What’s in a Name 2017

whats-in-a-name17

Next year Charlie at The Worm Hole is hosting the tenth – yes, tenth! – annual What’s In A Name challenge, originally started by Annie, then handed to Beth Fish Reads and now continued by Charlie. For full details go to the sign-up post. I’ve been doing this challenge since Alice started it in 2007, just missing the one in 2009! So, even though I’m cutting back on challenges for 2017, I really want to take part in this one.

The basics

The challenge runs from January to December. During this time you choose a book to read from each of the following categories. (Charlie’s examples of books you could choose are in brackets – translations and other languages most definitely count!):

  • A number in numbers (84, Charing Cross Road; 12 Years A Slave; 31 Dream Street)
  • A building (The Old Curiosity Shop; I Capture The Castle; House Of Shadows; The Invisible Library; Jamaica Inn)
  • A title which has an ‘X’ somewhere in it (The Girl Next Door; The Running Vixen)
  • A compass direction (North and South; Guardians Of The West; The Shadow In The North; NW)
  • An item/items of cutlery (The Subtle Knife; Our Spoons Came From Woolworths)
  • A title in which at least two words share the same first letter – alliteration! (The Great Gatsby; The Luminous Life Of Lilly Aphrodite; Gone Girl; The Cuckoo’s Calling)

Charlie is asking for one review per category. Where possible I like to read from my TBRs for my challenges and I’ve found the following books on my shelves (some are e-books) for each category and will choose one from each for this challenge.

A number in numbers

  • 1066: What Fates Impose by G K Holloway
  • 1599: a Year in the life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro
  • 1946: The Making of the Modern World by Victor Sebestyen
  • 3500: An Autistic Boy’s Ten-Year Romance with Snow White by Ron Miles

A building – lots to choose from

  • Citadel by Kate Mosse
  • The Chapel in the Woods by Susan Louineau
  • Corduroy Mansions by Alexander McCall Smith
  • Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope
  • Heather Farm by Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen
  • The House by the Churchyard by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
  • The House in the Attic by Helen Cardwell
  • House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
  • The House on Fever Street by Celina Grace
  • Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga
  • The Murder at Sissingham Hall by Clara Benson
  • The Power House by John Buchan

A title which has an ‘X’ somewhere in it

  • Exhume by Danielle Girard
  • The Girl Next Door by Ruth Rendell
  • The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters edited by Charlotte Mosley
  • Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale
  • A Place of Execution by Val McDermid
  • The Sex Life of My Aunt by Mavis Cheek
  • The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Kate Mosse

A compass direction

  • The King in the North by Max Adams
  • North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell
  • South Riding by Winifred Holtby

An item/items of cutlery – I thought I must have some crime fiction in my TBRs with ‘knife/knives’ in the title – but I haven’t! I read Charlie’s suggestion of The Subtle Knife several years ago. The only book I have to read in this category is:

  • The Tiny Fork Diet by Alan Sugar

A title in which at least two words share the same first letter – alliteration!

  • Break No Bones by Kathy Reichs
  • The Child’s Child by Barbara Vine
  • A Death in the Dales by Frances Brody
  • Deja Dead by Kathy Reichs
  • Dialogues of the Dead by Reginald Hill
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  • Hangman’s Holiday by Dorothy Sayers
  • The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
  • The Repentant Rake by Edward Marston
  • The Sacred Stone: The Medieval Murderers
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carre
  • Whitethorn Woods by Maeve Binchy

Sunshine on Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith

I’ve read a few of Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie books, which I enjoyed – but not any of his 44 Scotland Street novels. So when I saw Sunshine on Scotland Street in the library, going off the blurb on the back cover, I thought it would be a change from the crime fiction and historical novels I’ve been reading recently.

From the back cover:

Scotland Street witnesses the wedding of the century of Angus Lordie to Domenica Macdonald, but as the newlyweds depart on honeymoon Edinburgh is in disarray. Recovering from the trauma of being best man, Matthew is taken up by a Dane called Bo, while Cyril eludes his dog-sitter and embarks on an odyssey involving fox-holes and the official residence of a cardinal. Narcissist Bruce meets his match in the form of a sinister doppelganger; Bertie, set up by his mother for fresh embarrassment at school, yearns for freedom; and Big Lou goes viral. But the residents of Scotland Street rally, and order – and Cyril – is restored by the combined effects of understanding, kindness, and, most of all, friendship.

My thoughts:

Even though I haven’t read the seven books before this one I had no difficulty in following the storylines, although it is obvious that the characters all have backstories and previous relationships that are hinted at in this book. In a way it’s very like the Isabel Dalhousie books as the action is interspersed with McCall Smith’s philosophical and ethical musings, his thoughts about human nature and relationships, which in general I liked more than the story.

It begins with an amusing account of the preparations for Angus and Domenica’s wedding, which Angus seems to think will just happen without much preparation by him – a hole in his kilt, his lack of a ring, and he has given no thought at all about where to go for thier honeymoon. But his bestman, Matthew helps him sort out the kilt and ring problem and Domenica has arranged both the reception and the honeymoon.

After that Angus and Domenica disappear from the book until the last chapter, leaving Cyril, Angus’s dog in the care of the Pollock family, the insufferable Irene, her long-suffering husband, Stuart, 6 year-old son Bertie and baby Ulysses. Cyril and Bertie are my favourite characters in the book and their ‘adventures’ caused me much concern, as Irene does not like Cyril and stifles both Bertie and Stuart. In fact I wasn’t too bothered about any of the other characters, apart from Bertie’s spindly-legged friend from cub scouts, Ranald Braveheart Macpherson and his mother who has no difficulty in putting Irene firmly in her place.

This is an easy read, meandering from one character to the next. It has a light, humorous tone that I enjoyed, along with thoughts about friendship, religion, spirituality and happiness. At the end as Angus looks round the group of people gathered for their homecoming party it strikes him that they are an ‘infinitely precious band of souls’:

And this realisation that he had was not specifically religious – although it could easily and appropriately be that. It was, rather, a spiritual notion – the idea that each of us, even the least of us, has a rich hinterland of value behind us: the lives we have led, the thoughts we have had, the love we have given and received – the little things of our lives that may not mean much to others unless and until they are granted the insight that brings love into the heart, sudden, exalting love. To see another as a soul was to acknowledge the magnifcent, epic course that life is for each of us, and to experience sympathy for the other in his or her negotiation of that course. It was quite different from seeing others simply as people. (pages 294 – 295)

Reading challenges: Read Scotland and What’s In a Name, in the category of a book with a country in the title.

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Abacus (18 July 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0349139164
  • ISBN-13: 978-0349139166
  • Source: Library book

A Game of Thrones by George R R Martin

“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”

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When we began watching the HBO TV series, A Game of Thrones, I was hooked and once we finished watching I immediately wanted to read the series, A Song of Fire and Ice. I’d just read The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman, about the Wars of the Roses and had noticed the similarities between that and A Game of Thrones, the battles between the Houses of York and Lancaster paralleled by those between the Houses of Stark and Lancaster for example.

I don’t often read a book after seeing an adaptation, but in this case it proved ideal – the actors and scenery were perfect for my reading of the book, although there are some differences (the ages of the Stark children for example). I loved both the book and the TV series.

Blurb:

Summers span decades. Winter can last a lifetime. And the struggle for the Iron Throne has begun.

As Warden of the north, Lord Eddard Stark counts it a curse when King Robert bestows on him the office of the Hand. His honour weighs him down at court where a true man does what he will, not what he must … and a dead enemy is a thing of beauty.

The old gods have no power in the south, Stark’s family is split and there is treachery at court. Worse, the vengeance-mad heir of the deposed Dragon King has grown to maturity in exile in the Free Cities. He claims the Iron Throne.

I was completely immersed in this world inhabited by numerous characters and set in different locations (Seven Kingdoms), all portrayed in meticulous detail and expertly constructed so that all the fantastic creations are credible, and complete with back stories and histories. Beginning with a Prologue the book is then narrated through different characters’ points of view – each chapter is headed by that character’s name making the plotlines easy to follow:

  • Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark, Warden of the North and Lord of Winterfell, Hand of the King.
  • Lady Catelyn Stark, of House Tully, wife of Eddard Stark.
  • Sansa Stark, elder daughter of Eddard and Catelyn Stark.
  • Arya Stark, younger daughter of Eddard and Catelyn Stark.
  • Bran Stark, second-youngest son of Eddard and Catelyn Stark.
  • Jon Snow, illegitimate son of Eddard Stark, mother unknown.
  • Tyrion Lannister, son of Lord Tywin Lannister, called the Imp, a dwarf, brother of the twins, the beautiful and ruthless Queen Cersei and Ser Jaime, called the Kingslayer,
  • Daenerys Targaryen, Stormborn, the Princess of Dragonstone, sister of Prince Viserys, the last of the Targaryens.

Other characters include:

  • King Robert of the House Baratheon, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, Eddard Stark’s oldest friend, married to Queen Cersei, his son Joffrey, spoiled and wilful with an unchecked temper, heir to the Iron Throne.
  • Robb Stark, oldest true born son of Eddard Stark. He remained at Winterfell when Eddard became the Hand of the King.
  • Tywin Lannister, Lord of Casterly Rock, Warden of the West, Shield of Lannisport.
  • Khal Drogo – a powerful warlord of the Dothraki people on the continent of Essos, a very tall man with hair black as midnight braided and hung with bells.

Locations:

GOT Map1

  • Winterfell: the ancestral castle of House Stark.
  • The Wall: built of stone, ice and magic, on the northern border of the Seven Kingdoms, guarded by the Night’s Watch to protect the Kingdoms from the dangers behind the huge wall from ‘the Others’ and the Wildings.
  • Beyond the Wall: the first book begins Beyond the Wall with members of the Night’s Watch on the track of a band of Wildling raiders.
  • King’s Landing: a walled city, the capital of the continent of Westeros and of the Seven Kingdoms.
  • Essos: across the Narrow Sea from Westeros, includes the grassland known as the Dothraki Sea.

This article in The Telegraph lists the locations used in the TV series.

This is no fairy tale – it’s set in a grim and violent world full of tragedy, betrayals and battles; a tale of good versus evil in which family, duty, and honour are in conflict, the multiple viewpoints giving a rounded view of the conflicts the characters face. It’s a love story too. There are knights, soldiers and sorcerers, priests, direwolves, giants, assassins and bastards.  It’s complex and multifaceted, and it’s full of stories and legends – here for example Maester Luwin tells young Bran Stark about the children of the forest:

“They were people of the Dawn Age, the very first before kings and kingdoms,” he said. “In those days there were no castles or holdfasts, no cities, not so much as a market town to be found between here and the sea of Dorne. There were no men at all. Only the children of the forest dwelt in the lands we now call the Seven Kingdoms.

“They were a people dark and beautiful, small of stature, no taller than children even when grown to manhood. They lived in the depths of the wood, in caves and crannogs and secret tree towns. Slight as they were, the children were quick and graceful. Male and female hunted together, with weirwood bows and flying snares. Their gods were the gods of the forest, stream and stone, the old gods whose names are secret. Their wisemen were called greenseers and carved strange faces in the weirwoods to keep watch on the woods. (page 713)

I shall be reading the next book in the series soon, A Clash of Kings. The other books are A Storm of SwordsA Feast for Crows, and A Dance with Dragons.

I read the Kindle Edition:

  • File Size: 8515 KB
  • Print Length: 819 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 0007448031
  • Publisher: Harper Voyager (23 Dec. 2010)

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge  – a book I’ve had since October 2015, and the What’s In a Name Challenge – in the category of a book with a piece of furniture in the title.

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

If I don’t write about a book as soon as I’ve finished it the details begin to fade. I finished reading  Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel, The Bean Trees a few weeks ago. So this is a short post on the book, which doesn’t really do justice to it!

My thoughts:

I loved this book. Barbara Kingsolver writes in such a way that I can easily visualise the scenes, beginning with the opening paragraph in which she describes a tractor tire blowing up, flinging a man up in the air and throwing him over the top of a Standard Oil sign. Taylor (originally called Marietta/Missy) grew up in rural Kentucky. She left home when she had saved enough to buy a car, an old VW. She changed her name to Taylor after the first place where she ran out of petrol, which just happened to be Taylorville. She drove on until the car broke down in the middle of nowhere, on land owned by the Cherokee tribe. And it was there at a garage that an Indian woman abandoned a baby girl in Taylor’s car – she called the baby, Turtle.

They travel on to Tucson, where she settled for a while, living with Lou Ann, a mother whose husband, Angel Ruiz left before their son was born, and working for Mattie at ‘Jesus Is Lord Used Tires’. Mattie, however, is also involved in an underground railway moving illegal Guatemalan and Salvadoran immigrants to safe houses. She talks of the obligation under the United Nations ‘something or other’ ‘to take in people whose lives are in danger’. And Taylor becomes involved in helping her.

There are several themes running throughout this short, but well written book – both political and social including family relationships, particularly mother/child, sexual and physical abuse of small children, the integration of cultures, as well as the always current issue of refugees and illegal immigrants. I thought it was all thought-provoking as well as fascinating reading.

I have read some of Barbara Kingsolver’s later books, including The Poisonwood Bible, a longer and much more complex book, which I’ve read twice and loved. There is a sequel to The Bean Trees that I really want to read now – Pigs In Heaven.

Reading Challenges: What’s In a Name? in the category of a book with the word ‘tree’ in the title.

Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Month in the Country by J L Carr

A Month in the Country (Penguin Modern…‘Ah, those days … for many years afterwards their happiness haunted me. Sometimes listening to music, I drift back and nothing has changed. The long end of summer. Day after day of warm weather, voices calling as night came on and lighted windows pricked the darkness and, at day-break, the murmur of corn and the warm smell of fields ripe for harvest. And being young.

As an old man Tom Birkin is looking back to the summer of 1920 when he was asked to uncover a huge medieval wall-painting in the village church of Oxgodby in Yorkshire. J L Carr’s A Month in the Country is a beautifully written little book of just 85 pages, set in the aftermath of World War I. Tom, his ‘nerves shot to pieces, wife gone, dead broke‘,  is still suffering from shell shock after the battle of Passchendaele. Living in the church bell tower, he begins to uncover the painting, excited and engrossed in his work.

Another war veteran, Charles Moon is also in Oxgodby, an archaeologist, camping in a meadow next to the church, whilst he looks for a lost 14th century grave. There are also two more people who are relatively new to the village – the vicar and his beautiful wife, Arthur and Alice Keach. Tom and Moon decide their marriage is an ‘outrage’ and Tom finds her enchanting – reminding him of Botticelli’s Primavera.

I loved this quiet novel, in which not a lot happens and yet so much happens as Tom describes the events of that summer – his relationships with the local people as well as with Moon and Arthur and Alice Keach. There’s the unforgettable Sunday School outing and a visit to Ripon with the Wesleyans looking for an American organ to replace the harmonium in their chapel. It’s during this visit Tom learns more about Moon.

I loved the detail of the wall-painting – the original methods of painting, the colours, the people in the painting. It’s a masterpiece, a Doom, a Christ in Judgement painting. Tom wonders about the original artist, the nameless man and why the painting had been covered and as he uncovers more of the painting thinks that he has lived with a great artist and had shared with the unknown man the ‘great spread of colour’ and feels ‘the old tingling excitement’.

But above all it is the writing that I loved the most – words that took me back in time to that glorious summer in Oxgodby. At the end Tom looks back at that summer with nostalgia for the things that have disappeared, contemplating that

We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever – the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

I wanted to read A Month in the Country because years ago I’d watched a TV adaptation of the book and loved it. So after I finished reading it I thought I’d look for the film and watch it again. But the film was lost for years and the only available copies now are rare and expensive. So, I won’t be watching it and thinking about it I realise that it would be a mistake to watch it – as I enjoyed the book so much. But it would be good to see the wall-painting …

Reading challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge and maybe What’s In a Name? in the ‘Month of the Year’ category if I don’t read a book naming a month of the year!

Challenge Completed – What’s In a Name?

What's in a name 2015

I’ve now completed the What’s In A Name? Challenge, hosted by Charlie at The Worm Hole. It involved reading books from six categories. These are the books I read with links to my posts:

As with the other challenges I’m doing I try to meet the criteria by reading books I’ve been wanting to read for a while – and I succeeded with this challenge. And I read some really excellent books, especially The Burning and Turn of the Tide.

Thanks Charlie for keeping this challenge going!

Last Seen in Massilia by Steven Saylor

 Last Seen in Massilia is the eighth book in Steven Saylor’s series of books Roma Sub Rosa, historical crime fiction set in ancient Rome, featuring an investigator called Gordianus the Finder. I’ve begun the series with this book, rather than with the first book, because it was in a pack of books I bought earlier this year from Barter Books. This one is not set in Rome, but in Massilia – modern day Marseilles. It’s 49BC during Caesar’s siege of the city. I liked it for it’s physical and historical setting but I think the crime element is secondary.

It begins as Gordianus is on his way to Massilia to look for his adopted son, Meto, who has been reported dead.  Massilia is surrounded, access extremely difficult, if not impossible and Gordianus and his son-in-law Davus join the Roman troops attempting to enter the city through a tunnel taking them underneath the city walls. An attempt that ends almost in disaster as the tunnel is flooded and they are almost drowned. Fortunately they are rescued by Heironymous, the elected scapegoat doomed to take on the sins of the people by throwing himself off the Sacrifice Rock.

Whilst he is unable to find out what has happened to Meto, he and Davus witness the fall of a young woman from the Sacrifice Rock. The question is was it suicide, did she just slip or was she pushed. All this is going on, although Gordianus doesn’t actually do much detective work, whilst the siege of the city comes to a fiery and dramatic end.

What I really liked was all the detail about Massilia – how it was governed – the hierarchy of theTimouchoi its ruling officials, its relationship to Rome, its traditions and customs. So it’s no surprise to me that Saylor has used the available sources for his book – Aristotle, Cicero, Strabo and Plutarch. For the details of the siege he used Caesar’s The Civil War, amongst other primary sources.

However, I am glad I read it and will look out for more books in the series:

Roma Sub Rosa
1. Roman Blood (1991)
2. Arms of Nemesis (1992)
3. Catilina’s Riddle (1993)
4. The Venus Throw (1995)
5. A Murder On the Appian Way (1996)
6. The House of the Vestals: The Investigations of Gordianus the Finder (1997)
7. Rubicon (1999)
8. Last Seen in Massilia (2000)
9. A Mist of Prophecies (2002)
10. The Judgement of Caesar (2004)
11. A Gladiator Dies Only Once: The Further Investigations of Gordianus the Finder (2005)
12. The Triumph of Caesar (2008)

I also have Roma by Steven Saylor – a book that has sat unread on my shelves for a few years now, unread so far mainly because it is so long. Maybe this year …

Reading challenges – Historical Fiction and What’s in a Name, category a book with a city in its title.

One Life: My Mother’s Story by Kate Grenville

One Life: My Mother’s Story

Australian author, Kate Grenville has written a beautiful biography of her mother Nance Russell. A book that casts light not only on Nance’s life but also on life in Australia for most of the 20th century. Nance was born in 1912 and died in 2002, so she lived through two World Wars, an economic depression and a period of great social change. Nance wasn’t famous, the daughter of a rural working-class couple who became pub-keepers, but she was a remarkable woman.

Kate’s mother had wanted to write her own story and had left fragments of stories about her ancestors, stories her mother had told her, about her childhood, but most about her adult life up to her mid-forties. (Kate Grenville has used some of the stories of her ancestors in her own novels – such as The Secret River, a wonderful historical novel).

So this biography reads like a novel, but is based on Nance Russell’s memories, making it much more than a factual account of a person’s life. It’s is a vivid portrait of a real woman, a woman of great strength and determination, who had had a difficult childhood, who persevered, went to University, became a pharmacist, opened her own pharmacy, brought up her children, and helped build the family home. She faced sex discrimination and had to sell her pharmacy in order to look after her children at home.

Nance had wanted to be a teacher, but when she said this to her mother she ‘exploded. Over her dead body Nance was going to be a teacher!‘  But her parents thought that pharmacy was ‘good for a girl‘. It was 40  years later, after her own children were grown up, that Nance took an arts degree, then a teaching diploma and a diploma in teaching English as a foreign language. ‘She taught French in schools, taught English to newly arrived migrant children, and ran her own business teaching English to the wives of Japanese business men.

My bare account of Nance’s life doesn’t do justice to this book, in which Kate Grenville brings to life both the good times and the bad times, writing about her mother’s heartache, worries, joys and sorrows, of the hard times during the economic depression, all of it as a whole making a rich and fulfilled life. Very near to the end of the book Kate Grenville writes:

One of her last trips [to Europe] was to Florence, where she stood in front of the frescoes that Dante had seen. A line came into her mind from somewhere in all her reading: Suffering pierces the shield of habit. It was a thought that made sense of the unhappiness she’d known, and also the happiness. She knew that ultimately it didn’t matter what happened to you. In the light of eternity, in the light of all those dead writers in whose work she’d recognised the great truths, only one thing mattered. What other people did was up to them. Your job was to live – as richly and honestly as you could – your one life. (page 246)

Reading Challenges: Non Fiction Reading Challenge 2015 and What’s in a Name? 2015 in the category of a book with a familial relation in the title.

Catching the Eagle by Karen Charlton

I wanted to read a novel by a local author so I checked the library website for North East writers, where I found Catching the Eagle by Karen Charlton.

Summary from the book cover:

Easter Monday, 1809: Kirkley Hall manor house is mysteriously burgled. When suspicion falls on Jamie Charlton, he and his family face a desperate battle to save him from the gallows.

When 1,157 rent money is stolen from Kirkley Hall, it is the biggest robbery Northumberland has ever known. The owner sends for Stephen Lavender, a principal officer with the Bow Street magistrate’s court in London, to investigate the crime. Suspicion soon falls on impoverished farm labourer, Jamie Charlton, and the unpopular steward, Michael Aynsley.

Jamie Charlton is a loving family man but he is hot-tempered and careless. As the case grows against him, it seems that only his young brother, William, can save him from an impending miscarriage of justice.

But William is struggling with demons of his own–he is falling in love with Jamie’s wife.’Catching the Eagle’, the first novel in the Regency Reivers series, is a fictionalized account of a trial that devastated a family and divided a community.

This is not just by a local author, and set in Northumberland, it is also based on a true story –  that of Karen Charlton’s husband’s ancestors.

I liked the opening of Catching the Eagle beginning with a Prologue, setting the scene as an eagle soared over the Northumberland landscape:

… its huge shadow caressed the ruined walls of crumbling castles and the creaking rotting stumps of ancient gibbets.The eagle plucked unsuspecting prey from the bleak, snow-covered fells and drank from remote rocky waterfalls dripping with golden daggers.

It landed in a tree above a labourer’s cottage where Jamie Charlton lived with his wife Priscilla and their children. I like Karen Charlton’s leisurely descriptive style of writing and found the whole book to be fascinating.  She has written an even-handed account of the robbery and the subsequent trials, so much so that I began to wonder whether Jamie Charlton was innocent or guilty, although you know from the outset that he was transported as a convicted felon to New South Wales. Did he or did he not steal the money? And what will happen to the eagle?

This is the type of historical fiction that I like. The characters come across as real people, with real problems in a real time and place (Northumberland 1809 – 1811). It highlights the social and cultural setting. Jamie was without influence or money behind him up against a judicial system run by people with power who needed to find a culprit. His family suffered along with him as he languished in goal in squalor, where he was caged as he awaited trial – not once, but twice.

I wondered whether Stephen Lavender, the detective employed by  Nathaniel Ogle, the owner of Kirkley Hall was also a real historical figure. Karen Charlton has also written Seeking Our Eagle, another fascinating book, an account of how she came to write Catching the Eagle whilst researching her husband’s family history.  And yes, Stephen Lavender did exist and he was a detective. He later became the Deputy Chief Constable of Manchester after the formation of the police force by Sir Robert Peel.

Indeed reading Catching the Eagle reminded me of The Suspicions of Samuel Whicher by Kate Summerscale, featuring Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher of Scotland Yard, the book that won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2008.

Karen Charlton has done her research very well and has written a novel full of intrigue, tension and realism that kept me captivated from start to finish. See her website, Karen Charlton, to read more about Karen and her books.

She has also written The Heiress of Linn Hagh, a spin-off novel from Catching the Eagle, which features Detective Stephen Lavender and his sidekick, Constable Woods. And there are more Detective Lavender Series books on the way!

Catching the Eagle:

  • Paperback: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Famelton Publishing; 1 edition (19 July 2014)
  • ISBN-10: 0992803640
  • ISBN-13: 978-0992803643
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 1.8 x 22.9 cm
  • Source: Library book

Seeking the Eagle:

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1969 KB
  • Print Length: 166 pages
  • Publisher: Famelton Publishing; 1st edition (7 Aug. 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B008UZYOR2
  • Source: I bought it

As always I didn’t read either book just for any Reading Challenges, but Catching the Eagle does fit very well into a couple – the 2015  Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and the What’s in a Name Challenge, in the book with an animal in the title category and Seeking Our Eagle into the Nonfiction Reading Challenge.

Turn of the Tide by Margaret Skea

I have read some wonderful debut novels this year –  Turn of the Tide by Margaret Skea is one of them. I loved it. It’s historical fiction and it captivated me completely transporting me  back in time to 16th century Scotland. If you have ever wondered,  as I have, what it must have been like to live in a Tower House in the Scottish Borders then this book spells it out so clearly. And it puts you firmly in the middle of the centuries old feud between the Cunninghames and the Montgomeries, with all the drama of their battles, ambushes and schemes to further their standing with the young King James VI. It’s a tale of love, loyalty, tragedy and betrayal.

It’s no wonder that the book was  the Historical Fiction Winner in the 2011 Harper Collins / Alan Titchmarsh People’s Novelist Competition and won the Beryl Bainbridge Award for Best First Time Author 2014.

There is a map setting the scene in Ayreshire on the west of Scotland between the Firth of Clyde and the Solway Firth, showing the major sites in the book. I found both the map and the list of main characters most useful whilst following the story. And to complete my understanding there is a Glossary of Scottish words at the back of the book, although the meaning of most of them was clear from the context.

It begins in 1586  with an ambush in which several of the Montgomerie Clan, on their way to James VI’s court at Stirling are killed, followed by the Clan’s reprisal on the Cunninghames. James, anxious to settle the feud between his nobles, asks them to swear to bring their feud to an end, which brings an uneasy peace between them – for a while.

Most of the characters are real historical figures, includingJames VI, the Cunninghames – William, the Master of Glencairn and the Montgomeries – Hugh, the Master of Braidstane and their families. The feud is also a matter of fact. It began in 1488 when James IV gave control of the Balliewick of Cunninghame to a Montgomerie! It didn’t come to an end until the beginning of the 17th century.

The main characters,  Munro and his wife Kate and a few of the others are fictional. Munro is a minor laird who whilst owing allegiance to the Cunninghames, has increasing sympathy and liking for the Montgomeries. His dilemma only increases throughout the book.

Margaret Skea has done her research well, not just the feud and battles but also the domestic settings are detailed down to descriptions of the clothing, the food and so on – even how the town house rooms were finished with limewash, which involved carrying bucket-load after bucket-load up four flights of stairs to rejuvenate the attic chamber where the children slept. But it slots seamlessly into the story, adding colour and life to the scenes.

It’s all fascinating  – the hunt arranged for the king, the account of his journey across the North Sea to bring home his bride, Anne of Denmark, the scenes as the royal party lands at Leith and the coronation in Edinburgh, as well as the jockeying for positions, and the battles all culminating in a tense and dramatic finale.

Not only is this riveting history it is also so well written, beautifully descriptive:

Across the valley the castle reared against the skyline, the town tumbling down the slope below, wisps of smoke beginning to unfurl, first one, then another, then too many to count, as Stirling awoke.

The countryside was spread out before him like a map; the distant hills to the south west smudged against the watery sky; the river a dark ribbon snaking through the marshland below, cradling Cambuskenneth in a giant u-shaped loop. (pages 98-99)

and this – such a startling image:

Daylight slipped into their bedchamber like wraith; grey and insubstantial, filtered through the grime and soot that coated the outside of the windowpanes. (page 247)

And I’m delighted that Margaret Skea is writing a sequel as I really want to know what happened next to Munro and his family. The working title is A House Divided, continuing the story in the late 1590s.

  • Paperback: 416 pages – also available on Kindle
  • Publisher: Capercaillie Books Limited; first edition (22 Nov. 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1909305065
  • ISBN-13: 978-1909305069
  • Source: I bought my copy
  • Author’s website: Margaret Skea, Writing yesterday, today

The Burning by Jane Casey

The Burning by Jane Casey is one of the books I selected for the TBR Pile Challenge 2015. It’s a book that I read about on other book blogs and thought I would like.  I was right – I really enjoyed it.

It’s the first the DC Maeve Kerrigan series. Maeve is on the murder task force investigating the case of the serial killer the media call The Burning Man. Four young women have been brutally murdered, beaten to death and their bodies burnt in secluded areas of London’s parks. When a fifth body is discovered that of Rebecca Haworth, it appears to be the work of The Burning Man – but is it, there are slight differences? The more that Maeve and her colleague Rob Langton check out the facts it appears it could be a copy-cat killing.

The pace of the book is quite slow at first as the characters are introduced and the story unfolds mainly through Maeve’s eyes  with some  chapters narrated by Rebecca’s friend Louise, and briefly by Rob. Because the pace is slow to begin with the main characters are fully rounded – Maeve in particular is a likeable character, intelligent and empathetic, working to impress her male colleagues and determined to catch the murderer. She’s new to the job, which both her boyfriend and her family criticises. Rebecca’s character is revealed through Louise’s eyes,  fleshed out as other friends give their versions of her past to Maeve and Rob. As the pace picks up, a complex  plot develops providing several suspects which kept me turning the pages right to the end.

I have the third Maeve Kerrigan book, The Last Girl, but I think I’ll postpone reading it until I’ve read the second book, The Reckoning. There are now six books in the series and Maeve has her own website!

As well as the TBR Pile Challenge The Burning completes one of the categories in the What’s In a Name challenge, that of a book title containg a word ending in ‘ing’, the My Kind of Mystery challenge and also the Mount TBR Reading Challenge (a book I’ve owned prior to 1 January 2015).

Green Darkness by Anya Seton

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

A brief synopsis from Goodreads:

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

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

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

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

What’s In A Name 2015

The eighth annual What’s In A Name Challenge is being hosted again next year by Charlie at The Worm HoleWhat's in a name 2015

The challenge runs from January to December. During this time you choose a book to read from each of the following categories (Charlie has included examples of books you could choose in brackets):

  • A word including ‘ing’ in it (The Time Of Singing, Dancing To The Flute, Lex Trent Fighting With Fire) These examples are verbs but you can of course use other words.
  • A colour (The Red Queen, White Truffles In Winter, On Gold Mountain)
  • A familial relation (Daughter Of Smoke And Bone, Dombey And Son, My Cousin Rachel) By all means include in-laws, step, and halves.
  • A body of water (The River Of No Return, Black Lake, Beside The Sea)
  • A city (Barcelona Shadows, Shanghai Girls, Under The Tripoli Sky)
  • An animal (Black Swan Rising, The Leopard Unleashed, The Horse And His Boy)

The books may be in any form (audio, print, e-book). It is preferred that the books don’t overlap other challenges, but it’s not against the rules. Books cannot, however, overlap categories and it’s not necessary to make a list of books before hand.

I’ve checked my books and found plenty of choice for the category of books with the word ‘ing‘ in the title and a some for the other categories, but I’m not listing them here (too many) and will wait and see what I do eventually read.

For full details and the sign up post go to The Worm Hole.

What’s In A Name 7: Completed

Whats in a name 7Hosted by  by Charlie at The Worm Hole this challenge runs from January to December 2014. During this time you choose a book to read from six categories.

I’ve now completed the challenge and these are the books I read:

  • A reference to time – The Time Machine by H G Wells, first published in 1895, is a work of imagination and an early example of science fiction, but it is also a commentary on late 19th century society and a vehicle for H G Well’s views on socialism and industrialisation.

  • A position of royalty – The King’s Evil by Edward Marston. This is historical crime fiction set in London in September 1666, just as the Great Fire of London has begun, eventually devastating a large part of the old medieval City of London

  • number written in letters – Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie, a Poirot mystery
    first published in 1943. Caroline Crale was convicted of the murder of her husband, Amyas and died in prison. Sixteen years later, her daughter, a child of five at the time of the murder, asks Poirot to clear her mother’s name, convinced that she was innocent.
  • forename or names  Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton  a beautifully told tale – a tragedy, signalled right from the beginning of the book, when the unnamed narrator first saw Ethan Frome and was told he had been disfigured and crippled in a ‘smash up’, twenty four years earlier. Ethan Frome
  • type or element of weather – Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell covers a time period from the 19th century to a post apocalyptic future. It’s not a book to read quickly; it requires patience, but on the whole I enjoyed it. I liked the change in style, suited to each time period, moving between straight narrative and letters and journal entries, encompassing historical fiction, thriller and sci-fi.

  • A book with a school subject in the title – The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier  fantasy fiction set some time in the future, about a place between heaven and earth, and the people who end up there after they’ve died and what happens to them. 

My favourite of these books is Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton.

Thanks to Charlie for an interesting challenge that helped me reduce my to-be-read piles.

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier, has been sitting on my bookshelves for 7 years (and moved house with me). It’s one of those books that I kept taking down off the shelf, flicking through it and putting it back.

As we’re in the middle of the R.I.P. IX Challenge it seemed this could be a good book to read as it’s fantasy fiction set some time in the future, about a place between heaven and earth, and the people who end up there after they’ve died and what happens to them. Amazingly they eat, sleep, fall in love and go to work in a city that looks like any on Earth with trees, houses, roads, businesses, shops, cafés and so on. It seems they are kept there as long as there is someone alive who remembers them. Parallel with this is the story of Laura, trapped in the Antarctic.  She is one of an expedition exploring methods of converting polar ice to use in manufacturing soft drinks. When their communication system fails two of the team go for help leaving Laura on her own. Eventually she too ventures out across the snow towards the Ross Sea, where there is a station studying emperor penguins.

I’m glad I read this book even if it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. The idea is good, and the two stories are dealt with in alternate chapters. It’s soon obvious that there has been some sort of worldwide disaster or epidemic and at first I was caught up with both stories, but the link between them is so obvious that the element of surprise or suspense just frittered away very quickly.

There is plenty of description; rather too much though and I got tired of reading about Laura’s struggle to cross the Antarctic, and the numerous descriptions of her battles to get in and out of her frozen sleeping bag, and hauling the sledge across the snow. There are plenty of flashbacks and digressions that promised to be interesting but were left undeveloped. It’s as though Brockmeier compiled the book from a series of short stories and scenic descriptions. By the end I really didn’t care what happened to any of the characters as they all waited for whatever came next. It’s a shame because I thought the idea had so much promise – what does happen when we die?

Reading Challenges

The Time Machine by H G Wells

This morning the clocks went forward – does that mean we lost an hour? Quite by coincidence yesterday I read The Time Machine – it seems apt!

The Time Traveller has gathered together a group of his friends, who have names such as the Psychologist, the Editor, the Provincial Mayor and so on. First of all he treats them to an explanation of time – of how it is the fourth dimension, ‘with Time as only a kind of Space.’ He then tells them that he intends to explore time in a machine he has invented that transports him back and forth in time.

And to prove it he travels to the future – specifically to the year 802,701 where humanity has evolved into the Eloi, who are pretty little childlike people, strict vegetarians who live above ground and the Morlocks, bleached, obscene nocturnal beings who live underground. Their society is divided between these two – industry being carried out underground by the Morlocks and the Eloi above pursing pleasure and comfort.

On his return he describes his adventures. He was:

 … in an amazing plight. His coat was dusty and dirty and smeared with green down the sleeves; his hair disordered, and as it seemed to me greyer – either with dust or dirt of because its colour had actually faded. His face was ghastly pale; his chin had a brown cut on it – a cut half-healed; his expression was haggard and drawn, as if by intense suffering. … He walked with just such a limp as I have seen in footsore tramps. (page 15)

Whilst describing what happened to him the Time Traveller comments on the society he encountered. At first he thought it was a social paradise, but soon he realised the truth, that the perfection of comfort and security had actually resulted in the weakening of society with no need to struggle for survival or for work. And the truth about the relationship between the Eloi and Morlocks was devastating!

In addition he had soon realised that he had gone into the future particularly ill-equipped – without anything to protect himself, without medicine and without anything to smoke, or even without enough matches! And no camera:

If only I had thought of a Kodak! I could have flashed that glimpse of the Under-world in a second, and examined it at leisure. But, as it was, I stood there with only the weapons and the powers that Nature had endowed me with – hand, feet, and teeth; these, and the four safety matches that still remained to me. (page 69)

I was struck by Wells’s descriptions of the divisions in society between the Haves and the Have-nots and the conditions of the working class as a result of industrialisation in his own time, citing the new electric railways, the Metropolitan Railway in London, the subways and underground workrooms and restaurants:

Even now, does not an East-end worker live in such artificial conditions as practically to be cut off from the natural surface of the earth?

Again, the exclusive tendency of richer people – due, no doubt, to the increasing refinement of their education, and the widening gulf between them and the rude violence of the poor – is leading to the closing, in their interest, of considerable portions of the surface of the land. About London, for instance, perhaps half of the prettier country is shut in against intrusion. (page 62)

So, The Time Machine, which was first published in 1895, is a work of imagination and an early example of science fiction, but it is also a commentary on late 19th century society and a vehicle for H G Well’s views on socialism and industrialisation.

It’s a book I’ve had for a couple of years and so qualifies for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge and after I finished it I realised that it also fits in the ‘Time’ category for the What’s In a Name? Challenge too.

The King’s Evil by Edward Marston

I’m still reading from my own unread books and turned to The King’s Evil for some historical crime fiction. It’s the first in Edward Marston’s Restoration series, featuring Christopher Redmayne, an architect and Jonathan Bale, a parish constable.

The King’s Evil is set in London in September 1666, just as the Great Fire of London has begun, eventually devastating a large part of the old medieval City of London. I liked Marston’s description of the fire, conjuring up the sights and sounds, the fear and panic it caused and the efforts to stop its spread – although I’m sure they didn’t use ‘dynamite’ to blow up houses to create a fire break. Anyway this anachronism didn’t spoil my enjoyment of this book.

Redmayne, a Royalist – a supporter of the Court and King Charles II – has designed a new house for Sir Ambrose Northcott and Bale is a Puritan who views Charles with great disapproval and is wondering if the fire is a consequence of the corruption in society as a result of the Restoration of the Crown:

England was once more ruled by a Stuart king. A monarchy which Jonathan had been pleased to see ended was now emphatically restored. As a result, London was indeed a wicked city and nobody was better placed to see the extent of its depravity than someone who patrolled the streets in the office of constable. Jonathan was a God-fearing man who always sought guidance from above and he was bound to wonder if the conflagration really was a sign of divine anger. There were Biblical precedents of cities being punished for their corruption. (page 26)

The two men are brought together with the discovery of Sir Ambrose’s dead body in the cellars of his partly built new house. It’s a good story with some interesting characters, including Jesus-Died-To-Save-Me Thorpe and Redmayne’s older brother Henry, elegant, fashionable and a dissipated rake, who had introduced Christopher to Sir Ambrose. But it’s the setting in time and place that interested me most – the period when Christopher Wren was the leading architect in rebuilding London – the bustle and energy of the times and the lingering conflict between Royalists and Parliamentarians.

The mystery of who killed Sir Ambrose moves along swiftly, with a few surprises along the way, as you would expect, but nothing too surprising. Redmayne travels to Sir Ambrose’s country house, Priestfield Place in Shipbourne, Kent and crosses the Chanel to Paris following the trail of the killer. It’s the ending of the book that let it down somewhat for me – it’s all a bit rushed and abrupt, but overall I enjoyed it and will read more in the series.

Edward Marston, who also writes under the name of Keith Miles, is a prolific author. He is a former chairman of the Crime Writers’ Association. He has several series of books, listed on his website and also on Fantastic Fiction.

The King’s Evil fits into several challenges I’m doing – The Mount TBR Reading Challenge, TBR Triple Dog Dare,the Historical Fiction Challenge, My Kind of Mystery Challenge and What’s in a Name (royalty category).

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Ethan FromeWhat a fantastic book. Ethan Frome is a beautifully told tale – a tragedy, signalled right from the beginning of the book, when the unnamed narrator first saw Ethan Frome and was told he had been disfigured and crippled in a ‘smash up’, twenty four years earlier. Life had not been good to him:

Sickness and trouble: that’s what Ethan’s had his plate full up with ever since the very first helping.

I was a bit wary as I began reading Ethan Frome because I’d not long finished reading Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing and didn’t want to sink into another bleak and dismal book. I needn’t have worried, even though Ethan Frome is a tragedy there is light to contrast the darkness, and there is love and hope set against repression and misery. It’s another book (like The Grass is Singing) where I hoped the ending would be a happy one, although I knew it couldn’t be. 

It’s a short book (just over 120 pages) and deceptively simple to read, but there is so much packed into it. I enjoyed it very much.  As well as striking and memorable characters the setting is  beautifully described – a ‘mute and melancholy landscape, an incarceration of frozen woe‘, in the isolated village of Starkfield (a fictional New England village). Trapped in an unhappy marriage, Ethan’s life had changed when his father died and he had had to give up his studies to work on the farm. His wife Zeena had always been ill and needing help in the house, which was why her cousin Mattie came to live with them. At first it worked out quite well, but Ethan can’t shrug off a sense of dread, even though he could

… imagine that peace reigned in his house.

There was really even now, no tangible evidence to the contrary; but since the previous night a vague dread had hung on the sky-line. It was formed of Zeena’s obstinate silence, of Mattie’s sudden look of warning, of the memory of just such fleeting imperceptible signs as those which told him, on certain stainless mornings, that before night there would be rain.

His dread was so strong that, man-like, he sought to postpone certainty.

Edith Wharton (1862 – 1937) was an American author. Ethan Frome was first published in 1911 and is in contrast to some of her other books about the New York society of the 1870s to 1920s. It’s a rural tragedy of inevitable suffering and sadness that reminded me of Thomas Hardy’s books.

This book was the Classics Club Spin book for February/March and qualifies in the What’s in a Name 2014 in the Forename/Name category. It’s also a book I’ve owned before 1 January 2014 so is another book for the Mount TBR challenge.

What’s in a Name 2014 – an Update

Whats in a name 7Charlie who hosts the What’s In A Name challenge on her blog The Worm Hole has added a a 6th category to the challenge. I was hoping she would as there has always been a 6th category for this challenge. Here it is in Charlie’s own words:

A book with a school subject in the title. And yes, that does mean you can get creative and use a magical academic subject if you wish – Hogwarts is a school, after all.

Examples of books you can choose: The History Boys by Alan Bennett, Angelology by Danielle Trussoni, Mastering The Art Of Soviet Cooking by Anya Von Bremzen

This sixth category will be considered a bonus. You can read for it or not – if you only want to read for the original five categories your last book of the five will still mean you have completed this year’s challenge.

I’ve had a quick look at my unread books (as I like to use challenges to read from my own books, rather than having to buy/borrow them) and have these to choose from:

History

The Brief  History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier
A Small Part of History by Peggy Elliott
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

Languages

A Dead Language by Peter Rushforth
Italian Neighbours: An Englishman in Verona by Tim Parks

Music

An Equal Music by Vikram Seth

Art

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice

Shakespeare

1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro

Dancing

A Time To Dance, No Time To Weep by Rumer Godden

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Way back in 2008 I watched The 39 Steps on TV with Rupert Penry-Jones as Richard Hannay, so inevitably as I read The Thirty-Nine Steps I could see Penry-Jones as Hannay. The dramatisation, however, although there are similarities, is different from John Buchan’s book. There are a number of historical inaccuracies and some artistic licence was used – none of which I was aware of as I watched the film and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It made me want to read the book and it’s taken me until now to get round to it – I’d forgotten most of the details of the film, except for visions of Penry-Jones running away from his pursuers in the Scottish moors, scrambling through the heather.

John Buchan 1936

John Buchan began writing The Thirty-Nine Steps in 1914; it was first published in 1916. He was born in Perth in 1875 and after leaving Oxford University he had a varied career, as well as writing books and articles he was a barrister, a member of Parliament, a soldier and a publisher. He was created Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsefield in 1935 and became the 15th Governor-General of Canada, a position he held until his death in 1940.

Once I began reading The Thirty-Nine Steps I didn’t want to put it down. It’s a fast moving action-story, beginning with an international conspiracy, involving anarchists, financiers and German spies. Richard Hannay, having found Scudder, murdered in his London flat, fears for his life and goes on the run, chased by villains in a series of exciting episodes, culminating in the discovery of the location of the ‘thirty-nine steps’. Hannay is a remarkable character, resourceful, and a master of disguise. As well as fleeing for his life he is searching for Scudder’s notebook, which contains clues to the international conspiracy – Scudder was a spy.

The master villain is also a master of disguise, having the ability to ‘hood his eyes like a hawk‘ :

There was something weird and devilish in those eyes, cold, malignant, unearthly, and most hellishly clever. They fascinated me like the bright eyes of a snake. (page 119)

He can impersonate the British First Sea Lord at a top secret meeting with people who knew the real First Sea Lord very well and is also convincing as the very British gentleman, the plump, bridge-player Percival Appleton.

The Thirty-Nine Steps is to my mind a gem. There are other Hannay books – the Complete series is available on Kindle, The Thirty-Nine Steps, Greenmantle, Mr. Standfast, The Three Hostages, and The Island of Sheep.

And so one book leads on to yet more books!

Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie

There are many things I like about Five Little Pigs, a Poirot mystery first published in 1943. I like the plot and the way it’s structured, the characterisation, the dialogue, and Agatha Christie’s fluent style of writing. In addition the solution is convincing and satisfying.

Caroline Crale was convicted of the murder of her husband, Amyas and died in prison. Sixteen years later, her daughter, a child of five at the time of the murder, asks Poirot to clear her mother’s name, convinced that she was innocent.

Poirot checks the police records, talks to the lawyers who conducted the trial and to the five eyewitnesses, persuading them to write down their versions of events. He finds that she had ample motive for the crime, at no time had she protested her innocence, although she contended that he had committed suicide, and all the eyewitnesses thought she was guilty.

Inevitably there are different versions of the events and conflicting views of Caroline’s character, all very clearly set out. So what did actually happen? Was Caroline innocent or guilty?

Poirot, in his usual methodical manner, goes through the sequence of events, and having gathered together all the people involved, using logic and psychology to detect the incongruous he makes his dénouement.

The description of Amyas Crale’s house, Alderbury appears to have been modelled on Agatha Christie’s own house, Greenway, complete with a Battery overlooking the river, just as at Greenway. The book was written in 1943, making it 16 years after 1926, the year of her disappearance before her divorce from her first husband, Archie Christie, so I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that Amyas Crale, a womaniser who was proposing to leave his wife for another woman has the same initials as Archie Christie!

I think the nursery rhyme theme of the title and the chapter headings is rather forced, as it doesn’t really throw any light on the mystery. It seems that Agatha Christie was a bit carried away with her ‘crimes of rhymes’, just as Poirot was obsessed with the jingle:

‘A jingle ran through Poirot’s head. He repressed it. He must not always be thinking of nursery rhymes. It seemed an obsession with him lately. And yet the jingle persisted.

This little pig went to market, this little pig stayed at home…’ (page 33)

This is the first Agatha Christie book I’ve read this year and I’m pleased it was such a good one!

Five Little Pigs is my 8th TBR book I’ve read this year in the Mount TBR Challenge, and the TBR Triple Dog Dare, the 2nd for the My Kind of Mystery Challenge and the 2nd for the What’s in a Name 7 Challenge (in the category, a book with a number written in letters in the title). And last, but by no means least, it’s the 56th Agatha Christie book I’ve read in the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge.

Cloud Atlas: The Book and The Movie

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell:

A reluctant voyager crossing the Pacific in 1850; a disinherited composer blagging a precarious livelihood in between-the-wars Belgium; a high-minded journalist in Governor Reagan’s California; a vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors; a genetically modified “dinery server” on death-row; and Zachry, a young Pacific Islander witnessing the nightfall of science and civilisation — the narrators of Cloud Atlas hear each other’s echoes down the corridor of history, and their destinies are changed in ways great and small. (Copied from David Mitchell’s website.)

Over the Christmas period we watched the movie, Cloud Atlas and I was surprised at how good I thought it was. In the past I have not appreciated movies based on books, but as I hadn’t read the book (despite beginning it several times) I wasn’t influenced by it and could watch the movie with a completely open mind. It is fantastic – a kaleidoscope of visual delights, the scenery, the settings and the costumes are blazes of colour and drama. It made me want to read the book because some of the dialogue was difficult to follow – words spoken quickly and not clearly and in a sort of abbreviated English (we put the subtitles on!) and there are many changes of scene and storylines as the movie switches backwards and forwards between the six stories, sometimes only showing short scenes.

So after watching the movie I read the book.  Cloud Atlas covers a time period from the 19th century to a post apocalyptic future. It is an amazing creation (‘amazing‘ is a very overused word, but in this instance very apt), at times confusing and at times brilliant. I think seeing the movie first was for me the best way to enjoy it. Where the dialogue and plot were confusing in the movie they were clearer in the book – where each separate story is dealt with in much more detail and I could read the dialogue in the post-apocalyptic episodes slowly and take it in more easily.

But the movie really brought the whole thing alive for me and captured my imagination. I think the book is over-long, at times I began to count the pages of each section wanting it to finish – it’s not a book to read quickly; it requires patience, but on the whole I enjoyed it. I liked the change in style, suited to each time period, moving between straight narrative and letters and journal entries, encompassing historical fiction, thriller and sci-fi.

The main difference between the book and the movie is the structure – the book sets out each story in some detail, whereas the movie streamlines each one and moves quickly between them at times overlapping the dialogue. The beginning and the ending are different, with scenes in the movie that are not in the book. The actors play several roles, which actually helps identify their characters and some of the characters in the book don’t appear in the movie. So, really the book and the movie are two different creations – that complement each other.

Cloud Atlas is about good and evil, about truth and greed – for power and money – and love; it’s about freedom and slavery, about the value of the individual; and about morality and evolution, civilisation and savagery. It’s a powerful book and if it wasn’t so long I’d read it again!

What’s In a Name? 7

Whats in a name 7The What’s In A Name challenge, which has been hosted for the last few years by Beth Fish Reads, has now been taken over by Charlie at The Worm Hole for its seventh outing. It’s a challenge I’ve taken part in since it was started by Annie.

The challenge runs from January to December 2014. During this time you choose a book to read from each of the following categories (my choices are in brackets). In some of the categories I’m spoilt for choice from my stock of unread books and for some I have just a couple of books to choose from – I could, of course, read more than one book for each category!

  • A reference to time (The Sands of Time, In Our Time)
  • A position of royalty (King’s Evil, I’m the King of the Castle)
  • A number written in letters (One Hundred Years of Solitude, Eight Black Horses, Nineteen Eighty Four)
  • A forename or names (Helen of Troy, Martin Chuzzlewit plus many more)
  • A type or element of weather (Snow, The Year of the Flood, The Snow Geese)

For full details and the sign up post go to The Worm Hole.

What’s In A Name 6 Challenge: Completed

WIName 6

I’ve completed the What’s in a Name 6 challenge hosted by Beth Fish Reads, which runs between January 1 and December 31, 2013. The idea is to read one book in each of the Challenge categories.

I like this Challenge which has no theme linking the books, except that it is based purely on the book title.  Each category is complete in itself, so it is ideal to use to whittle down my to-be-read books or to include new books or books from the library. It’s worked well, although I didn’t read most of the books I’d listed in my sign-up post, but four of the books are from my TBR shelves – so that’s a good thing.

The books I read (linking to my posts on the books):

1. A book with up or down (or equivalent) in the title: Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier (from TBR books) – I was fascinated by this book! It has 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 should have got round to reading it ages ago.

2. A book with something you’d find in your kitchen in the title: Dead Water by Ann Cleeves (a new book) – I loved this latest book in Ann Cleeve’s Shetland series, featuring Detective Jimmy Perez as he investigates the death of journalist Jerry Markham, found drifting in a yoal, a traditional Shetland boat in Aith marina.  Cleeves writes with clarity, so that you can easily picture the people and the places she describes.

3. A book with a party or celebration in the title: The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge (from TBR books) – another great novel that I loved, this is about Captain Scott’s last Antarctic Expedition. It gets inside each man’s mind, vividly describing the events as they progressed to the South Pole and the terrible conditions they had to endure. Beryl Bainbridge’s imagination and research combined make this a dramatic heroic story and an emotional roller-coaster set in the beautiful but deadly dangerous frozen landscape of the Antarctic.

4. A book with fire (or equivalent) in the title: Daughters of Fire by Barbara Erskine (from TBR books) – historical time-slip fiction switching between the present day and the first century CE Britannia, a mix of historical fiction, fantasy and romance. I was a bit disappointed with this book as although the essential story was good, 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.

5. A book with an emotion in the title: The Case of the Curious Bride by Erle Stanley Gardner (from TBR books) – a Perry Mason book, which I thought was far-fetched and unsatisfactory as Perry resorts to trickery, fooling everyone.

6. A book with lost or found (or equivalent) in the title: The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown (a new acquisition on Kindle) – pure escapist reading, this is a breathtaking race over 24 hours as Robert Langdon follows the clues, to rescue the his friend, Peter Solomon, a Mason. Not great literature but great entertainment.

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown: Book Notes

I read Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol back in July and never got round to writing about it at the time, so I’ve forgotten much of the detail. For pure escapism I really like Dan Brown’s books. I know lots of people criticise his writing but I find his books hard to put down once I’ve started reading them – I’ve read The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons as well as this one. They’re not great literature but they are great entertainment, even though this one follows the same formula – it’s a breathtaking race over 24 hours as Robert Langdon follows the clues, to rescue the his friend, Peter Solomon, a Mason. Because it’s so formulaic I knew what to expect (although not the detail), it’s full of cliff-hangers and the characters are stereotypes.

It’s long and complicated, full of coincidences and improbable situations, all of which I had no trouble accepting, and a terrifying and crazy villain, Mal’ahk. It’s also packed with detail about the Freemasons,the art and architecture of Washington D.C., and Noetic Science – ‘a fusion of modern particle physics and ancient mysticism’,  all of which was new to me and I found it fascinating. It helped that I read the Illustrated Edition on Kindle which has many photographs and illustrations and I kept checking facts on the computer too.

I don’t think it’s as good as either The Da Vinci Code or Angels and Demons, but that may because the first had the novelty factor and the second is set in Rome, a place I’ve visited and know more about than Washington D.C. It did make me want to visit Washington D.C. though. And I do intend to read his next book Inferno. I’ve read some of Dante’s Inferno and I’ve visited Florence so I’m keen to find out where Robert Langdon’s race against time takes him and how Brown incorporates the details of the Circles of Hell.

Although I didn’t read this to take part in the What’s in a Name Challenge I’ve realised that it does fit into the category of book with the word ‘lost’ in the title, making this the last book for me to complete the Challenge.

The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge

 I was absolutely fascinated by The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge, a novel about Captain Scott’s last Antarctic Expedition. It’s narrated by Captain Robert Falcon Scott and the other four men who died in the Antarctic having reached the South Pole – Petty Officer Edgar (Taff) Evans in June 1910; Dr Edward (Uncle Bill) Wilson, July 1910; Captain Scott: The Owner (Con), March 1911; Lt Henry Robertson (Birdie) Bowers, July 1911; and Capt Lawrence Edward (Titus) Oates, March 1912.

It’s fascinating not just as an account of the expedition, but also because it gets inside each man’s mind, it seemed to me, vividly describing the events as they progressed to the South Pole and the terrible conditions they had to endure. Beryl Bainbridge’s imagination and research combined make this a dramatic heroic story and an emotional roller-coaster set in the beautiful but deadly dangerous frozen landscape of the Antarctic.

Each character is distinctly drawn, each one revealing his thoughts, fears and hopes and the interaction between them reveals their personality clashes and friendships. The prejudices and class distinctions of the period come through strongly. The setting is superb – I could see the landscape and feel the dangers.

I finished reading this book nearly two weeks ago and apart from their final days one other episode stands out in my mind and that is the journey to the Emperor Penguin rookery at Cape Crozier undertaken by Wilson, zoologist Cherry-Garrard (Cherry) and Bowers. This section is narrated by Bowers. The journey was nearly seventy miles – Bowers described it:

I never thought the Owner would let us go, not with the Polar trek only three months off, but somehow Bill managed to talk him round. To reach the rookery where temperatures often register 100 degrees of frost, it’s necessary to scramble down cliffs exposed to blizzards sweeping ferociously across hundreds of miles of open snow plain. And all this in the dark! Exciting stuff, what? (page 133)

It took them far longer than they had anticipated and they endured dreadful conditions; at times they were ‘half delirious with exhaustion‘ and had ‘frost-bitten fingers bulging like plums.’ But Bowers thought:

It may be that the purpose of the worst journey in the world had been to collect eggs which might prove a scientific theory, but we’d unravelled a far greater mystery on the way – the missing link between God and man is brotherly love. (page 158)

Scott comes over as a sympathetic character, complicated, introspective and at times indecisive, and impatient at others. He is concerned that Amundsen will beat them to the Pole and is able to talk over his feelings with Wilson:

He understands me well enough to know that my continual harping on Amundsen’s  chances of beating us to the Pole isn’t down to self-interest, or a longing for glory, simply a desire to reach, in an endless process of addition and subtraction, a kind of mathematical peace. One hundred dogs, none of them presumably having fallen down a crevasse, must surely equal formidable odds.

It’s ironic that the same situation should be happening to me all over again. It’s barely three years since Shackleton sneaked off and nearly pipped me to the post. There again, I’d made no secret of my intentions. I’m not stupid enough to think of the Pole as mine, but I do detest underhandedness. (pages 116 – 117)

At times I had to remind myself that I was reading a novel, but then again there were passages where I had to remind myself that these events really did take place as they seemed so fantastical. Beryl Bainbridge has written a most remarkable book, full of facts seamlessly woven into the narrative, and full of emotion and feeling. It is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Reading The Birthday Boys has made me keen to read other books about the Polar expeditions and as I wrote in this post I have South with Scott and Race to The End to look forward to reading.

Note: The Birthday Boys fits into these Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, Mount TBR Challenge and What’s In a Name Challenge (book with a celebration in the title).

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).

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).

Ann Cleeves and Dead Water

I loved Ann Cleeves’s Shetland QuartetRaven Black, White Nights, Red Bones and Blue Lightning, so I was delighted to read her latest book, Dead Water, which takes the Quartet one step further. Actually, it’s the first book in a new Shetland Quartet, in which each book will be named after the four elements –  earth, air, fire and water. Each of the Shetland books reads well as stand-alones, but I think it’s better to read them in order as you can then follow the development of the main characters. And Dark Water does refer to events in earlier books.

In Dead Water Rhona Laing, the Fiscal, finds journalist Jerry Markham lying dead, drifting in a yoal, a traditional Shetland boat in Aith marina. Markham, a Shetlander visiting his parents, was apparently working on a story for a national newspaper – maybe about the development of renewable energy proposed for Shetland, or maybe his reason was more personal? Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez is not the man he once, since the death of his fiancé and at first he takes a back seat in the investigations, led by Detective Inspector Willow Reeves (originally from the Hebrides) who is drafted in from the Inverness team to head up the investigation. But eventually his natural curiosity takes over and he decides to help the inquiry, and his knowledge of the local community is vital in catching the killer.

I really enjoyed Dead Water, a mixture of mystery and the creation of  totally believable characters, set in Shetland Mainland.  The book is well paced, with the tension steadily building and Ann Cleeves writes with clarity, so that you can easily picture the people and the places she describes. She gives just the right amount of detail for the reader to feel immersed not only in the story but also in the life of the islands – the history and traditions, and the changes brought about the development of sustainable energy.

Last Tuesday evening D and I went to Main Street Trading bookshop where Ann Cleeves gave a talk about how she first went to Shetland and came to know and love the islands. She also talked about her decision to write crime fiction based in Shetland, and how she first pictured a scene in the snow  which eventually became the first book, Raven Black, after hearing stories of the islands from an old Shetlander.

She also spoke about the new BBC TV Shetland series, which she told us is being broadcast in March, beginning with an adaptation of Red Bones. Admittedly Douglas Henshall, playing the part of Perez, is not her vision of Jimmy Perez, after all, Perez has long dark hair with Spanish ancestry in his blood, whereas Douglas Henshall is  redheaded Scot, but she is happy both with him in the role and with the alterations that have been made. As she explained, once she has finished writing a book it passes out of her hands and each reader has their own individual interpretation. She cannot see what is in the minds of readers, but she can see the director’s interpretation in the TV version of her book! I’ve seen the trailer and it does look good.

Ann Cleeves is an excellent speaker, just as she is an excellent writer. On her website you read about her books and the forthcoming series and also download a leaflet Discover the Mystery of Shetland which has a map, beautiful colour photos and a commentary from Ann about the real and fictitious locations in her books. it’s very good – I was given a copy last Tuesday.

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)

What’s In a Name 5 Challenge Completed

I always enjoy this Challenge – my thanks to Beth for hosting the event. I’ve read a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, including three crime fiction books and two memoirs.

The categories and the books I’ve read are as follows:

A book with a topographical feature in the title: The Hanging Valley by Peter Robinson (crime fiction).

A book with something you’d see in the sky in the title: Blue Lightning by Ann Cleeves (crime fiction).

A book with a creepy crawly in the title: The Parasites by Daphne du Maurier.

A book with a type of house in the title: Death at the President’s Lodging by Michael Innes (crime fiction).

A book with something you’d carry in your pocket, purse, or backpack in the title: A Card from Angela Carter by Susannah Clapp (memoir).

A book with something you’d find on a calendar in the title: The Day Gone By: an Autobiography by Richard Adams.

The Day Gone By: an Autobiography by Richard Adams

This book has been sat waiting patiently for me to read it for some years now. I can’t remember when I bought it, but I bought it because I loved the other books by Richard Adams that I’d read – Watership Down, the story he originally told to his children to while a way a long car journey, Shardik, The Plague Dogs, and The Girl in a Swing.

The Day Gone By is his memoir of his early life from his 1920s childhood at home with his parents in Newbury, Berkshire, to his time at boarding school, then life at university in Oxford and his service in World War Two, up to his return home in 1946 and his first meeting with the girl who became his wife.

He was born in 1920, the youngest child of George and Lilian Adams. The early chapters are about his earliest memories, full of wonder at the natural world around him. It was his father, a doctor, who taught him to recognise and love birds and the countryside. These chapters convey vividly his family’s idyllic post-Victorian pastoral lifestyle. His talent for storytelling came out when he went away to pep school at Horris Hill at the age of 8:

To Horris Hill’s lack of electric light I owe more than I can tell. Indeed, it may very well have been the greatest blessing of my life, for it was this that made me a dormitory story-teller. The shadowy, candle-lit dormitories of winter; or those same dormitories in the fading twilight after sunset; these were the settings for a story-teller such as no electrically lit room could ever provide. (page 138)

At first the stories he told were from those he’d read, but when he had no more to tell he was forced to make them up. During the day he began thinking about what he was going to tell the other boys at night.

The Day Gone By is a detailed account of his early life throwing light on the society in which he lived, the class structure and attitudes and above all the changes that were brought about by the Second World War. His experiences during the war are equally as detailed, conveying the effect it had on his life:

To anyone at all who lived through it, in whatever capacity, the Second World War was an enormous, shattering experience. It was – and I say this in all seriousness – difficult to believe it was really over; one could not remember what things had been like before. Anyway, that no longer mattered much: they weren’t ever going to be the same again. (page 379)

His style of writing changed in the section on his wartime experiences, almost as though he was using the language he spoke at the time. I liked his reflections on life; his opinions on the terrible suffering and cruelties of the war years are especially moving.

The Day Gone By: an Autobiography by Richard Adams. Penguin Books. 1991. 399 pages.

This is the last book completing the What’s In a Name? 5 Challenge – a book with something you’d find on a calendar in the title.

What’s in a Name 6

At this time of year I often think that I won’t take part in any book challenges in the future and I was just thinking that the other day when I saw that Beth Fish Reads had posted about next year’s What’s in a Name challenge, which will run between January 1 and December 31, 2013. As I do like working through my unread books and making lists of what to read next I had to see if it would be easy to fit books to fit the challenge – of course I did! The idea is to read one book in each of the following categories:

1. A book with up or down (or equivalent) in the title: eg Deep Down True, The Girl Below, The Diva Digs up the Dirt

2. A book with something you’d find in your kitchen in the title: Loose Lips Sink Ships, The Knife of Never Letting Go, Breadcrumbs

3. A book with a party or celebration in the title: A Feast for Crows, A Wedding in Haiti, Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness

4. A book with fire (or equivalent) in the title: Burning for Revenge, Fireworks over Toccoa, Catching Fire

5. A book with an emotion in the title: Baltimore Blues, Say You’re Sorry, Dreams of Joy

6. A book with lost or found (or equivalent) in the title: The Book of Lost Fragrances, The World We Found, A Discovery of Witches

  • Books may be any form (audio, print, e-book).
  • Books may overlap other challenges.
  • Books may not overlap categories; you need a different book for each category.
  • Creativity for matching the categories is not only allowed but encouraged.
  • You do not have to make a list of books before hand.
  • You do not have to read through the categories in any particular order.
Here are my choices:
1. A book with up or down (or equivalent) in the title:
  • Ripley Under Water by Patricia Highsmith
  • Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen

2. A book with something you’d find in your kitchen in the title:

  • Gem Squash Tokoloshe by Rachel Zadok
  • The Various Flavours of Coffee by Anthony Capella
  • The Olive Readers by Christine Aziz
  • Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan
  • The Water Horse by Julia Gregson

3. A book with a party or celebration in the title:

  • Ralph’s Party by Lisa Jewel
  • A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep by Rumer Godden
  • The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge

4. A book with fire (or equivalent) in the title:

  • Daughters of Fire by Barbara Erskine
  • The Girl who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson

5. A book with an emotion in the title:

  • Book of Love by Sarah Bower
  • Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Sword of Shame by The Medieval Murderers
  • The Pursuit of Happiness by Douglas Kennedy
  • The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor
  • The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney

6. A book with lost or found (or equivalent) in the title:

  • The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly
  • The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva rice
  • The Lost Prophecies by The  Medieval Murderers
  • The Lost Army of Cambyses by Paul Sussman
  • The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

More than enough!

The Hanging Valley by Peter Robinson: a Book Review

There are 20 books in Peter Robinson’s Inspector Banks series (listed at Fantastic Fiction). I’ve read a few of them, completely out of order, but it doesn’t seem to matter too much as each one stands alone, although I suspect I’d get a better idea of Banks’s personal life if I had read them in order!

The Hanging Valley is the fourth one in the series.

Synopsis (from the back cover):

A faceless corpse is discovered in a tranquil, hidden valley below the village of Swainshead. And when Chief Inspector Alan Banks arrives, he finds that no-one is willing to talk. Banks’s frustration only grows when the identity of the body is revealed. For it seems that his latest case may be connected with an unsolved murder in the same area five years ago. Among the silent suspects are the Collier brothers, the wealthiest and most powerful family in Swainsdale. When they start use their influence to slow down the investigation, Inspector Alan Banks finds himself in a race against time…

My view:

As well as the Collier brothers, there are other suspects, including John Fletcher, a taciturn farmer, Sam Greenock and his wife Katy who own the local Bed and Breakfast guest house. There’s something not quite right about Katy, she’s obviously troubled and hiding something, and she is dominated by Sam. As I read on I thought the killer was first one character, then another and never really worked out who it was until quite near the end. I enjoyed the puzzle.

Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks had been transferred to Eastvale from London two years earlier and is still getting to know the area. He’d moved from London because of the sheer pressure of the job and the growing confrontation between the police and citizens in the capital had got him down. Crime in Eastvale had been slack until this murder happened. And it’s complicated, the locals close ranks and Banks has to work hard to get information, first of all to discover who the victim was and why he had been killed. The trail leads him abroad to Toronto before Banks discovers the truth.

The Hanging Valley is rich in description, both of the Yorkshire Dales and of Toronto. (Peter Robinson was born in Yorkshire and now lives in Toronto.) The hanging valley sounds a beautiful spot, a small, secluded wooded valley with unusual foliage:

… the ash , alders and sycamores … seemed tinged with russet, orange and earth brown. It seemed … like a valley out of Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’.

… the valley clearly had a magical quality. It was more luxuriant than the surrounding area, its ferns and shrubs more lush and abundant, as if, Neil thought, God had blessed it with a special grace. (page 5)

All of which makes the discovery of the corpse so shocking, with its flesh literally crawling. So, I enjoyed this book on two levels – the mystery and the writing itself. I did think, though, that it could have been shorter and more concise, and some of the characters were rather indistinguishable which is why I rated it 3/5.

  • Paperback: 324 pages
  • Publisher: Pan; New edition (8 Nov 2002)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 0330491644
  • ISBN-13: 978-0330491648
  • Source: I bought it

Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie: a Book Review

Death in the Clouds is a kind of locked room mystery, only this time the ‘locked room’ is a plane on a flight from Paris to Croydon, in which Hercule Poirot is one of the passengers.

In mid-air, Madame Giselle, is found dead in her seat. It appears at first that she has died as a result of a wasp sting (a wasp was flying around in the cabin) but when Poirot discovers a thorn with a discoloured tip it seems that she was killed by a poisoned dart, aimed by a blowpipe.

At the inquest the jury’s verdict is that the murderer is Poirot! However the coroner refuses to accept this and finds that the cause of death was poison with insufficient evidence to show who had administered the poison. All the other passengers and flight attendants are suspects and Poirot together with Inspector Japp, studies the passenger list with details of their belongings. There is a helpful plan of the cabin at the front of the book showing who sat where, including a crime fiction writer, a flute-playing Harley Street doctor, two French archaeologists, a dentist, a hairdresser, a Countess (formerly an actress), a woman who is a compulsive gambler, a crime writer and a businessman . Despite all this I was quite unable to work out who did it.

The question is who could have acquired the rare poison and how could it have been shot at Madame Giselle without anyone noticing that happening. Why would anyone want to kill her, and how were any of the suspects connected with her? Even when Poirot details the clues, including the Clue of the Passenger’s Baggage (and I read through the list a few times), I still didn’t work it out.

Apart from the ingenious mystery, which the coroner describes as the most astonishing and incredible case he had ever dealt with, there were other things I enjoyed in reading this book. First of all the ‘psychological moments’  in which people don’t notice what is happening in front of them because their attention is diverted. Then there is the way Christie makes fun of crime fiction writers and readers, making Japp comment that:

I don’t think it healthy for a man always to be brooding over crime and detective stories, reading up all sorts of cases. It puts ideas into his head. (page 63)

Poirot’s dénouement at the end of the book clears up all the confusion, detailing his impressions, precise ideas and methods in dealing with the case. Looking back through the book, all the clues were there, of course, but so cleverly concealed that in most cases I had overlooked them or not realised their significance. A most enjoyable book!

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; Masterpiece edition (Reissue) edition (3 Mar 2008)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 000711933X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007119332
  • Source: I bought the book
  • My rating 4/5

What’s in a Name 5

In September I completed this year’s What’s in a Name Challenge and I’ve been wondering whether or not to join in again for next year’s challenge. On the one hand, I’ve done it most years and it’s one of the few challenges that I’ve joined that I’ve finished. On the other hand I’m not over keen on reading a book based on the fact that it has a particular word in the title. But, then again I do like making lists and seeing if I can find enough of my unread books to match the categories.

So, I am going to take part, because I’ve gone through my books and found that I have more than enough books to finish the challenge and after all it only involves reading 6 books over the year. It’s hosted by Beth at Beth Fish Reads:

The categories and my choices are as follows:

A book with a topographical feature in the title.  I have lots of choice for this category – 

  • On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin
  • The Way Through the Woods by Colin Dexter
  • The Secret River by Kate Grenville
  • Hanging Valley by Peter Robinson
  • The Ghost Road by Pat Barker
  • The River Midnight by Lilian Nattel
  • Shadows in the Street by Susan Hill
  • The Island by Victoria Hislop
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy

A book with something you’d see in the sky in the title

  •  Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  • The Book of Air and Shadows by Michael Gruber
  • Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie

A book with a creepy crawly in the title – just one book!

  • The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

A book with a type of house in the title:

  • The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Steig Larsson
  • The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende
  • Wycliffe and the House of Fear by W J Burley
  • I’m the King of the Castle by Susan Hill

A book with something you’d carry in your pocket, purse, or backpack in the title:

  • The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Notes from an Exhibition by Patrick Gale
  • Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally
  • Village Diary by Miss Read
  • They Do It With Mirrors by Agatha Christie
  • Book of Love by Sarah Bower

A book with something you’d find on a calendar in the title:

  • The Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs
  • The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
  • The Day Gone By by Richard Adams (autobiography of the author of Watership Down)

What’s In a Name 4 Challenge – Completed

I’ve  finished the What’s In a Name Challenge, hosted by Beth Fish Reads, reading a book from each of the set categories. Apart from Evil Under the Sun, which was a new purchase the books were all from my To-Be-Read books. They are listed below with links to my posts on them:

1. A book with a number in the title – One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson
2. A book with jewelry or a gem in the title – The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
3. A book with a size in the title – Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
4. A book with travel or movement in the title – Exit Lines by Reginald Hill
5. A book with evil in the title – Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie
6. A book with a life stage in the title – Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden

I had read Little Women several times before, many years ago and I read it this time prior to reading a biography of Louisa May Alcott and her father – Eden’s Outcasts by John Matteson. I think re-reading Little Women has taught me to leave well-loved books in my memory.  Although some of the magic was still there I thought it was a dated, sentimental tale.

Four of the books are crime fiction, which seems to be my preferred genre this year. The book I enjoyed the most was Reginald Hill’s Exit Lines, which is an excellent crime fiction novel which kept me guessing until the end.

Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie: a Book Review

In Evil Under the Sun Poirot is on holiday in Devon staying in a seaside hotel – a seaside mystery instead of a country house mystery!

Here’s the blurb:

It was not unusual to find the beautiful bronzed body of the sun-loving Arlena Stuart stretched out on a beach, face down. Only, on this occasion, there was no sun! she had been strangled. Ever since Arlena’s arrival at the resort, Hercule Poirot had detected sexual tension in the seaside air. But could this apparent ‘crime of passion’ have been something more evil and premeditated altogether?

My thoughts:

It’s August, the sun is hot, people are enjoying themselves, swimming and sunbathing and yet Poirot remarks that the sight of the recumbent figures on the beach reminds him of the Morgue in Paris, ‘the bodies – arranged in slabs – like butcher’s meat!’  The other guests remark it’s an unlikely setting for crime but Poirot disagrees:

‘It is romantic, yes,’ agreed Hercule Poirot. ‘It is peaceful. The sun shines. The sea is blue. But you forget Miss Brewster, there is evil everywhere under the sun.’

And so it turns out, with the discovery of Arlena’s dead body. Arlena, who Major Barry describes as ‘a personification of evil’.

‘She’s the world’s first gold-digger. And a man-eater as well! If anything personable in trousers comes within a hundred yards of her, it’s fresh sport for Arlena!’

Her step-daughter, Linda hates her and wants to kill her, wishing she would die.

Arlena was strangled. Poirot  maintains that her murder has resulted from her character, and his investigations revolve around understanding exactly what type of person she was. The suspicion of guilt is cast over one person after another; either a man or a woman could have been strong enough to strangle Arlena and there are plenty of suspects. And even Poirot is puzzled because from the beginning it had seemed to him that one person was clearly indicated as the murderer but at the same time it seemed impossible for that person to have committed the crime.

Poirot describes the murder as a ‘very slick crime‘ and indeed it was perfectly planned and timed. At the end he explains at length how he collected together all the isolated significant facts and events to make a complete pattern to discover the identity of the murderer. Although I enjoyed this book I did think the explanation was too long and the characters  were a bit sketchy and sterotypical. It all seemed to be more of a puzzle solving exercise, than a captivating mystery.

Agatha Christie wrote Evil Under the Sun during 1938 and it was published in 1941, having first appeared as a serial in the USA at the end of 1940. I read it on my Kindle.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 416 KB
  • Print Length: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Harper (14 Oct 2010)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language English
  • ASIN: B0046H95QS
  • Source: I bought it

Reading this book completes the What’s in a Name 4 challenge.

What’s In a Name Challenge 2011 – Update

The What’s In a Name Challenge is hosted by Beth Fish Reads.

Challenge: to read one book from each category. I’ve now completed five out of the six categories – one more to go! The links go to my posts on the books:

1. A book with a number in the titleOne Good Turn by Kate Atkinson
2. A book with jewelry or a gem in the titleThe Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
3. A book with a size in the title – Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
4. A book with travel or movement in the title – Exit Lines by Reginald Hill
5. A book with evil in the title
6. A book with a life stage in the title – Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden

Crime Fiction Alphabet – O is for One Good Turn

We have reached the letter O in Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet and my book this week is:

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson

This is the second of her Jackson Brodie series. I read Case Histories, the first one, a few years ago and the third one, When Will There be Good News? just over 2 years ago, both of which I thought were excellent. So I had great expectations that this would be equally as good. Maybe it’s me, but I don’t think it is. It is good and I enjoyed it but I thought it was over complicated, especially at the beginning with so many different seemingly unrelated characters being introduced. It’s only near the end that you find out the connections and interactions between them all. And the ending did take me by surprise – a neat twist.

My problem with this book that I’d just get interested in one strand of the story and want to find out what happened next, when the action shifted to another set of characters. There is also too much detail, background information and flashbacks holding up the action for me to say it’s an excellent book.

But it is still a book that I had to finish; I had to find out what happened and work out the puzzle, because it is a puzzle. Like the Russian dolls within dolls (which also feature in this book), there is a thread connecting it all together. Set over four days an awful lot happens changing the characters lives for ever.

It’s summer in Edinburgh at Festival time when people queuing for a lunchtime show witness a road rage incident after Paul Bradley brakes suddenly to avoid hitting a pedestrian. The driver of the Honda behind him attacks his car with a baseball bat and then attacks Paul himself.  The one good turn comes from Martin Canning, the author of the Nina Riley mysteries, who stops the attack by throwing his laptop bag at the Honda driver hitting him on the shoulder.

One of the people in the queue is Jackson Brodie, who doesn’t want to get involved but who nevertheless gives Martin his mobile number and noted the Honda’s registration number. Amongst other witnesses are Gloria, the wife of an unscrupulous property developer, and her friend Pam. I got to like Gloria, a very sympathetically drawn character. Numerous other characters are involved – Jackson’s actress girlfriend, a failing comedian, exploited Eastern European workers for a housecleaning/escort agency called Favours, and Sergeant Louise Monroe and her teenage son, Archie, amongst others.

It’s complicated and full of coincidences, a very cleverly plotted book and as Jackson says:

A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen.

One Good Turn is also my entry in Beth’s What’s In a Name Challenge – a book with a number in the title.

  • Paperback: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Black Swan; Reprint edition (22 July 2010)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 0552772445
  • ISBN-13: 978-0552772440

What’s In a Name 4

Challenge completed!

The What’s In a Name Challenge, hosted by Beth Fish Reads is running for the fourth time. I took part in the first two, but missed out last year. I’m tempted to join in again in 2011. I just need to read one book from each category and I’ve gone through my To-Be-Read books to find these titles:

1. A book with a number in the titleOne Good Turn by Kate Atkinson
2. A book with jewelry or a gem in the titleThe Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
3. A book with a size in the titleLittle Women by Louisa May Alcott
4. A book with travel or movement in the titleExit Lines by Reginald Hill
5. A book with evil in the title Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie
6. A book with a life stage in the titleMolly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden

After the Fine Weather by Michael Gilbert

The title of this spy mystery book sets the scene; after the fine weather comes the snow. Set in Lienz in the Austrian Tyrol the onset of bad weather concides with an alarming sequence of events. Bald Kommt der Schnee:

In Lienz we call this Bellermanswoch. The Bellerman is the old man who goes round after the feast is over, cleaning up the tables and snuffing the candles. … But when the Bellerman has finished his work, when he has extinguished the last candle, the snow will come.

Laura Hart travels to Lienz to stay with her brother who is the British Vice-Consul there. On the train there she meets an American who warns her of the growing political tension in the area, with a group of Nazis, blowing up pylons and railways causing trouble between the Germans, Austrians and Italians.

When she witnesses a political murder and insists that the Italian arrested for the shooting is innocent she becomes involved in a dangerous game. Helped by the American and a Secret Service agent she attempts to leave the Tyrol.  I did find the politics quite confusing in this book, knowing next to nothing about it and the episode at the end involving what I took to be a variation of the Abominable Snowman was far-fetched. However, the book as a whole is fast-paced with lots of action and would probably make a good film – if it hasn’t done so already.

This book completes my reading in the What’s In a Name Challenge in the “Weather” category.

Cats

In August I read a beautiful little book- it was a birthday present – James Herriot’s Cat Stories. It was a great relief to read this book after some of the books (about war and disasters) I’d been reading lately and this book with its lovely illustrations by Lesley Holmes cheered me up immensely. That’s not to say it has no drama or desperate situations of the feline type that tugged at my heart strings. (An aside the heart does have strings – I saw them on Alice Roberts’ programme Don’t Die Young.)

I must have watched all of the programmes in the TV series All Creatures Great and Small about “James Herriot’s” vet practice in Yorkshire.  There are many James Herriot books and I’ve read a few of them in the past. This book contains ten short stories, all about cats. In the Introduction James writes that cats were one of the main reasons he chose a career as a vet. They have always played a large part in his life and and now he has retired they are still there “lightening” his days. When he studied to become a vet he was astounded that he couldn’t find anything about cats in his text book Sisson’s Anatomy of Domestic Animals. Yet when he began his practice there were cats everywhere and every farm had its cats. Things have moved on since then and now “Large, prestigious books are written about them by eminent veterinarians, and indeed, some vets specialise in the species to the exclusion of all others.”

Cats have always played a large part in my life too (see here and here). 

James Herriot’s Cat Stories is not large; in fact it’s very small (158 pages) but the ten stories clearly demonstrate his love of cats. Inevitably there are some spoilers in my summaries:

  • There is Alfred the Sweet-shop Cat, “a massive, benevolent tabby”, belonging to Geoff the sweet-shop owner. When he starts to lose weight and becomes gaunt and listless, Geoff too begins to wilt and become bowed and shrunken.
  • Oscar the Socialite Cat who loves people often goes missing as he visits his human friends. Everyone loves him.
  • Boris by way of contrast lives in household full of cats taken in mainly as strays by Mrs Bond. Boris is a “malevolent bully” who regularly beats up his colleagues, so that James was always having to stitch up ears and dress gnawed limbs.
  • Three stories are about Olly and Ginger were two little strays who came to live, not with the Herriots but who sat on the wall outside the kitchen window, too wild to actually venture into the house. When they become desperately ill will they let James treat them?
  • Emily, a dainty little cat, has adopted Mr Ireson, “a gentleman of the road”. When Emily becomes pregnant, seemingly full of kittens she needs a caesarean operation.
  • Moses – Found Among the Rushes. He was rescued by James, looked after by a farmer’s wife and adopted by a large sow. 
  • Frisk the Cat with Many Lives (don’t they all). Why does Frisk, old Dick Fawcett’s faithful companion keep falling unconscious?
  • Buster the Christmas Day Kitten – the little orphan born on Christmas Day who grows up playing with dogs and behaves like a feline retriever.

And here is the back cover with pictures of some of the cats.

Finally this book qualifies  for the What’s In a Name Challenge: a book with an animal in the title.

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy

I’ve had my copy of The Scarlet Pimpernel for a long time. I can’t remember how long and there is no date in the book – all I know is that it cost 3s 6d and I must have been about 11, 12 or 13 when I first read it. Once I started to read it this time I realised that I remembered very little of the plot, apart from the fact that it’s about the French Revolution and a band of Englishmen, led by the mysterious Scarlet Pimpernel,  rescuing French aristos from the guillotine. No-one knows his identity, the French hate him and are desperate to catch him whilst he is the toast of the British aristocracy – the Prince of Wales describes him to Chauvelin, the agent of the French government, as “the bravest gentlemen in all the world, and we all feel a little proud, Monsieur, when we remember he is an Englishman.”

And I hadn’t forgotten this little verse that that “six foot odd of georgousness as represented by Sir Percy Blakeney, Bart” had composed whilst tying his cravat:

We seek him here,
We seek him there,
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven?
Is he in hell?
That demmed elusive Pimpernel.

Everyone knows that Sir Percy is hopelessly stupid, but he is incredibly rich and as a leader of fashion he is the talk of the town and “his inanities were quoted, his foolish laugh copied by the gilded youth at the Almanack’s or the Mall.” His French wife, Marguerite is by contrast, a clever, witty woman, but she is trapped by Chauvelin into betraying the identity of the Pimpernel. Chauvelin had acquired a letter written by her brother revealing that he was working with the Scarlet Pimpernel – either she finds out who the Pimpernel is or her brother will go to the guillotine.

I wish I could remember whether I guessed the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel when I first read the book, but I do remember that I loved the romance and the action of this tale based loosely on the French Revolution. I was still spellbound by the romance and drama of it all. I’ve discovered that it start out as a play, starring Fred Terry (the brother of Dame Ellen Terry and great-uncle of Sir John Gielgud) as the Scarlet Pimpernel. There have been many films of the book and the role of the Scarlet Pimpernel has been played by many actors on stage and screen including Leslie Howard, Anthony Andrews, and Richard E Grant. Amazingly I have never seen any of them, so my mental vision of the characters is drawn straight from the book, which is what I prefer.

 I re-read this book as part of the Heart of a Child Challenge

It also qualifies for the What’s In a Name Challenge as a book with a plant in the title, because the Scarlet Pimpernel is not only the nickname of the hero but it is also the symbol with which he signs his messages.

 

 

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2007, Harper Perrenial 433 pages. Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction 2007.
This book is based on the Nigeria-Biafra War of 1967 –70 and I’m old enough to remember hearing about it at the time. Then I had little idea what it was all about – now I understand a bit more. Nigeria became a Republic in October 1960 and Half of a Yellow Sun begins in the early 1960s in Nsukka in the south eastern area where Ugwu becomes Odenigbo’s houseboy. The story centres on these two characters and Olanna, Odenigbo’s partner, her twin sister Kainene and her partner Richard. Odenigbo is a professor at the University and his house is the meeting place for academics who debate the political situation as it leads up to violence and the secession of Biafra as an independent state. The title of the book comes from the symbol on the Biafran flag, which was half of a yellow sun.

The novel moves forwards and backwards in time between the late and early1960s as the civil war proceeds. Focussing on the struggle between the north and the south, the Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa people, it brings home the horrors brought about by war, the ethnic, religious and racial divisions and the suffering that results. Ugwu at the start of the book is an ignorant young teenager from a poor village eager to learn but still steeped in the superstitions of his family – the old ways. By the end of the novel he has become a valued member of the family and is writing a history of his country. Richard, the white man in love with Kainene but not fully accepted into her world, is eager to be considered Biafran, but is still on the outside. He is in Nigeria studying African art – the Igbo-Ukwu roped pot – and is recruited into writing articles about the war for the outside world, but the story of the war is Ugwu’s to tell and not Richard’s. Olanna’s family is wealthy and even though they are Igbo, they cannot understand her relationship with Odenigbo who is committed to the Igbo cause and would prefer her to marry Madu, a major in the Biafran army. Once the war starts they are all drawn into the conflict, the situation spirals out of their control and they each react in differing ways.

The book explores the conflicts between nationalities, different cultures, different backgrounds and upbringing, between what is traditional and tribal and what is new. Although the violence and deprivations of the war are horrifying and form the dominant element in the story this is not just a war novel. It is also a novel about love and relationships, between parents and children as well as between men and women; about how people learn to adapt and cope with life.

I found the characters to be real, so much so that I could imagine I was there in the thick of things. I sympathised with Richard in his efforts to be accepted and suffered with Olanna when she was confronted with the horror of war and grieved over the plight of the refugees. It reminded me of Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart, which I read about 10 years or so ago and Adichie writes of his novels in an article at the end of her book:

“Achebe’s war fiction then, humane and pragmatic as it is, becomes a paean to the possibilities that Biafra held. The stories have an emotional power that accumulates in an unobtrusive way and stuns the reader at the end; there are sentences in them that will always move me to tears.”

She writes of her own work:

“If fiction is indeed the soul of history, then I was equally committed to the fiction and the history, equally true to the spirit of the time as well as to my artistic vision of it.”

How well she has succeeded. Half of a Yellow Sun is an emotional book without being sentimental, factual without being boring, and I was completely absorbed in it to the end.

Daniel Isn’t Talking by Marti Leimbach

We discussed Daniel Isn’t Talking last Wednesday evening at the book group. One of the others summed up my feelings when she said, “I was rather under whelmed by it”. I had very mixed feelings whilst reading. I was intrigued to know more about autism, and the book certainly made me a lot more knowledgeable, but I thought that some of the characters were two-dimensional and unconvincing.

Daniel is autistic, but at first Stephen his British father refuses to accept that there is anything wrong with him, whilst his American mother, Melanie, struggles to find out what is wrong with him and the best way of looking after him and helping him to talk, play and become as “normal” as possible.

I found it quite a disturbing read not just because of the difficulties and cruelties that autism carries with it, but also because of the way such illnesses are dealt with in our society. There is seemingly a stigma, autism is something that is not generally understood, and the causes are unknown, although there are various ideas circulating (eg the MMR vaccination). The book deals with loyalties, families and ways of coping with illness, health and ways of healing and there are many angry assaults on the education system and its ways of dealing with children who are different in one way or another. Daniel has an older sister, Emily, who is a happy, healthy, cheerful child with “a mop of blonde curls billowing around her face, smiling eyes, aquamarine.” Stephen insists she goes to a pre-school, whilst Melanie wants to keep her at home. Emily is not interested in school and wants to play, looking at children in the playground as though they are in prison. Stephen has his way and Emily goes to the pre-school and finds that what she likes best is going home.

It’s a book full of angst. One poignant scene that remains with me after reading the book is the scene in the supermarket where Daniel is having a tantrum, screaming, trying to hurl himself out of the trolley, grabbing biscuits when Melanie meets a woman who understands, is sympathetic and helpful. The other customers are watching, imagining, so Melanie thinks, that she is merely indulging a spoilt child. Next time I’m out shopping surrounded by screaming children I’ll remember this scene!

Melanie is paranoid in her antagonism towards special schools. The people who visited Melanie trying to enlist him at a school are described as “a horrible pair who came by with their clipboards and their raincoats, looking more like spies than anybody who should be near children. They regarded Daniel as one might a wild animal, admiring him from a safe distance as we did the tiger who paced his enclosure.” Well, this is a novel, but my experience is far from that (my daughter-in-law is a special needs teacher).

This book is a quick, easy read, although the subject is far from easy, and is good at portraying a mother desperately trying to help her autistic child. However, some of the other characters (Stephen, his parents, Veena, the cleaner and Larry, Melanie’s brother) come over as wooden stereotypes and I found the sub-plot of, the alternative play therapist, Andy as Melanie’s lover unconvincing. The blurb on the back cover says it’s “Powerful and moving, and also surprisingly funny. A love story in every sense.” Yes, it is powerful and moving, and also sad, but I didn’t find any humour and the love story that came over to me is that of a mother for her child.

Winter In Madrid by C. J. Sansom

The devastation, desolation and waste of war had me in tears as I was reading Winter In Madrid. I already knew from reading his 16th century crime thrillers that C. J. Sansom is a master storyteller and this book exceeded my expectations. It is an action packed thrilling war/spy story and also a moving love story and historical drama all rolled into this tense and gripping novel.

Sansom vividly conveys the horror and fear of the realities of life in Spain during the Spanish Civil War and the first two years of the Second World War. The opening chapter dramatically sets the tone for the book with the brutality of the Battle of Jarama in 1937 then leaps straight into the bombing of London in 1940. Then Harry Brett, traumatised by his injuries at Dunkirk is sent to Spain to spy for the British Secret Service. He is plunged into the terrible living conditions in Madrid where people are starving, children are left homeless to fend for themselves and wild dogs roam the rubble of bombed houses.

He turned into a square. Two sides had been shelled into rubble, all the houses down, a chaos of broken walls rising from a sea of shattered bricks and sodden rags of bedding. Weeds had grown up between the stones, tall scabrous dark-green things. Square holes in the ground half filled with green scummy water marked where cellars had stood. The square was deserted and the houses that had been left standing looking derelict, their windows all broken.

Harry had never seen such destruction on such a scale; the bombsites in London were small by comparison. He stepped closer, looking over the devastation. The square must have been intensively shelled. Everyday there was news of more raids on London – did England look like this now?

This is a long and detailed book, but it moves along rapidly, with believable characters, including the bullying Ambassador, Sir Samuel Hoare, Alan Hillgarth, the chief of intelligence (both of whom are real historical figures), diplomats, Spanish Monarchists and Falangists and the ordinary Spanish people. Franco’s Madrid is shown as a place where fear, poverty and corruption stalk the streets; where hatred and suffering are paramount. It’s a chilling picture, but Harry finds love too when he meets Sofia and plans her escape with him to England after he has completed his mission.

The question is will Franco maintain Spain’s neutrality and enter the war in support of Hitler? Harry’s cover is as an interpreter, whilst his mission is to make contact with Sandy Forsyth, who he had known at public school in England, gain his confidence and discover the truth behind the rumour that gold deposits have been discovered in Spain, which would boost the economy making Spain less reliant on British support. Harry, a reluctant spy, soon finds himself in danger. He is plagued by memories of another school friend Bernie Piper, an ardent Communist who had enlisted in the International Brigades and had disappeared, reported killed at the Battle of Jarama. Barbara, an ex- Red Cross nurse, now Sandy’s girlfriend and Bernie’s former lover is convinced Bernie was not killed She appeals to Harry for help in finding Bernie, and so the story moves to its climax.

 

With its haunting themes of corruption, murder, the power of authority and heroism Winter In Madrid captivated my imagination. I expect it will be made into a film but I don’t think I could bear to watch it after enjoying this book so much.

Note: This book qualifies for the following Challenges – From the Stacks (I’ve had it unread for months), the Chunkster Challenge (it’s 530 pages) and What’s In a Name?