Self Portraits – pictures and programmes

Back from my travels to Cheshire, I must first report on a brilliant bookshop I found. (Well, friend SH had spotted it and merely commented on the flattened older ladies she had to pick up as I stampeded into the shop).

Before I forget, an excellent programme on BBC4 about self portraits through the centuries was on tonight. Laura Cumming looked at these amazing works and I thought it was very interesting. I was really taken in the self portrait by Laura Knight, and thought that her paintings looked wonderful on the website. In order to avoid copyright issues I found a cover of a book that featured one of Knight’s wartime pictures, which are worth looking at

I do have a copy of this book found in a bargain shop. The print is so small that while it looks fascinating, it will need some close study. Working for Victory: a Diary of life in a Second World War Factory edited by Sue Bruley. It certainly does not look as racy as Love Lessons that I mentioned last week.

Back to that bookshop. has plenty of information about the two bookshops which sell excellent books at good prices (new). I bought far too many for my bank account (and friend carrying books). Oh for a trolly…

One that I could not resist – for writing purposes, obviously.

What Every Woman Should Know: Lifestyle Lessons from the 1930's (Daily Mail Book)

What Every Woman Should Know – Lifestyle lessons from the 1930s. It features copies of pages from the Daily Mail of the time. Not a book to read, as such, but looks to be  a good book to dip into for inspiration.Maybe I should get Daughter who has just learnt dressmake to make me some 1930s outfits. Then I could pretend to be Our Vicar’s Wife from the Diary of a Provincial Lady

50 posts and not out – and a wicked Virago book

Fifty posts! And not out! Well, I’m impressed. When I started this blog in July I needed something to distract me, as I have done this week. It has distracted me, given me something extra to aim for when reading, and meant some valuable IT practice so that when I started a training course this morning I knew my way round a PC and the internet. So a win win situation. I have, most importantly, enjoyed doing it, so thank you all readers, regular and otherwise. Please keep reading, and tell your friends. Someone has been  doing so, as I broke the 800 views yesterday!

At least two book bloggers are running a Virago Book Reading Week. Booksnob and A Few of My Favourite Books are looking at various Virago books this week. When I look at my shelves I have some of the original green jackets, as well as the books in different covers. When you realise that they have reprinted Austens as well as more obscure female authors there is plenty of choice. I think on one of those two sites there is a list of all the books published, so you could set yourself the task of reading all of them (200+!). You can pick up some of them in Charity shops, and even one or two on the 1p offer on a certain bookselling website. In order to balance things, I have also picked up an offer for independent book shops. See for a membership offer.

The Virago book I have chosen and read is Love Letters by Joan Wyndham.

This is the diary of a teenage girl in wartime London. This is no misty eyed account of bravery under fire, but instead the bohemian lifestyle of artists, writers and colourful characters in a Chelsea studio. Even  Joan’s parents are strange and daring, with extreme Catholicism and eccentricity  as standard. The book is full of teenage angst, disappointment and upset, but also the excitement of war, and the uncertainty of destruction on a nightly basis. Joan goes through all the agonies of unrequited love and growing up fast against a unique, challenging background. It is also a very funny book, painful in its realism and daring in its detail. A dour account of war it certainly isn’t. There are torrid tales of passion and bad cooking. Joan varies between childlike delight in cakes and mature pondering on why her objects of adoration always have another mistress on the go. I’m not sure how much this is true autobiography, and the two further volumes of diary do not attract me much, but this is a good read on its own. And it is an excellent antidote to grim wartime diaries.

A Murder Mystery and Hurrah for the Tyneside!

A third post in three days! It can’t last, I hear you say. You may be right; I’ve got a busy few days coming up so I may not have much time. So here are  two books – both by the same author, so something to keep you busy. Oh, apart from a quick mention of the published account of George VI’s speech therapist.

This book, which I’ve just started reading, is the account written by Logue’s grandson of the records he has pieced together. Or rather it is written by a combination of Mark Logue and Peter Conrad. It seems very interesting so far, and well written. Daughter has seen the film twice so far (once with a mystified Italian) and intends to see it again tomorrow. She says “Hurrah for the Tynside Cinema!”.

where she says the staff are very friendly. If only they had their own car park…

Anyway, two murders (at least). I cannot remember if I’ve mentioned her books before but I have recently enjoyed two books by Frances Brody. She also writes as Frances McNeil, but it is as Brody she has written Dying in the Wool

Dying in the Wool (Kate Shackleton Crime Story)

and A Medal for Murder.

A Medal For Murder: A Kate Shackleton Mystery

Both books are Kate Shackleton mysteries, centred on a woman whose doctor husband has gone missing in the recent First World War. She has money, time and the ability to investigate mysteries, and stumble across others. The second book takes place against the background of amateur dramatics, and is an interesting  examination of the times with the cars, jobs and expectations for women debated. It is not a feminist work in many ways, but it does involve interesting comments on what happens to women who do not simply marry and live happily ever after. I must confess to getting a bit confused about the main male characters, and I’m not sure that the main character, Kate, is strong enough to carry the novel. Her mother is a great character, however, and there are some well written scenes. This book is fine if you want something a little more complicated than Christie and a little more challenging than Daisy Darymple. I did enjoy it far more than M C Beaton’s (Agatha Raisin) Edwardian offering, and it is essentially a good read. If female detectives of the earlyish twentieth century are of interest, this is a good choice.

High Wages – A Persephone Book and The King’s Speech

Yesterday I wrote about my Persephone Book obsession.  Son 2 suggested that I at least mention a Persephone book every week. I did point out that I started reading them in 2004 and good though they are, I don’t have perfect recall! So Son 2 suggests brief comments rather than full reviews. So, a few comments about Persephone books will follow as I move books to get to those shelves. I don’t want a bigger house, just more wall space.

Oh, and I finally managed to see “The King’s Speech” yesterday. A lot of ladies of a certain age have been telling me that I simply must see it, if only for


Who was brilliant in it, of course. There again, so was everything else; the script, the design, the costumes…Geoffrey Rush was excellent. Jennifer Ehle’s accent was very Australian, given that she was Elizabeth Bennett to Firth’s Darcy once upon a time.  Her reaction to finding the queen in her house was brilliant, as was Rush’s fear of confronting his wife. A really good film, and well worth seeing.

Today’s book is Persephone no. 85, High Wages by Dorothy Whipple. Set in the early part of the twentieth century, it tells the story of Jane Carter, a shop girl with ideas.

photo credit:

Whipple is brilliant at creating characters. Jane could be boring and cause the reader to shout “pull yourself together”, or whimper into doing just what is expected of her. Instead she engergises those around her into action, she stands up for herself and she stands up for what she believes in. The First World War is a background that affects the male characters, but instead of just representing a slaughter ( which of course for many men, it was) it details how it widened their view, made them more aware of life and its possibilities and limitations, and affected their relationships with women. As in other the Whipple books reprinted by Persephone it does deal with love, but more in terms of how it differs, how it can change, but also how it can survive. This is not a tragic book, as it has too many other emotions of justification, loyalty, friendship and wisdom going on. When Jane does fight her corner in the shop it is cheering; when the constraints of new found wealth make people unhappy, like Mrs. Briggs, it is frustrating. The emptiness of life is chilling in some cases,while the descriptions of Jane visiting Manchester and London are memorable. One of Persephone’s best, and that is saying something…

Persephone Books

Today’s post is about one of my obsessions; Persephone Books. I really discovered them and their wonderful bookshop when spending time at Great Ormond Street Hospital, when I would wander in there for book retail therapy (is there any other kind?) I not only met the founder, Nicola Beauman, but was gently steered towards good reads.  Since then I have collected the entire output ( in the grey format – ninety in all) and have read the vast majority. I eagerly await each new book, and wish they could bring out more! I know they regularly run events and film showings in London, and happily receive notification of their offers. I even adopt their books in charity shops…

I have my own bookshelf of the books, as they look so good all together. I’ll try and get a photograph soon, when I’ve moved the chair and the piles of books in front of it.

I also intend to do a review of one of my latest reads, Persephone no. 85, High Wages by Dorothy Whipple, a really interesting and involving book. Watch this space, and wish me luck with my book moving.

War Rooms – and books

Silence from Northernreader for the last few days; have been down to London! A post Christmas break was called for, and the ultra organised Husband had booked train tickets and Travelodge in October. While not the height of luxury, it was definitely central. Buses and taxis got us around at varying levels of cost, and we discovered some interesting eateries/pubs. We enjoyed “Giraffe”, a chain of family friendly cafes which were very friendly.

Our main destination was “The Cabinet War Rooms”, a preserved series of rooms used by Churchill and his senior staff during World War Two. Husband had been there a few years ago, but a Churchill Museum has been added since then.  It is a fascinating place; full of the atmosphere of just what it was like to work (and nearly live) under London during the Blitz. Many recordings were made of the staff who worked there, even the bits and pieces of notes, abandoned sugar rations and phones were still on display. There were maps pinned up, phones all around , the beds made up ready for their on call occupants. The Churchill museum attached to the building is absorbing, with working interactive displays, recordings of speeches, photos, letters (including correspondence with Unity Mitford over the annexing of Austria). All very interesting stuff. Thankfully there is a very accessible cafe part of the way round.  It is a very good museum, for anyone with even a passing interest in twentieth century history.

Some book blogs I read have long mentioned the virtues of Virago Modern Classics. They are dominated by books written by women. Some of them are worthy, some of them (of the limited number that I have read) fascinating; covering the same sort of ground as Persephone books, with some overlap in authors.

One of their best known titles is Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther.

This probably would come under the title of a worthy book; not a great emphasis on the war (though there are chapters on getting the family’s allocation of gas masks and some letters on the blackout etc) It records family life of the time; the sort of family that employs staff and has two houses. Perhaps its significance is in its propaganda value as the basis for the film Mrs Miniver which is widely credited for altering public opinion in America regarding entering the Second World War. I have the dvd of the film which won awards so I may see a different side of this book.

I’m also half way through The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.

This is an excellent book, on a small town in America and the height of the London blitz. It is a sad, even harrowing book. It is, nevertheless excellent thus far. It is everywhere at the moment and very well worth picking up and trying. No lending it out until I’ve finished!

A literary society and a book group

I have mentioned before that I’m a member of two book groups. But what with the bad weather and festive celebrations two meetings were cancelled. Which has somehow meant that I’ve already read the next four books…Well, I suppose that means I won’t have to do a last minute panic read of some good books. The only problem is that I need to remember who I lent/gave my copies of the books to; Daughter ‘s bookshelves here I come!

The book that we discussed last night was greatly enjoyed by all. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

was originally picked as quite a short read for December’s book, but the drive of the host’s house was so slippery the meeting was postponed until yesterday. Which meant that I had my copy back in excellent time to reread this really good book.

The novel is in the form of letters written to, and by, a writer called Juliet. During the Second World War she wrote a magazine column, now collected into a book, and she is promoting the sale of this book published through her good friend Sidney. She emerges as quite a character who throws teapots at nasty journalists, lives in a flat after her home full of cherished books is flattened by the Blitz, and is wooed by a rich American. By chance she is contacted by a survivor of the German Occupation of the Isle of Guernsey, who lets slip that he was a member of the Literary Society of the title. Intrigued, and keen to write an article about the importance of reading in holding people together, she invites other members of the society to write to her. The letters she receives recount the reality of life on the island, in all its difficulties, challenges and personalties.

The format of the book sounds a little off putting, but having waded through many books of letters I would say that this is really good presentation for the simple reason that each letter is headed by the name of the sender and recipient. It is debatable whether the characters are distinguished enough in their writing styles, but the overall effect is satisfying. Some characters emerge as likable, mystifying, annoying and downright daft, but all worth reading about, especially in their choice of books.

This book is a well written, interesting read, satisfying in most outcomes, and with some harrowing moments, which are bearable in context. I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it widely. It is not the most trendy, cutting edge or sophisticated book that you will read, but it is unusual, and sadly, as the only novel by Mary Ann Shaffer, unique.


It’s a bit gory…but very good!

Well, there’s still a tiny bit of snow here, lots of ice, but it may even get a bit warmer over the next few days! Joy! Which is typical as I have to do two bits of writing in the next two days for my writing group and the church magazine. So, no sunbathing for me, then (oh the irony, the satire…) Reading Steven Fry has a strange effect on me, obviously. One of three autobiographies on my to be read list/ or finished is The Fry Chronicles. I have my reasons for reading this, so watch this space.

A book that I have finished is Martyr by Rory Clements.


This book is what prompts the headline above. It’s a gory book, not for those of a nervous disposition, but it is very good. The front of my copy bears the legend “Perfect for fans of C.J. Sansom” and, gentle (or not so gentle) reader, it is. This book, the first in a series, is set in the later period than that favoured by Sansom, being the reign of Elizabeth I, and features one John Shakespeare. Yes, he does have a famous brother, which is an excellent thing in this story. Fans of the original “Elizabeth” film starring Cate Blanchett will be on familiar territory here in terms of tone, even if the monarch herself does not make an appearance as a character, merely as a threat. This book does share the film’s blood thirsy attitude to torture and instant death in the name of religion and persecution, and is only saved by the very good writing.

As in Sansom’s Revelations there are a few deaths. The description of the main protagonist’s character, however, is so brilliant that we feel their impact on him, and equally the danger that he, and the woman he comes to love, are in. This is not a straightforward narrative with a minimal number of characters; some real people (like Drake) appear at their swashbuckling height, while the poorer members of society sometimes also flourish. The really bad man, Topcliffe, is immensely powerful, and seemingly inescapable, and eventually I’ll try and track down whether he really was a powerful figure in the persecution of Catholics. Walsingham, chief protector of the Queen in this portion of her reign, appears as a very human character, and certainly not as omnipresent as in other versions of Elizabeth’s court.

This book is a sort of historical murder mystery, but not in the sense of whodunnit as much as what will happen next. While we know that historically Drake survives to annoy the Spanish, for the duration of this book we are not certain of that outcome. There is real romance, a real sense of danger and a real excitement in this book that  kept me reading, if only to discover who survives. The only thing that I did dislike about this book is the sad attitude to the changeling baby. This is not ponderous history; it is fast moving, gripping and well written. Read it if you like medieval history in all its gore and reality, and if you like well drawn characters.  And if you have read it already, well, please comment and let me know what you thought…

New Year’s Resolutions – and Clergy galore!

My Friend Oli – who is a determined blogger of some note, among other things- pointed out the other day that it is vital to actually write your resolutions down if you are going to stand any chance of keeping them. I also agree that it’s good to take on something positive, rather than just resolve to give things up. So my resolve is to try to write more posts, which does sort of imply that I read even more books. Or maybe just finish a few more…The problem is that I rather like big books, or at least my non fiction choices are big undertakings. So, more about books in progress? I am reading a biography of Fanny Kemble,the actress, by Rebecca Jenkins, which I picked up cheaply online. An excellent read so far, with lots of 18th Century detail. More about that soon.

Today’s book is a composite work, with short stories and extracts from novels. Two factors make it irresistible to me. It is by P.G. Wodehouse, who is my favourate comedy/relaxing author, and the subject is Clergy. The Clergy Omnibus is one of a series of Omnibus (Omnibusi?) produced by Hutchinson, which includes Aunts and Golf. This collection is probably for Wodehouse devotees who would recognise the origins of the pieces, or those interested in a topic and want to read Wodehouse’s best writing (about Aunts?!?).

This book reveals such delights as the curate who takes elephant strength tonic with great effect, Bishops who revert to schoolboy antics, curates thwarted in love, clumsy clergy and generally bewildered clergymen. It is a funny book, and an interesting way to begin reading some of the full novels and meeting characters including the remarkable Jeeves and a highly moral cat called Webster, whose career is lovingly recorded in one of Mulliner’s tall tales.

I liked this book, because it takes the same line as something like The Vicar of Dibley, in that it pokes fun at the clergy and parishioners rather than religion. The intention is just to entertain, amuse and show that the clergy of the mid twentieth century were, just like in any century, as human in their foibles as anyone else. It is dated, of course, and always unlikely, but that is the genius of Wodehouse. Like the book Pigs Have Wings that I mentioned a few months ago, it is safe reading for those who want to avoid death, destruction and despair in their comfort reading. It may not meet your needs, it may not be to your taste, but this is a genuinely funny book that I really enjoyed.

Blitz anniversaries – Or seasonal reading?

Happy New Year!!! A brief snow respite (at least, though there’s still some scraps out there from November) means Daughter is having some driving practice with Son One (eek) Here’s to a successful Test on Friday.

Last year’s reading is disappearing into memory, and I am taking the line that I have reviewed those books I liked and didn’t even finish the books that I hated. Guilt is about to raise its ugly head about tomorrow’s Book Group; postponement and cancellation meant missing out on discussing the interesting Lark Rise to Candleford and I think I was meant to read a bit of a memoir that I think was going to become miserable, so I have wimped out of that. Bad Joules! Will go along and flannel, perhaps having found a review or two. Here’s hoping for a cheerier tome next time…

On the credit side, I lost count in December having read at least 115 books last year. I had a look at a real live Kindle over New Year. Husband has generously offered to buy me one… when I finish reading every book in this house. As I had a box and a half (at least) of books over Christmas, and my last year’s mania has resulted in books stored on every available surface, I do not expect this offer to be redeemed soon. Oh well. On the plus side, this blog has meant a few more books being bought for Kindles, so keep on reading!

Over the holiday period I have read some lighter books, but today’s book is perhaps less than cheerful. The Blitz – The British Under Attack by Juliet Gardiner.

I have read Gardiner’s Wartime and enjoyed it greatly. Husband and I went along to her lecture at Newcastle University, and found her to be a very interesting speaker. So yes, we did buy and get signed a copy of this book and The Thirties. More of the latter when I have finished it – it is a huge book…

This book is a very interesting, if disturbing read. There are terrible stories of the death and destruction which occurred during this time, both in London and the many cities also bombed. I was especially interested in the destruction of Coventry as recounted here, being a native of that city. This book is also disturbing as a picture of the organisational chaos of various localities which did mean the homeless and bereft had to struggle with further challenges. This is a very readable book, enjoyable in an historically accurate sort of very, and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the period, or social history in an extreme setting. It is a challenging read rather than a light one, but worthwhile if only for the stories of immense bravery, planning and ability to cope. It does move along once begun, and has not got the sticky points of The Thirties. Well worth tackling, in any format available to you, even if unsigned…