Monthly Archives: January 2019

Six ways to choose books to read

Recently I collected a novel from the library that I had reserved about a month ago. It was Who will look after the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore. I couldn’t remember why I had made a note about this book and subsequently reserved it. Perhaps it was the title, or the main character is over 60 (she isn’t) or … what? I can’t remember, and it doesn’t really matter. I’ll take my chances with it.

Last summer Kate Vane posted on her blog: The mysterious world of book discovery. She considered how she identified books she wanted to read, including overhearing a recommendation in a bookshop. Recently, as I was listening to the podcast of some writing friends I found myself reaching for a pen to make a note of a recommendation by a guest on their show. These events made me think about all the occasions when I note down the title and author of a book that sounds interesting.

My sources: 1 Bloggers and blog readers

I often read books that have been recommended by fellow bookbloggers. Recently I enjoyed The Girl on the Via Flaminia  byAlfred Hayes, recommended on JacquiWine’s Journal. I rediscovered Barbara Comyns through bloggers’ enthusiasms too.

And on my blog I encourage readers to leave recommendations on the various themes I explore: older women in fiction, children’s literature, on books and trains, books with Miss or Mrs in the title, and so on. 

Some of the books that I have enjoyed most were recommended through comments on the blog: for example All Passion Spentby Vita Sackville-West, or The Stone Angelby Margaret Laurence were both recommended for the Older Women in Fiction series.

My sources: 2 Reviewers

Reviewers can be professional as in the quality papers. Kate Vane was unenthusiastic about them as they cover a restricted range of authors and they operate within the same social circle.

I agree that they are limited, but I like to see what is being reviewed, and what is being said. 

My sources: 3 Literary Prizes

As with the broadsheet reviews I keep an eye on prizes to see what’s around. I especially take note of the Women’s Prize, and usually read the winner and several others from the long and short lists. This year’s winner of the Man Booker prize is Milkman by Anna Burns. It is the choice of my reading group for January, so I am pleased to be trying to finish this at the moment.

My sources: 4 Word of Mouth

I often exchange ideas about reading, with writer friends, with others in my social circle, and I often take note of books recommended on podcasts, on the radio, and I love reading those cards in libraries and bookshops: staff picks. These personal notes reveal what the readers responded to. I might disagree, but I’m always pleased to have books pointed out to me.

On holiday recently I asked the others in my walking group what they were reading, and this led me to one of the most beautiful novels I know: That they may face the rising sun by John McGahern.

My sources: 5 Subscriptions

In order to introduce a little serendipity into my reading I receive books chosen by others. There is Peirene Press, whose lovely editions of European novellas frequently find their way onto my review pages. The most recent was And the Wind Sees All by Gudmundur Andi Thorsson in December 2018.

Then there’s the Asymptote Club. This aims to bring books from across the world to the attention of members. I have reviewed these too from time to time. For example Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf in July 2018.

You will notice that both these subscriptions promote books in translation. I take advantage of this because I have few ways to know what is rewarding to read in translation. Prizewinners and bloggers’ lists are good for this too.

My sources: 6 Accidental

Books picked up while staying in in other people’s houses, or in cottages or bookish hotels; books found in charity shops and second hand shops; books with alluring covers or intriguing titles; books I have been given; books I come across at the library on the recommended shelf … 

Your sources?

What are the ways in which you find books that you want to read?

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The wartime stories and letters of Mollie Panter-Downes

The war time stories and letters of Mollie Panter-Downes were written with the East Coast liberal well-travelled and well-educated American reader in mind, and they both did their bit in reminding our allies what the United Kingdom believed it was fighting for in the Second World War. The short stories (appearing about once every three months) and the fortnightly Letters were published in the New Yorker.

And the steady writing of both stories and letters provide a compelling perspective on the war, that of an inhabitant of south-east England, familiar with London and its theatres, and familiar too with the villages and towns around the capital. In her letters, Mollie Panter-Downes considers government policies (managing food, conscription, blackout, petrol rationing, international relations, post-war arrangements etc) and reveals their effects on the lives of citizens. 

Thanks to Persephone Books for publishing these beautiful editions.

Good Evening, Mrs Craven: the Wartime Stories  of Mollie Panter-Downes  

In this beautiful Persephone edition 21 short stories are collected together bookended by two Letters from London from the start and the end of the war. Persephone created the collection for although a prolific writer and journalist Mollie Panter-Downes appears to have had no desire to ensure that posterity would have access to her writing.

Each story is about seven pages long. The writing is lively, full of quickly-drawn characters, details about English middleclass life during the war, and perhaps more patriotic even than Mrs Miniver.

All the stories deal with domestic adjustments more or less successfully made by people in the UK during the war. The main characters are mostly women and they live mostly in the South. The characters have to deal with evacuees and others living in their houses, missing their loved ones, food shortages, doubtful sexual behaviour, adjusting at the outset and anticipating the end of the war and so on. Not all the characters are managing well or bravely or selflessly. The title story, for example, concerns a couple who have been meeting illicitly before the war once a week in the same restaurant, and are assumed to be married by the waiter. When the man has been away and not in touch the woman sees the stupidity of her situation, resolves to change it, and then can’t bring herself to.

I omitted this book when I wrote my recent post about fiction with titles in their titles: Books with Mrs or Miss in the title.

For a more detailed exploration of the stories visit JacquiWine’s Journal in July 2018.

Good Evening, Mrs Craven: the wartime stories of Mollie Panter-Downes collected and published in one volume in 1999 by Persephone Books. 205pp

London War Notes  by Mollie Panter-Downes (1971)

Mollie Panter-Downes published Letters from London in the New Yorker every two weeks. They form a cumulative account of the Second World War from the perspective of London and the Home Counties. The main purpose was to inform and influence Americans. Influence them to join the war and then to let them know what UK was suffering and how American assistance was essential.

The tension implicit in government control over most aspects of peoples’ lives in order to protect freedom and democracy is highlighted early. In her letter of 20thFebruary 1942 she makes this comment.

Actually, what seemed to emerge from the recent government crisis was a picture of the difficulties encountered by Mr Churchill in trying to be at once a Fuhrer and not a Fuhrer and to turn a democracy into an efficient totalitarian state while retaining the democratic right to free speech and free press. (253-4)

We read about the Blitz, Dunkirk, the fall of France, the setbacks in the Allies’ campaigns, and the experience of rationing and the blackout. Molly Panter-Downes was a theatre-goer, but not a film watcher, and we hear about cultural life in London too. Evacuees, who seem to come and go from London in many delayed reactions to aerial attacks, clearly figured large in her thinking. As did the dangers to our boys. 

Towards the end of 1942 she recorded that at last people began to feel that the tide was turning against Germany. On November 15th1942 she wrote:

At the moment all local concerns and all kinds of conversation are dominated by what is happening in North Africa. The nationwide wave of emotion is not the only thing that makes this moment something like those moments in the summer of 1940. There’s a big difference, however. Those were grim days in 1940. Today, though sensible Britons think there’s certain to be plenty of grimness ahead, for the first time they believe that sober reasons for hope are at last in sight. (305-6)

There were still two and a half years of war to be fought after she wrote this, and the new dangers of V1s (doodlebugs or robots as she calls them) and V2s to contend with. She reports the effects of the attacks by V1s by suggesting that censorship was not necessary. She comments on the question of the effects of the new weapon in July 1944:

The real answer, which should disappoint Dr Goebbels, is that London is having no picnic but that it isn’t in ashes either. The city is uncomfortable and harassed but doggedly getting its first wind. It is also as garrulous as a village suddenly plagued with some peculiar flying pest. (404)

Churchill and FDR are heroes, and she made explicit her support for international cooperation and reports the widespread enthusiasm for the Beveridge Report, which led to the welfare state. Towards 1945 the weariness of the population becomes more evident.

To read the letters is to experience little variation in the collection because she was a regular columnist with a successful format. We get the odd anecdote, which is fun and alleviates the reading. But of her own experiences we read nothing.

London War Notes  by Mollie Panter-Downes, first published as a collection in 1971. Also published by Persephone in 2014. 459pp

Mollie Panter-Downes by Lee Miller

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The last book I …

I found this meme on Booker Talk blog in December 2018 and because I enjoyed it I offer my version now. I have altered it slightly from the original  (my comments were getting too repetitive).

  1. The last book I gave up on

This was The Divinersby Margaret Laurence. It’s a long book and I read about 100 pages, expecting to be as caught up in it as I was in The Stone Angel. That was a great novel about a feisty older woman and an early inclusion in my #olderwomen in fiction series. But it didn’t happen.

2. The last book I reread

That would be Good Evening, Mrs Craven: the wartime storiesby Mollie Panter-Downes collected and published in one volume by Persephone Books. I was following up on books I had missed out on when I wrote a post called Books with Mrs or Miss in the title.

3. The last book I bought

There was a bundle of 5 books: 


Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Ageby Bohumil Hrabal

Guard your Daughtersby Diana Tatton

River by Esther Kinsky

Ballet Shoesby Noel Streatfield

The Story of Tracy Beakerby Jacqueline Wilson

Look out for comments on some of these in the future on the blog.

4. The last book I said I’d read but hadn’t

I don’t do this. What’s the point?

5. The last book I wrote in the margins of

Un Sac de Billesby Joseph Joffo, a text for my French language class

6. The last book I had signed

I don’t do this either. But people often ask me to sign my books, and I do it, although I don’t know why they want me to.

7. The last book I gave away

I gave Unshelteredby Barbara Kingsolver and TheWoodby John Lewis-Stempel at Christmas, as well as about 20 copies of my own short story collection, Better Fetch a Chair. I am hoping to borrow both the Kingsolver and the Lewis-Stempel.

8. The last book I had to replace

The Diary of a Young Girlby Anne Frank, which I wanted for the 2018 Decades Project

9. The last book I argued over

Girl on a Trainby Paula Hawkins. I said I wouldn’t read novels with girlin the title (except A Girl is a Half-Formed Thingby Eimear McBridewhich is brilliant) and I was told that I should try it, even though the speaker said she hadn’t been able to follow it very well. I think there are enough books I want to read without having to read something that doesn’t appeal.

10. The last book I couldn’t find

Anne Frank 1940 (school photo, photographer unknown)

The Diary of a Young Girlby Anne Frank, which I wanted for the 2018 Decades Project. But then I did find it. Oxfam has my extra copy.

Over to you

Do any of my answers resonate with you? Try this for yourself.

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Five Children and It by E Nesbit

I always thought Five Children and It was a curious title – what on earth could it be? Five children I got. I was from a large family. There were probably five of us when I first came across E Nesbit, but later another one was added. The itwas a strange character for a children’s book – a Psammead (aka sand fairy). Five Children and a Psammead would not have been so intriguing, in fact a little difficult, for how do you say that word and what on earth is a Psammead?

Welcome back to the wonderful world of children’s literature. This is the first post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project. I plan to explore changing aspects of children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury over the next eleven decades through my monthly choices. A sadness is that this project leaves out At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald, a book my grandfather gave me in 1957, and which I treasured. It was published in 1871 so does not qualify. I can of course reread it at any time. My choices for the Decades Project will include rereads, classics and some new discoveries. I hope you enjoy this as much as I plan to.

Five Children and It  – the story

Five children and their parents move to a new home. It is ideal for an adventure, being in the country. The novel is set in the early 20thcentury, when it was written, yet these children are going to be allowed to explore, not come home for lunch. 

The best of it all was that there were no rules about not going to places and not doing things. In London almost everything is labelled ‘You must not touch, and though the label is invisible, it’s just as bad, because you know it’s there, or if you don’t you jolly well soon get told. (13)

Almost as soon as they arrive the parents are called away and the children left with the servants. In the gravel quarry they find a Psammead (pronounced sammyadd by the children) and he has the power to grant one wish each day that will last until sunset. 

Illustration by HR Millar

The children have different characters. The two oldest are Cyril and Anthea and then there is Robert and Jane and Baby. They are brave, bossy, inquisitive, imaginative, daring, problem-solving, problem-creating and occasionally quarrelsome.

Without adult supervision but well brought up, the children set about making wishes. They wish first for beauty, which causes a problem as no one at home recognises them and they are simply admired but not fed. It is a warning that making wishes is more complicated than they imagined and when they wish for money they discover that they have not been specific enough. The Psammead grants them gold that is not legal tender and it gains them little. 

They have further adventures as they try to find satisfactory wishes and avoid making accidental ones. They sprout wings, find their home transformed into a castle under siege and have Baby coveted by gypsies. And each time they land themselves in difficulty they must be creative about resolving the situation. Bravery, ingenuity, theft and even lying are called for. These present the children with moral problems to resolve.

In the final scene the Psammead reveals himself to be an arch conservative. He begs the children not to reveal his existence for grown ups would do terrible things with the wishes: 

… and they’d ask for a graduated income-tax, and old-age pensions and manhood suffrage, and free secondary education, and dull things like that; and get them and keep them, and the whole world would be turned topsy-turvy. (205-6)

Edith Nesbit 1858 – 1924

Edith Nesbit wrote many children’s novels, including the more famous The Railway Children  in 1906. She published under the name E. Nesbit, perhaps to hide her gender. Altogether she wrote more than 40 books for both adults and children. Her fiction for younger readers combined realism, sometimes with a bit of magic.

She was a co-founder of the Fabian Society and her personal life was with fellow socialists. She married Hubert Bland, a man who believed in free love (or who was an infamous libertine and antifeminist according to some sources). He had already made his landlady’s daughter pregnant when Edith married him. She was 7 months pregnant. Edith’s friend Alice Hoatson came to help her and she too had children by Bland. They lived in this unusual household until Bland died in 1914.

Edith then married the captain of the Woolwich Ferry, Thomas Tucker. She lived most of her life in Eltham in south London.  You can find out more at the Edith Nesbit Society.

Five Children and It by E Nesbit was first published in 1902. I used the edition from Penguin Popular Classics (1995) 207pp Illustrated by HR Millar.

Jacqueline Wilson updated the classic as Four Children and It in 2012. I have not read it, have you?

The Decade Project in 2019

This is the third year of my Decades Project. This year I plan to choose a children’s book each month from successive decades, starting with 1900-1909 in January. Next month it will be a choice from 1910-1919. I plan to read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett first published in 1910. Suggestions for further decades are welcome.

To read more about the Decade Project in 2018 please follow the link to the final post: The Second Year of the Decades Project. This post listed all 11 choices of nonfiction by women. The previous year it was fiction by women.

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A themed post about books and trains

From time to time I like to consider books linked by titles or themes or in some other way. Today the link is trains. Trains take people away from loved ones, and towards others. The cast of characters is random and usually constant, at least while the train is moving. These features make trains ideal settings for murder mysteries: think Murder on the Orient Expressby Agatha Christie (1934), or Strangers on a Trainby Patricia Highsmith (1950). And a station obscured by steam is a perfect setting for dramatic events: Anna Karenina by Tolstoy (1877) is an example.

My list of train books is slightly quirky. It includes two novels, two wartime accounts and the events on a station that led to the most significant publishing revolution of the last century.

The Underground Railroadby Colson Whitehead (2016)

The underground railroad was a means by which slaves from the American Southern States were helped to escape and find freedom in the North. Making the railroad a concrete thing, with stations, tracks, engines, engineers and boxcars, was a daring move by Colson Whitehead. It had the effect of emphasising the hard work of building the network, maintaining it and it also exposed the vulnerability of the routes to freedom and the many ways to disrupt it. This is hard and important read. Here’s a link to the reviewof this book on Bookword in October 2017. 

A Wreath of Rosesby Elizabeth Taylor (1949)

This novel is not primarily about trains or train journeys, but the train is significant in the scene that opens the novel and announces the changes that Elizabeth Taylor will explore. 

Afternoons seem unending on branch-line stations in England in summer time. The spiked shelter prints an unmoving shadow on the platform, geraniums blaze, whitewashed stones assault the eye. Such trains as come only add to the air of fantasy, to the idea of the scene being symbolic, or encountered at one level while suggesting another even more alienating. (1)

We have been warned. The scene seems unchanging, stultifying. We encounter something else after this wonderful sentence.

Then, with a collapsing sound, the signal dropped. (2)

Three people on the platform, Camilla, another traveller and the stationmaster, observe the approach of the through train.

All at once, the man on the footbridge swung himself up on the parapet and, just as Camilla was putting out her arms in a ridiculous gesture as if to stop him, he clumsily jumped, a sprawling jump, an ill-devised death, since he fell wide of the express train.

This happening broke the afternoon in two. The feeling of eternity had vanished. (3)


The opening scene introduces us to the idea of impermanence and transition. Camilla and Richard are both on journeys. She is travelling to Abingford to spend August with her friends. He is in flight from his past, looking for respite. This is a dark novel exploring loneliness as so many of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels do. You can find the full review here.

A Train in Winter: A story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz by Caroline Moorehead  (2011)

Trains played an infamous role in the Holocaust. 230 French women were sent to Auschwitz in January 1943, arrested for anti-German activities. This book is a depressing account of their experience of barbarity, inhumanity and suffering.

The culpability of the Vichy government, the French police, the German occupiers of France, the many who betrayed the communists and members of the Resistance, the guards and commanders of the camps, the medical staff, the Kapos is overwhelming. And so is the disappointment of the women who were largely ignored on their return to France.

What kept the 49 women who survived alive? Friendship, care for each other, courage, hope and a determination to tell the story of what they had experienced and seen. 

Train to Nowhereby Anita Leslie (1948)

The title of this book could be considered misleading, as no train appears in it. The title refers to the journey being over. This train is going nowhere.

Another wartime book, this time the account of a well-connected young woman who joined the MTC as a mechanic and was sent to the Middle East during the Second World War. She drove ambulances, until the war moved away. Then she became a journalist, chasing stories and promoting circulation of the newspaper for the troops. When she could see that there was no prospect for action, she transferred to Italy, and followed the Allies up through Italy, pausing for the last days of the Battle of Cassino. As the British Army and Red Cross would not allow ambulance drivers near the front line she transferred to the French army and supported the battles in Alsace and then into Germany.

Her account is especially sparkling when it refers to the people she worked with, met on her travels, the lunches she was invited to (including by Churchill as she was his cousin) and several ranking army personnel. But the strongest impression is of the bravery as her division went into battle and the drivers ferried the wounded to hastily set up, often fast moving, medical facilities.

Exeter Station and a publishing revolution

The story goes that in 1934 returning from a weekend with Agatha Christie, at Greenway above the River Dart, Allen Lane had to wait on the Exeter St David’s station platform. Already working for Bodley Head, frustrated by the shortage of cheap and portable books, and no doubt influenced by recent contact with a popular author he conceived the idea for the Penguin paperback. 

The original format was soon expanded to Pelicans (non-fiction and blue) and Puffins (for children). The original orange covers of the Penguins later diversified into green for detective novels, black for classics, and other colours, such as purple for essays. Allen Lane’s intentions were anti-elitist. In All About Penguin Books in The BooksellerMay 1935 he said the project would be a success if

these Penguins are the means of converting book borrowers in to book-buyers. 

He was, he said, aiming at nothing less than

the popularisation of the bookshop and the increased sale of books.

You can find the full story here.

Please suggest more books with train links.

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My New Bookish Project

It is with some trepidation that I go public with my new writing project. I am a publisher or rather Bookword is a new publisher. I am very conscious of the idea of vanity publishing. On the other hand I am enthusiastic about the possibilities for citizen publishing on a small scale. If technology makes it possible for more of us to publish, to rely less on the big 5 publishing commercially motivated companies, to spread the idea of independent publishing, then I am happy to give it a go.

And because my novel needs yet another revision it isn’t my first venture. Instead, and in time to give a copy to everyone I know over the age of 12 for Christmas, it’s a collection of 15 of my short stories written over the last 10 years and called Better Fetch A Chair.

Better Fetch A Chair

I published Better Fetch A Chair in early December 2018. The title is an old African saying. And I have taken the name of my blog as the name of the publishing venture Bookword. My main purpose is to have a physical book, containing my fiction, and I do not expect to make money from it. My other purpose is to learn about book production from start to finish. So this is what I did.

Bookword as Publisher

To set up my enterprise I did the following:

  1. ISBNs are useful because an ISBN will ensure that my book will be entered on various databases, including those used by booksellers and libraries. This will guarantee it a better profile. I bought 10 ISBNs from https://www.nielsenisbnstore.com. You can buy one for £89 or ten for £159. As I expect to publish more than one book in due time the choice was obvious. I also learned about making a legal deposit with the British Library.
  2. My collection of short stories needed a proofreader to check them through. I commissioned @Juliaproofreader aka Julia Gibbs to check my stories for accuracy and get them ready for printing. Important learnings here: I am not as accurate as I think I am and I do not know as much about correct capitalisation and presentation as I thought I did. Julia was thorough and I am grateful to her. She helped ensure the professional appearance of the book.
  3. Looking professional is important in such a small-scale project. I searched for someone to design a cover and found Simon Avery of Idobookcovers. I was attracted by the designs on his website, and by his deign process. I had to provide information about my book, Simon did four preliminary designs, I considered these and asked around – my friends, family and writing group all gave their opinions. Finally I asked for some variations to one of the original designs and Simon obliged. It was not cheap, in fact it was the most expensive aspect of the whole thing. But a cover carries so much about the book, its tone, its genre, it is worth getting it right.
  4. Each copy of the book cost more than £10 to produce. As I was not primarily concerned with making a living I decided on a lower cover price.Decisions about theprint run have been guesswork based on my Christmas present list and the other possible destinations for copies. I settled on 100 at £8.99 each.
  5. Another writer I know had used a local printer, Nick Walker of Kingsbridge, and the people there were very patient and helpful as I got my copy ready for print. I found it hard to set up the pages correctly, and the pagination I really wanted eluded me to the end. I hope to improve on that aspect of publishing next time. The printing process seemed like magic: it would take my imaginary book and turn it into a concrete thing. I have chosen not to produce an ebook, partly because I don’t read them myself, but mostly because what I wanted from this process was to hold a book of my fiction in my hand.
  6. I haven’t yet entered the world of promotion, publicity and marketing. That’s my next step.

I fully expect not to recoup my costs, and although it is a business I expect it to remain small, and the losses to be manageable.

And who knows where this will take me? I may decide to publish my novel, books by writers and poets I know, or even launch out and take submissions. But not yet. I’m starting small. Please don’t inundate me with manuscript submissions.

The Conchie Road

I recently posted an article on this blog called The Story of The Conchie Road. It described the writing of a short story called The Conchie Road, which took me to local history meetings, and to the Dartmoor Prison Museum at Princetown, and to reading aloud to cows in the rain on Dartmoor. You can read the story in Better Fetch A Chair.

And if you want to obtain a copy for the reduced price of £5 (p&p included) you can either email me (lodgecm@gmail.com) or DM me on twitter @lodge_c and I will send you details.

Better Fetch A Chair  by Caroline Lodge, published by Bookword in 2018. 142pp. Cover price is £8.99 but available for £5.

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Please note that in future I shall be posting every five days (instead of four) to give myself a little more time for my other bookish projects. I hope you’ll continue to enjoy the mixture of posts.

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