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Current Library Books

I always have several books on loan from my local library. These are my current loans:

Lib bks Jan 15 P1010394It’s no wonder my TBR pile of my own books doesn’t go down very quickly! I didn’t borrow these books all in one go – they are the result of several visits and are due back on different dates!

They are a mix of fiction and non-fiction. At the bottom of the pile are three art books – two by Barrington Barber about painting and drawing,  a comprehensive step-by-step instruction book and Anyone Can Paint about painting in watercolours, acrylics and oils,  The third art book is Cold Breeze, Dark Fire a book of paintings and drawings of North Northumberland by Peter Podmore.  Podmore lives in this area and paints mainly outside using pastels, oils, acrylic and charcoal – such inspiring, beautiful and dramatic paintings.

Next up in the pile is Stephen Fry’s memoir, More Fool Me, his third volume. It begins with a synopsis of his earlier books, which as I haven’t read them is very helpful.

Then up to the fiction beginning with a Catherine Cookson, The Silent Lady. I haven’t read many of her books, but this one appealed to me. It’s her last novel, written when she was very ill, but she was convinced that she had a good story to tell.

The Spice Merchant’s Wife by Charlotte Betts. This is one of those books that I know nothing about or about its author, but took down off the library shelves on an impulse. I like to try new-to-me authors and this is one of my favourite genres – historical fiction set in 1666.

Trouble Brewing by Dolores Gordon-Smith, chosen because it’s crime fiction set in 1925, written in the classic mystery style, according to the back cover.

I’ve enjoyed The Woods by Harlan Coben, so I thought I’d try another one and picked up Tell No One, about a couple visiting a lake that had been part of their lives since they were children – then the wife is kidnapped and killed.

More historical fiction with The Botticelli Secret by Marina Fiorato. I liked her earlier book The Madonna of the Almonds, about the artist Bernadino, a protege of Leonardo da Vinci. This one is about the model of Botticelli’s painting La Primavera.

Margaret Forster is one of my favourite authors, so I thought The Seduction of Mrs Pendlebury could be a safe bet for me. Mrs Pendlebury lives in Islington, has little in common with her neighbours and keeps herself to herself – gradually she comes out of her shell. Nina Bawden quoted on the back cover describes it as a tragi-comedy.

Finally, the book at the top of the pile, The Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis, a Marcus Didius Falco novel set in the time of the Emperor Vespasian – historical crime fiction, a combination of two favourite genres. I’m surprised at myself that I’ve never read any of this author’s books, she ‘s written nineteen novels, but at least I’m starting with the first one in this series.

I just need to get reading!

Green Darkness by Anya Seton

I finished reading Green Darkness a couple of weeks ago and have been wondering what to write about it or whether to write anything at all. I thought I’d read the book years ago, not long after it came out, but as soon as I began what I thought was a re-read I realised that this was completely new to me – I just thought I’d read it because I’d visited Ightham Mote, a beautiful 14th century moated manor house in Kent where part of Green Darkness is set.

A brief synopsis from Goodreads:

This story of troubled love takes place simultaneously during two periods of time: today and 400 years ago. We meet Richard and Celia Marsdon, an attractive young couple, whose family traces its lineage back to medieval England. Richard’s growing depression creates a crisis in Celia, and she falls desperately ill. Lying unconscious and near death, Celia’s spirit journeys backward to a time four centuries earlier when another Celia loved another Marsdon.

I wasn’t enthralled by it and nearly abandoned it after the first few chapters set in 1968, because the characters didn’t come over as real and the writing in accents was awful. But once I got on to the historical part, set in the 16th century it was better, so I read on.

There are some books that are easy to write about – this isn’t one of them so this is a brief post. Green Darkness is written around the premise of reincarnation, so the characters/personalities feature in both time periods. I didn’t think this was successful, but seemed contrived. For me the book would have been better as straight historical fiction.

Reading Challenges: Color Coded Challenge – green (I don’t know why this book is called Green Darkness – if the book explains the title I missed it). What’s In a Name – a book with a colour in its title. Historical Fiction challenge – 16th century England. My Kind of Mystery Challenge.

A Question of Identity by Susan Hill

I began reading A Question of Identity, the 7th Simon Serrailler book by Susan Hill immediately after I’d finished reading the 6th book, The Betrayal of Trust (see my previous post), which had left some issues unresolved. I was hoping to find out more in this book and I wasn’t disappointed – which is one reason for reading these books in order. Another reason is to follow the continuing story of Simon and his family. And a third reason is that Susan Hill always focusses on one or more psychological/moral/ ethical issues.

Summary (back cover):

How do you catch a killer who doesn’t exist?

One snowy night in the cathedral city of Lafferton, an old woman is dragged from her bed and strangled with a length of flex.

DCS Simon Serrailler and his team search desperately for clues to her murderer. All they know is that the killer will strike again, and will once more leave the same tell-tale signature.

Then they track down a name: Alan Keyes. But Alan Keyes has no birth certificate, no address, no job, no family, no passport, no dental records. Nothing.

Their killer does not exist.

I much preferred this book to the previous one. It is more balanced between the crime and the continuing story of the main characters. I suspect it may be incorrect in describing police procedures – I don’t know and really it doesn’t bother me, this is fiction after all and I have no difficulty in believing in the world of Serrailler and Lafferton that Susan Hill has created.

The main theme in this book, as the title indicates is ‘identity’ and its importance, how it is concealed, whether a personality can be changed convincingly and completely, or whether eventually the façade will crack and the real character reassert itself.

Susan Hill is also very good at creating tension and suspense. You know there are going to be murders (just as in Casualty you know there’s going to be a terrible accident etc), but that just increases the suspense. She builds up the setting and the characters and I was hoping against hope that one of the characters would not be a victim – and of course she was. I suspected the identity of the killer quite early on and hoped I was wrong about that too – but I wasn’t.  I began to feel very uncomfortable about the fate of the elderly, living on their own, frail and vulnerable …

It’s the psychological/social elements of A Question of Identity that appealed to me more than the crime, although these elements are inevitably so closely connected.

The Betrayal of Trust by Susan Hill

So far this year I’ve been reading from my own bookshelves – books I’ve owned before 1 January. I’ve had The Betrayal of Trust by Susan Hill, the 6th in the Simon Serrailler series, for nearly a year now. Like the earlier books, this one is  character-driven, concentrating on the people involved in the crime and Simon’s family, and also covering several ethical/moral/medical issues.

The crime element concerns a cold case, that of a teenager missing for 16 years. After flooding causes a landslip on the Moor her body comes to the surface together with that of an unknown female found in a shallow grave near by.The cold case is not a priority as the police force is struggling with staff shortages and cuts – Simon has to solve the cases mainly on his own, with the occasional help from DS Ben Vanek.

But the police investigations are not the main subject of this book. It focuses on the problems of ageing, hospice care, Motor Neurone Disease, assisted suicide, Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s Disease. A lot to cope with all at once and at times I found The Betrayal of Trust a deeply depressing book.

Having said that, as with Susan Hill’s other books, this is fluently written, looking at all sides of the issues, highlighting the dilemma facing those with terminal and debilitating illnesses, and those looking after dementia patients. The Serrailler family life has moved on from the last book, but Simon’s strained relationship with his father continues. He fails in love with a stunningly beautiful woman, which causes yet more complications – he just  doesn’t seem capable of having a happy relationship!

Although this is a quick read it’s also rather dark, with some dodgy and sinister characters and I was expecting it to be better than it is. It is a complex novel but the solution to the crime mystery soon becomes evident and is rather rushed at the end. There are several issues left unresolved and I hope they will be clarified in the next book in the series, A Question of Identity, which is next up for me to read.

The Best Laid Plans …

I tend not to plan my reading – my plans often go awry! I was looking forward to reading my current books  – Green Darkness, The Needle in the Blood and Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography) but my thoughts keep turning to what to read next.

I think it’s because I’m not that enthralled with the two historical novels, although Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography is very interesting. I’ve read Green Darkness by Anya Seton before, although now I’m reading it I’m beginning to think I just dreamt I read it as it’s like reading a new book. It’s my book group choice for January and although there are parts that I think are very good (the historical part set in 16th century Tudor England) I’m finding it too long and well a bit boring in parts.

And I was confused as I began reading The Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bower, set just after Harold’s death at the Battle of Hastings. This may just be because my historical knowledge of this period is very vague, but I think it should be easier to work out whether ‘Lady Edith’ and ‘Queen Edith’ are different people and are there two people called Gytha?

This book has been on my shelves for 7 years! and picking it up this time I realised why I hadn’t read it before now – it’s written in the third person present tense, which I find awkward. I’m hoping all will get clearer if I read on – but I haven’t been tempted to read much further as yet – the tense isn’t helping me.

These are just a few of the options I have for what to read next:

From my shelves:

  • Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir – because Lady Jane Grey features in Green Darkness and I fancy reading more about her.
  • The Betrayal of Trust by Susan Hill – because it’s the next one for me read in her Simon Serrailler series and I’ve borrowed the one after this (A Question of Identity) from the library, so I’d like to read them in order.
  • Turn of the Tide by Margaret Skea – about feuding clans in 16th century Scotland.

From the library (just a small selection):

  • A Question of Identity by Susan Hill – after I’ve read The Betrayal of Trust.
  • Catching the Eagle: Book I of the Regency Reivers series by Karen Charlton – I found this on my library’s list of books by local authors. It’s described as a fictionalized account of a trial that devastated a family after a robbery at Kirkley hall in Northumberland, and it’s based on the true story of the author’s family’s notorious ancestor, Jamie Charlton.

On my Kindle:

  • No Name by Wilkie Collins – having just read Peter Ackroyd’s biography I’m keen to read at least one of Wilkie Collins’ books this year.
  • Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope – inspired by reading his autobiography.
  • Black Roses by Jane Thynne – I saw this reviewed on another book blog – can’t remember which one – and thought it sounded good, set in Berlin in the 1930s.

Now, whether I will read these after I finished my current books remains to be seen – I may be drawn to something completely different.

Wilkie Collins by Peter Ackroyd

Wilkie CollinsOn Thursday I finished reading Wilkie Collins by Peter Ackroyd and it was also the anniversary of his birth – he was born in Marylebone at a house in New Cavendish Street on 8 January 1824.

I’ve read just two of Wilkie Collins’ books – The Moonstone and The Woman in White, and this year I hope to read more. I knew that he was a friend of Charles Dickens, but that was about all I knew of him. Peter Ackroyd’s biography looked as though it could be a good book to start with. And it is – it’s short, just over 200 pages, very readable and a clear and concise account of Collins’ life and work.

Wilkie’s father was William Collins, an English painter, a member of the Royal Academy, who specialised in landscapes and seascapes. He was christened William Wilkie – Wilkie after his godfather, the painter Sir David Wilkie.

Ackroyd’s account may be brief but he gives details of Wilkie’s childhood, his schooldays – the books he liked as a child – The Arabian Nights, Robin Hood and Don Quixote, books by Sir Walter Scott and he admired Byron. He moves on through Wilkie’s struggle to become a writer, his friendship with Charles Dickens, his travels abroad, his unconventional life style, never marrying but living with Caroline Graves for thirty years whilst having a liaison with Martha Rudd, his ill health and reliance on laudanum, his tour of America, his relationships with and views about women and their place in society, as well as discussing his short stories, articles, novels and plays.

Wilkie Collins died on 23 September 1889 after a year in which he had suffered from neuralgic attacks, a stroke that paralysed his life side and affected his brain, and a bout of bronchitis, but he  had still carried on writing.

I marked several passages as I was reading. Here are just a few of them:

He was essentially liberal in his social and political views, averse to coercion and conflict; he showed some sympathy with the principles of socialism as it was then understood, and was instinctively on the side of the oppressed. (page 46)

He might best be described as a Christian humanist who accepted Christ as his Saviour but detested all formal and outward shows of religion. He preserved his particular wrath for evangelicals. … he was not an atheist. He rarely entered a church, and his actual beliefs are hard, if not impossible, to unravel. (page 47)

He may have believed with Charles II that God would not punish him for a few sins of pleasure. (page 47)

He lived through a period in which the audience for fiction was rapidly widening, and the novels themselves were increasing in importance. … Novels had become the repository of dreams and ideals, the fantasies and the speculations, of the nation. (page 81)

One of the characters in ‘The Diary of Anne Rodway’ said -‘what I want is something that seizes hold of my interest, and makes me forget when it is time to dress for dinner – something that keeps me reading, reading, reading, in a breathless state to find out the end.’ That is precisely the excitement Collins conveys to his readers. (page 88)

Collins was writing about mysteries ‘deep under the surface’ three decades before Freud began his own enquiries. He was concerned with doubles and double identity, with monomania and delusion. He traced the paths of unconscious associations and occluded memories. (page 93)

It was believed that the ‘detective element’ disqualified the novel as a work of art, when in fact it opened up the way for an entirely new direction in English literature. There had been earlier exercises in the genre, but all of them are inconsiderable besides the over-whelming power and authority of ‘The Moonstone’. Collins’s novel, since its publication in 1868, has never been out of print. (page 132)

There is an awful lot packed into this short biography! And it’s an excellent stepping stone into Wilkie Collins’s novels.

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Chatto & Windus (23 Feb. 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0701169907
  • ISBN-13: 978-0701169909
  • Source: a Christmas present

Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2015

Historical Fiction 2015I’ve been looking out for this challenge after Historical Tapestry announced that they were no longer running it and there is a new host this year – Amy at Passages to the Past. I hadn’t seen Amy’s blog before, but it looks very interesting, full of historical fiction reviews etc.

The challenge runs from January 1st to December 31st 2015 and there are six different levels to choose from:

20th century Reader – 2 books
Victorian Reader – 5 books
Renaissance Reader – 10 books
Medieval – 15 books
Ancient History – 25 books
Prehistoric – 50+ books

Any type of historical fiction is accepted including sub-genres such as Historical Romance, Historical Mystery, Historical Fantasy and Young Adult.

Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres and last year I met my target level reading 26 books – just over the Ancient History level. I’m tempted to aim for the Prehistoric Level, but as I want to be more relaxed about challenges this year I’ll be aiming for the Ancient History level again, and if I read more then so much the better.

Towards Zero by Agatha Christie

Towards Zero (Agatha Christie Collection) by…
my copy is a 1972 impression

Towards Zero, first published in 1944, is an intricately plotted murder mystery featuring Superintendent Battle, the last of the five novels he appears in. Agatha Christie dedicated this book to Robert Graves, author of I Claudius, who was her neighbour in Devon during the Second World War and the two had become friends. She wrote:

“Dear Robert, Since you are kind enough to say you like my stories, I venture to dedicate this book to you. All I ask is that you sternly restrain your critical faculties (doubtless sharpened by your recent excesses in that line!) when reading it. This is a story for your pleasure and not a candidate for Mr Graves’ literary pillory!”

It was received well at the time reviewed in the 6 August 1944 issue of The Observer:

 “The new Agatha Christie has a deliciously prolonged and elaborate build-up, urbane and cosy like a good cigar and red leather slippers. Poirot is absent physically, but his influence guides the sensitive inspector past the wiles of the carefully planted house party, and with its tortuous double bluff this might well have been a Poirot case. How gratifying to see Agatha Christie keeping the flag of the old classic who-dun-it so triumphantly flying!”

It begins with a prologue in which a group of lawyers discuss a recent case at the Old Bailey. Mr Treves, a retired lawyer puts forward the idea that murder is not the beginning of a detective story, but the end, that murder is the culmination of causes and events that bring together certain people, converging towards a certain place and time, towards the Zero Hour – ‘towards zero’. The idea presupposes that there is an inevitability – that once events have been set in motion then the outcome is determined.

And in line with this idea, an unnamed person is seen planning a murder:

The time, the place, the victim. … Yes everything planned – everyone’s reaction foretold and allowed for, the good and evil in everybody played upon and brought into harmony with one evil design.

But the story begins with Angus MacWhirter recovering in hospital after a failed attempt at suicide, assured by a nurse that the mere fact of his existence could be of great importance, perhaps even save someone’s life one day. It then moves on to Superintendent Battle whose daughter has confessed to pilfering at school, even though she hadn’t stolen anything. The relevance of this episode is made clear later in the book.

And it is only later in the book that the murder is carried out, giving plenty of time for all the characters to be introduced, defined and their thoughts and relationships explored – Nevile Strange, a sportsman, good looking, wealthy, married to his beautiful second wife, Kay, Audrey Strange, Nevile’s first wife, Thomas Royde, Audrey’s distant cousin returning from Malaya, who hopes to marry her, and Ted Latimer, Kay’s friend who all converge at Gull’s Point, a large country house on a cliff above the River Tern where Lady Tressilian and Mary Aldin, her cousin and companion live.

The murderer could be any of them and as solution after solution is proposed I was completely bamboozled. All the clues are there, but subtly hidden, buried in layer upon layer. As was Superintendent Battle for a while. I like Battle, described as

‘solid and durable, and in some way impressive. Superintendent Battle had never suggested brilliance; he was definitely not a brilliant man, but he had some other quality, difficult to define, that was nevertheless forceful.

And as he also knows Poirot, he is able to apply Poirot’s use of psychology to the case, keeping the suspect talking until the truth slips out.

Towards Zero has to be one of my favourite of Agatha Christie’s books despite a few reservations  – Angus MacWhirter’s role seems superfluous, other than introducing the idea of pre-destination, and Mr Treves’ story of a child killer wasn’t really explained. I was surprised by the ending – not the denouement of the murderer, but the unlikely romance between two of the characters in the very last chapter which seemed just too far removed from reality. But, disregarding these points I really enjoyed this book.