Tea or Books? #32: jobs in books, and Atonement vs On Chesil Beach

Ian McEwan helps us get dangerously modern in our latest ‘Tea or Books?’ episode, as we chat about Atonement and On Chesil Beach (along with a whole bunch of his other books) – while, in the first half, we discuss whether or not we want to read novels in which one or more characters do our jobs. You can see why I have opted for something briefer in our subject line.

Tea or Books logoAs announced, there’s a crossover episode next time – I will be joined by my brother Colin, doing half-books and half-movies. Check out his podcast (especially if you want some clues as to what the format might be). Sorry that Rachel will be absent for an episode – but she’ll be back for glorious episode 34, in which we’ll be discussing E.M. Delafield’s Messalina of the Suburbs and F Tennyson Jesse’s A Pin to See The Peepshow. You’ve got a whole month to prepare!

As usual, our iTunes page is over yonder. Rate and review if you can work out the internal mazes of iTunes!

Here are the (many!) books and authors we natter about in this episode:

Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens
Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
Matilda by Roald Dahl
Stoner by John Williams
Goodbye Mr Chips by James Hilton
Hard Times by Charles Dickens
Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
Then We Came To An End by Joshua Ferris
Tepper Isn’t Going Out by Calvin Trillin
A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark
Greengates by R.C. Sherriff
London Belongs To Me by Norman Collins
Faster! Faster! by E.M. Delafield
High Wages by Dorothy Whipple
The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald
The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith
The Chronicles of Barsetshire by Anthony Trollope
Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope
Macbeth by William Shakespeare
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Hearts and Minds by Rosy Thornton
The Sandcastle by Iris Murdoch
The Professor’s House by Willa Cather
Seasoned Timber by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Observatory Mansions by Edward Carey
Alva and Irva by Edward Carey
Untouchable by Mulk Raj Anand (actually published in 1935, not 1910, sorry!)
Atonement by Ian McEwan
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan
Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
Black Dogs by Ian McEwan
Saturday by Ian McEwan
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Ulysses by James Joyce
Nutshell by Ian McEwan
Virginia by Jens Christian Grøndahl
A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth
Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar
Solar by Ian McEwan
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
Amsterdam by Ian McEwan
The Child in Time by Ian McEwan
Messalina of the Suburbs by E.M. Delafield
A Pin to See The Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse
The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis

On Wheels by Michael Holroyd

On WheelsI’ve still only finished one book in 2017 – I do hope this trend doesn’t continue throughout the year – and it was on 1 January. The book was On Wheels (2012) by Michael Holroyd, which I picked up in a charity shop in Oxford on a whim. And it’s a curious little book.

I read Holroyd’s memoir Basil Street Blues, published by Slightly Foxed, but didn’t know all that much about his career as a biographer. He seems to have made a career out of writing repeatedly about George Bernard Shaw, Lytton Strachey, and Augustus John. Scroll through his Wikipedia article to see how many times he’s written about ’em all – a trio that, I have to admit, I have very little interest in reading about.

BUT I was intrigued by this little book about how his subjects have dealt with cars, along with his own history of driving. Learning to drive was among the less enjoyable experiences of my life – basically a year of low-level dread – so I quite enjoy the empathy now of reading about others who found it difficult. It’s one of the reasons I like hearing Tom Allen on his podcast. And, yes, there is plenty to enjoy of this. But Holroyd talks more about his post-learning experiences – most memorably about getting his car vandalised when Ireland played England (because he lived in Ireland and had an English licence plate), then having his car repeatedly searched by English police when he’d switched to an Irish number plate (because it was during the peak of the IRA’s terrorism).

Augustus John and George Bernard Shaw seem to have been equally reckless and enthusiastic drivers – a terrible combination, really – and there are some amusing and illuminating anecdotes about these.

The hints given to him on the art of reversing were of little use, Shaw taking half an hour to turn a corner backwards and demolishing some flowerbeds in the process. But the village grew proud of his road exploits. Local dogs, knowing him well, would play dead under his car while he anxiously crawled after them – when they would bounce out, barking triumphantly. Though reckless, he was always considerate, leaping out on to the road after a bump or crash and offering to pay all expenses and drive people home or to the hospital. He was especially chivalrous to the injured when the fault was theirs.

Overall, this is a fun book to flick through. It feels rather as though it started as a few notes jotted down from his other researches, and those notes don’t become much more – it’s a series of thoughts, rather than a study. But it doesn’t have any aspirations of being more than that, which I admire; better a chatty 104pp than a bloated book with only the kernel of those hundred pages in it. Give it to the car enthusiast in your life, if they enjoy reading. Or stick it (as I will) on that shelf for quirky books that don’t quite fit into any other category.

StuckinaBook’s Weekend Miscellany

Books For LivingIt’s been an emotional week for me, because yesterday was my last day working for OUP and the Oxford Dictionaries department. I’ve been there, off and on, for nearly four years – 2.5 years in a full-time role – and I’ve made some of my best friends there. The idea that I could write about words for social media and get paid for it is still extraordinary to me.

Still, it felt like time for a change. I need to learn my new company’s social media policy before I talk about it (!) but it’s still in Oxford, and it looks like it’ll be a great, encouraging, and exciting place to work. But my OUP leaving do made me very emotional nonetheless! 2012 was really hard for me in various ways, and starting work at OUP in early 2013 was a real gift from God that I will always be grateful for.

S0 – new job on Monday but, before that, here’s a book, a blog post, and a link.

1.) The book – I’ve rather given this one away by putting the image up the top of the post: it’s Books For Living by Will Schwalbe. I saw somebody put it on Instagram, I think, but I can;t remember who… sorry! I’ve not read The End of Your Life Book Club, though intend to at some point, but this book is about why we read and what it means to us, and I can never get enough of that sort of book.

2.) The link – is the farewell speech by Barack Obama. Hey, let’s embed it. Sure, he is a human and thus he isn’t perfect (and he’s had to put up with a Senate from the other side, blocking his changes) – but we are so lucky that the most powerful office in the world has been held by a man of such wisdom, dignity, kindness, and intelligence. Goodbye, Barack, and thank you.

3.) The blog post – having read and loved some of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s short stories last year, I was excited to see Ali reading a collection of them. I haven’t read Scenes of Childhood, but I am all-the-more excited to after reading her review – and you can do the same.

Evenfield by Rachel Ferguson

evenfieldFor some reason, despite quite a lot of reading time, I haven’t managed to finish more than one short book so far in 2017. What’s going on? Well, for now, here’s a Shiny New Books review of Evenfield (1942) by Rachel Ferguson – one of the new Furrowed Middlebrow reprints. It’s quite an extraordinary novel – in terms of what it’s trying to do and be. Below is the intro to my review, and you can read the whole thing here.

The launch of the Furrowed Middlebrow series from Dean Street Press, under the editorial eye of blogger and middlebrow expert Scott of Furrowed Middlebrow, is an occasion for much rejoicing. His knowledge of neglected writers from the twentieth century is second to none, and I very excited to see which names he picks for the ongoing series. But there was one name in the first tranche that particularly thrilled me: Rachel Ferguson.

Ferguson is known now, if at all, as the author of The Brontës Went to Woolworths and Alas, Poor Lady, which have been reprinted over the years, but the rest of her novels have remained neglected. Dean Street Press have now brought back A Harp in Lowndes Square, A Footman for the Peacock, and Evenfield, written between 1936 and 1942. The last and latest of these is the novel I’ve read for Shiny New Books, and it is a bizarre, enticing curio that could have come from no other pen.

StuckinaBook’s Weekend Miscellany

I had big plans to spend the morning lying in bed reading today. Well, guys, I spent the morning in bed. But since I only work up at 10.45, I didn’t do all that much reading… I guess I needed it! It’s definitely been a fairly busy start to the new year – and I did manage to read for an hour or so after that as well. Partly a book I picked up from my Tell Me What To Read shelf, and partly Jennifer Walker’s biography of Elizabeth von Arnim (called, inevitably, Elizabeth of the German Garden). I read half of it ages ago, didn’t finish before I went to a von Arnim conference, and somehow forgot to finish it. Now’s the time!

Now is also the time for the miscellany regulars: book, link, and blog post.

the-runaway1.) The blog post – is over at my bro’s, as he awards his version of the Oscars to the films of 2016. His podcast (The C to Z of Movies) also does a v funny round of 2016 films here, and you can follow them on Twitter too. Watch this space, as there will be a C to Z of Movies/Tea or Books? crossover at some point in 2017…

2.) The book – before I’m accused of nepotism… no, this one isn’t far off either. My friend Claire’s first novel is coming out in a few weeks. It’s called The Runaway and you can read more about it here. I’ve not read it yet, so can’t give any opinions, but it’s very exciting – I know Claire from church, and didn’t even realise she had completed a novel until I heard it was being published!

3.) The link – sadly I have only a week left at OUP. I’m going to miss it terribly, but it does feel like the right time to move onto other things – which I’m sure I’ll explain in more detail at some point. For now, enjoy probably my final book quiz for OxfordWords: book titles with missing colours. I bet you can get full marks.

Project 24: did I read the books I bought in 2010?


Just under a week in, how is Project 24 going? Well, here are a couple of salient facts:

Number of books bought: 0.
Number of dreams about buying books: 1.

Yep, last night in my dream I bought four books – none of which actually exist (they were such wished-for gems as Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Slightly Foxed memoir, and books by A.A. Milne which he didn’t write), but this is what happened last time. I think it’s the limitation – it means I get all guilty, then wake up and remember that I haven’t, in fact, done the Wicked Thing. For my first couple years of being vegetarian, I used to dream I was eating meat all the tiiime.

Anyway, I thought it would be instructive (to me) to look back at the books I bought last time I did Project 24, and see whether or not I’ve read them. That was back in 2010, and I managed to only buy 24 books for myself – you can see all the books I bought, with pictures and explanations, in this round-up post.

Here are the 24, and how I’ve got on with them… the ordering is just the order I had the round-up, rather than the order I bought them in.

  1. The Love-Child by Edith Olivier
  2. The Provincial Lady Goes Further by E.M. Delafield
  3. As It Was by Helen Thomas
  4. World Without End by Helen Thomas

As I explain in that round-up post, I actually already owned copies of these books before 2010. I wasn’t expecting to buy duplicates, but these were all beautiful editions I couldn’t resist. And so, yes, I’d already read all of these. Total read so far: 4/4.

5. Roof Off! by Richmal Crompton
6. No One Now Will Know by E.M. Delafield
7. Susan and Joanna by Elizabeth Cambridge
8. Mrs Christopher by Elizabeth Myers
9. & 10. Letters vol. I and II by Katherine Mansfield

These were all books by favourite author that were too good to resist; ones that don’t come up very often. And… oh dear, I’ve not read any of them yet. I did start Susan and Joanna recently, but wasn’t in the mood, so will need to start again. How have I read none of the others? Pass. That’s a bit embarrassing. Total read so far: 4/10.

11. The Heirs of Jane Austen by Rachel Mathers
12. Miss Elizabeth Bennet by A.A. Milne

These two were always available on abebooks, but quite expensive. With the quantity of books I was buying going down drastically, I could afford them in 2010 – and, indeed, read them both pretty quickly, and loved them. Total read so far: 6/12.

13. Summer Will Show by Sylvia Townsend Warner
14. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
15. Travelling Light by Tove Jansson

Summer Will Show was a purchase in Shakespeare & Co. bookshop in Paris, because I couldn’t leave without a souvenir, could I? I did read it… though sadly wasn’t a big fan of it. And The Little Stranger… well, this one’s a bit embarrassing – I have read it, but the only reason I bought it was because I accidentally tore the copy I’d borrowed from a friend, and felt I had to replace it. I kept the torn copy and called that my Project 24 purchase. And Travelling Light was a new translation of a favourite author, so I couldn’t leave that one behind. Total read so far: 9/15.

16. A Brief Experiment With Time by J.W. Dunne
17. Strange Glory by L.H. Myers
18. The Music at Long Verney by Sylvia Townsend Warner

I bought these three in 2010 because I thought they’d be useful for my DPhil. Well, my DPhil was all done and dusted by 2014, and I’ve still only read one of these: Strange Glory. Which was definitely strange, and not at all useful for my DPhil – I don’t think it got a mention. Fingers crossed the other two wouldn’t have been useful… Total read so far: 10/18.

19. More Talk of Jane Austen – Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern
20. Are They The Same At Home? – Beverley Nichols
21. Jane Austen – Sylvia Townsend Warner
22. Personal Pleasures – Rose Macaulay
23. A Compton-Burnett Compendium – Violet Powell
24. I. Compton-Burnett – Pamela Hansford Johnson

And my list was rounded out with books about authors! This was an unexpected concentration for 2010, but has proved pretty productive in the have-I-actually-read-them stakes. The answer is yes for four of them: I still haven’t managed to read the Beverley Nichols or A Compton-Burnett Compendium, but really liked all the others.

Total read: 14/24.

So, there you go! Even when I restricted myself to 24 books in a year, I’ve only managed to read 14 of them six years later. But I guess it’s over half? (Perhaps I should make an aim of finishing the other 10 during my second run of Project 24…)

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

Mothering Sunday by Graham SwiftI think (though I haven’t checked) that Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift might be the only novel written in 2016 that I read last year – I read a handful of non-fiction titles published last year, but no other novels are coming to mind. It was given to me by my dear friend Lorna, because she thought it sounded like my cup of tea. And she was right – I mean, it’s set in the 1920s, for starters.

More specifically, it is set on 30 March 1924 – guess which festival falls on that day? Yes, it’s Mothering Sunday – and clever, thoughtful Jane Fairchild is given the day off to visit her mother, like all servants up and down the land are doing. Only Jane is an orphan. She tells her master that she will spend the day reading, but instead cycles off for an afternoon of passion (if you will) with Paul Sheringham. He is a well-to-do man, friends with the Nivens, the family for whom Jane is a housemaid; he is also engaged, but is spending the time before he drives off to see his fiance having sex with our Jane.

This is sounding a bit tawdry, but Mothering Sunday is nothing of the sort. Yes, my 1920s mindset had to get to grips with the 2016 novel’s willingness to throw in explicit words of an anatomical nature – but this is not a morality tale, or even a tale of rebelling against morals. It’s more a beautifully written depiction of one significant afternoon in a girl’s life – told in the third person, but throwing in moments where the 90+ year old Jane is clearly looking backwards.

And secret love. And secret friend. He had said that once to her, ‘You are my friend, Jay.’ He had said it so announcingly. It had made her head go light. She had never been called that, named that thing so decisively by anyone, as if he were saying he had no other friend, he had only just discovered, in fact, what a friend might be. And she was to tell no one about this newly attested revelation.

It had made her head swim. She was seventeen. She had ceased to be a prostitute. Friend. It was better perhaps than lover. Not that ‘lover’ would have been then in her feasible vocabulary, or even in her thinking. But she would have lovers. In Oxford. She would have many of them, she would make a point of it. Though how many of them were friends?

Swift layers his story, giving hints of what is to come – both on that afternoon, and in the rest of Jane’s life – building up a narrative piece by subtle piece. For that reason, I shan’t give any spoilers. I was really impressed by the way he did this with a sort of rhythmical structure. It reminded me of a needle sewing through a fabric, but occasionally looping back a bit – or a piece of music, where motifs are repeated or alluded to now and then. The same phrases appear again and again, or variants on them; we are told something we already know so that the narrative can build on it a little, putting together a portrait incrementally. It’s very cleverly done – the sort of not-straightforward writing which isn’t showy or off-putting, but like waves on the shore coming in and out.

So, there you go; the prose is like sewing, music, and waves! Put together those images and you might get an idea of what the reading experience was like. Better yet, give it a try. It’s a slim novel, only 132pp in my edition, and occasionally it feels like a luxuriously extended short story – whatever it is, I really enjoyed reading it.

Tea or Books? #31: lists, yes or no? and The Fortnight in September vs Greengates

Happy new year! Rachel and I are back from a bit of a podcast break, and raring to go for the New Year.

Tea or Books logoIn this episode, we look at two novels by R.C. Sherriff, both published by Persephone, and we also look back over 2016 and debate whether or not we make and read Best Books of the Year lists. Look, it’s just a way for us to shoe-horn in an overview of our favourite reads from 2016.

As always, we’d love to know what you’d choose from each category, and any ideas you have for future episodes. We’re always so grateful for those – though sometimes we haven’t yet read the authors people mention. We’ll work on it!

Listen to us above, via iTunes, or your podcast app of choice. I’ve been asking people to leave a review at the iTunes site, but it turns out you can only do that through the iTunes app or programme, maybe?

Anyway, we’ll loving being back – apologies for a bit of poor sound quality at times – and here are the books and authors we mention in this episode:

Witness for the Prosecution by R.C. Sherriff
4.50 From Paddington by Agatha Christie
Magnificent Obsession by Helen Rappaport
Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens
Third Girl by Agatha Christie
Curiosity by Alberto Manguel
Over the Footlights and Other Fancies by Stephen Leacock
The Lark by E. Nesbit
Patricia Brent, Spinster by Herbert Jenkins
The Lost Europeans by Emanuel Litvinoff
Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee
The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
Complete Works by William Shakespeare
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Mapp and Lucia by E.F. Benson
Messalina of the Suburbs by E.M. Delafield
A Pin to See The Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse
To The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey
Margaret Atwood
Possession by A.S. Byatt
Terms and Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham
Daisy’s Aunt by E.F. Benson
Compton Mackenzie
A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark
Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
The Museum of Cheats by Sylvia Townsend Warner
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
The Fortnight in September by R.C. Sherriff
Greengates by R.C. Sherriff
The Hopkins Manuscript by R.C. Sherriff
Bricks and Mortar by Helen Ashton
Journey’s End by R.C. Sherriff
(The Cataclysm turns out to be The Hopkins Manuscript under the same name!)

25 Classic Penguins (or: ending the year the way I don’t intend to carry on)

I’m excited about my reading in 2017. I don’t have any plans or challenges (for reading; for buying, I’m limiting to 24 books). I’ll miss Shiny New Books, but it also means I have far fewer obligations for reading. I can just read what I want – and, if it gets overwhelming, I’ve put together a table covered in all the books people recommended from my tbr shelves recently (or, at least, the ones I could find!). Thank you so much for your recommendations, and taking the time to search for them!


I’m pretty scared about 2017. I wrote quite a lot here about Trump, but I’ve decided to delete it – I don’t want to demonise people who voted him. Let’s just acknowledge that – in my eyes, and for many people around the world – Trump’s presidency is a terrifying prospect. And I can’t really start a post about 2017 without at least acknowledging that it’s happening.

For today, let’s try denial. And denial comes in the form of some massive parcels which arrived while I was home over Christmas. In advance of Project 24 – and, yes, entirely defeating the point – I was tempted when my housemate pointed out a deal for buying 25 Classic Penguins. I don’t want to throw temptation in your way, but you can do the same. World of Rare Books will bundle up 25 of them for you, for £25 (and rather less than that on the one-day offer we got).


I’ll be honest – my hopes weren’t high. I assumed it would be a case of getting lots of those blue Penguins on poultry farming, economic works, and no orange Penguins at all. How wrong I was!

We sat there and opened up our 50 Penguins. Kirsty kept all of hers; I kept 18 of mine – much more than I expected. I gave 3 to Kirsty (including the Pamela Hansford Johnson in the photo below, as I only realised belatedly that I already had it), 2 to my friend Paul, and 2 to a charity shop – the rejected books being almost all ones I already had, and only a couple cos they didn’t appeal.


And here are the gems I came away with! Lots of lovely classic crimes to explore, and lots of other authors I’ve either enjoyed or wanted to read – and a handful that meant nothing, but could well be fun. But the reason I bought them, really, was because I love the surprise of a random assortment – opening them up and discovering what unexpected books have arrived. If I weren’t doing Project 24, I’d be tempted to do it again immediately…

Top Books 2016

It’s that time of year – where bloggers look back over the books they’ve read during the past twelve months to pick their favourites. I always look forward to – reading the lists that other people compile, and choosing my favourites.


This year, I’ve managed to keep it ten – even though that meant leaving off some books I really liked by notables like Elizabeth von Arnim, Vita Sackville-West, Muriel Spark, Ivy Compton-Burnett, E.H. Young, Elizabeth Bowen… basically, the list could have been much longer. And the top book – well, it’s not the one I’ve been telling everyone it would be, because I hadn’t remembered my favourite book of the year had slipped into the first few days of 2016, rather than the last few of 2015.

My usual self-imposed rules apply – no re-reads and only one book per author. Click on the title to take you to the review!

10. Daisy’s Aunt (1910) by E.F. Benson

A frivolous, funny, and entirely delightful novel that reminds me that there’s so much more to E.F. Benson than the (wonderful) Mapp and Lucia books.

9. Poor Relations (1919) by Compton Mackenzie

This was a lovely surprise – one of the books I took with me to Edinburgh, and an extremely funny and sharp book. Another author to explore more…

8. Over the Footlights and Other Fancies (1923) by Stephen Leacock

A return to one of my favourite authors was a definite success – and makes me glad that I kept off making my list until the end of the year.

7. Greengates (1936) by R.C. Sherriff

I only just finished this one, and haven’t reviewed yet – but the next episode of ‘Tea or Books?’ podcast will cover it. For now, I’ve linked to Rachel’s review of this observant, gentle, rather beautiful tale of a couple entering retirement.

6. Americanah (2013) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I wasn’t sure which Adichie book to choose – I’ve read three of hers in 2016 – but it’s this one which has stayed with me the most. Her novel of Nigerian ex-pats in the UK and US is thoughtful, poignant, and brilliantly told.

5. Terms and Conditions (2016) by Ysenda Maxtone Graham

I’m far from the only person who’s fallen in love with this Slightly Foxed offering – an anecdotal history of girls’ boarding schools 1939-1979.

4. The Museum of Cheats (1947) by Sylvia Townsend Warner

I’ve not read any of Warner’s short stories before, but absolutely loved her touch with these when I read the collection during the #1947Club. (#1951Club to come in the spring!)

3. Cider With Rosie (1959) by Laurie Lee

This was the first book I read especially for ‘Tea or Books?’, and I’m so glad I did! This charming memoir is rightly beloved by many.

2. The Lost Europeans (1958) by Emanuel Litvinoff

The novel I thought would be the top one on my list – a brilliantly written portrait of two men trying to come to terms with Germany and their pasts after the Second World War.

1.The Lark (1922) by E. Nesbit

Once I’d remembered that this was one of my first reads in 2016, how could anything else come top of my list? It’s rare to read a novel this funny, joyful, and charming – about two young women setting up a flower shop, and their witty adventures. Even better – it’s coming back into print from Scott and the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint at Dean Street Press!