Mount TBR 2013 Final Checkpoint

Mount TBRTime for the final Mount TBR post.  Bev asks: 

1. Tell us how many miles you made it up your mountain (# of books read). If you’ve planted your flag on the peak, then tell us and celebrate (and wave!).  

I was aiming to reach Mount Ararat (48 books from my own bookshelves), but I didn’t get there. I read 34, just two books short of Mt Vancouver, which is 8 more TBRs than I read last year, so an improvement!

These are the books I read:

  1. The Case of the Curious Bride by Erle Stanley Gardner
  2. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
  3. Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie
  4. Small Kindnesses by Fiona Robyn
  5. The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien
  6. The Distant Hours by Kate Morton
  7. Daughters of Fire by Barbara Erskine
  8. Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo by Julia Stuart
  9. The Lewis Man by Peter May
  10. The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harris
  11. The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland
  12. Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter by Ruth Rendell
  13. Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens
  14. Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier
  15. Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh
  16. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
  17. The Case of the Howling Dog by Erle Stanley Gardner
  18. The Red Coffin by Sam Eastland
  19. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  20. Third Girl (Poirot) by Agatha Christie
  21. Agatha Christie at Home by Hilary Macaskill
  22. The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge
  23. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
  24. The Death Maze by Ariana Franklin
  25. Relics of the Dead by Ariana Franklin
  26. Not the End of the World by Christopher Brookmyre
  27. A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie
  28. Mrs Harris Goes to Moscow by Paul Gallico
  29. Julius by Daphne du Maurier
  30. N or M? by Agatha Christie
  31. St Mawr by D H Lawrence
  32. The Rendezvous and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier
  33. Stowaway to Mars by John Wyndham
  34. On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin

2. My Life According to Mount TBR: Using the titles of the books you read this year, please associate each statement with a book read on your journey up the Mountain. 

This was quite difficult – I couldn’t fit titles to all the questions from the books I read!

Are you male or female?:  Third Girl
Describe yourself: I’m one of The Daughters of Fire
Describe where you currently live:  On the Black Hill
If you could go anywhere where would you go?: to see Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo
Your favorite form of transportation: Stowaway to Mars (not really!!)
What’s the weather like?:  
Favorite time of day?: The Distant Hours
Your relationships: Cat among the Pigeons (no, not at all!!)
You fear:  The Owl Killers
What is the best advice you have to give?:  it’s Not the End of the World
If you could change your name, you would change it to: I wouldn’t want to change it to any of the names in the book titles
My soul’s present condition: 

Thanks, Bev for hosting and for your encouragement this year to climb mountains – I’m looking forward to climbing more mountains next year.

On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin

On The Black Hill (Vintage classics) by…

Synopsis (from the Vintage Books website):

On the Black Hill is an elegantly written tale of identical twin brothers who grow up on a farm in rural Wales and never leave home. They till the rough soil and sleep in the same bed, touched only occasionally by the advances of the 20th century. In depicting the lives of Benjamin and Lewis and their interactions with their small local community Chatwin comments movingly on the larger questions of human experience. 

The book was awarded the 1982 James Tait Black Memorial Prize and Whitbread First Novel of the Year Award.

I quoted the opening paragraphs in a Book Beginnings post back in 2011, when I first bought this book, but I think it’s worth repeating them here as they are typical of the style of the book:

For forty-two years, Lewis and Benjamin Jones slept side by side, in their parents’ bed, at their farm which was known as ‘The Vision’.

The bedstead, an oak four-poster, came from their mother’s home at Bryn-Draenog when she married in 1899. Its faded cretonne hangings, printed with a design of larkspur and roses shut out the mosquitoes of summer, and the draughts in winter. Calloused heels had worn holes in the linen sheets, and parts of the patchwork quilt had frayed. Under the goose-feather mattress, there was a second mattress, of horsehair, and this had sunk into two troughs, leaving a ridge between the sleepers. (page (9)

I love this book with its rich descriptions of both the landscape and the characters on the border between England and Wales. It follows the lives of identical twins, Lewis and Benjamin Jones on a farm, barely touched by the 20th century, a period of over 80 years. They are inseparable, Benjamin in particular suffering whenever they are apart. Their lives are hard, lonely, brutal at times, but full of love for their mother and the land they farm.

Most of all I love they way Chatwin brings the characters to life, not just Lewis and Benjamin, but all the other personalities, some eccentric, some comic and some tragic. His attention to detail is remarkable – at no time does it seem excessive, or intrusive but all the little minutiae of daily life are essential to the book. At the same time Chatwin highlights questions of love, religion, death and above all relationships. It is most definitely not a book to race through to find out what happens, although I did want to know, but one to savour – and one to re-read.

Stowaway to Mars by John Wyndham

Stowaway to Mars by John Wyndham writing as John Beynon, was first published in 1936 as Planet Plane (Newnes Limited, London), then serialised in the periodical The Passing Show as Stowaway to Mars, where it was described as:

an epic serial of the greatest exploration of all … by the man who writes half a century ahead of all the others.

It is set in 1981 when an international prize of £1,000,000 was being offered to the first man to complete an interplanetary journey. Dale Curtance, a British millionaire adventurer takes up the challenge and builds a rocket, the Gloria Mundi. With his crew of four men he blasts off from Salisbury Plain, his destination the planet Mars. Once free of the Earth’s atmosphere they discover a stowaway, a woman, Joan Shirning, the daughter of a professor! She has a strange tale to tell of a machine that her father found, which they believe came from Mars. Having landed on Mars they encounter what appears to be a planet occupied by ‘intelligent self-contained machines’. They claim Mars to be part of the British Commonwealth of Nations, a claim later disputed by the Russians when a second rocket lands.

My copy was published in 1972, with a foreword  stating how right John Beynon was in anticipating the international rivalry for the space race.

Stowaway

Stowaway to Mars is a novel of its time, the male crew members discuss what should be done with their stowaway – they can’t just chuck her overboard, as they would a man! They have a condescending attitude to women thinking that her ‘highest duty is motherhood’. She can be creative, concentrate on producing children rather than machines, because women :

simply have not got the imagination to see the machines as we see them, but they have the power to be jealous of them. … There is nothing good they can say for it. It’s noisy, it’s dirty, it’s ugly, it stinks: and anyway it’s only a jumble of metal bits – what can be really interesting in that? (page 98)

There is a lot of discussion about The Machine and its relationship with Humanity, what it means and what use is made of it. Man’s survival depends on his adaptability and must be willing to break with the past. The reason to venture into space is thought to be to make us wiser, to seek knowledge. Wyndham refers to earlier science fiction writers, such as J J Astor’s Journey in Other Worlds, written in 1894 where he states that ‘the future glory of the human race lies in the exploration of at least the Solar System.’ And Dale and his companions speculate about what they will find on Mars:

It’ll be amusing … to see which of the story-tellers was nearest the truth. Wells, with his jelly-like creatures, Weinbaum, with his queer birds, Burroughs, with his menageries of curiosities, or Stapleton, with his intelligent clouds? And of the theorists, too. Lowell, who started the canal irrigation notion, Lutyen, who said that the conditions are just, but only just, sufficient for life to exist at all. (page 67)

Even though this book is so obviously dated and contains quite lengthy sections theorising about machines, and the existence of life on other planets, I did enjoy it immensely. I really liked the descriptions of Mars, including its history and the reason for the construction of the canals, and the interplay between the characters, although some of them are only sketchily drawn and I couldn’t distinguish between them very easily.

The book ends on an intriguing note, referring to a subsequent tale. To say more would spoil the ending, at least it would have done for me. I don’t think Wyndham actually wrote a sequel, although there is a short story, Sleepers of Mars which deals with the Russians left  stranded on Mars.

John Wyndham’s (1903 – 1969) full name was John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris, and he wrote under several different pseudonyms – John Beynon, John Beynon Harris,  Wyndham Parkes, Lucas Parkes and Johnson Harris.

I’ve had this book for a few years, so it qualifies for Bev’s Mount TBR Challenge and it is the second book I’ve read for Carl’s Science Fiction Experience. It was a really good read and it has got me so interested in finding out more about the history of science fiction itself!

The Rendezvous and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier

When I finished reading The Rendezvous and Other Stories I had absolutely no hesitation in giving it 5 stars – I loved it. This is most unusual for me as generally I’m not too keen on short stories because they often leave me feeling dissatisfied, thinking they are lacking in substance or characterisation. Not so with this book, even though some of the endings were predictable and some of the stories are very short I think they all worked well!

Daphne du Maurier wrote some of these stories before she wrote her first novel (The Loving Spirit, 1931), when she under 23, and the rest between 1937 and 1947, when she was a well established writer. The earlier stories are shorter than the later ones as they were written for magazines

There are 14 stories:

  • No Motive ~ this begins with the suicide of an apparently happy woman expecting her first child. Her husband desperate to discover what could have caused her to take her own life and that of their unborn child employs a private detective to investigate. What he discovers is just so sad and tragic.
  • Panic ~ This is one of the shorter stories about a casual love affair that ends in death and the panic that ensued.
  • The Supreme Artist ~ Another shorter story of an aging actor trying to fight off the years.
  • Adieu Sagesse ~ I loved this one about a hen-pecked husband who plans to escape his tedious life and have an adventure.
  • Fairy Tale ~ A gambler and his long-suffering wife face destitution – unless he wins the lottery!
  • The Rendezvous ~ Now this story really caught my imagination. It’s the story of an ageing writer, who meets a fan of his books whilst on a trip to Switzerland to lecture about his work. As in some of Du Maurier’s books this is about an unequal relationship and the exploitation of one of the partners. It is vividly written, the sense of disappointment, the misunderstandings and subsequent let down is brilliant.
  • La Sainte-Vierge ~ A very short and predictable story about a naive young wife.
  • Leading Lady ~ a beautiful actress manipulates the men around her.
  • Escort ~ Another of the really good stories, full of atmosphere set in set in World War II on board a merchant ship as it sails across the North Sea. Just what is the ship that offers to escort it as a submarine threatens  – and who is its captain?
  • The Lover ~ More sexual manipulation, this time by a young man.
  • The Closing Door ~ A young man is told of his terminal illness and the devastating effect it will have on his life.
  • Indiscretion ~ An amusing tale of what happens when you say something without knowing the consequences – a bit signalled but still enjoyable.
  • Angels and Archangels ~ A bitter and cynical look at religion and hypocrisy.
  • Split Second ~ A brilliant story to finish the book – about a woman who leaves her highly organised house for a walk and finds everything has changed when she returns.

This is one of a set of Du Maurier’s books that I bought at least seven years ago. It was well worth the wait! I still have one more of the set to read – I’ll Never Be Young Again, her second novel.  And there are more that I don’t own to enjoy in the future too.

St Mawr by D H Lawrence

I liked  St Mawr even though there is so much philosophising and repetition (why use a word just once when you can repeat it three times) that the story is rather swamped. It’s a short novel (147 pages in my copy), first published in 1925, set in the English countryside and then in America, on a ranch in the Rocky Mountains.

This is the story of Mrs Witt, an American, Lou her daughter and Rico, her daughter’s artist husband and the influence of the stallion St Mawr on their lives. Initially desperately in love with each other Lou and Rico react badly on each other and being together makes them ill – they sap each other’s vitality.

As soon as Lou sees St Mawr she knows she just has to buy him:

She laid her hand on his side and gently stroked him. Then she stroked his shoulder, and then the hard, tense arch of his neck. And she was startled to feel the vivid heat of his life come through to her, through the lacquer of red-gold gloss. So slippery with vivid hot life.

In St Mawr Lou finds the vitality that is lacking in Rico. St Mawr represents to her freedom, and wildness as well as masculinity. He cannot be tamed. Bored with life Lou goes to America with her mother, Phoenix, her mother’s Mexican-Indian servant, St Mawr and his groom Lewis. There too she is bored; she leaves St Mawr and Lewis behind and travels to the Rocky Mountains of New Mexico with her mother and Phoenix. Here she comes across a tumbledown ranch, Las Chivas, that she immediately loves, aligning herself to the wild spirit that she says wants her. (The ranch is based on Lawrence’ s Lobo Ranch (later called Kiowa) at Questa, seventeen miles fro Taos, where Lawrence wrote the novel.)

This a richly written story, with beautiful descriptions of the landscape and the characters, full of symbolism and Lawrence’s views on male/female relationships, life and death, and the power of nature. I think I may need to re-read it to understand it better.

Julius by Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca was one of the first adult books that I remember reading and it has remained a favourite ever since I first read it. It led me on to read more of her books and in my teens and twenties I read and re-read Jamaica Inn, Frenchman’s Creek, The Scapegoat, Mary Anne and The King’s General. They were the type of books that I loved.

Later on I discovered that she had written many more books and I’ve gradually been reading them, but, with perhaps the exception of My Cousin Rachel, they have not had the same magic quality that had kept me enthralled in the past. So I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I began reading Julius, her third book written when she was twenty-six. It may lack that magic quality of her later books, but it is still compelling and disturbing reading, rich in detail and characterisation.

Julius (originally published in 1933 as The Progress of Julius) is the life story of a ruthless man, driven by his lust for power, and his dedication to getting ‘something for nothing’. It’s a chilling tale about a man whose love for his daughter brings about his ruin.

But that is jumping ahead in the story. It begins with his birth in Paris in 1860. Julius Levy grows up in a peasant family in a village on the banks of the Seine and caught up in the Franco-Prussian War, he escapes to Algeria, where he learns to swindle and manipulate. He moves on to London, all the time scheming and making money, getting richer, regardless of who he hurt, or indeed of whose death he caused as he built up his empire of cafés and married Rachel, the daughter of a diamond merchant.

It’s a dramatic story covering the years 1860 -1932, as the old century ended and the new one began:

Now came the close of the century and the death of the Queen followed by peace in South Africa, and these things also served as a milestone in the life of Julius Lévy. They marked the end of an era  showing him the path to greater prosperity than he had as yet achieved. It was the beginning of a new age – the age of progress and speed and efficiency that he had long foreseen and the dawn of mechanism in all things, electricity, motor-cars and soon flying-machines in the air. The spirit abroad was one he understood, the demon of restlessness unsatisfied stretching hungry fingers to the skies in a superhuman effort to conquer insatiable hunger, a spirit of rapacity and greed and excitement burning like a living flame. (page 195)

Julius is half-Jewish and the book veers on anti-Semitism, indeed in later years Daphne du Maurier considered excising those elements from the novel. But that would have meant the novel would have lacked depth as it is his Jewishness that lifts him from being a complete monster. As a mixed-up, lonely child he found in the temple that he was among his own people, and the music took hold of his heart, giving him peace. It is his tragedy that he lost that peace and struggled throughout the rest of his life trying to re-capture it.

His love for his daughter, Gabriel overwhelms him, but it is a possessive, suffocating love that leads him to extremes. His inability to love without the need to possess and control is shown early on in the book when forced to leave home and unable to take his cat he ties a stone around her neck and throws her in the Seine, rather than leave her to fend for herself or for someone else to take care of her. That made me shudder, but it is little compared to how he treated people.

I’ve read that Du Maurier based the character of Julius on that of her father, Gerald, that the possessiveness, the emotional demands and the sentiments Julius expresses were Gerald’s, and the words Gabriel speaks were her own thoughts. (Daphne du Maurier by Margaret Forster page 84)

At times melodramatic, this is a powerful novel, of a deprived, starving child who sold rats on the streets of Paris, and who dragged himself up from poverty and obscurity to become a man of  wealth and status and a cold-blooded sadist and murderer. I wrote about the beginning  of the book in an earlier post, describing how as a baby he was reaching for things beyond his grasp. The book ends as it began with Julius still reaching for the clouds:

He cried to them and they did not come. They passed away from him as though they had never been, indifferent and aloof, like wreaths of smoke they were carried away by the wind, born of nothing, dissolving into nothing, a momentary breath that vanished in the air. (page 308)

A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie

A Murder is Announced was first published in 1950. My copy is in a collection of four Miss Marple stories – A Miss Marple Quartet. I particularly like this cover, showing Joan Hickson as Miss Marple.

Synopsis from Amazon:

The villagers of Chipping Cleghorn, including Jane Marple, are agog with curiosity over an advertisement in the local gazette which reads: ‘A murder is announced and will take place on Friday October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 p.m.’

A childish practical joke? Or a hoax intended to scare poor Letitia Blacklock? Unable to resist the mysterious invitation, a crowd begins to gather at Little Paddocks at the appointed time when, without warning, the lights go out…

Of course it isn’t a practical joke and someone is murdered. But the mystery is to identify the victim – it’s not as straight forward as it first appears and there are plenty of red herrings. I vaguely remembered seeing the TV version (with Joan Hickson, perfect as Miss Marple) years ago and although I couldn’t remember who did it knew that I had to pay close attention to the detail of where people were sitting or standing in the room at the Little Paddocks when the lights went out. But even though I read it very carefully I was still baffled. It all hinges on family relationships and details of the characters’ identities which are so skilfully hidden that I was kept guessing until very near the end.

It’s not without flaws, some of the characters are a bit sketchy, and some of the novel borders on farce, with Miss Marple imitating a dead person’s voice whilst hiding in a broom cupboard and Mitzi, the highly strung and paranoid cook, a refugee from Germany, screaming like a siren and insisting that the police will take her away and torture her. Still, I wish her recipe for the chocolate cake ‘Delicious Death’ had been revealed.

What I really like about A Murder is Announced is the picture it paints of life in post-war Britain, showing how society was in the process of change. Miss Marple is her usual brilliant self, now seeming very old with ‘snow white hair and a pink crinkled face and very soft innocent blue eyes’, chattering and fluttering, but still as sharp and observant as ever. As she explains the world has changed since the war when everyone knew who everybody was. But now people come and settle in a village and all you know of them is what they say of themselves – you don’t know who they really are! And so, she compares them to the people she does know, people in her village of St Mary Mead, which helps to throw light on the mystery. It’s a layered mystery involving past illness, identities, and questions of inheritance.

Mount TBR Challenge: September Checkpoint

Mount TBRIt’s time to check in for Bev’s Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2013.

This is a very simple challenge – to read books from your own shelves.  All the books I own are ones I want to read so why is it so difficult to reduce my TBR mountain of books?I think it’s because of the temptation to read newly acquired books, those recently published and also older books that I come across either on the internet, or in the library or bookshops.

I suppose the only way not to keep adding to the TBR mountain is to stop going to the library, bookshops or read the internet – and I really don’t want to do that and I could miss out on some good books. So, the TBR piles never get smaller, even though I’ve been reading quite a lot this year – 26 so far, which is one more than I read in the whole of last year.

This quarter I’ve read 13 of my TBR books (linked to my posts on the books):

  1. Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier
  2. Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh
  3. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
  4. The Case of the Howling Dog by Erle Stanley Gardner
  5. The Red Coffin by Sam Eastland
  6. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  7. Third Girl (Poirot) by Agatha Christie
  8. Agatha Christie at Home by Hilary Macaskill
  9. The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge
  10. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
  11. The Death Maze by Ariana Franklin
  12. Relics of the Dead by Ariana Franklin
  13. Not the End of the World by Christopher Brookmyre

There are a couple of outstanding books in the ones I’ve read this quarter – To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Birthday Boys. 

Here are my answers to some of Bev’s questions:

1. Tell us how many miles you’ve made it up your mountain (# of books read).  If you’re really ambitious, you can do some intricate math and figure out how the number of books you’ve read correlates to actual miles up Pike’s Peak, Mt. Ararat, etc. 

This means in terms of mountains climbed (according to the Challenge criteria) that I’ve scaled Mont Blanc (24 books) and am now in the foothills of Mt Vancouver (36 books) – quite a way to go until my target of Mt Ararat (48 books).

2. Which book (read so far) has been on your TBR mountain the longest? Was it worth the wait? Or is it possible you should have tackled it back when you first put it on the pile? Or tossed it off the edge without reading it all?

Of the books read this quarter I think Falling Angels has been on the list the longest and it was well worth the wait. I always wonder why I haven’t read such a book earlier when I’ve enjoyed reading it so much, but really it doesn’t matter when I read it, so long as I do sometime!

Not the End of the World by Christopher Brookmyre

Not the End of the World

Not the End of the World by Christopher Brookmyre is a crime thriller set in Los Angeles at the end of the last century when people were in the grip of ‘1999 Syndrome’:

1999 Syndrome took plain old Things Are Getting Worse and changed it into Things Are Getting Worse Because The End Is Nigh. Crime used to be seen as instances of anti-social behaviour, sins against society. But now there was this resigned attitude at large that it was indicative of a greater, inexorable process of decay. Each crime now had to Mean Something, each new atrocity held up as the next marker on our descent into uncharted depths of stygia. (page 37)

Synopsis (from Christopher Brookmyre’s website):

The crew of an oceanic research vessel goes missing in the Pacific along with their mini-submarine.

An evangelical media star holds a rally next door to a convention in LA devoted to ‘nubile’ cinematic entertainment.

The cops know there’s going to be trouble and they are not disappointed. What they didn’t foresee was the presence in their state of a Glaswegian photographer with an indecipherable accent and a strong dislike of hypocrisy or of a terrorist who seems to have access to plutonium as well as Semtex.

My View

I became absorbed in this book as I read it. The plot is tightly constructed but the novel is interspersed with details of the main characters’ backgrounds and how they came to have their beliefs and personality traits, which slows down the action somewhat. However, this does flesh out the characters – the tension and drama slowly comes up to boiling point.

Larry Freeman of the LAPD is overseeing security at the Pacific Vista Hotel where the American Feature Film Market is being held. Just over the road the Evangelical Festival of Light is being held, including the Mission of Purity and the American Legion of Decency, led by the TV evangelist and ex-Presidential candidate Luther St John. St John has predicted that time is running out, the countdown has begun and a tidal wave is going to hit LA as God’s punishment for all the evil man has committed. St John’s wrath is also aimed at the ‘Whore of Babylon’, the porn actress Madeleine Witherson, whose father is a Republican Senator. Steff Kennedy is a Scottish photographer who falls in love with Maddy and gets mixed up in the whole scene and the result is chaos. Add into this mix diatribes against fundamental religion and this is the book in a nutshell.

I enjoyed it, but could have done with less detail about the characters’ backgrounds. Brookmyre’s style is snappy, cynical and wise-cracking, although in places I thought it was too wordy. I really liked the ancient history references to the Minoan eruption of Thera (Santorini), one of the largest volcanic eruptions of all time, a ‘devastating caldera eruption’, resulting in one of the largest seismic waves in history. I’d like to find out more about that!

Not the End of the World is Christopher Brookmyre’s third book. He is a Scottish novelist whose novels mix politics, social comment and action with a strong narrative. He has been referred to as a Tartan Noir author.

Relics of the Dead by Ariana Franklin

As soon as I’d finished reading The Death Maze I began Ariana Franklin’s third book in her Mistress of the Art of Death series, Relics of the Dead. Now this one was more to my liking and I enjoyed it very much.

The date is 1176, the setting is Glastonbury where the monks, after a fire had destroyed their monastery, discovered two skeletons buried in their graveyard. The question is  – are these the remains of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere? The problem is that Henry II needs evidence that they are not – that the legendary Arthur is indeed dead and not the ‘Once and Future King’, sleeping but waiting for the right time to lead the belligerent Welsh against him. Henry’s solution is to send Adelia Aguilar, the anatomist, to examine the bones for evidence, preferably to establish that no one can say that the bones are not that of Arthur and his queen. Given that this is the 12th century and the technology wasn’t there to prove the age and identity of the bones, Adelia assisted by Mansur, does a pretty good job in her investigation, despite attempts on her life.

Where Relics of the Dead stands out is in the depiction of Glastonbury, a mysterious, spiritual place, ‘one of the world’s sacred centres, a place where the division between man and God was thinner than anywhere else‘, a place where ‘there was a special magnetism that pulled people to worship a presence her long before Christ had set foot on his native heath.’ But Adelia, that down-to-earth, practical woman couldn’t feel it – for her all mysteries had to have an explanation. And she was determined to find it.

I’ve always liked the stories about King Arthur and the beliefs about his life and death, about Excalibur (which does feature in this book), about Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot,  and the Holy Grail (which do not). As well as a strong sense of place and atmosphere the characters are well-drawn and believable, even if some aspects of the plot required quite a hefty suspension of disbelief (which I managed easily enough).

Similarly I wasn’t bothered by Franklin’s use of modern language – in her Author’s Note, she had noted that she was sometimes criticised for making her characters use modern language and explained that ‘in 12th century England the common people spoke a form of English even less comprehensible than Chaucer’s in the 14th, the nobility spoke Norman French and the clergy Latin. Since people then sounded contemporary to each other, and since I hate the use of what I call ‘Gadzooks’ in historical novels to denote a past age, I insist on making them sound contemporary to us.’ If she had used such ‘gadzooks’ language I don’t think I’d have got very far into the book. And, it didn’t occur to me that her dialogue was anachronistic.

Franklin also used a lot of terms common to the age, such as ‘Mort d’Ancestor’, which she did explain within the text, so that that too did not bother me. In fact I liked it, I think it added to the atmosphere and I did enjoy looking up such terms for more information in a book I used to use a lot when I worked in a local archive repository – The Local Historian’s Encyclopedia by John Richardson, a fascinating book.

Ariana Franklin was the pseudonym of Diana Norman. She died in 2011. The last book in the series is The Assassin’s Prayer (published as Murderous Procession in the US), continuing Adelia’s story.

The Death Maze by Ariana Franklin

Normal service has been resumed – thankfully!! – I’m back to writing on this blog thanks to my son.

It seems quite a while since I finished reading Ariana Franklin’s The Death Maze (published as The Serpent’s Tale in the US), so these are just a few thoughts about the book.

Back in 2007 I’d really enjoyed her first book, Mistress of the Art of Death (which I wrote about here) and I was eager to read the next book about Adelia Aguilar, the 12th century anatomist employed by Henry II. But I was a bit put off by reports that The Death Maze was not as good, and other books grabbed my attention. Time passed, the third book came out – Relics of the Dead – and curiosity got the better of me so I bought both books, and eventually I got round to reading them – one after the other.

Yes, The Death Maze does not live up to the first book for me, but it’s still enjoyable. Rosamund Clifford, Henry II’s mistress has been poisoned, allegedly by Eleanor of Aquitane, Henry’s wife. Adelia is summoned to investigate her death. So, she sets off to Oxford, accompanied by her baby daughter, Allie, her servant Gyltha and the Saracen, Mansur, who has to pose as the doctor whilst Adelia pretends to be his assistant. Adelia was a graduate of the School of Medicine in Salerno, which, unlike England, allowed women to train as physicians; in England her forensic skills would have been considered witchcraft.

Rosamund had lived in a strange and sinister tower surrounded by a maze, constructed of walls of granite with blackthorn planted against them. So, the first problem Adelia had to solve was to find the way through the maze. She was then faced with the gruesome discovery of Rosamund’s dead body. The main thrust of the book centres on Eleanor’s moves to overthrow Henry II, and after Eleanor and her supporters capture Adelia, they take her to the nunnery at Godstow, where they wait snowbound for the right moment to launch their rebellion.

I think the book works well as historical fiction, even though as Ariana Franklin wrote in her Author’s Notes that there is only a brief reference to Rosamund Clifford in the historical records and so this is a fictional portrayal based on legend. And she inserted a fictional rebellion in England in a gap in the medieval records. It has whetted my appetite to know more about the period. But as crime fiction, I was rather disappointed because although I found the details of Rosamund’s death interesting, there was actually very little about Adelia’s investigation, very little for her to exercise her forsenic skills, which was one of the elements I’d enjoyed in Mistress of the Art of Death. 

This is my second book for Carl’s  R.I.P.VII challenge and it also slots into the Historical Fiction Challenge and the Mount TBR Challenge 2013.

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

I’ve been working my way through some of the books I’ve owned for ages – books I really wanted to read when I bought them, but have since just sat on the bookshelves unread for a variety of reasons. I’ve had The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett for five years! The main reason I haven’t read it before now is its length – it has 1,076 pages!

I can’t remember now why I bought this book, possibly it was because I like historical novels and I like historic buildings and The Pillars of the Earth is set in 12th century England during the time of the civil war between Stephen and Matilda/Maud (she’s known by both names – in this book she’s called Maud, but at school we were taught her name was Matilda). It’s also the story of the building of a cathedral.

I was interested in the details of building a cathedral, the architecture and building techniques, but it is in essence a family saga. However it is so long-winded and repetitive that I began to think Follett must have written it as maybe three books and then joined them together without editing them, or maybe he was reminding himself of what he’d written earlier – it took him years to complete the book.

It’s a bit like a soap opera – terrible things happen, the characters overcome them and recover only to be knocked down again by more terrible events –  violence, power struggles and rape and pillage abound. It’s a bit simplistic with a really bad, evil character and a saintly one, a beautiful woman and a witch-type and so on. But it kept me entertained without having to think too hard and I even found myself thinking about it when I wasn’t reading, wondering what could possibly happen next. Parts of the novel came to life more than others – one being near the end of the book with the story of Thomas á Becket’s murder in Canterbury Cathedral.

There is a sequel, World Without End, set in the same place and featuring descendants of the original characters nearly 200 years after the events in The Pillars of the Earth. I’m not rushing to read it!

There was a TV version – I didn’t see it!

Sunday Selection: Sisters

One of my aims this year is to reduce my massive backlog of unread books, hence the reason for joining the Mount TBR Reading Challenge.  I’m not doing too badly as so far I’ve read 19, but it’s still only a drop in the ocean. In June I wrote about some of the books I’ve owned for more than a year and today I’m looking at some more the books on the list – in some cases I’ve had these books for several years! It’s about time I read at least one of these sometime soon. I don’t like to plan too far ahead what I’m going to read but I like to have some titles in mind.

When I looked through my books I realised that I was picking out books about SISTERS:

First up for consideration are two non fiction books (the blurbs are extracts from Amazon/Goodreads):

The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: The tragedy of Mary, Katherine and Lady Jane Grey by Leanda de Lisle – this is the story of the tumultuous lives of Lady Jane Grey, known as the “Nine-Day Queen” and her sisters. I’ve had this book for 3 years. I was full of enthusiasm when I first bought it because I’d been reading novels about the Tudor period and thought I’d balance them with non fiction.

Lady Jane Grey is an iconic figure in English history. Misremembered as the ‘Nine Days Queen’, she has been mythologized as a child-woman destroyed on the altar of political expediency. Exploding the many myths of Lady Jane’s life and casting fresh light onto Elizabeth’s reign, acclaimed historian Leanda de Lisle brings the tumultuous world of the Grey sisters to life, at a time when a royal marriage could gain you a kingdom or cost you everything.

The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters by Charlotte Mosley – a selection of unpublished letters between the Mitford sisters – Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah. I’ve had this book for 5 years! I think two of the reasons I’ve not read it before now is that it is so long – over 800 pages and it’s in a very small font.

Carefree, revelatory and intimate, this selection of unpublished letters between the six legendary Mitford sisters, compiled by Diana Mitford’s daughter-in-law, is alive with wit, passion and heartbreak. The letters chronicle the social quirks and political upheavals of the twentieth century but also chart the stormy, enduring relationships between the uniquely gifted – and collectively notorious – Mitford sisters. 

And then some novels featuring sisters:

Bunner Sisters by Edith Wharton. I’ve not had this one for that long – just since last November. I down loaded it on my Kindle because it’s a free book and I thought maybe I should try another book by Edith Wharton, having failed to finish The House of Mirth. At the time I was not in the mood for it.

In the days when New York’s traffic moved at the pace of the drooping horse-car, when society applauded Christine Nilsson at the Academy of Music and basked in the sunsets of the Hudson River School on the walls of the National Academy of Design, an inconspicuous shop with a single show-window was intimately and favourably known to the feminine population of the quarter bordering on Stuyvesant Square. It was a very small shop, in a shabby basement, in a side-street already doomed to decline; its fame was so purely local that the customers on whom its existence depended were almost congenitally aware of the exact range of “goods” to be found at Bunner Sisters’.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffeneger – I’m not sure how long I’ve had this book, but it’s about three years. I’m not sure I’ll like it as I wasn’t keen on The Time Traveler’s Wife, but it was the time travelling aspect that irritated me with that book – the constant switching backwards and forwards in time. This one looks a bit different.

Set in and around Highgate Cemetery in London. Julia and Valentina are semi-normal American teenagers with an abnormally intense attachment to one another. The girls move to their aunt’s flat, which borders Highgate Cemetery in London and as the girls become embroiled in the fraying lives of their aunt’s neighbors, they also discover that much is still alive in Highgate, including–perhaps–their aunt, who can’t seem to leave her old apartment and life behind.

Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen, a book I’ve had for six years! I bought it because I’d enjoyed Blessings a satisfying but sad novel about an abandoned baby. 

A novel about two sisters, the true meaning of success, and the qualities in life that matter most. It’s an otherwise ordinary Monday when Meghan Fitzmaurice’s perfect life hits a wall. A household name as the host of Rise and Shine, the country’s highest-rated morning talk show, Meghan cuts to a commercial break–but not before she mutters two forbidden words into her open mike. 

In an instant, it’s the end of an era, not only for Meghan, who is unaccustomed to dealing with adversity, but also for her younger sister, Bridget, a social worker in the Bronx who has always lived in Meghan’s long shadow.

I’ve nearly finished reading Third Girl by Agatha Christie, also one of my to-be-read books, so now all I have to do is decide which book to read next. At the moment I’m leaning towards Her Fearful Symmetry, despite my misgivings about The Time Traveler’s Wife.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

 I often find with well-known books that all the world seems to love that they don’t live up to the hype, but To Kill a Mockingbird certainly does! It’s a wonderful book!

It was first published in 1960 and is set in the Deep South of  America in the 1930s. To Kill a Mockingbird is narrated by Scout (Jean Louise Finch) as she looks back as an adult to the Depression, the years when with her older brother, Jem, and their friend, Dill, she witnessed the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white girl. Scout’s father, Atticus, a lawyer defends Tom. It’s also the story of Boo Radley, their neighbour, a man who is never seen, who is said to only come out at night. The children are scared of him, people said he was ‘a malevolent phantom‘, but their curiosity makes them fascinated by the idea of getting him to come out.

It’s the story seen through the eyes of a child, but narrated by an adult. And it’s told as a series of episodes in the fictional town of Maycomb, revealing the hypocrisy, prejudice and social injustice of the times. I was immediately drawn into Scout’s world, seeing Maycomb and its inhabitants through her eyes.

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the court-house sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then; a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft tea-cakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum. (page 5)

Scout is a feisty character, always prepared to stand up for what she thinks is right, but Atticus, who also stands for justice and the moral and ethical ideal, has to reign her in sometimes. The book is full of strong characters and for me the outstanding scenes are those when Atticus sat reading outside the jail to stop the lynch mob attacking Tom and the trial itself at the court-house. It is all so vivid I believed I was right there with them.

There is so much to think about reading this book and I could write page after page! But here are a few quotations that particularly struck me:

‘First of all,’ he [Atticus] said, ‘if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view -‘

‘Sir?’

‘- until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’ (page 33)

and

 Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.

… Mockingbirds don’t do one thing, but make music for us to enjoy. they don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird. (pages 99 – 100)

and

‘People in their right minds never take pride in their talents,’ said Miss Maudie. (page 109)

and

People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for … (page 192)

On equality:

We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe – some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they’re born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cakes than others – some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of most men.

But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal – there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is the court. (page 226)

The sticking point, however, is that a court is no better than the people sitting on the jury …

July’s Books

July was a bumper reading month for me, as I finished reading 11 books and I’ve written about 8 of them (those in blue font link to my posts on the books). (And I’ve actually been able to spend some time gardening – when it hasn’t been too hot – or too wet!!!)

  1. Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier (from TBR books) Historical Fiction
  2. Searching for The Secret River by Kate Grenville (library book) Non Fiction
  3. The Drowning by Camilla Lackberg Crime Fiction
  4. Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh (from TBR books) Historical/Crime Fiction
  5. The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown
  6. The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett Historical/Crime Fiction
  7. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (from TBR books)
  8. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (from TBR books)
  9. The Red Coffin by Sam Eastland (from TBR books) Historical/Crime Fiction
  10. Agatha Christie: an English Mystery by Laura Thompson (library book) Non Fiction
  11. The Case of the Howling Dog by Erle Stanley Gardner (from TBR books) Crime Fiction

It’s been a good month as I’ve read 6 books from my huge pile of unread books, bringing my total of TBRs up to 20 for the year so far. I’m aiming to read as many of my own unread books as I can this year.

There are also 2 non fiction books – shown underlined – a total of 8 for the year so far. I always intend reading more non fiction but usually get sidetracked by the fiction. It generally takes me longer to read non fiction than fiction, so to read 2 in one month is good for me.

Four of the books I read are historical fiction and this means I’ve nearly reached my target of 15 books for the year.

I think the best book I’ve read this month has to be To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I loved it and hope to write more about it soon.

Crime fiction is currently making up about half of my reading and this month I’ve read 5. Each month Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise hosts a post linking to bloggers’ Crime Fiction Picks of the Month.  My Pick this month is The Red Coffin by Sam Eastland.

 Synopsis

It is 1939. The world stands on the brink of Armageddon. In the Soviet Union, years of revolution, fear and persecution have left the country unprepared to face the onslaught of Nazi Germany. For the coming battles, Stalin has placed his hopes on a 30-ton steel monster, known to its inventors as the T-34 tank, and, the ‘Red Coffin’ to those men who will soon be using it. But the design is not yet complete. And when Colonel Nagorski, the weapon’s secretive and eccentric architect, is found murdered, Stalin sends for Pekkala, his most trusted investigator. Stalin is convinced that a sinister group calling itself the White Guild, made up of former soldiers of the Tsar, intend to bring about a German invasion before the Red Coffin is ready. While Soviet engineers struggle to complete the design of the tank, Pekkala must track down the White Guild and expose their plans to propel Germany and Russia into conflict.

My view:

I haven’t read Sam Eastland’s first book, Eye of the Red Tsar, about Inspector Pekkala but I had no difficulty in understanding the background to the novel – it works well as a stand-alone. It’s a fast paced plot with flashbacks to Pekkala’s earlier life as an investigator for the Tsar. He is now an investigator for Stalin, charged with discovering the murderer of Colonel Nagorski. A nicely complicated plot, mixed in with historical facts, but as I know very little Russian history I can’t comment on its accuracy – some interesting information about the Tsarina and Rasputin, and Stalin doesn’t come across as the character I thought he was though. I enjoyed it and it kept me guessing until the end.

The Case of the Howling Dog by Erle Stanley Gardner

In January I read The Case of the Curious Bride also by Gardner and was rather disappointed because I found it far-fetched and at times was at a complete loss to understand what  Perry Mason was doing and why. I wondered whether to bother reading any more of the Perry Mason books. But I had enjoyed the TV series very much years ago and I still had one more of the books to read. So, the other day I began reading The Case of the Howling Dog and was relieved when I realised that it is much better than the Curious Bride case!

The Case of the Howling Dog

Synopsis from the back cover:

A dog howled by night in the quiet of Milpas Drive, and drove Arthur Cartright crazy with terror. He begged lawyer Perry Mason to bring a warrant against its owner, who, he said, had taught the dog to howl in order to drive him mad. According to superstition the howling meant a death in the neighbourhood, and Cartright appeared to believe it.

But Mason believed that a deeper fear than superstition was impelling his client and when both the dog and its owner were killed he took up the challenge and set himself to find the murderer.

My view:

The Case of the Howling Dog was first published in 1934, the fourth Perry Mason book and inevitably it is dated, but interesting because of that. I couldn’t really see my way through all the intricacies of this case but I thought it was very entertaining and well done, and I hadn’t foreseen the twist at the end. It’s fast-paced, with just the right balance of description and dialogue.

Mason is quickly established as a lawyer who doesn’t like routine:

I want excitement. I wan to work on matters of life and death, where minutes count. I want the bizarre and the unusual. (page 21)

So at first he’s not really interested in Cartright’s problem and thinks the man is crazy. But it soon becomes obvious that there is more to the case than making a will and taking out a warrant against the dog’s owner. In fact it becomes a complicated and complex murder mystery, and involves Mason getting dangerously close to breaking the law himself; as Paul Drake, the tall detective with drooping shoulders, warns him more than once he’s skating on thin ice. Mason insists that everything he does is within his rights and he is representing a client who is entitled to a fair trial. The Deputy Attorney, Claude Drumm thought the prosecution was certain of a verdict, but he hadn’t reckoned with Mason’s tactics.

Della Street was also doubtful that Perry was doing the right thing

‘Perry Mason,’ she said. ‘I worship you. You’ve got more brains and more ability than any other man I know. You’ve done things that have been simply marvellous, and now you’re doing something that is just plain, downright injustice. (pages 114-5)

But he insists what he is doing is his duty:

It’s the function of the lawyer for the defence to see the facts in favour of the defendant are presented to the jury in the strongest possible light. …

That’s my sworn duty. That’s all I’m supposed to do. (page 115)

And at the end that is just what he does do and after the trial Della views him through starry eyes!

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

When Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending first came out in 2011 I was initially interested in reading it, then was put off by a few critical reviews of it (something along the lines of it being about schoolboy-adolescent behaviour) and thought I’d look at it in the library before deciding whether or not to read it.  A year ago I saw it in a secondhand book shop (Barter Books) and bought it, after a quick glance told me it wasn’t just about adolescents, but I left it languishing on my bookshelves until the other day when I suddenly felt the urge to read it, I don’t know why! It seemed the right time.

Well, I really liked it (so much for reading reviews – it’s better to make up your own mind). It’s about memory and the effect of time, about ageing, about the nature of history and literature, about nostalgia and the question of responsibility.

It’s not a long book – just 150 pages – and I read it in two sittings. But its length belies its complexity and it’s actually quite a puzzle, because the narrator Tony knows that his memory is unreliable, that he can’t be sure of the actual events of his life. The best he can do is to be true to the impressions of those events that have remained with him. As he says at the beginning of the book:

… what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed. (page 3)

Later on he realises that:

… as the witnesses to your life diminish there is less corroboration, and therefore less certainty, as to what you are or have been. (page 59)

The first part of the book is about Tony and his friends at school. There were three of them initially, then Adrian joined their clique. All of them were pretentious, but Adrian was rather different – he pushed them ‘to believe in the application of thought to life, in the notion that principles should guide actions.‘ (page 9)

Gradually, after they finished school and went their various ways through university, their contact with each other became less frequent. Tony’s relationship with his girlfriend, Veronica ends but he is less than happy when Adrian and Veronica began to see each other. Soon after Tony learns that Adrian committed suicide. Years later, after Tony has retired, he is shocked when he receives a letter telling him that Veronica’s mother has left him £500 and Adrian’s diary. However, Veronica has possession of the diary and refuses to hand it over to Tony, stating that she was not ready to part with it yet. The rest of the book concerns Tony’s efforts to get the diary and to work out what actually happened to Adrian.

Of course, it is not straight- forward as Tony meets with the brick wall that his memory has put between him and Veronica. And for the reader this poses a problem, because we see events through Tony’s words, what he says he did and thought, and what he thought about other people and their actions. He wants to know why Adrian committed suicide, what happened between him and Veronica, and how come her mother had Adrian’s diary. His memories are suspect and he knows it and it does not help him (or the reader) that Veronica is so unhelpful and tells him he ‘just doesn’t get it … You never did and you never will‘.

Just what did happen is never stated explicitly and the reader is left to puzzle it out with just a few clues. I’m not sure I got the whole picture, but I enjoyed trying to unravel the mystery. In the end I think it illustrates the nature of memory rather than being concerned about what actually happened, because as Adrian says:

History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation. (page 17)

Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh

It was a treat to read Tamburlaine Must Die, a short book that I read in a day. I can’t remember when I last read a book in a day!

Sometimes novellas, such as this is with just 140 pages, can seem lacking, needing more depth of character or plot, leaving me feeling that it should really have been a full length novel, or an even shorter story. But Tamburlaine Must Die has an immediacy, that drew me in to the late Elizabethan world.

I wrote about the opening paragraph and synopsis on Tuesday and almost immediately after I began to read the book. Written in the first person and set in May 1593, it’s a tense, dramatic story of the last days of Christopher Marlowe, playwright, poet and spy. Accused of heresy and atheism, his death is a mystery, although conjecture and rumours abound. Louise Welsh has used several sources in writing this novella, but as she writes in the Author’s Note:

History has bequeathed us a tantalising framework of facts – the Elizabethans were as prolific as the Stasi when it came to official documents. Yet the facts can’t tell us the full tale and historian’s theories on Marlowe’s death are ultimately well informed, meticulously researched speculation.

We know that Marlowe dies in a house in Deptford. We know the date of his death and the three men present. We know the nature of the wound that killed him. Everything else is educated guesswork, or in this author’s case, a fiction.

Tamburlaine Must Die conveys the claustrophobic atmosphere of danger surrounding Marlowe; who can he trust, and who is behind the pseudonym of ‘Tamburlaine’, who posted a libellous handbill referencing Marlowe’s plays? He is very aware that death is just around the corner:

A dagger can find its way into a belly or a back before the victim spies it. I thought I felt the prickle of surveillance on my shoulders. And though I knew it was most likely the effect of my own blood running faster in my veins, I made my way from the crush of people, trying to keep note of who was around me, checking  if any faces lingered in the thinning crowd. (page 31)

As well as Marlowe, Louise Welsh throws in Dr Dee and Thomas Walsingham, Marlowe’s patron and refers to Walter Raleigh too. In such a brief book she has managed to convey the political and the seedy underworld of the Elizabethan period, the dishonesty and love of intrigue, the dangers of the plague and the threat of war. Has much changed since then, I wonder.

Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier

I really enjoyed reading Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier. It’s been sitting unread for several years on the to-be read shelves and I’ve been meaning to read it for ages after reading her earlier book, Girl with a Pearl Earring. I should have got round to it sooner.

It begins:

I woke this morning with a stranger in my bed. The head of blond hair beside me was decidedly not my husband’s. I did not know whether to be shocked or amused.

Well, I thought, here’s a novel way to begin the new century.

It is 1901, the day after Queen Victoria’s death and the ‘I’ in this opening is Kitty Coleman, one of several narrators in this novel set in Edwardian England.

Synopsis from Tracy Chevalier’s website:

Two families visit neighboring graves in a fashionable London cemetery. One is decorated with a sentimental angel, the other an elaborate urn. The Waterhouses revere the late Queen and cling to Victorian traditions; the Colemans look forward to a more modern society. To their mutual distaste, the families are inextricably linked when their daughters become friends behind the tombstones. And worse, befriend the gravedigger’s son.

As the girls grow up and the new century finds its feet, as cars replace horses and electricity outshines gas lighting, Britain emerges from the shadows of oppressive Victorian values to a golden Edwardian summer. It is then that the beautiful, frustrated Mrs Coleman makes a bid for greater personal freedom, with disastrous consequences, and the lives of the Colemans and the Waterhouses are changed forever.

A poignant tale of two families brought reluctantly together, Falling Angels is an intimate story of childhood friendships, sexual awakening and human frailty. Yet its epic sweep takes in the changing of a nation, the fight for women’s suffrage and the questioning of steadfast beliefs.

My view:

This book covers the years from 1901 – 1908 when the world was on the cusp of change just before the outbreak of the First World War, and I found myself wondering what my grandmothers, who would have been much the same age as Kitty Coleman and Gertrude Waterhouse, had thought about it all. What would they have thought about the suffragettes for example? I suspect it would have been similar to one of the characters, Jenny Whitby, the Colemans’ maid servant, as they too were domestic servants. Jenny is horrified when she listens to the suffragettes, whilst she served them with scones at Kitty Coleman’s ‘At Home’:

What I heard made me want to spit. They talked about helping women but it turns out they are choosy about who exactly gets the help. They ain’t fighting for my vote – only for women who own property or went to university. (pages 227 – 228)

Maybe my great aunt who never married and became a matron at a public school would have had more sympathy and agreed with the suffragettes that all women would not get the vote all at once and they had to start somewhere. These are the early years of the suffragette movement culminating in the book in June 1908 with the Women’s March in Hyde Park to demand Votes for Women.

The change between Victorian and Edwardian England was a gradual one, as attitudes to life and death were transformed and the middle-class Colemans and the Waterhouses reflect these changing attitudes with the Colemans looking forward to the modern era, whilst the Waterhouses still value the Victorian traditions. I was interested in the discussion about cremation/burial, with Kitty favouring cremation  in opposition to her mother-in-law as they visited the columbarium (a place for keeping cinerary remains, ie ashes) that had recently been opened at the cemetery. Their discussion with Mr Jackson, the superintendent of the cemetery was a theological one in which he ends the discussion of how God could reunite the body and soul if the body has been burnt by saying:

Surely there is no difference between the decomposed remains of a buried body and the ashes of a burned one. … I would simply say that God is capable of all things, and nothing we do with our remains will stop Him if he wishes to reunite our souls with our bodies. (pages 37 – 38)

I liked the multiple first person narrator structure of the book, giving an all round view of events and the characters’ views and thoughts. It was easy to distinguish between them all, the two daughters, Maude Coleman and Lavinia Waterhouse in particular are very well depicted. The setting too is so well described that I could imagine myself wandering round the cemetery with all its gothic symbology, and see the suffragettes’ march with their banners ‘Deeds not Words’ and hear their cries of ‘Votes for Women’.

It’s an easy to read book that still manages to contain depth both of characterisation and of themes – family relationships, in particular that of mother and daughter, attitudes towards death and mourning, the change in social codes, the perils of being an unmarried mother and the beginnings of the women’s movement. I was fascinated by it!

This page on Tracy Chevalier’s website lists her books – I have one more of hers – The Lady and the Unicorn, I mustn’t wait too long before I read it!

Although I didn’t read this to take part in any challenges I realise that it fits in with several I’ve signed up to do – the Mount TBR Challenge, the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and the What’s in a Name Challenge (in the category of book with the word ‘down’ or an equivalent in the title).

Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

I knew absolutely nothing about Barnaby Rudge: a Tale of the Riots of ‘Eighty before I started to read it. It’s not a book that I’ve seen dramatised. But whilst reading (very slowly) Claire Tomalin’s biography, Charles Dickens A Life I came across the following information. In May 1836, the year that Dickens, then 24, married Catherine Hogarth on 2 April, he agreed he would write a three volume novel, called Gabriel Vardon by November. But by November he was trying to withdraw from the agreement, due to his commitments in writing Pickwick and Sketches by  Boz. He began writing Gabriel Vardon in 1839 and it was only in February 1841 that its serialisation began. By then he had renamed it as Barnaby Rudge.

It’s a murder mystery as well as a historical novel, mainly concerning the events surrounding the Gordon Riots of 1780. The Riots began in protest to the Catholic Relief Act of 1778, which granted Roman Catholics exemption from taking the religious oath when joining the British Armed Forces and granted them a few liberties, previously denied to them. Led by Lord George Gordon the protests quickly turned violent, Parliament was invaded and Newgate prison was burned to the ground. I was rather surprised that Tomalin gave away most of the plot in describing Barnaby Rudge and gave away the identity of the murderer. I don’t intend to do the same as it spoilt the mystery for me.

Barnaby Rudge begins in 1775, five years before the riots as a group of customers in the Maypole Inn in the village of Chigwell, on the borders of Epping Forest and about 112 miles from London, recollect the murder of Reuben Haredale, the owner of The Warren, 22 years earlier to the day. His steward, a Mr Rudge was found months later, stabbed to death.The murderer had never been discovered. Reuben’s brother Geoffrey had lived at The Warren with his niece, Emma ever since.

From then on the book becomes much more complicated with many characters and sub-plots. There is the love story of Emma, a Catholic and Edward Chester, the son of Sir John Chester, a Protestant and opponent of her uncle, who is dead against their marriage. Also crossed in love are Joe Willet, whose father John Willet is the landlord of the Maypole and the captivating Dolly Varden whose father Gabriel Vardon is a locksmith. Barnaby Rudge is a simple young man, living with his mother. His pet raven, Grip goes everywhere with him. He’s a most amazing bird who can mimic voices and seems to have more wits about him than Barnaby. Grip is based on Dickens’s own ravens, one of whom was also called Grip. (Edgar Allen Poe was inspired by Dickens’s portrait to write his poem The Raven).

It’s a long book and in parts loses its impetus, but picks up when Dickens jumps five years forward into the Riots and I was taken aback by his vivid and dramatic descriptions of the violence and horror:

If Bedlam gates had been flung wide open, there would not have issued forth such maniacs as the frenzy of that night had made. … There were men who cast their lighted torches in the air, and suffered them to fall upon their hands and faces, blistering the skin with deep unseemly burns. There were men who rushed up to the fire, and paddled in it with their hands as if in water; and others who were restrained by force from plunging in, to gratify their deadly longing. On the skull of one drunken lad – not twenty, by his looks – who lay upon the ground with a bottle to his mouth, the lead from the roof came streaming down in a shower of liquid fire, white hot; melting his head like wax.

And then there is the attack on Newgate prison, the release of the prisoners and finally the scene as the mob set fire to the prison, scenes that rival the storming of the Bastille in A Tale of Two Cities.

By the end of the novel the murderer is revealed and all the plot strands are completed. There are a number of themes running through the novel – the relationship between fathers and sons, the position of authority, justice and the question of punishment for crime, and religious conflict. Dickens paints a picture of London, the dirt and poverty, the terrible condition of the roads, the perils of footpads and highwaymen which is in contrast to the countryside that still at that period surrounded London making it a cleaner, purer place to live in. There are detailed descriptions of the old inn, the Maypole and Vardon’s house and shop with their individual irregularities and strangeness.

And alongside all this are the characters, the restless innocent that is Barnaby, his over-protective and distracted mother, the melodramatic servant Miggs, the pure evil of Hugh, an idle servant at the Maypole who becomes one of the leaders of the riots, and Mr Dennis, the hangman to name but a few.

It wasn’t such a success as some of Dickens’s other novels but I think that that is not a fair reflection of its qualities. It’s almost a book of two parts and the dramatic second half, to my mind, more than makes up for the slow beginning which I had to read slowly and carefully. The portrayal of Barnaby Rudge is also masterly – a sympathetic but totally unsentimental characterisation of his ‘madness’ and his underlying common sense.

Barnaby Rudge was number 6 in the Classics Club Spin, which is the reason I’ve been reading it this June, rather than later.  I’ve had the book on my Kindle since March 2013, so not as long as some of my to-be-read books, so it also counts towards the Mount TBR Reading Challenge and the Historical Fiction Challenge too. There are numerous editions of Barnaby Rudge and each one gives different page numbers, depending, I suppose on the format and font size. The Kindle edition estimates its length at 845 pages, so it also counts towards the Tea and Books Challenge.

Mount TBR: June Checkpoint

Mount TBRIt’s time for the second quarterly check-in post for the Mount TBR Challenge 2013.  Bev asks:

1. Tell us how many miles you’ve made it up your mountain (# of books read).  If you’re really ambitious, you can do some intricate math and figure out how the number of books you’ve read correlates to actual miles up Pike’s Peak, Mt. Ararat, etc.
  • I’ve read just a quarter of my target – 12 books, reaching Pike’s Peak, so I’m not looking too good to reach Mount Ararat, that is, to read 48 books from my own bookshelves.

These are the books I’ve read:

  1. The Case of the Curious Bride by Erle Stanley Gardner
  2. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
  3. Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie
  4. Small Kindnesses by Fiona Robyn
  5. The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien
  6. The Distant Hours by Kate Morton
  7. Daughters of Fire by Barbara Erskine
  8. Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo by Julia Stuart
  9. The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harris
  10. The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland
  11. Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter by Ruth Rendell
  12. Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens
2.
What has been your most difficult read so far.  And why?  (Length?  Subject matter?  Difficult style?  Out of your comfort zone reading?)
  • That has to be The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. Although it began and ended well, I got bored several times in the middle. I felt there was something missing, the personal elements that brought the story to life for me were few and far between; I couldn’t feel involved and just wanted it to end. I persevered because it has had such good reviews and recommendations, but sadly it dragged for me.
Which book (read so far) has been on your TBR mountain the longest? Was it worth the wait? Or is it possible you should have tackled it back when you first put it on the pile? Or tossed it off the edge without reading it all?
  • This is Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter by Ruth Rendell, which I’ve had for about 20 years! It was well worth the wait and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter by Ruth Rendell

I’ve read only a few of Ruth Rendell’s Detective Chief Inspector Wexford books, although I must have watched all the TV dramatisations, with George Baker playing the part of Wexford. The books are set in Kingsmarkham, a fictional English town. The first of these, From Doon with Death, is also her first novel and was published in 1964. The full list of her books is on Fantastic Fiction.

Kissing the Gunner's Daughter

Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter (first published in 1992) is the fifteenth book in the series. It begins with the shooting of Sergeant Martin of Kingsmarkham CID whilst he was standing in a queue at the local bank. This seemed to trigger a chain of more murders as a few months later Wexford and Burden are faced with solving the brutal murders of author Davina Flory, her husband and daughter, shot dead at Tancred House. Only Daisy, her granddaughter survived, and wounded in the shoulder she had crawled to the phone to call for help. Her account of what happened is understandably confused. They had all been eating their dinner when they heard noises of someone upstairs. She only saw one of the intruders:

‘He came in …’ Her voice went dead, automatic machine tones. ‘Davina was still sitting there. She never got up, she just sat there but with her head turned towards the door. He shot her in the head, I think. He shot my mother. I don’t know what I did. It was so terrible, it was like nothing you could imagine, madness, horror, it wasn’t real, only it was – oh, I don’t know … I tried to get on to the floor. I heard the other one getting a car started outside. The one in there, the one with the gun, he shot me and I don’t know, I don’t remember … (page 70)

I had my suspicions quite early on in the book about the murder, but it was only intuition – I couldn’t put my finger on the reason for my thoughts. As I read on I thought I was wrong, as Ruth Rendell added more and more detail, and I was lost in all the red herrings she introduced. But then I began to suspect that I might have been right after all.This is an excellent book, both for the mystery element and for the characterisation, even the lesser characters stand out as real people.

I like Wexford, a detective with a happy marriage, although his relationship with his daughters, especially the younger daughter, Sheila is not so good. He hates her fiancé, author Augustine Casey, and this forms an interesting sub plot in which Rendell expresses her views on literary scene poseurs and post-modernist literature. Casey is an ‘extreme post-modernist‘ who ‘had already written at least one work of fiction without characters.‘ (page 97) Dora says that Casey is a very clever man, perhaps a genius and Wexford responds:

God help us if you’re going to call everyone who was shortlisted for the Booker prize a genius. (page 95)

I did not want to put this book down and just wish that it hadn’t sat unread on my bookshelves for about 20 years (including being hidden away for a few years due to being double shelved). But then I wouldn’t have had the pleasure of reading it now – I think it’s much better than some of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine’s later books.

A note on the title:

Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter’ is a phrase derived from a tradition in the Royal Navy, as Wexford explains:

It means being flogged. When they were going to flog a man in the Royal Navy they first tied him to a cannon on deck. Kissing the gunner’s daughter was therefore a dangerous enterprise. (page 340)

A dangerous enterprise indeed not only for the victims but also for the culprits, one of whom took enormous risks. (And my intuition proved partly right in the end.)

The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland

I can’t remember how I first came across Karen Maitland‘s books, but after I’d read Company of Liars I was hooked and bought The Owl Killers, a tale of witchcraft and pagan superstition set in 1321.

Karen Maitland has written four medieval thrillers, Company of Liars, The Owl Killers, The Gallows Curse, and Falcons of Fire and Ice, with The Vanishing Witch to be published later this year. She also writes joint medieval crime novels with a group of historical authors known as the Medieval Murderers.

I was going to summarise the novel but I think this description on Fantastic Fiction does it very well:

‘The Owl Killers’ is a novel of an embattled village and a group of courageous women who are set on a collision course – in an unforgettable storm of secrets, lust, and rage.

England, 1321. The tiny village of Ulewic teeters between survival and destruction, faith and doubt, God and demons. For shadowing the villagers’ lives are men cloaked in masks and secrecy, ruling with violence, intimidation, and terrifying fiery rites: the Owl Masters.

But another force is touching Ulewic – a newly formed community built and served only by women. Called a beguinage, it is a safe harbor of service and faith in defiance of the all-powerful Church.

Behind the walls of this sanctuary, women have gathered from all walks of life: a skilled physician, a towering former prostitute, a cook, a local convert. But life in Ulewic is growing more dangerous with each passing day. The women are the subject of rumors, envy, scorn, and fury, until the daughter of Ulewic’s most powerful man is cast out of her home and accepted into the beguinage – and battle lines are drawn.

Into this drama are swept innocents and conspirators: a parish priest trying to save himself from his own sins.a village teenager, pregnant and terrified,a woman once on the verge of sainthood, now cast out of the Church … With Ulewic ravaged by flood and disease, and with villagers driven by fear, a secret inside the beguinage will draw the desperate and the depraved – until masks are dropped, faith is tested – and every lie is exposed.’

My View:

The Owl KillersA long, historical novel well founded in its time and place; the historical detail is easily absorbed within the story, without feeling intrusive. There is a glossary of medieval terms and words at the end of the book which also helps to flesh out the detail. The story does indeed come alive through the descriptions of the physical and emotional lives of the characters in the small isolated community where the villagers have interbred – a sign of their belonging is their webbed fingers. Superstition, fear and belief in the supernatural rule their lives.

The novel is told through five narrators, which means there is a rounded picture of events, portraying the characters through their own eyes and also showing how they appear to others. I thought that was particularly well done, illustrating the tensions and misunderstandings between the characters.

The suspense builds as the tension increases, and I began to wonder if all the narrators were to be trusted. Fear of the ‘outsider’ is prevalent, the struggle for power dominates and the outsider is seen as the cause for events, such as floods, famine and disease, outside the villagers’ control. Religious and pagan beliefs clash, and the equality between men and women is challenged.

I found The Owl Killers a compelling story, at the same time down to earth and grounded in reality, yet mystical and mysterious and tragic as it explores the struggle to survive and the battleground between the old pagan beliefs and Christianity.

Sunday Selection

I finished reading The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland yesterday. It is a book that I’ve had for nearly three years and like many of the other unread books that I own, I wish I’d read it long before now – it’s good and I’ll be writing down my thoughts about it soon.

But it has got me thinking that I should spend more time reading books I’ve owned for more than a year and still haven’t got round to reading. I get sidetracked by new books and by library books and it’s got worse with the ease of having books to read on Kindle. There are all those free e-books and really cheap ones too, which may or may not be any good, and, click they’ve been downloaded.

So, as one of my aims this year is to reduce my massive backlog of unread books I’m going to concentrate on reading some of these for a while, all books I’ve owned a long time!

First up for consideration a selection of historical fiction (the blurbs are from Amazon):

  • The White Queen by Philippa Gregory – the TV dramatisation of this book begins tonight on BBC1, maybe I should read it in tandem, or leave it for later? It’s the story of Elizabeth Woodville, the White Queen. A woman who won the love of a king and ascended to royalty by virtue of her beauty, Elizabeth fought tenaciously for the success of her family — her daughter who would one day unite the warring dynasties, and her two sons whose eventual fate has confounded historians for centuries: the Princes in the Tower.
  • The Constant Princess – another Philippa Gregory book – Katherine of Aragon is born Catalina, the Spanish Infanta, to parents who are both rulers and warriors. Aged four, she is betrothed to Arthur, Prince of Wales, and is raised to be Queen of England. She is never in doubt that it is her destiny to rule that far-off, wet, cold land.
  • Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier – January 1901, the day after Queen Victoria’s death: two families visit neighbouring graves in a fashionable London cemetery. One is decorated with a sentimental angel, the other an elaborate urn. The Waterhouses revere the late Queen and cling to Victorian traditions; the Colemans look forward to a more modern society. To their mutual distaste, the families are inextricably linked when their daughters become friends behind the tombstones. And worse, befriend the gravedigger’s son.

Then, a selection of crime fiction:

  • The Remorseful Day by Colin Dexter – The murder of Yvonne Harrison had left Thames Valley CID baffled. A year after the dreadful crime they are still no nearer to making an arrest. But one man has yet to tackle the case – and it is just the sort of puzzle at which Chief Inspector Morse excels. The final Morse book, which I bought after watching the TV version. I’ve just checked and this was way back in 2000! I decided at the time that I would read it later – I never meant it to be 12 years later! 
  • I’ve borrowed several Christopher Brookmyre books from our son and have been meaning to read them before now. I see from a bookmark that I did start Not the End of the World a while back. The crew of an oceanic research vessel goes missing in the Pacific along with their mini-submarine. An evangelical media star holds a rally next door to a convention in LA devoted to ‘nubile’ cinematic entertainment. The cops know there’s going to be trouble and they are not disappointed. What they didn’t foresee was the presence in their state of a Glaswegian photographer with an indecipherable accent and a strong dislike of hypocrisy, or of a terrorist who seems to have access to plutonium as well as Semtex. In his unique style, Christopher Brookmyre throws a harsh light on the selfish preoccupations of 1990s society and at the same time provides uproarious entertainment.
  • Kissing the Gunner’s Daughter by Ruth Rendell. It’s inevitable, I suppose that when I double shelve books that I forget I’ve got them. If I thought 12 years was a long time to have owned and not read a book, then I was astonished when I checked this book to find that I’ve had it since 1992! No!! It’s another book I bought after watching the TV version, which was broadcast in November 1992. I did start it – there’s a bookmark at the start of Chapter 6. I see from Amazon that the book has been reprinted several times since I bought my copy. The blurb is: The fifteenth book to feature the classic crime-solving detective, Chief Inspector Wexford. The thirteenth of May is famously the unluckiest day of the year. Sergeant Caleb Martin of Kingsmarkham CID had no idea just how terminally unlucky it would prove, as he embarked upon his last day on earth… Ten months later, Wexford is confronted with a murder scene of horrific brutality. At first the bloodbath at Tancred House looks like the desperate work of a burglar panicked into murder. The sole survivor of the massacre, seventeen-year-old Daisy Flory, remembers the events imperfectly, and her confused account of the fatal night seems to confirm this theory. But more and more, Chief Inspector Wexford is convinced that the crime lies closer to home, and that it has sinister links to the murder of Sergeant Martin…

That’s enough to be going on with for the time being.

The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harris

ChocolatI read Chocolat by Joanne Harris in 2008 and loved it. Here’s an extract from my post at that time.

It’s the story about Vianne Rocher who arrives in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, a place that is” no more than a blip on the fast road between Toulouse and Bordeaux” on Shrove Tuesday. She takes over the old bakery and transforms it into La Celeste Praline Chocolaterie Artisanale – in other words the most enticing, the most delicious and sensuous Chocolaterie, selling not only all sorts and types of chocolate treats but delicious chocolate drinks. Together with Anouk her daughter and Anouk’s imaginary friend Pantoufle the rabbit, she also transforms everyone’s life along the way.

It’s not just a story about a chocolaterie – it’s about fear of the outsider, prejudice against “these people” – immigrants, vagrants, and gypsies; bigotry; fear of death, old age and illness; and fear that the Church will lose its purity and that the community will be corrupted by liberal and heretic beliefs. It’s also about how so many lives intersect and interact and above all about the importance of love and understanding in everyone’s life.

So, I had high expectations about the next two books about Vianne Rocher – The Lollipop Shoes (in the US this is published as The Girl With No Shadow) and Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé (in the US – Peaches for Father Francis). Maybe my expectations were too high because I was disappointed – neither book is as good, or as enchanting as Chocolat.

The Lollipop Shoes continues Vianne’s story four years later in Paris with Anouk and a second daughter Rosette. Blown there by the wind, Vianne now goes by the name of Yanne Charbonneau and Anouk, now eleven years old, is known as Annie. Rosette who is nearly four years old has an imaginary friend, a monkey called Bam. Yanne is now trying to live a ‘normal’ life, without using magic, trying to fit in with the people around them. However, her efforts are disrupted by the arrival of Zozie de l’Alba, the young lady with the shiny red shoes – the ‘lollipop’ shoes, Annie calls them. Zozie has no scruples and doesn’t hesitate to practise her own kind of magic, bewitching Annie with her spells and the power of her mind. Zozie’s magic though, is dark magic, evil and dangerous. She’s a stealer of lives and plans to take Vianne’s identity and make Annie her own.

As in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, Yanne is living above a chocolaterie. This one in Montmarre is owned by Thierry le Tresset, ‘fifty-one; divorced, one son, a churchgoer, a man of rock’. He wants to marry Yanne, but she isn’t sure. Annie is having problems at school, fitting in with the other children and Rosette is a child living very much in her own world, she hardly speaks and communicates by signs. Is Bam just an imaginary friend or is there more to him?

This is really a story about good versus evil and where Chocolat was about the power of love, The Lollipop Shoes is about the strength and destructive power of evil. But there is something missing, there is no sparkle; it’s flat. The story is narrated by Annie, Zozie and Yanne and sometimes I found it difficult to decide which character was the narrator, and had to check the little symbol at the beginning of each chapter. Maybe it’s just me, because other people have really enjoyed this book – there are lots of 4 and 5 stars on both Goodreads and Amazon.

This book qualifies for two challenges – Mount To-Be-Read 2013 and Once Upon a Time VII (Fantasy).

Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo by Julia Stuart

It’s been a while (2010) since I bought Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo and I was pleased when I finally got round to reading it to find that I enjoyed this quirky book, at times comical and at times poignant. It’s a mix of historical facts and odd characters, set in the present day at the Tower of London, but with a strangely old-fashioned feel to it. It’s the story of Beefeater Balthazar Jones and his wife Hebe, who live in the Salt Tower. Hebe works at London Underground’s Lost Property Office, full of weird and wonderful things.

It begins:

Standing on the battlements in his pyjamas, Balthazar Jones looked out across the Thames where Henry III’s polar bear had once fished for salmon while tied to a rope. The Beefeater failed to notice the cold that pierced his dressing gown with deadly precision, or the wretched damp that crept round his ankles. Placing his frozen hands on the ancient parapet, he tilted his head back, and inhaled the night. There it was again.

The undeniable aroma had fluttered past his capacious nostrils several hours earlier as he lay sleeping in the Tower of London, his home for the last eight years.

The Queen has decided that all the animals that have been given to her as gifts are to be moved from London Zoo to the Tower of London. This wasn’t a new idea as the ‘man from the palace’ explained to Balthazar Jones that animals had been kept at the Tower from the 13th century until the 1830s and the menagerie had been an immensely popular tourist attraction. The Queen is anxious not to offend the foreign rulers who have sent her the exotic animals and Balthazar, a collector of rare raindrops and the owner of a very ancient tortoise, is charged with taking care of them in the new royal menagerie at the Tower.

The supporting characters include the Reverend Septimus Drew, who writes erotica under the pen name Vivienne Ventress – he is in love, although he can’t bring himself to tell her, with Ruby Dore, the landlady of the Tower tavern, the Rack and Ruin, whose canary refuses to sing. There are the other Beefeaters, the Chief Yeoman Warder and the Ravenmaster who hates the intrusion of the Queen’s animals, which include an Etruscan shrew, a Komodo dragon, howler monkeys and a King of Saxony bird of paradise.

It’s not all eccentric characters and bizarre situations, there’s love and sorrow intermingled. Balthazar and Hebe had a son, Milo who died young and they are both still mourning his death. Balthazar, though is tormented by a terrible secret, which he can’t reveal to Hebe. Since Milo’s death they have drifted apart and Balthazar is devastated when Hebe leaves him. Will they get back together?  What is his secret and will he tell Hebe?

By the end of this book I was thoroughly absorbed into the world of the Tower of London, with all the irritations of living within circular walls, and the Lost Property Office of London’s Underground, where strange things were left such as a magician’s box used to saw glamorous assistants in two and a wooden box containing the remains of Clementine Perkins.  And, I wonder, do all the Beefeaters really have a ‘ruthless specimen of fungus that flourished on the back of their knees‘ as a result of the rain and ‘the damp from their abominable lodgings.‘?

Daughters of Fire by Barbara Erskine

Daughters of Fire is historical time-slip fiction switching between the present day and the first century CE Britannia, a mix of historical fiction, fantasy and romance.  It was with relief that I finished reading it – relief, because although the story of Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes tribe is fascinating and that of historian Viv Lloyd Rees is initially interesting, the book is too long, and too wordy.

Daughters of Fire intermingles two stories, that of  Viv and Cartimandua. Viv has published a book on Cartimandua, a book using alternative as well as traditional historical sources – ie using legends, her dreams and visions as well as the writings of Roman historians. She has ‘borrowed’ an ancient cursed brooch from her boss, Professor Hugh Graham, who has criticised her book as fantasy. The rest of her story is their obsession with and struggle to gain control of the brooch.

Cartimandua, back in the first century is beset by enemies on all sides, Romans and  the leaders of the other tribes. It all goes from bad to worse when she betrays Caradoc (Caractacus), the leader of the Catuvellauni tribe, who led the tribes in resisting the Roman invaders and hands him over in chains to the Romans.

For me the essential story was good, but lost impact as it dragged on, drowned in words and by the repetition of the struggles between the characters. Because of this the ending was drained of any impact and suspense for me. I like time-slip stories, the supernatural and the paranormal, so that wasn’t a problem. And I liked the sections explaining Celtic beliefs – their belief in the immortality of the soul, in reincarnations and transmigration of the soul. As one of the characters said:

Remember the world he lived in was an animistic, rainbow world of links and connections which included vast echelons of spirits and gods and ancestors, people dead and people yet to be born, all of whom could be summoned to his aid. (page 258)

In the Author’s Note, Barbara Erskine emphasises that this is above all fiction:

In the absence of written information one has to make do with imagination, dreams and deductive techniques of a dubious nature! … (page 562)

and regarding Cartimandua:

We don’t know her tribe, or if she had children, and although far more is known about her life than that of he much more famous contemporary, Boudicca, she is still an enigma.

So, for all that is historically known about Cartimandua I refer the reader to the Roman historians.

For the truth of her life we must consult archaeology and the oracles.

The rest is silence. (page 562)

A couple of years ago I read Barbara Erskine’s book, The Warrior Princess, another time-slip book, which I also thought was too drawn out and would have been better if the plotting had been tighter. I own one more of her books, which I’ve yet to read – Sands of Time, a collection of short stories, described on the back cover as ‘spine-tingling‘ tales all with ‘a touch of the unexpected … suspense, romance, passion, unexpected echoes of the past.’ I hope, because these are short stories, they will be more succinct than the two books I have read.

This book qualifies for several challenges – Mount To-Be-Read 2013 (it’s been on my shelves for about 4 years), The Historical Fiction Reading ChallengeWhat’s in a Name 6 (in the Fire category) and Once Upon a Time VII (Fantasy).

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

I was hoping that The Distant Hours, Kate Morton’s third book would be as good as the first,The House at Riverton, which I loved. I’ve read her second book The Forgotten Garden, which disappointed me, because it was predictable and I thought it was a re-working of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book, The Secret Garden. However, I think The Distant Hours is the least satisfying, which is a shame as it promised to be so good at the beginning and the story itself is fascinating …

A dilapidated castle, aristocratic twins, a troubled sister and a series of dark secrets cast a whispery spell … (from the back cover)

It begins with a creepy tale, The True History of the Mud Man, a children’s story written by Raymond Blythe, the owner of the castle. It begins:

Hush … Can you hear him?

The trees can. They are the first to know that he is coming.

Listen! The trees of the deep, dark wood, shivering and jittering their leaves like papery hulls of beaten silver; the sly wind, snaking through their tops, whispering that it will soon begin.

The trees know, for they are old and have seen it all before.

A tale which haunts the book. The dark secrets begin to surface when Edie Burchill’s mother receives a long-lost letter written fifty years earlier from one of the sisters at Milderhust Castle. Edie is intrigued but her mother is reluctant to talk about it and about the time that she was an evacuee at the castle during the war.

The story slips backwards and forwards in time between the 1990s and the Second World War and the characters and the descriptions of the settings are fine – up to a point. But the book moves at a snail’s past over its 670 pages. There is just too much unnecessary detail, about things on the periphery that never go anywhere. There is so much that it stifles the narrative and the heartaches, betrayals and tragedies become a catalogue of events. I just wasn’t involved. But this is still an enjoyable book, if over long and not as good as her earlier books.

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.

Mount TBR: March Checkpoint

It’s time for the first quarterly check-in post for Mount TBR. Last year I read 25 of my TBR books, so for this year I was determined to read more and rashly stated I was aiming to climb Mt Ararat – that is to read 48 books from my own bookshelves.

I have made a very slow start with just 4 books completed, so not very far up the mountain at all. They are:

  1. The Case of the Curious Bride by Erle Stanley Gardner
  2. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
  3. Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie (Poirot)
  4. Small Kindnesses by Fiona Robyn (no review)
The book that has been on Mt TBR the longest is The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. Sadly, although The Lacuna is well written and well researched I felt there was something missing, the personal elements that brought the story to life for me were few and far between; I couldn’t feel involved and just wanted it to end. I persevered because it has had such good reviews and recommendations, but it dragged for me. It’s a long book too!


I wasn’t too impressed with the other books, either, but the stand-out exception was Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons,  a Poirot mystery, which I thoroughly enjoyed and it was well worth the wait to read it.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Some years ago I was browsing in a bookshop at Gatwick airport to add to the books I’d brought with me to read on holiday and I bought Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. I loved it. I’ve read some of her other books, but none as good as The Poisonwood Bible. When I saw that she had written The Lacuna and it had won the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction, (actually beating Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall!) I bought it, expecting great things. That was two and half years ago and it’s only this year that I’ve read it.

I was disappointed as I don’t think it’s as good as either Wolf Hall or The Poisonwood Bible. There some good parts, but overall I was glad to finish reading it. It’s a long tale (670 pages), moving from Mexico in the 1930s to the McCarthy trials of alleged communists in the USA of the 1940s and 1950s. I thought it began and ended well, with good descriptions and fascinating characters, but I got bored several times in the middle.

It’s the story of Harrison Shepherd, the son of a Mexican mother and an American father and it’s told through his diaries and letters together with genuine newspaper articles, although whether they reported truth or lies is questionable. It begins in Mexico where Harrison’s mother took him to live when she left his father to live with a Mexican businessman, she calls Mr Produce the Cash behind his back. I thought this part came to life with lyrical descriptions of the people and the landscape. But it is only in the second half of the novel that I felt Harrison himself came alive as a character, no longer talking about himself in the third person, ‘the boy’, and referring to himself as ‘I’.

Throughout the book Kingsolver intermingles real characters and events with her fictional ones and I thought that worked well. There are the artists Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo. Harrison works for Diego, mixing plaster for his huge murals he painted in Mexico City. Whilst working for Rivera, who was a communist he met and subsequently worked for the exiled Bolshevik leader, Lev Trotsky. And it is this connection that eventually lands him in difficulties later on when he had moved to live in the USA and became a novellist writing historical fiction about the Aztecs. He is accused of being a communist and being Un-American.

I found the historical parts very interesting as I knew nothing about Rivera, or his wife, and very little about Trotsky and the McCarthy trials. But eventually I found the level of detail was just too much and the story meandered, losing impetus. Harrison himself comes across as too passive, too accepting of what ever happened to him, a victim of circumstances. Much more interesting is the second narrator, Violet Brown who becomes his secretary and friend, who saved his diaries from being burnt.

There are several instances of lacunas, missing parts and gaps, scattered throughout the book. For example, some of Harrison’s diaries and notebooks go missing. As a boy he loved swimming and diving into a cave, which is only available at certain tides:

Today the cave was gone. Saturday last it was there. Searching the whole rock face below the cliff did not turn it up. Then the tide came higher and waves crashed too hard to keep looking. How could a tunnel open in the rock and then close again? … Leandro says the tides are complicated and the rocks on that side are dangerous, to stay over here in the shallow reef. He wasn’t pleased to hear about the cave. He already knew about it, it is called something already, la lacuna. (page 45)

But although The Lacuna is well written and well researched I felt there was something missing, the personal elements that brought the story to life for me were few and far between; I couldn’t feel involved and just wanted it to end. I persevered because it has had such good reviews and recommendations, but sadly it dragged for me.

The Case of the Curious Bride by Erle Stanley Gardner

First published in 1935 The Case of the Curious Bride is the 5th Perry Mason book by Erle Stanley Gardner.

Synopsis extracted from the back cover:

An attractive young woman calls at Perry Mason’s office to inquire if a friend can marry again without getting a divorce as her husband had been presumed killed in an air accident seven years previously. Mason sees sinister implications and as a result of his investigations – helped by his secretary Della Street – dramatic developments lead to a court case in which the tables are turned on the police.

My view:

There are plenty of twists and turns in this mystery surrounding Rhoda Montaine, who is accused of murder and it certainly looks as though she is guilty.  I found it very puzzling. I also thought it was unsatisfactory as Perry Mason resorts to trickery, fooling everyone. At times I was at a complete loss to understand what he was doing and why. It all becomes clear at the end, but I found it far-fetched.

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Penguin Books 1960 (first published by Cassell 1935)
  • Source: I bought the book
  • My Rating 2/5
  • Challenges: Mount TBR, What’s in a Name 6 (a book with an emotion in the title)

Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2013

Here’s another Reading Challenge that I can’t ignore, because it’s one that I’ve been doing quietly and slowly on my own, ever since I can remember. It’s Bev’s Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2013.

Bev plans to primarily from her own shelves next year. It might not seem to be a very challenging challenge – to read books you already have on your shelves – but faced with the almost constant temptation to borrow books from the library, buy new books, and download free ones to Kindle, it is! And whilst I can’t promise that I won’t give in to that temptation, I too would like to think that I’ll make great inroads to my ever-growing pile of TBRs.

Challenge Levels

Pike’s Peak: Read 12 books from your TBR pile/s
Mount Blanc: Read 24 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Vancouver: Read 36 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Ararat: Read 48 books from your TBR piles/s
Mt. Kilimanjaro: Read 60 books from your TBR pile/s
El Toro: Read 75 books from your TBR pile/s
Mt. Everest: Read 100 books from your TBR pile/s
Mount Olympus (Mars): Read 150+ books from your TBR pile/s

And the rules:
*Once you choose your challenge level, you are locked in for at least that many books. If you find that you’re on a mountain-climbing roll and want to tackle a taller mountain, then you are certainly welcome to upgrade.

*Challenge runs from January 1 to December 31, 2013.

This year I’ve read 25 of my TBRs, so next year I’m aiming to increase that by attempting Mount Ararat, that is, to read 48 books from my own bookshelves. I really ‘should’ go for Mount Olympus (Mars) but that is a few steps too far!

Here is my Progress Page