Entertaining essays and more from an independent publisher


Picking up the theme from my post about the Bulgakov Collection, another independent publisher I follow with interest is Michael Walmer. Based in Australia, Mike has a history in publishing (having worked for the legendary Marion Boyars) and he specialises in bringing back into print neglected works over a wide rage of genres and time periods. I’ve read several books from his imprint and a fascinating lot they are – I was particularly taken with Stella Benson, whom I might not have read had it not been for his promotion of her.


I wanted to focus on one particular strand of books Mike publishes, and that’s his Belles Lettres series. Comprising so far four volumes, it really is an interesting collection, and the titles to date are:

Letters to a Friend by Winifred Holtby
Letters of Lord Byron
Letters to the Sphinx by Oscar Wilde
The Sins of Society by Ouida

I own three of the books (as you can see from the picture!) and I’ve read one in full so far in the form of the Wilde, and you can read my thoughts here. It was a lovely book, and I spent some time over the Christmas break dipping into the others.

The Holtby volume is fascinating; she’s an author I know of course from her novels published by Virago, and I have a number of these on my shelf. Best known for “South Riding”, Holtby died tragically young but left behind quite a legacy and these letters are to her lifelong friend Jean McWilliam. Holtby and McWilliam met towards the end of WW1 in a WAAC camp, and the letters range from 1920 to 1935, the year of Winifred’s death. This a lovely, varied book, and the letters make fascinating reading, featuring poems and fragments of poems, thoughts on books, little drawings and the like. What also makes the book stand out is the picture it paints of the lives of women in the 1920s and 1930s, and even if you have no particular interest in or knowledge of Holtby, I can still highly recommend it as an excellent read.

Ouida is an author who’s been on the periphery of my vision for decades – possibly since I read “Literary Women” back in the 1980s, or maybe from my first reading of Dorothy Richardson’s “Pilgrimage” where she’s mentioned as being vaguely scandalous. I knew she wrote fiction but I wasn’t aware she wrote essays, and this lovely little collection Mike has issued was a surprising treat and great to dip into. Dating from the late 1800s, Ouida’s essays range over subjects like the vulgarity of her modern world and the stupidity of politics (nothing changes, then…) I was particularly taken with the piece entitled “Gardens” where she bemoans the trend of regimented gardens, designed in straight lines and all neat and tidy, with no individuality. I was also with her when she expressed her views on cut flowers – I can’t bear seeing flowers massacred for the sake of home decoration, and would rather have them growing wild than hothoused, cut and wired and then wilting after a day.

In the great world, and in the rich world, flowers are wasted with painful prodigality. The thousands and tens of thousands of flowers which die to decorate a single ball or reception are a sad sight to those who love them. ‘The rooms look well tonight,’ is the utmost that is ever said after all this waste of blossom and fragrance. It is waste, because scarcely a glance is bestowed on them, and the myriad of roses which cover the walls do not effectively make more impression on the eye than the original silk or satin wall-hanging which they momentarily replace… the ballroom in the morning is as melancholy a parable of the brevity of pleasure as any moralist could desire.


Finally, I’ve had an unexpected pleasure in the form of another non-fiction book from Mike Walmer. Not a part of the Belles Lettres series, “The Spring of Joy” by Mary Webb is subtitled “A Little Book of Healing”. Webb, of course, is best known as the author of such books as “Precious Bane”, and that’s a book that divides readers, particularly in the LibraryThing Virago group! As the book features large chunks of dialect, it tends to be something of a Marmite experience, and it was roundly satirised by Stella Gibbons in “Cold Comfort Farm”. I read the latter and loved it, but I never felt able to read Webb, so taking on a non-fiction book by her was a bit of a leap. However, I needn’t have worried; Webb’s book collects together a series of essays on aspects of nature to bring Joy, Laughter and Beauty. Nowadays, the idea of nature as a balm for the soul is not new, but I wonder how prevalent that was in Webb’s day? Nevertheless, her writing is lyrical and lovely, and I really enjoyed her thoughts on the natural world.

Insects are the artists of fragrance; they have a genius for it; there seems to be some affinity between the tenuity of their being and this most refined of the sense-impressions. Ghostly calls summon them to their banquets… Moths call each other by scent; so do bees; and probably the smallest ephemera follow the same law. These calls and answers cross the world continually like a web of fine threads, most of them too slight for our comprehension.

I’ve spent some happy times over recent weeks with all these books, and if you have an interest in essays, letters and nature writing these could well be volumes you would enjoy too. Michael Walmer’s catalogue is full of interesting books and so I’d encourage you to search out his website (there’s a link on my sidebar) and have a browse, especially if you’re bored with insubstantial modern writing! I must admit I often find the older books are the best!

A Little Giveaway (and I’m *not* fooling!!!)


Yes, despite it being April Fool’s Day today, this is a real giveaway! I’ve been trying to clear the decks a little here, as there have been incoming books despite my best efforts; and I need to be honest with myself about whether I’ll ever read a book again and whether I therefore need to keep it!

Older and more battered volumes are being donated or Bookcrossed, but I have three nice books here that were brand new and I’ve only read the once. I’m pretty sure I’m unlikely to return to them, despite having enjoyed them, so if you’d like one of these please leave a comment saying which one, and I’ll draw names out of a hat (or bag or something) – in fact, as Youngest Child is back for Easter, I’ll get her to do it!

The Library of Unrequited Love


A sweet little volume about love and libraries!

The Canterville Ghost


Oscar is wonderful and so are the stories in this little book; but as I already have his collected stories, I’d like to pass this on to a good home!

The Castle of Otranto


Credited with starting the craze for Gothic fiction, this one is a hoot!

So do comment if you’d like to win one of these – I’ll send overseas, and if you want to suggest a quirky or interesting or classic book I might like while you’re commenting, please do so! 🙂

Even More Shininess – and some Oscar!


Just a quick heads-up to say that the December Extra from Shiny New Books is now live here!

You wouldn’t think it would be possible to stuff any more wonderfulness into an online mag, but there’s so much to read I think it will keep me busy for ages!


I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to review this excellent selection of essays by Oscar Wilde – it really is a joy and you can read my review here.

Wonderfully enough, SNB has been able to reproduce Gyles Brandreth’s thoughtful introduction to the book and this is worth checking out too – go here!

So what are you waiting for? Go and explore the Shiny New Books December Extra – your wish list will thank you for it…. 🙂

A Poignant Memoir


Letters to the Sphinx by Oscar Wilde/Ada Leverson/Robert Ross

I was reminded of the brilliance of Oscar Wilde back in September 2014, when Hesperus Press kindly provided me with a copy of his “Canterville Ghost” for review, and what a joy it was. I’ve dipped into Oscar’s work on and off over the years, and obviously know something of his life – so when Michael Walmer mentioned that he was reissue a rare memoir of the great man, by a Virago author to boot, I was very eager to read it!


The Virago author is Ada Leverson, author of “The Little Ottleys” (amongst others). Leverson was a close friend of Wilde’s, offering him sanctuary at one point during his ‘troubles’, and she was known to him as ‘The Sphinx’. Not only does this slim and lovely hardback volume contain her touching memoirs of the author, it also collects together his letters to her and an introductory piece by another of his staunch allies, Robert Ross. The latter introduces the book, which then features three pieces by Leverson, recalling encounters with Wilde, remembering triumphant first nights, and reflecting on his fall from grace and incarceration. Always moving, Leverson’s calm tone throws the cruel treatment Wilde received into even sharper relief.

oscar and ada

The final section contains 30 letters or excerpts or telegrams from Oscar himself, sent to Leverson over a number of years. These give a wonderful picture of Wilde; his wit, his generous praise of his friend, his later despondency and his response to Leverson’s support and kindness during his imprisonment. Just the gift of a book would raise his spirits and it’s moving and quite dreadful to think of him locked up like this thanks to a hypocritical society.

“Letters to the Sphinx” was issued in 1930 as a limited edition and has been unavailable since, which is another tragedy. So kudos to Mike Walmer for reissuing the book and letting us have a glimpse into one of Wilde’s most enduring friendships.

More Sparkly New Lovelies from Hesperus Press!


Hot on the heels of their lovely new edition of “Mapp and Lucia”, Hesperus Press are launching today two new Hesperus Classics – and both are really rather wonderful! They are, of course, the publisher’s usual quality paperbacks with French flaps and around 100 pages long (so ideal for quick, bite-sized reads). The first is:

The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde

This is a collection of three short works by Wilde – the title story, “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” and “The Sphinx Without a Secret”. Now I regard myself as a lover of Wilde’s prose, and I’ve read “Dorian Gray” plus some other works, but I actually don’t think I’d ever read any of these stories – which is shocking, because they’re absolutely wonderful! “Canterville” of course is very famous and has been filmed. It tells the story of the American Otis family who buy Canterville Chase, an old English stately home. They are warned that the house comes with its own ghost, but being rational people from the new world, they don’t believe in such spookery, and take the house regardless. It isn’t long before the titular ghost makes his appearance, but unfortunately the Otises are not to be easily rattled – unlike the ghost’s chains, the squeaking of which is met with a request for him to oil him! Likewise, the bloodstain on the floor every morning is removed with a patent cleaner, and if that wasn’t bad enough the young Otises start to play tricks on the ghost, frightening him more than he can possibly hope to do to them! However, this being Oscar, there is a slightly more serious story behind things. Young Virginia, the 15-year old daughter of the Otis family, befriends the sad ghost and finds out the story behind his haunting. Can she help him and free the house at the same time?

“Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” is equally brilliant, telling the tale of the eponymous noble, an upstanding young man preparing to marry the woman of his dreams. However, a chance encounter with a palm-reader at Lady Windermere’s party convinces him that he is to commit a murder, and being a practical man he decides to get this crime tidily out of the way before his marriage. However, things don’t quite go as he plans…

The last story is a slighter tale about a woman with a seeming mystery around her which turns out not to be the kind that you might expect. These three stories are just wonderful, and proof of Wilde’s great talent. They have a lovely mixture of the playful and the profound; even though they’re witty and enjoyable, there’s always a little message there from Oscar. There is a subtle pathos in the plight of the Canterville ghost, and we can’t help but end up sympathising with him; Lord Arthur’s goodness overcomes all, and the story has a wonderful twist; and likewise the Sphinx of the last story has a touch of tragedy about her. These tales are beautifully written with telling little touches that give you the plot details without battering you over the head with them. Wonderful stuff from Wilde, and well done Hesperus for reprinting them and hopefully bringing them to a new audience.

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole


The second new Hesperus book comes with quite a pedigree, as it’s usually reckoned to be the first proper Gothic novel, which sparkled interest in the genre and was so popular it led to everything else that followed which featured spooky castles, noblewomen in peril, candles in dungeons, the whole works! And it’s surprising to realise that this genre has become so familiar and embedded in our cultural psyche that in some ways it’s hard not to read “Castle” as a parody of the Gothic – except that it came first!

The House of Otranto is led by Manfred, who it is hinted from the start may not have come into his title and lands honourably. His sickly son Conrad is about to marry the beautiful Isabella when he is suddenly crushed by a giant helmet which somehow has come adrift from the statue of the good Alfonso, transported itself into the castle and squashed the heir! Manfred decides, as you do, that he’ll divorce his wife and marry Isabella himself, which causes great consternation amongst the local religious community, and to Manfred’s wife and daughter also! However, Isabella makes for the catacombs, aided by a handsome peasant called Theodore. There follows a frantic tale of knights in armour, love, deceit, lost heirs, heaving bosoms, giant limbs appearing around the castle, ghosts, ancient prophecies, portents of doom and Manfred’s madness. All is resolved eventually, but not before there is much drama and histrionics!

It would be easy to mock “Castle” if read by modern standards (or maybe not, when you consider what tosh is published nowadays!) but actually it’s remarkably groundbreaking. Published in 1764, during a century when books tended to be much, MUCH longer, this is short, punchy and quick to read, and must have been very exciting for the public at the time. Instead of spending hours (and pages) introducing his characters, Walpole gets right on with the story, filling in the background details as he goes, never letting the excitement drop. The female characters are allowed plenty of space and are surprisingly feisty for the genre. There are plenty of hints at stifled desire and Walpole really packs a huge amount into 100 pages.

If you’ve any interest at all in Gothic writings or spooky stories or dramatic deeds or feisty and fainting heroines, this is definitely for you!

(Books kindly provided for review by the publishers, for which many thanks!)

Christmas Bookish Lovelies!


Not content with spoiling me on my recent birthday, my family and friends provided me with some treats at Christmas too! First up are three rather nice volumes from OH, all of which are parts of ongoing serial-types:

xmas 1

I’ve read all Mankell’s Wallander series and also all of Brandreth’s Oscar Wilde series, so both of these were well received. The Nicola Upson “Josephine Tey”  books are new to me but I’ve been wanting to read them for a while as I love Tey’s books.  However, OH seems to have presented me with book four, which is a perfect excuse to track down the other three….!

Next up, some gifts from Eldest Child:

xmas 2

I confess to being a great lover of Cath Kidston, and a wannabee-sewer so her “Sew!” book may come in handy! As for the cookbook – I’ve been vegetarian since I was 18 and have drifted in and out of veganism many times (always being seduced by damn cheese) – but I think my health would benefit from the shift back to veganism so this is a rather timely gift.

Youngest Child came up with something very lovely too:

xmas 3

As I’m a huge fan of Sylvia Plath, this book about her visual artwork is of course essential – very excited!

And finally the in-laws, under instruction from OH, provided this:

xmas 4

Of course, I was lucky enough to see the actual Scroll on its recent visit to the British Library so I was very excited to receive this volume. I confess, it’s the first one I picked up from the lot to read! Thanks, lovely family!

And a last-minute addition from an old friend, V:


I do love the original Holmes stories and have read some offshoot books, so I’m hoping this will be good! Thanks, V!

What about you? Were you spoiled this Yule?

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