Saturday, 28 January 2012


Oops, over the past week I seem to have acquired 14 books - how embarrassing. First I went to the Shelter shop on Forest Road during my Edinburgh trip. Because it's beside the University, you get a good class of second-hand book in there, and they have what they call their "vintage" shelf: not very large, but I've picked up some good things there over the years. This week I found:

The shop assistant, when I handed it over, said "Oh, I love this book!" - isn't it lovely when that happens? So much of the pleasure of reading is in sharing books. And then my mother said that she used to share a flat with one of the Frankaus (sister, I think) so she wants to read it after me - as the title suggests, the theatre figures largely.

 E. Arnot Robertson wrote Ordinary Families, which is a lovely coming-of-age novel, although rather more "knowing" than some. I think this sounds more melodramatic, about a young woman who falls obsessively in love with a bad lot (never trust an author...).

I recently reviewed The Constant Nymph, and I've read another excellent book by Kennedy, The Ladies of Lyndon, so I picked this up without even stopping to see what it's about. It seems to be a sort of Jekyll-and-Hyde novel about a Regency MP: intriguing!

LibraryThing very helpfully recommend this to me; pretty sure I read it as a child, the title seems very familiar. The four Gareth children are sent to Ireland for a holiday with their eccentric great-aunt. Can't go wrong really, and Streatfeild is such a sympathetic observer of children.

William Marshall wrote 16 Yellowthread Street mysteries. I reviewed The Hatchet Man recently. I've read maybe 7 or 8, and I have to have them all.

I went to hear the author, Jane Urquhart, talk about her new book, Sanctuary Line, with its beautiful cover, and of course I immediately wanted to read it.

I love Charles Williams - Narnia for grown-ups! And very much an acquired taste. It, and the remaining books, came from the Oxfam Bookshop in Bloomsbury - not quite the range of choice I'd hoped for (I wanted more old hardbacks, whereas its strength lies more in recent paperbacks, but I didn't have time to go further afield).

Whereas Dornford Yates is a giggle, Buchan without the seriousness, if you can imagine such a thing - which gives you some idea, perhaps, just what a bit of froth this is. There are lots of cars, and chases round an English countryside populated by yokels who touch their caps and answer respectfully when spoken to.

Anyone who's read A Dog So Small or Tom's Midnight Garden will know that Philippa Pearce writes magically for children. I expect this to be enchanting.

Robert Westall is a different kind of children's writer, and one who can be very frightening indeed - The Wind Eye was utterly chilling. I'd never heard of this, and have high hopes.

 I don't know how many times I've read A Candle for St Jude, but I've never owned a copy.

 This and the next are books I know nothing about - just that they are by authors I like.

Finally, I read this while I was still in London and, along with lots of other bloggers I know, loved it. What a glorious little book! I'll write about it during the week.

Several of this haul are immediately destined for the Century of Books, and I'm already finding myself checking the publication date to see if it's a year I need, and agonising if not. At which point I decided that, if I want to talk about more than one book in any year, I shall just go ahead and do so! The only requirement will be that every year must eventually be covered. I'm afraid the Century has become the latest obsession (I've read ten and a half books for it already), closely followed by Hurlyburlybuss, for which I can see a new list developing, of cross-over books like The Brontes Went to Woolworths, which I would have adored when I was 14 or so.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

The Girls by John Bowen

While I was still at school I went to the theatre a lot, and it was then that I discovered John Bowen, through a retelling of one of the mystery cycles called The Fall and Redemption of Man. I loved the play and saw it several times, and later OH, who was a then primary teacher, used a section of it as the basis for an improvised Christmas production with his class. There was also a television play in the '70s called Robin Redbreast, which was sort of The Wicker Man done right, with the wonderful Bernard Hepton (you may remember him as Toby Esterhase from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy...). Anyway, I found this book by chance, pounced when I saw who it was by, and had to read it immediately. It's the 1986 contribution to my Century of Books, which is a place where I'm unapologetically indulging my love of the obscure.

Subtitled "A story of village life", The Girls starts with high farce, an escaping pig in an English village, and gradually edges its way into black comedy, infidelity and worse. It's set in the village where Bowen lived, Tysoe in Warwickshire, and shows a great deal of affection for it. It's all very '70s (as opposed to the '80s, when it was written), I suppose, but I like it, and would have done when it was published. He didn't write many novels, so I may seek out some more.
It was a day in summer when the pig escaped, the time not long past twelve and a real scorcher. Janet had opened the shop door to let in a breeze, but there was no breeze nor any prospect of customers unless someone should come in for Elderflower Cooler or home-made ginger beer. The Elderflower Cooler, made with homey and lemon juice as well as elderflower water, was particularly refreshing and a new line, but its sale so far had been disappointing; the village children and their mothers preferred Coke and Pepsi from the Spar.
It's evident, I think, that this is a modern village; we've got a mixture here of bucolic - the elderflower cooler - and the dysfunctional - it doesn't sell. At every step of the way, appearances are undermined by the author, who comments on and questions his characters' actions and motives. We tell ourselves pretty stories, Bowen is saying, but the reality is much more suspect and may be much darker than we imagine. Susan and Janet, who seem such nice young women at the beginning, will soon have a nasty secret and, while they never really lose our sympathy, their actions are very questionable. Despite your sense of trepidation on their behalf you both want, and don't want, retribution.

There's just a touch of magic here too, a sense that the not-quite-real is immanent, somehow made even more so by the foreword which tells us that one of the characters was a real person. Mrs Marshall is one of those village stalwarts who knows absolutely everything and seems to have a sixth sense about village life. You could easily believe, reading this book, that she'd had a hotline to Old Nick, who would have treated her with respect. She was probably his auntie and had smacked him when he was a little devil. Bowen tells us that she is much missed since she died in 1982. Some of Bowen's other work explores more fully the ways in which myths may underpin modern culture, so it's not surprising to find echoes here, even if they are distant ones (perhaps The Bacchae is the most apparent - Bowen wrote a play based on it, The Disorderly Women). And the themes of fertility and its related ritual readily underlie any evocation of English village life. There's a fine tradition of it in English writing - John Cowper Powys and Sylvia Townsend Warner come immediately to mind, but it stretches down to the present-day - and Bowen is an interesting exponent.

Sunday, 22 January 2012


Another weekend already and yet again, I'm reluctantly preparing for another part week in London. At least there's a small treat to look forward to: on Thursday morning - a slightly strange time to be going to a reading -  I'm going to hear Canadian novelist Jane Urquhart talk about her latest book, Sanctuary Line. I read The Underpainter some years ago and enjoyed it, but I haven't read the new one yet (there's a review by KevinfromCanada here, though, in case you are interested). It may not be quite the high point that my visit to the Dulwich Picture Gallery to see the magnificent Painting Canada (now sadly over) was, but I'm looking forward to it nonetheless.

After the Canadian exhibition I castigated myself roundly for not having bought the catalogue of what was evidently one of the best-attended Dulwich exhibitions ever, but I managed to find a copy. If you missed it, and are curious about the Group of Seven, there's some nice stuff at Dulwich on View.

I was lucky to go to the exhibition before Christmas when it was reasonably quiet, so that I could spend as long as I wanted to in front the pictures - the final room was devoted to the work of Lawren Harris and was sublime. Harris was the most spiritual member of the Group of Seven and, while his abstract land and seascapes aren't to everyone's taste, I fell in love with his work the first time I went to the National Gallery in Canada. Then, I found it sad that I had reached my forties without having discovered this remarkable group of artists, so I was delighted that they were to be exhibited in the UK and even more so when I discovered how sensitively it had been done.

Lawren Harris Lake and Mountains
From the catalogue I discovered that an early influence on the Group was an exhibition of Scandinavian art in 1912. I like some of this work almost as much as I like Harris:

Gustav Fjaestad, Winter Moonlight
Funny, I'm not that found of snow in reality, but I love pictures of it.

I've decided to allow myself a very small number of re-reads for the Century of Books, if they are writers I really want to talk about but have read all of their work. The first is likely to be The Rosemary Tree by Elizabeth Goudge, which I felt a tremendous need to read again last week. It's not quite true that I've read everything she wrote, there are some short story collections, but I've read all her adult novels and feel that they're ingrained. I'm now so contently mired in the twentieth century that I feel no desire to work my way down the pile (fortunately fairly small) of review books which reproach me when I look in their direction. Ho hum.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

Warning: minor spoilers!

This is my first book for the Classics Challenge, hosted by Katherine at November's Autumn, and also a contribution to my Century of Books. The Constant Nymph was published in 1924 and, if you weren't expecting it, could be quite a surprise. It was a huge success when it appeared, and Kennedy adapted it as a stage play (one production included Noel Coward and John Gielgud) and in 1943 a film was made which starred Joan Fontaine as Tessa, the main character. The incredibly lush film score was written by Korngold - Tessa is the daughter of composer Albert Sanger, a Bohemian type with innumerable children by different wives, and the love to whom Tessa is constant is family friend Lewis Dodds, another musician.

I knew the play from my teenage years, when it was done on the radio, and I think both time and medium made the plot more accessible than it may be today. Because, for a twenty-first century audience, there may be a major stumbling block - Tessa is 14 when the book begins, and within a year the very adult Lewis is contemplating running away with her. Her (just) elder sister Tony has already been married in haste to her lover, Jacob Birnbaum. When Sanger dies, three of the children are "rescued" by their cousin Florence, who regards Tessa as a little barbarian and insists they go to boarding schools, where they are intensely unhappy - especially Tessa who, emotionally, is no longer a child, even though she has an essential innocence which is part of her immense charm; eventually, all three make their escape. Lewis, meanwhile, has married Florence and, under her influence, is finally enjoying a measure of success as a composer.

Here's a description of Lewis at the start of the book:
His young face was deeply furrowed, nor was there any reassurance to be found in his thin, rather cruel mouth, nor in light, observant eyes, so intent that they rarely betrayed him. His companion,distrusting his countenance, found, nevertheless, a wonderful beauty in his hands, which gave a look of extreme intelligence to everything he did, as though an extra brain was lodged in each finger. Their strength and delicacy contradicted the harsh lines of his face...
You can see from this that Lewis is an ambivalent character, someone we may only occasionally sympathise with - indeed, I found him pretty hard to like at all, although, in her introduction to the Virago Modern Classic edition, Anita Brookner thinks men may do so more easily. Similarly while the sophisticated Florence, pleasant if rather bossy at first, becomes increasingly unlovable as she grows more and more unkind towards Tessa, there are moments when her distress touches us.

Kennedy writes always with tenderness towards her characters, even when they are at their most despicable, so that the reader can understand them on their own terms but is never told what to think. Putting the age-disparity theme aside, this feels like a very modern novel: it's immensely readable with an intimate writing style that pitches you right in amongst Sanger's extensive, racy menagerie. I was so caught up in the story that I found Tessa's experience of boarding school utterly chilling, I could so readily put myself in her place.

A little more on the writer, for the Classics Challenge: Margaret Kennedy was born in London in 1896, and attended Cheltenham Ladies' College, a school not unlike her Cleeve in The Constant Nymph:
The staff were not at all strict; for the most part they were lively young women, fresh from the University, with a strong faith in hockey and the prefectorial system.
Margaret Kennedy
She was amongst the earliest of a line of notable novelists (Winifred Holtby and A.S. Byatt to name but two) who attended Somerville College in Oxford, where she read Modern History, but her first book was a history text. I struggled to find a picture of her. She seems to have been both a comfortable part of the establishment (she married a barrister in 1925) and a forward thinker: while her female characters aren't career women as, for instance, Sarah Burton in Winifred Holtby's South Riding, they are independent thinkers who expect moral autonomy even if their actions are circumscribed by society. She's a sharp observer of the foibles of both men and women - I can't help imagining that she must have had to bite her tongue a good deal in company, and it might have been something of a relief to write her incisive prose. Remarkably, considering some of subject matter she touches on, she always avoids the slightest hint of vulgarity or prurience (I can just hear a critic in the 1930s making that same assertion!) or even the suggestion that there are things a "lady" shouldn't know about; equally, however, there's no sense of a dispassionate detachment from her description of Sanger's menage, or Tony's behaviour with Birnbaum. With Kennedy you get a feeling that good writing transcends all.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

The Pattern in the Carpet by Margaret Drabble

Some people do jigsaws only at Christmas, when they provide easy bonding with rarely seen family members. The Christmas jigsaw is usually a sociable jigsaw. It makes the ideally harmless opening conversational gambit, as safe as, but more interesting than, the weather. I've been collecting jigsaw testimony for the past few years, from fellow novelists, actors, children and scholars, and I'm hoping to catch a member of the royal family soon. There is a long tradition of regal engagement with the pursuit, from Queen Victoria to our present monarch, who is to be seen near one in her drawing room at Balmoral in the recent film where she is so well impersonated by Helen Mirren.
One witness tells me that in the festive season his family always embarks on an elaborate puzzle of many thousands of pieces. This keeps his mother-in-law happy and busy for hours, but alas, her eyesight is failing and she tends to misplace pieces with rash confidence, so he has to get up in the middle of the night, sneak down and undo the work she has done. (Margaret Drabble in the Guardian, 20 December 2008)
Nan recommended this book when I was struggling with The Sea Lady last year. It's subtitled A Personal History with Jigsaws - I suppose if you really hated jigsaw puzzles you might find it hard going, but it's so much more than that. I could have constructed an entire month's blogging out of things that Margaret Drabble reminded me of, as she talked about her family, and the house on the Great North Road where she spent many holidays (the road is the A1, the trunk road from London to Edinburgh - I grew up on its extension, the A9 from Edinburgh to Inverness, and like her I remember the lorries thundering south in the night).

Drabble interweaves her family memories with her investigations into the history of the jigsaw puzzle, a pursuit which takes her on a journey through childhood as a construct. From the very adult predilection for cutting out and assembling works of art - mosaic, for instance - to the more domestic but still adult hobby of découpage - to childhood pleasures such as the doll to be dressed in a variety of paper outfits (how I adored those when I was small) and, eventually to the early dissected maps (mentioned in Mansfield Park), notions of leisure and education are gently explored. Not that the book is without its challenges - family dynamics are probed too, and Drabble's inroads into her family's history and relationships make the reader stop and consider their own. But there's no breast-beating, even though we know that there is a famous rift with her sister, evidently over the rights of each to write about her mother - Drabble deals with this area with a scrupulous tact, I think, recognising that it's dangerous ground but nonetheless asserting her own choice in the matter. She's more concerned, anyway, with her memories of her mother's sister, Phyllis, who introduced her to jigsaws and who, as a spinster teacher looked down on by Drabble's mother, seems to have been a much better provider of entertainment, comfort and solace than her brighter, depressive sister.

This is a book full of digressions, and one of the most interesting for me was what she had to say about Alison Uttley. Like me, Drabble loved the Little Grey Rabbit books, and Uttley's enchanting memoir A Country Child - I think it came as a shock to many when a biography revealed that Uttley had been a difficult, if not deranged, woman who wrote because she was so indignant to see Enid Blyton making a living. There seems to be a parallel not-being-drawn here, because although Drabble describes jigsaw puzzling as an antidote to anger, and a means of avoiding unhappy thoughts (when her husband was taken ill puzzles again were to provide a solace), the reader cannot help but be conscious of a good deal of unhappiness at the back of this work. But it's not hard to read - it offers a coming-to-terms with the bits of family history which are apt to trouble and, as I've suggested, channels the reader's own experiences while gently wittering on about diverting distractions. It's both a history of jigsaws and of coping strategies and, as such, something unique.

Saturday, 14 January 2012


It's the weekend and I'm back from a few days in London for work with not much to show for it on the books front. I did go to see a film (on my own, which is, I think, a first - I've done theatre, ballet and opera on my own before but never the cinema) and came home enthusing about The Artist, a modern take on the silent movie, funny and charming, perhaps not earth-shattering, but well worth watching. It's a hot tip for an Oscar, I gather, but although I thought it perfectly delightful, I can't help feeling that something slightly weightier should be the best film of the year. Best character for me, of course, was Jack the dog, played by Jack Russell Uggie, but his co-stars are pretty good too.

I'd happy to report that my Century of Books is off to a flying start with 1976 done and dusted. And I'm reading Margaret Kennedy's The Constant Nymph and Dodie Smith's memoir of childhood Look Back with Love in one of the delicious Slightly Foxed Editions simultaneously (I thought I'd read it before but it turns out not - it must have been the second volume). I've also posted on Hurlyburlybuss, on Fell Farm for Christmas. Since keeping up a second blog is going to make some time pressures for this one, I decided to introduce a weekend post here which will be bookish ramblings, hence Divagations, lifted from Angela Thirkell. For those who don't know AT, both the author and her characters (especially Mrs Morland, who is very much AT's self-portrait) are prone to divagating (digressing or wandering) at great length, as am I. Happily for those around me, most of my divagations take the place of internal monologues, often while staring out of the window of the train. This week I was so cross with East Coast for making the exchange of Rewards points for tickets so complicated that I just sat there and seethed, further irritated by the hideously uncomfortable seats - complicated by the need, presumably, for stock suitable for the non-electrified section between Edinburgh and Aberdeen, East Coast has acquired some very old carriages (from East Midlands, I think). All the support has long gone from the seats, mine wouldn't recline and the train was too busy to make moving an option. I shall be avoiding the Aberdeen train in future (I used to like them, because the first-class carriages had ducky little lights at the tables which looked very cosy - and before anyone splutters, I buy my first-class tickets ages in advance so that I get cheap ones, and don't travel standard unless I have to because the seats make my back agony for days).

Finally, for Jenny, another doggy picture. The Bolter is groaning with displeasure behind me, she thinks I spend far too much time extolling the elegance of the AP's "new" dog, who shall be known here as The Wisp. An ex-racing greyhound, she's lived with the APs for just over a year now, a gentle and graceful creature who is proof that greyhounds take to sofas like ducks to water.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

The Hatchet Man by William Marshall

"Hong Kong is an island of some 30 square miles under British administration in the South China Sea facing Kowloon and the New Territories areas of continental China. Kowloon and the New Territories are also British administered, surrounded by the Communist Chinese province of Kwantung. The climate is generally sub-tropical, with hot, humid summers and heavy rainfall. The population of Hong Kong and the surrounding areas at any one time, including tourists and visitors, is in excess of four millions. The New Territories are leased from the Chinese. The lease is due to expire in 1997, but the British nevertheless maintain a military presence along the border, although, should the Communists who supply almost all the colony's drinking water, ever desire to terminate the lease early, they need only turn off the taps. Hong Bay is on the southern side of the island and the tourist brochures advise you not to go there after dark."

The Yellowthread Street series is one of my absolute favourites of all time. There are sixteen altogether, and with this one I've read - I think - seven. I think, because I read most of the others as they turned up in the local library in the seventies, since when they have proved hard to find, although the first, Yellowthread Street, was reprinted in 1986. When I found that in the much-lamented Murder One bookshop on Charing Cross Road, I decided that I would have to read them all.
The Hatchet Man was published in 1976 and is set, like all of the series, in Hong Bay before the colony was handed back to the Chinese. The passage above appears somewhere in the first chapter of each of the books, so that you come across it with a smile of familiarity, because it is typical of Marshall's humour. The touch of insanity which pervades all of his writing lifts them from hard-boiled crime to create a roller-coaster which tips you back and forth between hilarity and holding your breath. One of the books - wish I could remember which - gave me the most truly heart-stopping moment I can ever remember reading, as I realised just ahead of Detective Chief Inspector Harry Feiffer precisely what danger he was in as he followed a murderer into a building. I won't tell you what, in case you ever read it, but it was genuinely horrific and terrifying, I can feel it again just writing about it.

Although you are not conscious of a huge amount of character development in each book, the reader quickly learns the idiosyncrasies of Feiffer's team (and their long-suffering wives). Feiffer himself is European, but Hong Kong-born, while Inspector Christopher O'Yee is Eurasian and was born in San Francisco. Detectives Spencer and Auden, who bear a distinct resemblance in my mind to Tweedledum and Tweedledee, always bickering, are very much the young British male abroad, very gung ho and ready, as soon as they have gun in hand, to blast away at felons, although Feiffer knows that he needs to protect them from themselves.

In The Hatchet Man the team are investigating a series of apparently random murders in cinemas; overstretched, tired and irritable, everyone is spending long hours in the station on Yellowthread Street sifting through the detritus found on cinema floors in the hope that it will yield some information. The all-seeing narrative style lets us follow the main characters, including the Hatchet Man himself - this is something I can find annoying, but I don't here, because there's a quality about Marshall's matter-of-fact voice which makes it work and you can be part, in turn, of Feiffer's worry about his team, Spencer's clumsy tactlessness, O'Yee's neurotic ramblings about whether his children will still recognise him when he's always out at work, even the Hatchet Man's psychosis, even old Mrs Mortimer whose dementia makes her unpleasantly racist. Each is a glimpse into a flawed person, some just bumbling along doing their best, some so damaged by time and events that they've moved beyond the boundaries that constrain the rest of us. Marshall's dialogue catches all the half-spoken thoughts, the miscommunications that are part of everyday life, too - a trait he shares with William Gibson, another "hard-boiled" writer with a gift for creating remarkably endearing characters - I find myself going back with pleasure over snatches of conversation to see if I've missed any nuances.

It's not the "whodunit" element that makes this series compulsive, although the plotting is tight enough for satisfying reading. Their charm is in their quirkiness, their delight in the idiocy of everyday life. Feiffer is plagued by a teahouse owner called Mr Lop who hates him (as we know from an earlier book):
"Who is the suspicious person?" Yan asked. 
"He's gone now," Lop said. He said, "He was in my tea house. He looked very suspicious. He's gone now."
"Gone where?"
"Gone. How do I know? I'm not the police. That's Feiffer's job."
"Mr Feiffer isn't here," said Constable Yan patiently. "Does Mr Feiffer know you?"
Mr Lop said, "I don't like Feiffer. Feiffer doesn't like me. Feiffer got me into trouble with Tax." he said, "If it was the Hatchet Man and Feiffer was out when I rang up and he missed him I'll laugh myself silly."
It feels as though the narrative progresses by a series of snapshots of the team at work, rather than in a completely linear fashion, and the jerky shutter action provides verisimilitude, as if we were watching Sam Spade (who indeed gets a mention) in slightly stuttery black-and-white. In 1990 there was an abortive attempt at making a TV series, which stripped the stories of all the things which made them most special, and may have done the books themselves no favours at all by so grossly misrepresenting them.

If you come across one in a charity shop, do please give it a try! For my own part, I feel that my Century of Books has, to echo Simon, got off to a very good start.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

...and looking forward: reading plans for 2012

The Bolter doesn't think she appears enough here, so I've promised, with my fingers firmly crossed, that 2012 will be her starring year. She may let Senior Dog in from time to time.

It's going to be a big year for reading! It started well when I decided to celebrate New Year by reading Connie Willis's Blackout. I've seen some mixed reviews of this book - mainly about its length - but I couldn't put it down. I shall be more than happy to have another 400+ pages to read to resolve it in All Clear.

One of the big projects for this year will be my own version of the Century of Books that Simon is undertaking. I haven't really talked about that here, but I've been planning for it ever since Simon posted about his plans and I leapt in and said that I couldn't resist joining in. I've got an Evernote table with suggestions for books I might read and I've been itching to start (although now I can, I have a pile of 21st-century review books I ought to read first - ho-hum). I see Simon's already read his first book! The biggest challenge for me here will be posting about them - some of the results may be on the short side, but I'll do my best! My plan - unlike Simon - is to allow myself at least 2 years to complete the challenge, and I'm not going to read only literary fiction, because then it might easily become a chore. So there will be some themes to follow: crime fiction, children's books, fantasy and so on.

I thought I needed an auspicious year to start with, so I chose The Hatchet Man by William Marshall, published in 1976, the year my elder son was born. More about the book anon.

Alongside, and complementing the Century of Books nicely, is the Classics Challenge hosted by Katherine at November's Autumn, which I did post about. I've got a list of seven 20th-century classics, with a few extras to choose from. I'm starting with Margaret Kennedy's The Constant Nymph.

I get huge pleasure from Carl's challenges, RIP and Once Upon a Time - I may focus more than usual on books from the last century here, too, which might be fun. But I'm not going to read 20th-century books exclusively during the year, not least because I've got Christmas presents to read!

There's another project that I'll be undertaking, too - despite chronic lack of time, I started another blog! Hurlyburlybuss has been taking shape very slowly over the last couple of months and will develop further as I find time for it. It will be a very anglocentric blog about children's books, reflecting my enthusiasm for the books I grew up with and regard as formative - to which end, I'll be reading Francis Spufford's The Child that Books Built, as well as trawling through my copies of Margery Fisher's Intent upon Reading and John Rowe Townsend's Written for Children. I foresee some expensive visits to secondhand bookshops as well! But there's no time limit here, I shall just add to it as I read and re-read. I've been cross-posting reviews of children's books from this site so there's a little there already. It's a piece of lunacy, really, but all my own...  

Looking back....

Devon, 2011

...with distinctly mixed feelings: 2011 was a slog. Not so much huge sloughs of despond, but just a long grind, too much work, financial uncertainty and several large and unexpected bills, worries about the health of OH and the APs being compounded by new anxieties about dogs (Senior Dog is mostly just getting elderly, while The Bolter has just had a second operation in a year) and no real let-up in sight. But reading has, as ever, kept me going, and book talk has been a pleasure. The two months of Carl's RIP Challenge VI in particular, when we read and talked about Neil Gaiman's Fragile Things - not always in agreement with each other, but with lots of stimulating ideas and a real sense of companionship. It's been followed, less cheerfully, by a real plummet in blogging time - I'm still getting through the books, but I simply haven't had a chance to talk about them. The intentions are good, but the only opportunity is just before bed, as a rule, and I'm just too tired then!

A quick summing up, though (the 2011 list is here):

Total number of books read: 110 (that's a poor year for me; August was the best month - the weather was bad and I used what holiday I had for reading)

Number of books by women authors: 89 (heavens! that's very pleasing)

Children/YA books: 19 (I'm surprised that number's not higher)

Non-fiction: 7 ( not so good, but I copyedited books on, amongst other things, history, middle-eastern politics, two on film - I get most of the serious reading I need there, and the degree of concentration required means I no longer apologise for reading frivolously the rest of the time)

Re-reads: 24 (I don't always remember to record whether I've read a book before, so the number doesn't actually tally with the list)

New-to-me authors: 35 (shows just how much I like to return to the familiar)

Worst book of the year? I don't record books I gave up on, so I can't answer this question. If I've forgotten a book altogether, I may start it again and enjoy it second time round; if I really hated it, I'll probably recognise it, if it's a library book; if it was on the TBR pile and I hated it, it goes on the Bookmooch list.

Best of the year? So hard to choose. Authors in 2011 who have gone straight onto the must-have list are: Ben Aaronovitch, Patricia S. Bowne and Kate Griffin - when did  I start to like urban fantasy, I wonder? Anyway, they are all highly recommended. And my thanks to Nan who recommended Margaret Drabble's A Pattern in the Carpet, which I loved.

Literary highpoints? Going to hear Neil Gaiman at the Edinburgh Book Festival (and having him check personally that my 10th anniversary copy of American Gods doesn't include the editing error he mentioned in his talk); hearing Mervyn Peake's sons talk about their father and read his poetry and going to the exhibition of his work in the British Library.

I neglected the Canadian Book Challenge, and will have to read hard if I'm to make it to 13 books by Canada Day. 2010 was the only year I managed to complete it, but taking part does mean that I've read 45 Canadian books in five years. For the Once Upon a Time Challenge I read Troll Mill and Troll Fell by Katherine Langrish, and for RIP VI I read 16 books and reviewed five, as well as taking part of in the discussions of Fragile Things and Jim Butcher's Storm Front.

Tomorrow (DV) I shall talk about 2012!