SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

Mary Beard is a Professor of Classics at Newnham College, Cambridge and is the Classics editor of the TLS. She is a fellow of the British Academy and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. And she writes a blog – A Don’s Life, which appears in The Times. I’ve enjoyed watching her TV programmes and so it doesn’t surprise me at all  that SPQR is just as entertaining and informative as the programmes – and very readable, even for someone, like me, who only has a smattering of knowledge about Roman history.

I took my time reading SPQR; some of it covered familiar ground and some was new to me. It’s a fascinating account of how Rome grew and sustained its position for so long, covering the period from the fourth century BCE when Rome was expanding from a small village, up to the moment in 212 CE when the emperor Caracalla made every free inhabitant of the Roman Empire a full Roman citizen.

The title, SPQR, is taken from the Roman catchphrase, Senatus Populusque Romanus meaning the Senate and People of Rome and it is on these two elements – the Senate and the People that Mary Beard concentrates, focussing on the city of Rome, on Roman Italy and also looking at Rome from the outside, from the point of view of those living in the wider territories of the Roman empire.

The book is not strictly chronological and begins with an event I know a bit about through reading Robert Harris’ Lustrum. It’s the Catiline conspiracy in 63 BC, which concerned a plot, or so it was rumoured to overthrow the Roman Empire and Cicero’s part in uncovering the plot and saving the state. Mary Beard begins with this event, because:

it is only in the first century BCE that we can start to explore Rome, close up and in vivid detail through contemporary eyes. An extraordinary wealth of words survives from this period: from private letters to public speeches, from philosophy to poetry – epic and erotic, scholarly and straight from the street.’ (location 143)

She highlights the effect Cicero had, not just on the politics of his own time but also on the language of modern politics. And it is from Cicero’s speeches, essays, letters, jokes and poetry and other Roman writers that we see the Roman world not just in 63 BCE but throughout the city’s history.

For the earlier period however, there are no contemporary accounts and so the early years of the city and of the earliest Romans has to be reconstructed  from individual pieces of evidence from fragments of pottery or letters inscribed on stone.

There are also, of course the myths and stories as well and Beard refers to these, such as the story of Romulus and Remus, who are said to have founded the city, told by Livy and several other Roman writers. Tradition has it that Romulus and his tiny community fought against their neighbours, the Sabines, and erected a temple on the site of the battle, which later became the Forum, but there is no archaeological evidence to identify the remains of this temple. Archaeology, in fact, only sketches what Rome in the earliest period was like and it is very different from the myths. Later Roman writers and modern historians alike have debated intensely the stories of Romulus and Remus, raising the questions of what it was to be Roman. And Beard states:

There is often a fuzzy boundary between myth and history … and … Rome is one of those cultures where the boundary is particularly blurred. … For a start there was almost certainly no such thing as a founding moment of the city of Rome. … Although Romans usually assumed that he [Romulus] had lent his name to his newly established city, we are now fairly confident that the opposite was the case: ‘Romulus’ was an imaginative construction out of ‘Roma’. ‘Romulus was the archetypal ‘Mr Rome.’ (locations 844 – 850)

From that point Beard goes on to discuss the basics of Roman culture, including the nature of Roman marriage, Roman slaves, the Republican system, the principle of freedom, or ‘libertas’, the changing definition of what it meant to be ‘Roman’, Roman domination of the Mediterranean, dictatorship, civil war, taxation, the modern Western system of timekeeping, the emperors and their imperial successes and military victories and the army – and so much more!

SPQR is an immense  achievement, covering 1,000 years of the history of Ancient Rome, and not only the history but also explaining Roman values, what they thought about themselves, and the way of life of both the People and the Senate.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 22379 KB
  • Print Length: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Profile Books; Main edition (20 Oct. 2015)
  • Source: I bought it

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR 2016 – an e-book I’ve owned since November 2015

Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope

I’ve recently read Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne, which I’d meant to read about a year ago after I finished Barchester Towers! I enjoyed it, although I think it’s a bit too drawn out – I could see where the plot was going very early in the book. The conclusion is predictable.

But that didn’t matter as it’s a book about mid nineteenth-century prosperous country life and the traditional attitudes towards the accepted codes of conduct, of the importance of birth, of wealth and above all about money, class and power. It’s about human relationships and the strength of the novel is in the portraits of its characters and their responses to matters of principle in the face of upper class idiocy and snobbishness. Trollope uses gentle satire in this novel, emphasising the absurdities of the class divisions in society and poking fun at the professions, with the names of doctors, such as Dr Fillgrave, whose name wouldn’t inspire me with confidence, parliamentary agents such as Mr Nearthewind and Mr Closerstil and lawyers called Messrs Slow and Bideawhile.

Doctor Thorne is the third in Trollope’s Barchester Towers books – the first one not set in Barchester, but in Greshambury in East Barsetshire, where the Gresham family and Doctor Thorne and his niece Mary live. As the novel opens nothing is going well for the Gresham family, they are in financial difficulties, the estate is mortgaged and they are heavily in debt. It is imperative that Frank, the son and heir to Greshambury Park and its estate, should marry money – indeed, his mother, Lady Arabella, the sister of the Earl de Courcy insists ‘He must marry money‘, a refrain that is repeated throughout the novel. But Frank has fallen in love with Mary, who has neither money or rank, and is illegitimate and as the story proceeds she is increasingly ostracised by the Gresham family, egged on by their rich relations the De Courcys.

Although the book is called Doctor Thorne, the main character to my mind is Mary Thorne, who shows great strength of character throughout. Mary had been adopted by Doctor Thorne, after her father, his brother had been murdered by her mother’s brother. Her mother had left England for America, where she had married and had a family. The brother, meanwhile had done well for himself after he left prison and made a fortune. Mary knows nothing of her background.

I particularly liked Miss Dunstable, the daughter of ‘the ointment of Lebanon man‘, who had inherited £200,000 when he had died recently. The Gresham family, or rather Lady Arabella, instruct Frank that he is to ask her to marry him – her wealth over-riding the fact that her father was a tradesman.

My only criticism of this book is that the discussions about whether Frank and Mary should or should not be allowed to marry are too drawn out and slowed down the plot too much for my liking. Apart from that I thought it was good, Trollope’s authorial comments were interesting, the dialogue was realistic and lively and the main characters came over as real people. An entertaining novel and now I’m keen to read the next Barchester Towers book, Framley Parsonage; Doctor Thorne also appears in this book!

In his Autobiography Trollope wrote that he had been trying to think up a new plot and he asked his brother to sketch one for him, which he did! He thought it was a good plot and the book was, he believed, the most popular book he had written. He was surprised by its success.

After I finished reading Doctor Thorne I realised that it was a perfect choice for the What’s in a Name? Challenge in the category of a book with a profession in the title. It’s a book I’ve had since before 1 January 2016 and fits into the Mount TRB Reading Challenge too and it’s also a book I identified for the Classics Club Challenge.

I wanted to read Doctor Thorne before the three-part adaptation of the book that starts tonight on ITV at 9 pm, so that my reaction to it wouldn’t be influenced. Now that I have read it I’m not at all sure I’ll watch the adaptation. If there are too many changes I know it will irritate me.

A House Divided by Margaret Skea

One of the best historical fiction books I read last year was Margaret Skea’s debut novel, Turn of the Tide, which captivated me completely transporting me  back in time to 16th century Scotland.  So I approached its sequel, A House Divided, hoping it would be just as good, and it is. Indeed it’s even better. Once more I was whisked back to the world of the feuding clans of Cunninghame and Montgomerie. It is the most gripping story of warring factions in Scotland, the French Wars of Religion, superstition and horrific witchcraft trials.

It’s now 1597, six years after the events in Turn of the Tide. The Munro family are believed to have died in a fire at their home, Broomelaw but Kate Munro and her three children are living at Braidstane in Ayrshire under the protection of the Montgomerie family. They have the assumed the name of ‘Grant’, in hiding from the Cunninghame family, particularly from William Cunninghame, the son of the Earl of Glencairn, head of the Cunninghame clan. Kate’s husband is in France, fighting with the Scots Gardes for the French Henri IV. Meanwhile William Cunninghame has taken possession of Broomelaw and is rebuilding the tower house. And it’s becoming more difficult and dangerous to keep their identity secret; the children are asking questions and the eldest, Robbie, wants to go to join his father in France.

Kate, who has gained a reputation as a ‘wise woman’ from her knowledge and skill in the use of herbs and plants for healing and as a midwife, is called to help Margaret Maxwell, the wife of Patrick, a Cunninghame supporter, with the birth of her baby. When Patrick meets Kate and her daughter, Maggie, he is suspicious. thinking they look familiar, reminding him of Munro’s wife, and so the danger begins. And it increases as Kate’s reputation grows and she is summoned to the Scottish court as Queen Anne (James VI’s wife), having heard of Kate’s expertise, needs her advice in carrying a baby to full-term.  She had been advised to try a number of methods to avoid a miscarriage:

I have eaten crushed orchid leaves, powdered fox’s lungs and crab’s eyes; drunk wolf oil and tincture of foxglove; been bled and leeched till I think I have little blood left; told to lie on my side and on my stomach, even upside down. Few treatments convenient and none effective. (location 3242)

It’s no wonder they failed and a wonder she survived!

There is so much I loved in this book – first of all the story itself, expertly narrated, full of tension and surprise, and then the characters, some based on real historical figures and others fictitious, such as the Munro family. The story is well grounded in research and based on facts – James VI, whilst waiting to inherit the English crown, wanted to bring peace to Scotland and to put an end to the wars between the clans. His interest in, or rather his obsession with witchcraft comes to the fore in this novel as Kate is accused as a witch and brought to trial as part of the Great Scottish Witch Hunt of 1597. Also historically accurate is the Scots involvement in France as under the terms of the ‘Auld Alliance’ they had citizenship rights in France as well as trading agreements and the Scots Gardes were an elite Scottish regiment whose duties included the provision of a personal bodyguard to the French King.

But it’s the personal touches that brought home to me what life was like in the 16th century, what their houses were like, the food they ate, the dangers that faced them in their daily lives, as well as the growing interest in science and medicine as opposed to superstition and religious bigotry and fervour.

This is an excellent book, one of the best I’ve read this year. Not only is the story absolutely fascinating, but it is also well written and well paced. The historical facts all blend seamlessly into the narrative, with beautiful descriptive passages not just of the landscape and the Scottish Court, but also of the grim details of warfare, of the horrors of the witch trials and of sickness, typhoid and plague, of wounds, of childbirth and of death. It’s strong, compelling reading, a book that made me keen to find out what would happen next and at the same time one I didn’t want to end.

  • Format: Kindle Edition – also available as a paperback
  • File Size: 1017 KB
  • Print Length: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Sanderling Books; 1 edition (15 Oct. 2015)
  • Author’s website: Margaret Skea, Writing yesterday, today

Margaret Skea is currently working on her third novel – I’m looking forward to reading it!

Reading Challenges: Read Scotland 2016

Lustrum and Dictator by Robert Harris

I’d enjoyed the first book in Robert Harris’ Cicero Trilogy, Imperium. So I’d been looking forward to reading Lustrum, the second in the trilogy (published as Conspirata in the US and Italy) . It didn’t fail to live up to my expectations – it surpassed them. I think it’s historical fiction at its best. I immediately went on to read Dictator, the third book in the trilogy, which I also enjoyed very much, but I think Lustrum is the outstanding book of the three.

I had intended to write a more detailed post about Lustrum and Dictator but life and medical issues decided otherwise, so this is just a short post on both books.

Lustrum begins where Imperium finished in 63 BC with a dramatic scene, as the body of a child is pulled from the River Tiber, a child who had been killed as a human sacrifice, grotesquely mutilated. What follows is an account of the five year period (a lustrum) of Cicero’s consulship and the battle for power between him, Julius Caesar, Pompey the republic’s greatest general, Crassus its richest man, Cato a political fanatic, Catilina a psychopath, and Clodius an ambitious playboy. It ends with his exile from Rome.

Once I began reading I was immediately drawn into the world of Cicero. The story is once again narrated by his secretary, the slave Tiro, giving access to Cicero’s thoughts and feelings. Tiro is an interesting character in his own right – he is reported to be the first man to record a speech in the senate verbatim and some of the symbols in his shorthand system are still in use today, such as &, etc, ie, and eg. As in Imperium and in the third book, Dictator, Harris has used Cicero’s actual words, adding to the books’ authenticity. Harris states that he hopes it is not necessary to read the books in order but I think it adds much to the enjoyment if you do.

Dictator covers the last 15 years of Cicero’s life when he was no longer a dominant political figure in Rome. The book begins with Cicero in exile, separated from his wife and children and in constant danger of losing his life. Apart from the first part of the book when Cicero is working towards returning to Rome, I didn’t find it as exciting or as compelling as the first two books. This is mainly because there is so much happening such as the civil war and the downfall of the republic from which Cicero is excluded first because on his return to Rome he is sidelined, and then retired.

All three books are based on extensive research but Harris is such a good story teller that they don’t read like text books. Roman history has always fascinated me and reading this trilogy has revived my interest, so much so that I am now reading Mary Beard’s book, SPQR: a History of Ancient Rome, that goes right back to the beginning describing how Rome grew and became such a dominant power.

When I saw Catilina’s Riddle by Steven Saylor sitting in the mobile library shelves I just had to borrow it. It’s historical crime fiction in which Gordianius the Finder gets involved in the Catilina conspiracy to overthrow the republic.

And I would also like to re-read Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series to compare with Harris’ trilogy, or at least some of the books involving Cicero and Caesar. Oh for more time to read!

Lustrum is one of my Mount TBR Mountain Challenge 2016 books (ie books I’ve owned before 1 January 2016) .

The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

Ingenious! That’s what I thought when I’d finished reading The Murder at the Vicarage. Although Agatha Christie had written short stories featuring Miss Marple this is the first full length Miss Marple story, published in 1930.

I’ve been reading my way through Agatha Christie’s crime fiction for a few years now, totally out of order, which is why I’ve only just got round to reading The Murder at the Vicarage. I’d picked up along the way on the fact that Miss Marple uses her knowledge of people to help her solve the mysteries she investigates. And it is in this book that her use of analogy is made absolutely explicit, as she considers who could have killed Colonel Prothero, the unpopular churchwarden, found in the vicar’s study shot through the head. She comes up with seven suspects, all based on examples of human behaviour she has observed in the past.

Miss Marple is not the popular figure she appears in the later books as not everybody likes her. The vicar does, liking her sense of humour, and describing her as ‘a white-haired old lady with a gentle appealing manner’, whereas his wife describes her as ‘the worst cat in the village. And she always knows everything that happens – and draws the worst inference from it.

But it is very helpful to know what is going on in St Mary Mead, about Dr Stone, a well-known archaeologist superintending the excavation of a barrow on Colonel Protheroe’s land and about Mrs Lestrange, a mysterious woman who has recently moved to the village and also about who was coming and going to the vicarage and when.

It’s also helpful to have a a plan of St Mary Mead, showing where the main characters live, and plans of the layout of the vicarage and the vicar’s study, where the murder occurred.

After one of the suspects confesses to the murder Inspector Slack, who shows his contempt for Miss Marple, thinks the case is closed, but Miss Marple is puzzled – the facts seem to her to be wrong. The Murder at the Vicarage has an intricate plot, is full of red herrings and was impossible for me to unravel, but Miss Marple with her knowledge of ‘Human Nature’ solves the mystery.

I enjoyed this book very much, but Agatha Christie writing her Autobiography years later, wasn’t all that pleased with it. She thought it had too many characters and too many sub-plots; she is probably right. But she thought that the main plot was sound and that the village was as real to her as it could be. It’s real to me too.

Silver Lies by Ann Parker

From out of the black hole that is my Kindle came Silver Lies by Ann Parker, a new-to-me author. Books have been known to disappear for ever in there and this one had been languishing down in the depths for three years, so I thought it was time to read it. It looked as though it would be a bit different from other books I’ve been reading this year. Apart from True Grit I don’t think I’ve read any westerns for years and actually this one is not a typical western. It’s not a Cowboys and Indians type western at all but is set in 1879/80 in the silver-mining town of Leadville, Colarado in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. It probably fits in more with the crime fiction genre than with westerns, but it was the setting  that attracted me to it.

It’s a really good story beginning when Joe Rose, a silver assayer, facing a bleak future as the last of his money has gone and the hope of making his fortune in silver has disappeared, is found dead in Tiger Alley propped up behind the Silver Queen saloon. Inez Stannert’s husband Mark had won the saloon in a poker game and eight months before the story begins he had left her and their friend and business partner, Abe Jackson to run it on their own. Inez has no idea where he is and whether he’ll ever return.

Joe’s death is just the start of the mystery – was his death an accident or was he murdered and if so why?  Inez sets out to discover the truth and although his wife Emma has asked her to settle his affairs for her what is she keeping from Inez? Where is Mark and why did he leave? There is a new Reverend in town. Inez falls for his charms but is he to be trusted? She had him pegged as a gambler rather than a man of the cloth. And she doesn’t trust the new marshall either – ‘a thin man with the look of a hungry rattlesnake’. Inez knows he is ‘just a two-bit gunslinger from Texas’ hired by the ‘silver barons to keep the peace after last month’s lynching’. So it’s no wonder that she uncovers a web of deceit, counterfeit, blackmail and murder.

With plenty of memorable characters I could easily imagine I was in the silver rush town, a town where:

People rush in – from the East, from the West – and collide at the top of the Rockies. They’re looking for riches or looking to escape. And running. Everyone’s either from their past or running toward some elusive vision of the future. (location 5896)

Leadville was a colourful place, a boom-town, bustling with life -everything is there – the Silver Queen saloon and the Crystal Belle Saloon, Leadville’s leading parlor house, a brick built opera house, whose patrons ‘swelled the after-midnight crowds’ in the Silver Queen saloon, five banks and a small white church with a steeple.

Silver Lies won the Willa Award for Historical Fiction and the Colorado Gold Award and was chosen as best mystery of the year by Publishers Weekly and The Chicago Tribune.  For more information about Ann Parker and her books see her website.

I was completely engrossed in this book with its multi-layered and intricate plot that kept me guessing all the way through.  I hope to read more of this series:
  1. Silver Lies (2003)
  2. Iron Ties (2006)
  3. Leaden Skies (2009)
  4. Mercury’s Rise (2011)

Reading challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2015Historical Fiction Reading ChallengeColor Coded Challenge

Blue Mercy by Orna Ross

This is a short post giving the synopsis of Blue Mercy by Orna Ross and my thoughts about the book.

Synopsis from Amazon:

A literary family drama, with a murder at its heart, full of emotional twists and surprises
~~~
Will you side with mother or daughter? When Mercy Mulcahy was 40 years old, she was accused of killing her elderly and tyrannical father. Now, at the end of her life, she has written a book about what really happened on that fateful night of Christmas Eve, 1989. The tragic and beautiful Mercy has devoted her life to protecting Star, especially from the father whose behavior so blighted her own life. Yet Star vehemently resists reading her manuscript. Why? What is Mercy hiding? Was her father’s death, as many believe, an assisted suicide? Or something even more sinister?

In this book, nothing is what it seems on the surface and everywhere there are emotional twists and surprises. (“Breathtaking, and I mean literally — actual gasps will happen” said one reader review).

Set in Ireland and California, Blue Mercy is a compelling novel that combines lyrical description with a page-turning style to create an enthralling tale of love, loss and the ever-present possibility of redemption.

My thoughts:

Blue Mercy has had a lot of 4 and 5 star reviews on Amazon and on Goodreads, so I am definitely in the minority in not being swept away by it. I enjoyed some of it, thought some parts were OK and didn’t like other parts, but I didn’t find it compelling or enthralling and I certainly did not gasp at the revelation that Mercy had been lying to her daughter and to the reader. It confirmed my suspicion that she was not a reliable narrator in writing about her life.

I thought the setting in Ireland was vivid and came to life. However, although there is a mystery about how Mercy’s father died and what had happened to Star’s father, the plot is definitely secondary to the various themes running through this book – such as family relationships, particularly but not solely the mother/daughter relationship, abuse and assisted dying. But there is also so much detail about feelings, personal development, women’s studies, childhood and teenage problems, eating disorders, and exploration of Mercy and Star’s psyches and perceptions, that the characters and plot were almost drowned in emotion, pain and angst.

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

Note: I’ve found this hard to write about without giving away some spoilers.

I’d listed The Old Curiosity Shop in my Classics Club Spin,  but was really hoping to get one of Thomas Hardy’s books. Without this push from the Classics Club this book would have stayed on my TBR list for a long time because all I knew about it was that it’s the book in which Little Nell suffers a melodramatic death and I feared it would be too sentimental for my liking. And much to my surprise I have finished it in time for the deadline for reading our Spin book this Friday, even though it’s such a long book.

Well, it was and it wasn’t. It’s not just a sentimental, melodramatic story. It’s also full of weird, grotesque and comic characters, a mix of everyday people and characters of fantasy. It has elements of folklore and myth, as Nell and her grandfather, go on an epic journey, fleeing from the terrifying dwarf, Daniel Quilp and travelling through a variety of scenes, meeting different groups of people on their journey. There are numerous allusions to the Bible, Shakespeare and popular songs of the day. There are long passages where Nell doesn’t feature and is hardly mentioned, so it’s by no means a totally sentimental tale.

Several of the characters stand out for me, Quilp is an obvious choice. He takes delight in inflicting pain and suffering on others. He’s scarcely human, grossly wicked, hideous in appearance, full of lust, ferocious, cunning, and malicious. A fiend who

… ate hard eggs, shell and all, devoured gigantic prawns with heads and tails  on, chewed tobacco and water-cresses at the same time and with extraordinary greediness, drank boiling tea without winking, bit his fork and spoon until they bent again, and in short performed so many horrifying and uncommon acts that the women were nearly frightened out of their wits, and began to doubt if he were really a human creature. (page 47)

Other characters who stood out are Dick Swiveller and the Marchioness. Dick at first appears as a profligate friend of Nell’s brother, Fred but takes on a larger role later in the book. Working in a law office for Mr Brass and his sister, Sally Brass, he befriends the small, half-starved girl who is a servant locked in the basement, calling her the Marchioness. He rescues her and also Kit, Nell’s friend, when he is wrongly accused of robbery.

There are many more I could mention, including the people Nell and her grandfather meet on their travels – wonderful scenes  of the travelling Punch and Judy show; Mrs Jarley’s wax-work figures, over a hundred of them that she takes around the countryside in a caravan; the gypsies who take advantage of Nell’s grandfather’s addiction to gambling; the poor schoolteacher who take in Nell and her grandfather; and the Bachelor who they meet at the end of their journey.

I also liked the description of the landscape as Nell leaves London, the change from town to countryside, then later through the industrial Midlands with its factories, furnaces and roaring steam-engines where people worked in terrible conditions. Nell and her grandfather spend a night in one of the furnaces, sleeping on a heap of ashes.

In a large and lofty building, supported by pillars of iron, with great black apertures in the upper walls, open to the external air; echoing to the roof with the beating of hammers and roar of furnaces, mingled with the hissing of red-hot metal plunged in water, and a hundred strange unearthly noises never heard elsewhere; in this gloomy place, moving like demons among the flame and smoke, dimly and fitfully seen, flushed and tormented by the burning fires, and wielding great weapons, a faulty blow from any one of which must have crushed some workman’s skull, a number of men laboured like giants. (pages 334-5)

Nell, herself, is a sweet, self-effacing and innocent character, who is left to look after her grandfather as he fails to overcome his gambling addiction. She goes into a decline and her slow death is, I suppose inevitable, although thankfully it is not described by Dickens. Child death is one of the themes of The Old Curiosity Shop as Nell’s death is not the only one.

The Old Curiosity Shop was written in 1840 – 1841 and serialised weekly in Master Humphrey’s Clock beginning on 4 April 1840 and ending on 6 February 1841. During this period the circulation of the periodical rose to a staggering figure of 100,000. It was Dickens’ fourth novel, influenced by the early death of his sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, in 1837, which had profoundly shocked him. His work on The Old Curiosity Shop, particularly as he came to writing the end, revived the anguish he had experienced on her death.

The Old Curiosity Shop
The Old Curiosity Shop

I read the Penguin Classics e-book which has the original illustrations by George Cattermole, Hablot K Browne (‘Phiz’), Daniel
Maclise and Samuel Williams.

TOCShop furnace
The furnace

Despite the sentimentality I did enjoy reading The Old Curiosity Shop and it has made me keen to read more of Dickens’ books.

As well as being my Classics Club Spin, this book also qualifies for the Mount To Be Read Challenge and the Victorian Bingo Challenge.

Little Black Lies by Sharon Bolton

You can tell from the title what to expect from this book – lies, black lies, but they’re not little lies, they are whopping great big lies. The story is narrated by three of the main characters, Catrin, Callum and Rachel, all unreliable narrators either self deceptive, delusional or manipulative. They are all damaged characters.

Three years before the story begins Catrin’s two sons died in an accident caused by her then best friend Rachel. She has never got over it; they have haunted her ever since and she has not spoken to Rachel since then, determined to take revenge as the third anniversary of their death approaches. A year after their deaths Fred Harper went missing and was never found, then another boy, Jimmy Brown disappeared. As the story begins yet another boy, Archie West is missing. The nightmare continues with the disappearance of Peter, Rachel’s third and youngest son.

Little Black Lies is set in the Falkland Islands in 1994, twelve years after the war and Sharon Bolton’s descriptions of the islands paint a vivid picture of the isolation, the close knit community and war scarred landscape.

But there are a few things about this book that mean whilst I enjoyed the descriptive writing, the sense of place and the opening section very much I didn’t really like it. I began reading it with high expectations as it has received much praise and I’ve enjoyed everything else by Sharon Bolton that I’ve read. And although I was dismayed when I found it was written in the present tense (which is not my favourite style) I thought it was very promising and read on eagerly.

But when I finished it I gave it 3 stars on Goodreads, rounded up from 2.5 (Goodreads doesn’t have half marks!). I wasn’t keen on the focus on missing/dead children which so many books seem to have had recently. And it was a combination of the present tense and the way the plot descended into more of a farce with several twists and turns, particularly as the book draws to an end, one after the other that I just didn’t think was credible. The final  twist at the end came out of the blue for me, although thinking back it shouldn’t have been such a surprise. But I felt a bit cheated. In fact I’m rather annoyed with myself as I’d totally forgotten FictionFan had reviewed this book and I’d thought then that it was one that didn’t appeal to me – at least I was right!

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

I really wanted to love H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, which  won the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, as well as the 2014 Costa Book of the Year but I found it difficult to read and draining, despite some richly descriptive narrative.  It’s really three  books in one – one about herself, her childhood and her intense grief at the sudden death of her father, one about training a goshawk and another about T H White and his book, The Goshawk in which he describes his own struggle to train a hawk.

When her father died she bought Mabel, a ten week old goshawk and became obsessed with training her. It is the training that made this book so difficult for me to read. I am not comfortable with keeping wild creatures in captivity and in my naivete I hadn’t realised just what training a hawk entailed. Even though Helen Macdonald tells her friend’s husband that it had not been a battle training Mabel because ‘she’s a freakishly calm hawk‘, it came across to me that it had been a battle of wills, as she kept Mabel indoors in a darkened room, in a hood, on a perch or restrained on a leash for much of the time. It was a physical battle too that evoked rage, violence and frustration.

I found it difficult too because it is so personal as she exposed just how bereft she was, how she suffered the loss of her father and became depressed almost to the state of madness:

It was about this time that a kind of madness drifted in. Looking back, I think I was never truly mad. More mad north-north-west. I could tell a hawk from a handsaw always but sometimes it was striking to me how similar they were. I knew I wasn’t mad mad because I’d seen people in the grip of psychosis before, and that was madness as obvious as the taste of blood in the mouth. The kind of madness I had was different. It was quiet, and very, very dangerous. It was a madness designed to keep me sane. My mind struggled to build across the gap, make a new and inhabitable world. (location 219)

This a book unlike any other that I’ve read, about wildness, grief and mourning, and obsession, which made it heavy reading for me.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1875 KB
  • Print Length: 322 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0802123414
  • Publisher: Vintage Digital (31 July 2014)
  • Source: I bought it

Dreamwalker: The Ballad of Sir Benfro Book 1

 

DreamwalkerI read  Dreamwalker: The Ballad of Sir Benfro by James Oswald on my Kindle.  It has since been published by Penguin as Dreamwalker by J D Oswald.

So far there are three books in the series and there will eventually be five books published by Penguin. See James Oswald’s website for more information.

Synopsis from Amazon UK:

In a small village, miles from the great cities of the Twin Kingdoms, a young boy called Errol tries to find his way in the world. He’s an outsider – he looks different from other children and has never known his father. No one, not even himself, has any knowledge of his true lineage.

Deep in the forest, Benfro, the young male dragon begins his training in the subtle arts. Like his mother, Morgwm the Green, he is destined to be a great Mage. No one could imagine that the future of all life in the Twin Kingdoms rests in the hands of these two unlikely heroes.

But it is a destiny that will change the lives of boy and dragon forever …

My view:

I enjoyed this book, inspired by Welsh folklore. It’s very readable, each time I picked it up I just wanted to carry on reading this magical tale of the young dragon, Benfro and the young boy, Errol, born on the same day. I was drawn into their fantasy world.

But I wasn’t prepared for the ending – when you get to the end of the book it is not the end – it’s only the end of the first instalment! The tension builds throughout the book as both Benfro and Errol approach their fourteenth birthdays, Benfro in the dragon community, learning their magical powers and Errol,growing up thinking his mother was the village healer and then taken from his home by Melyn, the Inquisitor to train to be one of the warrior priest. Then there is the wicked Princess Beaulah, who is keeping her father the king alive until she reaches her 21st birthday.

And as the tension built I was eager to find out how it would end, only to be faced with the words ‘To be continued in The Ballad of Sir Benfro -Volume Two‘. I was so frustrated, as it just came to a full stop after a catastrophic event, that I couldn’t really believe had happened – a real cliff-hanger! I wish I’d realised before so that I’d been prepared – it was a complete let-down. So, if you are going to read it be warned!

Dreamwalker is followed by The Rose Cord and The Golden Cage. J. D. Oswald is also the author of the Detective Inspector McLean series of crime novels under the name James Oswald. In his spare time James runs a 350-acre livestock farm in North East Fife, where he raises pedigree Highland Cattle and New Zealand Romney Sheep.

Read more about Dreamwalker on the Penguin website.

Reading ChallengesDreamwalker is the perfect choice for Once Upon a Time IX. As it’s been on my Kindle since 2012 it’s also perfect for the Mount To Be Read Challenge and as James Oswald lives in Scotland it fits into the Read Scotland Challenge too.

Stacking the Shelves

STSmall

Stacking The Shelves is all about sharing the books you are adding to your shelves. This means you can include ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ books (ie physical and ebooks) you’ve bought, books you’ve borrowed from friends or the library, review books, and gifts.

This is my first entry in Stacking the Shelves. These are last week’s new arrivals:

In the heart of the sea

First ‘real’ books. It was Mother’s Day last Sunday and my son bought me this book, In the Heart of the Sea: the Epic True Story that Inspired Moby Dick by Nathaniel Philbrick – wonderful!

From the back cover:

The sinking of the Nantucket whaleship Essex by an enraged spermwhale far out in the Pacific in November 1820 set in train one of the most dramatic sea stories of all time. Accounts of the unprecedented whale attack inspired Herman Melville’s mighty novel Moby Dick, but In the Heart of the Sea goes beyond these events to describe what happened when the twenty mixed-race crewmen took to three small boats and what, three months later, the whaleship Dauphin, cruising off the coast of South America, discovered when it spotted a tiny boat sailing erratically across an open ocean.

The other books in the photo above are library books:

  • Collins Artist’s Little Book of Inspiration by Hazel Soan – a lovely little book looking at the basics elements of a painting using watercolours, oils and acrylics, with demonstrations and projects to try. I like just looking at the paintings!
  • The Reckoning by Jane Casey, the second in her Maeve Kerrigan series. I reserved this because I’d enjoyed the first one, The Burning and wanted to read more. This one begins with the murders of two paedophiles.
  • Conan Doyle: the Man who Created Sherlock Holmes by Andrew Lycett. This book was on a display stand and even though it’s a huge, heavy book I fancied reading it. It was probably on display following the  recent TV drama Arthur and George, which I enjoyed. I read Julian Barnes’ book of the same name some years ago, which pre-dates this biography.

When Lovereading offered a review copy of Dacre’s War by Rosemary Goring I didn’t hesitate because I’d loved Rosemary Goring’s earlier novel, After Flodden.

Dacres War

Dacre’s War is set 10 years after the battle of Flodden in the Scottish and English borders, a story of ‘personal and political vengeance’ as Adam Crozier sets out to take revenge on Lord Thomas Dacre, who had ordered the death of his father. It’s due to be published on 14 May 2015.

Lastly, the latest ebook I’ve downloaded is today’s Kindle Daily Deal, Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga. A. N. Wilson ‘was absolutely mesmerized by this novel’ and thinks ‘that Aravind Adiga is already, with this, his second book, the most exciting novelist writing in English today.’ 

Last Man in Tower

Wreckage by Emily Bleeker

When I downloaded Wreckage by Emily Bleeker I made the fatal mistake of just seeing how it began and before I knew it I was hooked, and had abandoned (just for the time being) the two novels I was already happily reading. I didn’t want to put it down – I really enjoyed it.

It’s the story of Lillian Linden and Dave Hall, who were being interviewed following their rescue from a deserted island in the South Pacific where they had spent two years after their plane crashed into the sea. The thing is their interviews are full of lies – they are desperate to keep what really happened a secret from their families.

Genevieve Randall, the TV interviewer is convinced that they are lying and tries to get them to tell the real story – how they had survived and what had happened to the other people who were on the plane, Kent, the pilot, Theresa, the flight attendant and Margaret, Lillian’s mother-in-law.

The narrative is told from Lillian’s and Dave’s point of view and moves between the present and the past. The two time periods are clearly set out and each character has a distinct voice. It worked very well, the fact that I guessed one of the big secrets early on only increased my curiosity and anticipation of what was to come next, and I was taken by surprise by the twist at the end.

It would spoil the story to say any more about this book, except to say it’s well written, full of suspense, tension and drama as well as love, loss and longing.

Wreckage is Emily Bleeker’s first novel. She is working on her second book, Beyond and I will most certainly be looking out for it. For more information see her website.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1301 KB
  • Print Length: 305 pages
  • Publisher: Lake Union Publishing (1 Mar. 2015)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00NAJZDIM
  • Source: My choice for February’s Kindle First Pick

The Dead Secret by Wilkie Collins

I can imagine how intriguing Wilkie Collins’ novel The Dead Secret must have been when it was first serialised in weekly episodes in Household Words in 1857, every episode ending leaving the reader eager to know what happens next. It’s a sensation novel* (see my note below) , with many twists and turns, giving hints to the secret (which I did guess fairly early in the book) gradually and surely building up the suspense and with a final twist at the end (which I hadn’t forseen).  I’m reading Anthony Trollope’s Autobiography and this is what he had to say about his friend, Wilkie Collins:

 When I sit down to write a novel I do not all know, and I do not very much care, how it is to end. Wilkie Collins seems so to construct his that he not only, before writing, plans everything on, down to the minutest detail, from the beginning to the end; but then plots it all back again, to see that there is no piece of necessary dove-tailing, which does not dove-tail with absolutely accuracy. The construction is most minute and most wonderful.

And the plotting is like this in The Dead Secret – detailed and dove-tailed right from the powerful beginning at Porthgenna Tower in Cornwall in the 1820s, at the bedside of a dying woman, Mrs Treverton as she commands her maid, Sarah Leeson, to give her husband a letter confessing a great secret, to its end when all is revealed.

I think that to the modern reader the impact of this book is not the revelation of the secret but the manner of its style of delivery – the initial questions about the secret, what is in the letter, why has Sarah’s hair turned prematurely white, why she visits an an old grave set apart from others in the graveyard, why she talks to herself and why she disappears from Cornwall soon afterwards, having hidden the letter.

Fifteen years later, Rosamund, Mrs Treverton’s daughter returns to Porthgenna Tower to live in her old home. By an accident of circumstances, before Rosamund and her husband reach Cornwall, she gives birth a month earlier than expected and Sarah under an assumed name, is appointed to nurse Rosamund and the baby. Overcome by emotion Sarah cannot stop herself from warning Rosamund not to go into the Myrtle Room, which of course arouses Rosamund’s curiosity.

Trollope, however, says he ‘can never lose the taste of the construction’, feeling that Collins ‘books are ‘all plot’. I think this is a harsh judgement. In The Dead Secret, I think that on the whole the characters do come across as real people – I particularly like Rosamund and Sarah’s Uncle Joseph, both are sympathetically drawn – and there are other characters that add colour and interest. The settings and details of Victorian life are clearly described.  It also examines several social and moral issues of period, such as the role of women and respectability.

I don’t think The Dead Secret is in quite the same league as The Moonstone or The Woman in White, but it has all the elements of a good mystery story, drawing out the secret in tense anticipation of its revelation and making me as eager as Rosamund to know the secret and then almost as paranoid as Sarah that it should remain a secret!

*Sensation Novels*

I wrote about sensation novels,  in an earlier post and have reproduced the information here for ease of reference. It is a novel  with Gothic elements  – murder, mystery, horror and suspense – within a domestic setting. They have complicated plots, are set in modern times, and are reliant on coincidences, with plots hinging on murder, madness and bigamy. They exploited the fear that respectable Victorian families had of hidden, dark secrets and explored the woman’s role in the family. There is a pre-occupation with the law – wills, inheritance, divorce and women’s rights over property and child custody. They are emotional dramas about obsessive and disturbed mental states, with villains hiding behind respectable fronts, and bold assertive women, as well as passive, powerless and compliant women.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Challenge 2015, My Kind of Mystery Challenge, Victorian Bingo Challenge 2015 

Blue Heaven by C J Box

There are lots of things I like about reading e-books, but I’ve found that my Kindle has become a Black Hole – it sucks in books and once they are in there they may never see the light of day again. I don’t even know how many books are lost in there. It’s so easy to download books and just forget they are there. With print books they’re always around sitting on the shelves and even if they are in boxes they take up space and are visible. Not so on an e-reader, the books are invisible.

So it was with Blue Heaven by C J Box – it has sat in my Kindle for nearly three years an unread and indeed a forgotten book. And here is where my liking for reading challenges came into its own, because I was looking for a book with ‘blue’ in its title for Bev’s Color Coded Challenge and up popped Blue Heaven.

I loved it and will certainly look out for more books by C J Box.

The action takes place over four days in North Idaho one spring. It’s a story about two children, Annie and William who decide to go fishing without telling their mother, Monica, and witness a murder in the woods. One of the killers sees them and they run for their lives.

It’s set in a farming community which is changing as people move into the area – specifically retired police officers, about 200 hundred of them, which is where the book title comes from, as according to Fiona Pritzle, the mail lady and local gossip, ‘They call North Idaho ‘Blue Heaven at the LAPD ‘. So when Monica reports her children missing it’s natural for the ex-policemen to volunteer to search for them and as the local sheriff is new to the job, they soon take over the investigation.

Annie and William meanwhile have discovered that not everyone is who they seem to be and it’s not safe even to call home. Until they met Jess Rawlins, an old rancher, a lonely divorcee who is in financial difficulty and struggling to keep his ranch going.

This is really a straightforward story of kids on the run but just to complicate things a little there is a newcomer, Eduardo Villatoro, another retired police officer from California, who arrives in town trying to trace the money stolen from a Santa Anita racetrack several years earlier when a young guard was killed.

It all melds together in a fast paced chase to save Annie and William, the tension maintained until the end. There are several things that kept me gripped as I read Blue Heaven. It’s one of those books that I find myself thinking about when I’m not reading it and keen to get back to it. First of all it’s written in a style that appeals to me – straightforward storytelling, with good descriptions of locality and characters, secondly characters that are both likeable and downright nasty, but not caricatures, and finally the ending was what I hoped, and also dreaded it would be.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 731 KB
  • Print Length: 353 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0312365705
  • Publisher: Corvus (1 July 2010)
  • Source: I bought it

Challenges: Color Coded Challenge, Mount TBR Challenge and My Kind of Mystery Challenge.

Testament of a Witch by Douglas Watt

Testament of a Witch by Douglas Watt is the second book of his that I’ve read. The first one Death of a Chief I read 5 years ago! Both books are set in late 17th century Scotland (1686 and 1687) and feature a Gaelic speaking, Edinburgh lawyer John MacKenzie and his clerk Davie Scougall. I like the way Douglas Watt incorporates the historical background into the narrative without detracting from the story.

In Testament of a Witch MacKenzie investigates the death of Grissell Hay, Lady Lammersheugh accused of witchcraft in a village overwhelmed by superstition, resentment and puritanical religion. Then the same accusations are made against the Euphame, Grissell’s daughter.  I wasn’t too keen on the horrifying and explicit descriptions of how the witch hunter identified and dealt with women accused of being witches, which involved torture and sleep deprivation, but apart from that I enjoyed this book.

I liked the interaction between Mackenzie, a Highlander and Scougall, a Lowland Scot. Scougall is convinced of the reality of witchcraft, whereas Mackenzie has ‘grave doubts about the crime of witchcraft‘, believing ‘it is nothing more than superstition‘. The religious fervour and political unrest are clearly demonstrated in this book, setting the frenzied persecution of those suspected of witchcraft in context. Watts’ Historical Note on The Scottish Witch-hunt at the end of the book gives the background, when Scottish society was in a state of flux.

Change caused anxiety and fear, unleashing frenzies of witch-hunting . … It has been estimated that the Scottish witch-hunt was ten times more deadly than the English one in terms of executions per head of population. Probably more than a thousand men and women were executed for witchcraft in Scotland during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The witch-hunt could not have occurred without a widespread belief in magic, charming and divination, and the acceptance of Satan as a real presence in the life of the people.

Witch-hunting declined when the revolutionary zeal of the Scottish Reformation ran out of steam in the late seventeenth century. Scotland began to turn its back on persecution and look towards the more tolerant and commercial age of the Enlightenment.

Testament of a Witch is well-researched and although it gets off to a slow start and I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Death of a Chief, I was immersed into the fascinating and terifying world of the witch-hunt in 17th century Scotland as I was reading. It’s a book that qualifies both for the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge and this year’s R.I.P. Challenge, as well as the Historical Fiction Challenge and the My Kind of Mystery Challenge.

Douglas Watt is a Scottish historian, poet and novelist, who lives in Linlithgow. He has a PhD in Scottish History from Edinburgh University and is the author of The Price of Scotland, a history of Scotland’s Darien Disaster, which won the Hume Brown Senior Prize in Scottish History in 2008. 

Two R.I.P. IX Books

So far I’ve read five books that fit into the R.I.P. Challenge categories of Mystery, Suspense, Thriller, Dark Fantasy, Gothic, Horror, or Supernatural. As I’m behind with writing about these books here are just a few notes on two of them:

Wycliffe and the House of Fear by W J Burley. Like the other Wycliffe books this is set in Cornwall. Detective Superintendent Wycliffe is on holiday recuperating from an illness when he meets the intriguing Kemp family and visits Kellycoryk, their decaying ancestral home.  The Kemps’ behaviour is odd to say the least and when Roger Kemp’s second wife, Bridget disappears people remember  that his first wife had also disappeared in what had been assumed was a boating accident. Wycliffe is inevitably drawn into the investigation.

I have yet to read a Wycliffe book and be disappointed and this one is no exception. It’s a complex story with sinister undercurrents and good depiction of a dysfunctional family. It kept me guessing almost to the end. This fits into the ‘Mystery’ category.

The next one I read is the short story (just 27 pages), The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which is definitely a suspense story of a young woman slowly but surely losing her mind – or is it a case of a woman suffering from post-natal depression most cruelly treated by her doctor husband? Her husband believes she has just a ‘slight hysterical tendency‘ and prescribes rest and sleep, scoffing at what he considers are her fantasies.

The un-named woman has just had a baby, which she is unable to bear to be near her. She spends most of her time in an attic bedroom, with barred windows and a bed fixed to the floor. The walls are covered in a hideous yellow wallpaper which has been torn off in places. It’s not a beautiful yellow like buttercups but it makes her think of old, foul bad yellow things – and it smells.  The pattern is tortuous and she sees a woman trapped behind the wallpaper as though behind bars, crawling and shaking the pattern attempting to escape. Definitely a creepy and disturbing story!

It reminded me of Marghanita Laski’s The Victorian Chaise-Longue with a similar sense of claustrophobia and helplessness. But The Yellow Wallpaper is much more horrific and by the end I began to question just what was real and what was imagination – it’s psychologically scary!

These two are both books from my to-be-read piles.

The Three Graces by Jane Wallman-Girdlestone

I’ve read a couple of novels this year that deal with mental illness – The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, which I found a bit confusing and disjointed and The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing. My reaction to both books was that they are bleak and depressing, showing the breakdown of a personality and I struggled to read them. (See my thoughts on Doris Lessing’s book in this post.)

So, I was a bit hesitant about reading The Three Graces when I realised that it was a novel dealing with the subject of schizophrenia. I needn’t have been concerned as it is by no means a depressing novel. This is Jane Wallman-Girdlestone’s description of her book (taken from her website):

… Grace Hunter, the newly appointed Team Rector for the town, turns out to be nothing like people expect.  Nobody suspects that she has a guilty secret.  No one guesses that the local funeral director is the answer to the Rector’s prayers.  No one in their right mind would have thought that workaholic Grace was tormented by imaginary friends who dominated everything she did. 

My view:

Grace Hunter is trying to adjust to her new appointment as Team Rector, but her confusion grows as she begins to have hallucinations. It’s a remarkable book because although told in the third person at times I wasn’t sure that the people she sees were just in Grace’s head. I think it’s a very clever portrayal as the reader sees things through Grace’s eyes and mind whilst she is carrying on with everyday living and her job as Rector. Grace’s behaviour becomes reckless, at times divorced from reality. It clearly demonstrates how difficult/impossible it is for her to distinguish between what is real and what is not.

The Three Graces follows Grace’s life and to a lesser extent that of her family – husband Tom, Josh and Ros her step-children and her father-in-law, Charlie. They are all having to adjust to Tom and Grace’s marriage and the move to St Anthony’s, their third in five years. And they’re all feeling very unsettled. The dominant character in the novel is Grace; it all revolves around her and as her confusion grows it affects them all. It is an engrossing book, the writing is clear and concise, and the characters are clearly defined. It’s a well-structured novel, the tension and emotional atmosphere gradually rising and Grace’s feelings of despair and confusion and are all very evident. The book is certainly an enlightening read for me.

About the author (From Amazon):

Jane Wallman-Girdlestone was born and grew up in Tooting, South London. She began writing about her life experiences at eight. Jane taught briefly before working in theatre as a writer and director. She later worked as a Vicar and chaplain for some years before lecturing in Theology and Spirituality. Jane works with people who are on retreat offering creative and spiritual mentoring and as a counsellor.

Jane lives in the Highlands of Scotland in the UK, where she writes and paints. She is married and has three Newfoundland dogs and a cat.

The Three Graces is the second book in the Brayston series. Sausages and Trash is the first and the third, with the working title Sleight of Hand, will be published on Kindle in December. This will feature some of the characters from the first two books and I’ll be looking out for it.

NB:  The Three Graces is temporarily unavailable on Kindle.

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!

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

Knavesborough Stories by Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen

Recently Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen kindly made two of her short stories available to me (e-books) for review. They are both about the Gershwin family in Knavesborough, a fictional village in Yorkshire, namely Ding Dong Bell, the Kitten in the Well and Green Acres. I often find short stories lack the necessary depth to be convincing – either weak plots and/or characterisation, but these short stories are both convincing and satisfying. Maybe it helps that they are continuations of other stories, or in the case of Ding Dong Bell, the Kitten in the Well, a prequel.

Ding Dong Bell, the Kitten in the Well goes back in time to Rhapsody Gershwin’s childhood in the early 1990s. Rhapsody is the vicar’s daughter first featured in The Cosy Knave. In this short story Rhapsody and her sisters are worried about the disappearance of the black kitten they have called Black Pete. The last time they had seen him was when they had played in old Ursula Abbot’s garden and they wondered if he had he got locked in her cottage. Ursula had died but as she was nearly ninety it wasn’t entirely an unexpected death … but she had been in good health. Is Ursula’s death connected to Black Pete’s disappearance?Rhapsody helps to solve the mystery.

Green Acres* takes us to the latest in the Gershwin and Penrose Mysteries series. Green Acres, once a country mansion, has been converted into a home for the elderly. Rhapsody visits Rowan Dougal, a farmer who has broken his hip and is currently living at Green Acres. Lavinia Banbury staying in the room next to Rowan dies in her sleep. Nothing unusual in an old people’s home, but is her death really a natural one?

Green Acres* was originally published in the anthology The Red Shoes. This is a new and longer version.

I like these stories. They’re humorous crime fiction, with colourful characters all with quirky names. There’s no blood and gore and each story has an unexpected twist at the end. In other words, they are cosy crimes (if any crime could really be considered as ‘cosy’, that is).

Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen is Danish. After many years as a teacher she is now concentrating on a writing career, publishing in both Danish and English. As well as writing her cosy mysteries she has also written a full length psychological murder mystery novel, Anna Marklin’s Family Chronicles, which I thoroughly enjoyed too – see my post here.

St Bartholomew’s Man by Mary Delorme

I was intrigued when I was asked if I would like to read Mary Delorme’s book St Bartholomew’s Man, about Rahere, a man who was a court jester to Henry I and who was also instrumental in the foundation of St Bartholomew’s Hospital in 1123. I was intrigued because it seemed an odd combination, that a jester and the founder of St Bartholomew’s should be one and the same person. And I wondered how that had come about.

It is historical fiction but as Mary Delorme clarifies in her Author’s Note it is based on fact with this proviso:

Almost nine hundred years lie between Rahere and myself; enough to blur historical facts, and leave room for doubt. Rahere is often described as a man of lowly origins, and a jester – something I find difficult to accept, bearing his mind his outstanding achievements and experiences. I therefore began my novel assuming that he was more highly born; not of the highest, but still an educated man. (Loc 26)

It seems to me that she has thoroughly researched her material, and managed to incorporate it seamlessly into her book. St Bartholomew’s Man follows the life of Rahere, from his childhood growing up as an orphan in a monastery, where he was one of the singing children, and he helped the monks in their healing work.

It is a book that left me knowing a lot more about the late 11th and early 12th centuries. It tells of the lives of ordinary people, of the monastic life and above all of the dangers and turbulence of life, moving through the oppressive reign of the irreligious William II (William Rufus), the more settled and peaceful reign of Henry I, followed by the violent conflict that ensued with the reign of Stephen and Matilda. I liked the historical setting and the detail both about healing and building methods. The plot kept me interested to read on to find out whether Rahere succeeded, despite all the suffering he endured and the challenges he had to overcome, in fulfilling his vow to build a hospital to care for the poor in London. The characterisation is good and I felt all the main characters came over as real people, who grew and developed throughout the book.

I enjoyed reading this book, which made me want to find out more about Rahere and St Bartholomew’s. St Bartholomew’s Hospital website outlines the history of the Hospital and St Bartholomew the Great’s website gives some information about the founding of the Priory church and Prior Rahere. Rahere’s tomb is in the church:

Rahere's tomb
Rahere’s Tomb (Wikimedia Commons)

Then there is Rudyard Kipling’s poem Rahere, based on the legend that Rahere founded St Bartholomew’s Hospital after suffering a bout of depression and seeing a family of lepers in a London street. I also see that Rosemary Sutcliff’s children’s book The Witch’s Brat is set in the reign of Henry I and features Rahere – I’m hoping to read that one too.

My thanks to Jon Delorme for providing a copy of St Bartholomew’s Man for review, a book that entertained me and led me on to other sources of history and literature. I really want to know more about the 12th century. My knowledge is limited to schoolgirl history and Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth!

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

I hadn’t read any of Doris Lessing’s books before I read The Grass is Singing, although I’d looked at one or two whilst browsing the library shelves. I wasn’t sure I’d like her books and now I’ve read this, her first novel, I’m still not sure. ‘Like’ is not the right word! How can you ‘like’ the portrayal of the breakdown of a personality, a marriage, a community? The Grass is Singing is a powerful book. Set in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the 1940s, it’s a novel about failure and depression, disaster, racism, racial tension and prejudice, colonialism at its worst. It’s beautifully written, but so tragic.

Anger, violence, death, seemed natural to this vast, harsh country … (page 19)

It’s hard to write about without some spoilers! My immediate reaction to The Grass is Singing was that it is so bleak and depressing and I didn’t want to read any more of Doris Lessing’s books. It’s now nearly a week since I finished reading it and my reaction has changed as I’ve thought over what to write about it. There is so much in it to take in and whilst my reading is mostly for enjoyment with just a nod towards analysing what I’ve read I really think this book deserves more study than I’ve given it. So what follows just scratches the surface and doesn’t really do justice to the book. I think I may very well read more of Lessing’s books – this edition includes a selection of her other books – The Golden Notebook; The Good Terrorist; Love, Again; and The Fifth Child.

It begins with the newspaper report of the death of Mary Turner, the wife of Richard (Dick) Turner, at Ngesi. She was found on the verandah of their house and their houseboy had confessed to the crime. From there it goes back, recounting all the events that lead up to the murder. It’s deceptively simple story, brimming, overflowing with cruelty and suppressed emotion. What is so tragic about it is that Mary and Dick are unable to communicate with each other – neither understands what the other person is feeling. It is unremitting in portraying their poverty and their helplessness to improve their situation.When you add to this the racial prejudice, colonialism – the contempt that the white farmers had for the natives, and the disintegration of personality – Mary has a mental breakdown – it’s a very hard book to read.

One of its strengths is the atmospheric setting. There is no mistaking the location, the stifling heat adding to the tension, the towns with their ‘ugly scattered suburbs‘, ‘ugly little houses stuck anywhere over the veld, that had no relationship with the hard brown African soil and the arching blue sky’ (page 44), and the farm where Dick and Mary lived, over 100 miles from town, surrounded by trees and the bush, with its tiny rooms, red-brick floor, and its corrugated iron roof, rooms with no ceilings, stuffy and unbearably hot.

… the house was built on a low rise that swelled up in a great hollow several miles across, and ringed by kopjes that coiled blue and hazy and beautiful, a long way off in front, but close to the house at the back. It will be hot here, closed in as it is. (page 58)

What is also remarkable is Doris Lessing’s portrayal of Mary. At the beginning of the novel she is an independent woman, maybe a little different from women her own age, a little aloof and shy. But she hadn’t been married and when she reached thirty, vaguely feeling that maybe there was more to life, she overheard people talking about her, wondering why she wasn’t married and saying there was ‘something missing somewhere’. She was stunned and outraged. Dick seemed to be the answer, but he disliked the town, which she loved and where she felt safe. Marrying him, moving to his farm was the trigger that set off  her eventual inner disintegration. So, by the end of the book Mary has changed almost beyond recognition! Her reaction to the natives is also shocking, swinging from fear to violence and then passive acceptance of the presence of Moses, the houseboy, who kills her.

It’s a disturbing book about an ugly subject, racism; it’s passionate, and dramatic. I couldn’t like any of the characters, but they got under my skin as I read and I wanted it all to end differently – of course, it couldn’t.

The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay

When I saw that The Santa Klaus Murder was available for loan from the Kindle Lending Library I wondered if it was worth looking at. I’d never heard of Mavis Doriel Hay before, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, one of the British Library Crime Classics.

Mavis Doriel Hay (1894-1979) was a novelist of the golden age of British crime fiction. Her three detective novels were published in the 1930s and are now rare and highly collectable books. She was an expert on rural handicraft and wrote several books on the subject.

Summary from the British Library:

A classic country-house murder mystery, The Santa Klaus Murder begins with Aunt Mildred declaring that no good could come of the Melbury family Christmas gathering at their country residence Flaxmere. So when Sir Osmond Melbury, the family patriarch, is discovered—by a guest dressed as Santa Klaus—with a bullet in his head on Christmas Day, the festivities are plunged into chaos.

Nearly every member of the party stands to reap some sort of benefit from Sir Osmond’s death, but Santa Klaus, the one person who seems to have every opportunity to fire the shot, has no apparent motive. Various members of the family have their private suspicions about the identity of the murderer, but in the midst of mistrust, suspicion, and hatred, it emerges that there was not one Santa Klaus but two.

My view:

This was first published in 1936 and it is a classic locked room murder mystery. There are lots of suspects, especially as there were rumours that Sir Osmond was about to re-write his will. The story has several narrators, including – Sir Osmond’s daughter, Jennifer and her fiancé, Philip (Sir Osmond has withheld his blessing to their engagement), his daughter Hilda, a widow, Mildred, his sister, Grace, his young and vivacious secretary, and Colonel Halstock, the Chief Constable, investigating the crime. The suspects all seem to have alibis, but are they all telling the truth?

In short, it seems impossible to be sure of anyone’s exact movements during that half-hour.

No one admits seeing anyone enter the study after Oliver Witcombe left Sir Osmond there, until Witcombe returned and found him dead. (page 81)

It is a complicated plot and I enjoyed all the twists and turns. The opening chapters are rather detailed setting out the family background, but the characters all came to life as they arrived at Flaxmere.

There is a map showing the layout of the ground floor of Flaxmere, to help the reader and I kept referring to it as I read, together with the list of characters and their relationships.

Santa K Murder plan

To help you even more, if you haven’t worked out who did it there is a Postscript by Colonel Haverstock listing the questions and clues to identify the murderer. So don’t look at the end if you don’t want to know how and why Sir Osmond was murdered.

Hay’s other two murder mysteries Murder Underground and Death on the Cherwell are due to be published in June 2014 – I’ll be looking out for them.

The Sc-Fi Experience: The Midwich Cuckoos

Sci-Fi Experience

Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings is hosting the 2014 Sci-Fi Experience beginning on
December 1st, 2013 and ending on January 31st, 2014. Carl is inviting readers to:

a) Continue their love affair with science fiction
b) Return to science fiction after an absence, or
c) Experience for the first time just how exhilarating science fiction can be.

There are no set numbers of books to read, no pressure, you just get to read what you like, be it one book or twenty: it’s up to you.

I think I fall into the second category. I used to read a lot of science fiction many years ago but these days I only read one or two now and then. As it happens, now is one of those rare occasions as I’ve recently read The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, first published in 1957.

Book Description from Amazon

In the sleepy English village of Midwich, a mysterious silver object appears and all the inhabitants fall unconscious. A day later the object is gone and everyone awakens unharmed – except that all the women in the village are discovered to be pregnant.

The resultant children of Midwich do not belong to their parents: all are blonde, all are golden eyed. They grow up too fast and their minds exhibit frightening abilities that give them control over others and brings them into conflict with the villagers just as a chilling realisation dawns on the world outside . . .

The Midwich Cuckoos is the classic tale of aliens in our midst, exploring how we respond when confronted by those who are innately superior to us in every conceivable way.

My view:

The story is set in an ordinary village, with a village green and a white-railed pond, a church and vicarage, an inn, smithy, post office, village shop and sixty cottages and small houses, a village hall, and two large houses, Kyle Manor and The Grange. A very ordinary village where not much goes on, which makes what happens there even more extraordinary.

It’s a product of its time and is dated in the way it portrays women – for example, comments about the female mind being empty because of the dullness of the majority of female tasks and focusing on the shame of being an unmarried mother. Maybe there is too much philosophising and discussion about topics about collective-individualism, morality, the nature of God and evolution. But even so the level of tension and fear rose as the children grew and revealed their powers and not having seen the film version I had no idea how it would end.

Actually, I really enjoyed The Midwich Cuckoos more than I thought I would. It’s eerie and very chilling, a story of alien invasion and the apparent helplessness of humanity to put up any resistance.

In a Word: Murder: An Anthology

Maxine Clarke was one of my favourite book bloggers, writing as Petrona. She died last December and there is a blog Petrona Remembered which her friends in the crime fiction community have created in honour of both her memory and in an attempt to keep alive the kind of community spirit she engendered.

Margot Kinberg (another of my favourite book bloggers) has put together an anthology with all proceeds going to the Princess Alice Hospice:

In a Word: Murder


with contributions from: Martin Edwards (Author), Pamela Griffiths (Author), Paula K. Randall (Author), Jane Risdon (Author), Elizabeth S. Craig (Author), Sarah Ward (Author), Margot Kinberg (Editor) and Lesley Fletcher (Illustrator).

Read more about it at Margot’s blog.

Buy from:
Amazon.co.uk
Amazon.com

Waiting For Mr Right by Andrew Taylor

The full title of this collection of three short stories is Waiting For Mr Right & Other Sinister Stories and it is an ideal book to read for Carl’s R.I.P Challenge – reading books of a macabre and fantastical nature .

Andrew Taylor writes in his introduction to this collection that ‘short stories permit concentration, the ability to focus on a single idea,’ I like the good ones for just that reason, but more often than not when I read some short stories I’m left feeling ‘oh, so what’ – they can be trivial and unsatisfying. Not so with this collection, because these are very good stories. Taylor also writes:

Unfortunately, good short stories are also incredibly difficult to write. Each word counts for more than a word in a full-length novel; each word costs more to write. Short stories may be short but they make a author sweat blood.

He has succeeded in my opinion. These cleverly written stories work on two levels – they are works of fantasy that made me both amused and chilled; they present a different form of ‘reality’.

The first story, Waiting For Mr Right,  is set in the cemetery of Kensal Vale where a remarkably well-educated creature lives and is the narrator, telling the tale of Jack and Tracy. Jack is in hiding in the vault of the Makepiece family, which has a Bateson’s Belfry – a Victorian invention that enabled you to summon help if you’d been buried alive. The ending is both horrific and well, amusingly satisfying.

The second slightly less sinister story is perhaps not quite as good as the first one. It is Nibble-Nibble, but it is still an entertaining story about a little boy and his imaginary friend, John – or is he really a ghost? The little boy lives with his Aunt and Uncle. Then his Granny comes to stay and she doesn’t believe in ghosts, but ghosts are like people, or so John says – there are some you like and some you don’t. The little boy realises:

Normally grannies were meant to be nice and ghosts were meant to be scary. Why did it have to be the other way round for me? Why couldn’t I be like everyone else?

I think the final story is the best. It’s called Keeping My Head. It was written for an anthology celebrating the eightieth birthday of the late H R F Keating, a former president of the Detection Club.

The narrator is an old lady looking back over the events of her life – and her death. I can’t write much about it or I’ll be giving away too much. I’ll just say that her husband was having an affair and she decided to kill him, but it all went wrong. When she was fifteen a tinker told her fortune and warned her that although she was going to have a long life and would be known around the world she must always ‘beware of keeping her head‘. She was a heedless girl and soon forgot the tinker.

Broken Voices by Andrew Taylor

I like Andrew Taylor’s books, so when I saw this novella on Kindle I downloaded it anticipating a good read. Broken Voices is a ghost story set in an East Anglian cathedral city just before the First World War when two schoolboys are left at the cathedral school during the Christmas holidays. They lodge with Mr Ratcliffe, a semi-retired schoolmaster, a bachelor now in his seventies who lived with Mordred, his malevolent cat, in a grace-and-favour house granted to him by the Dean and chapter of the cathedral.

Andrew Taylor has drawn both the setting in the Fens and the atmosphere of the times well. The two boys, both upset at being left at school have little to occupy themselves with and are entertained by the ghost stories that Mr Ratcliffe tells them. There was an ancient tragedy connected with the cathedral bells, the tower and a Canon who had been commissioned to write an anthem to mark the occasion when the bells were recast. The cathedral is full of shifting shadows, and the bell tower is haunted by fragments of melody, which one of the boys can hear.

I didn’t find it that chilling, but the story does have a creepy atmosphere and a tension as the boys investigate the tower in the dead of night. It’s suitably ambiguous. It’s not spelled out and you can make your own decision – as one of the boys says at the beginning of the story, looking back forty years to the events he is relating:

Was there a ghost? Was there, in a manner of speaking, a murder?

Ask me these questions and I cannot answer a simple yes or no. I did not know at the time and now, more than forty years later, I am even less able to answer them.

I read this quickly. It may be just a bit predictable, but none the less I enjoyed it for what it is – a ghost story told with eloquence and sufficient pace to build up the suspense and keep me entertained to the end.

The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien

Many years ago I read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and loved the story, so much so that over the years I’ve re-read the books several times. Somehow I’ve ignored The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, maybe thinking that because it’s a children’s book it was too late for me to appreciate it. So even though I’ve had a copy for years it’s only now that I’ve got round to reading it, spurred on by seeing the film this year. (I read the enhanced version on Kindle.) How wrong I was not to have read it before – The Hobbit is a book that all ages can enjoy.

It’s an adventure story of a quest set in a fantasy world, so beautifully written that it seems completely believable. Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit, is recruited through Gandalf, the wizard, to accompany a party of thirteen dwarves, led by Thorin, on their quest to recover the dwarves’ treasure stolen by Smaug the dragon and regain possession of the Lonely Mountain. Along the way Bilbo grows in confidence and becomes a hero, meeting elves, outwitting trolls, fighting goblins, and above all gaining possession of the ring from Gollum.

The enhanced version has a foreword by Christopher Tolkien, complete with illustrations including manuscript pages and unused drawings, in which he describes how and why his father came to write The Hobbit: he would stand in front of the fire in his study and tell stories to Christopher (then aged between four and five years old) and his brothers. One story, this story, he said, was a long story about a small being with furry feet, which he thought he would call a “Hobbit”. This was in about 1929. The book was eventually published in 1937, written whilst Tolkien was engrossed in writing the myths and legends told in The Silmarillion. He hadn’t intended The Hobbit to be connected to the mythology, but his tale gradually became larger and more heroic as he wrote it.

The Hobbit sold very quickly and people asked for a sequel. At first Tolkien thought that writing more details about Gandalf and the Necromancer (Sauron) would be too dark and that many parents “may be afraid that certain parts of it would be terrifying for bedtime reading.” He also wrote:

Mr Baggins began as a comic tale among conventional and inconsistent Grimm’s fairy-tale dwarves, and got drawn into the edge of it – so that even Sauron the terrible peeped over the edge. And what more can hobbits do? They can be comic, but their comedy is suburban unless it is set against things more elemental. (location 339)

Three days after writing those words he wrote:

I have written the first chapter of a new story about Hobbits – “A long expected party.”

That was the first chapter of The Lord of the Rings. (location 339)

It also includes recently discovered audio recordings of J.R.R. Tolkien reading excerpts from The Hobbit, including the dwarves’ party song, the account of their capture by the three trolls, and Bilbo Baggins’s creepy encounter with Gollum.

The Hobbit is an excellent first book for Carl’s Once Upon a Time VII.

Death at Wentwater Court by Carola Dunn

I first came across Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple books on Geranium Cat‘s blog and on Read Warbler‘s blog a couple of years ago and have been meaning to read them ever since.

Death at Wentwater Court is the first in the series. It’s a quick and easy read, a mix of Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse, set in 1923 at the Earl of Wentwater’s country mansion, Wentwater Court. The Honourable Daisy Dalrymple, keen to be independent and earn her own living, is on her first writing assignment for Town and Country magazine, writing about country houses. It’s Christmas and the family and guests at Wentwater Court are enjoying the snow and in particular skating on the frozen lake.

But all is not well. One of the guests, Lord Stephen Astwick is found dead in the lake and it appears he has had a skating accident. However, Daisy’s photos suggest that the hole in the ice had not occurred naturally – there were signs that someone had cut a hole and not that the ice had simply weakened. Enter Detective Chief Inspector Alec Fletcher of Scotland Yard, who is also investigating a jewel robbery at Lord Flatford’s house nearby.

This is a typical country house murder mystery, with plenty of suspects. Daisy is a likeable, lively character and it looks as though her relationship with Alec could become more personal by the end of the book. An enjoyable book, but not one to overtax the brain. I hope it’s not too long before I read the next one in the series – The Winter Garden Mystery.

Note: Carola Dunn is a prolific author, with 21 books in the Daisy Dalrymple series alone – see Fantastic Fiction for her bibliography.

The Glass Guardian by Linda Gillard: a Book Review

The Glass Guardian, Linda Gillard’s latest book, kept me spellbound. It’s a ghost story and a love story, with a bit of a mystery thrown in too. Ruth Travers is in her early forties and has just had a difficult year with the deaths of her lover, father and most recently her beloved aunt, Janet. Janet had lived in a house on the Isle of Skye, Tigh-na-Linne, the house where she had been born, and where her mother had lived with her three brothers who had all been killed in the First World War; the house where Ruth spent many childhood summers and the house Janet left to her in her will. After Janet’s death Ruth goes to live in the house to grieve and decide what to do next.

Set in a beautiful location, Tigh-na-Linnne is in a sorry state:

 Rattling windows, water-stained ceilings and idiosyncratic plumbing paled into insignificance when one looked out of the big windows at the view over Loch Eishort, a sea loch, to the Black Cuillin mountains beyond and the distant islands of Canna and Rhum.

Ruth is in a very fragile state, having nightmares and is pleased to find that Tom, Janet’s gardener is her childhood friend, Tommy. But then she realises that everything in her childhood was not quite as she thought it was, or as she remembered it. As Ruth attempts to sort through her aunt’s belongings and decide whether to sell the house it becomes clear that there is more about her aunt and her family history than she ever knew before. And then she realises there is someone else in the house and there is a stained glass window behind a large wardrobe, which she never knew existed:

It’s a memorial window. There were three originally. One for each son who fell in the Great War. One of the windows was badly damaged in a storm and another got taken out when Janet had the conservatory built. But there’s one left. It’s behind that wardrobe.

From there on Ruth is unsure whether she is in her ‘Sane Mind’ or her ‘Insane Mind’, as she hears the wardrobe being dragged from its position in the dead of night.

I do like ghost stories and I had no trouble suspending my disbelief reading this book. The setting is so convincing, the characters so believable and even if I did see where the story was going to end that didn’t spoil it. This is a book that brought tears to my eyes and there aren’t many that do that! It deals so poignantly with death and the pain of loss, but it’s never sentimental and even though there are moments where you have to hold your breath, the supernatural element is not horrific.

N.B. I previously posted the opening paragraphs of this book.

Reading on Kindle

There are many advantages to reading on a Kindle – mainly because it’s easy to use:

  • because of instant purchase. I can see a book I’d like to read and have it within seconds. That can also be a disadvantage because it’s so easy to get yet more books, without considering whether I do really want them.
  • because of ease of handling and enlarging the the font size. This is a big plus!
  • because I can pop it in to a bag to take with me anywhere and have a book on hand ready to read. It was perfect for taking to the hospital and reading whilst waiting for radiography, etc.
  • because I can highlight text without spoiling the book and make notes without using a separate notebook. Another great feature.
  • because I can organise the books into different collections, or in any other order – A-Z, recent additions and so on.
No doubt there are other advantages too that haven’t come to my mind right now, because there is one major disadvantage and that is that
  • I can’t see the books in front of me as I can with physical books on actual bookshelves.This means that it’s so easy to forget what I’ve downloaded.
  • It doesn’t help me that I am disorganised. I’ve said that it’s an advantage to be able to categorise the books and put them into collections- but it would help if I actually did that on a consistent basis. I don’t!
  • And I’ve downloaded over 100 samples – I don’t know how many because after I reached 104 samples I stopped recording them. It’s the ease of adding samples that messes it all up – once I’ve downloaded them, I forget all about them!! I might as well not bother.
  • I was reading on it this morning and it kept freezing. That’s another downside –
  • that and having to stop reading to recharge the battery when you’re in an exciting part of a book and just want to know what happens next.
Still, I wouldn’t want to be without it.

Book Beginnings: The Glass Guardian

Linda Gillard’s latest book The Glass Guardian came out on Kindle on 1 June. It begins:

When I was a child I nearly drowned. In a pond. Nothing dramatic, apart from the fact that I nearly died. I fell into a big pool at my Aunt Janet’s house on the Isle of Skye.

I fell from a wooden bridge over the pool. At least I think I fell. I don’t remember falling. All I remember is drowning – almost drowning – and then I remember being very cold and so sick, I thought I must have vomited up my insides.

I’ve read and loved Linda’s previous books and I have high hopes that this one will be no exception. It’s described as a ‘supernatural love story‘. When Ruth prepares to put her Aunt’s old house up for sale, she’s astonished to find she’s not the only occupant. Worse, she suspects she might be falling in love again.

With a man who died almost a hundred years ago…

Edited 9 June with the following information from Linda:

TGG originally began with Ch 1. The Prologue was one of the last parts of the book to be written. I started writing TGG pre-Kindle, but when I got one myself & downloaded & read many samples without buying the whole book, I realised the importance of grabbing the reader on p.1. So I decided to insert a Prologue which I hoped would keep readers’ thumbs clicking.

Thanks, Linda – I think it’s a dramatic opening that certainly did grab my attention and makes me want to find out more.

For more Book Beginnings on Friday see Gilion’s blog Rose City Reader.

Musing Mondays: e-reading

This week’s musing asks…

What devices –if any– do you read books on? Do you find it enjoyable, or still somewhat bothersome? Or: If you only read the print books, why haven’t you chosen to read on any devices?

I’ve had a Kindle for about a year now and have read several books on it. I’ve got more used to it now and don’t find it a bothersome way to read books. It’s just another way of reading, although with some disadvantages, as I still like the experience of reading a print book. I like the feel of a book, being able to flip over the pages easily, going backwards and forwards in the text, and looking at the cover and any illustrations – in colour.

But, I’m finding it easier and easier to read on my Kindle and that’s because I can enlarge the font, which makes it much easier to read in bed. My Kindle has its own light which makes it even better for reading in bed, or in poor light anywhere. I’ve picked up several print books recently and struggled to read them, because of the very small font – they would be much easier to read on a Kindle! Another bonus is the weight. For example, this month I’ve read The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins on my Kindle – this in a print book is around 700+ pages, making it a heavy and awkward book to read, but a doddle on the Kindle, no heavier or fatter than the slimmest paperback!

I also like the speed you can get a book – instantly, no more waiting for it to arrive in the post. This, of course, can also be a disadvantage, encouraging me to buy more books, but so far, I’ve been very strict with myself and the majority of books I’ve acquired have been free – another plus!

Mini Reviews

I’ve been reading books recently and not writing anything about them. So, before they drop out of my mind completely here are a few notes:

Body Parts: Essays on Life Writing by Hermione Lee – this is a book about writing biography, which I’ve been reading on and off since I started it in 2007! I first wrote about my impressions in this post. It’s very good with an interesting selection, although some essays are a lot shorter than others. As with all books about writing it includes books and authors I haven’t read – and makes me want to read them – Eudora Welty for one. There are essays on T S Eliot, J M Coetzee, Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf, to name but a few.

My rating 4/5

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle – I bought this book several years ago, so it’s one off my to-be-read list. A fantasy/science fiction magical classic and 1963 Newbery Medal winning book, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s the story of Meg and Charles, searching for their father, a scientist, lost through a ‘wrinkle in time’, with wonderful characters such as Mrs  Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which to help them.

My rating 4.5/5

Maigret in Court by Georges Simenon. Maigret is two years from retirement and is wondering about this with foreboding. He does seem rather tired as he investigates the murder of a woman and small child. The book begins in court as Maigret gives evidence against Gaston Meurat, but he is beginning to have doubts that Meurat is the murderer and carries on investigating to save Meurat from execution. A complicated story, packed into 126 pages, that at times had me completely puzzled.

My rating 3/5

I read two books on Kindle:

Breakfast at the Hotel Deja Vu by Paul Torday. I rather liked this little e-book about a politician, a former MP exposed in the expenses scandal and staying in a hotel abroad, whilst he recovers from an illness and writes his memoirs. All is not as it seems, however, as each day he discovers he hasn’t actually written anything.And just who are the woman and young boy he sees each morning?

My rating 4/5

Crime in the Community by Cecilia Peartree – a free e-book from Amazon. I was disappointed with this one – too wordy, and convoluted. It’s about a small group of people who are supposed to be organising events to improve their community, but who actually don’t do anything except go to meetings. I found this part quite true to life for some committees I’ve known. But then it got tedious and eventually too far-fetched with a retired spy, a missing person and a mental breakdown.

My rating 2/5

The Cosy Knave by Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen

Last week I read The Cosy Knave: A Gershwin and Penrose Mystery by fellow blogger Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen. I always find her blog fresh and interesting and as I expected her book also has those same qualities. It is, as the title suggests, a ‘cosy’ mystery and it’s an easy, fun read. But it’s not as simple as it seems for I was completely baffled about who the killer could be until very near the end. I swayed towards one character and another until I realised that’s who did it. And then there was a final revelation that I hadn’t foreseen at all!

The book is set in the Yorkshire village of Knavesborough and begins with the return of Colonel Baldwin’s son, Mark. This causes quite a stir because Mark has bought Netherdale Manor. He had become a famous violinist and was now calling himself Sir Marco Bellini.

The FIFA World Cup has just started and a group of locals, including Sir Marco are gathered at Ye Cosy Knave, the village tearoom to watch the England/Germany match on Tuxford Wensleydale’s new flat screen TV.  During the match nosey-parker Rose Walnut-Whip was stabbed to death and no one heard or saw anything. It’s down to Constable Archibald Penrose to discover who killed her, helped by his fiancée, the enthusiastic vicar’s daughter, Rhapsody Gershwin. More crimes and another murder follow before Rhapsody and Archie uncover the murderer.

The Cosy Knave is peopled with whimsically-named characters, including the retired headmistress Miss Olivia Cadbury-Flake, the Kickinbottom family and Rhapsody’s sisters, Psalmonella and Harmonia. It’s the relationship between the characters that holds the key to the mystery. It’s not often that I enjoy humorous crime fiction, but with this book Dorte has gone a long way to convert me. It’s a most entertaining mystery.

The book is available from Smashwords in a variety of eBook formats and here’s a coupon code, provided by the author, which brings the price down to $2.99US: PN22N

Gently Does It by Alan Hunter: Book Review

When I saw that Gently Does It by Alan Hunter was available as an e-book I bought it because I’d enjoyed watching the TV version with Martin Shaw as Chief Inspector George Gently. First published in 1955, this is the first in the Chief Inspector Gently series, set in Norfolk (unlike the TV version, set in Northumbria).

Product Description from Amazon

The last thing you need when you’re on holiday is to become involved in a murder. For most people, that would easily qualify as the holiday from hell. For George Gently, it is a case of business as usual. The Chief Inspector’s quiet Easter break in Norchester is rudely interrupted when a local timber merchant is found dead. His son, with whom he had been seen arguing, immediately becomes the prime suspect, although Gently is far from convinced of his guilt. 

Norchester City Police gratefully accept Gently’s offer to help investigate the murder, but he soon clashes with Inspector Hansom, the officer in charge of the case. Hansom’s idea of conclusive evidence appals Gently almost as much as Gently’s thorough, detailed, methodical style of investigation exasperates Hansom, who considers the murder to be a straightforward affair.

Locking horns with the local law is a distraction Gently can do without when he’s on the trail of a killer.

My thoughts

I really enjoyed Gently Does It. I liked the portrayal of George Gently, a patient, thoughtful policeman, never hurried or distracted, quiet and persistent. He eats a lot of peppermint creams and doesn’t follow normal police procedures, as he admits:

I oughtn’t to tell you this – I oughtn’t even to tell myself. But I’m a very bad detective, and I’m always doing what they tell you not to in police college. (page 36)

but he does get results. He takes his time and despite disagreeing with Inspector Hansom, from the local police force, he gradually works his way through the various suspects, all of whom have secrets that he winkles out.

About the Author (copied from the e-book version)

Alan Hunter was born in Hoveton, Norfolk in 1922. He left school at the age of fourteen to work on his father’s farm, spending his spare time sailing on the Norfolk Broads and writing nature notes for the Eastern Evening News. He also wrote poetry, some of which was published while he was in the RAF during the Second World War. By 1950, he was running his own book shop in Norwich and in 1955, the first of what would become a series of forty-six George Gently novels was published. He died in 2005, aged eighty-two.

There are more Gently books that I’m aiming to read. I love the titles and they’re all available as e-books!

House of Silence by Linda Gillard: Book Review

I’ve read several of Linda Gillard’s books and House of Silence is definitely one of her best. It’s only available on Kindle but you can download it onto your computer to read if you don’t have a Kindle.

It’s one of those books that makes you want to carry on reading although you know you’ve lots of things you should be doing apart from reading, but you read on anyway.

It’s a novel about families and their secrets – in particular one family, the Donovans. When Gwen Rowland met Alfie Donovan she becomes interested in his family and persuades him to let her spend Christmas with them at the family home, Creake Hall. Gwen comes from a dysfunctional family – mother died of an overdose, aunt from drink and uncle from AIDS, whereas Alfie is the youngest and much-loved younger brother of four sisters and the model for his mother’s best selling children’s books about Tom Dickon Harry.

But  their family life  is not as Gwen imagined it. Although Gwen immediately finds a kindred spirit in Hattie, Alfie’s sister nearest to him in age, and Viv his oldest sister she soon finds there is a secret they’re all hiding. The only person who seems to be open with her is Tyler, the handsome Polish gardener. Alfie, himself seems different and his mother keeps mainly to her room, her mind drifting back to the past. Gwen is puzzled by an old photo of Alfie and then discovers scraps of letters that eventually lead her to the truth.

This is a book in which it is so easy to lose yourself, at once emotional and mysterious. I really enjoyed it – the characters are so distinctive and complex, and the setting in an old Elizabethan manor house is perfect. It raises issues of memory and identity, mental illness, loss and love.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1125 KB
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language English
  • ASIN: B004USSPN2
  • Source: I bought it

Crime Fiction Alphabet – Letter E

I’ve chosen Edgar Wallace’s The Clue of the Twisted Candle to illustrate the letter E in Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet. This is the first book by Edgar Wallace (1875 – 1932) that I have read. I downloaded it from Gutenberg. I’m not sure when it was first published – from different sources it appears to between 1916 and 1918. Edgar Wallace was a prolific writer and produced 175 novels, including The Four Just Men, screenplays, including the original draft of King Kong and many short stories.

The Clue of the Twisted Candle is not the one of the most puzzling murder mysteries I’ve read. It’s a bit rambling and disjointed. Basically it’s about John Lexman a writer of crime novels, his wife Grace, and Remington Kara a wealthy Greek/Albanian, a rich and handsome man who is also a notorious criminal. Grace fears Kara, whose marriage proposal she had rejected. T X Meredith, an Assistant Police Commissioner and friend of Lexman’s is investigating Kara, who in apparent fear of his life has made his bedroom into a virtual safe:

… its walls are burglar proof, floor and roof are reinforced concrete, there is one door which in addition to its ordinary lock is closed by a sort of steel latch which he lets fall when he retires for the night and which he opens himself personally in the morning. The window is unreachable, there are no communicating doors, and altogether the room is planned to stand a siege.

Lexman is found guilty of killing a moneylender, Vassalaro and imprisoned. He escapes from prison just after, unknown to him, he has been pardoned and T X is convinced that he and Grace have been abducted by Kara. In due course, Kara is found murdered inside this locked room and a small twisted Christmas candle is found inside in the middle of the room, along with the stub of an ordinary candle under the bed. The mystery is who murdered Kara and how did the murderer escape from the locked room? Why does Belinda Mary, Kara’s secretary disappear, and what is the explorer, George Gathercole’s  role? It’s not too difficult to work out who killed Kara. Everything is explained before a gathering of international police officials at the end of the book and the ingenious method of escaping from the locked room is revealed. All in all an entertaining book, but not one to tax the ‘little grey cells’ very much.

Ink in the Blood by Hilary Mantel

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 134 KB
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate (15 Dec 2010)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • ASIN: B004GJXQ0C
  • Source: I bought it

Product Description  from Amazon

During the summer after Hilary Mantel won the Man Booker Prize for Wolf Hall, she fell very ill. Just how ill is described in her extraordinary diary, Ink in the Blood. Originally published in the London Review of Books, it is one of the most incredible and haunting essays published in a very long time. In the diary she explores in forensic detail her loss of dignity, her determination, the concentration of the senses into an animalistic struggle to get through, and the attendant hallucinations she was plagued by.

My view

This is a short memoir which I read quickly and easily on my Kindle – it’s only available on Kindle! Quite ironic that the first ebook (ie inkless) I read should be called ‘Ink in the Blood’! I was really pleased to find this because I loved Wolf Hall and had tickets for Hilary Mantel’s talk at the Borders Book Festival at Melrose in the summer.  She had to cancel that because she wasn’t well – I didn’t know just how ill she was. Ink in the Blood reveals all – how she had surgery to remove an intestinal obstruction that ended up in a marathon operation, followed by intense pain, nightmares and hallucinations.

Illness she found knocks down our defences, revealing things we should never see, needing moment by moment concentration on breathing, on not being sick and being dependent on others for your well-being. She read Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill, which she thought was piffle, describing decorous illnesses such as fainting, fevers and headaches. She wonders what sort of wuss was Woolf as she obeyed her doctors when they forbade her to write, whereas writing was Hilary Mantel’s lifeline – it was the ink as she wrote in her diary that reassured her she was alive.

It’s amazing how much she has managed to pack into this short memoir and one that repays more than one reading.

Ermintrude

100 Years of Ermintrude: a Life in 33 Stanzas written by Tom Evans and designed by Jacquetta Trueman is the first e-book I’ve read. When I was asked to review it I thought it sounded interesting and different. It is, but I can’t say that I’d like to read many books like this. However, as it is very short it isn’t difficult.

The four-line stanzas are simple to follow – one to a page and each one illustrated. It’s narrative poetry on a small-scale . We get glimpses of the highs and lows of Ermintrude’s life as the years roll back almost to her conception. Each stanza covers a brief memory of different events – some happy and some sad. I did find myself wishing there was more information about each event, but then maybe that’s how it is when you get to be 100. This is a good example of how to compress a life into a few short verses and still retain an interesting story as the milestones in Trudi/Emintrude’s life come back to her as she reached her 100th birthday.

This little book made me pause for thought.