Thursday 27 February 2014

Best bookshops

I haven't been on a good bookshop trawl for months.  There's very little I love more in life than discovering a secondhand bookshop I've not been to before, and falling joyfully upon its shelves.  If the books happen to be reasonably priced and plentiful, then my joy is complete.  This was how I felt in bookshop after bookshop in the US, but I don't think I've been to any since then.  Shameful.

So I'm probably going to treat myself with a day out to one before too long.  And I wondered if you had any recommendations - preferably for bookshops in towns which are near enough to Oxford to permit a day trip there and back.  On a trainline.

Yes, very picky, I know.

If they're in London, that's ok - but I'd prefer them to be in the countryside, or vaguely countrysidish.

Over to you!

(If you don't live in the UK, please feel free to tell me about your favourite bookshops... but try not to make them sound too appealing.)

Tuesday 25 February 2014

Slightly Famous People's Foxes

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of the Slightly Foxed Editions - I'm always so charmed and intrigued by the memoirs they publish.  And now, to celebrate the 10th birthday of Slightly Foxed, they have published a fun-sounding book called Slightly Famous People's Foxes.

It's a gallery of fox sketches by the great and the good (including Diana Athill, Quentin Blake, Helen Mirren, Michael Palin, Libby Purves, Alexander McCall Smith, and many more - read the full list here) with descriptions introducing them all.  Clicking on that link will take you to a sample, which is more than promising...

Even better, it's only £5 in the UK (also available internationally), and all profits go to The Children's Hospital School at Great Ormond Street.  A great-sounding book for a definitely great cause!  And a very happy birthday to the wonderful Slightly Foxed.

Sunday 23 February 2014

Famine or feast

Ten points if you can say where you've seen this picture before...

Firstly, I should say - I haven't written a book and my thesis isn't being published (not yet, anyway), so those guesses to my cryptic post the other day have made me think it'll be a bit of an anticlimax when it's revealed!  Well, it's different anyway.

Secondly - I'm having a bit of a lucky streak with my reading at the moment.  Some gems I'll be talking about in a while, including the Tove Jansson biography I mentioned recently.  What an interesting and creative woman!  I'm also loving the reissued Shirley Jackson novels (thanks Penguin) and a novel published in 2014 (gasp) by one of the few modern authors whose work interests me a lot.

Do you find that it's famine or feast with reading?  Earlier in the year, I had about eight books on the go and wasn't hugely enjoying any of them - none were bad enough to give up, but none were exciting me.  At the moment, I'm haring to get back to most of the books I'm reading.  Is it a coincidence?  Am I sometimes simply more receptive to the good qualities lurking in books - or does one good book lead to another?

Sometimes I'm asked (by people who read one book at a time) how I manage to read several at once.  Well, I usually want to combine many types of book (and will confess to confusion recently, when reading two novels with introspective teenage girl heroines) - and at the moment I'm definitely feeling the absence of a 1930s domestic novel in the mix.  So I'm going to grab one off the shelf, and add it to the modern novel, the 1950s Shirley Jackson, the biography...

And I think it might be Elizabeth Cambridge's Susan and Joanna.  I'll have to see if that fills a gap in A Century of Books...

Saturday 22 February 2014

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

I'm off to Bristol for the weekend (as mentioned the other day) - but my quiz ability might be hampered by the fact that I'm not feeling very well.  Doh.  (That's my excuse if I do badly, anyway.)

Here's your usual (ahem) round-up of book, blog, and link!

1.) The book - I don't know much about this one, but it arrived through my letterbox and looks interesting... Grace and Mary by Melvyn Bragg, from Sceptre. A quick google tells me that it was actually out in hardback and I missed it completely (or, more likely, read about it and forgot it).  Well, more info here!

2.) The blog - you probably all know and love Thomas of My Porch and The Readers.  Well, he can add a third string to his violin (which is, incidentally, the number of strings my violin has had for three years) with Lucy's Forever Home.  It documents the transformation of his home (which was, frankly, already sublimely beautiful) - all the planning, reasons behind choices, diagrams, mood boards, and pictures of machinery that you could wish for.  I lived for property programmes during my teens, and still love them now when I'm in at the right time - and this is like watching one about people I know.

3.) The link - a neat segue. Terry's Fabrics sent me a link to a fun infographic they'd made about homes in classic literature, from Jane Eyre to The Secret Garden.  Enjoy!

Wednesday 19 February 2014

In lieu of a review

Dear blog readers,

I haven't finished a book in a while, and I have run out (for the moment) of the incidental games and suchlike that I wanted to get people involved with - can I say how impressed I am with your titles-with-the-last-letter-missing?  So I was going to leave the blog blank for another day.  Then I remembered that some kind soul (I forget who) said that they enjoyed it when bloggers just gave a quick update about their lives.  So I thought I'd write you a little letter.

I've always given you something of a look behind-the-books into my life, but usually only the momentous bits.  Nothing particularly of note has happened to me recently, but I thought I'd write a little post anyway.

There is one thing I want to tell you about - a bookish thing, no less - but the time has not yet come.  It will help explain why I'm going to be a tiny bit quieter on here for the next few weeks, but it will be more than compensated for - and I hope you'll be excited.  Oh, Simon.  What a tease.

On the one hand, I've been very lucky since I submitted my DPhil thesis - apart from holidays in the US and for Christmas, I have worked solidly.  All of my previous bosses in Oxford approached me and asked me to freelance with them (at various departments of the Bodleian, and at OUP), and that was both very flattering and great fun.  I'm still doing it now, working mornings at OUP and afternoons for the Rare Books department of the Bodleian - now on Twitter, incidentally, in the hands of one of my besties, Lucy.

So, that's all lovely.  On the other hand, I would like to have a permanent full-time job, unsurprisingly... I've spent the past three years explaining to folk that, although I was doing a DPhil, I didn't want to work in academia (which is still the case) and now I'm hunting for jobs in publishing and similar companies.  Well, I haven't applied for a lot - I'm still being fussy, and only applying for jobs I really want - and I'm waiting to see what happens.  I'll report back when there is something to report... but I'm confident that there is a lovely team of people out there just waiting for me to join them!  (Truth be told, I wish I could stay with my current lovely OUP team, but sadly there isn't a permanent role there.)

And what's on the immediate horizon?  Well, this weekend I'm going to visit Colin - and while I'm there, Our Vicar and Our Vicar's Wife will be visiting.  Sadly I shan't get to see Sherpa or the countryside, but the rest of us will be together, and I am never happier than when I am with my family.  I'm excited about the quiz we have lined up...

At the New Year, we decided to write a quiz between us.  We each made up suggestions for two rounds and put them in a hat, and then drew out two rounds - and had to write on those topics.  Throw in a picture round (or similar) a-piece, and we had 12 quiz rounds to have fun with.  Indeed, it was so fun that we've decided to do it again.  I put in relatively restrained topics - art (nice and broad) and Virginia Woolf (just because I was so intrigued to see what questions would be written).  It turns out my crazy family isn't quite so restrained.  Here are the rounds we have been allocated...

Simon - Peru
Simon - woodwork
Colin - Virginia Woolf
Colin - 1953
Dad - art
Dad - goldfish
Mum - knitting
Mum - defenestrations and other unusual exits

It could be an interesting night!  I have gone a bit wackier with my picture round, but I shan't reveal anything yet, because my family might well read this...

That'll do for news for now - but soon(ish) I will stop teasing and unveil the exciting bookish thing.  And I might even get around to posting a book review, you never know.

Hope you're all having lovely weeks.  And, if you're not, remember that spring is on its way.  I can't wait.

Take care,

Monday 17 February 2014

Bookshopping: a sonnet

We're not like this, you and me.  But some people in bookshops are...

Bookshopping: a sonnet

Excuse me, if you wouldn't mind
I'm looking for a certain book.
A famous one - you know the kind -
The sort to own (in case folks look).
The author's name I can't advise -
I'm pretty sure that he was male.
I think perhaps it won a prize,
Or featured in your half-price sale?
My favourite blogger thought it fine;
She gave it eight stars out of ten
(She said she would have given nine,
But doesn't like to flatter men).
You can't help? Even with such
Description? Well, thanks VERY much.

Sunday 16 February 2014

Titles with the last letter missin

I've recently got into Cabin Pressure, the Radio 4 drama set in a tiny airline - my lovely boss Malie has been casually mentioning it for a year, and I capitulated a few weeks ago, and am already halfway through series 3, eking out the remaining episodes.  It's very funny, and cleverly scripted.

There is a bookish connection.  Because in one of the episodes they try to come up with book titles which are amusing (and still make sense) with the last letter removed.  Their examples include Of Mice and Me, Three Men in a Boa etc.  And of course, I wanted to think of some of my own...

It's harder than it sounds.  I've only come up Five Children and I (E. Nesbit) and Injury Tim (Beryl Bainbridge).  And The Winds of Heave (Monica Dickens), which isn't very pretty.

Over to you!  Try to think of them without simply scrolling through a list of books, for maximum mental torment.  Let me know your answers in the comment section...

Saturday 15 February 2014

Jane Austen - Volume the First

Probably the best thing that has happened to me while working at the Bodleian Library - besides meeting some very good friends - happened in my first week.  I got to hold a letter written by Jane Austen.  WRITTEN BY HER HAND AND HELD BY HER HAND AND MAYBE BY BOTH HER HANDS. Ahem.

Well, now the Bodleian have published a book which isn't too far away from that.  I imagine many of you are familiar with Jane Austen's Volume the First - one of the books in which she transcribed her juvenilia, which she wrote between the ages of twelve and fifteen.  It contains all sorts of playlets, verse, and stories which (along with the two other volumes of her juvenilia) reveal an author who was self-confident and accomplished at an astonishingly early age.

I don't think her juvenilia has all too obvious a connection with the style and genre of her novels (I don't know whether experts agree with that) - Volume the First etc. have rather more verve and excitable, surreal silliness than you'll find elsewhere.  In that way, it is perhaps closer to the books she was reading at the time than the form she made her own.

Even if you've already read the juvenilia, though, you won't have anything like this edition on your shelves.  This is a facsimile edition - which means I can flip through and see Jane Austen's handwriting.  It isn't her teenage handwriting (those manuscripts were lost or destroyed) but it's the pieces she transcribed later.  And it's her flipping handwriting.  It's a very exciting thing to have on my bookcase. Perhaps it's just for Austen fanatics - but I suspect there are a few of those among you.

More info here...

Thursday 13 February 2014

The Fifth Child - Doris Lessing

Whenever I've mentioned to people that my book group is reading The Fifth Child (1988) by Doris Lessing, they have shuddered and told me that I'd better make sure I don't read it late at night or when I'm on my own, etc. etc.  Apparently it's notoriously scary.  Well, I found it chilling in places, but ultimately not the horror book it is marketed as.  But it is altogether more interesting than that...

Harriet and David Lovatt are unconventional in their conventionality.  While all their 1960s companions are taking drugs, going to wild parties, and refusing to settle down, all they want is marriage, a big home, and a big family.  This is precisely what they achieve - luckily David's father is very rich (lucky both for them and for Doris Lessing, who is able to use this a lot to get out of narrative holes), and he offers to pay the mortgage on an enormous house.  Harriet and David promptly get onto filling it, and have four children in the space of very few years, and not that many pages.

I think Lessing rather shot herself in the foot with her title, so far as sustaining interest for the first section of the novel is concerned, because we know what's coming.  It's the fifth child which is going to be the important one.

From the first months of her pregnancy, Harriet feels dislike and fear of her unborn child. When he is born, Ben is instantly violent - grinding his gums together cruelly (it seems to Harriet) when he is breastfeeding.  As he grows older, it seems that he has killed a cat; he is bigger and stronger than he ought to be for his age; he cannot communicate in the way their other children did.  Harriet's dislike grows to a sort of hatred, albeit one tempered with a maternal instinct she cannot quash.

The Fifth Child is an interesting mixture of the gothic horror and domestic realism.  Aspects reminded me of horror film tropes (not that I've seen many at all), but still more aspects reminded me of the melancholy-portrait-of-marriage novels Nina Bawden and Margaret Drabble have written.

It made for an interesting combination - but perhaps not an entirely successful one.  Part of the reader's mind wants to find a logical explanation of some kind (does Ben have severe Autism?  Is Harriet experiencing post-natal depression?) and another part looks towards a fictive horror explanation (is Ben a demon?  A troll, or goblin?)  The influences of two genres can come together in a sophisticated and nuanced manner, but the central crux of the novel can't really straddle both.  So Lessing picks one - I won't say which - and this tips the balance of the narrative.  Leaving everything from the other side of the scale a bit out in the cold...

And what of Lessing's writing style?  I really liked it.  Some people at book group thought it was too basic - the word 'patronising' was used - but I'm rather a fan of simple prose.  This might even have been deceptively simple - if it was, I was deceived(!)

This is my second Lessing novel, after Memoirs of a Survivor years and years ago, and I can't say that I feel I have a strong handle on what she does.  Nor am I hugely keen to read any more, actually, despite thinking The Fifth Child was good.  But, having said that, I would welcome any burning suggestions if you think there is something by our Doris which I should really read...

Others who got Stuck in this Book:

"Although the story is disturbing, Lessing is an amazing writer and it is no wonder she won the Nobel Prize for Literature." - Thomas, My Porch

"I found the narrative immediately gripping although the fast pace left me breathless at times." - Kim, Reading Matters

"The book raises many important issues, including whether ‘bad’ children are born that way." - Jackie, Farm Lane Books

Wednesday 12 February 2014

Persephone and Twins

I have a couple of pieces elsewhere this week on two of my favourite topics - Persephone Books and twins!

Over at Vulpes Libris, I've written an overview of my favourite Persephones, and which you might want to try, depending on your mood...

...and on the Oxford Dictionaries blog, I've written about twins and words.  The title is one of my life's greatest accomplishments...

...more here at Stuck-in-a-Book soon!

Monday 10 February 2014

Abbie - Dane Chandos

A friend from my book group kindly lent me Abbie (1947) by Dane Chandos about a million years ago, and I've somehow only recently got around to reading it.  I think it looked almost too inviting - it seemed a delicious treat of a book that I didn't think I quite deserved.  And I thought it might be a sweet, old-fashioned children's book, which isn't something for which I'm always in the mood.

Well, I was right and I was wrong.  It isn't remotely sweet or a children's book, but it is wonderful.

You (like my friend) are probably aware of my penchant for characterful old ladies in books, and Abbie does not disappoint.  The episodic novel is narrated by Dane (I thought it might even be a sort of autobiography, until I discovered that Dane Chandos was actually the pseudonym for two authors, Peter Lilley and Nigel Millett) who, from his schooldays onwards, has a close and amusing relationship with his Aunt Abbie.

Abbie is composed of interspersed letters and narrative - the letters being from Abbie, who jaunts off around the world (she hires camels in Algeria, haggles in French markets, skis in Switzerland) but always returns to her East Anglian garden.  Gardening is perhaps the least exotic of her hobbies, but it is also her most passionate.  She judges everyone on their gardening abilities, she is willing to steal and deceive for her art, and this piece of dialogue (which I choose more or less at random) is from one of the chapters on gardening:
"Drat the regatta. We're too late now, anyway.  I have to get those camellias put in.  Now please take care of them, Arthur.  Do not make an impetuous gesture.  Cotoneaster twigs are very delicate.  Prenez garde!  These old gaffers should not be allowed on the roads, especially when there are such handsome almshouses at Upper Dovercourt."
Abbie is an interesting creation.  Battleaxe types are always a joy to read in some measure, but the author's (or, in this case, authors') task is to keep them on the right side of sympathy - or open them entirely to ridicule.  It is that which separates the Lady Catherine de Bourghs from the Miss Hargreaveses of this world.  Abbie is certainly not a figure of fun - much depends on the reader developing the fondness for her that Dane (the character) clearly has for his aunt.  How successful is this?

Well, the negatives.  She is unabashedly xenophobic - but not racist in particular, because every non-British person (indeed, every non-British non-upper-class person) meets with her disdain.  She is quite selfish.  She is rude, abrupt, and tells everyone to 'Prenez garde!' all the time.

And the positives.  She is very funny - sometimes deliberately, sometimes not.  She loves her nephew and her husband.  He is called Arthur, is calm and sensible, and balances out her forthright sense of purpose.  He is also, along with Dane, capable of quietening her down. The authors give us enough examples of Abbie being bested (my favourite being in the garden theft incident, by a confident neighbour) that we can afford to like her.

Make no mistake, she would be a horror to know as a person - and her xenophobia is only understandable as a product of her time - but I couldn't help loving reading about her energetic exploits and astonishing self-confidence.  The more low-key her social battles (arguing with a waiter, or going for a dress-fitting) the more I loved it - things got a bit out of hand with runaway camels and the like. But my taste always leans to the domestic and social minutiae.

Any fan of slightly silly, very funny, early twentieth-century novels will find a lot to like and laugh at in Abbie.  And, even better, I've just discovered that there is a sequel, Abbie and Arthur!  Thanks Caroline for lending this to me, sorry it's taken an age to read it...

Thursday 6 February 2014

Awful book covers: Wuthering Heights

Well, after my previous post, I couldn't resist doing my own hunt for dreadful covers - and Wuthering Heights seemed like the sort of book which would oblige.  There are actually a lot of great covers out there for it (I really like the modern, slightly dark ones I saw) but there were also, of course, some awful ones.  With all inspiration due to Bizarre Victoria (and to Caustic Cover Critic), here are the ones I found...

Wuthering Heights: the Edvard Munch edition

Wuthering Heights: the Gone With the Wind edition

Wuthering Heights:
the 'it's raining and all I had was my bedsheet' edition

Wuthering Heights: the ginger edition

Wuthering Heights:
the Little House on the Prarie edition

Wuthering Heights: the Isabella Blow edition

Wuthering Heights:
the 'which house IS that?' edition

Wuthering Heights: the Rosie & Jim edition

Wuthering Heights:
the 'here are two images I found, right, LUNCHTIME' edition
Wuthering Heights: the 90210 edition
Why not pick your own Victorian novel and give it a whirl?!

Tuesday 4 February 2014

Bad Jane Eyre Covers

Busy week, so quickly... my friend Lorna sent me a link to Bad Jane Eyre Covers, and (being a fan of awful covers) I loved it.  You can see them here.

When my week has calmed down, I might try and see what I can source for another novel or two... but feel free to give it a whirl yourself!

Monday 3 February 2014

Here Be Dragons - Stella Gibbons

I've been very excited about Vintage Books reprinting Stella Gibbons' lesser-known novels (perhaps following the lead Virago started with Nightingale Wood, which I still haven't read) and I have been impressed, in part or in whole, by Westwood and Bassett.  (Clicking on those titles will take you to my reviews.)  I have to admit, part of my joy at the series is the beautiful covers, and I asked Vintage if they'd send me a copy of Here Be Dragons (1956), partly because Sue recommended it at a Possibly Persephone? meeting, and partly because of that beautiful cover.

Well, that'll teach me to judge a book by its cover, because when I asked Vintage for a copy of Here Be Dragons, they (quite rightly) sent me one of their print on demand copies, which doesn't have a picture on its cover at all.  (Maybe this is Kindle only?)  It was also very hard to hold open for long periods of time - being very tightly bound - which is one of the reasons it took me about six months to finish it.  The other reasons, I will come to...

I am a sucker for a novel where someone opens a tearoom, which sounds quite niche but is stumbled across quite often in the 30s-50s.  Nell, the heroine of Here Be Dragons, doesn't actually get around to opening a tearoom - but she works at one, and she intends to open one soon, and that'll do me.  She is the daughter of a slightly eccentric upper-class family, and as the novel opens her clergyman father has decided to leave the church - and they are all bundled into a flat (which is really most of a sizeable house).  Nell - bravely catching up with the past two decades - decides to enter the world of work.

First she is a typist in an office, where a constant battle is waged over whether a window is, or is not, left open.  The work is dull, the old men are patronising, and she is tempted away with the promise of £16 a week (including tips) should she become a waitress.  This she does, at the Primula, and I loved the scenes where she finds her feet in the café, learns to get along with the curious staff, and starts to plan her independent tearoom career (even if she can't imagine being beyond 25 without this.)

Sadly, that's pretty much all I liked in this novel.  I think it's called Here Be Dragons because Nell enters a world which had previously been unfamiliar and alarming - as with maps which used to use those three words to delineate scary foreign lands.  And Nell's scary foreign land is the world of bohemian layabouts, to which she is introduced by her monstrously selfish cousin John. This is the sort of thing he does/says:
Sometimes he would lecture her about being a waitress, saying that she never had a moment to spare for him; that she was necessary to him, like the sights and sounds and smells of London; and that her 'so-called work' took up too much of her time; that she was hardly ever there when he wanted her.
This was sweet to hear, but like most of John's statements it bore only a tenuous relationship to the facts, which were that often saved him an evening or a Monday afternoon and never heard a word from him throughout the whole of it.
"Of course.  I didn't want you then," was his usual petulant comment when asked casually (Nell's own temperament, as well as a kind of deer-stalking instinct, prevented her from asking in any other tone) what he kept him or prevented his telephoning?  And he would add, "You see, you must be there when I want you, Nello."
Nell is not blind to his faults, but she is still in love with him, despite him having no discernible good qualities.  I can't work out whether we are meant to find John intellectually charming, or if he really is supposed to be as ghastly as he comes across.  (That 'this was sweet to hear' worries me.)  Whenever I think that a character is self-evidently dreadful, I remind myself that some people, somehow, come away from Wuthering Heights thinking that Heathcliff is a romantic hero, so...

But I could just about forgive Here Be Dragons having the world's most awful character - and unashamed selfishness is the vice which irritates me most in fiction - if he had been interesting.  I'm afraid I found huge swathes of the novel just quite boring.  There is a subplot about a fey young thing called Nerina which didn't grab me at all; Nell's father losing his faith is mentioned occasionally, but quite half-heartedly.  The whole thing, in fact, felt a little half-hearted.  Enjoyable enough to pass the time, but uninspired - particularly when it could have been so much better.

So, I am still excited about the reprints, and I will keep trying Stella Gibbons to see what gems lie in the rough - but I don't think, on the whole, that Here Be Dragons is one of them.

Sunday 2 February 2014

Song for a Sunday

This has been my jam this week: