Alex In Leeds

(Book Reviews and Adventures…)


October 2014 Readathon Updates

readathon bigger

(I’ll be updating this occasionally throughout today’s 24 hour readathon. This is the pile of books I am digging into.)


I grab some coffee and Between Weathers, an account of travelling around the remote, sparsely populated Shetland Isles which are way up to the north of Scotland. I’ve been craving maps and travel non-fiction for the last couple of weeks so this has to be the first book I read for this readathon. I’ve decided not to actually tweet or blog very much this time round so I can just concentrate on the selfishly wonderful pleasure of reading for hours and hours and hours alone and uninterrupted.


I’ve finished Between Weathers and am over a hundred pages into re-reading Pride and Prejudice. It’s been glorious to be taken so far away from here by books, first to the Shetlands and then to Austen’s world of letters and balls and drawing rooms, all while occasional (but very heavy) rain showers bounce off the window frame and echo on the neighbourhood’s roofs. It’s definitely time for breakfast though as my concentration is slipping and I am craving more coffee. :)


Oops. I got a little derailed by a phone call and finishing my third book but so far I’ve been wandering around the Shetlands with Between Weathers, been outraged and delighted by the fortunes and misfortunes of the Bennet sisters with Pride and Prejudice and Educating Alice has made me dream of running away to learn a new skill somewhere exotic as its author did repeatedly in a quest to improve herself. I think I need some more non-fiction next so time to take a break and then I think I’ll settle down to Britain After Rome and some time spent contemplating the so-called ‘Dark Ages’. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a day of reading so much. Choosing a couple of re-reads to mix in with new-to-me titles has meant today has been very relaxed and I don’t feel at all tired yet…


Yes, I can definitely confirm this: I’m having the most enjoyable and productive readathon I’ve ever had. I took a break from Britain After Rome to read A Time To Keep Silence (Patrick Leigh Fermor’s brief but enjoyable account of staying at monasteries on silent retreat which was originally published in the 1950s) as a palate cleanser to keep my mind sharp and then returned to it for more ‘Dark Ages’ history. I’m now about three quarters of the way through it which, if my quick maths is to be trusted after so little sleep, means I have read more this readathon than at any other. By about 100-and-something pages with over three hours left to go. And I don’t even feel particularly tired or as if my head is stuffed too full of dates, quotes and characters like I usually do towards the end of a readathon. Strange witchcraft indeed.

Oh and I took a short break to re-arrange the bookcase by my bed after having a bright idea. As you do. :)

As awake as I feel and as well written as Britain After Rome is, I think it’s time for another break from this history non-fiction book. I don’t think I can absorb the hmmm, people-liness of the Trollope (you’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever read any of his novels) and I think HHhH might be better suited to another day when I am approaching it completely fresh. So my choice of what to read next is between the play about Hans Christian Andersen staying with the Dickens family, a collection of Elizabeth David’s cookery essays, Bulgakov’s biography of Moliere and four very different novels by Elizabeth Taylor, Herman Hesse, E M Delafield or Dodie Smith. Decisions, decisions. I think I’ll have a mug of cinnamon-spiked cocoa while I peruse the blurbs and make a decision…


I actually ended up reading past the 24 hours. That’s never happened before either!

In the end I decided to go with the biography of Moliere but I admit I did read it very s l o w l y and got distracted by another phone call. I only went past 23:59 because I was sitting face away from my clock and was determined to get to the next obvious break in the book before setting it aside. But it’s time to sum up.

I have read three complete books, 75% or so of a fourth and about 50% of a fifth. I think I’ve read something like 1500ish pages but that sounds incredibly high even based on some of the books being re-reads and I am too tired to count properly now. So, take the number with a pinch of salt until I’ve checked the page counts in the morning. I need my bed. Goodnight, beautiful readers. I hope everyone who’s taking part in the official readathon hours enjoys the rest of their event.


My (Revised) October 2014 Readathon Pile

So this is my revised pile for this weekend’s readathon.

My first attempt at gathering books for this weekend led to a pile which, on reflection, seemed to include a lot of war, death, despair and misery. Perhaps not the greatest themes to wallow in for 24 hours. Oops. This amended pile includes a little more diversity in themes. It’s not all sunshine-and-roses in there obviously but there’s more travel, (hopefully) some humour and a couple of wildcards. Here’s the pile:

October 2014 Readathon P

I obviously won’t read all of this but I like a good mix to dip in and out of during the event. From top to bottom:

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope (1857, fiction)

This is the second in the Barchester series of novels about church politics, relationships and the trials and tribulations of one community; it’s about time I read it since I really liked The Warden which is the first.

The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith (1963, fiction)

Wildcard choice, no idea what to expect from this. The blurb mentions something about four siblings with very different approaches to life being forced to go out and make their own fortunes after a sheltered upbringing. It’s been on my shelves for ages but I don’t remember buying it…

Humbug by E M Delafield (1921, fiction)

Another wildcard. Again, I have no idea what to expect from this and the edition I have offers no blurb. I do remember buying it, I was intrigued by the fact this edition is labelled as being reprinted by Hutchinson because it was so popular. I’ve only ever read the Provincial Lady series of books by Delafield before.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813, fiction)

I’m due a re-read of this classic novel about marriage, money and false assumptions. Also, I’ve never written more than vague references to Austen on this blog and that needs to change.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971, fiction)

I read this novel about an elderly woman moving in a genteel but shabby hotel to see out the last years of her life (and her sharp observations on the other residents) last year for the first time. I remember enjoying it but I never got around to writing about it here. I really need to refresh my memory and correct that.

Is There a Nutmeg in the House? by Elizabeth David (2000, non-fiction)

A collection of essays and food-related writings by this famous authority on all matters culinary. I was thinking an essay collection would be good to dip into between other books during a readathon.

Educating Alice by Alice Steinbach (2004, non-fiction)

It’s years since I read this but I was craving a re-read the other day after recommending it to someone. Steinbach decided to travel around the world learning different new skills in different countries to try and find herself, along the way she attempted everything from cordon bleu cooking in Paris to sheepdog training in Scotland.

Britain After Rome by Robin Fleming (2011, non-fiction)

I’m fascinated by the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ – the period after the Romans left Britain, when society changes quite dramatically but the records become much patchier. This was recommended to me earlier in the year and I was craving a history book for my pile.

Andersen’s English by Sebastian Barry (2010, play)

A play based on the true story of the disruption Hans Christian Andersen caused when he came to stay with Charles Dickens and his family, it focuses on the undercurrents within the family that Andersen with his broken English struggled to understand…

Narcissus and Goldmund by Herman Hesse, translated from German by Leila Vennewitz (1930, fiction)

I’d like to include this in next month’s  German Literature Month event, it’s a pseudo-medieval tale of love, philosophy and the meaning of life. Also, the Bubonic Plague features in it. How could I resist?

HHhH by Laurent Binet, translated from French by Sam Taylor (2009, fiction)

A novel about Operation Anthropoid, Prague, 1942 and the attempt to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich. ‘All the characters in HHhH are real. All the events depicted are true. But alongside the nerve-shredding preparations for the attack runs another story: when you are a novelist writing about real people, how do you avoid the temptation to make things up?’

The Life of Monsieur de Moliere by Mikhail Bulgakov, translated from Russian by Mirra Ginsburg (1970, non-fiction)

Bulgakov worked in the theatre and in a political climate even more dangerous than that experienced by his hero, the seventeenth century French playwright, Moliere. He was therefore very well placed to write a biography of the man who he so admired, researched and even wrote a play about.

A Time To Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor (1957, non-fiction)

PLF went to stay in various monasteries during his life, seeking silence and sanctuary, and this slim book captures his thoughts on the experience of being on silent retreat.

Between Weathers by Ron McMillan (2008, non-fiction)

Travel non-fiction about a trip to the Shetlands, this was the first new travelogue written about the Shetland Isles since 1869 when it was published in 2008. I’m always hungry for tales about living on remote islands. :)

So yes, these are the books I will be spending my weekend with. I really am impatient to get started…


October Readathon Is Coming…

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It’s the October edition of Dewey’s 24 hour readathon next Saturday (18OCT2014) and I’m signed up to take part again.

(Recap for those who’ve not come across the readathon before: It happens twice a year in April and October, anyone can join in and you don’t have to be a blogger to take part, all you have to do is sign up here by 15OCT2014 and commit to reading as much as you can in the 24 hours. Some people read for almost the whole 24 hours, others just commit to clearing a couple of hours in their diary and making time to read for pleasure.)

I’ll be doing my usual thing and starting at 00:01 UK time rather than trying to match the event’s official US hours and I have pretty consistently read about 1200 pages on readathon weekends ever since I took part in my first one back in October 2009. I’ve no idea why 1200 pages is the magic number for me but I guess there’s a limit to how many characters, plots or facts one brain can absorb in one weekend and that’s mine!

Later in the week I’ll be pulling together a pile of books I might read during the readathon and sharing pictures of it in a post, partly because it’s always fun to do anyway and partly because I love seeing what all the other readathoners have in their piles too…

So what’s likely to be in my readathon pile?

Well, I usually end up with about a dozen books in the pile and I try to make it a real mix of styles, genres and subjects so I can just relax on the day and dip into five or six of them. I’ve included everything from a novel written entirely in verse to cookbooks and books from prize long lists in the past. This time round I’m aiming to use the weekend to balance out my recent reading’s definite bias to modern fiction and art history non-fiction. Mostly I want to focus on the books I actually own as I have been reading almost exclusively from my public library’s shelves for the last couple of months rather than my own. Contemplating moving next year makes me remember just how heavy boxes of books are… ;)

I really think there needs to be a 19th century novel in the pile because I am hungering for detail (but which one given the size of the average 19th century triple decker? An Austen maybe?) and I want something to do with maps or travel in there too as it seems an age since I read anything where I could run my finger over dotted itinerary lines and coastlines. Other than that I’m not really sure what to include, my bed is currently surrounded with stacks of books and I want to read them all. *grin*

I suppose I’ll do my usual thing of wandering around my room, grabbing whatever catches my fancy from the shelves and stacks, piling dozens and dozens of books on my bed and then whittling out the 700 page novels and too-specific non-fiction choices until I have a final selection…

Are you taking part in the readathon this time round or do you think it’s a crazy idea?


What I Did On My Summer Holidays…

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona by linkahwai
Sagrada Familia, Barcelona by linkahwai

Forgive me the terrible title but there are only so many cliched ways to come back from a prolonged blogging absence… But back I most assuredly am.


I even have very good/happy reasons for being absent over the summer: lots and lots of fun new things in my life.

In June I was certain I wanted to return to study but was torn between two paths: one which was sensible and the other which was very well, not very sensible at all. I didn’t want to give up on a dream but I also didn’t want to settle for something else. I had just about decided to knuckle down and do the sensible thing after all, despite my misgivings, when the universe threw me two curve balls in quick succession… and my life has been a bit of a rollercoaster ever since.

So, new things in my life.

After an unexpected conversation with a Scottish architect about possible options I’m back studying with the Open University again. The (very) tentative plan is that I’d love to go and study Architectural History in Edinburgh in a couple of years but I need recent, relevant study to be considered as a mature student. Which is why I’m doing A226: Exploring Art and Visual Culture, an art history course with a decent amount of architectural history included in it. I never like to plan too far in advance, it’s the first time I’ve formally studied anything in a decade and A226 only officially started this week… but so far I am enjoying myself.

I’m also now taking evening classes in German via a local university. I was planning on studying Russian this year but I met someone online and he (Sven) happens to be from/currently in Germany. His English is fantastic but it seems only fair to learn his language especially if I am going to spend time in his country. I only studied French and Latin at school so German is proving a very interesting contrast. This does all give me an added incentive to take part in German Literature Month in November too. :)

And the picture of La Sagrada Família at the top of the post? Well, Sven and I actually met in person for the first time in Barcelona. Together we explored the city and managed to include plenty of Gaudi appreciation at La Sagrada Família and Parc Güell, tapas, 16th century boat appreciation at the Maritime Museum and, of course, churros on our trip. We even caught the huge parade of dancing papier-mâché giants (along with accompanying bands and confetti throwers) that happens as part of the city’s annual La Mercè festival.

 So, yes. Returning to study and tackling a completely new subject, a possible plan to move to Scotland next year, a new relationship, an excellent vacation and starting to learn a new language. Oh and even some reading! It’s been a real rollercoaster of a summer. I have genuinely missed making time for blogging though so I am glad to be back. Regular posts will resume from tomorrow… And this time I mean it. :)


New Posts Will Be Forthcoming…

…From 01JUL2014.

The last five months have been hmmm, chaotic. In both good and bad ways. I am still very much alive though, still reading, still cooking, still travelling and (even if I haven’t been posting them) still writing thoughts on all these and my er, return is imminent. :)

I’m currently in the process of sorting through pages of notes and various folders of photographs which I imagine will take a couple of weeks to organise and polish up into posts and reviews… but I’ll say the start of July to give myself some leeway.

A few things from the top of my To Cover list:

+ Thoughts on Thomas Piketty’s Capital and Clive James’ translation of The Divine Comedy
+ Recent adventures in vegan baking, I’ve been experimenting :)
+ A huge breakthrough in my own family tree – I love producing revelations for genealogy clients but this is a first in my own research and it came about as a result of a personal genetics test done over three years ago
+ A craft project involving a favourite Wordsworth quote
+ Plans for my next 101 goals in 1001 days
+ My tenth anniversary as a book blogger is coming up in August

And the Tour de France will be starting here in Leeds on 05JUL2014 too.

I’ve been following blogs without commenting while I was ‘off-air’ but I’ll start easing myself back into Twitter and commenting over the next couple of days. (Apologies if I’ve missed a comment, tweet or email from you, I will try to catch those I missed but go ahead and nudge me if you’ve not had a response.)

TL;DR: I’m back. :)


Reading Review: January 2014

Journal by Curt Fleenor Photography

January began with the delights of Elizabeth von Arnim’s Elizabeth and her German Garden and the book jar offered up Dorothy L Sayers which led to me happily swooning over Lord Peter Wimsey… but it ended with three disappointing books in a row and slipping into a literature-less funk for a week. What a truly peculiar month of reading!

January’s Books

Everything from genetic archaeology to fiction about 1930s divorce laws, from World War Two nursing to a ludicrously unreliable narrator’s account of marital torment. I think it’s safe to say my reading was diverse this month though I didn’t finish much of the non-fiction I started for one reason or another.

The Read Books

1) Elizabeth von Arnim – Elizabeth and her German Garden (Fic) (1898)
2) A P Herbert – Holy Deadlock (Fic) (1934)
3) Monica Dickens – One Pair of Feet (Non-Fic) (1942)
4) Bryan Sykes – Blood of the Isles (Non-Fic) (2006)
5) Dorothy L Sayers – Whose Body? (Fic) (1923)
6) Martin Amis – The Rachel Papers (Fic) (1973)
7) Rudy Simone – Aspergirls (Non-Fic) (2010)
8) Ford Madox Ford – The Good Soldier (Fic) (1915)
9) Dorothy L Sayers – Clouds of Witness (Fic) (1926)

Books read: 9 /Books ‘Surfed': 11 / Books marked Did Not Finish: 0
Fiction: 6 / Non-Fiction: 3
Female authors: 5 / Male authors: 4 / Multiple authors: 0

January’s Highlights: Has to be my first experience of the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery series by Dorothy L Sayers. I was warned that Whose Body? wasn’t as good as later books in the series but it was a great introduction to some loveable characters and hooked me. Hurrah for the book jar offering Sayers up as my January choice. Blood of the Isles was a re-read from several years ago and I’ll be reviewing it soon as it’s a perfect example of a niche book that should find a wider audience, it’s the sort of book that sounds rather dry but you end up quoting chunks of to anyone in the same room… Oh and I should write about The Rachel Papers too as I’m counting it for my 20th Century of Books and loved the way it crackled along.

January’s Low Points: Unfortunately Dorothy L Sayers also provided my low point as well as my highlight – Clouds of Witness was so very disappointing it put me off reading for a week. Not on its own though, first there was Jules Pretty’s fascinating but very unevenly written account of walking around the East Anglia coast, The Luminous Coast, which kept sucking me in and then driving me away with good prose about wildlife or the 1953 floods followed by turgid lists of random people he’d met on the path for all of five minutes. After three evenings of trying to make headway with it I finally gave up. And in between the coastal expedition and the disappointing Sayers there was The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford which I found thoroughly implausible and stylistically unimpressive – but couldn’t put down even when the characters depressed me to the point of eating chocolate to recover from their antics. So yes, Sayers was not alone in causing the reading slump, Ford and Pretty played their parts too.

Reading Challenges

19th Century of Books

19th Century of Books – 1/100 (1 title added)

20th Century of Books

20th Century of Books – 5/100 (5 titles added)

Plans for February

I don’t really have any plans for this month, other than picking another book jar selection out and dipping into some of the cookbooks I’ve borrowed from the library to stave off the winter blues. I’m planning on concentrating on 19th century titles in March so in the cold, wet meantime I’m enjoying digging into the assortment of books closest to my bed…


Life’s Not A Football Match…

Whose Body by Dorothy L Sayers

My favourite quote from Whose Body? by Dorothy L Sayers was a little long to include in my post on the book but I want to share it with you here. It’s Inspector Parker talking to Lord Peter Wimsey about his sleuthing style and overall motives for crime-solving:

”Yes, yes, I know,’ said the detective [Parker], ‘but that’s because you’re thinking about your attitude. You want to be consistent, you want to look pretty, you want to swagger debonairly through a comedy of puppets or else to stalk magnificently through a tragedy of human sorrows and things. But that’s childish. If you’ve any duty to society in the way of finding out the truth about murders, you must do it in any attitude that comes handy. You want to be elegant and detached? That’s all right, if you find the truth out that way, but it hasn’t any value in itself, you know. You want to look dignified and consistent – what’s that got to do with it? You want to hunt down a murderer for the sport of the thing and then shake hands with him and say, “Well played – hard luck – you shall have your revenge tomorrow!” Well, you can’t do it like that. Life’s not a football match. You want to be a sportsman. You can’t be a sportsman. You’re a responsible person.’

‘I don’t think you ought to read so much theology,’ said Lord Peter. ‘It has a brutalising influence.’
(Page 126)


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