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Looking back on highlights of 2021’s reading…

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During December, on book blogs and Twitter, I’ve seen many a ‘best of’ post; however, I always prefer to leave my look back on the year until the very end – I have known, in the past, some of my best reads of a year to arrive at the very end! 2021 has not been an easy year in many ways, but I have read more books than ever (my coping mechanism) and so I shan’t pick a best of – I never do – but instead will look back at some of the highlights… 😀

Classic Crime

As always, I have sought consolation at difficult times with murder, mayhem and mysteries! Golden Age Crime has always been a huge favourite and a comfort read for me, and 2021 was no different. As well as any number of marvellous British Library Crime Classics, I’ve managed to find an excuse to revisit Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime. And Edmund Crispin, another long-term love, has made appearances here. Really, I doubt I would have made it through the year without crime!!

As an extra crime treat, I was invited to take part in the Crime Reprint of the Year Award by Kate at Cross Examining Crime, and was happy to nominate two favourite books – such fun! 😀

British Library Women Writers

As well as reissuing some wonderful Classic Crime, British Library Publishing have also been releasing stellar titles in their Women Writers series. I’ve covered a number this year, including Edith Olivier’s The Love Child and Diana Tutton’s Mamma. However, a highlight was their reissue of F. Tennyson Jesse’s A Pin to See the Peepshow, a book I regard very highly. I was delighted to take part in the blog tour and sang the book’s praises – a wonderful and moving read!

Russia

Inevitably there are Russians, as books and authors from that country are some of my favourites. I spent time with Dostoevsky for his bicentenary; squeezed in Nabokov short stories; read a wonderful anthology of classic short works, and a brilliant collection of new writing; and reacquainted myself with a recently rediscovered author who wrote for the drawer. I can never read enough Russians, and frankly I think you’ll see plenty more books from that country appearing here in 2022!!

France

As well as a love for Russian culture, I also have a passion for all things French, most particularly Parisian. There were plenty of French treats this year, from unpublished fiction from a favourite writer, a marvellous non-fiction work exploring the culture of mid-century Paris, poetry from that city, some hypnotic prose from Marie Ndiaye and a lovely look at Sylvia Plath‘s relationship to the place. All lovely, and all have drawn me back to reading French authors; I’m currently rediscovering Jean Genet, and have a good number of unread Sartre, Camus and others on the TBR!

Of course, I have to mention Roland Barthes, who has been much on my mind this year. I’ve only read one of his works in 2021, and also Derrida‘s piece on him, but I am keen to continue with him in 2022. A readalong on Twitter of A Love’s Discourse went by the by leading up to Christmas, as my head was in totally the wrong place, but I shall hope to get back to this one soon.

New to me authors vs old favourites

I must admit to being a reader who loves to discover new authors and books, though this year I’ve also sought comfort from the familiar. I don’t do statistics, but I do see from the list I keep that I *have* explored new writers this year. Margarita Khemlin, Marguerite Duras, Amanda Cross, Gilbert Adair and Alex Niven are just a few names who have intrigued this year, but I’m happy to keep the mix of old and new going. From the old guard, George Orwell continues to be a constant delight – I can’t foresee a time when I’ll ever stop reading him! John Berger is a more recent favourite and I’ll definitely be continuing with his works in 2022. Burroughs and Beverley Nichols, a disparate pairing if there ever was one, are both names I love to revisit regularly. Really, there are so many books and so little time, as we always say!

Projects and Reading Events

We get onto shaky ground for some of these, as I’m often a bit rubbish at keeping up with this kind of thing. As far as events go, I co-hosted Read Indies Month in February with Lizzy and this was wonderful fun – so many great independent publishers to support! And Simon and I co-hosted two reading club weeks this year – 1936 and 1976. Both years had an excellent selection of books available to read, and the response was wonderful! I’m happy to say we’ll be running the #1954Club from 18-24 April 2022 and there are some really great books from that year, so do join in!

As for other events, I have dipped into Spanish Lit Month, German Lit Month, Novellas in November and a few more – I like to take part in these when I can and when it fits in with the TBR and also what I fancy reading!

My own personal reading projects, which are all really centred round various Penguin collections, have been pretty intermittent this year – whether from lack of focus, the state of the world or just wrong book at wrong time, the only one I’ve made headway with is the Penguin Moderns box set. I’ve had great fun with this little series of books – there are some marvellous authors and titles in it – and I have high hopes that I might actually finish reading it in 2022!

Disappointments…

I always try to be selective in what I read, but there are occasional misfires and DNFs. I started the year with one, The Housekeeper and The Professor, which really didn’t gel with me; I struggled with Confessions of a Heretic, which was not for me; and I tried to read a high profile book about Russian authors and frankly disliked it immensely. But the balance is heavily in favour of successful reads, so that’s good!!

Poetry

2021 also saw me spending a good amount of time with poets and poetry, and this was a real pleasure. There were biographies – John Sutherland’s marvellous Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me was a highlight, as was Gail Crowther’s magisterial Three Martini Afternoons at the Ritz, which explored the lives of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. I discovered new poets, too, often via the NYRB Poets imprint, and this was particularly wonderful.

Translated works

I generally read a lot of work in translation. And I continued to read a lot of work in translation during 2021 – yay! And I shall continue to do so in 2022. Thank you *so* much to all those who translate works into English – my reading life is richer because of you!

Favourites?

I can *never* pick favourites or a top ten or a book of the year, and my BFF J. always reckons it’s because I read such a disparate range of books. I tend to think she might be right, and in any case I’ve read so many stunners this year it seems wrong to pick out one. But to satisfy those wanting me to choose *something*, a few which particularly stood out were In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, every short story I read by Nabokov, Unwitting Street by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, New Model Island by Alex Niven, The Edge of the Object by Daniel Williams and Gentleman Overboard by Herbert Clyde Lewis. All of those were oustanding reads, but probably all for very different reasons!!

Well, there you have it! Some of my reading highlights for 2021. Come back to the Ramblings tomorrow to see if I have any plans for the new year, so you can place bets on whether I’ll stick with any of them! 🤣🤣🤣

…love, that high, romantic thing…” @BL_Publishing #WomenWriters #FarMoreThanFiction

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Today on the Ramblings, I’m very happy to be taking part in a blog tour for one of the new releases in the British Library Woman Writers series – the book in question is “A Pin to See the Peepshow” by F. Tennyson Jesse and it actually plays a part in my embarking upon my blogging life! You see, back in the early 2010s I rediscovered Virago Modern Classics at the same time as I started reading book blogs. I had been a huge fan in the early years, but bringing up the three Offspring had kind of got in the way of books at times. However, as they flew the nest, I really got back into reading, and the Viragos led me to LibraryThing’s wonderful VMC group. It was here I finally got the impetus to start up my own blog, and nearly 10 years later am still here.

One of the VMCs I read pre-blog was, of course, “Pin…” and it was probably the most important title in drawing me back to the books and exploring much of the back catalogue I’d missed. Since then I believe the book has slipped out of print, despite its high profile in the 1970s particularly (when it was the subject of a BBC adaptation). But I’m giving this personal history here so you’ll understand how happy I am that “Pin” has been reissued by British Library Publishing; I think it’s a wonderful and enormously important book and thoroughly deserves to be widely read, and I’ll try to explain why; although inevitably there is the risk here of me giving away some plot details.

“Pin…”, originally published in 1934, draws its core material from the notorious Thompson/Bywaters case of the 1920s, a case Jesse would no doubt have been familiar with as she covered a number of high-profile trials during her writing career for “Notable British Crimes”. She was so fascinated by the subject that she also wrote a book analysing the motivations behind crimes; so when it came to writing “Pin..” she already had a proven track record in dealing with crime and murder.

The lovely new BL cover

Set in the early decades of the 20th century, the book’s protagonist is a young woman, Julia Almond, whose inflated sense of her own worth will lead to tragedy. Born into a dull suburban setting, she dreams of a more passionate, exciting life and her work in a fashionable clothes shop in London’s West End gives her an outlet for her fantasies. Desperate to get away from the stultifying atmosphere at her parents’ home she makes an ill-advised marriage to the older, tragically dull and recently widowed Herbert Starling. However, a chance meeting with the much younger Leonard Carr, whom she knew at school, will eventually lead to an affair, murder and a trial – as well as damning misogynistic judgements about her behaviour and way of life. As anyone who knows the story of the Thompson/Bywaters case will realise, things will not end well for Julia…

The floor of the box was covered with cotton-wool, and a frosting of sugar sprinkled over it. Light came into the box from the red-covered window at the far end, so that a rosy glow as of sunset lay over the sparkling snow. Here and there little brightly-coloured men and women, children and animals of cardboard, conversed or walked about. A cottage, flanked by a couple of fir trees, cut from an advertisement of some pine-derivative cough cure, which Julia saw every day in the newspaper, gave an extraordinary impression of reality and of distance.

It’s a little difficult to say a lot more about the plot without giving away too much, and in fact if you can go into this book knowing little about the case which inspired it I think the effect of reading it would be even stronger. Jesse writes quite brilliantly, for one thing, conjuring her heroine and the setting vividly. Julia is living in a world where things are changing for some and the old social mores are being thrown off; although as she will find, class is still a major issue and what the monied can get away with, she can’t. Trapped desperately in her affair, craving her lover yet afraid to leave her husband because of the security he offers, she has no real way out; in that era, women’s choices and opportunities were very limited. Then Leo takes dramatic action; yet Julia appears to be the one on trial. And here we get to another of the strongest strands of the book.

There is, inevitably, a horrible legal case. And although Julia would today be considered not culpable, she’s judged very much by the morals of the time and those morals have different standards for women, and particularly women of a lower class. Julia does not help herself – in many ways she’s not an especially likeable character, yet despite this, Jesse creates anger and sorrow on her behalf for her eventual fate. Julia Starling is, in the end, realistic in that she is human and fallible – and she certainly doesn’t deserve what happens to her.

My original Virago edition

“A Pin to see the Peepshow” is a memorable and sometimes chilling work which gets under the skin; and it’s also a brilliantly written and constructed novel, which is compelling reading. Jesse was obviously intent on making several points about society’s expectations of women and the double standards employed, and she makes those points well, though never to the detriment of her narrative which builds to a devastating (but not unexpected) climax. Her method is very much “show” rather than “tell”, which makes the book all the more effective. I was so engrossed in the story that even though I knew what was coming, I was willing the end to be different… By presenting the conclusion in the way that she does, Jesse conveys the reality of the consequences of murder at the time in a way that had me even more convinced than ever that the death penalty is not the solution – particularly in a case where the evidence and attitudes are so tainted…

So as far as I’m concerned, this is an essential re-issue from British Library Publishing in their Women Writer’s series, and a book I think should permanently be in print. As a piece of literature it’s compelling; as a portrait of the social mores of the time and the judgements meted out to women it’s outstanding; and as an argument against the death penalty it’s powerful and unforgettable. If you only ever pick up one book from this excellent series (and that would be your loss, because there are so many treasures!), I would urge you to read “A Pin to See the Peepshow”.

*****

As with all of the British Library Women Writers series, “Pin” comes with excellent supporting material. There is a list of notable events of the 1930s, a short bio of Jesse and a foreword by Lucy Evans, Curator at the Printed Heritage Collections, British Library. The afterword by series consultant Simon Thomas gives an excellent overview of both the original case and its similarities to (or differences from!) “Pin”. Altogether, an essential release!

A notorious case – Rex V Thompson @shinynewbooks @ApolloFiction

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My latest read for Shiny New Books was one I’d been keen to get my hands on since I heard it was coming out. I first came across the Thompson-Bywaters murder case via the wonderful Virago book, “A Pin to see the Peepshow” by F. Tennyson Jesse. It’s a remarkable and brilliant fictionalization of the case by an author who was also a journalist and criminologist, and I would recommend anyone who hasn’t read it to search it out.

Covering the case for the newspapers was another journalist and author, one of my favourites in fact – Beverley Nichols. I’ve read two volumes of his autobiographies. written decades apart, and in each he touches upon the case. He was obviously deeply affected by it, and perhaps somewhat haunted.

Author Laura Thompson

The new book by Laura Thompson is a bracing look at the events and the trial, accessing papers not released before, and making a robust case for a miscarriage of justice. Thompson appears to have been judged on her gender, her sexuality and on a class basis, rather than any evidence. You can read my review here on Shiny New Books – a remarkably powerful work!

Exploring my Library – the Viragos!

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I thought it was about time I shared a few more pictures of my very lovely library of books and this time I’ve decided on taking a look at my fairly extensive Virago collection! These have had to be photographed on the shelves and the picture quality isn’t going to be that brilliant as they were taken at a bit of an awkward angle and the lighting is not that great – so apologies for any fuzziness!

shelves-middle

As you can see, the Viragos *do* take up quite a lot of space in my library – spreading over several shelves and double stacked. And that’s after I had a little bit of a cull!

shelves-left

When I last had a bit of a tidy, I put all the books neatly in alphabetical order. That’s rather gone by-the-by thanks to the books that have come in since. And as you can see, the occasional non-Virago has slipped in when I had the book in a different edition or it’s a Virago author.

shelves-rights

More books from the right of the shelves – again plenty of overflow where new volumes have arrived, and all double stacked.

shelves-west-and-whartonThere are quite a few titles by Rebecca West and Edith Wharton, two wonderful and prolific writers. Needless to say, I’ve not read as many of these as I’d like to!

more-west-and-comps

The Wests have overflowed onto another shelf, where they’re joined by some Virago compilations.

taylorsAnd behind the Wests are some Rosamond Lehmanns and all my Elizabeth Taylors. I rather wish I had enough space to have all my books shelved in single rows because you do tend to forget what you have when it’s tucked behind other books.

I first started reading the Virago titles when the Modern Classics range began to take off in the late 1970s and possibly the first one I owned was Antonia White’s “Frost in May”, the very first VMC. Picking favourites is hard, but some of the earliest ones I read were these Steve Smiths:

smith

I loved these to bits but I haven’t read them for so long – the beautiful covers seem to really capture what’s best and most striking about VMC jacket design and I do wish they were still produced like this.

litvinov

Some more recent favourites are these books by Ivy Litvinov, a fascinating woman. Born in England, she married an exiled Russian revolutionary who ended up as a prominent Soviet diplomat. This collection of short stories and crime novel are marvellous!

peepshowAnd finally one of my favourite Viragos, a book that I read fairly recently when I started to rediscover the imprint after a bit of a gap – F. Tennyson Jesse’s “A Pin to see the Peepshow”. A fictionalised retelling of the Thompson/Bywaters murder case, it’s a wonderfully written piece of fiction which packs a huge emotional punch and brilliantly evokes the time and place it’s set in. If for nothing else than bringing back into to print this and other wonderful women’s writing, Virago would deserve a place in history. I’ve no doubt I shall always read Viragos and I hope you’ve enjoyed sharing some of my collection!

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