Thursday, 31 March 2011

Jean Auel

The author of the Earth's Children series, Jean Auel, was interviewed on Woman's Hour on Radio 4 on Monday. The interview is available for a few more days here (it starts at 31min 40sec). I have only read The Clan of the Cave Bear, which is the first in the series.  It was one of the first books I took out of the library when I got my adult ticket. I was probably about 12 or 13. I absolutely devoured it, loved it. I remember that my dad was a bit disapproving, he asked me if it wasn't 'a bit racy!' I remember that clearly because I was so embarrassed! For some reason I never read any more of the series, possibly there weren't any more in the library, or possibly I just didn't want to have to sneak them past my dad! They are immensely popular books and have sold 45 million copies. And apparently Hillary Clinton is a fan.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

New books

I got these two from  ReadItSwapIt the other day.

The Bookman's Wake by John Dunning
I enjoyed Booked to Die so much that I immediately found the sequel. This one involves Cliff Janeway and 'a young woman fugitive from a burglar-and-weapons rap who may also have heisted a previously unknown 1969 edition of Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven.' I have read elsewhere that the Janeway series is a bit up and down, I hope this one lives up to my very high expectations!

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman
I'm not sure what I'm going to think of this one. 'Provokingly bold' says the Independent. I don't usually like to be provoked, I prefer to be soothed! But the review I read was good and I loved Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Booked to Die by John Dunning

This is a murder mystery set in Denver around the second hand and rare book scene. The hero, Cliff Janeway, is a homicide detective for the Denver police. Due to overstepping the mark with a nasty piece of work that he has been trying to put away for years, Janeway has to resign from the force.

This cloud has a silver lining for Janeway because he can now follow his dream of opening a book shop and spend more time on his hobby which is searching out rare books. Of course he doesn't get to relax - a series of murders means that he puts his detective hat back on. The murders are of people in the book trade and seem to centre around a mysterious collection of very valuable books.

This book has been on my TBR list for years, and I'm glad I finally got around to it. The setting of the book trade was very interesting to me (which book lover doesn't dream of opening their own bookshop?) and I thought that the glimpses behind the scenes of the trade were very interesting. John Dunning is a collector and seller of rare books himself, and made this aspect of the book very believable. I thought that it was well plotted and pacy, with no loose ends.

Friday, 25 March 2011

The Ballad and the Source by Rosamond Lehmann

In her letters Jessica Mitford mentions a woman named Mrs Hammersley, a friend of Jessica's mother. She seems to be an eccentric woman, but Jessica writes of her affectionately. She is referred to as The Widow, or, in this quote, the Widding;

Shall I tell you all about the Widding?... I think you can imagine her from reading the Ballad and the Source, & from my descriptions. She arrived to meet me at the boat (it's about 2 hours train & 1/2 hour boat  from London) looking very characteristic, swathed in black scarves, yellow face, jet black hair, somber large eyes. Also, characteristically, she had co-opted a neighbour to drive her to meet me & made her drive us both home.
                                     letter to Robert Treuhaft 1955

I found this picture of Mrs Hammersley as a young woman. It was painted by Philip Wilson Steer in 1907. I don't know whether a character in The Ballad and the Source reminded Jessica Mitford of Mrs Hammersley, or whether Rosamond Lehmann actually based one of the characters on her. 

However, by the power of Amazon and their 1p books I now have my own copy. Reading the blurb on the back I see that it features Sibyl Jardine, 'an enigmatic and powerful old woman'. I wonder if Sibyl is Mrs Hammersley. The blurb also claims that 'Sibyl Jardine is Rosamond Lehmann's most formidable literary creation'.

I haven't read anything by Rosamond Lehmann before, and I'm looking forward to getting started on this one.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Prince Caspian by CS Lewis

We have finished Prince Caspian, which has been Billy's bedtime book for a couple of weeks. I asked Billy what he thought of it. 'It was good,' he replied. He didn't elaborate further, but at least he enjoyed it.
I wasn't so keen on it. The Pevensie children are back in Narnia, many hundreds of Narnian years after they were last there. Their mission is to help Prince Caspian, the rightful king of Narnia to take the throne from the wicked King Miraz. I felt it was out of balance, with all the action at the end. I wish that Aslan had shown himself to everyone, not just Lucy. I know that the message is one of belief and faith, but it just seemed like a cruel trick which made everyone's lives a lot more difficult. I think this has been my least favourite of the series so far.

It's Billy's choice for the next book. He has gone for a re-read, an old favourite, Mr Meddle by Enid Blyton. It's a collection of stories in which Mr Meddle wreaks havoc in the lives of everyone he encounters.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Mitford gem

While reading Decca this made me laugh out loud. This kind of thing is why I love reading about the Mitfords. It is taken from a letter from Decca to Nancy, after their mother's death;

Muv's diaries: the thing I loved was her engagement books, of which the 1937 vol. had entries like: "Heifer born today. Mabel 2 weeks hol. Decca married. Tea with Fuhrer."

Because I was in a Mitford mood I was browsing and found this on YouTube. It's Deborah Devonshire in conversation with Charlotte Moseley. She discusses Wait For Me, and also her friendship with Patrick Leigh Fermor.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser

I borrowed this from the library, not at all sure whether it was my sort of thing. But I found that I really enjoyed it.

The main character, Harry Flashman, is the school bully from Tom Brown's Schooldays by Thomas Hughes. Fraser has taken the character from his expulsion from school and gives him an army career.

Flashman is a truly horrible human being. He is bullying, cowardly, his attitude to women is reprehensible (not to say criminal), he is completely self centred. He lies and cheats to get his own way. There is no character development, he is as odious at the end of the book as he is at the beginning.

The fun of the book is the adventure. Flashman gets into all kinds of scrapes and while we might want him to get his comeuppance, of course he never does. It is set in the 1830/40s where, after a series of misadventures he is posted to Afghanistan. This is not a good posting, the British are barely hanging on there, with woeful leadership and low morale. Flashman is in the thick of it, but by cunning and undeserved good fortune manages to emerge unscathed.

I feel much better informed about this period in history than I was before reading the book. I know from reading reviews by people who know about these things that the historical research for the Flashman series is excellent.

I look forward to making my way through the series.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford. ed Peter Y Sussman

Part 1

This is such a huge book that I've decided to read it in stages, with other books in between. So far I'm up to Decca being settled in America with her second husband.

Peter Sussman makes a very important point in his introduction to this collection which, while sort of obvious, hadn't really occurred to me. That is, a collection of letters doesn't show someone's whole life. Letters are lost or thrown away, really important news is conveyed by telephone or in person, and of course letters aren't sent to the people who we live with, who we see every day.

The early letters don't disappoint in terms of Mitford eccentricity, all nicknames and secret family language. For some reason she and Nancy call each other 'Susan.'  Decca is always 'seething' about something, or 'simply longing' to see someone. Things are 'absolute heaven' and if she is cross with someone she is 'not on speakers' with them. (I would love to incorporate the phrase 'not on speakers' into my own life but can't because a) I'm generally on quite good terms with everyone and b) I really don't think I've got the accent for it).

There is a bit of a gap between 1937 and 1939 and when the letters start up again there is a change in tone. She and her first husband  Esmond Romilly are living in America and facing the challenge of finding jobs and being self-sufficient. The letters are far more descriptive about the places she goes and the people she meets. We can see her growing interest in politics and particularly in the civil rights movement.

Peter Sussman writes an introduction to each chapter which is very useful in putting the letters into context. I don't know much about the civil rights movement in America so have learned a lot from his painting a wider picture of what was going on at the time. I'm really enjoying this book, and am looking forward to reading the rest of it.

Friday, 11 March 2011


I have heard much on the blogs about Persephone and since I had some birthday money left (from January, I'm very frugal!) I decided to choose a couple for myself. I sent off for the catalogue (I much prefer reading a paper catalogue than browsing a website), and settled down to choose two books. This was very difficult. The problem was exacerbated by the Persephone reading weekend when I was tempted by lots of wonderful reviews for interesting books. But a choice had to be made and I chose The Wise Virgins by Leonard Woolf and Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey.

I chose The Wise Virgins because I fell slightly in love with Leonard Woolf after reading Victoria Glendinning's biography of him. This may seem a slight reason for choosing a book, but as I said, the choice was so great, and I'm not slightly in love with any of the other authors. I chose Cheerful Weather for the Wedding to continue the Bloomsbury theme.

I am very impressed by the speedy response at Persephone. I ordered the books on Wednesday afternoon and they arrived Thursday morning. And, unexpected bonus, free bookmarks!

So, now I'm all set for Persephone reading weekend 2012.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

My Name is Legion by A.N. Wilson

This book reminded me of a Dicken's novel: a London setting, a sprawling cast of characters and funny but with a pointed social commentary.

The story centres around a newspaper called The Daily Legion (suffice to say, it is not a force for good). Its proprietor, Lennox Mark, a monstrous glutton of a man, surrounds himself with sycophants and uses his power to influence the government. But he is troubled by a religious experience he had as a young man. He tries to push it away because it is a hindrance in his quest for wealth and power but it keeps breaking though.

His former mentor and present nemesis is a priest, Fr Vivyan Chell. An aristocratic former soldier, he devotes his life to helping the friendless and dispossessed, but he is deeply flawed.

My Name is Legion is a quote from the Gospel of Mark when Jesus confronts a man who is possessed by a demon. 'For he said unto him, Come out of the man, thou unclean spirit. And he asked him, What is thy name? And he answered, saying, My name is Legion, for we are many.' One of the themes of the novel is the fight between good and evil, and how good people can do bad things and bad people can do good things. Also that the self we show to the world might not be our true self. This is made explicit in the character of Peter, a troubled, possible schizophrenic boy who has a number of personalities. Peter ricochets between the other characters like a ball in a pinball machine.

The book is an indictment of the casually cruel world of tabloid newspapers. It's about how we often just see what we want to see in other people. It's about temptation and how we sometimes get drawn into situations against out better judgement.

I enjoyed it much more than I thought I was going to. It is a bit brutal in places (though other people may not find it so, I am very squeamish). There were a couple of characters I couldn't really see the point of. But I thought that it was a very good read.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford. ed Peter Y Sussman

I had ordered this from the library and picked it up today. I have to admit to being slightly overawed by the size of it. Usually I start a book and plough on through to the end but I think I'm going to tackle this one in stages. I remember reading a volume of Virginia Woolf's letters,  a much smaller book than this one, and by the end all the letters were starting to blur into one. They all seemed to be about getting servants, firing servants or having to cope without servants. I was surprised to see that I am only the second person to borrow Decca from the library, and the first person was four years ago. I thought that Mitford-mania was quite widespread and would've expected more people to be interested in Decca's letters.

Billy came back with three books from the school book swap last week. The Monster Story-Teller by Jacqueline Wilson, Horrid Henry's Underpants by Francesca Simon and Spider-Man 3: The New Goblin.  I can't believe we have another Horrid Henry book in the house!

Thursday, 3 March 2011

New books

I've got a good haul over the past few days from  I get most of my books from there now, I love it. So I've got:

Lytton Strachey and Bloomsbury Group by Michael Holroyd
I'm a bit worried about this one because when it arrived I realised that it is more about his work than his life. There is a companion volume about his life.

How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton
I've never read any Proust but I have read some de Botton and I think he has the lovely knack of making an unfamiliar subject approachable.

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
This was reviewed by Simon at stuck in a book and I really liked the sound of it. The blurb says:
Set against a China on the brink of change, The Good Earth is a riveting family saga and story of female sacrifice; a classic of twentieth-century literature.

The Red House Mystery by AA Milne
Really looking forward to this one, it's ages since I read a proper old between-the-wars mystery.

In World Book Day news, Billy's classroom is decorated to the theme of the Percy the Park Keeper children's books. The door is made to look like the entrance to a garden shed, there are paper leaves on the floor, a pond (complete with cuddly frogs) and cardboard trees. The teachers must have spent ages on it. Today the children are taking in books for a book swap. We'll see what he comes home with.

Watched last night's My Life in Books. Elizabeth McGovern and the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire - what a perfect pairing. They are both so elegant. And I enjoyed their book choices.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Library visit

Billy and I went on our monthly library visit yesterday and this is what we got:

Billy did his usual thing of taking about 30 seconds to choose his four books
one of which I had to veto because it was too old for him (kissing and drugs!).
So he swapped that for Oswald and the End of the World, about a boy with a fortune telling father who lives on a mysterious island called Idlegreen.

His second choice How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food is a rhyming picture book.

'How does a dinosaur eat all his food? Is he noisy and jumpy and spilling and rude? Does he toss milk and peas? Does he ever say "Please?" What does a dinosaur do?'
He also got The Lighthouse Keeper's Breakfast.  I think this may be a series of books about a lighthouse keeper and his wife, Mr and Mrs Grinling. This book has been read already! He sat down with his dad when I was preparing the tea last night and read it. Billy read two pages, then Mark read two pages until the book was finished.

His big find at the library was The Guinness Book of World Records. He has been reading this one by himself. He took great delight in showing me the picture of the man who holds the record for holding the most rattlesnakes in his mouth (I'm petrified of snakes).

I chose Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser. I've been hearing about this book for a while, then Richard Bacon picked it as one of his five books in My Life in Books. I think I've always bracketed it with the Patrick O'Brien books and the Sharpe novels which I, rightly or wrongly, think of as boys books. But Richard Bacon raved about it, and I do like historical novels. I stood making my mind up about it for a ridiculously long time at the library. I was taking it off the shelf and putting it back on for ages until it finally struck me that I could take it home, start to read it and if I don't like it just bring it back to the library! I really don't know where this fear of making a wrong book choice comes from!

I need to figure out how to put pictures properly on this blog. I had another one that I wanted to use but it messed with the text too much. I'll have to practice.