All Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard

All Change

I finished reading All Change, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s fifth book in her Cazalet Chronicles last night. I’d read the first four books years ago and loved them, so I was keen to read this last one. And it is the final volume of the Chronicles as Elizabeth Jane Howard died in January this year following the publication of All Change.

I’m not going to write very much about it because I read it straight through without marking any passages, or making any notes. I read for the pure pleasure of reading it, just as I had read the first four books, losing myself in the story of the Cazalet family. And it is a very large family by the time of this novel – 1956 – 1958. Some of the family are a bit blurry – the small children are a bit indistinguishable from each other, apart from Georgie, who loves animals and Laura who’s old before her time, both idiosyncratic little characters, and I did keep forgetting which children belonged to which parent and had to keep checking the family tree at the beginning of the book. But that is just a minor point.

It’s a lovely warm, old fashioned family saga, with both happy and sad events as the Cazalets move forward, and not successfully for all of them, in post-war England. It was a great treat! It’s made me want to re-read the early books and to read Slipstream, Elizabeth Jane Howard’s memoir.

I agree with Hilary Mantel’s quotation on the back cover:

Elizabeth Jane Howard is one of those novelists who shows, through her work, what the novel is for . . . She helps us to do the necessary thing – open our eyes and our hearts

The Cazalet Chronicles

1. The Light Years (1988)
2. Marking Time (1991)
3. Confusion (1993)
4. Casting Off (1995)
5. All Change (2013)

Posted in Book Notes, Books, Fiction | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

The Shadows in the Street by Susan Hill

The Shadows in the Streets is Susan Hill’s fifth Simon Serrailler crime novel. I’ve read the earlier books which I enjoyed, although I found the fourth book, The Vows of Silence rather a gloomy book not just because of the murders but also because of the unhappy state of Simon and his family. So, I decided to wait a while before moving on to the fifth book. And I am now way behind in reading the series, which will reach book 8 in October!

Susan Hill’s Serrailler novels, whilst being crime fiction, concern moral and social issues. They also follow the lives of the Serrailler family, the main characters being Simon and his sister, Dr Cat Deerbon, which is why I think it’s best to read them in order. I noticed that in this book there are references to events and characters in the earlier books and I had to look back to refresh my memory. Without knowing what happened before those incidents would not have made much sense. The books are character-driven, concentrating on the people involved in the crime rather than the police investigations, although that of course is also part of the story.

There are two major themes in this book. One concerns the murders of local prostitutes, found strangled and Susan Hill draws a sympathetic, but never a condescending or judgemental view of these women’s lives, resulting in a moving storyline of a young woman, Abi who is a single mother. Alongside this is the problem of mental illness, with Ruth Webber, who suffers from manic depression. She is the wife of the new Dean of the Cathedral and arrives full of plans to change things, which causes problems. When she too goes missing there are fears she may become one of the murder victims.

I think of these novels more as psychological studies than crime fiction – the characters and their lives predominate, whilst the police make slow progress in finding the murderer (much like real life, maybe). Anyway it’s the characters and their problems that interested me more in this book than the police procedures.

The Shadows in the Street is a complex book, but it is immensely readable and once the mystery really got under way it’s tense and full of suspense. I really enjoyed it.

Posted in Book Notes, Books, Crime Fiction, Fiction, Mount TBR Challenge 2014, My Kind of Mystery Challenge | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Dark Matter by Philip Kerr

Dark Matter by Philip Kerr is a book from my to-be-read piles. I bought it at a library sale a couple of years ago now, attracted by the title. I soon realised that it is not about Newton, the mathematician and physicist because the sub-title is : The Private Life of Sir Isaac Newton. It is actually historical crime fiction, set in 1696 when Newton was the Warden of the Royal Mint at the Tower of London.

Christopher Ellis, the narrator of the book, is sent to the Tower to assist Newton to hunt down counterfeiters during the period of the Recoinage of the currency, when fake gold coins were being forged. This leads to the discovery in the Tower moat of the body of the former clerk of the Mint , followed by yet more murders. Newton at times seems remarkably like Sherlock Holmes in his powers of observation and deduction, as he and Ellis follow the trail of the murderers, involving tales of the missing treasure of the Knights Templars, (was the clue to its whereabouts in a book hidden in the Tower?), a difficult code to decipher, plots against Roman Catholics, astronomy and alchemy all thrown into the mix.

It’s very atmospheric, with shadowy London streets and back alleys; the Tower itself a centre of suspicion and intrigue. I liked the mix of fact and fiction. Titus Oates, Samuel Pepys and Daniel Defoe among others, make brief appearances, there’s the war with France and the mix of religion, science and politics that characterised the late 17th century. But I did find the characters, apart from Newton and Ellis confusing at times, having to backtrack a few times to sort them out. Newton himself is seen through Ellis’s eyes, a person who doesn’t like to speak  ‘anything that is extraneous to my business‘. But at times his sense of humour and wit, his dedication to his work, and his resolution of the science/faith conflict all come through.

I liked Dark Matter and reading it has certainly made me interested to know more about Newton, in particular about his religious beliefs. Although I’m happy to read this as fiction I wonder just how much is based on fact? In his Author’s Note, Philip Kerr explains that much is known about Newton’s work at the Royal Mint and that Christopher Ellis was in fact his assistant, following the mysterious disappearance of the previous clerk. As for his religious beliefs, Kerr writes:

Newton’s interest in alchemy, as well as his dissenting, not to say blasphemous, Arian view, which made him violently opposed to the ruling Trinitarian religious orthodoxy of the day, is also accurate. And anyone wishing to know more should read Richard Westfall’s magisterial biography of Newton, as I have done. But any mistakes in the novel are my own. (page 345)

And I also want to know did he really have a cat, and if so did he call it Melchior?

Although I didn’t read it just to fit in with several reading challenges I’ve joined, it is ideal for several and I’ve indicated those challenges in the Categories listed below this post.

Philip Kerr, is a Scot, born in Edinburgh. ‘He is the author of more than 20 books, including seven Bernie Gunther novels, several standalone thrillers, and six books in the young-adult series Children of the Lamp under the pen name of P.B. Kerr.

In 2009, he won the British Crime Writers’ Association Ellis Peters Historical Fiction Award and Spain’s RBA International Prize for Crime Writing for his Bernie Gunther series. A former advertising copywriter who released his first book in 1989 and in 1993 was named one of Granta magazine’s Best Young British Novelists, he now divides his time between London and Cornwall.’ (copied from his website)

Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Historical Fiction Challenge, Mount TBR Challenge 2014, My Kind of Mystery Challenge, Read Scotland 2014 | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

The Classics Club Spin Result …

The Classics ClubYesterday the Classics Club announced the result of the latest spin – list 20 books from your Classics Club list and the number picked in the spin is the book you read by 6th October 2014.

The number that came out is Number 17 - which for me is Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift: 

Gulliver P1000100

This is one of those books that I’ve known of since childhood and have known bits of the story, but have never read. I did see a TV cartoon version several years ago and I’ve been meaning to read it for years. It’s a book, which operates on several levels, as the Introduction in my copy (an Odhams Press Limited publication) indicates:

An embittered, middle-aged man sat down to write a book that would scourge the vices and follies of mankind. That book, with its sting mellowed during the passage of two hundred years, has become – of all things – a children’s classic. ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ was the splenetic outburst of a passionate mind, whose genius gave immortality to so transient a thing as satire; but that immortality had a permanent basis – a child-like delight in marvels, a freshness of invention, a limpid style and a selective perception that created images of giants, dwarfs and fabled races with a vivid pulsating life of their own.

I’m looking forward to reading it at last.

Posted in Books, Classics, Fantasy, Fiction, Mount TBR Challenge 2014, The Classics Club | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Read Scotland 2014 Challenge: two books

I’ve got a bit behind with writing reviews, so here are some notes on two books I’ve recently read, both of which fit into the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge.

It’s common knowledge now that Robert Galbraith is J K Rowling’s pseudonym. I wish I’d read The Cuckoo’s Calling without knowing that, as although I have no problem with authors writing under pseudonyms, I found myself thinking how like the Harry Potter books it is in some ways and I doubt I’d have thought that if I’d read it ‘blind’.

Anyway, I liked The Cuckoo’s Calling. It is crime fiction, set in the world of Cormoran Strike (a Harry Potterish name, I thought), an ex-army private detective, who is struggling to get clients and pay his bills, sleeping on a camp bed in his office. Along comes Robin Ellacott, from the Temporary Solutions Agency to help out (think, Hermione Granger). She’s intelligent, efficient, remarkably resourceful, and she soon has Strike organised, which is essential as he is asked by John Bristow, a lawyer and the brother of a childhood friend to investigate the death of his sister, Lula Landry. The police are satisfied that Lula, a model, had committed suicide, but Bristow is certain that she didn’t.

What follows is at times a leisurely narrative and the plot is quite complex, but not too difficult to work out. The characters are convincing, Robin in particular soon became my favourite. She has an enquiring mind, ‘fascinated by the interior workings of other people’s minds‘ and despite her fiancé’s opposition to her job, she carries on, motivated by her fascination with investigating, and her secret ambition to be a private detective. In fact without Robin, Strike would have really struggled to get to the truth.

I’ve counted this book towards the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge because J K Rowling, although she was born in England has lived in Scotland for twenty-one years and plans to spend the rest of her life in Scotland. Whereas the author of the next book, Muriel Spark is an author who was born and grew up in Edinburgh, but who later lived in London. To qualify for this challenge books have to be by Scottish authors, either by birth or immigration, or about or set in Scotland – quite a wide brief!

brodie001The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is perhaps Muriel Spark’s most famous novel. I’ve read it before and seen the film, with Maggie Smith in the title role. Each time I’ve read it I’ve really enjoyed it – it’s one of those books that isn’t spoilt by knowing what happens, because part of the pleasure of reading it is the fact that I do know who betrayed Miss Brodie. Despite her declaration: ‘Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she will be mine for life‘, it is one of the ‘Brodie set’ who causes her downfall, that and her pride and self-absorption.

But what really impresses me about this book is the writing, so compact, so perceptive and so in control of the shifts in time backwards and forwards. It’s a joy to read. I’ve written more about it in this post.

Posted in Book Notes, Books, Classics, Crime Fiction, Fiction, My Kind of Mystery Challenge, Read Scotland 2014 | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Birthday Time!

It was my birthday a few days ago. We were away; we went to Kentallen, which is near Glencoe, on the side of Loch Linnhe in the Scottish Highlands. This is the view of Loch Linnhe and the Morvern Mountains from our bedroom:

Loch Linnhe

 I’ll post more photos later on!

These are my birthday books, taken with my birthday camera:

Birthday Bks 2014All Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard is the fifth and final book in the Cazalet Chronicles, an old fashioned family saga. I loved the first four books, which I read years ago. This one begins with a reminder of where the last book ended and what has happened to the family members since the summer of 1945. It’s now 1956 and the world is changing.

A Month in the Country by J L Carr – I’ve been wanting to read this for some time. It’s a short book about the idyllic summer of 1920 when Tom Birkin uncovers a huge medieval wall-painting in a village church.

The next two books in the pile are both set in Scotland, Turn of the Tide, historical fiction set in the 16th century by Margaret Skea, who lives in the Scottish Borders and Murder in the Glen by Hamish MacInnes, a Scottish mountaineer, known as the ‘Fox of Glencoe’,  who for many years led the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team.

I’ll be writing more about these books later on.

The other two books are beautiful little books about painting in watercolours and pastels to create pictures in 30 minutes – I hope these will improve my paintings and if they do I might post a photo or two!!

Posted in Books, Personal | 13 Comments

It’s Spin Time!

The Classics Club Spin, that is. I don’t mind which book comes up in the Spin as they are all books I’d like to read. I quite fancy reading one of Dickens’ books this summer and can’t decide which one! And that is why I’ve included five of his books in the list.

Here are the rules:

* List any twenty books you have left to read from your Classics Club list.The Classics Club
* Number them from 1 to 20.
* Next Monday (August 11th) the Classics Club will announce a number.
* This is the book you need to read by October 6th.

Here’s my list:

  1. Lady Susan/The Watsons/Sanditon by Jane Austen - her first full-length novel
  2. Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor by R D Blackmore
  3. Out of Africa by Karen Blixen – I’ve been meaning to read this ever since I saw the film, which is only loosely based on the book.
  4. No Name by Wilkie Collins – because I liked The Moonstone and The Woman in White
  5. Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
  6. Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens
  7. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
  8. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  9. Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
  10. Parade’s End by Ford Maddox Ford – I liked the TV series with Benedict Cumberbatch so much, I hope I like the book!
  11. Where Angels Fear to Tread by E M Forster
  12. The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling
  13. The Call of the Wild by Jack London
  14. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  15. Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
  16. Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes by Robert Louis Stevenson
  17. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  18. Barchester Towers (Barsetshire Chronicles, #2) by Anthony Trollope
  19. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  20. The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf – her first novel
Posted in Books, Classics, Fiction, The Classics Club | Tagged | 14 Comments

Lights Out

“The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime”

Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, August 1914

Today it is exactly 100 years since Britain joined the first world war! Everyone in the UK is invited to turn off their lights from 10pm to 11pm, leaving on a single light or candle for a shared moment of reflection.

Chronicle of youth 001I’m reading Vera Brittain’s Chronicle of Youth: Great War Diary 1913 -1917. On Tuesday August 4th 1914 having heard that Germany had declared war on Belgium she wrote:

Stupendous events come so thick & fast after one another that it is impossible to realise to any extent their full import. One feels as if one were dreaming, or reading a chapter out of one of H G Wells’ books like ‘The War of the Worlds’. To me, who have never known the meaning of war, as I can scarcely remember the South African even, it is incredible to think that there can be fighting off the coast of Yorkshire.

To sum up the situation in any way is impossible, every hour brings fresh and momentous events & one must stand still & await catastrophes even more terrible than the last.

Posted in Books, World War One | Tagged , | 5 Comments

July’s Books

In July I read lots – 11 books. I’ve written about 6 of them (the links underlined go to my posts on the books). For the books without reviews I’ve added a few thoughts in this post, although I do intend to write more fully about some of them later on.

Three of them are TBRs (books I’ve had since before January 2014), which is good, but as I’ve acquired more than three this month the total number of TBRs is rising, not falling! I read three non-fiction and the rest are fiction of various genres.

  1. Midnight in St Petersburg by Vanora Bennett – a review copy, historical fiction. I thought this portrayal of the Russian Revolution and the effect it had on ordinary people was well done and I did enjoy it.
  2. Casting the Net by Pam Rhodes – a review copy from LibraryThing. A light easy-to-read book that deals with serious issues from the Christian perspective. Life in Dunbridge is far from peaceful and the Neil, the curate has many crises to face, not the least being his vicar’s loss of faith. It’s full of interesting characters, painting a picture of life in a small town.
  3. A Place for Us by Harriet Evans – I received this from Lovereading as a mystery book – no author or title and no publication date. It’s a family saga about the Winters, who at first appear to be the perfect family, but no family can be that perfect and one by one their secrets begin to surface. The book has a slow start as the Winter family is large and it took me a while to get them all clear in my mind. I thought some characters were more fully developed than others, which makes the book rather disjointed. However, after the slow start I soon guessed what the big secret was and I thought it all became too predictable. An entertaining, if undemanding book, which I think could have benefited from being shorter. The book is to be published in 4 parts – Parts 1 and 2 are available now.
  4. Shadows on Our Skin by Jennifer Johnston – another review copy, this is the story of Joe, living in Derry (Londonderry), Northern Ireland before the Troubles and the Bloody Sunday attack in 1972.  An engrossing book, the writing is taut and spare and yet poetical, and the scenes standing out vividly in my mind.
  5. Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd  - a fascinating book which enhanced my understanding of the world in which Shakespeare lived and wrote. A book I’ve been meaning to read for ages.
  6. The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier – historical fiction. I really liked this book about the life of Honor Bright after she emigrated from Dorset to America in 1850 where she joined a Quaker community in Ohio. It intertwines her story with that of the ‘Underground Railroad’, helping the runaway slaves from the southern states to escape to Canada.
  7. Wycliffe and the Four Jacks by W J Burley – crime fiction, set in Cornwall. This is a quick read, with plenty of red herrings, but not too difficult to unravel. I enjoyed it.
  8. The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (J K Rowling) – crime fiction. I’ll be writing what I think about this book in a separate post.
  9. I Murdered My Library by Linda Grantan essay of just 28 pages in which Linda Grant tells about moving house and downsizing her considerable book collection to fit into a small flat. I really liked this little e-book.
  10. Charles Dickens: a Life by Claire Tomalin – I intend to write a separate post for this one too. One of my TBRs it’s a long and detailed biography that taught me a lot about Dickens.
  11. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark -I’ve read this book for the third time now and I still think it is an excellent book. I last read it in July 2008. I may write more in a separate post.

It’s always hard deciding which book I enjoyed this most and this month it’s even more difficult as I enjoyed most of them very much. But, for the second month on the run, it’s non-fiction, and mainly because it is so well researched and detailed – and even more so because it made me want to read more of Charles Dickens’ books it has to be Charles Dickens: a Life by Claire Tomalin.

Posted in Books, Fiction, Non-fiction | 5 Comments

I Murdered My Library by Linda Grant

Following on from yesterday’s post on books I’ve read recently and not reviewed, I have three more I have not written about and here is one of them:

I Murdered My Library by Linda Grant. This is an essay of just 28 pages in which Linda Grant tells about moving house and downsizing her considerable book collection to fit into a small flat. She had had books everywhere:

Books multiplied, books swarmed; they were a papery population explosion. When they had exhausted the shelves, they started to take over the stairs. You cannot have a taste for minimalist decor if you seriously read books.

Well, I know all about that and all about trying to find more space for books or to reduce my book collection, so I really liked this little e-book. Linda Grant can read my mind – and those of many other book-lovers, I’m sure – as she went through her books deciding which ones could go. It could be me saying this too:

I am kidding myself if I think that I am going to reread a fraction of the books I have brought with me or a fraction of those I have never got round to reading.

In my youth, I imagined old age and retirement as the time when one sat back, relaxed and read. There would be all the time in the world for reading. Sixty was so far away, and 80 stretching out into a future not imaginable, that you might as well be talking about living forever. Now time gobbles up my life.

I have tried, but I’ve never managed to be as ruthless as she was, never seen empty bookshelves and I doubt I ever will, because there have been so many books I’ve given away only to realise later that I want to re-read/read them, or to look up a reference. So it’s made me think twice, or even ten times before I actually part with a book. And indeed as Linda Grant looks at her shelves of the books she has kept she mourns the ones she killed off!

Posted in Book Notes, Books, e-books, Memoirs, Non-fiction | Tagged , | 17 Comments