Birthday Books

It was my birthday last week and I was very lucky to receive a lovely stack of books. I was very excited and immediately dropped everything to start reading them.

I cannot remember where I first heard about A Sweet Girl Graduate but I knew I had to try it. It is set in a women’s college in England in the late 19th century and as I love books like Daddy Long Legs and Anne of the Island so much I was sure I would enjoy this too. I’m almost at the end of it now and I wasn’t wrong! Jane West’s A Gossip’s Story is supposed to have been an inspiration for Sense and Sensibility so I am very excited to try that soon. Linda Newberry is an author I have never read – but have heard very good things about – so I am looking forward to The Nowhere Girl as well.

The Sign of Four is only the second Sherlock Holmes book I have read (although we read a couple of the short stories at school and I was very proud of solving one of them before Holmes did – and without sitting for hours smoking too, which is what I remember him doing in that instance!). It was the first one of this stack I picked up and I raced through it. I loved the book anyway but I also really enjoyed picking up on all the bits included in the Sherlock TV series – some of the ways they adapted it were so clever.

This book came with a little extra – some beautiful book stitch markers for my crochet. If you look closely you can see that one of them matches the book cover. Even the back cover is correct. I love them and they are making my current project look beautiful.

The Woman in White

Many years ago I listened to the audiobook of The Woman in White. I knew it was abridged but hadn’t realised how much until I listened to the full version last month. I think my abridged copy was only two or three hours long – the whole book is more than twenty hours. That really hit home when I was about half an hour in and I hadn’t yet recognised a word.

It also explained why I had thought that the only other two Wilkie Collins books I’ve read – No Name and The Moonstone – were so much better than The Woman in White, which is probably his most famous work. It turns out that when you miss out most of the words you lose a lot! No Name is probably still my favourite but I was totally gripped by this one – even though I knew more or less what was going to happen – and I resented having to stop listening.

This time I listened to the version read by Gabriel Woolf. I thought he was an excellent reader but the book badly needed better editing. There were a lot of extraneous noises like throat clearing and many instances of the reader making a mistake and then correcting himself. I still very much enjoyed it but it was distracting and if you’re thinking of listening it is probably worth looking for a different reading.

The Barsetshire Chronicles

For the past several years – with many gaps in between – I have been slowly reading through The Barsetshire Chronicles. I had never really thought much about reading them until I saw the BBC adaptation of Doctor Thorne in 2016 and absolutely loved it. Naturaly that made me want to read the books. I looked up Anthony Trollope and found a quote from – as I thought – Dickens describing him as too sentimental (or possibly romantic). That I thought sounded wonderful and I embarked straight away on The Warden. Now I come to look for that quote again I cannot find it – if you know it please do let me know! All I can find are references to Trollope’s own satirising of Dickens as ‘Mr Popular Sentiment’.

I fell in love with Trollope soon after beginning The Warden. I found his writing style delightful and I was completely hooked by the story line. Perhaps even more importantly – for me anyway – I really cared about the characters and what happened to them. Of course I had to read more and so Barchester Towers was obtained. In fact, my puchasing habits became fairly predictable – usually within a few chapters of starting one of the books I knew I had to keep reading and I would buy the next book so that it was ready for me as soon as I needed it. That wasn’t normally as soon as I thought – by the end of the book I wanted something else to read – but I always came back to it eventually.

This afternoon I finished The Last Chronicle of Barset. During the course of reading it I have both laughed and cried and there was something very sad about the last lines promising that this was indeed the last book. Tollope’s authorial voice in the books has been one of my favourite parts and, although I am glad to have all the loose ends tied up, I am sorry not to have the next book ready to go.

Of course, Anthony Trollope wrote many, many other books which I am sure I will enjoy just as much as I did these. Which should I read next?

Lockdown Browsing

This has been a good week for me as it saw the arrival of the latest magazine from the Friends of the Chalet School.  I love this magazine with its huge range of interesting articles written by club members. Reading it is like having the best kind of bookish conversation with friends.

This time though, I found myself reaching for the sales and wants section (where members can advertise books for sale – and, of course, those they want) before embarking on reading the magazine itself.  That is not so usual for me and it got me thinking.  Lockdown has obviously stopped all visits to the bookshop and although books can be bought online – for which I am very grateful right now – there is nothing quite so good as browsing in a real, bricks and mortar bookshop.

Part of that joy is of course the browsing among the shelves, not looking for anything in particular.  Those unexpected, unlooked for finds of books I didn’t even know existed are for me even more exciting than finding a book I knew I wanted.  That is something I find much harder on a website and is I think part of the reason I was so happy with my sales and wants list.  You never know what you will find listed there and although most of the titles are familiar there is always something which tempts me into trying to secure it for my collection.

This then is how I will be spending my evening – with a large cup of tea and a highlighter to hand.

On Icicles and Barsetshire

The weather today has been absolutely glorious.  Bright blue skies with endless sunshine and not a sign of a cloud.  So much so that I was tempted to take my books out to read.  Of course, in reality it is far too cold to do that for long.  We may not have had the snow here that has covered most of the rest of the country but it is a bit of a winter wonderland nonetheless.  After working on the hedges this morning I went for a bit of a wander along the stream in the hopes of finding icicles.  I was not disappointed!

My reading this week has slowed down considerably.  Partly that is because despite the lockdown I have been busy with other things (the aforementioned hedges and the stationery I am hoping to start selling online soon) and so my reading time has shrunk back down to coffee and lunch breaks.  That is of course much more normal for me anyway – although I am tending to draw out those breaks to read for just a bit longer! 

A lot of it is to do with my reading matter though.  As much as I love Anthony Trollope (and that is a lot!), I just can’t read him as fast as all the cosy crime I read last month.  The book is about three times as long too!  My other current read is Barnaby Rudge – I’m reading a chapter a day as part of a buddy read which is lovely but not the way to read quickly! The bookmark was presented with The Sunday Companion in 1924 and I love it.

Of course, none of this really matters anyway.  Yes I will read far fewer books in February than I did in January but that isn’t important.  At least I’m reading – and even if I wasn’t it would be fine.  The books aren’t going anywhere.  Now though, I need to pour myself a cup of tea and settle down in Barchester for the evening.  Or possibly London or Allington.  This book moves around a lot!

Literary Meetings

Before the pandemic I loved going to meetings of my local branch of the Jane Austen Society. They were lovely places to meet like minded people for bookish chats, lunch and plenty of tea. Best of all were the talks we enjoyed – two at every meeting – and we had some great ones. My favourite is probably still the dramatic reading of extracts from Austen’s Juvenilia – it was hilarious – and I also remember one several years ago about William Beckford. I loved Amy Frost’s talk so much that I immediately went and borrowed every book by Beckford I could find in the library.

In fact, Amy Frost spoke at the last meeting I attended – in January last year – and gave another fascinating talk about what is wrong with location in Austen adaptations. Since then of course we have been kept at home. I have enjoyed several online events – including the literary festival hosted by Chawton House – but it has been a few months since the last one I saw. I was therefore delighted to be invited – along with the rest of my branch – to a Zoom meeting hosted by the Scottish branch of the society.

We were determined to do things properly so we set out a nice tea for ourselves and sat down to a talk on Jane Austen and the weather by Katie Halsey. I very much enjoyed listening to it and of course it made me long to read the novels again (it has been maybe two months since I read any Jane Austen – you wouldn’t think I would need more yet!). It was a thoroughly delightful way to spend the afternoon and I am definitely looking forward to the next opportunity to hear talks like this. They might not be quite the same as meeting in person but they are definitely filling an intellectual hole. If you know of any please do let me know!

Scribbles in the Margins

Last week’s post about inscriptions in books reminded me that several years ago I bought Scribbles in the Margins: 50 Eternal Delights of Books by Daniel Gray. It is one of those books which sounds utterly delightful but for some reason has languished unread on the shelf. Yesterday I finally picked it up and I can now confirm that it is wonderful.

This is only a small book, with 50 short essays on different bookish joys. The chapter headings alone give an idea of the gems inside – things like ‘Impromptu Bookmarks’, ‘Choosing and Anticipating Holiday Reading’ and ‘Feeling Bereft Having Finished a Book’. Every chapter resonated with me and I found that my pencil was much needed for a lot of underlining.

There are far too many good quotes to share them all but here are a few which made me feel seen.

Arrival in a house or flat kindles a desire to secure time alone with the bookshelves. The offer of a drink, preferably a slightly complicated one, is accepted, a distraction for your ferreting.

Bookmarks are the second socks of literature, frequently and inexplicably going missing in action.

What horror, incidentally, on those occasions when a fanned-flick forwards shows that what you thought were leafs of storyline are blanks or adverts for other titles.

I have many more I could share but, really, you should read the book. It is a bibliophile’s dream.

Incidentally, there is a chapter on author dedications. I knew from the moment I saw the dedication in this book that I would love it – ‘To the girl who won’t sleep until she’s had a story.’ I imagine this is referring to the author’s daughter but it feels like it was written for me.

Making Notes

Do you write in your books? I like to underline phrases that jump out an me – quotes I want to remember. I also love to find other people’s notes and underlinings in second hand books. What I especially love though are the inscriptions at the front of the books. Books showing my own history are wonderful – I was too young to remember my first visit to Tintagel but I have an excellent set of books to remind me of the trip. Or there is the book of Wordsworth’s poems which my Grandmother won in a potato race in 1924. We never got such good prizes at my sports days!

The inscriptions in second hand books are just as lovely. Presumably Mrs John High had a fondness for Walter Scott – two different friends gave her matching copies of his books in memory of holidays they shared. The questions about these former owners of my books can be endless. Did she collect Walter Scott or just the binding to make her shelf look beautiful? Did all these people go on a trip together or were the books reminders of two separate holidays? What about Walter H Whitehead? Was he a soldier when he bought this copy of Galsworthy’s The Dark Flower in Germany? The books give a fascinating glimpse into past lives.

Even the history of the books themselves can be interesting. When I bought this copy of Byron from a book sale at university I clearly had to write my details in the front – you can trace at least part of its history from the endpapers.

That’s why I am definitely in favour of writing in books. It gives them a life of their own which is fascinating to read in later years.

Book Review – A Kind of Spark

As soon as I read the blurb for Elle McNicoll’s A Kind of Spark I knew that I had to read it. Any book about someone who is ‘different’ is bound to appeal to me but there was something about this one which made me drop everything and start reading it as soon as I was sent the reading copy (thank you Knights Of!).

Publisher’s Blurb

A Kind of Spark tells the story of 11-year old Addie as she campaigns for a memorial in memory of the witch trials that took place in her Scottish hometown. Addie knows there’s more to the story of these ‘witches’, just like there is more to hers. Can Addie challenge how the people in her town see her, and her autism, and make herself heard?

I was not prepared for just how invested I would be in Addie’s story and how emotional it made me. I was in tears by the end but they were all happy tears – this book is just beautiful. It is well written, with an engaging plot and characters I really cared about. The characters – the way they were portrayed and the understanding shown – were definitely what made this book for me.

Almost every page contained something that resonated with me. I am not autistic like Addie but I am very introverted and suffer from social anxiety – as I child I could barely speak to anyone. I am still waiting to grow out of it but I have got much better at hiding it.

There are very few neurodivergent characters in books – anyone who is a bit different is usually a foil to the main character and designed to make the star of the show look good. The best example of a heroine I can think of is Fanny Price. She has many of her own issues but the majority of readers dismiss her as dull – reinforcing the idea that it is bad to be different.

A Kind of Spark is exactly the book I needed as a child – it would have made me feel a little less alone. Everyone should read this book. Those who are neurodivergent will find comfort and those who are neurotypical might just understand their peers a little better.

Book Details

A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll

Publisher: Knights Of

ISBN: 9781913311056

RRP: £6.99

Reading Resolutions

2020 was a funny reading year for me. I actually read more books than I have since I started recording my reading but partly that was because I had more time and partly because so much of that time was spent re-reading old favourites. I also got through a lot of audiobooks! The year started off very well with me reading through my unread shelves but that tailed off dramatically as we headed into lockdown and I needed comfort reading.

This year I intend to do better. I have given up setting myself specific goals as for me they always make reading feel too much like homework. Especially if I have a definitive list of titles to read – then I feel I can’t read anything else until I have got through the list but I’m never in the right mood for those books and I end up not reading at all.

However, it would be nice to get through some of my unread shelves so I have recreated them in my reading journal in the hope that being able to see my progress will motivate me to read more. There are 99 books there after all – surely I should always be in the right mood for one of them!

That number is considerably lower than it was last year as I have had quite a ruthless turnout. It is always hard getting rid of books but at the same time very freeing to no longer feel obliged to read something. The counting was problematic – I have a lot of books I bought to sell and there are many of those I would love to read but haven’t got around to yet. For simplicity though I chose not to count them and just stuck to my personal collection. There are bound to be some I missed but this is a start.

There are certainly enough to keep me going – not that I will put myself under a book buying ban. I will just try to only buy books I know I will read straight away. I will also be attempting the monthly challenges set by The Unread Shelf Project – hopefully those will ensure that I read at least one of my unread books a month!

My main aim for my reading this year though is just to enjoy it. To read whatever I want and not worry about the numbers or how literary it is. As Samuel Johnson said, ‘A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.’