Archive for the ‘Bookish Miscellania’ Category

After years as a devoted listener of Simon and Rachel’s Tea or Books? podcast, I have finally made my debut as a guest!  You can hear me in episode #102 as we discuss books about grief and decide if we prefer Four Gardens by Margery Sharp or Five Windows by D.E. Stevenson.  Both books are readily available from Dean Street Press if we inspire you to track them down!

You can listen to the episode HERE.  We also talk about lots of other books (Simon has the full list alongside the episode) and I thought I’d share the reviews I have for some of them if you’re interested in more details:

Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson
Hetty Dorval by Ethel Wilson
Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
A Magnificent Obsession by Helen Rappaport
In the Mountains by Elizabeth von Arnim
Mrs Tim books by D.E. Stevenson: Mrs Tim Carries On, Mrs Tim Gets a Job, Mrs Tim Flies Home
Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield
Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp
The English Air by D.E. Stevenson
Green Money by D.E. Stevenson
Moon Tiger by Penelope Tiger


Read Full Post »

Possession by A.S. Byatt is a work of absolute genius.

It’s been a chaotic work week for me with plenty of long days but even when I can only manage an hour of reading a day, it’s been a joy to slip back into Byatt’s 1990 Booker Prize winner novel of Victorian romance and modern-day academic sleuthing.

Byatt didn’t just write a novel.  She wrote poems and short stories and letters and diaries and biographies and academic analysis from multiple perspectives on all of it.  And yes, she also wrote a narrative that weaves it altogether.  The entirety is so cleverly conceived and brilliantly executed that it boggles the mind.

If you haven’t picked it up in a while (or ever?  What a treat you have in store in that case!), I urge you to do so now.  It’s a perfect book to immerse yourself in, offering multiple worlds, immense passion, and also, I had forgotten, quite a lot of humour around the academic rivalries.

Read Full Post »

Home Work by Enslin du Plessis

It’s that happy time of year when the “My Life in Books” meme is doing the rounds and I thought I’d join in, following the fine example of Karen, Ali, Lisa, Annabel, and doubtlessly many others whose posts I’ve missed so far.

Using only books you have read this year (2020), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title.

In high school I was: One to Watch (Kate Stayman-London)

People might be surprised by: The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (Dorothy L. Sayers)

I will never be a: Lady in Waiting (Anne Glenconner)

My life in lockdown was: Life in the Garden (Penelope Lively)

My fantasy job is: Something Light (Margery Sharp)

At the end of a long day I need: The Lido (Libby Page)

I hate being: Rootbound (Alice Vincent)

Wish I had: The Beauty of Your Face (Sahar Mustafah)

My family reunions are: The Lost Europeans (Emanuel Litvinoff)

At a party you’d find me with: The Shining Company (Rosemary Sutcliff)

I’ve never been to: Madensky Square (Eva Ibbotson)

A happy day includes: Summer Light (Andrew Stevenson)

Motto I live by: One More Croissant for the Road (Felicity Cloake)

On my bucket list is: A Castle in the Clouds (Kerstin Gier)

In my next life, I want to have: More Talk of Jane Austen (Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern)

Read Full Post »

I promised to share more from the superb Love in the Blitz by Eileen Alexander, a collection of letters written by Alexander during the war to her future husband, following the first one.  So here we go – a delightful account of Alexander’s first and far from hum-drum encounter with working life.

Through family connections, she found herself filling in during the 1939 Christmas holidays in the office of Leslie Hore-Belisha, the Secretary of State for War.  She derides his staff as ‘Public Adorers’, devoted to him, but it’s not hard to see where that devotion could come from – Alexander is clearly fond of him after just the one meeting, though less fond of the Public Adorer who comes to interrupt it so Hore-Belisha can shift his focus once more to the war:

I’ve had a most fantastic day, darling, which is a Good Thing, because there’s been no time for my imagination to sit on brood (a lovely expression, I’ve always felt – and from one of my best-known plays too).

Miss Sloane introduced me to her underling – a Miss Fox, whose underling I am to be (and damn me if she isn’t a fully fledged Public Adorer as well!  This thing is becoming a cult – but I’m pledged to it now and there is no escape).

Then Miss Sloane said, ‘I think Mr Hore-Belisha wants to see you,’ and she flung open the double doors – and there I was in his room.  That was at three – at three-five he’d already found out why I love Malory – at 3.10 he was asking me what position the Jews held in Mediaeval Society (if any) and at 3.15 – I was giving him a lecture on Chivalric Love Poetry, and religious mania as exemplified in the ‘Book of Margery Kempe’.  He just sat and nodded all the while – and then he sighed and said, ‘My dear, you must come in and read me some of these things.  I feel like the child in Robert Louis Stevenson’s fable – everyone laughed at him for playing with toys – and so he put them away in a cupboard, saying that he’d play with them again when he was grown-up and no-one would dare laugh at him, then – and then he forgot all about them.  You have opened the cupboard for me, and I have caught a glimpse of the things I had forgotten.  Please come and read to me sometimes.’

It was very beautiful, darling – and then the crash came.  PA No. 1, who had been standing by chafing all things while, now bustled busily forward.  ‘Certainly, certainly,’ she said briskly, more in anger than in sorrow, ‘Eileen will be glad to read to you when we’ve got rid of the war – but you’ve got to see the Prime Minister in five minutes – and you put off Lady Dawson of Penn,’ (Leslie here interjected irritably, ‘Damn the woman’ and PA No. 1 looked as shocked as a PA can permit herself to look) ‘so as we could go through the points of your interview together’ – (glowering at me) ‘and we haven’t.’  Whereat she seized me by the shoulder and pushed me out – shutting the door with a determined click.  Not So Beautiful. (14 December 1939)

Read Full Post »

Oh! dear, Gershon, (observe the comma – I am not being forward!) I wish you weren’t so much cleverer than I am.  When I first knew you, I was always in a state of waiting breathlessly for you to find out that I wasn’t clever, & erase me from the tables of your brain for ever – then I thought oh: well you must have found out by this time & were kindly overlooking it – but the more I saw of you, the more things I discovered you could do that I couldn’t – you could understand music, and pass your driving test at the second attempt, and play games, & follow the Hebrew in the prayer book without using your finger, & be forward without being impertinent, & sing in the street without being foolish – & all kinds of other things too – but this last display of versatility is too much – you can type as well – and in two colours – and two different sizes!  What can I do but say humbly that it’s been an honour to know you? (3 August 1939)

I have been longing for a really good collection of letters to read but Love in the Blitz by Eileen Alexander is exceeding my every expectation.  Alexander, a recent Cambridge graduate, was recovering from a car accident during the summer of 1939 when the letters to her future husband Gershon Ellenbogen begin and from the beginning they are extraordinary.  Bursting with life and humour, I can barely stand to put them down to do anything else – except perhaps pop by here to share a few snippets.  Expect more dispatches in coming days!

Read Full Post »

Pandemic Purchases

We’ve all changed in some way as the world has changed around us since March. Maybe you’ve taken up baking or running or oil painting. I’ve not done anything so productive (although…matter of opinion?). I’ve turned my back on a lifetime of frugality and started buying books with reckless abandon.

Alright, my reckless abandon over the course of six months doesn’t compare with what some of you can manage in a single afternoon but it’s all comparative.

Here’s what I’ve accumulated:

In the spring all I wanted to do was garden so it’s no surprise that I worked just as devotedly on building out my library of gardening books.

The Five Minute Garden by Laetitia Maklouf – published this spring, I love Maklouf’s sweet little book (based on her popular series of Instagram tips) of little jobs sorted by season. For days when you just can’t be bothered to do anything ambitious this is the perfect inspiration. And, as with everything, five minutes a day really does help you make progress.

Good in a Bed and Better Against a Wall by Ursula Buchan – two collections of Buchan’s gardening columns for a variety of papers. I’d read some of these before when I borrowed the first volume via inter-library loan but I’m so happy to have them readily to hand.

Rootbound by Alice Vincent – Vincent has established herself as an enthusiastic gardener with her popular Instagram account and newsletter, neither of which I was familiar with before reading this. I’m interested to hear about any other garden-loving millennials and read this as soon as it arrived. It was a disappointment for me and I might eventually find the energy to expand those thoughts into a full post but, in short, Vincent is a bit too self-absorbed and self-pitying (being a millennial is not that hard – or that different from what others have experienced before. Oh my god, get a grip).

Thoughtful Gardening by Robin Lane-Fox – like with Buchan, I’d borrowed this previously from the library.  Lane-Fox can set my teeth on edge every so often with his casual chauvinism but my interest in his topics and my enjoyment of his writing overrides that. I’m delighted to have this now to dip in and out of.

Cheerfulness Breaks In and Growing Up by Angela Thirkell – such disappointments! I pre-ordered these as soon as I saw Virago was reissuing them but I was devastated to see the green spines when they arrived. The covers are lovely and match the rest of the Thirkell titles Virago has been reissuing but these spines are so jarring against the others and I’m really bothered by it. I had also ordered Peace Breaks Out but it was so badly water damaged when it arrived that it went straight into recycling (I was able to get a refund).

Abigail by Magda Szabó – Pure whimsey on my part. As soon as my local bookstore reopened in late spring (only 3 people at a time in the store) I had to visit to show my support, naturally. And how better to show support than with a purchase? I trust the NYRB Classics series and had been hearing only good things about this so it seemed like a safe purchase.

Business As Usual by Jane Oliver & Ann Stafford – Is there anyone who hasn’t loved this book? I read a library copy back in January (I will eventually review it, really!) and was delighted to add it to my own shelves when the Handheld Press reissue came out in the spring.

British Summer Time Begins by Ysenda Maxtone Graham – as a devotee of Slightly Foxed and social histories, I’ve loved Ysenda Maxtone Graham’s Mr Tibbits’s Catholic School and Terms & Conditions. Here she looks at summer holidays from the 1930s to the 1980s. I’m saving this one for dark, long nights when I need a taste of summer.

With the libraries now reopened my buying has slowed back to normal rates (almost exclusively Slightly Foxed new releases) but it was fun to comfort myself with new books during the most uncertain months of the year.  It looks like we’re headed into an excellent winter for reading (all winters are excellent for this but one with prescribed social distancing makes it especially so) so I’m happy to have well-stocked shelves.

Read Full Post »


Trafalgar Square on VE Day

All day long, little extra celebrations started up.  In the Mall, a model of a Gallic cock waltzed on a pole over the heads of the singing people. ‘It’s the Free French,’ said someone.  The Belgians in the crowd tagged along after a Belgian flag that marched by, its bearer invisible.  A procession of students raced through Green Park, among exploding squibs, clashing dustbin lids like cymbals and waving an immense Jeyes Disinfectant poster as a banner.  American sailors and laughing girls formed a conga line down the middle of Piccadilly, and cockneys linked arms in the Lambeth Walk.  It was a day and night of no fixed plan and no organized merriment.  Each group danced its own dance, sang its own song, and went its own way as the spirit moved it.  The most tolerant, self-effacing people in London on V-E Day were the police, who simply stood by, smiling benignly, while soldiers swung by one arm from lamp standards and laughing groups tore down hoardings to build the evening’s bonfires.[…] Just before the King’s speech, at nine Tuesday night, the big lamps outside the Palace came on and there were cheers and ohs from children who had never seen anything of that kind in their short, blacked-out lives.  As the evening wore on, most of the public buildings were flood-lighted.  The night was as warm as midsummer, and London, its shabbiness now hidden and its domes and remaining Wren spires warmed by lights and bonfires, was suddenly magnificent.  The handsomest building of all was the National Gallery, standing out honey-coloured near a ghostly, blue-shadowed St. Martin’s and the Charles I bit of Whitehall.  The floodlighted face of Big Ben loomed like a kind moon.

Mollie Panter-Downes – London War Notes

We file out by the St. Stephen’s entrance and the police have kept a lane through the crowd.  The crowd are friendly, recognising some of the Members.  I am with Nancy Astor who is, I feel, a trifle hurt that she does not get more cheering.  We then have a service – and very memorable it is.  The supreme moment is when the Chaplain reads out the names of those Members of Parliament who have lost their lives.  It is a sad thing to hear.  My eyes fill with tears.  I hope that Nancy does not notice.  ‘Men are so emotional,’ she says.

Harold Nicolson

Canadian naval staff on VE day (credit: George Metcalf Archival Collection)

It was without any doubt Churchill’s day.  Thousands of King George’s subjects wedged themselves in front of the Palace throughout the day, chanting ceaselessly, ‘We want the King’ and cheering themselves hoarse when he and the Queen and their daughters appeared, but when the crowd saw Churchill, there was a deep, full-throated, almost reverent roar.  He was at the head of a procession of Members of Parliament, walking back to the House of Commons from the traditional St. Margaret’s Thanksgiving Service.  Instantly, he was surrounded by people – people running, standing on tiptoe, holding up babies so that they could be told later they had seen him, and shouting affectionately the absurd little nurserymaid name, ‘Winnie, Winnie!’  One of two happily sozzled, very old, and incredibly dirty cockneys who had been engaged in a slow, shuffling dance, like a couple of Shakespeare’s clowns, bellowed, ‘That’s ‘im, that’s ‘his little old lovely bald ‘ead!’

Mollie Panter-Downes – London War Notes

Canadian soldiers celebrating in Piccadilly Circus (credit: Lieut. Arthur L. Cole)

Today the people of London and their children and thousands of visitors took to the streets and parks to celebrate victory in Europe.  Flags flew from all the buildings.  Shop windows were stuffed with red, white, and blue clothes, flowers and materials.  Planes flew overhead, and streamers, ticker tape and paper poured out of windows.  There was no traffic because people filled the streets and pavements.  I walked to the office and found only Air Marshal Slessor there. ‘It’s a National Holiday – you should have come,’ he said.  ‘Supposing I stay and help till lunchtime,’ I said and added, ‘besides it’s a brilliant time to throw some of your more boring papers out of our windows.’  Before I left I peeled the canvas off one window and emptied the contents of five wastepaper baskets on to Kingsway.  I longed to be more generous but did not dare.

Hermione Ranfurly – To War with Whitaker

Read Full Post »

I am slowly starting to regain my reading rhythm (watch now, I may have just cursed myself) but the good news is that even when we’re struggling to read we have alternatives.  There are so many great podcasts out there now to help keep us entertained and remind us of how many equally devoted fellow readers are in the world.  The only problem is that there are so many podcasts and so many episodes – where do you start?

For fun, I’ve put together a list of my favourite episodes from my five favourite literary podcasts:

Backlisted: Georgette Heyer – Venetia
I have a fraught relationship with Backlisted (too much laughing over their own cleverness and too little focus on the actual books) but some of the earlier episodes are excellent.  The episode where they discover the joys of Georgette Heyer is, to me, clearly the best of the bunch.  There is nothing like the enthusiasm of someone who has just discovered a new and wonderful author.

Honourable Mention: R.F. Delderfield – To Serve Them All My Days – I grew up loving Delderfield but no one outside my family had any idea who he was.  Hearing Jenny Colgan enthuse over him made up for all the lonely years of reading.

You’re Booked: Sarra Manning
A podcast where the host goes around to snoop in other people’s bookshelves?  Brilliant.  Here Daisy stops by Sarra Manning’s flat and explores her wonderfully eclectic tastes.

Honourable Mention: Sophie Kinsella – I’ve not read much by Kinsella but she sounds delightful and I would happily steal most of her books.

Sentimental Garbage: A Countess Below Stairs
There is not enough love in the world for Eva Ibbotson so whenever someone wants to pay attention to her I am delighted, particularly when it comes in the form of rambling, sighing, besotted enthusiasm.

Honourable Mentions – a tie: Circle of Friends (Irish people getting emotional about the ultimate Irish comfort read) and Less (which I finally read and now understand all the love for).

The Slightly Foxed Podcast: Well-Cultivated Words
The Slightly Foxed podcast has been perfection since the very first episode.  The conversation is as intelligent, informed, and varied as their wonderful quarterly and they always find excellent guests.  My favourite episode so far was devoted to garden writing and it taught me an important lesson: don’t try to write down every book they mention that you want to read.  You won’t be able to keep up!  Thankfully they are all mentioned in the show notes.

Honourable Mention: Leaving That Place Called Home – an episode devoted entirely to travel writing?  Yes please.

Tea or Books: Titles: Fancy or Simple? and Hercule Poirot vs Miss Marple
I love Simon and Rachel and listening to their rambling conversations is almost as good as being part of one in real life.  This early episode where they struggle to pick a favourite between Poirot and Miss Marple is a favourite.

Honourable Mention: Internet vs Bookshop and Mr Pim Passes By vs Four Day’s Wonder – spreading the word about the excellence of A.A. Milne!

Do you have any favourite podcasts, bookish or otherwise?

Read Full Post »

We all need good things to look forward to right now.  So, in case August 20th is not already circled in your calendars, I give you notice: Virago is finally releasing paperback editions of the three wartime Angela Thirkell novels they had previously only made available as e-books (presuming, of course, no massive delays as a result of the pandemic).

The trio (with my old reviews of them for quick reference) are:

Cheerfulness Breaks In

Growing Up

Peace Breaks Out

The covers are also new for the paperbacks and a vast improvement on the generic ones used for the e-books.  I’m not totally convinced about the cover for Peace Breaks Out but I think bunting and street parties, while horrifying to Thirkell’s middle class characters, sell books so can’t complain.

The books are available for pre-order here and will presumably start showing up on other book sellers’ websites soon.

Read Full Post »

Happy International Women’s Day!  Forget the lilies of the valley or mimosa today.  Instead, give books to both the women and men in your life that will help raise awareness of the both the history of women’s struggles for equality and the challenges we are still facing today.  Here are some new and upcoming releases to help inspire us all (and if you want further ideas, check out my list from 2018 as well):

The Home Stretch by Sally Howard – Housework is still too often women’s work and there are signs that the gap is actually worsening in some countries compared to where it was a few decades ago.  Howard investigates what is going on.

Double Lives by Helen McCarthy – Subtitled “a history of working motherhood”, McCarthy looks at how women in the UK have gone from being excluded from the workforce after having children to being a vital part of it.  For bonus reading, don’t miss McCarthy’s earlier book Women of the World, about the rise of female diplomats.

Ladies Can’t Climb Ladders by Jane Robinson – Robinson, author of several social histories focused on women’s experiences and struggles, returns with a look at British women who embraced professional careers following the First World War.

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener – After leaving a publishing job in New York for a tech industry role in Silicon Valley, Anna Wiener discovered a world of immense egos and entitlement and shockingly casual sexism.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo – this South Korean bestseller has raised a lot of controversy in its portrayal of an average woman’s struggles in a deeply sexist and conservative culture.  It’s sparked a difficult debate in Korea about feminism and gender equality and is now finally available for the English-speaking world to read.

Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez – If you only read one book off this list, make it this one.  Frankly, if you only read one book this year, make it this one.  Newly released in paperback, Invisible Women looks at how data bias harms women around the world, with examples ranging from drug trials with no female test subjects to relief efforts following national disasters that ignore women’s needs for safe toilets or forget to provide cooking spaces.  In the spirit of the day, it is a book that should make you mad and determined to do you bit to change the world.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »