Monday 31 May 2010


I'm so pleased with the responses you've given so far for the picture challenge - do keep them coming in.

I'm feeling too heavy-in-the-mind for a book review today (trying to make Big Decisions, and failing to get anywhere with them) but I thought I'd have a go at a meme I saw over on Harriet Devine's blog - do have a go yourself if you'd like.

What is your favourite drink while reading?

A nice cup of tea. Earl Grey tea if it's the evening.

Do you tend to mark your books while you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you?

It does rather horrify me... I make tiny pencil marks on the back of the title page, to denote pages I want to cite in a review. Biros aren't allowed anywhere NEAR my books. Although, ironically, I do quite like it when other people have written in books before I buy them.

How do you keep your place? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book open flat?

I use a selection of art postcards as bookmarks, trying to match up the painting to the feel of the book... or the colour of the book, if I'm feeling superficial.

Fiction, non-fiction or both?

Usually fiction, but my favourite reads of the last few years have all been non-fiction... but I still read about 80% fiction, I'd estimate.

Do you tend to read to the end of a chapter or can you stop anywhere?

I stop anywhere, sometimes mid-sentence if I'm suddenly sleepy!

Are you the type of person to throw a book across the room or on the floor if the author irritates you?

Only metaphorically... I don't remember actually ever doing it.

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away?

Sometimes, especially if I've seen a word I don't recognise a few times in the same week. And almost invariably I immediately forget what the word means. I think my brain has reached saturation point...

What are you currently reading?

Let's see... The Sandcastle by Iris Murdoch, More Talk of Jane Austen by G.B. Stern and Sheila Kaye-Smith, The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan... actually, I think that's it. Very unusual - I'm usually reading at least six or seven.

What is the last book you bought?

That would be An Experiment with Time by J.W. Dunne.

Do you have a favourite time/place to read?

Any place, any time! Not that much in bed anymore, but quite often on my bed. Actually most of my reading probably takes place on public transport.

Do you prefer series books or stand-alones?

Stand-alones, definitely. I do get a bit snobby over series... though I don't really know why.

Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over?

Hahaha, more or less anybody who has ever met, seen, or heard of me will have had Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker recommended to them at some point.

How do you organise your books (by genre, title, author's last name, etc.)?

In Somerset, they're arranged by author; in Oxford... well, they're grouped vaguely by things I think are similar in mood. It wouldn't make sense to anyone else, but it works for me... but I have to keep the ones in Somerset in some sort of rational order, because I expect Mum and Dad to be able to find things I want them to post to me!

Barbara's additional question: background noise or silence?

Hmm... I like music playing in the background when I read, but not chatter or television. Somewhere between the two.

Sunday 30 May 2010

Tea and...

This picture more or less sums up my afternoon!

And, thinking about it, it's not far off summing up my taste in novels. That's not quite true, let me rephrase - it sums up part of my taste of novels, because it comes in two very distinct categories. I like the quirky and surreal, and also the domestic and unthreatening. I especially love it when these coalesce in Barbara Comyns... more on her later in the week, of course. But this photo - well, its atmosphere, and the way it makes me feel : that's what I'm often after in books.

So, this is my challenge to those of you who have blogs: can you post a picture which sums up your reading taste, or a section of it? I'm looking for a picture which doesn't include a book in it, or a character from an adaptation, or anything like that. It can be a photograph you've taken, or a painting you've seen, or anything... have fun with it!

I'd love anyone and everyone to have a go, but I'm going to 'tag' a few people to start the ball rolling...

  1. Becca (Oxford Reader) - whose camera took that very photo!
  2. Claire (The Captive Reader)
  3. Claire (Paperback Reader)
  4. Claire (Kiss A Cloud)
  5. Karen (Cornflower)
  6. Nicola (Vintage Reads)
  7. Polly (Novel Insights)
  8. Rachel (Book Snob)
  9. Simon (Savidge Reads)
  10. Thomas (My Porch)

Friday 28 May 2010

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Happy Weekend, everyone - and, for those in the UK, it's a Bank Holiday Weekend. Which makes little odds to me (especially since I'm at work tomorrow) but will give you lots of time to read Barbara Comyns' The Vet's Daughter - for those who are joining in a group readalong, informally organised by me and Polly (aka Novel Insights) and Claire (Paperback Reader). I finished the book today, and thought it was brilliant - feel free to post a review anytime next week (pop a link in the comments, and I'll organise them together). If you don't have a blog but have read the book, I'd be more than happy to post your thoughts here.

1.) The link - is to 50 Iconic Book Covers, as chosen by abebooks... not perhaps all ones I'd have chosen, but it's nice to see them as actual books, rather than just pristine pictures of their covers, don't you think?

2.) The book - was mentioned by a few people on an email book discussion list I'm on; the new one by Bill Bryson called At Home : A Short History of Private Life. I've only read a couple of his books (Mother Tongue and Shakespeare) but I loved them both. Bryson is able to relay all manner of fascinating facts without ever sounding dry, and his sense of humour is a delight. To give you an idea about the sort of thing Bryson's doing, I'll quote the Author's section from Amazon:
Early in the course of my research for my new book I learned that houses are amazingly complex repositories. What I found, to my great surprise, is that whatever happens in the world - whatever is discovered or created or bitterly fought over - eventually ends up, in one way or another, in your house.

Wars, famines, the Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment - they are all there in your sofas and chests of drawers, tucked in to the folds of your curtains, in the downy softness of your pillows, in the paint on your walls and the water in your pipes.

Houses aren't refuges from history, as I hope you are about to discover in At Home. They are where history ends up.
So there you are - irresistible to me, I think I might have to wait til the library gets it. Or perhaps it'll come in at no.11 in Project 24? Tempting...

3.) The blog post - is from Claire at kissacloud, and is here. It's about Illustrado by Miguel Syjuco, a Filipino author of whom I hadn't heard, but am now very eager to read. But it also opens up a wider question, specifically for those who have emigrated - do you try and stay in touch with your birth-nation (if such an expression exists!) through literature? As someone who was born and bred in England, I can't answer the question - but on a regionalist note, I do get excited if a book mentions Worcestershire, since nobody seems ever to do so...

Wednesday 26 May 2010

Comment issues...

... Clare has alerted me to some problems she's having with comments - i.e. the word verification thingummy doesn't show up. If you're also having problems, let me know on simondavidthomas[at]!

The Man Who Planted Trees

As part of Project 24, I've been browsing through bookshops and then high-tailing it to the library. This won't help Waterstones stay afloat, but it'll stop be exceeding my book allowance... Anyway, today I was looking at the table of Books in Translation and was rather intrigued by The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono. Oxford Central Library didn't have it, but the Bodleian did, so I read it today... (and incidentally, although Giono was French, as far as I can tell the story was originally published in English.)

It's more or less a short story - the copy I read had 50 pages, but the font was large and their are lots of woodcuts by Michael McCurdy. In fact, it's these woodcuts which make the book really special - the edition I saw in Waterstones had a different illustrator, who was quite good, but make sure you find the edition with McCurdy's work if you're tracking down a copy.

But I'm getting ahead of myself - The Man Who Planted Trees was originally written when Giono was asked to contribute to the Reader's Digest on 'a memorable person', or something like that. His contribution was, however, rejected - when they found out what he had never tried to conceal: that it was fictional. And instead it was published in Vogue in 1953. Don't stop reading there - Virginia Woolf contributed to Vogue back in the day, so it can be a credible publication.

The Man Who Planted Trees tells of a narrator who hikes to a place of 'unparalleled desolation' - a village where the few inhabitants quietly loathe one another, and where nature has more or less given up. But he encounters Elzèard Bouffier, a shepherd who rarely speaks, but is kind and offers him somewhere to stay.
The shepherd went to fetch a small sack and poured out a heap of acorns on the table. He began to inspect them, one by one, with great concentration, separating the good from the bad. I smoked my pipe. I did offer to help him. He told me that it was his job. And, in fact, seeing the care he devoted to the task, I did not insist. That was the whole of our conversation. When he had set aside a large enough pile of acorns, he counted them out by tens, meanwhile eliminating the small ones or those which were slightly cracked, for now he examined them more closely. When he had thus selected one hundred perfect acorns he stopped and we went to bed.
Elzéard, as the title to the book suggests, is planting trees. Thousands and thousands of them. At this stage, he estimates that of the hundred thousand acorns he has planted, ten thousand will grow successfully. And he carries on and carries on, with many varieties of tree - quietly transforming the area.

The narrator fights in World War One (off the page) and returns to find Elzéard's life unaffected by such matters - the trees abound, and the countryside is being changed in more ways than one. Streams which had been dry flow once more; people move to the village and it becomes vibrant again. The narrator leaves and returns a couple of times, and is astonished by what the unassuming shepherd has achieved.

The Man Who Planted Trees is a beautiful book, both visually and in every other way. McCurdy's woodcuts have such energy and really enhance Giono's simple and elegant story. It is described as an allegory - I'm not entirely sure what the allegory is, other than of creation, but that doesn't diminish it being a delicately-told and affecting story. Giono doesn't pluck at the heartstrings or delve into the characters' psychology - instead he lays before us the simplicity of their acts, and allows the reader to engage and respond. And he has entirely succeeded in creating his original brief: a memorable character.

Do pop over and read Karen's lovely review of this book... and you can read the beginning of it, including some more McCurdy images, courtesy of Google Books here.

Books to get Stuck into:

The Runaway - Elizabeth Anna Hart
: this is a similarly enchanting story, with beautiful woodcuts by Gwen Raverat. One of my favourite Persephones, it is more whimsical than Giono's story, but equally engaging.

Tuesday 25 May 2010

The Play's The Thing

On Sunday it was Love Oxford - an annual event where many of the churches from across the city gather together for one massive service in South Parks. It's always brilliant, and this year was no exception - although for the first time I'd volunteered to steward. Just the sort of weather you want to be adding layers, in the form of a fluorescent yellow jacket. And a mic-headset thingummy, which I never quite understood.

Anyway, once the service we over we all sat in the sun (or, in my case, the shade) for a picnic - and because I'd brought a book (Three Plays by A.A. Milne) and my housemates hadn't, we decided to do a play reading for ourselves! Well, Mel and Lois and I did; our other housemate Liz moved far away from us and pretended she didn't know us.

I don't know if you ever read plays, either out loud or in the normal way, but I think it's one of the great neglected areas of fiction. It's very unlikely that anybody is going to put these plays back on the stage, and so it's great fun to read them. With an author like A.A. Milne, as well, there are added advantages to reading instead of watching - his stage directions are often very funny, and purely for the benefit of the reader. Since Milne was one of my first author-obsessions, I got very used to reading plays (he wrote a lot, and was famous for them long before Mr. Winnie-the-Pooh came along) but I know a lot of people would never even consider it.

The play we read was one of Milne's most popular, and P.G. Wodehouse said it was his favourite play (even when saying he'd like Milne to trip over and break his neck... they had a bit of a public falling-out after the Berlin Broadcasts) - it's called The Dover Road. Leonard and Anne are running away to France together; Leonard abandoning his wife Eustacia in the process. Their car breaks down, and they are forced to come to 'a sort of hotel', run by Latimer. It quickly emerges that Latimer intends to keep them prisoner there for a week, in order that they can think things through before acting impetuously - and see each other in a new light. Little known to them, another couple have already been there for a week... Eustacia and her runaway partner Nicholas.

Yes, the scenario is a little contrived, but who cares about that - The Dover Road is a very funny play about the benign meddling of Latimer and the various mismatched pairings under his roof. For just a taste, here's Anne complaining about Leonard's failure to get her safely to France (the ellipses are all in the original) :
What made you ever think that you could take anybody to the South of France? Without any practice at all? . . . Now, if you had been taking an aunt to Hammersmith - well, you might have lost a bus or two . . . and your hat might have blown off . . . and you would probably have found yourselves at Hampstead the first two or three times . . . and your aunt would have stood up the whole way . . . but still you might have got there eventually. I mean, it would be worth trying - if your aunt was very anxious to get to Hammersmith. But the South of France! My dear Leonard! it's so audacious of you.
I can't find The Dover Road online, although quite a few of A.A. Milne's plays can be read here. Otherwise, next time you're in a secondhand bookshop, go and have a look in the Plays section - there's quite often a volume of AAM's work there.

And, to go back to the first question - do you read plays? And if not, is it because you have tried and failed to enjoy it, or just never thought about it? Answers on a postcard... or, if you prefer, in the comments box...(!)

Monday 24 May 2010

Project 24 continues apace...

Project 24 - #10

Susan unintentionally piled hot coals on my head in the comments earlier this week, congratulating me on being on track for Project 24. Little did she know that #10 was on it's way to me... and has now arrived. That does only take me up to the end of May, so I'm more or less on track, but...

Ok, no.10 - An Experiment With Time by J.W. Dunne. This is actually one for my studies, but I've been meaning to track down a copy for a while. I don't how many of you have heard of it, but it was apparently quite famous in its day. It's mentioned somewhere in Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker, can't find the quotation right now, and gets this mention in The Provincial Lady in Wartime by the incomparable E.M. Delafield:
Am rather astonished and greatly impressed when she calmly returns that she often thinks about Time herself, and has read through the whole of J. W. Dunne’s book.

Did she understand it?

Well, the first two and a half pages she understood perfectly. The whole thing seemed to her so simple that she was unable to suppose that even a baby would understand it. Then, all of a sudden, she found she wasn’t understanding it any more. Complete impossibility of knowing at what page, paragraph, or even sentence, this inability first overtook her. It just was like that. At one minute she was understanding it all perfectly – at the next, all was incomprehensible.

Can only inform her that my own experiences with J. W. D. have been identical, except that I think I only understood the first two, not two and a half pages.

Well, that is quite daunting... but it should be quite an interesting read nonetheless! Anybody read it? Or the first two pages?!

Sunday 23 May 2010

David Mitchell

You know by now, I'm sure, how keen I am to coerce my friends and family into writing reviews to appear on my blog. Well, Sceptre kindly gave me a copy of David Mitchell's latest novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. My aversion to long books, coupled with quite a graphic opening chapter, led me to seek outside assistance... step forward Clare. A David Mitchell fan AND an ex-employee of the Bodleian, there could be no better person for the task. And of course, her rather fab review has put me to shame. As always when I've got someone guesting here, I'd love you to make them feel very welcome... over to you, Clare!

I very nearly never read David Mitchell at all. If it had not been that I received a free (damaged) copy of his 2004 novel Cloud Atlas from the Waterstone’s branch in which I worked as a teenager, chances are I would never have paid him much attention. My reading tastes are mostly confined to novels published before the middle of the last century, and, I suppose, could be described as rather parochial in scope. So quite why I count as one of my all-time favourite writers a man whose novels are so absolutely unlike anything I would ever usually read is really rather beyond me.

His novels are, in fact, not at all my kind of thing. Spanning countries, eras, characters, voices, tenses and, sometimes, even dimensions of reality within a single volume, they are anything but parochial. Cloud Atlas, for example, my first Mitchell experience (and what an initiation!) has been described by the Guardian’s William Skidelsky as ‘a giant Russian doll of a novel’. Containing in its pages six vastly differing yet somehow interlinked narratives (from a boat in the Pacific Ocean in the mid-nineteenth century, to a holographic narration of an executed clone in futuristic, dystopian Korea, to letters from a penniless British composer in Belgium to his gay lover…and that is only the half of it), it leapfrogs from historical fiction to science fiction, from magic realism to something even more post than postmodern. Such towering ambition and chameleonic literariness should be intimidating, or at least, should simply not work. And yet this unassuming 41-year old from Worcestershire manages to not only get away with it, but also to create worlds, voices and characters that thrill, move and enrapture. His first three novels, Ghostwritten (1999), Number9dream (2001) and Cloud Atlas (2004), all share these ‘Russian doll’ tendencies, from which Mitchell moved away with 2006’s Black Swan Green, a more linear, autobiographical ‘coming of age’ novel.

Thus it was with some degree of interest that I approached his latest offering, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, published this month. It, too, marks a departure from his first three novels, but it is no less staggering in ambition and scope. Opening in the year 1799, the novel is set in Edo-era Japan; more specifically, the artificial island of Dejima in the bay of Nagasaki, at that point a trading post with the Dutch East India Company. The trade with the Dutch is the only contact Japan, a country where traditions and culture are strictly guarded and Christianity banned, has with the outside world. In this restrictive atmosphere we find Jacob de Zoet, an earnestly Christian and conscientious Dutch bookkeeper whose task it is to attempt to clear up the corrupt practices of the Company’s former officials. However, the more the ‘corrective’ work continues, the more corruption continues to breed both within the Dutch Company and the Japanese officials, until Jacob finds himself inextricably and dangerously entangled with Dejima’s fate, as the Napoleonic Wars gain momentum throughout Europe and the British attempt to capture Dejima for their own uses. However, as we would expect from Mitchell, this expertly researched narrative is only one thread within the novel. Throughout the book there runs the undercurrent of Jacob’s forbidden love for the disfigured Japanese midwife, Orito Aibagawa, whose kidnapping by a demonic ‘religious’ order dealing in sexual slavery, infanticide and cannibalism is one of the more bizarre but thrilling parts of the book. Finally, Jacob climbs in station as political events unfold, and there is a sense of an epic of Tolstoyan magnitude, a personal story set against a huge backdrop of events.
Mitchell utilises Dejima expertly as a symbol of threatened insularity, and the tensions between the ever-encroaching European world are a recurring theme throughout the novel, whether it be the forbidden family Bible which Jacob carries with him, or the access to European medical knowledge which enables Orito to save lives, or the recurring problems (and political dangers) of translation and interpretation between the Japanese and Dutch languages. The story is intricate, and peopled with characters as vivid, extreme and expertly realised as those in Dickens, yet Mitchell’s greatest skills are his ability to tell and manipulate a story, to grasp a reader’s attention, and to draw one fully into whichever and whatever world he is creating.
He may be one of the few young modern writers who has had a two-day conference dedicated to his work, but David Mitchell’s main talent is the reality of his writing rather than the hyperreality of his plots. His descriptions cover frequently the gritty, grimy, physically degraded elements of human existence (the opening chapter is certainly not for the faint-hearted), but also ascends to painting moments of exquisite beauty. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is possibly not the best way to begin reading Mitchell (for that, I would recommend my own ‘way in’, Cloud Atlas), but for his existing followers it marks an exciting and mature move. I simply cannot wait to see what the man will do next.

I will leave you, I think, with a fragment of one of my favourite passages from The Thousand Autumns; a rather Under Milk Wood-esque description of Dejima and its inhabitants towards the close of the novel, which begins with describing gulls wheeling above the port and accelerates into dizzying rhyme:
tongue-tied witnesses; purchased judges; mothers-in-law nurturing briars and grudges; apothecaries grinding powders with mortars; palanquins carrying not-yet-wed daughters; silent nuns; nine-year old whores; the once-were beautiful gnawed by sores…where a puddle from last night’s rain is evaporating; a puddle in which Magistrate Shiroyama observes the blurred reflections of gulls wheeling through spokes of sunlight. This world, he thinks, contains just one masterpiece, and that is itself.
Arguably, with his fifth book, Mitchell has created both a world and a masterpiece. I am very, very glad that David Mitchell is not at all my kind of thing. I hope he may not be yours either.

Friday 21 May 2010

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Well, I had my viva and I don't really know how it went... some positives, quite a few negatives - I suppose I'll find out a fortnight on Monday, and will keep you posted! But there's nothing I can do about it now... so let's think about the book, the blog post, & the link instead...

1.) The blog post - is, once again, an entire blog. Hey, I made the rules and I can break them if I want to (!) The blog in question is one I stumbled upon by accident when trying to find out when the French market is next coming to Gloucester Green. I didn't manage to find out that information (answers on a postcard, please) but I did find Oxford Daily Photo. It does what it says on the tin - for the last three or four years they've been posting daily photographs of Oxford and Oxfordshire, the latest being this rather lovely shot:

2.) The link - was emailed to me by Lauréne on behalf of the PR firm representing Munch Bunch. Don't worry, I'm not being paid to advertise them or anything - but I did want to share this link which is to a storytelling-for-children competition they're running. I.e. it's for adults who write children's stories, and will give them a chance to be published online or via podcast. All a bit of fun, and any company keen to promote reading to children gets a sticker on their sticker chart from me.

3.) The book - was sent to me by my lovely friend Epsie. Well, she's known as either Esther or Phoebe, so I just combined the two. In turn, she knows me as Bill - because of the beautiful name of my birthplace: Billinge. Sounds a bit like a disease, but I'm sure it's lovely - even if they have now knocked down the hospital where we were born. Typical. (Not sure of what)

The book, which she correctly assumed would be up my street, is called Joy Street: A Wartime Romance in Letters by Mirren Barford and Lieutenant John Lewes. I like to have a book of letters on the go, and this collection (discovered after Mirren's death by her son, and edited by him) seems touching as well as historically interesting. Joy Street was published back in 1995, so I'm going to assume that at least *one* of you has read it...?

Thursday 20 May 2010

On not liking characters...

Using Blogger's handy scheduled-posts function, I'm actually writing this last Saturday... but by the time you read this, I'll be fretting over my viva. I've handed in the first section of my DPhil, and an outline of the whole thing, and at noon on Friday I have to go and justify it to someone. I'm pretty dreadful at this sort of thing, so wish me luck... I won't find out the result for another two or three weeks, but at least this bit will be over.

So I'm just going to have a discussion point for today... I wrote about Jude the Obscure 'yesterday' (actually, last Saturday... or about ten minutes ago, for me) and it struck me during our book group discussion that I didn't like any of the characters in it - but I still liked the novel. There was some empathy for some of the characters, especially Mr. Phillotson (who somehow didn't even get mentioned yesterday, but he's, er, the fourth member of Abba, if you understand what I mean) but none of them were especially likeable.

I'm a firm believer that it's possible to like, even love, a novel without liking the character. Does anybody like Emma, Lizzie, Marianne, Elinor, Anne, Catherine, and Fanny? (As you can see, they're fighting it out in today's sketch.) Yet plenty of people love all Austen's novels. For the record, Anne is my black spot there... The fatal flaw is a unlikeable character whom the author wants you to like - but I didn't get that feeling with Hardy.

So... unlikeable characters; likeable novel. Is it possible - and, if so, examples please! And maybe let me know which Austen heroine rubs you up the wrong way, too...

Wednesday 19 May 2010

In which we learn that Our Vicar is usually right...

Please note... I accidentally scheduled two posts to come out in the space of half a day... don't miss my thoughts on Matty and the Dearingroydes by Richmal Crompton, if you fancy some indulgent middlebrow reading!

Most of the books I write about on Stuck-in-a-Book are either new(ish) novels, or older ones which are a little more obscure. In those cases it's fine to assume that the blog reader starts off not knowing a huge amount about the book in question, and it's also fine for me to lay down my opinion - for better or worse. That's not quite the same with Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. In fact, even writing 'by Thomas Hardy' makes me feel a little patronising, because of course you all know that it's by Thomas Hardy. You also probably know a lot about it, even if you haven't read it - and it can be taken for granted that the novel is well written, can't it? So where to go from here...

We can have a lesson in how Our Vicar is usually right. He's off in Cornwall at the moment, on holiday with Our Vicar's Wife and a couple who are friends of the family (and saved Colin's life once or twice, incidentally!) so he won't see this for a while, but... he's been recommending Thomas Hardy to me most of my life. The same story happened with Oxford by Jan Morris, which he gave me (or possibly lent me, I should find out...) when I went to university, and which I finally read last year. It's great, by the way. And, although I did read Tess of the D'Ubervilles back in 2003 or thereabouts, and started The Mayor of Casterbridge once upon a time, I had never really turned my attention Hardywards.

But it really is a rather brilliant novel. And, despite my misgivings, very readable as well. I always think of the Victorians as wordy and difficult, but I more or less raced through Jude the Obscure. I suppose, with a publication date of 1895, it is on the edge of the Victorian period - but still. My misconceptions were put right.

For those who have been happily oblivious to the work of Dorset's finest, Jude the Obscure is about a country lad with big ambitions. Those ambitions centre around getting to Christminster University - i.e. Oxford under a thin disguise. It's all getting a little Oxford-centric, following on from Trapido's novel the other day, but my favourite section of the novel was this first part. Especially poignant is the scene where Jude looks out over the misty fields to Christminster, with all his aspirations and hopes intact. I'm not usually affected by visual description, but Hardy really knows his onions. Cue long and rather beautiful extract:
In the course of ten or fifteen minutes the thinning mist dissolved altogether from the northern horizon, as it had already done elsewhere, and about a quarter of an hour before the time of sunset the westward clouds parted, the sun's position being partially uncovered, and the beams streaming out in visible lines between two bars of slaty cloud. The boy immediately looked back in the old direction.

Some way within the limits of the stretch of landscape, points of light like the topaz gleamed. The air increased in transparency with the lapse of minutes, till the topaz points showed themselves to be the vanes, windows, wet roof slates, and other shining spots upon the spires, domes, freestone-work, and varied outlines that were faintly revealed. It was Christminster, unquestionably; either directly seen, or miraged in the peculiar atmosphere.

The spectator gazed on and on till the windows and vanes lost their shine, going out almost suddenly like extinguished candles. The vague city became veiled in mist. Turning to the west, he saw that the sun had disappeared. The foreground of the scene had grown funereally dark, and near objects put on the hues and shapes of chimaeras.
Isn't that some spectacular writing? But, as I hinted, his ambitions don't stay long intact. Hardy's reputation for being all a bit tragic isn't misplaced. This is, after all, a novel including characters who say: "All is trouble, adversity and suffering!" and "Cruelty is the law pervading all nature and society; and we can't get out of it if we would!" Warms the cockles, doesn't it? And of course things start to go wrong for Jude - not least owing to the women in his life, Arabella and Sue. The back-and-forth qualities of the relationships in the novel led to one inspired comment by a member of my book group, that it was all a bit like Abba.

But I don't find Hardy gratuitously gloomy. Jude the Obscure is definitely driven by more than tragedy - I think Sue and Jude are incredibly complex characters, especially Sue. She is spontaneous, but often regrets it or changes her mind afterwards; selfish but caring; passionate but fickle; headstrong but self-doubting - so many believable contradictions go into the make-up of her character.

For those who have been hesitant about approaching Hardy, I really encourage you to give Jude the Obscure a read. Although it will never be a bedtime story or beloved companion, it's one of the most impressive, complex, and well-written novels I've read for a while.

Books to get Stuck into:

I can't think of anything like
Jude the Obscure, so instead I'll recommend some of my favourite Victorian novels. I haven't actually reviewed any on here, because I read them six or seven years ago, but...

Agnes Grey - Anne Brontë
: by the most neglected Brontë sister, and my personal favourite. This doesn't have the power of Wuthering Heights, but it's infinitely more likeable - and, in its neat structure, practically the perfect novel.

Cranford - Elizabeth Gaskell
: We all loved the TV series, and Gaskell's novel is a delight. A bit disjointed, because the first few chapters were initially supposed to be the whole thing, but we can forgive her that when she gives us such wonderful characters and amusing incidents.

Our Mutual Friend - Charles Dickens
: don't be scared of Dickens. This rambling novel has dozens of characters, but they're all brilliantly drawn, and I always find Dickens absolutely hilarious.

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Matty and the Dearingroydes - Richmal Crompton

I spent most of my childhood reading Enid Blyton (before I moved onto Goosebumps and Point Horror... eugh, don't remind me) and thus missed out on quite a lot of classic children's literature. But one series I did include alongside a diet of all things Blyton is the William series by Richmal Crompton. I'm sure everyone knows about the escapades of this eternal eleven-year-old, but if not - hie thee to a library. Anarchic without being too anarchic, and always well-meaning, William Brown is one of the great creations of children's - indeed, any - literature.

It was about eight years ago that I started reading Richmal Crompton's novels for adults, and I was hooked. (This all fits in nicely with Polly's post that I highlighted at the weekend.) There are over thirty, and plenty of
them are very scarce, so it gave me a treasure hunt with wonderful rewards. Frost at Morning is one of my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About, over in the right-hand column, but there are plenty of other wonderful books by this neglected novelist. They are a bit patchy, and the quality is variable, but at her best Crompton is infectious and very comforting.

I've recently re-read one of my favourite Crompton novels, Matty and the Dearingroydes. The title is a bit of a mouthful, but it does what it says on the tin. Matty Dearingroyde makes her living buying clothes door-to-door, and selling them in a secondhand shop. Her method of going door-to-door is a little unusual:

"We'll go down this street and we'll go into the first house with blue curtains."... "We'll go into the first house we come to with a bird-cage in the window."... "I'm going to say the beginning of Paradise Lost to myself and we'll go into the house we've got to when I've reached 'And justify the ways of God to men'."
You begin to sense the sort of character Matty is: irrepressible, a little eccentric, and exactly the sort I always love. Anyway, she knocks at a door and gives her card... and by coincidence she has stumbled upon her extended family.

The rest of the Dearingroydes are well-to-do, and Matty is something of poor relation crossed with a family secret. Some misplaced family loyalty, and some inherited guilty, prompt supercilious Matthew Dearingroyde to 'welcome' Matty into the family circle. But it would be too burdensome for her to live solely with his family, and instead she is to spend a section of the year in various different households.

The plot and its many characters would be too much to summarise here, because Crompton always wields huge casts in fairly short novels, but it's all well drawn. There are parents using their daughter to battle with each other; aging members of respectable families forced to live in a hotel; a shop-owner who pours a little too much alcohol into her cups of tea; a pair of teachers in a silent power struggle - a whole canvas of characters.

Crompton does often use the same sorts of characters across her novels (the pair of friends, one sucking the other dry of energy, crops up a lot and is always affecting) but they're so involving that I can forgive her. In Matty and the Dearingroydes, because Matty is peripatetic, characters do tend to be left and forgotten once Matty has moved onto the next house - but so, I suppose, they would be. As long as exhuberant Matty is always in the foreground, then that's fine.

Crompton will never be a prose stylist of genius, or even of a very high standing. Her writing certainly isn't bad - it will never make you squirm - but it is mostly just functional. It gets the job done, without being in itself memorable. But Crompton's novels are, and they are definitely comfort reads. I have a stock of ones I've yet to read, and I love knowing they're there waiting for me. Matty and the Dearingroydes is quite tricky to track down, although Oxford country library has it and probably others do too, but you can pick up one of many Richmal Cromptons and be equally diverted. As I said, they are variable, but ones I've loved include Family Roundabout (published by Persephone; currently reprinting), Frost at Morning, Mrs. Frensham Describes a Circle, Narcissa, Millicent Dorrington, Four in Exile, There Are Four Seasons, Linden Rise, Westover, The Ridleys...

Books to get Stuck into:

So many suggestions I could make for this sort of book, but looking back through my past posts, I'm going to plump for...

Miss Mole - E.H. Young: similarly irrepressible older woman encountering a staid and jaded family...

Miss Hargreaves - Frank Baker: always popular here, can't blame a boy for trying - if you haven't read this novel yet, and the idea of an eccentric lady appeals, then you can do no better than this novel which is hilarious, moving, and even sinister, in turns.

Monday 17 May 2010

Brother of the More Famous Jack

Back in the mists of time, Bloomsbury very kindly sent me a set of Barbara Trapido's novels - which featured in a Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany back here - but somehow I've only just got around to reading the first: Brother of the More Famous Jack (1982). I'm afraid the title remained a mystery to me to the end - they do mention that it is in reference to W.B. Yeats, but I'd never heard of Jack Yeats (is that the point?) and I couldn't see why the title had been chosen... anybody able to enlighten me, do pop your answer in the comments, please.

But that's by-the-by, really, because I was very impressed by Brother of the More Famous Jack. It is, although I hate the expression and usually hate the genre, a coming-of-age novel. That phrase always makes me shudder and think of ghastly books like The Catcher in the Rye (which we didn't much like as a whole, remember?) but Trapido's novel is much better than that. We s
ee Katherine start off as an ingenuous eighteen year old, thrown into the maelstrom of the Goldman household. And since the novel is in the first person, we feel thrown into it as well. Eccentric, forthright Professor Jacob - a 'creative and inspired grumbler' - his kind but sharp wife Jane, and their six children (especially Roger and Jonathan, competing at various points throughout the novel for her affection) provide a world of which Katherine has no experience. They are in turns enchanting, frustrating, and bewildering - for the reader as much as Katherine. Katherine herself it is difficult not to like, if only for this: 'I reverted, as I do in moments of crisis, to rereading Emma, with cotton wool in my ears.' A sound course of action for anyone, I think you'll agree. At the same time, Katherine is not a wholly endearing character - more an empathetic one. Watching her grow wiser, we understand rather than adore Katherine.

And aside from the characters, Oxford is often a star of the novel. Although a country bumpkin like me is captured more by the descriptions of the Go
ldmans' rural estate, I must admit to being won over by this depiction of Oxford, as experienced by Roger Goldman:
Oxford was a place of magical cobbled lanes which led to the sweet-shop. It was a place where tea came with strawberries before the peal of bells for Evensong, where Grandmother, in a Pringle sweater and thick stockings, took one to watch punters from the bridge over the High Street, and where one went through doors into secret gardens with high stone walls. He never came to see it as a place afflicted with too much trad and old stones. He was not, as I was, embarrassed by the idea of privilege. He described to me with an almost hol joy the journey he would make from the railway station, past the litter and grot beside the slime-green canal, past the jail and on into St. Ebbes towards the ample splendour of Christ Church.
The middle section of the novel, where Katherine heads off to Rome and a volatile relationship with a jealous Italian, is less successful and at times a little wearing. Trapido is much more successful when back amongst the Goldmans - my only quibble about them is that all their names begin with J. With Jane, Jacob, Jonathan, John and all the various appellations therefrom, it did get a bit confusing... I suppose it was deliberate, and with 'Jack' from the title being conspicuously absent... I don't know. Another potentially interesting angle about which I require enlightening.

Like many of the novels I enjoy, Brother of the More Famous Jack is more about character and style than it is about plot - which makes it difficult to describe or recommend successfully. So I suggest you just pick up a copy and give it a go. It's not my favourite novel this year and it isn't cosily enchanting or anything like that, but I might just be inclined to agree with the blurb which claims that, with this novel, Trapido redefined the coming-of-age novel.

Books to get Stuck into:

Dodie Smith - I Capture the Castle: I've never actually blogged about it, but this is THE quintessential coming-of-age novel - and the only one before Trapido's that I'd ever enjoyed. Funny, wise, and I'm even prepared to use the word 'enchanting'.

Angelica Garnett - The Unspoken Truth: fiction, but heavily influenced by her own life, these four stories evoke the same ingenuousness amongst wry bohemia.

Sunday 16 May 2010


Let's start the week as we mean to go on - with a review of a rather good book. The book in question is Secret Lives (1932) by Mr. E.F. Benson. Thanks to Nancy for bringing this to my attention absolutely AGES ago, I was finally able to get around to it just before I was struck down with illness.

It's no secret that I love, love, and love the Mapp and Lucia series, as do many of you, but I hadn't read any other EFB novels - despite having quite a few on my shelves. Secret Lives is reportedly the closest to that series and, although it isn't as good as them, it certainly has the same spirit.

Think Lucia in London for the setting - i.e., we're not in a Tillingesque village, we're instead on the exclusive Durham Square in London. Exclusive, indeed, because Mrs. Mantrip's father had systematically whittled his tenants down t
o the respectable and well-to-do, making sure Durham Square became the residency of choice for the highest society in London. And, for all that, it is incredibly provincial in its in-fighting, and the fact that everybody knows everybody else's business. For a start, there is the matter of dogs in the garden. Mrs. Mantrip's father (whom she reveres, and whose Life she is gradually writing - or, indeed, thinking about writing) expressly forbade it. But Elizabeth Conklin and her ten Pekinese - all circling her on leads - are keen to oppose. Cue all the wonderful cattiness and polite venom which fans of Mapp and Lucia have come to expect.

But then the title comes into play. 'Below the seeming
tranquillity of the Square surprising passions and secret lives were seething in unsuspected cauldrons.' Margaret Mantrip's secret passion, despite her outward literary pretensions, is for the novels of Rudolf da Vinci. Think Marie Corelli - i.e. atrociously written, probably addictive, lots of swooning heroines and dashing heroes.
The only distinguished thing about it, from a literary point of view, was its unique lack of distinction. It was preposterous to the last degree, but there was a sumptuousness about it, and, though nauseatingly moral in its conclusion, there was also fierceness, a sadism running like a scarlet thread through its portentous pages.
Margaret keeps these titles on a bottom shelf, hidden by a curtain and surrounded by her father's collection of theological titles... And then there is mysterious Susan Leg who has recently moved into the Square - very wealthy, but says 'Pardon?' and 'serviette' and serves caviar spread on scones. What's going on?

It doesn't take an overly-perceptive reader to realise quite quickly that Rudolph da Vinci and Susan Leg are one and the same. And, indeed, E.F. Benson doesn't leave us in the dark for long. In the hands of a lesser novelist, Leg's unveiling might have been the denouement - but Benson is more interested in the intrigue and humour to be found in deception and social superficiality. Throw in an anonymous society columnist and a scathing reviewer, and there is enough confusion and hypocrisy all round to make the most ardent Tillingite happy.

As I said at the beginning, Secret Lives doesn't match the brilliance of the Mapp and Lucia series, where every character (even when a bit two-dimensional) is a delight - but, once you've exhausted that series, this is a wonderful place to look. And a middlebrow novelist being biting about lesser novelists - and, especially, about critics - is always good fun. Thank you, Nancy, for recommending this novel - I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

I forgot about the Books to get Stuck into feature on my Persephone reviews (N.B. the poll results, with all 163 votes, are up now - thanks for voting!) but here they are, back again. Obviously the best companion novels, if Secret Lives sounds intriguing, are the Mapp and Lucia series, and Tom Holt's or Guy Fraser-Sampson's sequels, but here are some other suggestions:

Books to get Stuck into:

Elizabeth Taylor: Angel - although not very similar in tone, the wonderfully awful and self-unaware Angel is also modelled on the Marie Corelli type.

Rose Macaulay: Keeping Up Appearances - funny and arch, this 1920s novel has a mediocre novelist, but also all sorts of secrets and secret lives tangled up together, and is definitely worth seeking out.

Friday 14 May 2010

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Well, after promising my return yesterday, I was out late last night at my church small group, and somehow slumping in front of a soap opera took precedence over writing a proper book review. Apologies... And for those keeping tabs on the state of all things technological chez Stuck-in-a-Book, the current score is Laptop: 1, iPod: 0. Yes, in a fit of pique, my iPod won't turn on, and none of the usual methods of fixing it seem to work. It did this a while ago and just started working again after a while, so fingers crossed... or I might have to go without new shoes for a while.

For those who know things about computers, unlike me, I opted for a Compaq CQ61-427SA. Goodness knows what that means, but it's nice and shiny.

Right. Enough of that - as we all know, computers are just a means to an end, and that end is books. So let's get on with the book, the blog post, the link...

1.) The book - is Stephen Benatar's Wish Her Safe At Home, which my friend's family gave me (yes, I did *choose* it, but that doesn't count as me *buying* it). I read an article about this novel in The Week magazine, which was reprinting this article from The Times, I believe. As well as sounding irresistible from this description -
'a gripping and haunting story about a middle-aged, genteel woman called Rachel Waring who inherits a Georgian house in Bristol and slowly goes mad'
- I was also impressed by Benatar's tireless and heartfelt promotion of the novel. And, let's face it, I was won over by the ever-beautiful NYRB Classics editions. I'm not on their payroll, but I should be...

2.) The blog post - isn't especially new now, but I was sans laptop for over a week, and in the blogosphere a week is a long time. So cast your minds back to the 5th May, those heady days before the election, and wander over to Polly (aka Novel Insights) and this post on forgotten authors. More specifically - and even more up my street - Polly has collected suggestions of novels by authors more famous for their work for children. That's a bit of a mouthful, but I hope you know what I mean. Novels by authors known for their children's writing. Not writing by their children, but... oh, I'm sure we're on the same page now. It's no secret that I love non-children's work by A.A. Milne and Richmal Crompton, but there are plenty of others. In fact, I wrote A Level coursework on the topic, now I think of it... ahh, memories.

3.) The link - is the one for which I can never think of anything... but this YouTube video is quite funny. Oh, they seem to have removed the import-videos-into-Blogger function, but you can see it if you click here. It's David Mitchell (the comedian, not the novelist) on the topic of Punctuation. Thanks Mel for showing it to me!

Thursday 13 May 2010

New laptop!

Just to let you know that I am the proud owner of a new laptop, so hopefully will be back to regular posting soon. Hurrah! They said it would come between 9-5, and of course it came about 3.45pm, after I'd been anxiously waiting all day...

Lots and lots of books waiting for me to write about them, so hopefully there will be a lot of reviews going up soon (before, as usual, I forget every last thing about them).

Off to play with my new toy...

Tuesday 11 May 2010

Come on, Comyns

Very few authors mentioned here elicit such an enthused response as Barbara Comyns. Usually posts attract comments in the 48 hours after they're posted, and that's that - but posts about Comyns continue to get fans popping up for months and years afterwards, waving the flag for Bidford-on-Avon's finest.

I've read five novels by Comyns now, and have a few waiting - on Saturday, both Polly and Claire got hold of copies of The Vet's Daughter (Polly got it in the book exchange, from me!) and we thought it would be fun to do a read-along. Quite short notice, but we'll be kicking off at the beginning of June. If you can get yourself a copy before then, do join us. It's nice and short, and I've yet to read a dud Comyns! Start posting reviews around the second week of June, although it's all quite relaxed.

There should be quite a few copies around, both sides of the Atlantic. It was a Virago back in the 1980s, and has recently been reprinted in a beautiful NYRB Classics edition - which is the one I'll be reading. Do let us know if you're planning on reading along...

Monday 10 May 2010

Bloggers Galore!

My laptop is still not working, although there is hope on the horizon, but I'm managing to sneak onto the internet for a few minutes to give you a little round-up of bookish things from the past few days.

First things first, Saturday saw the first UK Book Bloggers' Meet-Up - hopefully the first of many. Although numbers dwindled steadily, due to all sorts of unfortunate reasons, there were still 18 of us who met up. Some started at the Persephone Books shop (where I resisted temptation manfully, partly aided by the fact that I have twenty-three unread Persephones at home - and partly be sublimating my desire to buy into an over-zealous desire to recommend) and then we moved onto The Lamb, a very nice pub with an elegant function room. We talked books, and exchanged ones we'd brought wrapped up (picture below, courtesy of Marcia). I did well - receiving Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier, and also Nightrunners of Bengal by John Masters: David Nolan had won this on Gaskella's blog, but very kindly asked Annabel (Gaskella) to pass it onto me - thank you David, and thank you Annabel!

The bloggers present were, apart from me:

Annabel (Gaskella)
Boof (The Book Whisperer)
Claire (Paperback Reader)
David (Follow the Thread)
Guy (Pursewarden)
Hayley (Desperate Reader)
Jackie (Farm Lane Books)
Katy (5th Estate)
Kim (Reading Matters)
Kirsty (Other Stories)
Lizzy/Marcia (Lizzy's Literary Life)
Naomi (Bloomsbury Bell)
Polly (Novel Insights)
Rachel (Book Snob)
Sakura (Chasing Bawa)
Simon (Savidge Reads)
Verity (The B Files / Verity's Virago Venture)

Do go and see them, they're all wonderful. And fear not if you weren't able to make this meet-up - we're already talking about the next one, which will hopefully be in Oxford in the summer. The prize for furthest-distance-travelled went to Marcia this time, all the way from Glasgow to London - who will win the prize next time? Although it's got 'UK' in the title, anybody fancying getting on a 'plane is very welcome...

In other news... I've been meaning to mention Nymeth's 1930s Mini-Challenge - basically the idea is to read at least one novel from the 1930s before July 18th. The challenge actually started about a month ago, but I forgot to post it in a Weekend Miscellany - better late than never! Now, it's no hardship for me to read something from the 1930s. It's probably the decade from which I read most, although review copies etc. now slant things towards modern-day as well. But I thought I'd pick a novel in particular to represent this challenge. It was recommended by my (non-blogging) friend Clare, and is Images in a Mirror by Sigrid Undset. I don't know much about it, but Clare says it is right up my street, and she knows my tastes pretty well by now. I'll be writing about it before too long - and to sign up for Nymeth's challenge, pop along here.

Friday 7 May 2010

Little Boy Lost

Well, I'm still heading back to healthiness (though still not eating much - could be a cheap day out tomorrow!) and have managed to finish another Persephone. This is the one which lots of people raved about last year, and which made it to the top of my Persephone Must Read List. Oh, and it's short. Step forward Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski.

Like Miss Ranskill Comes Home, this novel is from the late-1940s - but while Todd's novel offers an unusual perspective on the war, Laski turns her eye to the chaos of the post-war world. Hilary - whose wife Lisa was killed by the Gestapo - is visited by another underground activist and told that his (Hilary's) son is missing. Hilary has only seen his son once, the day after he was born. The rest of the novel follows Hilary to Paris as he tries to track down his son, and work out whether or not the boy he finds (Jean) is indeed his son.

Hilary is fairly taciturn, self-absorbed, and not particularly alert to the feelings of others - but he is someone still a very sympathetic character; even for someone like me who doesn't have children and can't tap into the desperation of his search. It doesn't hurt, on the sympathy front, that Hilary is described as:

a fast reader and dreaded nothing more than to be stranded without print. He would read anything sooner than nothing, fragments of sporting news torn up in a lavatory, a motor journal on a hotel table, an out-of-date evening paper picked up in a bus. He would covetously eye the books held by strangers in trains, forcing them into conversation until he could offer his own read book in exchange for something new. But if, by ill-luck, he was reduced to reading nothing but haphazard chance finds that offered his mind only the bare fact of being print, he would become dreary, unhappy, uneasy, like a gourmet who suffers from indigestion after eating bad food.

That description could make me forgive Hilary a lot - even, almost, when he starts criticising Winnie-the-Pooh as unreadable. I can only assume Laski hadn't read it of late, otherwise my opinion of her has gone down a lot....

Although the plot is fairly simple, its handling is beautifully subtle, especially as the novel progresses. Some of the earlier scenes are closer to thriller than 'literary fiction', for want of a better word - in that they seem to be about plot rather than character. But once Hilary has found Jean, their parallel emotional journeys are drawn brilliantly well. Hilary is reluctant to become attached to a child who might not be his; Jean is unused to any special attention, but is wary of accepting it with its unpredictability. It's all done quite beautifully.

With all this subtlety, it is such a shame that Laski crams in a ridiculous last-minute character and accompanying quandary. I shan't reveal too much, but it comes down to Hilary having to decide between lust and love, but the lust aspect is insultingly unconvincing and the character representing it seems the afterthought to an afterthought.

Putting this aside (and the novel would have been so much better without it) Little Boy Lost is an exceptional novel, and I'm very grateful to all those who waved flags for it last year. Now, should I go and add another tick to the poll?