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Books about books

I love reading books about books in a way that I do not like the everlasting catalogue of Christmas books that thumps on to the carpet around November, from the colour supplement or Amazon or almost everywhere, EXCEPT the Primrose Hill Bookshop list which comes out twice a year, summer and winter which is a good catch-up moment for books one may have missed.


But two especially interesting and favoured books about reading are Susan Hill‘s 2017 memoir called Jacob’s Room is Full of Books and Marilynne Robinson’s memoir When I Was a Child I Read Books. There are two reasons for selecting these two, one, Susan Hill is quintessentially English and Marilynne Robinson is quintessentially American, so there is little overlap and also because they both talk interestingly about themselves, where they read, what they read and what they admire about books – about the physicality of the page, the typeface, the handling of the book, its heft.

For me, this is one of the abiding things, the heft of the books itself – light or heavy; and the placement of various moments on the page, I can vividly recall where exactly on the page something happened, something ordinary or scary or unusual – that pinpoint accuracy used to annoy the hell out of my husband who thought I must skim read!

Susan Hill writes marvellous books anyway, so it is a particular joy to find out what she likes to read herself. Jacob’s Room is set over a whole year of reading and it includes nuggets of country life – Norfolk now and Oxfordshire once upon a time; France where she goes on holiday; books taken from shelves in rented cottages and found in charity bookshops; new books sent by publishers all read in shady corners on hot days, or beside a wood fire in winter, along with comments on the arrival and departure of migrant birds – who knew that Same West (the actor) was also a birdwatcher – and the hedgehogs that live in her garden.

It seems that she is an observant naturalist as well as a people watcher, and I love that. Best of all, at the back of the book is a list of all the books she mentions in the book – so helpful, so thoughtful of her.

The Marilynne Robinson memoir is rather different, it is a series of essays about the place of reading, not so much about different books but about different themes, it is a more complicated and nuanced book because it deals not so much with specific titles but with ideas in books, and praises writers who bring ideas into print.

Probably the funniest recent book about reading is Alan Bennet’s The Uncommon Reader, a small book by any standard but an absolute gem.  If you haven’t already read it all you need to know about it is that The Queen discovers a mobile library parked near the kitchens at Buckingham Palace, and begins to borrow books…it is delightful, amusing and thoroughly well written. There is a mobile library that pops up in Susan Hill’s pages too. She has observed, sadly, the decline in visitors, once crowded with readers, it is now seldom used – so why keep it going.

Then there is also The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bithell, amusing and rather scary in places.




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And then three come along at once

If historical novels are not your thing, then maybe stop now. This is about Elizabeth Chadwick’s trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine, one time Queen of France, Queen of England and Duchess of Aquitaine, though not the first two at the same time.

When she was only thirteen, Eleanor was thrust into the thick of the world of power and intrigue, for on the death of her father on his way as a pilgrim to Santiago de Compostela (where he is buried) she learned for the first time that she was affianced to Louis, the Dauphin of France and quite suddenly, soon to be King.

The decision was strategic. Eleanor came into her inheritance as a wealthy woman in both lands and money; for her to have married any one of many barons and landowners of Aquitaine would have split the duchy into warring factions, but by leaving her as affianced to Louis in his Will, a negotiation that had clearly taken place in secret, her father avoided such factional and destructive fighting.

The Summer Queen covers Eleanor’s childhood, the death of her only brother in infancy and her close emotional relationship with her sister Petronella, their mother Aenor de Chatelerault having died some time before this novel begins. Eleanor’s childhood ended abruptly on the death of her father and she was moved to France married to Prince Louis. Generally painted as a monkish weakling, in this novel he begins his marriage as a passionate and beautiful youth; a fearful rampage at the siege of Vitry some years later (by which time he was King) during which many women and children were burnt alive in the church where they had sought safety, crushed his spirit – he saw it as punishment for his misdemeanours, that and the fact he was unable to sire boys – the unforgiving will of God.

By the second book, The Winter Crown, Eleanor has begun her robust and turbulent marriage to Henry II. Bearing many children, both male and female – the brood of devils some might say – Eleanor manages her household and tries to influence Henry; she had expected as much when their whirlwind romance began, but more and more she was frustratingly side-lined, eventually matters reach a crisis and even a Queen must face the consequences of treason: she is imprisoned by Henry in squalid and meagre circumstances in Sarum Castle.

This part of the trilogy is full of tragedy: sons die and daughters go off across the continent; marriageable princesses are a token and important part of alliance and support, no matter how suitable or unsuitable the groom. By the end of the book, only her sons Richard and John have survived; her daughters are in Saxony, Castile and Sicily and she is aware that she may never see them again. Henry, meanwhile, has taken on a much younger mistress and is seeking an annulment to their marriage.

The last part, The Autumn Throne, finds Eleanor still mewed up in Sarum Castle refusing to be bullied by her husband even as he divides her from her family and her birthright.

All changes therefore, when Henry II dies and Richard I comes to the throne instead. Eleanor is released, she travels over the Alps to collect Berenguela (also known as Berengaria) as a bride for Richard, who is already on his way to Jerusalem as part of the his Crusade; behind his back his brother John is scheming and plotting and when Richard gets imprisoned on his way back from an unsuccessful campaign, John tries to persuade everyone that he is dead, and he, Philippe of France and Heinrich of Germany try to make sure that Richard disappears without trace – however having escaped their clutches Richard makes a magnificent reappearance only to be killed by a stray arrow at Chalus.

Eleanor’s story is far from over though. She has to master John, who aggravates the barons into rebellion, she has to travel to Castile, aged 80, to collect her niece Blanche for marriage to another French King, Louis VIII; she holds her daughter Joanna in her arms as she dies from childbirth and sees many other followers and friends die in their time.

Retired and quiet at the Abbey of  Fontevraud, she commissions the famous effigies of her husband, Henry II, of Richard and of Joanna (now missing) in the abbey church. Until she too, follows them to the grave.

There might be a little too much repetition of hunting expeditions with gyrfalcons and gazehounds; eating of almond pastries and sewing elaborate costumes – but what else was there to do without television, snapchat and the like.

On a happier note we meet William Marshall again, one day to become the most powerful man in England. William’s remarkable story has also been told by Elizabeth Chadwick in her novels,  A Place Beyond Courage, The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion, which I also strongly recommend.

This is a glorious pageant full of sound and fury, but not on the whole signifying nothing, since its elaborate weaving of historical fact with imaginative in-filling brings this part of English history abundantly and vividly to life, to the great enhancement of our perception of the Angevin Kings of England.

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The book, the sequel and the play

My Name is Lucy Barton Elizabeth StroutWho knew that My Name is Lucy Barton would produce such a flourishing industry? T-shirts and tea towels next? The novel was such a slight little book, physically that is – it packed a big punch.

A single person narrator (LB) recalls a time when she was ill for several months. Some complication, possibly not even physical, keeping her in hospital after a fairly routine operation.

Her two small children were clearly scared when they visited, seeing their mother so thin and so sick; her husband had hospital-phobia (who doesn’t? But some of us rise above it) and he gets her a single room because he cannot bear the woman who is clearly dying in the next bed. This causes Lucy chronic loneliness, as well as being ill.

Then she wakes up to find her mother sitting at the end of the bed. That is enough for now, anything else would be a spoiler.

The writing is sparse, direct and funny at times, laugh out loud funny occasionally and heart-rending. Amgash does not seem to have been a good place to grow up. Though during the book it is clear that Lucy has left her family and roots behind and is living in New York, AIDS has struck the gay community, but in her evident loneliness, Lucy even manages to envy those couples walking past the apartment block where she lives. It would seem that some people can be lonely even when married. Too right, Lucy!

StroutThe sequel, Anything is Possible, is centred in Amgash. So we get to meet, in person, many of the characters only referred to in My Name is Lucy Barton. Elizabeth Sprout has a vivid and extraordinary facility for character and place, you can really hear the wind in the fields of corn; you can smell the poverty and cringe and experience the terrible isolation. Amgash is not, seemingly, a huddle of houses, it is spread out so that one dwelling or farm is far, maybe even a drive apart, from the next.

But the two books together make a nice whole. Contained and absorbing. So imagine my surprise when I saw that the first book had been remodelled as a play. How was that going to work?My name is LB play

The answer is brilliantly!

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What a difference 200 years makes!

MacdonaldI have just been reading There and Back by George Macdonald. Macdonald was a novelist and theologian and preacher born in 1824 and a prolific writer of phantasy novels, romantic and other fiction as well as non-fiction books of collected sermons and poetry.

The writer, C S Lewis regarded him as a mentor, and there is some evidence of his writings influencing writers a diverse as E Nesbit, Walter de la Mere and even W H Auden and several others.

MarinerI was reading There and Back because it was cited as a typical example of a book influenced by The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in a book by Malcolm Guite about Samuel Taylor Coleridge which I was reading in Lent this year. But while the theologian in Malcolm Guite made his Christian message and his reading of The Rime seen through this lens exciting and entertaining; the same cannot be said of There and Back.

While I did enjoy this book, its eye-stretchingly preachy prose clouded what was really a rather simple romance. The basic tale is fairly unsophisticated: a baronet marries a blacksmith’s daughter, socially beneath him, the lady delivers an heir and dies, her sister acts as the child’s nurse without actively being identified as his aunt, but when the baronet marries an ice-cold aristocratic woman, the aunt recognises the danger to her charge and runs away with the baby, which she brings up as her own with her husband. The child grows up unaware of his true heritage and becomes a gifted bookbinder…the tale continues with much in the way of romantic twists and turns, until the denouement when like any good romance the boy gets the perfect girl.

But all this is buried in some deep Christian thought and theology, not that I have any objection in principle, but sermonising throughout an adventure story seems a sorry way of bulking up a novel.

Not assisted by a very evil edition – one of Amazon’s reprints of out-of-print classics. It is described as having been proofread by Project Gutenberg. Just look carefully at the cover! What a travesty: misprints, incorrect capitalisation and plenty of inaccuracies that make the sense difficult to understand.

But my main astonishment was in the liberal sermonising in the text, it would not pass muster now. No matter how good the story, no editor would allow this to reach the page. So I wonder what the audience was like for these apparently very popular books? Were they all agog as they turned page after page of musings on the nature of God, first from a non-believer and then by his girl-friend who endeavours to enlighten him, successfully of course! As I said – what a difference two hundred years makes.

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Don’t cry, my beloved country

Snowy RiverWhat another Australian novel? Yes, just so.

The Trout Opera covers a number of Australian tropes, but once again the characters are largely European Australians. There is one native Australian in the whole book and he, a character called Percy, gets the opportunity to prick a fair number of assumptions made about the indigenous people.

In the following scene, Wilfred Lampe and Percy are looking for someone who has gone missing in the Snowy Mountains:

They reckoned Hayes had become disoriented, despite his expertise on the skis. […]

They’d already found Hayes’ gloves and scarf. And ski tracks near Merritts Lookout. Yet  no Hayes.

On the ride up, Percy said: ‘I think the tree line.’


‘You are not going to leave the tree line in the big snow.’

‘Why not?’

‘Have to be crazy to leave the tree line. Maybe he was crazy.’

They rode to where Seaman was found and ate quietly, looking down into the valley.

‘You think you can find any tracks?’ Wilfred asked. ‘You’re a black bloke.’

Percy chewed a sandwich. ‘You think all black blokes can track?’

‘I dunno. Can you?’

‘You don’t know much.’

‘I’m just asking you.’

‘If you knew anything you don’t need to ask if I can track. Course I can track. My mother could track. My sisters, they track. It’s nothing special to track. Just a way of getting food. Taught when we’re little. If you knew anything you’d be able to track.’

However, in spite of the apparent disappearance of the “blackfella” in so many modern Australian novels, this is still an interesting and well constructed novel. It shows an Australia that is steeped in manufactured myth. The year is 1999/2000. A team responsible for the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics are looking for a typical near-one-hundred-year-old Australian and eventually they settle on Wilfred Lampe. Sadly, the day they arrive at his shack, they find him collapsed in the back yard amongst the weeds and long grass. Panicking, the two men summon assistance, and Wilfred is whisked off to hospital.

Matthew Condon‘s novel segues between Wilfred’s life, almost a hundred years living in the same spot, near to the Snowy River, so the ultimate man from Snowy River [a famous Banjo Patterson poem] and the means by which the men from the committee try to find his family, and try to incorporate him into the festival ceremony. At the same time, the novel also covers the story of the Snowy River itself, once a huge and gushing torrent, full of fish and life, until choked and spoiled by damming and pollution.

There are poetic stretches of life as a fly fisherman, and the tying of flies for fishing which are interesting in themselves. The delicacy of these deadly lures and the inventiveness.

It is also a long love story, a human love story and a love story devoted to a place – the Snowy River and its environs.

Unlike The Dry and many other novels, this is real Australia. The places mentioned all exist in real time and in character. And it is a land despoiled by pollution, and by cheap housing but also, in places completely unspoiled.

The novel covers the big debate about where the capital city should be built. Dalgety, the first, and seemingly obvious, choice has its moment in the sun and then suddenly it is dropped in favour of Canberra. Dalgety is where Wilfred Lampe and his family live, Callistus his grandfather, Uncle Berty, a damaged veteran of World War I, his mother and his sister Astrid.

It is also about the darker side of life amongst drug addicts and city drop-outs.

It is a marvellously complex story, beautifully told.


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A little blog of books

It may be slightly unusual to write a post about another blog. Surely, you will think, I want you to read mine. But I owe so much of my reading to this blog, that I feel it is time to acknowledge my resource.

The writer is more than merely a reader of books, which to all intents and purposes is what I am. The author of this blog gives each book space and time, her/his writing expands into a thoughtful and generous appreciation of the novel and the author, and even when not liked, the book gets a fair hearing.

This blogger has the attention, not only of several publishers who now send review copies – a fact which is always gratefully acknowledged – but is also on several “shadow” judging panels for the more prestigious prizes.

Thankfully there is no room in her/his busy schedule to cover the Man Booker, so I can safely claim that territory for myself, though the shortlist is always presented with any comments on books the blogger has read.

Alittleblogofbooks covers the Man Booker International prize; The Independent Foreign Fiction prize; Women in Translation and the Wellcome Book Prize and much, much more.

It is because of this blog that I have really come to love Sarah Moss. The Tidal Zone, her debut novel is a startling and moving account of isolation, dislocation and loss; to some extent this is an emotional palette that she has explored at length, which is not to say that she writes the same book each time. Very far from it.

Bodies of Light and Signs for Lost Children, published in 2014 and 2015 respectively, cover a period of great change in the lives of women. The leading female character, Alethea Moberley is the daughter of a painter/designer – somewhat in the style of William Morris – judging from the descriptions of his painting and his wallpaper designs. Alfred Moberley is at the beginning of his career in Victorian Manchester; he has married Elizabeth, a Quaker woman of strong Puritanical bent, whose life is wholly devoted to good works amongst the poor and indigent – upon whom she lavishes such efforts as behoves a charitable woman, but without much actual kindness.

They have two daughters, Alethea and May. Charity in this family does not start at home and the strictures of maternal discipline have in many ways warped the lives and characters of these two girls; both Papa, and his friend Aubrey, use the girls for models, often in quite louche and abandoned poses, paintings popular at the time; while the mother drags them to the poor schools and hospitals to show them the darker side of life.

Ally ends up with her mother’s dictums drumming through her head, always to her detriment. However, she does rise above this a little way and through her education and innate intelligence she achieves a place at a London Medical School. She travels to London and lives with her Aunt Mary – ending up after considerable struggle at the top of her class.

The novel, while ostensibly being about Alethea, does present an accurate and devastating picture of the huge barriers to a woman’s life; whether wealthy or poor.  Both had nearly insurmountable problems locking them into a stultifying life of idleness and gossip or burdening them with domesticity, childbearing and factory work.

Education, the sort that would provide a person with the skills for professional work, was provided for boys and men. To liberate a woman from home and hearth, whether above or below stairs was to disorder Society, which would never do.

Alethea bucks the trend, and along the way makes a great friend in Annie, another trainee doctor, but at great cost to her emotional life and she remains fragile, even after great success.

The second novel covers her marriage to Tom Cavendish, her life in Falmouth and her work in a local insane asylum; Tom, an engineer, goes away to Japan and the book has the most wonderful descriptions of his life there compared to Ally’s life in Cornwall.

SM Night WakingMay Moberley has a different sort of adventure, and appears in a earlier novel, Night Waking.

The first person narrator is a writer who is living on Colsay Island with two young children, Raphael and Timothy, trying to finish a book for which the deadline is past while juggling with childcare and Giles, a husband whose sense of entitlement does not often include nappy changing, feeding or caring for the heir and the spare.

In this book, Sarah Moss is also dealing with feminine issues and though set in the twentieth century, the chapters are interspersed with letters from May Moberley, writing in 1878, to Aubrey, to her sister Ally and to her patron Mr Cassingham, who is Giles’ great-grandfather and whose family has owned Colsay for generations. May is attempting to bring some order and hygiene into the lives of the crofter families, but their stubbornness and superstitions make her life intolerable.

Through these letters we are introduced to the life on the Scottish isles in both Victorian and modern Britain. Colsay is fictional, and the description in the novel largely but not accurately adumbrates the history of St Kilda, an island in the Outer Hebrides.  Conditions were harsh in Victorian Britain and are merely difficult in the twentieth century; but isolation, loneliness and struggle eat into the very bones of the people’s suffering.

The novel is hung upon the excruciating find of an infant grave in the garden, dug up accidentally by Raph while planting apple trees. The enquiry and the emotional backlash adds to the tensions already described.

I am enthralled, but would not want to suggest in any way that these are novels written for women. The research sits lightly on the text. My aim is contrarily to urge my readers to take a look at this other blog, full of the most wonderful insights and books that might otherwise have past you by.

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“The Scottish Play” in prose

Actors are very superstitious about playing in The Tragedy of Macbeth, and will not say the name as the tragedy is often associated with extreme bad luck. Jo Nesbo has no such qualms, and his rendering of the play as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, launched in 2012, has Macbeth as the title, unlike other writers in the series: Howard Jacobson rendered The Merchant of Venice as Shylock is My Name; Margaret Atwood called her version of The Tempest, Hagseed for example and others followed.

Equally, each writer has taken different liberties with the text they have been given (or chosen). Edward St Aubyn re-wrote King Lear in a novel called Dunbar which followed pretty much the trajectory of the play, but in a different era and stressed the more dysfunctional aspects of the Lear family, rather than the old man’s madness or dementia. Dunbar (Lear) has retired voluntarily to a care home and left his two elder daughters (Abby & Megan – Goneril and Regan) control of his large corporate business; things are not going well though and they are trying to force him to sign over even more powers and diminishing his powers as a result, aided by a fellow inmate, he escapes into the Lake District and is ultimately rescued by his youngest daughter (Florence – Cordelia).

Howard Jacobson, though, has altered the story completely.  His main character Simon Strulovitch, a wealthy art collector and philanthropist, meets Shylock at the graveside of their respective wives, Shylock materialises beside him and they spend the time discussing marriage, daughters, disappointment and petty betrayals, Shylock adamant that it was not the money that his daughter stole that gives him grief, but selling of the ring that he had given his beloved Leah. From this remarkable meeting grows a particular and unusual friendship, their philosophical conversations range over topics of relationship, being Jewish and the potential for good in humanity.

Nesbo MacbethJo Nesbo has followed more in the line taken by Edward St Aubyn. Macbeth has been transported to a nowhere/nameless town and when the novel starts he is the leader of a SWAT team. First we meet his subordinate, Duff, as he and his men try to prevent a huge stash of drugs from being delivered into the town; this goes horribly wrong and Macbeth and Banquo are luckily on hand to retrieve the situation. The back-story turns out that Duff and Macbeth have both been at the same orphanage, lost touch with each other and then met up again at Police Academy. Macbeth, having left the orphanage has dropped into the dregs of society, using and pushing drugs, but has been rescued by the much older, father-figure of Banquo. By the time we meet them all though, Macbeth is doing well and rising in the ranks, thanks partly to his relationship with Lady, a casino owning mistress who also has an unenviable background, which includes incestuous rape and the deliberate killing of her resultant child.

The novel follows through with a modern drug busting tale of murder, power and villainy.  To gain more power Lady and Macbeth start on a killing spree than can only end in disaster.  So first, urged on by the ambitious Lady, he kills Duncan, the present Chief Commissioner; then has to kill Banquo and his son;  Fleance, though, escapes to reappear later as part of the fight back, and so on through to the bloody end. The characters appear and disappear exactly as according to the play but the tense drama of both the novel and the play remains intact.

I am not sure why the critics have not been kinder to this novel. Is it either because it is not typical Nesbo or because they have slightly missed the point? In my view, Jo Nesbo has cracked the most difficult aspect of the play, the witches and the prophecies and the hallucinations, without at the same time letting go of the more contemporary scenario. It sent me back to Shakespeare while at the same time engaging my attention and giving me several satisfactory moments of tense delight – so even though I knew who should still be standing at the end, there were moments of extreme suspense as I turned page after page.

The complete list of Hogarth’s Shakepeare for the Twenty-First Century is as follows

Margaret Atwood – The Tempest – Hagseed

Edward St Aubyn – King  Lear – Dunbar

Jeanette Winterson – A Winter’s Tale – The Gap of Time

Anne Tyler – The Taming of the Shrew – Vinegar Girl

Jo Nesbo – The Tragedy of Macbeth – Macbeth

Tracey Chevalier – Othello – New Boy

Gillian Flynn – Hamlet – not due until 2021

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