The Fair Fight


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I really am trying to widen my reading horizons at the moment. After listening to Simon and Thomas‘ latest The Readers podcast on nonfiction, which I related to much more than I thought I would, it really hammered home the huge gap in my reading this year. Apart from the odd classic I desperately try to cram in, the majority of what I pick up could broadly be classed as ‘historical fiction’ of some kind. Although there is truly nothing better in my mind than a beautifully written, evocative tale that sweeps you away to an entirely different era, this is my naughty comfort zone, and one that I certainly haven’t solved, but thoroughly basked in this month by indulging in Anna Freeman’s quirky new novel; The Fair Fight.

Set in the mansions, brothels and mucky bars of 18th century Bristol, The Fair Fight tells the tale of Ruth; a young, impoverished girl who, due to her less-than-perfect looks and hard-headed nature, forges a name for herself as a female pugilist, backed and bought by the mysterious Mr Dryer. After a twisted fight leaves her battered and bruised beyond recognition, her patron drops her cold, moving on with his prospects towards her burly yet kindhearted husband, Tom; a venture for boxing titles that carries great risk for them all.

Split into three narrative voices; that of Ruth, Mr Dyer’s wife; Charlotte, and young fop George Bowden, we are afforded the opportunity to peek into the lives of people at every level of society at the time, witnessing predicaments as wide as George’s taboo passion for his boarding school roommate Perry and the alcoholism and deep-rooted apathy of a small-pox-scarred upper class woman, a woman whose boredom is finally eased by the arrival of the two young boxers at her country home.

22430677Despite my misgivings about the depth and breadth of my reading habits at the moment, there is nothing more enjoyable than a well-written, researched, quirky bit of historical fiction and this is no exception. Inevitable comparisons will be drawn with the likes of Sarah Waters but such sweeping comments do annoy me a tad. This is a hugely entertaining, unique story in its own right and gives us a modern girls yet more literary heroines to gaze at admiringly. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t put my fists up myself in the bathroom mirror once or twice whilst reading this in imitation of the feisty, potty-mouthed pugilist.

Although I sometimes failed to see the point of George’s self-serving narrative, both Ruth and Charlotte are admirable, memorable characters, allowing us a true glimpse of female 18th century life at both ends of the spectrum. The contrast between Ruth’s poverty yet relative freedom of thought and spirit in contrast with the prison Charlotte finds within the lush walls of her sitting rooms certainly gives us food for thought and their spunk and vivacity both buoyed me up. There are no Disney princesses here; wonky teeth and scarred skin bring these very real characters to life in earnest.

With the varying narratives keeping the novel fresh and moving swiftly along, like all the best historical fiction, this story is littered with seemingly accurate period detail, colour, verve and grit that will find you talking like a Bristolian in no time. Despite all the ‘culls’, ‘pugs’ and ‘bifs’ a girl could ever want, the plot can seem a little sluggish at times, but this is nothing a good cat fight can’t cure…

Top Ten Books I Really Want To Read But Don’t Own Yet


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Michael Underwood

Thankyou good folk at The Broke and the Bookish for yet more cause for pause and reflection… I better get my purse out!

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1. Water for Elephants; Sara Gruen – this historical novel has made its way on and off my wish list more times than I can count due to wildly varying reviews. After settling down to the Hollywood blockbuster last weekend and buoyed by an excellent Goodreads rating, it has made the way firmly back on the list. 

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2. William – an Englishman; Cicely Hamilton - The perspective of Mr and Mrs Everyman on the devastation of World War I, written by suffragette Hamilton in just 1919, sounds just superb. Plus I haven’t yet had the delight of a Persephone book.

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3. The Secret History; Donna Tartt - my first Donna Tartt experience was just awesome. Yet my book group, as per usual, were mortified at my Donna Tartt virginity and the fact that I’d not yet read The Secret History. Time to remedy that.

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4. Hiroshima; John Hersey - There are certain events in history that pull you towards them instinctively, horrifically. Hiroshima and its aftermath is one of them. Hersey’s book, charts the lives of six survivors and sounds completely gripping.

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5. Bad Feminist; Roxane Gay - This collection of essays has been knocking around the feminist blogs for a good couple of weeks and seems an interesting (and witty) one to pick up and educate myself from.

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6. Revenge; Yoko Ogawa - I love Ogawa’s spare, poetic prose, having and read and adored both Hotel Iris and The Housekeeper and The Professor.  Luckily for me, Clare at A Little Blog of Books is a veritable gold mine of bookish news and alerted me to these sinister sounding short stories.

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7. Mrs Fox; Sarah Hall - a magical fable that sounds right up my street. I’m confident that Simon Savidge’s fab review has quite rightly pointed even more readers in Sarah Hall’s direction.

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8. The Secret Lives of Alexandra David-Neel; Barbara Foster - after our second trip to India I became a little obsessed with solo female travellers, becoming particularly fixated on the eccentric, admirable figure of Victorian pioneer Alexandra David-Neel. Aside from her own writings, this is supposed to be the definitive biography.

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9. The Shooting Party; Isabel Colegate - This book strikes me as, quite simply, a very stylish, intriguing portrait of pre-war high society. With shooting, fashion and plenty of gossip, this all seems very Downton Abbey darling.

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10. The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly; Sun-mi Hwang - ah. More satisfying Far Eastern literature, this time from Korea, which intrigues me hugely. Fables, magic….the perfect theme for Autumn/Winter 2014 (which I’m so excited by. Hurray!)

Little Library Lenders


Little Free Library

Memphis CVB

Like many of you bookish folk out there, I sadly don’t have the luxury of whiling away the weekday hours with my nose in a good book. When I start to think about how much I could read if I didn’t have to partake in that niggly little thing called work I remind myself that it is, after all, currently funding my extreme book habit…

As it is, the vast majority of my reading is done in bed at night (woe betide the man who tells me to turn my light off!) on the rare empty weekend afternoon (drizzly) and, most importantly for the purposes of this post, on the train to and from work. I do so love my quiet 30 minutes, coffee in one hand, book in the other. The perfect way to relax before a stressful and potentially irritating day at the grindstone.

There have been a plethora of blog posts popping up of late on the Little Free Library movement; wonderful, bird-box-like structures that have steadily multiplied from Wisconsin eastwards and now number the several thousand. Nestling often in front yards and gardens, these structures elaborate on the ‘take a book leave a book’ philosophy you see in all too few coffee shops and waiting rooms.

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As you can see from the cute little basket above, the literary prowess of my daily commute does not just extend to me catching up on my personal reading. Some inspired bookworm at our local station has added huge joy to my mornings by installing a little mini library of their own, one where it isn’t even obligatory to leave a book should you take one! Many a minute has been spent harvesting pristine copies of classics and new publications that I haven’t yet had the joy of reading (e.g. Jim Crace’s HarvestMargaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind) and leaving my own copies of books I know will otherwise merely languish on my shelves collecting dust for the rest of all time. Even though the books I leave in there are often stories I’m not overly fussed about, I do get a little tetchy if they don’t disappear right away into the arms of some appreciative commuter. The people in my neck of the woods happily seem to avid readers of a wide variety of books, usually quality and I often wonder how fun it would be to restrict myself to only reading from the book basket (yikes).

I think perhaps my little local station should seriously consider joining the Little Free Library community and make the book-loving official. I’m even subtly hinting to the other half that my idea of a perfect birthday/Christmas present would be a little literary chalet of my very own to stick in the front garden and watch the book loving villagers/walkers/bikers and horse riders ramble by and help themselves. Reading can often be such a solitary and lonely pastime, the more opportunities to share the worlds you love and discuss them with others the better.

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The Goldfinch


The Goldfinch

Frederic Guillory

It’s not usually my style to stick my beak into the furore, however, thanks to a highly ambitious and enthusiastic Manchester book group, I actually managed to spend two weeks reading just one book last month, devouring Donna Tartt’s doorstop, ‘big American novel’ The Goldfinch in readiness for August’s get together.

As always, the greater the hype the greater my nerves about a new release however, one certainty was the fact that this was always going to be a book group-pleaser, whichever way the pendulum swung. After a series of damp squibs, this captivating tale was sorely needed and deeply admired by all.

Theo Decker’s life is outwardly unimpressive. To others, this is a young man defined by the loss of his mother in a violent accident; an event that sends him spiraling into an existence of drug-addiction, depression and deception. Orbiting around his connection with an unassuming 17th century painting of a goldfinch, we follow Theo from the bleak deserts of Las Vegas, to the musty antique shops of New York, to the back streets of Amsterdam in a superb love story dedicated to enduringly beautiful objects and human flaw.

Seeing how hooked I was to this book (dragging it around with me everywhere – see picture below) my other half enthusiastically asked me what it was about. Struggling to get beyond the ‘just a story about some guy’s life’ bit, I frankly made it all sound a little dull, which this book could so easily be. Instead, under Tartt’s deft pen, Theo’s life takes on a rather sweeping, film-like feel with stunning scenery (see the wide Las Vegas skies) and a superb inner monologue, written in such a way that our hearts dip and soar with him:

‘the flavor of Pippa’s kiss – bittersweet and strange – stayed with me all the way back uptown, swaying and sleepy as I sailed home on the bus, melting with sorrow and loveliness, a starry ache that lifted me up above the windswept city like a kite: my head in the rainclouds, my heart in the sky.’                            

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The Goldfinch

Tartt’s writerly prowess means that we don’t glimpse even a peek of middle-aged woman in this teenage boy. Theo is a hopelessly flawed individual, something that resulted in a grand debate into his likability and, rather melodramatically, whether he is ultimately a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person.  With our anti-hero just unremarkable and mutable enough to blend into the background of his own story, fabulous characters such as eccentric childhood friend Boris and cosy protector and business partner Hoby take centre stage.

With an uproarious, positive reception from the start, as time has gone by critics seemed to have turned disappointingly snobby on this novel. The dialogue isn’t ‘literary’ enough you say? A 15-year-old drug addict isn’t ‘literary’ enough for you?! What rubbish. Books are for entertainment and, as an avid reader of both ‘high brow’, classic and popular fiction I can tell you that I enjoyed this very much indeed. Boo to you critics!

I’ve read few books that keep up the momentum for 800 pages and this is no exception. One particular twist of the plot irritated me slightly and meant that, with only 150 pages to go, my confidence in the story took a wobble (swiftly righted, I’m happy to say). It also has to be said that a big daydreamer like myself can also start to get a little down on all the dying…

This is a beautifully written novel, brave in its sorrows and unique in its celebration of fine-things. A book that loves beauty, and, as a typical Libra, it turns out I do too.

Ten Authors I Own The Most Books From


I love a Top Ten Tuesday post, mainly because I love a good list, but this week’s task is a bit tricky for someone with such a serious book problem (not quite as bad as the insane picture above!) Short of getting my library out and counting it all (a more pleasurable task than it sounds I’m sure!), based on a swift glance alone it is clear that the ten authors below are coming up trumps on my shelves:

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1. Charles Dickens  – mainly due to a dank winter book buying frenzy a couple of years ago and an astonishing offer from The Book People, an entire shelf of our ‘classics’ section downstairs is now devoted to the great man himself…better get some of them read!

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2. Paul Gallico - I’m sure I’ve bored you all before with my postulating on the greatness of El Gallico. I only have a few of the forty-plus books that he did write but those few are definitely worth mentioning here. Many are out of print/only falteringly in-print from time to time.

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3. Derek Tangye - Having had Tangye’s beautiful cat books pressed on me for years by my family I have now inherited all of his Minack Chronicles. A perfect celebration of life.

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4. Haruki Murakami - Although I’ve only read a handful of his books, I seem to have an impulsion to buy Murakami’s monochrome volumes. The poetry and sheer weirdness of it all never fails to draw me in.

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5. Margaret Atwood - Another fail-safe author I collect heaps of and simply cannot read fast enough. Just MaddAddam to go in the Orynx and Crake trilogy and then I can settle down with them all for a readathon!

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6. Eric Newby - My other half is rather the adventurer; climber, runner, action man extraordinaire. Eric Newby’s travel literature therefore features rather heavily in the travel-cum-climbing section of our library.

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7. Laurie Lee - I have all of Lee’s books and have only read the Spanish trilogy so far. Cider with Rosie is arguably his best-loved work and one I should definitely get read before our beautiful English summer ends.

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8. Roald Dahl - Although I haven’t read any of Dahl’s adult fiction yet, The Book People had a wonderful offer on all of his captivating children’s books. I bought a set for our four year old niece and couldn’t resist a set for Relish Towers as well. They’ve already been lent out to friends!

9. Georges Remi - Better known by his pen name ‘Hergé’, I’ve been an avid fan of the (admittedly, yes, rather racist) Tintin comics for years and years and am at least halfway through my French collection…just need a few more holidays to finish it off.

10. Graham Greene - A stalwart, reliable author if ever there was one. I always enjoy Greene’s novels, that are so very varied and masterfully written. The Vintage editions are also hugely pleasing on the eye!

50/365:Word Canyon by Magic Madzik via Flickr
Paul Gallico and Roald Dahl by Carl Van Vechten
The Minack Chronicle... by Linda Hartley, Wikimedia Commons
Haruki Murakami by wakarimasita via Wikimedia Commons
Margaret Atwood Eden Mills Writers Festival by Vanwaffle; Wikimedia
Georges Prosper Remi, Hergé by La Tête Krançien via Flickr
Graham Greene by Richard Kenworthy via Flickr

Books n’ boobies


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There are many loves in my life; books, beer, a nice bowl of hummus….but, let’s face it, there’s nothing more gorgeous in this life than a velvety soft pair of boobies now is there?

I’ve been mulling lately on the rollarcoaster ride I’ve had with my little book group (now two and half years young!). We’ve had an absolute blast, been on some seriously bizarre adventures together (including some serious performance art in the basement of a Salford town house) and made great friends. So far so good. However, trawling through the high echelons of the bookish web I have made the finest discovery, one of which the Americans among you might already be aware…or even participants!

The bearing of boobs and, most pointedly, nipples, seems to be hitting the news more and more frequently at the moment. An outraged backlash surfaced against Facebook for culling the University of Warwick’s female rowing team’s calendar from its site (NB: for charity, no nipples on show and very tastefully done) but leaving the male calendar unobstructed. (buckets and trophies held over their willies. Yum!) Instagram has also faced huge criticism, with the #FreeTheNipple campaign hitting headlines when Scout Willis waltzed around New York topless to raise awareness of how, through the censorship of women’s bodies, leading social media sites perpetuate archaic patriarchal social attitudes that sexualise parts of the body that should never have been sexualised in the first place. I.e. if a woman wants to sunbathe topless or breast feed her baby in public or, if it’s simply too HOT out there then why should she be made to feel too embarrassed to get the girls out?

384px-Fernande_(vintage_nude_photo)_2Here’s where the books come in. The Outdoor Co-ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society (Burning bras, not books), is a group of dauntless women taking full advantage of New York’s egalitarian laws towards the toplessness of both men and women in public;  (a sparkling pro-feminist standpoint that should shame other authorities into submission). Meeting in the heart of the city, particularly when the sun comes out, the girls favour the pulpiest of fiction, sport the meanest of tattoos and the trimmest of bushes. What they’re doing represents an incredibly important step for womankind and, coupled with books?, then all the better.

So, next month the Manchester Book Group will be pouring over the wonderful The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Will our clothes hamper our discussion? There’s only one way to find out!

Marilyn Monroe reading in bed by Huffpost Style via Pinterest

Fernande (vintage nude photo) by Jean Angélou via Wikimedia

The Miniaturist


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In a sad turn of events, its been absolutely ages since I’ve felt utterly enthralled by a book. With a far-too-busy reading schedule of lacklustre book group choices and dull ARCs, I’d really begun to wonder whether the art of telling a cracking good yarn had got lost along the way somewhere.  Last week, I finally experienced that wonderful feeling of wanting to go to bed that little bit earlier so I could leap back into my other, ‘literary’ life and find out what happens next.

So, without further ado, I thank you Jessie Burton for restoring the faith and keeping me thoroughly happy and entertained for an entire week! Historical fiction is becoming my slightly lazy, go-to genre that I arrive at when I need a quick literary fix. Burton’s début offering, The Miniaturist (widely hyped up in the press) did not disappoint. For once, yes, you can allow yourself be drawn in…

Petronella (‘Nella’) Oortman is growing up. Now Petronella Brandt, married to wealthy Amsterdam merchant Johannes Brandt, we follow close on her heels as she arrives at her new home; a luxurious mansion on the Herengracht canal. The welcome she receives from her new husband and adoptive family is less than perfect. With Johannes largely absent, leaving the marital bed cold, his sister, Marin, frosty and sanctimonious and the servants unusually brazen, Nella feels deeply unwelcome and adrift in her draughty new abode.

In a gesture that his new wife interprets badly as a mockery of her young age and 18047651inexperience, Johannes buys her a dolls’ house. Exquisitely carved, encased in tortoiseshell and inlaid with pewter, the house is, quite spookily, an exact replica of the Herengracht mansion. Despite this slight on her maturity, Nella chooses to treat the house as a mockery herself, ordering items from a mysterious miniaturist in the city to provoke her new sister-in-law. As beautiful items begin to arrive unasked for, with each object and doll more spookily intrusive and prophetic than the last, Nella soon realises that all is not as it seems in this outwardly enviable life as a merchant’s wife.

I really needed this book to kick me sharply out of the reading (and blog-writing) funk and laziness that I’ve found myself in of late; common for me at this time of year when the sun comes out and life inevitably starts to happen. (I even forgot about Paris in July!) Like all truly superb historical fiction, Burton is heavy on the sumptuous domestic detail, bringing the contrasts between the grimy, dangerous Amsterdam streets and political arena and the safety of her new home right into my own living room. Add the edge of some subversive twists and turns and the touch of magic the miniaturist lends the story, then we have something very special indeed.  Although intrigued, like his sister Marin, by Johannes adventures across the waves, Burton is wise not to spread her fledgling talents too thinly, focusing instead on the dramas unfolding back home.

My only reluctant criticism of this book, which has stood up to the hype well and fully merits it’s rather marvellous display in Waterstones’ window (i.e. a big wooden house with books inside!), would be the last few chapters, where I found conclusions sometimes rushed and often incomplete. Are these the trappings every new author faces when caught up their own great story? Some characters are clumsily welcomed back into the fold, presumably to afford a logical ending, whereas one nameless, yet crucial, figure disappears altogether, with no satisfying conclusion reached at all about their whereabouts.

Nitpicking aside, clumsy endings did not spoil the impression The Miniaturist left on me, walking along in a lovely Dutch daze for a good couple of days afterwards. Like most excellent stories, Burton is inspired by real life. Petronella Oortman was the name of a real noblewoman, whose spectacular dolls’ house (see painting above) is very real indeed and now on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam to be loved and admired by all. Like a few talented of authors of late (Hannah Kent, Jane Harris…) Burton presents a portrait in time of outwardly ordinary yet inherently strong women. The many dangers women faced; from pregnancy to the obscurity of marriage are addressed here, including the fate of those on the very margins of conventionality.