Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Candid opinions from a crowded Den

As the newest in the Den, I wasn’t really up to speed on ALL the Bookfoxes’ greatest hits, so instead I gladly snapped up the chance to collate these candid opinions of the Foxes on each other, if only because, if I hadn’t, there would have been a lot of unnecessary fur flying and squealing, and we don’t like mess in our lair. Following the links and reading the selected reviews was a total pleasure. For a good hour I was chortling away like a possessed fairground slot-machine (ha-ha-woo-hoo-snort), or was riveted by the stories on show here. Think of this as the Best of the Bookfoxes, a selection box of our best writing about books.

We start with Jackie, on: The Universal Favorite

As we adjusted our party hats in the Den, we discussed some memorable Vulpes Libris posts. The one that stood out for nearly everyone was Rosy and Lisa’s interview with publisher Scott Pack. Though it was in the early days of our site, it was so hilarious that it’s left a lasting impression years later. They recorded the interview and transcribed it, including all of the technical difficulties and sound effects, which added to the silliness. Both Lisa and Rosy are funny as individuals, so put them together and you have a madcap adventure. So here then, is the Universal Favorite in The Den.

And now, here are the individual favourites of  each Bookfox from the immense back catalogue of Vulpes Libris, in no particular order …

Jackie on Anne

Anne is very polite and kind. Even if she didn’t enjoy a book, she always tries to find a saving grace about it and lays out clearly why it wasn’t up to snuff. So it comes as a surprise when she really doesn’t like something and just rips into it. That is what she did with The Devil’s Consort, a historical novel featuring a vain heroine, much melodrama and a surfeit of a certain kind of punctuation. It’s all quite civilized though, and done with great verve and wit. It’s also very entertaining.

Rosy on Leena

She’s such an immaculate reviewer, it’s very hard to pick out the best of Leena-Brain-the-Size-of-a-Planet on the site. In the end, I didn’t even try. Just read them all, you’re bound to get some intriguing thoughts and contemplations out of them, whether you’ve read the books in question or not. Reminding myself of her pieces, I decided at last on this one: Nature’s Child by John Lister-Kaye. Not a particularly typical Leena review in terms of genre or time period. Maybe it just spoke to me in my present mood, with its autumnal atmosphere and nostalgia-provoking mixture of childhood and natural history. Here’s a snippet:

“John Lister-Kaye – naturalist, conservationist and author who runs the Aigas Field Centre in Scotland – writes here about his young daughter and ‘co-conspirator’ Hermione, her close relationship with the natural world, and the adventures the father and daughter have had together: from observing tadpoles and rescuing hatchlings to fossil-hunting on Chesil Beach and diving in Malta; watching seals in the Hebrides, storm petrels in Shetland, rhinos in Swaziland, beavers in Norway – and lastly polar bears. Of all these adventures, I enjoyed the domestic ones best: Africa and the North Pole must be thrilling to experience, but even more thrilling is the knowledge that there is wildlife in our very backyards, if we know where to look.”

A lovely review to make us (ok – me)  feel less depressed about winter. Enjoy.

Moira on Eve

When it fell to me to choose just ONE of Eve’s pieces as a favourite, my initial reaction was “Great! Lots of good stuff to choose from.” Not that the other Foxes don’t write good stuff too (she said, hastily), but Eve’s reviews are so vivid, immediate and personal that they tend to lodge, unbidden, in your brain. And the trouble of course with there being lots to choose from is that it makes narrowing it down to just one well nigh impossible.

One of our “All Time Greats” was Eve’s handiwork, of course – Why I Hate Twilight – and I often go back to it when I feel in need of a really honking good laugh,but it’s a piece from 2008 that took root in my brain and stayed there: her review of The Joshua Files by M G Harris.

Eve takes children’s and YA fiction very seriously, but at the same time enjoys it with all the exuberance of its target audience – which is what makes her reviews well-nigh irresistible. But her review of The Joshua Files was exceptional, even by her standards: a gallop through enough of the plot to make you desperately want to know more, a consideration of the serious ‘message’ behind the hell-for-leather storyline and, above all, a real sense of how much she genuinely enjoyed the book for what it was – a superb adventure story, brilliantly told – between some really jazzy covers.

Classic Eve. She doesn’t ‘do’ po-faced, thank heavens.

Hilary on Kirsty

Bookfox Kirsty – where to start and what to choose? I have learnt so much from our Comrade’s reviews – about Cuba, Castro and Guevara, Russia, dance, chicklit (now there’s a mixture).

However, in one area of taste we are twin souls – we share a love for old rockers. At my age that is understandable, but at hers it is heartwarming.  So, putting aside with regret her towering hatchet job on Soderbergh’s El Argentino, her highly entertaining hounding of a certain telegenic historian, her masterly set-down of the retiring MP for Corby and the collected works of her alter ego Ticky, I have made my choice: Kirsty’s indispensable review, Spinal Tap: treading the fine line between stupid and … and … clever’.

Kirsty’s review demonstrates how far the Bookfoxes are prepared to widen the net to find their literary kicks – plays and films are grist to the mill. Spinal Tap the movie is a brilliant piece of wordcraft, one of the greatest of modern parodies. She captures the delight of this, and makes the case that the veteran rockers of Spinal Tap have broken their literary bonds and gained a legendary life of their own. For anyone who has not yet had the enormous pleasure, this is a most persuasive – and hilarious – introduction to the genius of Spinal Tap and its creators.

Lisa on Rosy

I have chosen Rosy’s review of The Wisdom of Whores by Elizabeth Pisani, as this review is still vividly in my mind even four years after its publication on Vulpes Libris. The piece really made me think about human sexuality, the politics of disease control and the everyday logistics of prostitution. The review was written at the time of Obama’s election and I would be interested in hearing Rosy’s opinion as to whether his administration has been effective in tackling HIV/AIDS.

Since some of the other Bookfoxes are sneaking in extra links, I’d like to shout out Rosy and Eve’s magnificent interview with bestselling children’s author Julia Donaldson: Part 1 and Part 2.

Kirsty on Moira

Faced with the prospect of having to pick a favourite out of Moira’s 145 posts here on VL, I’m tempted to cop out and say, like Rev. Lovejoy, “it’s all good.”  But one particularly sticks in my mind: her splendid hatchet job on William Paul Young’s The Shack, a disturbing little volume that sits right at the juncture of bad fiction and bad theology.  There is nothing I can say about Moira’s review that will add to its deadly accuracy, scalpel wit and all-round merit, so here it is.

Leena on Lisa

I hesitated to pick Lisa’s review of It Chooses You by Miranda July, as it’s so recent, but I keep coming back to it as a wonderful example of our Lisa as a book reviewer.

Lisa’s reviews are intensely personal without making the review all about the reviewer: her insights and emotional reactions are there to illuminate the book, not the other way round. She doesn’t have a fixed opinion about the book and then expound upon it in the review. Lisa is analytical and considers many different points of view, but she has strong opinions and never comes across as wishy-washy; she is also very fair, and committed to getting to the essence of the book, even if that means reading it again. But what impresses me most – and is perfectly captured in this review of July’s book – is how her reviews almost have plots of their own, with their twists and turns.

She has a knack for describing the minor and major irritations, joyful enthusiasms, grudging admirations, inexplicable fondnesses, tumultuous passions, existential discomforts, and the many other enjoyments and uncertainties of reading in a way that brings the whole experience to life. The book and the reader are the main characters, their relationship is the story – and this review is one of her very best.

(I can’t resist also mentioning Lisa’s post on beaches. It’s such a beautiful piece of writing it deserves to be read again after all these years.)

Eve on Hilary

I thought I knew instantly which of Hilary’s posts I was going to choose. It was only when I sifted through all her others (just to make sure) I began questioning.  Hilary has written so many outstanding reviews and explorations and opinion pieces. I changed my mind so many times.  So I’d like to give Honourable Mentions to her beautiful piece following the death of Steve Jobs and the wonderful exploration of the Book of Fonts which I found utterly fascinating and rushed straight out to buy, and Food for the Spirit which is a superb consideration of her love of cookery books (my mother is exactly the same!).

But I did eventually decide I had been right all along. One of the most outstanding pieces we’ve ever had on Vulpes Libris is Hilary’s impassioned and very personal piece on her relationship with North and South for our Adaptations Week in 2009.

What I loved most about this piece at the time and remains with me reading it again for this celebration is the way Hilary’s relationship with this piece of literature had such a profound effect on her life. She so passionately describes the influence this story had on her. And the piece itself neatly encapsulates our wonderful Hilary herself; her joyous love of literature in all its forms, thinking deeply about the whys and wherefores and then sharing this love with others.

Anne on Jackie

Jackie is invariably polite and fair-minded, and equally importantly her reviewing guides me into a wider type of reading matter than I would otherwise have considered. It makes me think.

A particular favourite of mine amongst Jackie’s reviews is her take on Gail Jones’ Five Bells, a novel set in Australia which follows the lives of four very different characters over the course of one day. I loved the way Jackie picks out the themes of journeying, music and time, and the effects these influences have on the people she is reading about. Jackie also comments on the very haunting cover, of special interest to her as an artist herself. I’d never specifically considered covers and how important they are, though subconsciously they’ve always had an influence on how I react to a book. Now I find myself paying more attention to them and analysing whether I think they’re a good fit with what they contain or not. It’s enriched the reading experience for me and given me much food for thought.

A couple of other reviews have meant a lot to me also. Her article on Sex and Real Estate: Why We Love Houses by Marjorie Garber absolutely hits the spot with my secret fascination with people’s homes and what we do in them. And the piece on Seamus Heaney’s poetry collection District and Circle made me remember exactly what it is I love about poetry (and indeed Heaney) and why I should continue to make room for it.

Rosy on Kate

Kate is fairly new to the site but she came into the den already punching well above her weight – introducing us to sometimes overlooked subjects and writers many of us (alright,  me) knew little about. My top Kate review is a case in point – ‘The Romantics Weren’t All Boys‘. As Kate says,

“I could bang on and on about the women Romantics who were swept under the carpet by the dictators of literary taste from the last century and a half, and were forgotten for generations before modern feminist critics began to wonder why all the Romantics appeared to have been born wearing trousers. But I shan’t: I shall confine myself to two examples from women Romantic poets to encourage you to give them a try.”

And so she does, introducing us to the influential poets and playwrights who have been largely ignored by history. You’ve got to love a piece full of poems with titles like ‘On Being Cautioned Against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It Was Frequented by a Lunatic’ (by 18th century writer Charlotte Smith).

Not so much a review as a brilliantly entertaining introduction and overview to a little-known chunk of English Literature. More please!

The chocs were photographed by Lee McCoy and are used here under a Creative Commons license.

About Kate

Writer, reviewer, literary historian and publisher at Also a Bath Quaker.

8 comments on “Candid opinions from a crowded Den

  1. rosyb
    October 18, 2012

    Wow that’s a bit of a love-in…I hope our readers are still with us.

    Happy Birthday all!

  2. Melrose
    October 18, 2012

    What a lot of lovely comments, really enjoyed reading them all! They reminded me of many great reviews that have been on Vulpes Libris over the years, and of the special attributes the Book Foxes bring to the blog, which help make Vulpes Libris the wonderful blog that it is.

  3. kirstyjane
    October 18, 2012

    Och, I think we’re allowed a bit of a love-in every five years or so. 🙂

    Lovely piece, Foxes. I’m glad to be part of the Den!

  4. Jackie
    October 18, 2012

    Kate you did a great job of putting this all together. And it was fun seeing who picked what & reminded me of posts I’d forgotten(even of my own). It was also amusing to see that Anne & I both think each other are polite 😉 and I loved Rosy’s term for Leena “brain the size of a planet” which is totally accurate. It’s been a joy to be a part of this group and means more than I can say.

  5. Moira
    October 19, 2012

    I’ve just read that Scott Pack interview again. It’s STILL absolutely hilarious … :mrgreen:

  6. Lisa
    October 19, 2012

    I also quite enjoyed Scott’s comment about the fact that the interview took about an hour and a half (surely a gross exaggeration?? Rosy?!)

    Anyway, thanks for putting this piece together, Kate. I enjoyed reading it, even though it is a complete love-in. Hell, we’re entitled to a bit of schmaltz after five years of putting up with each other every damn day (which was naturally a very easy and joyous task… Dig, dig, dig).

  7. kirstyjane
    October 19, 2012

    LOVE the Scott Pack interview too. If possible, it has improved even further with age.

  8. Rosyb
    October 21, 2012

    It felt like an hour and a half when you suddenly disappeared into the ether Lisa and I realised I was going solo on the questioning. Oh, the responsibility! He was very forebearing.

    I’ve thoroughly enjoyed revisiting a few of these – in particular The Shack, which I’d totally forgotten about. What a brilliant review that was.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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