, this is a fun little book - especially for anybody who knows the canal or Oxford, it would make a great gift or souvenir. And Jane Gordon-Cumming is a natural storyteller who, thankfully, cannot resist a light and humorous touch even when she's writing scary stories. Take note, Stephen King, take note.

(If you want to hunt down a copy, try Amazon or, even better, Jane G-C's website directly...)

Saturday 10 April 2010

Happy Birthday Moi! And other celebrations...

I never remember the exact date I started this blog, but when I checked yesterday I discovered... it's today! Three years old today - that calls for a stock picture of balloons, wouldn't you say?

Agreed. As always on celebratory blog occasions, I want to go all mushy and say thank you to everyone who reads Stuck-in-a-Book, for all the wonderful bloggers making the Blogosphere such a fun and rewarding place to be, and especial thanks to those lovely people who have sent me emails over the years filled with general niceness. Always a highlight for me. Oh, and thank you authors and publishers for keeping me stocked up on books! Thanks all round, basically. Oh, and UK Bloggers - there's still time to join us on the 8th May for a UK Bloggers Meet Up (and to tell your friends to email me about it) - final details will be going out sooooon.

So, 795 posts later (which is actually only 265 a year, by my quick calculation, which means I have a hundred idle days each year) I'm enjoying blogging more than ever, and especially - check out this seamless link - events like yesterday's Sceptre Bloggers Event.

I read enviously of all the bloggers heading off to the Headline event, so was delighted to be invited by one run by Sceptre - where I had the pleasure of seeing Karen/Cornflower and Claire/Paperback Reader again, as well as meeting other bloggers, several authors, and the lovely people who work at Sceptre (who, like the good people of Bloomsbury, made me realise I will never be stylish enough to work in publishing. Or perhaps even to live in London.) They were all very welcoming, friendly, AND gave me a goody bag of books - they know the way to a blogger's heart. Oh, and I share my blog birthday with little Scarlet and Stanley, twin son and daughter of Jocasta, Sceptre's deputy publisher. Happy birthday, S & S, hope it's as sunny in London as it is in Oxford! Cue another (rather sweet) free stock image:

The authors in attendance were Emma Henderson, Natasha Solomons, and Ned Beauman - whose respective books Grace Williams Says It Loud, Mr. Rosenblum's List, and Boxer Beetle are all coming out this year. The only one I've had to read so far is Ned Beauman's Boxer Beetle - completely not my sort of book, and yet I thought it was brilliant. It's not out til August, so I'll write more about it later in the year, and I'm hoping to snare an interview with Ned B before he becomes too rich and famous to appear on a humble blog... I predict big things!

So, more thank yous to the lovely people at Sceptre - and for Claire for rescuing me when I got lost wandering around London. I'm off to enjoy the sunshine...

Friday 9 April 2010

Fun day out...

Sorry for fewer posts than normal this week, will get my act together soon (a Weekend Miscellany sooooon, promise) - and I'll tell you all about my fun day out today... though there are several bloggers who will probably tell you about it first...

Wednesday 7 April 2010


A quick post today, because inspiration is not hitting... on the topic of reading coincidences (with a completely unrelated picture of a pretty building I saw in Paris). I've just started a novel where a woman lives in a hut in the wood. And I've also lent my housemate a different novel where a woman lives in a hut in the wood. It's probably not the most important aspect of either novel, but it comes to the fore because of this coincidence.

Do you find this? Something in a novel will call out, because it also happened in another novel? Small details cross over... I remember reading Late and Soon by EM Delafield quite soon after Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton - both of them feature a woman whose Chinese shawl is repeatedly caught in her chair. I thought perhaps this nuisance plagued the first half of the twentieth century, but I haven't come across it again... More bizarrely, a couple of years ago I read two books close to each other where women killed themselves by deliberately driving their cars into trees. Shan't tell you which ones, as it would rather spoil them...

Has this happened to you? Details please! Or am I alone in these strange criss-crossings and overlappings between books? Surely not...

Monday 5 April 2010


When I reviewed (and reviewed enthusiastically) Immortality by Milan Kundera earlier in the year, I suggested that I wouldn't read another for a while. Much as I admired and liked the novel (if a novel it can be called), I was left a little exhausted, and fancied a five year break before I returned to Kundera...

...but then I discovered that he wrote short books too! And you know how I love a short book. Identity has enormous font and wide margins too... But, before you think me a complete imbecile, this is the jacket blurb which persuaded me:
Sometimes - perhaps only for an instant - we fail to recognise a companion. When this happens to lovers, the effect is acute: for a moment the identity of the loved one ceases to exist, and we come to doubt our own.
Doesn't that sound an intriguing starting point for a novel?

Identity isn't as postmodern as Immortality (those titles are so similar, I'm bound to get them mixed up at some point in this blog post... hopefully we're on the same page so far). While Immortality really seemed to reinvent the novel structure, Kundera sticks more closely to a conventional form with Identity, despite being published eight years later (1998, compared to Immortality's 1990). There is the odd dabble in unusual images and abstract thought (cue quotation...)

Friendship is indispensable to man for the proper function of his memory. Remembering our past, carrying it with us always, may be the necessary requirement for maintaining, as they say, the wholeness of the self. To ensure that the self doesn't shrink, to see that it holds on to its volume, memories have to be watered like potted flowers, and the watering calls for regular contact with the witnesses of the past, that is to say, friends.

...but, in amongst Kundera's very individual - and to my mind, very good - writing style, there is a surprisingly traditional romance. But very nuanced, and very subtle.

He reflected that she was his sole emotional link to the world. People talk to him about prisoners, about the persecuted, about the hungry? He knows the only was he feels personally, painfully touched by their misfortune: he imagines Chantal in their place. People tell him about women raped in some civil war? He sees Chantal there, raped. She and she alone releases him from his apathy. Only through her can he feel compassion.

I think that's quite a brilliant way to describe the closeness of a relationship, romantic or otherwise. Chantal and Jean-Marc are the couple in question - and it is Chantal whom Jean-Marc fails to recognise (or, rather, he thinks somebody else is her, until he gets closer to them). She, in turn, thinks that men have stopped finding her attractive - which shakes the identity she has formed for herself. And so it is with a mixture of pleasure and displeasure that she receives a letter saying that someone is watching her. These letters grow more complimentary, and instead of throwing them away, she keeps the letters in her underwear drawer - and starts trying to work out who is sending them.

Such is the plot - but Kundera weaves far more around this simple premise. All sorts of interesting musings about a myriad of topics, and (like Immortality) exceptional insight into the interaction of people, with all the subtlety and complexity of real emotions. How he does it is beyond me...

And then the narrative does get a bit more postmodern, dabbling between fantasy and reality without telling you quite where the line is. It feels just a little bit thrown in, and I'd have liked it to be a bit more developed, but it's also an interesting touch... and obviously done because Kundera can't help himself, rather than for any big effect.

Second Kundera, and I'm still very impressed - I still admire him more than I love him (and isn't there sometimes a big difference!) but that isn't to say reading him is a struggle, because it isn't. Just - as, indeed, I finished my last Kundera review - not one to curl up with in front of the fire. And no, that delightfully bizarre cover never makes sense.