My birthday presents

I boasted on Facebook that I was given eleven books for my birthday (thank you very much to the donors!) This is just as consumerist as boasting about any other item I have bought or someone has bought for me, but never mind. Many of them were requests, and also reflect the disconcerting preponderance of SF/fantasy in my life, which has become more marked since I started writing in the field.

The books were, in alphabetical order by author:

“Celestial Bodies” by Jokha Alharthi, translated by Marilyn Booth – this is a contemporary novel about three sisters in Oman. My brother gave it to me, because the translator is a colleague of his. It won the Man Booker International Prize.

“Cold Iron” by Miles Cameron – this is Book One of Masters and Mages, a fantasy series, given me by my friend who claims to have found what I like. (She previously started me off on Adrian Tchaikovsky’s ten-volume “Shadows of the Apt” series, the one about a war between human groups calling themselves, among other things, Wasps, Beetles and Spiders. The Wasps are the bad guys.)

“The Vegetable and Herb Expert” by Dr DG Hessayan – I believe this man is one of the most widely-read authors in the world. We are planning garden development, so this is for the family.

“When We Were Orphans” by Kazuo Ishiguro – I haven’t yet read any Ishiguro, and I’m looking forward to trying out this enormously famous novelist, originally from Japan, but who often writes about mid-20th century England – eg “The Remains of the Day” about a country-house in the thirties. WWWO is also set in the 1930s, in England and China.

“Till We Have Faces” by CS Lewis – one I haven’t read, a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche.

“Anglican Women Novelists” edited by Judith Maltby and Alison Shell – a series of essays on a variety of women, including of course Charlotte M Yonge, but also Charlotte Bronte, Iris Murdoch and PD James. The one I hadn’t heard of was Charlotte Maria Tucker.

“Swing Time” by Zadie Smith. I love her “White Teeth” and “On Beauty” (this inspired me to read “Howard’s End”, of which it is a modern reflection), but some of the others less so. She is always witty and multicultural.

“Just One Damned Thing After Another” and its sequel “A Symphony of Echoes” by Jodi Taylor – this is for book club. Apparently they are about time-travelling historians, a thought which reminds me both of my friend Ian Roberts’ “Deeper Realms” series, and also of the Thursday Next books of Jasper Fforde.

“Acceptance” by Jeff Vandermeer – the third in the “Southern Reach” trilogy of very strange SF which my other brother introduced me to. After two books, we haven’t properly met the aliens. I do not recommend the film adapted from/inspired by the first book, “Annihilation”.

“The Hawk and the Dove” by Penelope Wilcock – book one of a series about monks, written by a former Methodist minister. We picked this up in that rare place, a Christian bookshop. I haven’t forgotten the challenge by a blog-reader who asked me what my prejudices about Christian fiction were…

There’s an alarming number of “book one”s in this list, so I see I shall be busy.

And here, for a treat, are the beginnings of all of these books (except the second Taylor one). Can you identify which is which?

I wish you had known my mother. I remember, as clearly as if it were yesterday, toiling up the hill at the end of the school day, towards the group of mothers who stood at the crest of the rise, waiting to collect their children from the county primary school where my little sisters went.

There have been two moments in my life when everything changed. Moments when things could have gone either way. Moments when I had to make a choice.

I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods. I have no husband nor child, nor hardly a friend, through whom they can hurt me. My body, this lean carrion that still has to be washed and fed and have clothes hung about it daily with so many changes, they may kill as soon as they please.

Mayya, forever immersed in her Singer sewing machine, seemed lost to the outside world. Then Mayya lost herself to love: a silent passion, but it sent tremors surging through her slight form, night after night, cresting in waves of tears and sighs. There were moments when she truly believed she would not survive the awful force of her longing to see him.

Admirers and detractors of Anglicanism both agree that it has a remarkable literary heritage. They point to the prose of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer; poets ranging from George Herbert to TS Eliot; and novelists such as Anthony Trollope and CS Lewis. Women’s writing is rarely mentioned.

Just out of reach, just beyond you: the rush and froth of the surf, the sharp smell of the sea, the crisscrossing shape of the gulls, their sudden, jarring cries. An ordinary day in Area X, an extraordinary day – the day of your death – and there you are, propped up against a mound of sand, half-sheltered by a crumbling wall.

It was the summer of 1923, the summer I came down from Cambridge, when despite my aunt’s wishes that I return to Shropshire I decided my future lay in the capital and took up a small flat at Number 14b Bedford Gardens in Kensington. I remember it now as the most wonderful of summers.

One of the important changes in gardening since World War II has been the resurgence of interest in growing vegetables at home. The concept that it is only for the poor and the country-dweller has been swept away with the realisation that home-grown produce beats the shop-bought equivalent in three vital ways.

It was the first day of my humiliation. Put on a plane, sent back home, to England, set up with a temporary rental in St John’s Wood. The flat was on the eighth floor, the windows looked over the cricket ground. It had been chosen, I think, because of the doorman, who blocked all enquiries. I stayed indoors.

It was late in the day when Syr Xenias de Brusias was ready to leave Volta. Almost everything that could go wrong had done so, and he was rushed and was prone, even after the life he’d led, to forget things, so he made himself stand by his fine riding horse in his two-stall city stable and review everything.


Can anyone recommend any of these books or authors, most of which are new to me? And which would you be most tempted to borrow?

Love from the PPI Blogger

PS It’s obviously fashionable to start a story with “it was…”. I think I’ve done this myself.


  • Judith Leader

    5th July 2019 at 6:22 pm Reply

    I am impressed with your popularity that you got eleven books. I was also interested in the variation which was good. Perhaps at a later date you can let us know if you enjoyed it. Not good at quizzes but I will look at them later. if time permits.

    • Penelope Wallace

      6th July 2019 at 10:43 am Reply

      It’s not popularity, it’s a very generous husband!

  • Matthew

    6th July 2019 at 6:27 am Reply

    Wow, eleven books, that would take me over a year to read!

  • Stephen Hall

    24th July 2019 at 11:54 am Reply

    I like the second quote the best as an introduction. I imagine we are told immediately what the first life-changing moment was, and are forced to read on to discover the second.

    The only one of those books that I have read is the Vegetable and Herb Expert, my copy of which is earth-stained on nearly every page.

    I’ve given up giving you books, and just as well it would appear.

  • Ellie Wallace-Howell

    31st August 2019 at 1:31 pm Reply

    If I’ve matched them up right (and I’m not at all sure I have) I am looking forward to cheekily borrowing Celestial Bodies, Acceptance, When We Were Orphans and Cold Iron. I especially like the one about the sea and the one about humiliation.

  • Penelope Wallace

    26th September 2019 at 11:06 am Reply

    Hello, Eleanor! The one about humiliation is the Zadie Smith and the one about the sea is Acceptance, vol 3 of Southern Reach. You can borrow whichever you like, but I haven’t yet read Cold Iron. I’ve enjoyed all the ones I’ve read so far…

Post a Comment