Book Beginnings: The Crow Road by Iain Banks

It was the day that my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.

A dramatic opening that caught my attention when I began reading Iain Bank’s novel The Crow Road. I’ve read on further and so far I’m intrigued and amused by this family saga of the McHoans, that switches about between the generations.

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

Posted in Book Beginnings on Friday, Books, Fiction, Read Scotland 2014, Weekly Events | Tagged , | 6 Comments

The Dance of Love by Angela Young

Angela Young‘s new novel The Dance of Love is historical fiction set at the turn of the twentieth century between 1899 and 1919. It is outstanding and I loved it so much. At times as I read it I could hardly see the pages through my tears – and there have not been many books that have that effect on me.  It’s a brilliant book, both a heart-rending love story and a dramatic story too, as the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and the devastating and tragic effects of the First World War impact on the characters’ lives.

It’s the story of Natalie, the daughter of Sir Thomas Edwardes, a wealthy business man, a self-made man who is socially unsure of himself, but who wants his daughter to be accepted into society. It begins in 1899, a period when young ladies were presented at Court for the London Season, an opportunity to meet their future husbands. Natalie’s friends, the daughters of Lady Bridewell, are looking forward to the London Season. But Natalie has little desire to be presented at Court, relishing the idea that she would be free to live without such restraints and marry for love, someone who will care for her for herself, not because of her family connections. However, she falls in with her father’s wishes and when she meets a handsome artist-soldier, Lieutenant Haffie, it seems her wish for a happy marriage will come true.

What I really liked about this book is the way historical background is seamlessly interwoven with the narrative and how it captures the changes in society as the years went by. Natalie grows from a young, impulsive teenager with passion for romance and dancing into a responsible young woman whose hopes for a happy marriage are in the balance.  The portrait of the Edwardian upper classes, with their lavish life style, glittering balls and all their extravagances is fascinating, contrasting with the enormous changes in society as the War takes its effect.

I liked all the details about paintings as Haffie shows his work to Natalie – Angela Young’s beautiful descriptions draw such vivid full colour images that I could easily visualise the paintings, which Natalie says are ‘mysteries made of light.’  And her portrayal of the settings, whether in London, Devon or the Scottish Highlands are just as vivid, making this a richly descriptive book.

But it is the effect of the War and the effect on the families of those people travelling across the Atlantic on the Titanic that really brought home to me the whole human tragedy that people lived through, much more than any historical account has done. I think it’s seeing these events through the eyes of the people left at home that has the most impact.

I had enjoyed Angela Young’s first novel, Speaking of Love and so was pleased to accept her offer of an uncorrected proof copy of The Dance of Love. I’m so glad I did as it’s a beautifully written, brilliant book that moved me deeply, and one I shall most definitely re-read (always proof of a good book for me).

The Dance of Love will be published on 31 July 2014.

Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Historical Fiction Challenge, History, Review Copy, World War One | Tagged , | 9 Comments

Shakespeare and The Classics Club’s July question

The question this month is:

Have you ever read a biography on a classic author? If so, tell us about it. If you had already read works by this author, did reading a biography of his/her life change your perspective on the author’s writing? Why or why not? // Or, if you’ve never read a biography of a classic author, would you? Why or why not?

This question came at just the right time for me because I’ve just finished reading Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd. It’s taken me a long time to read because I began it in March and have been reading it almost daily a few short chapters each day.

Ackroyd Shakespeare I bought the book in Stratford-upon-Avon some years ago after going to the theatre there. I first came across Shakespeare’s plays at school – doesn’t everyone? Years later I took an Open University course and studied more plays and managed to see productions of each one, either at the Barbican in London or at the Stratford.

So, I’m familiar with several plays, which helps enormously with reading Ackoyd’s biography as he has structured it mainly around the plays.  But above all, he has placed Shakespeare within his own time and place, whether it is Stratford or London or travelling around the countryside with the touring companies of players. Shakespeare spans the reigns of two monarchs, which saw great changes and Ackroyd conjures up vividly the social, religious and cultural scene. It’s a very readable book, full of detail. My only reservation about it is one I often have when reading biographies – there are inevitably assumptions, those phrases such as ‘must have’  ‘would have’, ‘most likely’, ‘could have’, ‘there is also a possibility that’ and so on that biographers use.

I learnt a lot that I hadn’t known before as my study of Shakespeare hadn’t gone much beyond the plays, and studying them as entities in themselves is not the same as seeing them in their contemporary settings, or as a part of his whole work. I knew very little (or if I did learn anything years ago, I’ve forgotten) for example of the theatrical world, of how the actors worked, their patrons and managers, nor about how Shakespeare interacted with other writers, or of how his work was received by the public and the monarchy. I particularly liked the sections on religion and the religious conflicts of the late 16th and early 17th centuries and his discussion about Shakespeare’s own beliefs and practices:

This raises the vexed question of his religion, endlessly debated through the centuries. It is true that he used the language and the structure of the old faith in his drama, but that does not imply that he espoused Catholicism. His parents are likely to have been of the old faith, but he did not necessarily take it with him into his adulthood. The old religion was part of the landscape of his imagination, not of his belief.

His own adult beliefs are much more difficult to estimate. It is possible that he was, in the language of the period, a ‘church papist’; he outwardly conformed, as in the ceremony of christening, but secretly remained a Catholic. This was a perfectly conventional stance at the time. (pages 446 – 7)

Ackroyd’s account of the language of the plays is also fascinating. Understanding the plays can be demanding. I’ve found that when I’ve seen a play acted it makes much more sense to me than when I’ve only read it and I’ve often wondered how the plays were understood by their 16th century audiences. Ackroyd considers that

Some of Shakespeare’s more recondite phrases would have passed over them, as they baffle even the most highly educated contemporary audience, but the Elizabethans understood the plots and were able to appreciate the contemporary allusions. Of course scholars of a later age have detected in Shakespeare’s plays a subtlety of theme and intention that may well have escaped Elizabethan audiences. But it may be asked whether these are the inventions of scholars rather than the dramatist. (page 349)

In a book of over 500 pages there is much more to be said about it than I’ve attempted in this post – I’ve only just touched the surface!

My overall view of this biography is that it is well researched, with an extensive bibliography, notes and index. Ackroyd acknowledges that he ‘came to this study as a Shakespearian enthusiast‘ rather than as an expert and lists other biographies that he found ‘most illuminating’.

In answer to the Classics Club question on whether reading a biography has changed my perspective on an author’s writing I think the answer has to be that it hasn’t really changed it but it has enhanced my understanding of the world in which Shakespeare lived and wrote and emphasised the fact that the plays are/were made for an audience:

Shakespeare relied upon the audience and, with such devices as the soliloquy, extended the play towards it; the drama did not comprehend a completely independent world, but needed to be authenticated by the various responses of the crowd. (page 349)

Posted in Biography, Book Reviews, Books, History, Mount TBR Challenge 2014, Non-fiction, Shakespeare, The Classics Club, Theatre | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Six in Six: a Selection from the last Six Months of Reading

Jo at The Book Jotter  is running this meme again this year to summarise six months of reading, sorting the books into six categories – you can choose from the ones Jo suggests or come up with your own.

Here is my version for 2014, with links to my posts on the books where appropriate. I’ve only listed each book in one category, although some of them could have gone in more than one. I’ve not listed the books in order of preference:

  • Six books I loved (there are more books in the other categories I could have included here):
  1. The Dance of Love by Angela Young – review to come later
  2. A Whispered Name by William Brodrick
  3. Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  4. Crucible by S G MacLean
  5. The Office of the Dead by Andrew Taylor
  6. The Potter’s Hand by A N Wilson
  • Six historical novels:
  1. The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart (historical fantasy 5th century Britain)
  2. The King’s Evil by Edward Marston (1666)
  3. The Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter (1940s and 1971)
  4. Pictures at an Exhibition by Camilla Macpherson (1940s and present day)
  5. Dying in the Wool by Frances Brody (1922)
  6. The Witch’s Brat by Rosemary Sutcliff (12th century England)
  • Six Crime Fiction books:
  1. In the Woods by Tana French
  2. Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie 
  3. Death Under Sail by C P Snow
  4. Vengeance by Benjamin Black 
  5. The Cabinetmaker by Alan Jones
  6. No Stranger to Death by Janet O’Kane 
  • Six authors I have read before:
  1. The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves
  2. Not Dead Enough by Peter James
  3. Playing With Fire by Peter Robinson 
  4. They Do It With Mirrors by Agatha Christie 
  5. The Time Machine by H G Wells 
  6. North Sea Cottage by Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen
  • Six new authors to me:
  1. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
  2. The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers
  3. Tantalus by Jane Jazz 
  4. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman 
  5. The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing 
  6. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton 
  • Six authors I read last year – but not so far this year and their books I have yet to read
  1. Barbara Kingslover (Flight Behaviour)
  2. Kate Morton (The Secret Keeper)
  3. Ruth Rendell (Put on by Cunning)
  4. Josephine Tey (Miss Pym Disposes)
  5. Jane Gardam (I have three of hers to read)
  6. Iris Murdoch (The Unicorn)
Posted in Books, Memes | 6 Comments

Shadows on Our Skin by Jennifer Johnston

Shadows on Our Skin by Jennifer Johnston has recently been re-issued as an e-book. It was first published in 1977 when it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I was pleased to be offered a copy for review as I have enjoyed a few of her books, such as The Illusionist and Two Moons.

This is the story of Joe, living in Derry (Londonderry), Northern Ireland before the Troubles and the Bloody Sunday attack in 1972. Joe is a schoolboy, living with his mother and his alcoholic father, a former war hero who reminisces and feeds on his memories. It’s a violent situation at home, as the father dominates his wife and son, with an even more violent conflict in the streets. To a certain extent Joe lives within his own head, writing poetry, and his mother is keen to keep him indoors once school has finished because she fears he will be shot as the British soldiers patrol the streets. However, he has made friends with Kathleen, a young English teacher and they meet after school. She encourages his writing, enhancing his escape from reality. But when his brother, Brendan returns home his involvement in the IRA brings Joe back to earth with a sharp shock, as the conflict comes closer to home.

Shadows on Our Skin is an engrossing book, the writing is taut and spare and yet poetical, the scenes standing out vividly in my mind. The characters’ interaction is full of emotion, and of tension; their feelings of despair and bitterness are all very evident. The book is certainly an enlightening read for me.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 515 KB
  • Print Length: 177 pages
  • Publisher: Open Road Media (24 Jun 2014)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00KQ6PJZE
  • Source: Review copy
Posted in Book Reviews, Books, e-books, Fiction, Review Copy | Tagged , | 7 Comments

The Discourtesy of Death by William Brodrick

William Brodrick’s Father Anselm books never fail to meet my expectations. They are thought provoking and philosophical concerning moral dilemmas and on top of all that they’re crime fiction – an ideal combination for me. The Discourtesy of Death is the fifth Father Anselm novel and there is nothing simple or easy to solve in this book, be it the ethics or the crime, or whether Jennifer’s death was actually a crime at all.

Jennifer Henderson, a young woman, an acclaimed ballet dancer, was paralysed after a fall and later diagnosed with terminal cancer. She died and for two years her death was accepted as a peaceful death, a result of the cancer. But then an anonymous letter casts doubt on the matter – was her death assisted suicide, or murder?

Father Anselm, the lawyer-turned-monk, is asked by his Prior, who had received the letter, to investigate, even though there is no evidence of murder and on the face of it no suspects. So, this is by no means an ordinary investigation and Anselm has to work hard to get to the truth. Jennifer’s family and friends are the focus of his search and as he reviews the details of Jennifer’s last day he realises that any of them could have done something to her; but who, what and why?

The book explores the philosophical, moral and theological issues of the right-to-die, the questions about the nature of life and the choices available, whether mercy killing to stop another person’s suffering can ever be justified. Because of this the pace is slow, almost leisurely, even with the added drama of Jennifer’s father’s actions as part of the SAS in Northern Ireland, which continues to haunt him.

I was drawn into some of the red herrings, but in the end it was the question of what Anselm would decide to do with what he had discovered that exercised me. It left me wondering about the issues raised, which are thoroughly explored throughout the book with the implications of the various outcomes clearly stated.

One final thought about life and death comes from Anselm as he watched the fleeting appearances of the fish in the river, their flashes of bright silver disappearing so quickly before his eyes:

And, elevating his mind above carp and trout, Anselm thought that the glory of life – even brief and trimmed down to the point of seeming insignificance – remained utterly breathtaking. That death, with all its power, would always be the one who came afterwards, the latecomer who’d missed the party.

Whilst I don’t think The Discourtesy of Death is quite as good as the third Father Anselm book, A Whispered Name, which I thought was brilliant, it is still an excellent book, that I thoroughly enjoyed.

There are five Father Anselm novels, and I’ve read them out of order, so I’ve still got the fourth book, The Day of the Lie left to read.

  1. The Sixth Lamentation (2003)
  2. The Gardens of the Dead (2006)
  3. A Whispered Name (2008)
  4. The Day of the Lie (2012)
  5. The Discourtesy of Death (2013)
The Sixth LamentationThe Gardens of the DeadA Whispered NameThe Day of the Lie
The Discourtesy of Death
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Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Crime Fiction, Fiction | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Midnight in St Petersburg by Vanora Bennett

Sometimes I get requests from authors/publishers to review books and occasionally a book just turns up in the post unannounced. Over a year ago now I unexpectedly received a copy of Midnight in St Petersburg by Vanora Bennett and although it appealed to me I put it to one side whilst I finished other books. It has taken me until now to get round to actually reading it.

And I’m glad I did as it is an interesting book – historical fiction beginning in 1911 in pre-revolutionary Russia with Inna Feldman travelling by train to St Petersburg to escape the pogroms in Kiev hoping to stay with her distant cousin, Yasha Kagan. She is welcomed into the Lenin family where she and Yasha are apprentices in their violin-making workshop. Inna is a talented, albeit shy, violinist and she falls in love with Yasha through their shared love of music.

The book is split into three sections – September – December 1911, 1916-17 and 1918-19 as Russia enters the First World War and is plunged into Revolution and life becomes increasingly dangerous for them all. Inna is torn between her love for Yasha, wildly rebellious and an activist in the revolution, and the older and more secure Englishman, Horace Wallick who works for the jeweller, Faberge, painting miniatures. It’s a story of survival under extreme conditions.

I liked the way Vanora Bennett intermingled Inna’s personal story with the historical characters of the time, including Father Grigory, Prince Youssoupoff and Lenin. I particularly liked the Father Grigory sections. Inna first met him on the train to St Petersburg when he helped her and I had my suspicions about who he really was, although it was a while before Inna discovered his identity. I also thought the details of violin-making were fascinating and I really liked the sections about Horace and his work for Faberge. What is perhaps even more fascinating is that Horace Wallick was a real person, Vanora Bennett’s great-great-uncle who really did work for Faberge from 1910 to 1919, which makes the story all the more authentic.

However, I thought the pace of the novel wasn’t very well structured as after an attention grabbing opening I thought it dragged a bit in the middle and that it was drawn to a too hasty conclusion. Overall, though I thought this portrayal of the Russian Revolution and the effect it had on ordinary people was well done and I did enjoy it.

This is the second of Vanora Bennett’s books I’ve read – the first was Portrait of an Ordinary Woman the story of Sir Thomas More’s fall from Henry VIII’s favour and that of his adopted daughter Meg Giggs. I shall look out for more of her books.

Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Historical Fiction Challenge, Mount TBR Challenge 2014 | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Books Read in June

I read 10 books in June. As usual they’re a mixed bag and I enjoyed some books more than others. I realised in May that I’d accumulated a number of review books, so I thought I’d better get reading them! The titles marked * are crime fiction and those in italics are non-fiction. With links to my posts they are:

  1. The Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter – a review copy, beautifully written, a dual time novel alternating between 1971 and the Second World War.
  2. Pictures at an Exhibition by Camilla Macpherson – a review copy, compelling reading and another a dual time period novel moving between the present day and the Second World War. 
  3. North Sea Cottage* by Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen – a review copy, yet another dual time novel of now and the 1940s, set in Denmark. Very atmospheric crime fiction as the discovery of a skeleton solves an earlier mystery.
  4. He Wants by Alison Moore – a fourth review novel, about ageing and unfulfilled expectations – sadly not really my cup of tea.
  5. Leaving Alexandria: a Memoir of Faith and Doubt by Richard Holloway – fascinating about his life, career and beliefs.
  6. The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng – still not sure what I think about this book, I may have to re-read it sometime.
  7. The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly – fantasy, a re-telling fairy tales and folk tales; it didn’t leave me with a chill down my spine, but just feeling rather sick at times.
  8. Sisters of Sinai by Janet Soskice – an excellent biography of twin sisters who discovered an ancient copy of the Gospels on Mount Sinai.
  9. The Discourtesy of Death* by William Brodrick – very good (post to follow).
  10. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen – a book I thought I’d read years ago, only to discover I hadn’t. It feels as though I’ve discovered a new author!

It’s hard to decide which one I enjoyed the most, but on balance I think it has to be Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels by Janet Soskice

Sisters of Sinai

 As half the year has gone I thought it was a good time to see where I’m up to with the challenges I’m doing.

Reading Challenges progress up to 30 June (for details of these challenges see my Challenges page):

  • Mount TBR Reading Challenge – 30 of my own unread books. My target is 48.
  • Read Scotland Challenge –11 books. My target 13+.
  • What’s in a Name 7 – I’ve completed 5 of the 6 sections – just  a ‘book with a school subject in the title’ to read.
  • Historical Fiction Challenge – 12 books. My target is 25 books.
  • Colour Coded Challenge – 3 books. The target is to read 9 books in the different colour categories.
  • The Agatha Christie Reading Challenge – 3 books. This is an open-ended challenge to read all her books. So far I have read 58.
  • My Kind of Mystery Challenge – 17 books. My target is 31+.
  • Once Upon a Time VIII Challenge – 5 books completing the Challenge for Quest the First.
  • Reading Non-Fiction in 2014 - this is my own ‘challenge’ to record the non-fiction I read. I’m aiming at reading at least 12 books this year and so far I’ve read 5 - with just 35% of Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Shakespeare to finish I’m nearly half way to my target.
Posted in Books, Challenges | 6 Comments

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

For years I’ve thought I’d read all of Jane Austen’s books, apart from Lady Susan/The Watsons/Sanditon, but then last year I wondered about Mansfield Park, and I realised I couldn’t remember much about it. At first I thought it was one of those books I must have read years ago and forgotten the detail. So, I thought I’d have a look at it again to refresh my memory, but when I looked for my copy I couldn’t find it and slowly I began to think I hadn’t read it at all and bought one. And, lo and behold it was totally new to me – I hadn’t even watched the TV version!

On the surface Mansfield Park is a simple story about a family and their relationships. Fanny Price, as a child of 10 goes to live with her wealthy aunt and uncle, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram at Mansfield Park, where as the poor relation she is not treated badly, but not as cared for or as kindly as her cousins, but more as an unpaid servant dependent on the family for her welfare – a sort of Cinderella story.

But through the story, Jane Austen reveals the complicated interaction of society, shows the development of Fanny’s character and the depiction of a heroine who is good and gentle who matures throughout the novel. Fanny is an unassuming character who at first appears to be too self-effacing and timed, but who grows in strength of character. I think it’s a very clever portrayal because the reader sees things through Fanny’s eyes. Whilst at first I wanted to give her a shake and say pull yourself together, you’re being a doormat, I realised that Jane Austen was drawing a realistic portrait and waited to see how she would develop.

Like the other novels, Mansfield Park is full of detail of everyday life, its boredom as well as its entertainments and pleasures, the  balls and dinners. There is much in it about the houses and gardens, not only of the wealthy but also of the lower classes, such as Fanny’s parents home in Portsmouth – but they have servants themselves, so it is only comparative poverty. Seen mainly through Fanny’s eyes, it’s a study of morals, the damage caused by being unwanted and unloved.

There is, of course, so much more to say about this book – Mrs Norris’s snobbery, her obsession with  penny-pinching and her nasty, spiteful behaviour; the opinion of clergymen, seen through Mary Crawford’s mercenary eyes as she thinks about Edmund Bertram’s position; the flirty behaviour of the ‘charming’ Henry Crawford; the apparent coldness of Sir Thomas and his family’s distance from him; Lady Bertram’s languid life from her sofa; the disruption caused by the play and so on. There is also a gentle strain of humour and satirical observations about contemporary values, and even, with Mary Crawford’s pun on ‘Rears and Vices‘, a bawdy note.

Yes, I definitely like Mansfield Park and pleased it came up for me in the Classics Club Spin, which gave me the necessary push to read it in June.

Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Classics, Fiction, Mount TBR Challenge 2014, The Classics Club | Tagged | 10 Comments

Mount TBR Checkpoint 2: June 2014

It’s time for the second quarterly check-in post for Bev’s Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2014. The months are speeding by! Bev asks:

1. Tell us how many miles you’ve made it up your mountain (# of books read). 

I’ve read 30 of my TBRs, so I’m nearly at the top of Mt Vancouver with just six more books to go. The list of books I’ve read is here. These last three months I’ve read 6.5 books. I did much better in the first 3 months of the year as I only read from my own shelves then, reading 23.5 books. But after that I’ve read mainly library books and books I’ve recently acquired.

To reach my target of Mt Ararat (48 books) by the end of the year I really will have to concentrate on books I’ve had on my shelves since before the beginning of this year.

2. Use titles from your list to complete as many of the following as you can. If you haven’t read enough books to give you good choices, then feel free to use any books yet to be read from your piles. I’ve given my answers as examples. Feel free to add words (such as “a” or “the” or others that clarify) as needed.

My Day in Books

I began the day with Ethan Frome
before breakfasting on Five Little Pigs. (No, I really wouldn’t eat even one little pig!!)

On my way to work I saw Mansfield Park
and walked by Cannery Row
to avoid The Crow Trap
but I made sure to stop at The Thirty-Nine Steps.

In the office, my boss said, The Grass is Singing
and sent me to research Shakespeare’s Restless World .

At lunch with Nemesis
I noticed  The Lost Army of Cambyses
playing a game of Not Dead Enough.

When I got home that night,
I studied [the] Cloud Atlas
because I’m interested in  The Sea Change
and I decided that They Do it with Mirrors.

Posted in Books, Challenges, Mount TBR Challenge 2014 | 6 Comments