Sunday 29 June 2014

A weekend away

It's been great fun seeing the letter meme travel around the blogosphere - I haven't had time to interact with anybody's list, but I will do so when I can.

I spent this weekend in the Lake District, going to my dear friend Epsie's wedding (Epsie is the nickname I use, rather than an unusal name... and she calls me Bill).  I managed not to take any photos of the wedding day (oops) but did take some of the Youth Hostel I was staying in, in Hawskhead.  It had pretty stunning views.

It was also - albeit very briefly - the residence of Francis Brett Young. It's not the first time I've stayed in this hostel, or the first time I've noticed this plaque, but I don't think I've ever mentioned him here.  He's one of those authors I see a lot in secondhand bookshops (particularly while hunting out E.H. Young) but have never read. Has anybody read anything by him?

I read 3.5 books over the weekend, with long train journeys, but in the hostel grounds I was reading a (probably, for this spate, final) Agatha - as I have it out of the library: Sparkling Cyanide (1945). An enjoyable premise, a slightly far-fetched conclusion, some interesting characters... not her finest, not her worst.

Wednesday 25 June 2014

Reader's Block

Thankfully my Reader's Block is over, but I've written about it over at Vulpes Libris today...

Sunday 22 June 2014

Today's post is brought to you by the letter...

Here's something that should be fun - and do get involved in the comment section! - I'm going to kick off a meme where we say our favourite book, author, song, film, and object beginning with a particular letter. And that letter will be randomly assigned to you by me, via If you'd like to join in, comment in the comment section and I'll tell you your letter! (And then, of course, the chain can keep going on your blog.)  My letter is... M

Favourite book...

Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker. This could hardly have worked out better for me, could it?  Promise I didn't cheat.

Favourite author...

This is all a bit suspicious, since I've managed to have my favourite novel and favourite author, A.A. Milne. Well, I might quibble over AAM being definitely my favourite author, but there's no doubt that he's my favourite whose name begins with 'M'.

Favourite song...

A trickier choice - I nearly went with Rachel Yamagata's 'Miles on a Car' - but Amelia Curran's 'The Mistress' is just so darn brilliant.  No idea where the bizarre image comes from...

Favourite film...

Yes, Mrs. Miniver is madly over the top, but it's a classic for a reason.

Favourite object...

Mugs, you are the bearers of tea, so you are my favourite M-objects.

That was fun! Do ask for a letter, if you'd like one, and I'll do a round-up post of your responses at some point...

Friday 20 June 2014

Asleep in the Sun by Adolfo Bioy Casares

I'm over with the foxes at Vulpes Libris today, reviewing Asleep in the Sun by Adolfo Bioy Casares...

Tuesday 17 June 2014

Some photos from my camera...

Every now and then I fancy doing a lazy picture post, to give you an impression of what I've been up to away from my blog. I spent last weekend at a wedding in Exeter, but sadly didn't take any photos... so that's not featured. The other pictures aren't all that recent, but they were waiting on my camera to be uploaded...

My housemate and I made a strawberry and blueberry meringue gateau.
There's not much left now...

My bro came to visit a few weeks ago
and we took silly photos.


Me and some friends obscuring the beautiful
ceiling of the Royal Naval Hall in London.

No collection of photos would be complete without SHERPY.

Sunday 15 June 2014


A quick post, as near a rant as Stuck-in-a-Book is ever likely to get.  Blurbs!  I work in publishing, and I'm now used to writing content which needs to fulfil a purpose and tone, so I get it, I see why blurbs have to exist (although I try not to read them, as they give away far too much).  Today I found the worst blurb ever.

It's on the NYRB Classics edition of Adolfo Bioy Casares' Asleep in the Sun (more on that soon).  Well, it gives it enormous swathes of plot - including a major reveal which happens on p.161 of 173pp.  And, worse, it gets the plot wrong.  I don't want to spoil the book for you (unlike the writers of that blurb...) but basically it says that a big transformative event happens, and it doesn't.  A vaguely similar, but significantly different, event happens instead.

Having finished the book, I can see why someone might have skimmed it to write the copy...

What are your thoughts on blurbs?  Do you find them useful?  I always avoid introductions before reading a book, because they invariably give away far too much, but it looks like I'll have to add blurbs to that list - I usually decide whether or not I want to read a book (if it's entirely unknown to me) by flicking a few pages in and sampling the text, instead of the blurb.

And can you think of any terrible culprits of dreadful blurb-ing? (And, oh, how I have come to hate the word 'blurb' while writing this post...)

Thursday 12 June 2014

A review round-up

image source
As with 2012's Century of Books, there are some books which - for one reason or another - don't get their own blog post, but I still need somewhere to link to in my run-through of 100 books.  So... here is that place!  Or at least the first part of it.  Let's call them mini-reviews; that sounds better.

The Perfect Stranger (1966) by P.J. Kavanagh
A friend lent me this; it is a memoir of a young man's life - at Oxford, at war, and in love.  I certainly liked it, and it was rather moving, but that's about all I remember now.

The Sittaford Mystery (1931) by Agatha Christie
I think my Reader's Block is FINALLY over, and that means my Agatha Christie binge has probably come to an end too.  Whenever I read too many in a row, the plots have to be really good to impress me, and - well - I just read too many, I guess.  So I liked The Sittaford Mystery and I think it was probably quite artful, but I didn't appreciate it as much as I could have done.  I did very much like the feisty, no-nonsense, secretly-sensitive heroine who took on the role of quasi-detective.  I think her name was Emily?

Inclinations (1916) by Ronald Firbank
Mike Walmer kindly sent me a copy of this, but I'm afraid I didn't have a clue what was going on while I read it.  I love some books which are mostly in dialogue (I call Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett to the stand) but this one just baffled me.  Luckily Karen/Kaggsy enjoyed it more - read her review for more elucidation.

Riding Lights (1955) by Norman MacCaig
Green Song and other poems (1944) by Edith Sitwell
Every now and then I think I should try poetry. I don't remember anything at all about these.

Monday 9 June 2014

A.A. Milne and I

This is a post I've been meaning to write for a while, because I always think it's fascinating to find out how people's reading personalities arrived at their present status.  That's one of the reasons I've loved doing My Life in Books on Stuck-in-a-Book, because it takes a look behind the blogs and sees the histories of the readers.

Well, one of the biggest influences in my reading life is A.A. Milne, who remains one of my favourite writers - and whom I discovered when I was about 16 or 17, and was the first adult author whom I really loved, reading more than twenty of his books in a year or two.  Yes, there is an irony that he takes this role when he is best known for his children's books but, as I will go on to describe, in many ways he was the ideal author to take me from loving reading to being a truly committed bibliophile.

On the one hand, he was ideal simply because he is good.  There's always a danger that the books we love when developing our taste turn out to lose their shine as we explore the literary world more, and that's been my experience with a few books - but not with AAM. Everything from his early sketches to his autobiography still makes me laugh, think, or nod - the only exceptions being those few books I didn't love much the first time around (such as Chloe Marr) and even some of these (Two People) have improved on re-visiting, rather than the reverse.  I know I can rely on Milne - I've just finished a re-read of Not That It Matters (1919; reviewed a couple of years ago) and a few weeks ago read his short play The Artist: A Duologue (1923). Just as lovely and light and fun as ever.

But it is not that alone which made him such a perfect introduction to the world of book-reading, book-hunting, and book-loving.  First off, he was astonishingly varied.  In loving one author, I could explore books as varied as silly house-party cricketing golfers in The Day's Play etc., witty plays (The Dover Road), thoughtful plays (The Great Broxopp), hilarious novels (Mr. Pim Passes By), moving novels (Two People), a great work of pacifism (Peace With Honour), short stories (The Birthday Party), essays (By Way of Introduction), poetry (Behind the Lines), and autobiography - and children's books, of course.  His range - particularly in form, but also in tone - is practically unbeaten in the 20th century, simply because there aren't all that many spheres left unwritten.

So, that accounts for the writing.  But I don't think I'd have become quite the bibliophile I am today if Milne's work were either much better known or much less known.  The fact that I stumbled upon it at all was due to my school library having Christopher Milne's The Enchanted Places, and my aunt Jacq being a fan of his and lending me books (for which I am ever grateful).  There can't be all that many authors for whom there exists an autobiography, a family memoir (The Enchanted Places), and a brilliant biography (Ann Thwaite's A.A. Milne: His Life).  There's even a critical analysis of his work - Thomas Burnett Swann's A.A. Milne (1971), which I managed to track down and read this year, after a decade of hunting.  And I gloriously disagreed with him for much of it (he hates Milne's hilarious early stuff, and at one point seems to be quite genuinely shocked, and not at all ironic, when he notes that young people 'preferred the irrelevancies of a Punch essayist to the nobilities of Lord Tennyson'; elsewhere he is more willing to commend, but he still has a curious dislike for much of Milne's work which makes writing his book a curious choice. Still, I loved finding someone else who had read everything Milne wrote.)

And that's the other thing - and perhaps the most important element in making me the bibliophile I've become - is that Milne isn't better known.  If I'd been able to buy all his books in Waterstone's, or for £1 a pop on Amazon, then I wouldn't have caught the book-hunting bug.  A lot of Milne's work can be tracked down easily, but a lot of it can't - and especially couldn't in 2003-4. A decade earlier, it would have been impossible. A decade later, it would have been easier - but as it was, I bought some things online, and learned the joy of hunting through secondhand bookshops the rest of the time.  Little did I know what a coup it was when I found Before The Flood for 75p in one of my first secondhand bookshops!  By the time I stumbled across For The Luncheon Interval, I knew how lucky I was to find it.

And the search is not yet over, even ten years and more later.  I've managed to find things as obscure as his pamphlet on humanism and War Aims Unlimited, but the collection of stories, limited to 600 copies of which he signed every single one?  The chances of me finding an affordable copy are slim - but it's that sort of thing which keeps the joyous hunt alive.  You don't get that buying the complete works of Shakespeare in one fell swoop.

So, AAM has stood me in good stead.  I wrote this post as a repository for many A Century of Books titles, but it's also a celebration of an author who made me a besotted reader and an equally besotted book-hunter (and, yes, book-buyer).  And now, of course, I'd love to know which author or authors takes this role for you?

Sunday 8 June 2014

Songs for a Sunday

One of my favourite singers, Sia, has hit the big time of late - and writes for basically everyone - but she saves her best and most emotional songs for herself.  Here's a couple of recent releases I can't stop listening to... 'Chandelier' and 'Eye of the Needle'.

Saturday 7 June 2014

Stuck-in-a-Book's Weekend Miscellany

Well, the rains, they cometh. Hopefully that means I can curl up indoors and fight off Reader's Block (I know I keep mentioning it, but it's a bit of a worry with the pile of Shiny New Books to read, although mine is nothing compared to Victoria's). But I've still rustled up a book, a link, and a blog post...

1.) The link - I put together another quiz for OxfordWords - this time, can you spot titles borrowed from other books? I think this is the post I've had most fun creating so far. Let me know how you did!

2.) The book - Can I be mammothly indiscreet for a moment? Almost every publisher has been wonderful about providing books for Shiny New Books - either to us or to a band of willing reviewers. The exception is Fourth Estate, who have ignored all of our emails - but, damn their eyes &c., they also publish some very intriguing-sounding books (and I'm sure they have v good reasons for not being able to reply!) It's played in their favour, as we've ended up buying the books ourselves and sending them off to reviewers - and today I ordered a beautiful reprint of Penelope Fitzgerald's Charlotte Mew and Her Friends. They've also reprinted lots of her novels in equally striking covers.

3.) The blog post - my Shiny New Books co-editor has done her own Q&A - you're too late to ask the Q, I'm afraid, but you can read the A - part one and part two.

Tuesday 3 June 2014

A Diet of Dame Agatha

For the sake of updating my Century of Books, and because I have precious little else to update Stuck-in-a-Book with at the moment, here's a rundown of the Agatha Christies I've been reading of late. I imagine there will be another update to come soon, but hopefully I can extend my reading range a bit soon, as I need to read Asleep in the Sun by Adolfo Bioy Casares for book group next week!

It's difficult to write properly about detective fiction, and it's even more difficult to write differently about lots of detective fiction, so I'll just give you a couple of impressions per book.

The Seven Dials Mystery (1929)
Very Wodehousian beginning, and Christie does humour well.  But I never like Agatha as much when she's doing gangs and spy rings and all that.  (I also wonder how recently she'd read The Man Who Was Thursday.)

Elephants Can Remember (1972)
I was warned off this one after I'd started, but I actually loved large chunks of it - Ariadne Oliver (a detective novelist with a famous Finnish detective) is a wonderful opportunity for Agatha Christie to talk about her own career wittily, and (having met her for my first time in Hallowe'en Party) I loved seeing her again.  But the plot was pretty flimsy.

Curtain (1975)
Poirot's last case, written some decades earlier, it's amusingly anachronistic at times, but has a good plot and the ever-wonderful Captain Hastings.

Mrs McGinty's Dead (1952)
More Poirot, more Ariadne Oliver! And a good plot, although perhaps not one of the very best. Or perhaps I'm just saying that because I guessed part of the ending, and I always prefer to be fooled.

Murder in the Mews (1937)
Four novella length stories about Poirot, one of which (the longest) was very good, 'Dead Man's Mirror'. The others were fine, but I got the impression that Christie hadn't considered the ideas good enough for a full-length book.

I have four more Christies out of the library, so I'll fill you in when I've rushed through those... and then hopefully I'll have broken my Reader's Block!  Thank goodness there is an author I can turn to during those periods, where it seems inconceivable that anybody could actually finish reading a book (so many WORDS!) as otherwise I'd be going mad.

Monday 2 June 2014

Muddling Through

One of the types of books I most love are those incidental, silly-humour books from between the world wars. The sort that is achingly middle-class and frivolous, neither lewd nor politically astute, but something that folk in the 1930s would have laughed through and put on their coffee tables. Sometimes those books are collections of essays, but occasionally they come in the shape of Muddling Through by Theodora Benson and Betty Askwith (illustrated by Nicolas Bentley).

The subtitle is 'Britain in a Nutshell', and such is what it purports to be. It considers England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland in turn, pointing out the national characteristics of each, and the distinctive traits of various regions. All is done in staccato sentences, which are supposedly comprehensive but, of course, are nothing of the kind. ('Cambridge always wins the boat race. Cambridge has sausages.')

Yes, the joke is rather one-note, and utterly silly, but it rather beguiled me - as a snapshot of a period, as much as anything else.

The other thing which made this a snapshot of its publication year (1936) was how generous the publisher is with space. It's an above-average-height hardback, and a lot of the pages are almost empty.  It adds to the humour (because it becomes all the clearer that they are dismissing places and people in a handful of words) but, to those of us familiar with the 'wartime restrictions' notes in the wafer-thin-paper hardbacks which were soon to follow, it feels anachronistic.

So, a silly book, but just the sort of silly I love.