Monthly Archives: June 2019

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

I was right. This was the ideal book to take on a train journey. Sadly my return journey was delayed by four hours, and I had finished the book before my train finally arrived. For anyone who is interested in train services, I had been walking with a very good friend in the woods and along the escarpment north of Pewsey. Trains from Pewsey back to the South West were all either severely delayed or, more alarmingly, cancelled. A lovely walk, a great book, but waiting for hours on Pewsey station was not good.

Ghost Wallby Sarah Moss

It is the 80s. A family is spending their summer holiday re-enacting an Iron Age camp in Northumberland, along with a professor and three students. The story is narrated by 17-year-old Silvie (also called Sil). The holiday is the idea of Sil’s father, an autodidact and Iron Age enthusiast. It emerges that he has a rather simplistic idea of ancient history, seeing any invaders from the Romans onwards as pollutants of the pure British race. In other words he is more than a little xenophobic. Her father is a bus driver, and a very controlling man with a filthy temper if he thinks he is being mocked or patronised for his lack of formal education. He beats both wife and daughter. 

The re-enactors must consider what is authentic and how to manage an authentic Iron Age life in the 1980s.For example, they must forage for their food but can take a book with them to check for possible nourishment. They also catch skin and eat rabbits and fish. The local Spar store secretly provides more alluring foods.

Sylvia, the narrator, has a healthy response to the idea of authenticity and how history is created in the interests of those who retell it, such as her father. She is aware that history will always reflect the power structures and the concerns of the present. How, she wonders, did Iron Age women and girls manage their periods. 

The professor and Silvie’s father seek what they believe to be ever more authentic experiences and come up with the idea of the ghost wall. This is thought to have been a defensive wall with skulls of enemies on top to put fear into the hearts of any attackers. They make their own wall and use skulls they have found, such as from a cow or sheep, and the rabbit skulls.

And then they decide to re-enact the human sacrifice that is known about from the well-preserved remains of people in peat bogs. We have learned about a girl’s sacrifice in the novel’s prologue. According to the professor, the idea is to sacrifice something that is very precious.  Sil is aware of what her father will choose and as things begin to unravel the story moves towards its terrible climax.

Family Relationships

Sil’s family is toxic. Her father is abusive and violent, and both mother and child suffer from his whims and from his reaction to being humiliated or defied. The outcomes of his patriarchal attitudes are dark and dangerous.

Sil’s mother should make an effort to protect her, but she has given up any resistance. It is one of the students, Molly, who befriends and stands up for Sil. Molly represents the freedom that Sil anticipates when she leaves home. 

Silvie herself has all the self-consciousness of a young girl who has been kept apart from the world. In this passage she is explaining her name to the students on the first day.

So, said Dan, Silvie, what, short for Sylvia? Sulevia, I said. I was about to say, as I had been doing since I first started school, she was an Ancient British goddess, my dad chose it, but they were already exchanging glances. Sulevia’s a local deity, said Dan. Jim was talking about her the other day. Northumbrian goddess of springs and pools, co-opted by the Romans, said Molly.  […] Yeah, she said, OK but your dad’s not a historian, right, how did he know about her if you’re not local? I could feel myself turning red. He’s a bus driver, I said, history’s just a hobby, he wanted me to have a proper native British name. I saw glances again.  (18-9)

Reading this book

As I say, it is a short book, but written powerfully. The quotation above illustrates the momentum of the prose, uninterrupted by speech marks or line gaps. Maggie O’Farrell refers to this forward drive and is quoted on the front cover saying,

Ghost Wall  requires you to put your life on hold while you finish it. 

Sarah Moss has already shown her ability to tell the story of a young woman frightened from her own imagination and trapped where she can see no escape. I’m referring to Night Waking, published in 2011. A young woman spends the summer on an island with her two small children and finds herself deprived of sleep and immersed in the story of a dead baby and its mother. You can find my review of that novel here. Also recommended. 

Sarah Moss writes so well. Ghost Wall  made the long-list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, but many readers were disappointed that it did not appear on the short-list. You can find both lists (and all previous winners) here.

I recommend it highly. 

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, published in 2018 by Granta. 152pp


Filed under Books, Books and Walking, Reading, Reviews, Travel with Books

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

I loved The Eagle of the Ninth when I first read it as a child. And I enjoyed rereading it two years ago, the Romano-British adventure, the sassy female character and Rosemary Sutcliff’s skill in storytelling. Later I went on to study history at university. I wonder how much this book contributed to my interest in the subject. 

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff was published in 1954. This is the sixth post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project. I did not do this on purpose, but like the previous 5 choices, this novel has an orphan for its heroine. The heroes show qualities of courage and principle. The heroine has patience.

The story of The Eagle of the Ninth

Marcus Flavius Aquila grew up in Italy in the second century AD. Marcus’s father had commanded the First Cohort of the Ninth Legion when it disappeared having marched north to deal with rebellious tribes in 117 AD. Marcus follows his father into the army and does well. He is posted to his first command in Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter). After establishing himself as a leader he is severely wounded in an attack by the local tribes who have risen against Roman rule. Invalided out of the army he recovers at his uncle’s house in Calleva (Silchester). While there he plans to rescue his father’s reputation and the Eagle from the standard of the First Cohort: the Eagle of the Ninth. 

Marcus saves a British slave, Esca, who is about to be killed at the local gladiatorial games in Calleva. Esca becomes the devoted companion to Marcus and is freed at the start of their expedition to find the lost Eagle.

The story is a quest. They set out in disguise to follow any clues that will lead them to the truth of what happened to the Ninth and its Eagle. Their quest takes them to the Highlands of Scotland, north of the abandoned Antonine Wall. Of course they find and reclaim it, but the quest turns into a hunt as they attempt to bring it south of Hadrian’s Wall to the safety of established Roman rule. Marcus and Esca become the quarry, but in the end …

Rosemary Sutcliff

I have these novels written by Rosemary Sutcliff on my shelves

Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92) said she wrote books for children of all ages, from 9 to 90. It is true that her fiction does not talk down to readers, is not busy providing information, although she was careful with her research. She wrote many books, some situated in pre-historic times, others in Tudor and Stuart period and she is perhaps best known for her Roman Britain stories.  

In the Introduction toThe Eagle of the Ninth she explains how she brought together the mystery of the disappearance of the Ninth Legion and the discovery of a wingless Roman eagle in an excavation at Silchester in 1866. No one could explain how it got there.

It is from these two mysteries, brought together, that I have made the story of ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’.

I love her imaginative ability to weave adventures from the events of the past in all her novels.

Why I like the book

It’s a good adventure with plenty of cliffhangers – at the end of almost every chapter. Here are three examples:

But to Marcus everything seemed for the moment to have grown still. For the last comer was carrying something that had been a Roman Eagle. (157)

But Esca’s suddenly widened eyes were fixed on one corner of the cloak, outflung towards him, and he did not answer; and Marcus, following the direction of his gaze, saw the cloth at that corner torn and ragged. (185)

Up over the edge of the spur, three wild horsemen appeared heading for the gateway. (209)

The storytelling is excellent, just what young readers (between 9 and 90) want. We guess that Marcus and Esca will manage to find the Eagle and to escape their hunters, but we enjoy their efforts to achieve these. Both young men are authentic because neither is perfect.

I also liked the representation of the tribes, both near Exeter and the Seal people in the Highlands. The cover of my copy of The Eagle of the Ninth captures the rituals of the Seal people in a dramatic and attractive way. It is by C Walter Hodges.

Is The Eagle of the Ninth dated?

The novel was published in 1954, and at the time the explanation for the Silchester Eagle given by Rosemary Sutcliff was as good as any other. Archaeology has moved on and today it is not thought to be from a Roman Army standard, but more likely was part of a larger statue. It can be seen in Reading Museum.

It is a little unsettling to read such an accepting account of colonialism by the Romans. The rebellions are presented as the last struggles of the ancient tribes against the superior might, economic power and civilization of the Romans. I guess, critiques of the British Empire were not yet commonplace in the 1950s. In the same way, although Marcus does the decent thing and frees his slave Esca, there is no suggestion that slavery was the dark and essential underside of the Empire. 

Perhaps most of all, The Eagle of the Ninth is dated because the feisty and delightful young woman, Cottia, remains behind to wait for the return of the young men. Today any self-respecting writer would have sent her on the quest alongside Marcus and Esca.

However the novel is of its time and these reservations do not spoil the reading.


And, there is of course a movie called The Eaglestarring Channing Tatum, Jamie Bull and Donald Sutherland (2011). I caught a short part of it some time in the last two years. It was so far from my understanding of the novel that I did not see it through. I think it is sad that the second part of the novel’s title was omitted for the film because the whole has mystery in its rhythm. On the other hand I saw enough to appreciate that Donald Sutherland was an inspired casting as Uncle Aquila.

The Eagle of the Ninth  by Rosemary Sutcliff, first published in 1954. I reread my own 1970 edition from Oxford University Press. 

This is largely a recycling of an earlier post.

The Decade Project in 2019

In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a book from 1960-69. 

Here are the links to the books in this year’s Decades Project so far:

The Little White Horse  by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (1936)

Joan’s Best Chum  by Angela Brazil (1926)

The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) 

Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)

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Filed under Books, Books for children, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project

The Second Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

The first line jolts the reader:

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the gloves herself. (146)

Gloves? Surely that should be flowers

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. (5)

The gloves are from Virginia Woolf’s short story Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street  (1923)The flowers are from the opening line of the novel Mrs Dalloway, published later in 1925.

Wednesday 19thJune is Dalloway Day. I contribute this post (somewhat revised from its earlier connection to #Woolfalong in 2016) which has been popular since it first appeared. 

Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street  by Virginia Woolf

Mrs Dalloway appears in Virginia Woolf’s fiction on several occasions. First in The Voyage Out  (1915), then in the short story, then in the novel and finally in several short stories written after Mrs Dalloway. We can conclude that Virginia Woolf found her useful to her writing.

Mrs Dalloway does indeed buy some gloves right at the end of this story, which is less than 8 pages long. The gloves are French, white, half an inch over the elbow with pearl buttons. As in the novel we follow Clarissa through the streets from her home in Westminster. 

The story is an early experiment in stream of consciousness, a technique to convey the layers, textures, and loops of consciousness experienced by Clarissa.  She leaves her house, meets an old friend, remembers the death of another, notices the other people in Bond Street and enters the glove shop. Virginia Woolf records the variety of thoughts in Clarissa’s head, memories, impressions, things she observes and muses upon, including the feeling of familiarity about the other customer in the glove shop. And then …

There was a violent explosion in the street outside. The shop-woman cowered behind the counters. But Clarissa, sitting very upright, smiled at the other lady. ‘Miss Anstruther!’ she exclaimed. (153)

And so the story ends.

The appearances of Mrs Dalloway

We first met Clarissa on the ship sailing to South America in The Voyage Out. She and her husband join the Euphrosyne in the stormy passage from Lisbon to the African coast. Clarissa is portrayed as slight, rather empty-headed but also generous and gracious, a striker of attitudes.

‘It’s so like Whistler!’ she exclaimed, with a wave towards the shore, as she shook Rachel by the hand … (36)

After her departure Mrs Dalloway is described by a more modern woman: 

‘She was quite nice, but a thimble-pated creature.’ Helen continued. ‘I’ve never heard such nonsense! Chitter-chatter-chitter-chatter – fish and the Greek alphabet! – never listened to a word any one said – chock-full of idiotic theories about the way to bring up children. ‘(79)

I love the ‘thimble-pated creature’. 

In the short story she is more fleshed out, has more of an interior life, and indeed her inner life is the point of the story. 

She mounted the little hill lightly. The air stirred with energy. Messages were passing from the Fleet to the Admiralty. Piccadilly and Arlington Street and the Mall seemed to chafe the very air in the Park and lift its leaves hotly, brilliantly, upon waves of that divine vitality which Clarissa loved. To ride; to dance; she had adored all that. Or going [for] long walks in the country, talking about books, what to do with one’s life, for young people were amazingly priggish – Oh the things one had said! But one had conviction. Middle age is the devil. People like Jack will never know that, she thought; for he never once thought of death, never, they said, knowing he was dying. And now can never mourn – how did it go? – a head grown grey . . . From the contagion of the world’s slow stain . . . have drunk their cup a round or two before. . . . From the contagion of the world’s slow stain! She held herself upright. (148)

She has moved from thinking about the Admiralty, to the park, her youthful self, and the death of her friend Jack to quoting Shelley’s poem Adonais. (Also quoted by her in The Voyage Out, where she exclaims ‘I feel there’s almost everything one wants in “Adonais”.’ (40) The short story touches upon genealogy, the social changes brought by the war, the possibility of generosity to the shop woman, class; in short many of the themes of Mrs Dalloway.

The most significant later addition found in the novel is Septimus, a damaged victim of the war who brings a sense of tragedy and inhumanity to Mrs Dalloway. However the damage inflicted by the war was present in Mrs Dalloway’s expedition to buy gloves. It is a lesser, more sketchy idea that Mrs Dalloway expresses as she makes her purchase: 

Thousands of young men had died that things might go on. (153)

The story grew as Virginia Woolf noted in her diary. ‘Mrs Dalloway has branched into a book; and I adumbrate here a study of insanity and suicide,’ (October 1922, 52).

Through writing Mrs DallowayVirginia Woolf developed what she called her ‘tunnelling process, by which I tell the past by instalments, as I have need of it.’ Not surprisingly Mrs Dalloway was turning out to be a richer character than her earlier appearances in The Voyage Out or Bond Street.

The doubtful point is, I think, the character of Mrs Dalloway. It may be too stiff, too glittering, too tinsely. But then I can bring innumerable other characters to her support.  (October 1923. 61)

And as she worked on the novel she reflected on her writing processes, what she was achieving. After returning from Charleston one evening in August 1924 she recorded:

I don’t often trouble now to describe cornfields and groups of harvesting women in loose blues and reds, and little staring yellow frocked girls. …All my nerves stood upright, flushed, electrified (what’s the word?) with the sheer beauty – beauty surrounding and superabounding. So that one almost resents it, not being capable of catching it all and holding it all at the moment. One’s progress through life is made immensely interesting by trying to grasp all these developments as one passes. I feel as if I were putting out my fingers tentatively on (here is Leonard, …) August 1924. 65)

One can make the argument that Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street is an early exercise in grasping all of that and in Mrs Dalloway she demonstrates her confident use of it.

Clarissa has walk-on parts in some of the stories written after the novel. In her diaries Virginia Woolf noted that Mrs D  ‘ushers in a host of others, I begin to perceive’ (August 1922, 48). Clarissa’s party was a device for Virginia Woolf to explore the responses of a number of people in social situations. She wrote these while she was mulling over To The Lighthouse. Readers of that novel will be familiar with the extended evening meal in the first section of the book. By the time she wrote To The Lighthouse she could write of the inner world of several characters in the Ramsay household.

In The New Dress, I especially like the awkwardness experienced by Mabel Waring. Already lacking confidence and with a husband who has no interest in her, her social isolation is explored in the context of the wrong dress at Clarissa’s party. And I notice the disdain with which Mr Serle treats Miss Anning when they are introduced in Together and Apart. The interaction between the two is painfully observed.

There is so much to gain from reading these stories, especially in tracking the development of Virginia Woolf’s writing. 

Virginia Woolf c 1912 by Vanessa Bell

More Mrs Dalloway

The character was also drawn on by Michael Cunningham in The Hours, which was an early title for Mrs Dalloway

There are still the flowers to buy. Clarissa feigns exasperation (though she loves doing errands like this), leaves Sally cleaning the bathroom, and runs out, promising to be back in half an hour. 

It is New York City. It is the end of the twentieth century. (9)

So, New York, twenty years ago, not the effects of the Great War on London, but of HIV/Aids on the US.

As Clarissa works so well for writers, perhaps you have written a Mrs Dalloway story? Perhaps you will now?


A Haunted House, the complete shorter fiction by Virginia Woolf. Introduction by Helen Simpson, Edited by Susan Dick Published by Vintage in 2003. 314pp

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf, first published in 1915

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, first published in 1925

The Hours by Michael Cunningham published in 1998. Paperback edition by 4thEstate. 226pp

Related posts

To the Lighthouseby Virginia Woolf

The Voyage Outby Virginia Woolf

Mrs Dalloway is ageing

There are 7 more posts on this blog that explore Virginia Woolf, in words, in dance and in art. Click on her name in the wordcloud to find more.

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Filed under Books, Reviews, short stories, Virginia Woolf

Pursuing Jane Austen

I’ve been doing a fair amount of culture-tourism recently. I went to the South of France to look French painters since Cezanne. And a trip to Amsterdam to see “All the Rembrandts” at the Rijksmuseum. [Just a note: if you imagined that this meant all the Rembrandts in the world, no it was All the Rembrandts in the Rijksmuseum. And very fine they were too.] There is more to come. As I write this I am preparing to visit Copenhagen, to see the opera Nixon in China. And I have just returned from a tour of Jane Austen’s Kent.

So I am asking myself, why am I visiting all these places associated with art? If it enhances my enjoyment, how does it do that? What am I doing? What do I get out of it?

Am I a Jane-ite?

You could probably describe me as a Jane-ite. No, Sarah, that does not mean we dress up in Regency dresses over push-up bras. Nor does it mean I know all her novels intimately. 

It does mean I am an enthusiast, that I enjoy reading and rereading her novels and think she’s pretty damn good.

And it means I belong to the Jane Austen Society South West Branch and that I have just been on a tour with the branch to Kent.

Jane Austen’s family

This was a four-day trip, including travel from Exeter. We visited Tunbridge, Goodnestone Park, Godmersham Park, Maidstone Records Office, Box Hill and Great Bookham. We had talks, guided tours, readings and lots of beautiful gardens.

Goodnestone Park House

I have mostly learned about Jane’s extended family, and their management of the connections between them. This was largely to ensure that any property remained within the family. You may know that one of her brothers, Edward, was adopted by the childless Knights and inherited their large fortunes. Jane benefited from visits to their houses in Kent (Goodnestone Park, Godmersham Park) and was accommodated with her mother and sister after their father’s death at Chawton, Hampshire by the same brother. It seems that this Edward was an all-round nice guy, much loved by everyone. His daughter Fanny Knight was a favourite of Jane’s, and of whom more in a moment.

Box Hill

Box Hill was the scene of the picnic in Emma, the place where our heroine was very rude to poor Miss Bates, who talked too much and not very intelligently. The view from Box Hill (now a National Trust property) is spectacular. It’s a memorable pace to be humiliated.

Great Bookham was the home of a cousin of Jane’s mother, also called Cassandra Leigh. She was a writer, especially of lamentations. She was also a friend of Fanny Burney who lived for a short while in the village. Jane is known to have visited the Cookes, as her cousin became on her marriage, and to have seen them in Bath and perhaps at Steventon as well. These families kept close contact.

So what have I gained?

In the first place, I experienced the very good company of people who like to talk about Jane Austen and things associated with her, people with enthusiasm to match mine, and knowledge to exceed mine. 

It also broadened my understanding of Jane and her life, and that of other women at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries. My sense is that this kind of knowledge is a little like that recommendation to writers, to know everything about their characters, even if they do not use it in their fiction.

And I have gained more knowledge about that period, from visiting the grand houses, and the web of relationships that the gentry maintained. Among the most enchanting things we saw were examples of Fanny Knight’s diaries, which she kept up for decades, always in the same format. There are 69 of them. And Godmersham Park is familiar to anyone who has looked at the £10 note. 

And I read Sanditon

Sanditon is the unfinished final novel by Jane Austen. She had completed only 12 chapters when she left off writing and succumbed to her final illness. The heroine Charlotte had yet to show herself worthy of Jane Austen’s attention.

The novel focuses on hypochondria and speculation in the infant health industry. It begins in this way:

A gentleman and lady travelling from Tonbridge towards that part of Sussex coast that lies between Hastings and East Bourne, being induced by business to quit the high road, and to attempt a very rough lane, were overturned in toiling up its long ascent half rock, half sand. (155)

The gentleman is Mr Parker and he has invested all his time and money in promoting Sanditon as a place of excellent health. Sanditon is a resort for the health of moneyed peoples. He has much to say on the subject.

Such a place as Sanditon sir, I may say was wanted, was called for. – Nature had marked it out – had spoken in most intelligible characters – the finest, purest sea breeze on the coast – acknowledged to be so – excellent bathing – fine hard sand – deep water ten yards from the shore – no wind – no weeds – no slimey rocks – Never was there a place more palpably designed by nature for the resort of the invalid – the very spot which thousands seemed in need of. – The most desirable distance from London! One complete measured mile nearer than Eastbourne. [and so on] (159-161)

The man is an enthusiast, and attracts with his approach all kinds of people to the new resort. We do not know how things turn out. But Jane Austen’s writing is as attractive as ever, and her characters boldly drawn, especially the self-indulgent who are either lazy or hypochondriacs.

Sanditon  by Jane Austen, Penguin Classic edition, with Lady Susan and The Watsons (1974). 60pp

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Filed under Books, Learning, Reading, Reviews, Travelling with books

My Mother’s Books

About a month ago one of my brothers delivered about 20 boxes and bags of books from my mother’s house. I had volunteered to sort them so others could focus on the rest of her stuff. She died at the end of last year at the grand age of 94. That’s about 90 years of reading. And therefore I received an awful lot of books.

The love of reading

I will always be grateful to my mother for her encouragement to read. Other parents, I have been told, would chide their children when they had their head in a book, saying things like, ‘stop wasting time’, or ‘go and do something useful instead of lounging around’. My mother was the opposite. If you went to her saying in that dragging way, ‘I’m boor-ed’ her first suggestion was always to find a book.

Among the bags and boxes are all the Alison Utterly stories of Fuzzipeg, Squirrel, naughty Hare and Little Grey Rabbit. Who could forget what RSVP meant at the bottom of an invitation? (Rat Shan’t Visit Party, which is always reassuring to find out, don’t you think?)

When I got older she made good suggestions to me: two I particularly appreciated, were Katherine by Anya Seaton (1954) and Desirée by Annemarie Selinko (1951). Both featured strong women in historical settings, exercising power and judgement behind strong men, in this case John of Gaunt and Napoleon Bonaparte. 

There were books all over the house where I grew up. I remember that both my parents had piles on their beside tables. And they were members of the Reprint Society, also known as the World Book Club. This brought hardback copies of recent fiction to people by post. The club thrived in the 1950s when it had 200,000 members. It disappeared as I had known it in 1966. There are probably more than 30 from that source that she kept to the end of her life.

A disappointment

I had hoped that a rather nicely bound book, published in 1946 by Vita Sackville-West called The Eagle and the Dove  would turn out to be a novel, but it was not to be. It turned out to be a comparison of two Sts Teresas, annotated by my Great Aunt Helen Davies. I had visited her one or twice in the 1960s or 70s, and have a lovely collection of French verse from her. 

Many surprises and delights

It was in January (the link to the post is here) that I mentioned I wanted to read At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald (1871). I had been given a copy by my Grandfather on my 9thbirthday. But I have no idea where my copy went. How pleased I was to come across an edition given to my mother by her grandmother in 1937 when she would have been 13. Now I have her copy to re-read.

There is an early edition of The Secret Garden, which I reviewed in January. You can find the link here. It also has illustrations by Charles Robinson.

I like to see old penguin editions and have inherited many of these. It’s a bit of a décor cliché, but I like having them around.

Problems Problems

So what am I going to do with all these books? Before they arrived I thought that it would be simple. I would keep the few I wanted and give the rest to charity.

But now they are here, what are the criteria by which I decide? Books are so much more than the text, or even the physical arrangement of text, paper, dust cover, font, white space etc etc. Books carry so much significance.

Another treasure: Tennyson’s poems

Take the leather bound copy of a prize for my Grandfather for his holiday project in 1912. Or the copies of books I should have read but haven’t yet, like Kim by Rudyard Kipling. Or those inscribed by people who I loved. Or those that are beautiful objects, especially those with leather bindings. No, actually, you can’t take them. 

And those which I shall pass on? I have to decide whether they go to Oxfam, as we have a good local Oxfam bookshop. Or to the local second hand shop which I also like to support.

And there are all the books I cannot decide what to do with, the don’t knows.

And where to keep them? Even when I am sorting them they need more space than the footprint of the bags and boxes they arrived in, for I have to find other bags or boxes while I go through them. And then I have to sit down and gaze at the inscription or begin reading, or just remember…

So my house has uneven piles of books, and some in bags for disposal and the boxes that still remain. And I wonder, how many copies of Shirley  or Keats’s poems do you need? Fewer than I have in my house at the moment. 

Books my mother gave me. A lifetime of exploring before they get passed on again. And in tribute, here again is a picture of my mother reading The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch by Ronda Armitage to my grandson, taken about 7 years ago. All together now: CLEAR OFF, YOU VARMINTS!


Filed under Books, Books for children, poetry, Reading

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019

And the winner is …

An American Marriage  by Tayari Jones

Winner was announced 5thJune 2019.

And here are thirty-nine brilliant books written by women from the short- and long-list for this year and the previous winners. I have included links when I have reviewed them on Bookword. 

Shortlist April 2019

The Silence of the Girls  by Pat Barker

My Sister, the Serial Killer  by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Milkman by Anna Burns 

Ordinary People  by Diana Evans

An American Marriage  by Tayari Jones

Circe  by Madeline Miller

Longlist March 2019

The Silence of the Girls  by Pat Barker 

Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton

My Sister, the Serial Killer  by Oyinkan Braithwaite

The Pisces  by Melissa Broder

Milkman  by Anna Burns

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Ordinary People  by Diana Evans

Swan Song  by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

An American Marriage  by Tayari Jones

Number One Chinese Restaurant  by Lilian Li

Bottled Goods  by Sophie van Llewyn

Lost Children Archive  by Valeria Luiselli

Praise Songs for the Butterflies  by Bernice L. McFadden

Circe by Madeline Miller

Ghost Wall  by Sarah Moss (review on Bookword will appear 29thJune)

Normal People  by Sally Rooney

Previous winners of the women’s fiction prize. 

Kamila Shamsie:Home Fire  (2018)

Naomi Alderman: The Power(2017)

Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies (2016)

Ali Smith: How to be Both(2015)

Eimear McBride: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing(2014)

A.M. Homes: May We Be Forgiven(2013)

Madeline Miller: The Song of Achilles(2012)

Téa Obreht: The Tiger’s Wife(2011)

Barbara Kingsolver: The Lacuna(2010)

Marilynne Robinson: Home(2009)

Rose Tremain: The Road Home(2008)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun(2007)

Zadie Smith: On Beauty(2006)

Lionel Shriver: We Need to Talk About Kevin(2005)

Andrea Levy: Small Island(2004)

Valerie Martin: Property(2003)

Ann Patchett: Bel Canto(2002)

Kate Grenville: The Idea of Perfection(2001)

Linda Grant: When I Lived in Modern Times(2000)

Suzanne Berne: A Crime in the Neighbourhood(1999)

Carol Shields: Larry’s Party(1998)

Anne Michaels: Fugitive Pieces(1997) 

Helen Dunmore: A Spell of Winter(1996)


Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading

Novels of English towns and counties

From time to time I like to write a post that links books by titles or themes or in some other way. Today the link is English towns and counties. Place is so important in novels. Think of that imagined place: Narnia, although I should point out that Totnes is twinned with Narnia. And think of the significance of a real location, such as Dartmoor in The Hound of the Baskervilles  by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Except, of course, that it is not a version of Dartmoor that you will find on the maps.

Cities and counties have great significance in English literature. Here is my random selection, with links to reviews on Bookword where they exist.

Devon and the oldest book of all

Let us start with the oldest book of all, in Devon. The Exeter Book has survived a thousand years, not always cared for, and not always intelligible. It is now in the Exeter Cathedral Library and Archives collection, and can be seen on monthly open days. 

Written in Old English some time between 960 and 990 the Exeter Book originally had 131 parchment leaves, but the first eight pages are now lost. The text was written by one person, in miniscule Old English, and with some runes included. It contains 96 riddles and some longer poems. A few of the poems have Christian connections, but the collection is largely secular, despite its long connection with the Cathedral. But why it was compiled, and for whom remain mysteries. Read more here.

More history from Devon can be found in The Recent Past  by James Ravilious. It is a book of photographs of the recent past taken in rural North Devon. James Ravilious was a photographer whose commission was to document the North Devon area for the Beaford Arts Centre (today Beaford Arts). He began in 1972 and continued for 17 years to photograph the rural neighbourhood where he lived. There are 75 images in this large format book. It is beautifully produced and smells as good art books should. The photographs are all given James Ravilious’s titles, locations and dates and notes have been added by his wife Robin, which add to the pleasure of the viewing. You can read more about it here.

A county that does not exist

For her massive account of local community matters in the inter-war years Winifred Holtby invented a county, the missing South Riding. When I was young there were three Ridings of Yorkshire: North East and West. I often wondered about the missing South Riding. In Winifred Holtby’s novel Alderman Mrs Beddows took her place in the series on older women in fiction. She was the focus of the post I wrote about this novel. But the 500+ pages are about many more of the people in the community she serves. The beautiful countryside which Winifred Holtby knew so well is also a feature of this novel. 

More Yorkshire can be found in God’s Own Country  by Ross Raisin. The story is set in more recent times, and is a dark tale of under-privilege and rural neglect. It sets rural against urban, middle class life against  poverty, and shows us something of the challenge of the Yorkshire Moors. You can read the whole post here.

From Essex

In 2016 The Essex Serpent  by Sarah Perry won a great many prizes. I thought the cover was brilliant, although it has been copied a great deal since. The story is set in London and Essex in the 1890s. New knowledge is battling with older traditions and myths and this made for an excellent story, much enjoyed in reading groups. It was often described as gothic. My review can be read here.

A Classic about a town on the South Coast

Brighton Rock by Graham Greene is one of the most read of my posts on Bookword. It has a famous first line: 

Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.

The novel considers the different beliefs of its protagonists. But above all it is a thriller, set on a public holiday between the wars in a town recognisable today. Here’s a link to the full post.

Brighton Beach on Whitsun, 31 May 2009. By David Hawgood of Geography Project via Wiki Commons.

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews