Sunday Selection

Today I’ve not done much reading because I’ve been doing an index to my ABC Wednesday posts. Clicking on the link goes to the page and it is also linked in the Indexes tab at the top of the blog.

Other than that I’ve been reading Wherever You Go by Joan Leegant. I’ll be writing my thoughts about the book later on, but for the time being there is a discussion about it on Carrie’s Books and Movies blog.

I’ve read some more of Faulks on Fiction by Sebastian Faulks. So far I’ve read his thoughts on Robinson Crusoe, Tom Jones and Becky Sharp – all very interesting. I didn’t see the TV programmes, so it’s all new to me, although I have read these three books.

I also been looking through the newbooks magazine which came a couple of days ago. It’s time to decide which of the ‘free’ books to choose or indeed whether to pick any of them. Two of them are collections of short stories – not my favourite genre. The other two books look interesting – French Lessons by Ellen Sussman, but it’s written in the present tense, so I won’t bother with that. The last choice is more promising – Dark Matter: a Ghost Story by Michelle Paver. I’ve seen some good reviews of this, so I’ll read the extract and make up my mind later on.

Sunday Selection

Sunday seems to be the day when I start new books or at least think about starting new books. Today’s no exception, but it’s so lovely outside so I won’t be spending much of the day indoors reading – in the garden, maybe.

I thought I’d decided what I was going to read next – Gillespie and I by Jane Harris for one and Gormenghast, the second book in Mervyn Peake’s trilogy for another, and continue reading Wilful Behaviour by Donna Leon.

But then D finished his long-term reading of Joyce Carol Oates’s mammoth novel Blonde and passed it over to me. Blonde is a novel that

reimagines the inner, poetic and spiritual life of Norma Jean Baker – the child, the woman, the fated celebrity and idolized blonde the world came to know as Marilyn Monroe. (From the back cover)

I wanted him to write his thoughts on the book but I can’t persuade him. He tells me that he was always having to be conscious as he was reading  that Blonde is a novel and frequently checked in Richard Havers’s book, Marilyn in Words, Pictures and Music to make sure which was fact and which was fiction (we also have Barbara Leaming’s biography). We have DVDs of Marilyn’s films and as he was reading he watched the film that he was reading about (I watched one or two).  So now I’m eager to read Blonde.

Yesterday I received in the post (from the author) Tom Fleck: a novel of Cleveland and Flodden by Harry Nicholson. This is about a young farmworker who took part in the Battle of Flodden in the north-east of England, close to the Scottish border in 1513.  We live not far from Flodden Field and the 500th anniversary is coming up, with many events planned to commemorate the battle, so when Harry emailed me about his book I was immediately interested. As I do with each book I get I read the opening pages. I read enough to make me want to read on.

So now I’m stuck.  I can continue with reading Wilful Behaviour, but I want to have another book on the go – which book should I read first?

The Sunday Salon – Currently Reading …

The Sunday Salon is a place to talk about the books you’re currently reading.

My rate of reading has slowed down. I keep a record of books I’ve read on Goodreads with a target of reading 100 books this year. It’s not really my target but I just wanted to try out the widget on my blog (see the sidebar) and that meant I had to state a target. I’m not bothered if I don’t meet my ‘target’, but according to Goodreads I am now 3 books behind at my current pace, which does make me a bit self-conscious and think I’m not reading as fast as I should – which is ridiculous! My ‘slowness’ may have something to do with the fact I’ve got four books on the go at the moment and that two of them are long books – Titus Groan and The Bell, both of which I’ve read before.

[And I have been spending quite a lot of time bird-watching! Today I’ve been watching the baby collard dove being fed – video to follow later.]

On Friday I wrote about the beginning of The Bell, when I’d read about 25% of the book and I was full of enthusiasm for it. Reading on in the book since then my enthusiasm as waned as the action became bogged down in long descriptive passages on the characters’ thoughts and almost ground to a halt. This doesn’t seem to be the book I remember, or maybe those tedious passages went in one eye and out the other as rapidly as I read them. I’ll finish the book, though, to see if it improves towards the end. Maybe this is a book I shouldn’t have re-read!

Titus Groan, however, is standing up to the test of re-reading and is still as enjoyable as it was when I first read it. It too has long passages of description but they are far from tedious. I’m reading this as part of Farm Lane Books Readalong, where there’s an interesting discussion in progress. I shan’t be writing about this book each week, but reserving judgement until the end.

Other books I have on the go are lighter reads:

  • Gently by the Shore by Alan Hunter – the second Inspector Gently book. This isn’t as captivating as the first Gently book, but it’s ok. It’s really a period piece, originally published in 1956. A naked dead body is found on the shore, with no means of identification. Inspector Gently investigates, eating his peppermint creams and smoking his pipe.
  • The Doctor of Thessaly by Anne Zouroudi, the first book by this author that I’ve read. so far I’m finding it an excellent book if a little slow in getting to any action. The doctor who was supposed to be getting married didn’t turn up at the wedding ceremony in a little Greek village. Later on he’s found, having been blinded. It’s up to a mysterious fat man called Hermes Diaktoros to solve the crime.

I’m plodding along nicely with these books but still find myself thinking about what to read when I’ve finished them. I fancy an Agatha Christie and have a few to choose from, including this book which I bought last week:

Miss Marple and Mystery: the Complete Short Stories, some of which I’ve read in other collections, but still plenty of others I haven’t read.

I should be able to slot in a few of these this next week.

My Sunday Selection – Reading Today

I probably won’t be reading very much today as the sun is shining, the sky is a cloudless blue – and the garden needs lots of attention. At the moment I’m having a rest from mowing the lawn.

But there will be time to look at newbooks magazine – the latest copy of newbooks magazine arrived here a couple of days ago. This issue is full of interesting articles and a Crime Supplement, with short extracts from a number of books and author interviews.

Some that look interesting from the Crime Supplement are:

  • The Whispers of Nemesis by Anne Zouroudi – Hermes Diaktoros, ‘the inimitable Greek Detective’ in a story of long-kept secrets and of pride coming before the steepest of falls.
  • The House at Seas End by Elly Griffiths – the third Ruth Galloway investigation. In this one the mystery goes back to the Second World War with Britain threatened with invasion.
  • 1222 by Anne Holt – ‘a snowbound mountain pass, a derailed train, a mysterious carriage, an apocalyptic storm, an ancient hotel, murder and state secrets.’ Phew!!

The main magazine has as usual longer extracts from the free books (you have to pay the postage though) on offer. The one that takes my fancy is:

  • Death Instinct by Jed Rubenfeld, about a deadly attack on Wall Street in 1920. this begins: ‘Death is only the beginning; afterward comes the hard part.’

Sunday Salon – Historical Fiction

Historical fiction has long been a favourite genre and although these days I seem to be reading more crime fiction, it still has an irresistible draw for me. So, I was really pleased when my son gave me The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman as a Mother’s Day present today. It’s about the life and times of Richard III. I find Richard a fascinating person, accused of killing his nephews and I’ve read about him from Shakespeare’s play, Richard III to Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time and Alison Weir’s non-fictional The Princes in the Tower. Now I can become immersed in the period of the Wars of the Roses to Richard’s death at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.

More historical fiction came to my attention this morning when I read that the Walter Scott Prize Shortlist has been announced. This is the 2nd Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. Last year’s prize was won by Hilary Mantel for her novel, Wolf Hall. the winner will be announced on June 18th at the Borders Book Festival at Melrose.

The shortlist for the 2011 award is:

  • The Long Song by Andrea Levy
  • C by Tom McCarthy
  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
  • Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor
  • Heartstone by C J Sansom
  • To Kill A Tsar by Andrew Williams

The only one of these I’ve read is – Heartstone by C J Sansom. This is Sansom’s fifth book in his 16th century England, Matthew Shardlake series. Heartstone is set in 1545 as England goes to war with France. I thought it was good but not as good as his earlier books, but it is very good on the details of life in Tudor times. Sansom’s research is excellent, his characters are well drawn and the atmosphere and sense of place are convincing.

Andrea Levy’s The Long Song is the next book for discussion at my Book Club at the end of this month, so I’ll be reading it soon. I haven’t read any of Andrea Levy’s four earlier books so I don’t know what to expect. It’s set in Jamaica as slavery came to an end. At the back of my copy there is Bonus Material – Andrea Levy writes about how she came to write The Long Song. I think I’ll start by reading that.

I know very little about the other books, but as I wasn’t too keen on Tom McCarthy’s Remainder and I gave up twice with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, both of which I know other people rated highly, I may pass on those.  That leaves Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light which does sound appealing and I’ve downloaded a sample on Kindle to find out more. This article in The Scotsman has more details.

The Sunday Salon

Today I’ve been reading more from Eden’s Outcasts: the story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father. At long last, as I have been reading this book for ages, I have arrived at the time of Louisa’s life where she has written and published Little Women. Up to this point (about 60% of the book) most of it has been about Bronson Alcott, her father and it is Louisa who I find most interesting.

Louisa wrote in vortices – completely engrossed in her writing, with barely time for anything else, so intense was her concentration. Mostly she wrote in her bedroom at a desk Bronson had built for her, but sometimes she sat on the parlour sofa. Her family knew that if the bolster pillow next to her stood on its end they could speak to her, but if the pillow lay on its side they couldn’t disturb her. In two and a half months she had completed writing 402 manuscript pages and at the end of it she had briefly broken down.

Little Women was an instant success, the first printing of 2,000 copies sold out within days of the book’s release and another 4,500 copies were in print by the end of the year (1868). Three months later she had written the second part of Little Women – the book I know as Good Wives. She had

… plunged back into a creative cortex on November 1, vowing to write a chapter a day. She worked ‘like a steam engine’, taking a daily run as her only recreation and barely stopping to eat or sleep.  Falling behind the ambitious schedule she had set for herself, she spent her birthday alone’writing hard.’ (page 345)

She put her heart and soul into her writing.

Both Louisa and her father were complex characters and Matteson’s biography is detailed and in depth. It’s not a quick read, but then biographies never are in my experience.

The Sunday Salon

Yesterday I finished reading The Matchmaker of Kenmare by Frank Delaney and today I’ve been thinking what to write about it. I’ll publish my post on it later on this week. That has left me wondering what to read next alongside The Moonstone that I’m reading on my Kindle. I fancy something different from The Matchmaker, something more focused – maybe some crime fiction. So I looked at some of the books I’ve got lined up to read:

  • Tigerlily’s Orchids by Ruth Rendell. This was published last year which according to the Daily Mail is ‘Ruth Rendell … back to her creepy best.’  And  The Sunday Times is quoted as revelling ‘in the menacing potential of stillness … The suspense is genteel, but palpable … Ruth Rendell is in full control of her craft here.’ Ruth Rendell is an author I usually enjoy reading very much.
  • The Blood Detective by Dan Waddell, who is a new-to-me author. I’ve been enjoying his blog posts on Murder is Everywhere for a while so I looked for his books in the library. This is his first novel and it won the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger in 2009.  Before that he had written the book that accompanied the BBC TV series Who Do You Think You Are?, so it’s not surprising that The Blood Detective features a genealogist specialising in compiling family trees.
  • Drawing Conclusions by Donna Leon, published in hardback on 7 April 2011, my copy is from the publisher William Heinemann. This is the 20th Commisario Brunetti novel – he is called to investigate the death of an elderly woman who apparently died from a heart attack, although he thinks there is more to it. This looks so good.

As we’re halfway into March and I’ve got until the last Tuesday in the month when my book group meets to read Shirley Williams’s autobiography, Climbing the Bookshelves, I’d better get on with reading that. … But I just want to peek into the others first.

Read, Reading, To Read – Sunday Salon

I’ve just finished reading Exit Lines by Reginald Hill, a Dalziel and Pascoe novel – my post to follow. I’m almost up-to-date with reviews of books I’ve read recently, just Exit Lines and Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden to do.

As usual when I’ve finished one book I’m not sure what to read next. I’m still reading Eden’s Outcasts: the story of  Louisa May Alcott and Her Father and have yet to get going again on The Matchmaker of Kenmare by Frank Delaney, but I fancy reading something different.

I go to a face-to-face book group and the next book we’ll be discussing is Climbing the Bookshelves by Shirley Williams. I think I’ll start reading it soon. I know very little about her, other than the bare facts that she was a member of the Labour party for years before becoming one of the founders of the Social Democratic Party, one of the ‘Gang of Four’. I particularly like the title of this autobiography, which came about as she and her brother liked challenges; one challenge being her

parents’ bookcases which ran from floor to ceiling like climbing-frames, with the added zest of forbidden books on the top shelf. Soon after I could read, I sneaked Havelock Ellis and Marie Stopes from that top shelf. I had learned from my brother that these were naughty books. They turned out to be very boring, but I was amazed by one illustration, a blurred spot underneath which was written: ‘This photograph of a human egg is several times life-size’. (page 3)

Although we’re not meeting until the last week in April I think I’d better start reading this soon as autobiographies/biographies take me longer to read than novels.

But I’d like to fit in something else as well. I have now built up quite a lot of books and samples on my Kindle and having watched some of the My Life in Books programmes last week I’m quite keen to read some of the books mentioned – such as Black Beauty, Crime and Punishment, The Moonstone, Treasure Island and Nicholas Nickleby, all of which I have at my fingertips. As usual, my wishes run away with me – so many books and not enough time to read all of them. And my reading time has been reduced recently as I have started to go to an art group. Painting, even though I’m terrible at it or maybe because I’m so inexperienced and lacking in talent, is just as time-consuming as reading – but it is so very enjoyable.

Sunday Salon – This Weekend

Not a lot of reading has been done this weekend as we have been visiting our son and family, walking and babysitting.

I’ve had a very brief session with True Grit by Charles Portis, which is progressing nicely. This novel has a very realistic feel about it, not that I’m at all familiar with the American West, US Marshalls and tracking down killers of course. What I mean is that the dialogue is lively and fresh – even if I don’t understand all the Westernisms – and the characters come over as real people. It won’t take me long to finish it and already I’m wondering what to read next.

My choices are:

  • An Agatha Christie book – maybe The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
  • Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson – inspired by our walk today on Yellowcraigs Beach with its view of the Island of Fidra, Stevenson’s inspiration for the book (more on this beautiful place in another post).
  • Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deidre Madden – because I keep meaning to read this book!
  • The Small Hand: a Ghost Story by Susan Hill – because it’s due back at the library soon.
  • The Matchmaker of Kenmare by Frank Delaney, which I’ve started and not finished.

Coming up tomorrow – Crime Fiction Alphabet – the letter F.

Sunday Salon

I was looking through the Radio Times yesterday to see if there are any programmes of interest this week and discovered that the BBC have launched a year-long season celebrating books. Starting last night with Sebastian Faulks’s 4 programme series Faulks on Fiction on BBC2. I haven’t watched it yet – it’s still available on BBC iPlayer and on BT Vision. This first programme is about the Hero and Heroism; how ideas  have developed over the last three centuries from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe to Martin Amis’s John Self in Money.

Tomorrow night on BBC4 at 8.30 pm there is The Beauty of Books, a new series of 4 programmes looking at the importance of books from early texts to the present day paperbacks. The first programme focuses on the oldest surviving Bible – the Codex Sianaticus.

That programme is followed at 9.00 pm by the Birth of the British Novel, examining the social and political history of 18th century Britain – another look at Robinson Crusoe and the literary innovations from Tristram Shandy to Evelina.

Robinson Crusoe was based on the real life adventures of Alexander Selkirk – see my other blog for a photo of his statue in Lower Largo, Fife where he was born.

Also starting this month is a BBC2 chat show with Anne Robinson talking to guests including P D James, Robert Harris, Clare Balding and Sister Wendy Beckett. On World Book Night on 5 March The Culture Show has a literary evening with Sue Perkins on Books We Really Read.

Later in the year Arena looks at Dickens on film, there’s a BBC4 adaptation of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and a new version of Great Expectations on BBC1.

And that’s without looking at the radio programmes – today it’s Bookclub on Radio 4 at 4.00 pm with James Naughtie talking to Tim Butcher about his bestselling travel book Blood River, followed by Poetry Please at 4.30 pm.

There won’t be much time for actual reading!

Sunday Salon

Reading today:

Eden’s Outcasts: the Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson. I’m making heavy weather of this book, mainly because I’m finding Bronson Alcott such a difficult person. I’m only reading a few pages each morning, which is about all I can put up with Bronson’s self-centred approach to life.

It will take me a while to finish this book as it’s over 400 pages long. So far, I’m up to page 118, and Bronson has tried and failed at almost everything he has undertaken in his search for perfection. His efforts at running a school have failed and he is about to embark on a new project – a self-sufficient commune, a ‘beacon of morality in a fallen world.’  This was to be ‘an earthly heaven‘, anything that came from the work of slaves was excluded, they would do away with money, shun the use of animal products and rely as little as possible on animals for work.

He asked Emerson to join him in his venture and also to back him financially. Emerson refused and wrote in his diary:

For a founder of a family or institution, I would as soon exert myself to collect money for a madman. (page 114)

I have to agree with Emerson.

There has been little yet in this book about Louisa but I’m hoping that will soon change as she is now 11 and beginning to rebel against her father, who baffles him with her stubbornness.

I’ve also started to read Perfume: the Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind. I’m not sure yet what I think of this novel. It begins well, grabbing my attention with a description of the birth of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille in Paris just before the French Revolution began. The description of the smells of Paris at that time is breath-taking in its awfulness:

The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells of mouldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlours stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber-pots. The stench of sulphur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese, and sour milk and tumorous disease.  (page 3)

Grenouille born in this stink, is not an attractive character either. Having no odour of his own but a highly developed sense of smell, he is a strange character to say the least. On the trail of an elusive but exquisite smell he tracks it down to a young girl and kills her to possess  her scent for himself.

Peter Ackroyd is quoted on the back cover:

A meditation on the nature of death, desire and decay.

I’m reserving judgement for the time being.

Sunday Salon – P G Wodehouse

Years ago I was a Jeeves and Wooster fan and read as many of these books by P G Wodehouse that I could find in my local library. I also liked the excellent TV version with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. So when my book group decided our next book would be any Wodehouse book  I was quite pleased. I’d read the first Blandings Castle book, Something Fresh a couple of years ago and enjoyed it. I don’t own any Wodehouse books so went to the library to see what was on the shelves. I came home with Summer Moonshine, first published in 1938, Jeeves in the Offing, published in 1960 and Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, first published in 1963.

So far I’ve read Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, which I finished this morning. Bertie Wooster goes to Totleigh Towers, the home of Sir Watkyn Bassett and his daughter Madeline, who is engaged to Gussie Fink-Nottle, but under the impression that Bertie is desperately in love with her – which he isn’t, of course. When Madeline insists that Gussie becomes a vegetarian he rebels and now no longer wants to marry her. Bertie is horrified as that will mean that Madeline will turn to him. He hot foots it to Totleigh Towers, despite her father’s intense dislike of him to bring about a reconciliation.

Thank goodness for Jeeves, who accompanies Bertie and helps him out of seemingly impossible situations. The events all conspire against Bertie who prides himself on his ‘stiff upper lip’:

It’s pretty generally recognised at the Drones Club and elsewhere that Bertram Wooster is a man who knows how to keep the chin up and the upper lip stiff, no matter how rough the going may be. Beneath the bludgeonings of Fate, his head is bloody and unbowed, as the fellow said. In a word, he can take it.

But I must admit that as I crouched in my haven of refuge I found myself chafing not a little. Life at Totleigh Towers, as I mentioned earlier, had got me down. There seemed no way of staying put in the darned house. One was either soaring like an eagle on to the top of chests or whizzing down behind sofas like a diving duck, and apart from the hustle and bustle of it all that sort of thing wounds the spirit and does no good to the trouser crease. And so, as I say, I chafed. (page 152)

It’s a very easy book to read, and the slang is interspersed with many literary and Biblical references, which I enjoyed, but I didn’t find it as riveting or as funny as I thought it would be – as the Jeeves books were in my memory. I suppose the farcical nature of it all eventually wormed its way into my subconscious and by the end of the book I found myself warming to it more than at the beginning and looking forward to reading the other two books.

Sunday Salon – Current Books

This week I’ve finished reading two crime fiction books:

and posts on these books will be on my blog this coming week.

I’m still reading Eden’s Outcast: the story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson. So far I’ve been reading about Bronson Alcott and his unorthdox ideas about educating and bringing up children.  It was quite a coincidence I thought, when I was reading the Daily Express in the coffee shop recently and came across a review of Fruitlands: The Alcott Family and their Search for Utopia by Richard Francis. The reviewer describes this book as a

… richly textured history of the life and times of a back‑to‑nature community in 19th-century America. It was called Fruitlands, though Fruitcakes would have been more apt.
(Read more from this review.)

I haven’t got up to this venture so far in Eden’s Outcasts. There are many entries in the index under ‘Fruitlands’ so I expect to find out much more about it. His career as a teacher was not a success and it seems that his venture into communal farming wasn’t either.

I spent other reading time this week downloading more books onto my Kindle and have read the opening paragraphs of most of them. It really is so easy to get carried away and add more books to my to-be-read lists! But I only bought one book this week, so that’s not too bad.

It’s Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose and it’s been on my wish list for a long time. I read fairly quickly and know that I often read too quickly to take in all the detail. Prose writes that reading quickly can be ‘a hindrance‘ and that it is ‘essential to slow down and read every word‘. She also contradicts the advice to novice writers ‘to show, not tell‘, when ‘the responsibility of showing should be assumed by the energetic and specific use of language‘. Using Alice Munro’s short story Dulse as an example, she says:

There are many occasions in literature in which telling is far more effective than showing. A lot of time would have been wasted had Alice Munro believed that she could not begin her story until she had shown us Lydia working as an editor, writing poetry, breaking up with her lover, dealing with her children, getting divorced, growing older, and taking all the steps that led up to the moment at which the story rightly begins.

Most interesting, I thought.

I still haven’t got used to Kindle’s use of locations as opposed to page numbers – the extract above is from Location 409 – 12. Nor have I mastered the technique of transferring my highlighted passages and notes from the Kindle to the computer!

I’m also reading The Matchmaker of Kenmare by Frank Delaney. This is an Advance Uncorrected Proof; the book is scheduled to be on sale on 8 February. It’s the first book I’ve read by Delaney, described by the publisher as a

… lush and surprising historical novel, rich as a myth, tense as a thriller …

From what I’ve read of it so far I’d go along with that description, except for the tenseness – but it’s early days yet. It’s set in 1943 in Ireland, a neutral country in the Second World War. It’s a long book and takes its time in setting the scene and introducing the characters. It promises well.

Sunday Salon – the First Books of 2011

My reading this year has been from books I’d started in December and I’ve now finished these – Little Women by Louisa May Alcott and Just Me, Sheila Hancock’s autobiography. I borrowed Just Me from my local library. It interested me, not because Sheila is a ‘celebrity’ but because it’s about her life as a 75 year old woman, recently a widow and I wondered what she had to say. She comes across as a down-to-earth person, feisty and open about her views on life and her beliefs.

I’m still reading Eden’s Outcasts: the Story of Lousia May Alcott and her Father by John Matteson and I’m also reading a crime fiction book, Payment Deferred by Joyce Holms.

Much of my reading time this week, however, has been on my new Kindle. I’ve spent  hours learning how to use it, loading in free books, mainly classics and starting to read quite a few of them. I’ve bought one book – Ink in the Blood by Hilary Mantel and I’ll write a separate post about this remarkable little memoir in a few days’ time.

I’m enjoying the experience of reading on my Kindle but it certainly won’t replace reading printed books. For one thing I have plenty of those still waiting to be read and for another it still hasn’t got the feel of a ‘real’ book for me. That may come but for now the Kindle is another source of reading material and not a substitute.

I do like a number of things about it – the weight and ease of handling it is obvious. I also like being able to look up the meanings of words so easily – just a click and up pops a definition. I like being able to go immediately to where I’m up to and also find locations when I’ve highlighted passages. I haven’t tried making notes yet or using pdfs. I like the ease of acquiring books – too easy maybe for a bookworm like me, but so far I have been restrained – and of downloading samples. I like the customer reviews and the quick links to wikipedia and Google.

I can only think of a couple of downsides to using it and that is that the page size is a little on the small side for me – I’m ‘turning’ the pages too quickly on a larger font size and the smallest size is a bit too small for me. And it’s going to add to my TBR list very quickly!

Next up on my blog tomorrow –  Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet begins with the letter A.

Sunday Salon – Current Books

The snow is slowly retreating with the slight thaw we had yesterday, the fir tree is green again, but there’s no green anywhere else. It’s still mainly a white world.

In keeping with the weather my current reading is Frozen Moment by Camilla Ceder. It’s set in Sweden at Christmas time – well it keeps flashing back to an unspecified season in 1993, but it’s mostly a cold, snowy scene. I haven’t read much beyond the first murder – a man is found shot in the head and he was also run over repeatedly for good measure. I know from the blurb that there is another murder and the police are baffled.

As I’ve finished the two autobiographies I was reading last week I’ve started another – Just Me by Sheila Hancock. I haven’t read much of this yet either. Sheila is trying to come to terms with the death of her husband, John Thaw and has decided she needs to keep busy. She has put the house in France that she and John loved on the market and decided to go travelling. As she writes about her current life she also reminisces about the past. So far I’m enjoying her candour and easy style of writing.

Sunday Salon – Non-Fiction

I’m often reading more than one book at a time, sometimes as many as four or more. Sometimes I think it would be better to read just one at a time but that rarely happens. A library book may be due back and I can’t renew it so that has to take precedence, or one of the books I’m reading may be so compelling that I have to finish that one and I drop the others for a while.

At the present I’m reading two books and both of them are non-fiction, which is a novelty for me. I usually have one non-fiction on the go along with one or more fiction books, so not reading any fiction is very strange for me. Both my non-fiction books are autobiographies and are riveting and remarkable books. They are:

  • Agatha Christie: An Autobiography
  • Seeing Things: a Memoir by Oliver Postgate

I’ve written some posts already about Agatha Christie’s book and will link to those in my Author Index. I’m nearly at the end of it now, but she is only still writing about 1943. She wrote the Autobiography in 1965 and the twenty intervening years are compressed into 25 pages – as she wrote ‘Time has altered for me, as it does for the old.’ (page 525). I’ll try to write a summary post about the book as a whole when I’ve finished it.

Oliver Postgate’s book is absolutely amazing. I’m enjoying it on several levels. There are the autobiographical details of the chronology of his life, the fascinating accounts of how he created those wonderful TV films of Ivor the Engine, The Clangers, Noggin the Nog and Bagpuss, and his own philosophical thoughts.

It’s quite difficult to write about such books as a whole but I’ll try to concentrate on what I most liked about them, which in both cases is a lot.

Now, after sorting out what to buy the grandchildren for Christmas, which of course will include some books, I need to decide what to read next – I think it will be fiction for a while.

Sunday Salon – Sunday Selection

Recently the weekend is the time when I’ve just finished a book and am deciding what to read next. This weekend is no exception. Yesterday I finished Mary Webb’s Gone to Earth, a book I first read as a young teenager. This is a dramatic romantic tragedy, first written in 1917. It tells the story of Hazel Woodus and her marriage to Edward Marston, the gentle, local church minister. Hazel is an innocent, a child of nature, wild and shy and a protector of all wounded and persecuted things. She becomes the prey of John Reddin, the squire of Undern who is obsessed by her. I’ll write more about it in a later post.

Because I enjoyed Gone to Earth so much it’s hard to find a suitable book to read next.  I have started All Bones and Lies by Anne Fine, which is the choice for my local book club. But so far I’m not sure if I want to finish it. It’s about Colin and his mother, who could complain for Britain. He has a twin sister who is estranged from her mother, making up a unhappy family who don’t get on. It’s about old age and the problems of carers and  up to now I’m not finding it at all uplifting. It paints a sad picture of the frustrations of old age and the problems of everyday life. I’ll give it a few more pages before deciding whether to finish it or not.

Other than that book, I have several library books I could read next.

  • The Beacon by Susan Hill – a short book (154 pages), examining truth, mental health and memory. Maybe that’s not right for me today as it sounds like another family with problems.
  • Missing Link by Joyce Holms – a new author for me, this book is a murder mystery a case for the detective duo Fizz and Buchanan. This one looks promising.
  • The Missing by Andrew O’Hagan – about people who disappear from society, a merging of social history and memoir. Described on the back cover as ‘elegantly written, affecting and intelligent.’

I’ll also look at some of my own books, to reduce the growing pile of to-be-read books. I started A S Byatt’s The Children’s Book a while ago. I think I’ll start that one again, or maybe look at Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, or a shorter book such as The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch.

Although writing posts like this does help a bit to clarify my thoughts, sometimes I just can’t decide what to read next and today is one of those days.

Sunday Salon – Book Connections

The Sunday Salon is the place to meet and blog about the books we’re reading.

This morning I read some more from Agatha Christie’s book An Autobiography. It’s now 1917 and Agatha is working in a hospital dispensary in Torquay and also studying to take her Apothecaries Hall examination so she could dispense for a medical officer or a chemist. As part of her training she had instruction from a proper commercial chemist – a Mr P, one of the principal pharmacists in Torquay. She described him as

… a rather funny-looking little man, very roundabout and robin redbreast looking, with a nice pink face. There was a general air of childish satisfaction about him. (page 261)

He once showed her a piece of deadly curare that he carried around with him in his pocket. Curare once it has entered the bloodstream paralyses and kills you. He said he carried it in his pocket because it made him feel powerful. Agatha often wondered about him afterwards. In spite of his cherubic appearance she thought he was possibly a dangerous man and years later used her memory in writing The Pale Horse.

I then picked up H R F Keating’s book A Detective at Death’s Door and started reading it, whilst drinking a cup of coffee. I had intended reading one of my own books but this library book was closer to hand than any of my own books. In this book Superintendent Harriet Martens is just recovering from a nearly fatal dose of aconitine. Her husband, John recognised the symptoms from reading their description in an imaginary Agatha Christie book, Twisted Wolfsbane – aconitine is also known as wolfsbane.  Then a few pages later I came across this coincidence – Harriet quoted the passage in Agatha Christie’s An Autobiography about the chemist carrying round a piece of curare – the same passage I’d read half an hour or so earlier.

Sunday Selection

This morning I finished reading A Caribbean Mystery by Agatha Christie. I read it very quickly as it’s easy reading and although sprinkled throughout with lots of red herrings it wasn’t too difficult to guess the outcome. I’ll write about it later, along with three other books I’ve read recently.

I’m wondering which book to read next. I have a pile of library books – new ones I borrowed this week:

I think I’d better get on with reading Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday as that is the next book we’re discussing at the book club at the end of October. It’s a matter of timing it right so that I finish it in time but not too soon so that I’ve forgotten about it before the meeting. It’s actually a book that I’ve ignored in the past as the title doesn’t appeal to me – the idea of  fly fishing is not guaranteed to fill me with desire. I have started it, but chapter one isn’t inspiring me, with its details of migratory salmonids, the evolution of salmon parr and feeding conditions. I shall persevere and hope it improves.

Meanwhile, my mind is wandering towards the library books, even though I have two non-fiction books from LibraryThing that I feel I should read soon – why is it that books that sound so interesting suddenly lose their attraction when I start to feel the slightest bit under pressure to read them by a certain date? A hangover from my working life, maybe when I had to produce reports to deadlines.

Another thing too – why do I borrow so many library books when I have plenty of my own still to read? If I didn’t have to return books then I wouldn’t be tempted to borrow more – maybe D should go on his own to take my books back!

Back to the library books, I think I’ll look at Solar by Ian McEwan. I like his books but having read somewhere that this isn’t as good as others and I wondered if it may contain a bit too much about physics for me I decided not to buy it, but to check it out if I saw it in the library. At least, it starts off well, as Michael Beard’s marriage appears to be disintegrating and he can’t stand it – the shame  and inconvenient longing he has for his wife. It does make me want to read on.

I borrowed the other books because I like the authors – apart from The Autobiography of the Queen by Emma Tennant and Mr Monk goes to the Firehouse by Lee Goldberg. I haven’t read anything by these two authors and they are impulse loans. The Goldberg book caught my eye because of its title, which intrigued me as it didn’t convey anything at all to me. On the cover it’s advertised as being based on the Television Series – an American series, I assume, as I’ve never heard of it. If anyone knows this series I’d love to hear about it. Is it any good?

The Autobiography of the Queen attracted me when I read on the front cover that this is ‘hot on the heels of Alan Bennett’s fictional account of the Queen.’ I’ve read that and thought it was very amusing. I thought I needed something light and amusing to counter-balance the crime fiction and serious books I seem to have been reading lately.

Sunday Salon – Today’s Books

My reading today, so far has been just a short portion of Agatha Christie’s Autobiography and some more of A Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve. AC’s autobiography is very entertaining. At the moment I’m still in her childhood, so a long way to go yet. I’m reserving judgement for a while on A Change in Altitude. I always used to enjoy Anita Shreve’s books, but latterly I’ve found them not quite so much to my liking. This one is set in Kenya, a very different location and so far it’s quite depressing. I don’t think it’s going to lighten up much either.

Anyway, I’m putting these two books to one side for the rest of today and will be reading Quite Ugly One Morning by Christopher Brookmyre, because tomorrow I’m going to his Author Event in Livingston. I thought I’d get in the mood early. Quite Ugly was his debut novel in 1996. This is the synopsis from his website:

Yeah, yeah, the usual. A crime. A corpse. A killer. Heard it.

Except this stiff happens to be a Ponsonby, scion of a venerable Edinburgh medical clan, and the manner of his death speaks of unspeakable things.

Why is the body displayed like a slice of beef? How come his hands are digitally challenged? And if it’s not the corpse, what is that awful smell?

A post-Thatcherite nightmare of frightening plausibility, Quite Ugly One Morning is a wickedly entertaining and vivacious thriller, full of acerbic wit, cracking dialogue and villains both reputed and shell-suited.

Brookmyre’s books have such great titles, for example – One Fine Day in the Middle of the NightAll Fun and Games until Somebody Loses an Eye, and A Big Boy Did It and Ran Away. His latest book is Pandaemonium.

Sunday Salon – Current Books

I finished reading The Fall by Simon Mawer yesterday. It is the story of Rob Dewar and Jamie Matthewson from their childhood up to Jamie’s death 40 years later. But it’s also the story of their parents and how their lives are interlinked. I found it enthralling, one of those books that make me want to look at the ending to see how it all turns out. I managed to stop myself, however, and read impatiently to the end anxious to know what actually happened between them all.

It moves between the two generations beginning in the present day, when Rob hears on the news that Jamie, a renowned mountaineer has fallen to his death in Snowdonia. No one is sure whether it was an accident or suicide. Then it moves  back 40 years to the time when the two boys met, both fatherless – Jamie’s dad, Guy went missing when climbing Kangchenjunga and Rob’s parents are divorced, and back yet further again to 1940 when Guy Matthewson met the boys’ mothers – Meg (later calling herself Caroline) and Diana. And so  the drama unfolds in the mountains of Wales and the Alps, culminating on the North Face of the Eiger.

The Fall is not just a gripping account of the dangers of rock climbing and mountaineering, but it’s also a love story, with the intricacies of relationships, and love, loss and betrayal at its core. The love stories and the climbing scenes are both shown through the imagery of falling with all its ambiguities – actual falls, falling in love, falling pregnant and falling from grace. It’s beautifully written, capturing not only the mountain landscape but also London during the Blitz. This is the second excellent book by Mawer that I’ve read, even though it has a rather predictable ending.

I’m still reading Agatha Christie’s  An Autobiography and will be for some time as it is long and detailed – 550 pages printed in a very small font, which makes it impossible for me to read it in bed. But it is fascinating. It’s not just an account of her life but is full of her thoughts and questions about the nature of life and memory:

I am today the same person as that solemn little girl with pale flaxen sausage-curls. the house in which the spirit dwells, grows, develops instincts and tastes and emotions and intellectual capacities, but I myself, the true Agatha, am the same. I do not know the whole Agatha. The whole Agatha, so I believe, is known only to God.

So there we are, all of us, little Agatha Miller, and big Agatha Miller, and Agatha Christie and Agatha Mallowan proceeding on our way – where? That one doesn’t know – which of course makes life exciting. I have always thought life exciting and I still do. (page 11)

I’ll be writing more about Agatha Christie on Wednesday for my contribution to the Agatha Christie Blog Tour.

The Sunday Salon Secondhand Books

One of my favourite bookshops is Barter Books in Alnwick, so a trip there is always a treat. We were actually on our way to visit friends in Lancashire but stopped for a coffee in the shop, which is in a converted railway station, absolutely full of all kinds of books. I didn’t have any books in mind and just browsed the shelves, finding these, all in great condition:

  • An Omnibus edition of Wycliffe by W J Burley – Wycliffe and the Last Rites and Wycliffe and the House of Fear. I haven’t read any of the Wycliffe books before but if these two are anything to go by I’ll be looking for more. They are murder mysteries set in Cornwall where Burley lived. He was a schoolmaster until he retired to concentrate on writing. These two novels concern the deaths of two women, one from a community filled with hatred and the other from a dysfunctional family. Looking at the long list of Wycliffe books there will be plenty more to choose from.
  • The Women’s Room by Marilyn French. Wikipedia tells me that  ‘it has been described as one of the most influential novels of the modern feminist movement.’ It was first published in 1977 to a barrage of criticism. Set in 1968 it describes Mira’s life as she decides it’s time for a change after subscribing for years to the American dream of husband, children and a spotless kitchen.
  • Two Moons by Jennifer Johnston. This looks like a brand new copy, with no creases on the spine as though it has never been read. I enjoyed The Illusionist a while ago and hope this one will be as good. Set in Ireland, it’s about three generations of women, ‘a modern fairy tale with a dark theme.’
  • Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes, described on the back cover as a story that takes us back to the Debutante Season of 1968 – ‘Poignant, funny, fascinating and moving’ .

It was a good job that we only had a limited time in Barter Books, or I could easily have bought more books.

Sunday Salon – What to Read on Holiday

I’ve not been doing much reading or blogging as we’ve been away for a few days in the southeast of England and today we’re off again, this time to Germany. I’ve been thinking what books to take, bearing in mind that they should not be big and heavy (in weight), so I’m not taking Fleshmarket Close even though I’m in the middle of reading it and will probably lose the thread and have to start again when I come back home.

The two I’ve settled on are The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens, (235 pages of quite small print) which should last me a while to read – I’ve never read any of Dickens’s books quickly. The other book I’ve chosen is Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden (221 pages), which looks very different from the Drood book. Both are paperbacks and are books I’ve been wanting to read for a while. It feels strange only taking two books but we’ll only be away for three days and staying with family, so there may not be much time for reading. The flight time isn’t long – the longest time is between flight connections at Heathrow, so I think they’ll last me. But I think I should also take Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington as a standby because that is a very slim book (190 pages). Deciding which books to take is a doddle compared to deciding what clothes to pack, as I find it really difficult to travel light!

Sunday Salon – Choices

This morning I was wondering what to read next. I finished reading Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett yesterday, and have almost finished The Gourmet by Muriel Barbery, and think I need a change. Maybe it’s time for an autobiography or a biography. I have several to choose from, some I’ve had for years and one that I picked up recently at a bookstall at the local village fair.

Should I read this latest one – Great Meadow: an Evocation by Dirk Bogarde? I couldn’t resist the cover of this book and remembered that I’d enjoyed another autobiographical book by Bogarde many years ago. When I read the opening words in the Author’s Note at the beginning of the book I knew I wanted to read this one too:

An evocation, this, of the happiest days of my childhood: 1930 – 34. The world was gradually falling apart all around me, but I was serenely unaware. I was not, alas, the only ostrich. (page vii)

Or maybe I’ll start Slipstream: a Memoir by Elizabeth Jane Howard, or Eden’s Outcasts: the story of Louisa May Alcott and her Father by John Matteson. Or do I fancy reading Mary Queen of Scots by Alison Weir, or Shakespeare by Peter Ackroyd, or The Day Gone By by Richard Adams (he wrote Watership Down and The Girl on the Swing, amongst other books)?  Maybe The Mitfords: Letters between Six Sisters edited by Charlotte Mosely. I could go on and on.

Choices, choices! Deciding what to read next is sometimes so difficult, but it’s always enjoyable.

Sunday Salon – Books I Haven’t Read

I’ve seen others have been writing a sort of meme “confessing up ” to the books they haven’t read, so I thought I would too. These are the books that maybe I “should have read” by now but haven’t yet got round to. I don’t actually believe there is any “should” about it, but there seems to be some idea that to be “well read” you have to have read from a “canon of literature”.

I haven’t read:

  • The epic poem Beowulf, and reading about the film doesn’t count (I haven’t seen the film either)
  • Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen has passed me by as though it was never written. Apparently Elizabeth I loved it.
  • Gulliver’s Travels, although I think I “know” the story of his time in Lilliput and Brobdingnan from watching a cartoon version once.
  • Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, although I read extracts when I was taking an Open University course.
  • The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith – it’s one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for years.
  • Anything by Samuel Richardson, although he is considered one of the authors of the first novel in English, but I have read Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, amd Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, other contenders for the title.
  • There are several of Charles Dickens’s books I haven’t read, such as The Pickwick Papers, The Old Curiosity Shop, Martin Chuzzlewit, Nicholas Nickleby and Barnaby Rudge although I have read some of his books – Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House, A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations immediately spring to mind – there many be others.
  • The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, although I have read The Moonstone.
  • The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas – this is on my tbr list.
  • Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome – apparently a classic satire.
  • The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith – a classic British comedy.
  • Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas – one of my school friends (and that’s aeons ago) was forever extolling its praises and I still haven’t read it,
  • Ulysses by James Joyce – need I say anymore?
  • The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy. But I did watch both of the TV series of the books.
  • A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell – I did try the first book once.
  • Anything by Salman Rushdie.
  • Ditto Terry Pratchett
  • White Teeth by Zadie Smith, although I have read On Beauty.

This list is getting far too long and depressing in the amount of books I haven’t read and I’ve hardly touched the surface of the 20th century, never mind the 21st. Looking at this list of English Novelists on wikipedia is even more depressing (or exhilarating depending on how you view things) because of so many authors I haven’t tried that I’m stopping now. And there are so many more world wide authors as well!

Sunday Salon – Today’s Books

This morning I’ve been reading The Border Line by Eric Robson, of interest because we live near the border – the one between England and Scotland. This is the account of Robson’s walk following the border line from the Solway Firth to Berwick-upon-Tweed. It’s also interesting because Robson includes anecdotes, snippets of history and personal memories as well. For all the disputes over the border and the reivers’ raids there is a similarity between English and Scottish Borderers:

For more than four centuries the Borderlands were seen as the scrag end of their respective countries, the frayed edges of monarchy. English borderers and Scottish borderers at least had that much in common. The Border was a remote battleground where national ambitions could be fought over. Northumberland, Cumberland and Westmorland were excluded from the Domesday Book. They were regarded as a military buffer zone. They became a bearpit. (page 51)

The Reivers were romanticised by Sir Walter Scott,  who gave them ‘the spit-and -polish treatment’ and a ‘romantic bearing and heroic stature.’ Robson also sheds light on the derivation of words, such as ‘reiver’: a ‘reef” in Old English meant a line, a Shire Reeve was a man who protected boundaries, thus the reiver raided across the Border Line. ‘Blackmail’ has two possible derivations – greenmail was agricultural rent and blackmail was money taken at night, or protection money. Alternatively it could be that it came from the fact that the reivers blacked their armour to ride as shadows in the moonlight (page 49).  I prefer the alternative derivation.

Then I moved north of the Border Line into Scotland with my reading and finished Ian Rankin’s book The Falls, a book I first read a couple of years ago. I wrote about it at the time and I haven’t much to add to that post. The Falls combines so much of what I like to read – a puzzling mystery, convincing characters, well described locations, historical connections and a strong plot full of tension and pace. Rebus has morphed in my mind into a combination of the actors who’ve played him – John Hannah and Ken Stott – and his creator Ian Rankin. But there is no doubt that the books are far superior to the TV productions. The next Rebus book I’ll be reading is Resurrection Men.

Sunday Salon – Reasons for Not Reading

I’ve been thinking about books I own but haven’t read yet and wondering why I haven’t  even though some of them have been sitting on my bookshelves for a long time.

There are a number of reasons, apart from the fact that I keep getting more books before reading all the ones I’ve already got. They are:

  • Books that are part of a series and I haven’t read the earlier ones – such as Ian Rankin’s Exit Music
  • Books everyone else raves about and I can’t get into such as Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  • Books that are just so big, like A S Byatt’s The Children’s Book
  • Classic books – The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  • Books I’ve forgotten I’ve got – like Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett – I don’t even remember seeing it before!
  • Books bought  to make up a 3 for 2 offer – such as Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier
  • Books by an author I like, but haven’t got round to reading yet – The Death Maze by Ariana Franklin
  • Non fiction books that require concentrated time devoting to them – such as Jonathan Dimbleby’s Russia

Looking at them today I’d like to reading them all as soon as possible – well, maybe not Cloud Atlas for a while – I’ve started it twice in the past.

The Sunday Salon – Books I’d like to Read Right Now

Currently I’m reading The Right Attitude to Rain, the third Isabel Dalhousie novel  by Alexander McCall Smith. It’s the sort of book that makes me pause whilst I’m reading it and think about what I’ve read. It’s not a book to rush through at top speed to find out what happens, but rather a book to savour for its characters and settings, for its interaction bewteen the characters and the images it evokes.

It’s also the sort of book that reminds me of other books I’d like to read and this morning when I read Isabel’s and Tom’s discussion about Mary Queen of Scots I began to think of a couple of books I’ve been meaning to read and wanting to read them right now. These are:

I also want to read these books I’ve borrowed recently from the library:

  • The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono, the story of an imaginary shepherd hoping to plant thousands of trees. I saw this reviewed on Simon’s blog and thought it looked good. It’s only52 pages, so I could read that right now.
  • The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves, crime fiction set in the Pennines featuring DI Vera Stanhope. This is yet another long book (over 500 pages)
  • and, bringing me back to Alexander McCall Smith, the fifth Isabel Dalhousie novel, The Comfort of Saturdays.

I have to settle for the fact that I can only read one book at a time, so it’s back to The Right Attitude to Rain – right now, along with a cup of tea.

Sunday Salon – Crime Fiction

Today I’ve been dipping into The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction by Barry Forshaw, published in 2007. This is an excellent little book giving “a selection of the best in crime writing over the last century or so, organized by subject (or sub-genre)”.  There are succinct book reviews, ‘top five’ lists for writers such as Agatha Christie, notes on screen adaptations and profiles of writers.

I suppose all guides are subjective and not everyone will agree on the selection, but for me this works, with information on writers whose books I know and those I don’t. I could wish it had a section on ‘cozy mysteries’ but it doesn’t!

There are sections on

  • The origins of crime novels, including Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle
  • The Golden Age, classic mysteries from authors I know, such as Christie, Allingham and Tey and from ones I don’t such as Christianna Brand and Edmund Crispin.
  • Hardboiled and pulp – a hazardous world of carnality and danger, violent and brutal. Not really my cup of tea, but there are some classics here too – Raymond Chandler and The Big Sleep.
  • Private eyes, sleuths and gumshoes – in this section are Kate Atkinson, Michael Connelly and Alexander McCall Smith to name but a few.
  • Cops – police procedurals and mavericks. This includes the maverick cops, those loose canons at daggers drawn with their superiors, like Ian Rankin’s Rebus. It’s a long section covering authors both known and unknown to me – too many to list here, but including Jon Cleary, Colin Dexter and Ed McBain.
  • Professionals – lawyers, doctors, forensics etc. So, John Grisham, Val McDermid and Scott Turow et al feature here.
  • Amateurs – journalists and innocent bystanders. These are books that don’t fit easily into other genres, exploring the human psyche by for example authors as varied as Christopher Brookmyre and G K Chesterton, Dick Francis and Michael Ridpath.
  • All in the Mind – psychological matters. This chapter includes books that ‘foreground the psychology of their characters in extremis’, such as Iain Banks ‘The Wasp Factory’ and Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith.
  • Serial killers – Thomas Harris (Hannibal Lector) and Karen Slaughter (Faithless) – not a genre that I’m comfortable with, one for me to skip over maybe.
  • Criminal protagonists taking the reader into the heads of criminals. I haven’t read any of the books in this section, books like Maura’s Game by Martina Cole and Night and the City by Gerald Kersh.
  • Organized Crime – the world of the godfather and gangs. Another new-to-me genre, more familiar to me from films, such as The Gangs of New York – I didn’t know it was based on Herbert Asbury’s series of books on 19th century crime.
  • Crime and Society – key issues such as class, race and politics, from writers such as P D James in Britain and Michael Crichton in the US.
  • Espionage – John Le Carre, Len Deighton and Ian Fleming to name but a few.
  • Historical crime – one of my favourite genres from Ancient Rome (Lindsay Davis and Steven Saylor), Medieval murder (Michael Jecks) and World War thrillers from Robert Ryan and Robert Harris. Here is one of my favourites – C J Sansom (Shardlake) and new-to me Jane Jakeman who wrote In the Kingdom of the Mists, which appeals to me with the Impressionist painter, Monet at the centre of the mysteries – I must find this one.
  • Crime in Translation – some of these are familiar, like Umberto Eco, Andre Camilleri, and Henning Mankell. No Stieg Larsson, though. It maybe that his books came out too late for this guide, I don’t know.

Sunday Salon

This week I’ve been reading  Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison, both shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. I’ve finished both of them and can’t find any easy way to compare them. They are such different books, Wolf Hall – historical fiction about big events, full of characters based on real people, but written in such an intimate way that I felt I was there, versus The Very Thought of You – a quiet book about love in its various forms but written with so little dialogue and so much explanation of what the characters are thinking and feeling that I felt detached as though I was merely watching the events as they unfolded rapidly before my eyes. I enjoyed them both in different ways. I’ll be writing more about both books in later posts.

I haven’t written much here this week, more reading than writing! I wrote an Agatha Christie Reading Challenge Update which is included in The Latest Agatha Christie Blog Carnival out today with 30 contributions from 11 contributors in a bumper edition. It also includes my post on Christie’s Passenger To Frankfurt. This month’s carnival has a new feature – A Featured Blog kicking off with Margot Kinberg’s remarkable blog Confessions of a Mystery Writer. Every day Margot writes such interesting posts on various aspects of crime fiction which, of course, majors on Agatha Christie’s books.

I’m also reading Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days by Jared Cade, which is not just about her mysterious disappearance in December 1926 but is also about her life as a whole. It’s fascinating reading. I’m not sure what to read next – the choice is too much, but I may start Agatha Christie’s autobiography or go for something completely different, such as Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out or John le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy.

Sunday Salon – Recent, Current and Future Reading

I keep a record of the books I read but it’s meaningless to think of them in terms of how many I read because that depends not only on their length but also on the nature and complexity of the books.  I’ve read three books so far this month:

But that is no indication at all of the amount of reading I’ve been doing. And this is mainly because one of the books I’m currently reading and have been reading for a while is the massive Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I’m nearing the end now with just under 150 pages left to read. I read this morning that Henry has married Anne Boleyn, she has had her coronation and given birth to Elizabeth. Henry, of course, wanted a son and I wondered as I read this whether the words Mantel puts in his mouth were from a contemporary source or were her own in the light of her knowledge of future events. Henry is striding about the palace at Greenwich:

We are young enough, he says, and next time it will be a boy. One day we will make a great marriage for her. Believe me, God intends some peculiar blessing by this princess (my own emphasis). (page 485).

The other book I’m reading is The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison. I’m torn between wanting to finish it and taking it slowly just because it’s so good. It’s very easy to read (it’s not written in the present tense, which helps enormously) and I could gallop through it at top speed, so different from Wolf Hall, where I sometimes have to flip back a few pages and re-read them to make sure I know what’s going on. The characters in The Very Thought of You are clearly delineated and I don’t have to wonder ‘now who is that?’  as I do in Wolf Hall – thank goodness that book has a Cast of Characters at the front and two family trees as well.

The Very Thought of You begins in 1939 and as I’m reading I’m becoming very aware that I know very little about that time or about the Second World War as a whole. I’ve been meaning to find out more and a while ago I bought Wartime Britain 1939-1945 by Juliet Gardiner, to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge, so I keep dipping in to that as I read. It looks as though Alison has done her research well.

As for the books I have coming up next to read, I want to get back to reading more Agatha Christie – Death on the Nile for example and  also Set in Darkness, the next Rebus book in my reading of Ian Rankin’s series. But before that I have some review books to read. The vast majority of the books I read are my own or borrowed from the library or friends and family, but every now and then I receive books from publishers. At the moment I have three I haven’t read yet, although I have read the beginning of each one:

There is one more book that I’d love to read right now and that is The Border Line by Eric Robson (a library book). Robson is a broadcaster and he wrote this book about walking the modern border line between England and Scotland from the Solway Firth to Berwick-on-Tweed. It’s a mixture of history and anecdotes with descriptions of the landscape – the cairns, castles, battlefields and boundary stones along the way. This is the area we spent much time in last year when we were looking for a place to move to in the Borders and where we now live.

Sunday Salon

Today I’ve been reading more from Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and I’m now almost at the halfway stage. At times I’m loving it and at times I’m thinking why, oh why is she writing this in the present tense? See, it’s getting to me – I’m not overly fond of books in the present tense. And why does she keep using ‘he’ and I’m not sure which ‘he’ she means? Sometimes it’s Thomas Cromwell, but it could be any number of other ‘he’s’ too. But on the whole she’s winning me over and I have to keep on reading. What a character this man Cromwell is, a man who Cardinal Wolsey describes as:

… rather like one of those square-shaped fighting dogs that low men tow about on ropes. Not that you are without a fitful charm, Tom. (page 86)

Cromwell knows that

You don’t get on by being original. You don’t get on by being bright. You don’t get on by being strong. You get on by being a subtle crook … (page 60)

I didn’t expect Wolf Hall to be relevant to the current state of affairs and yet it’s about power, who holds the purse strings, who can command. People, then as now, want change, always hoping for something better. I read this as the present election campaign was in flow with the politicians’ slogans ‘Vote for Change’ and ‘Change that Works for You’. Just see what Geroge Cavendish thought in 1529

‘But what do they get by the change? ‘ Cavendish persists. ‘One dog sated with meat is replaced by a hungier dog who bites nearer the bone. Out goes the man grown fat with honour, and in comes a hungry and a lean man.’ (page 55)

Talking about elections, Thomas Cromwell’s campaign to be ‘elected’ was rather different from today’s methods.  His constituency was Taunton which he held with the agreement of the king and the Duke of Norfolk because seats in the House of Commons were

…  largely, in the gift of the lords; of lords, bishops, the king himself. A scanty handful of electors, if pressured from above, usually do as they’re told. (page 161)

Well, at least that is different these days.

Wolf Hall engages me on different levels – it’s historical fiction of period I used to know well and as I read it all comes back to me – Henry VIII’s wives and all that. It’s also made me think about writing styles and what I’m comfortable reading. It’s a dense book, one that you have to take your time reading and it helps if you know the history because nothing happens quickly in this book, which is full of description and lots of characters. I’m not finding a page-tuner but a fascinating study in particular of Thomas Cromwell.

Wolf Hall is a long book, and I need to vary my reading. I’m also at the beginning of The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison, very different from Wolf Hall and also listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Moving forward 400 years from Tudor England to Britain in the 20th century on the brink of war with Germany is quite a leap, but it still feels like historical fiction. The Very Thought of You begins with Anna’s evacuation from London in September 1939 to Ashton Park, a large Yorkshire estate. This is the calm before the storm.

It’s a very different style from Wolf Hall and I’m enjoying the contrast. So far, it has a warm, family feel about it, yet connected to world events with the parallel activity in Poland as Hitler invaded. The British ambassador in Warsaw, Sir Clifford Norton, watched the city burn and abandoned the embassy as the Nazis and the Soviets invaded.

I don’t envy the Orange Prize judges their task – how do you compare such different books?

Sunday Salon

I’ve now started reading 100 Days on Holy Island: a Writer’s Exile by Peter Mortimer, a diary of the time he spent living on Lindesfarne, off the coast of north-east England, in a close-knit community of a 150 people. This is not a book about the history of the island but it is about what it was like for Mortimer to live there on his own away from his  family from January to April 2001.

It began badly as his father died just before Mortimer had planned to leave, and his nephew was very ill after an emergency operation. As it was winter there were few, if any, visitors to the island and the pubs and village store were closed for most of the time:

 It was silent in the way cities are never silent, silence not as a brief interruption from traffic, the humans, the incessant noise of civilisation, but silent as a way of being. What lay beneath the surface of this small settlement I had no idea. But on a bitter cold January night in 2001, it offered up silence as a totally natural state. (page12)

In preparation for his stay he had asked ten northern writers to select  a book (not written by themselves) that they thought might amuse,divert or challenge him during his stay. Nine of them gave him a book and I’m looking forward to discovering what they were. 

I can see already that I’m going to enjoy this memoir and hope the rest of the book lives up to the beginning.

I’ve dipped into The Breaking Point by Daphne du Maurier (short stories) this week and will continue reading that later on. Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine has had to take a back seat for a while whilst I read these two books and I’m also tempted to start reading Martin Edward’s Take My Breath Away. I just wish I had more than one set of eyes and one brain to cope with reading multiple books – that would be excellent.

Sunday Salon – Which Free* Book to Choose?

 Newbooks magazine arrived on Friday and as usual there are extracts from six books to read before deciding which one (if any) I’ll choose as my ‘free’ copy (*paying just for the post and packing). I haven’t read any of the extracts yet.

These are my initial thoughts on the books:

I have The Angel’s Game out on loan from the library so I probably won’t choose this one. It’s the second novel by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and like his first The Shadow of the Wind is set in Barcelona. It’s a stand-alone story about a writer of sensationalist novels in the 1920s; a tale about the magic of books. The author writes that it is a book to make you step into the storytelling process and become part of it.

This  is also a second novel, narrated by a sensitive thirteen-year old boy. It’s set in the 1960s in a small mining town in Australia and is a “coming-of-age” story. Silvey writes that he wanted to capture the thrill of that age, where everything seems bigger and the stakes seem higher. It’s a time of burned innocence. Infinite dangers. Fresh experiences that are never forgotten.

This was shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize and I borrowed it from the library last year. I read the beginning but it didn’t grab me then and I returned it unfinished. It’s based on the real-life story of the poet John Clare and the time he spent in an asylum in the 1840s. I was disappointed I couldn’t connect with this book, maybe it was just the wrong time for me to read it.

This one appeals to me. It’s Mari Strachan’s first novel and it’s about Gwenni, a Welsh girl growing up in the 1950s who is bookish, loves playing detective and can fly in her sleep. Mari Strachan writes about her contentment with quietude in the magazine and if her writing in the novel is anything like this I want to read her book. She writes

Quietude is a place in my mind that I travel towards on my own, a place that no one else is able to enter, a place far away from the babble of the world. It’s the place Yeats found in ‘The Lake Isle  of Innisfree’ where ‘peace comes dropping slow’, and the place Wordsworth described as his ‘inward eye that is the bliss of solitude’.

This book appeals to me too. I’ve read one of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano Mystery books and enjoyed it. This is his tenth one and like the others it’s set in Sicily. Montalbano investigates the murder of a young girl whose body is discovered in a trunk. There is an article in the magazine by Stephen Sartarelli on translating Camilleri’s books. He writes:

They are written in a language that is not ‘just’ Sicilian dialect, but a curious pastiche of that particular Sicilian of Camilleri’s native region (Agrigento province) combined with ‘normal’ Italian, contemporary slang, comic stage dialogue, lofty literary flourishes, and the sort of manglings of proper Italian made by provincials who have never learned it correctly.

This is a novel about the Brontes, which also appeals to me. I know nothing about Jude Morgan’s books but looking on Amazon I see he writes historical fiction. In the magazine he writes that he doesn’t ‘dislike contemporary fiction, but too much of  it is preoccupied with the earth-shaking problem of finding the right sexual partner in NW1.’  I like historical fiction, so maybe this would be the one to choose.

Today’s reading will be the extracts from these books which I hope will help me decide which one to pick.

Sunday Salon

Not much reading here today as D and I are off out with the family this afternoon.

This morning I’ll be reading more from Griff Rhys Jones’s memoir Semi-Detached, which is coming on nicely. I’m now up to the part where Griff is in his final year at school. I loved his description of cricket that I read yesterday.

I hate and abhor cricket. I loathe cricket. I abominate cricket. There is only one thing more boring than the abysmal English habit of watching a game of cricket and that is an afternoon playing the wretched game. It is sport for the indolently paralysed. Only three people out of twenty two are engaged in any proper activity. The rest simply sit and wait their turn.

The excruciating tedium of ‘fielding’ – standing about, like a man in a queue with nothing to read, in case a sequence of repetitive events, ponderously unfolding in front of you, should suddenly require your direct intervention … (page 179)

Football is a game. Tiddly-winks is a game. A sack race involves energy and fun. Cricket is like a cucumber sandwich: indulged in for reasons of tradition, despite being totally eclipsed by every other alternative on offer. (page 181)

I can well imagine that fielding would be much more pleasurable if one could read at the same time. One of my fond memories of childhood is going with my parents to watch cricket, but then I did used to lie in the grass making daisy chains.

I’d like to finish reading Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig this evening, if I have time before I fall asleep. I have very mixed ideas about it right now, varying from liking it to wishing I’d never bothered to pick it up. It’s a tough read – from a subject point of view, that is. This is by no means a ‘comfy’ read, more of a rollercoaster to batter and bruise. But I must finish it before writing about it properly.

Coming up next week I’m looking forward to reading one of these books:

At the moment it’s King Arthur’s Bones that is calling out to me. It’s five interlinked mysteries from Michael Jecks, Susanna Gregory, Bernard Knight, Ian Morson and Philip Gooden.

Sunday Salon – Today’s Reading

Today I’ve been reading Semi-Detached by Griff Rhys Jones (a book I borrowed from the library). This is his memoir of his childhood and adolescence and I’m enjoying reading it. I had a look at what people have written about it on Amazon and found it has some very disparaging comments. I completely disagree – this is not boring or dull, and not at all a ‘celebrity’ memoir. I’ll leave writing about it until I’ve finished it, apart from this little bit about swimming and diving in his local swimming pool. I can identify so much with his account of the diving boards. The diving boards were made up of a lower board and a high dive. And it was scary on the high board. It was best to jump off it first before attempting a dive. Griff describes the experience of his first jump, that ‘sinking, sick-making descent’:

I must have stood there taking counsel and advice for ten minutes before I finally went off for the first time, in a sudden fit of bravado: still talking, without anybody having the chance to advise me, I stepped straight off the edge and fell … arrgh: my internal organs apparently losing their adhesion to my lower abdomen.

I bobbed up quickly and swam frantically, over-energised, to the side and went straight back up. (page 80)

That was me too! I loved it, but how times have changed. My last experience in a swimming pool last year at Center Parcs in Nottingham was terrifying when I went down the flume. It was a rapid descent and I was pushed along by people behind me, ending up underwater, certain that I was going to be drowned and hating the whole thing.

My other reading this morning was The Widow’s Tale by Mick Jackson, a book I received from the publishers via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers’ Program. This a gentle account of a newly-widowed woman who is coming to terms with her husband’s death after 40 years of marriage. It’s about her thoughts and feelings as she flees  from her London home to rent a cottage in a small Norfolk village.  I have my doubts about the narrator’s voice – at times it comes across as male rather than female, but I’m waiting until I’ve finished it to pass judgement.

Sunday Salon – Reading And All That …

Today is Mother’s Day and I’ll be spending some time reading my present from my son – Amos, Amas, Amat … And All That by Harry Mount. It’s been on my wishlist for some time now! And a nice change it will make from all the crime fiction I’ve been reading recently. From the back cover:

 In this delightful guided tour of Latin, which features everything from a Monty Python grammar lesson to David Beckham’s tattoos and all the best snippets of prose and poetry from 2000 years of literary history, Harry Mount wipes the dust off those boring primers and breathes life back into the greatest language of them all …

Not that the crime fiction I’ve been reading is boring – far from it. My reading has been a real treat and is way ahead of my reviews of these books:

I finished reading A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine at the end of last week and was so pleased after not liking her book The Birthday Present to find that this book about the discovery of the bones of a young woman and a baby in an animal burial ground was very different. There is a real air of mystery surrounding the several unlikeable characters – anyone of whom could be the guilty party.

 The Careful Use of Compliments by Alexander McCall Smith was a complete surprise to me as I had no idea when I borrowed it from the library just how much I was going to enjoy it. From a somewhat slow start I soon got used to the rhythm of his writing and was greatly intrigued by the character of Isabel Dalhousie.

Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? by Agatha Christie is a light-hearted mystery featuring Bobby Jones and Frankie (Lady FrancesDerwent) as they investigate a murder. This is a highly fantastical tale which I read at break-neck speed and thoroughly enjoyed.

Dead in the Morning by Margaret Yorke is the first book in her Patrick Grant series, first published in 1970. Set in an English village this is about an English family upset by the death of their housekeeper. All sorts of family secrets are revealed with plenty of red herrings along the way but the ending is predictable.

I’ll be writing in more detail about each one soon.

Next week my choice of reading is between these books, which I have on the go:

  • The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson which I started a few weeks ago and put to one side.
  • Being Shelley by Ann Wroe – ongoing reading
  • Stratton’s War by Lorna Wilson. I’m not sure if I’ll finish this as I feel little inclination to pick it up at the moment.

I’m tempted to start a new one. Maybe another Agatha Christie or Ian Rankin, or The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, which I’ve read is very good, or Maggie’s Tree by Julie Walters – her first novel, described as “dark and very funny”, which I found at the library.

Sunday Salon – Give Up Reading??

Could you give up reading for a week? That’s what Bibi van der Zee did. She wrote about it in yesterday’s Guardian. She was beginning to wonder if books were eating her up and whether they were some kind of drug.

I just can’t imagine not reading for that length of time. If I go for one day without reading I start to feel irritable and in need of a book, so perhaps it is a drug of sorts. She discovered this startling information about the effect of reading on the brain.

In a book coming out next year about the psychology of fiction, Professor Keith Oatley describes a piece of research where scientists got people to read while they were in a brain scanner. “When readers were engaged in a story, the researchers found that, at the points in which the story said a protagonist undertook an action, the part of the brain which was activated was the part which the reader himself or herself would use to undertake the action. So, when the story- protagonist pulled a light cord, a region in the frontal lobes of the reader’s brain associated with grasping things was activated.”

I shan’t be giving up reading and I must look out for that book.

Sunday Salon – This Year’s Books

It seems  a good day to look back over my reading in  the first two months of the year. I’ve read 15 books – 8 in January and 7 this month.

Titles marked * are crime fiction, underlined are non-fiction and in italics are library books. The rest are my own books acquired from various booksellers.

  1. Drood by Dan Simmons
  2. Invisible by Paul Auster
  3. Be Near Me by Andrew O’Hagan
  4. Let it Bleed by Ian Rankin *
  5. Black and Blue by Ian Rankin *
  6. Losing You by Nicci French *
  7. The Pale Horse by Agatha Christie *
  8. The Music Room by William Fiennes
  9. Can any Mother Help Me? By Jenna Bailey
  10. Fallen Gods by Quintin Jardine *
  11. The Hanging Garden by Ian Rankin *
  12. The Hollow by Agatha Christie *
  13. Not Safe After Dark & other works by Peter Robinson * (short stories)
  14. The Warrior’s Princess by Barbara Erskine
  15. Dead Souls by Ian Rankin *

Of these 15 books 9 are crime fiction, which is partly because I’m taking part in Agatha Christie Reading Challenge and also Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet series. This means writing about a book  related to the letter of the week. It can either be the first letter of a book’s title, the first letter of an author’s first name, or the first letter of the author’s surname. Tomorrow it’s the letter T and I’m currently reading The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey. I’ve read about half the book and may finish it later today and write about it Monday or Tuesday.

I think the best of these 15 books is Black and Blue by Ian Rankin.

The only challenge I’m doing this year is Emily’s To-Be-Read challenge which is to read at least 20 books from your to-be-read piles before buying any more books. I’m doing this with the proviso that I’m actually allowing myself to buy a few books as it would be too hard otherwise.

 I’ve bought four books this year – one of them being Dead Souls by Ian Rankin. I “had” to buy this because I’m reading his Rebus books in chronological order and didn’t have this one and it was the next one to read. So far then, I’ve read 10 books off my to-be-read piles in two months – not bad!

As well as reading The Franchise Affair I’m also reading Poetic Lives: Shelley by Daniel Hahn and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson.

Books I’ll be reading next are:

  • Being Shelley: The Poet’s Search for Himself by Anne Wroe
  • The next Rebus book – Set in Darkness by Ian Rankin
  • Sunday Salon – Reading and Writing

    Writing Tips: I liked this – yesterday’s articles in the Guardian – a survey of established authors’ tips for successful authorship.  Part one tips from Elmore Leonard, Diana Athill, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Helen Dunmore, Geoff Dyer, Anne Enright, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, Esther Freud, Neil Gaiman, David Hare, PD James, AL Kennedy


    Part Two: Hilary Mantel, Michael Moorcock, Michael Morpurgo, Andrew Motion, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx, Philip Pullman, Ian Rankin, Will Self, Helen Simpson, Zadie Smith, Colm Tóibín, Rose Tremain, Sarah Waters, Jeanette Winterson

    Choice tips: mostly along the lines of

    •  Write
    • Read
    • Get on with it/be persistent

    I think this from Will Self goes for everyone not just successful authors:

    You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.

    Reading – Today I’ve been trying to decide which book to get as my free book from newbooks magazine. As usual I’m spoilt for choice and have to ask myself – do I really want yet another book to add to the to-be-read mountain?

    These are the books (soon to be published in paperback):

    • The Crimson Rooms by Katherine McMahon (pub date 1 April). Six years after the end of the First World War Evelyn is still haunted by the death of her younger brother. I enjoyed her earlier novel The Rose of Sebastopol, so maybe this would be a good choice.
    • The Glass Room by Simon Mawer (pub date 11 March) Set in 1930, the storm clouds of World War Two are gathering in Czechoslovakia. Landauer House built of glass, steel and onyx is passed from hand to hand. I’ve only read The Gospel of Judas by Mawer – enjoyed that, perhaps this would be good too.
    • Relics of the Dead by Ariana Franklin (pub date 18 March). More about Adelia, a 12th century ‘readerof bones’ for Henry II. In this latest book she has to identify and authenticate the bones of Arthur and Guinevere. I loved the first book Mistress of the Art of Death and the second The Death Maze, although I haven’t read it yet. It would be good to have this third book to complete the set.
    • Balthazar Jones and the Tower of London Zoo by Julia Stuart (pub date 4 March). Balthazar is a Beefeater and his new job is to look after the exotic animals that are to be moved from London Zoo to the Tower’s grounds. This is a debut novel. It does sound different from my usual choice of reading.
    • Instruments of Darkness by Imogen Robertson (pub date 1 April). A murder mystery set in West Sussex in the 18th century. A man’s body is found in the grounds of Thornleigh Hall. His throat has been cut. On the same day Alexander Adams is murdered in London. This is a debut novel too. I do like historical crime fiction, but I’m not sure about this one.

    The Sunday Salon – Today’s Books

    Today I started reading the ninth Inspector Rebus book  The Hanging Garden by Ian Rankin. Rebus is investigating a suspected Nazi war criminal living in Edinburgh, and a rival gang leader to Big Ger Cafferty, Tommy Telford. Rebus has given up drinking! It’s gripping stuff.

    By way of contrast I also started Poetic Lives: Shelley by Daniel Hahn. I received this book from the publishers through LibraryThings Early Reviewers programme. It’s a slim little book of biography with extracts from Shelley’s poems. This morning I read how Shelley as a shy schoolboy was bullied at Eton, where he was nicknamed ‘Mad Shelley’ and later the ‘Eton Atheist’. It’s easy reading but I’m getting irritated by Hahn’s use of the word ‘would‘ in so many sentences.

    It reminded me that I still haven’t read Ann Wroe’s book Being Shelley, which I’ve had for a while now. This is not a chronological account of Shelley’s life, but is about Shelley the poet rather than Shelley the man. Ann Wroe explains:

    Rather than writing the life of a man into which poetry erupts occasionally, my hope is to reconstruct the world of a poet into which earthly life keeps intruding. (page ix)

    I think reading the two in tandem should be interesting.

    Sunday Salon – Looking for Agatha Christie!

    I’ve spent quite a few hours this week unpacking and shelving books. There are still quite a lot of boxes to deal with. So far I haven’t come across my Agatha Christie books and those are the ones I want to read right now. It was made worse this morning when I watched Country Tracks. Ben Fogle  was travelling through South Devon and visited Agatha Christie’s home Greenway House on the banks of the River Dart. Now managed by the National Trust it is open to the public with only 20 people at a time being allowed entrance every ten minutes on allocated timed tickets. Nobody else was there when Ben went in (lucky Ben!) to a beautiful room, lined with white bookcases and renovated to be how it was when Agatha lived there. Now I want white bookcases – D says I’d better get painting! 

    I finished reading Ian Rankin’s Black and Blue and Losing You by Nicci French earlier this week and now I’m wondering what to read next. Maybe the next Rebus book – The Hanging Garden or one of the many other books from my to-be-read pile. But what I really want to find are my Agatha Christie books, so I’m off to unpack and shelve more books until I find them.

    The Sunday Salon – Books and Cross-Stitch

    This week I’ve been reading just two books. Often I read more than this but I’ve decided for the time being to stick to one or two at a time. It’s been easy this week as one of the books is compelling reading – Black and Blue by Ian Rankin.

    It’s a real page-turner and very complicated. I’m reading it quickly because I want to know what happens next and to see how Rebus gets himself of the terrible mess he is in – suspected by his superiors of being a killer(!) and of corruption back in his early days as a detective, along with Lawson Geddes, his boss at the time. He’s being investigated by a TV company and also by the police themselves in an internal enquiry and all the time he’s spiralling downhill under alcohol and cigarettes. I’m thinking that when I get to the end I may go back to the beginning and read it again more slowly to appreciate the detail.

    This contrasts so well with the other book I’m reading – Can Any Mother Help Me? by Jenna Bailey. I’m reading this one slowly, one or two chapters at a time, because it is quite intense. It’s comprised of letters between a group of  women writing from the 1930s to the 1980s about their “ordinary” lives, but it’s by no means mundane or ordinary at all. It’s  social history, as told by the people who lived their lives through the Second World War and into the late 20th century. It’s a bit like eavesdropping on private conversations, reading these personal letters between woman who became friends through their Correspondence Club.

    Both books are ones I’ve owned for a while and so are books off my TBR mountain. I have bought one new book this year, but as it’s a craft book it’s not adding to the pile to read, but adding to the pile of cross-stitch projects I want to do! The book is The Portable Crafter: Cross-Stitch by Liz Turner Diehl, a beautiful book full of designs for small(ish) items that you can work on anywhere.

    One that caught my eye is a corner bookmark. But it looks quite tricky with Kloster blocks – you have to cut out the centres and it might be a bit bulky for a bookmark

    There’s a design for a little  Persian rug, finished size 3½” x 5″ I’d like to make.

    But the one that I’d like to start first is a Garden Clock, the only thing is I don’t know where I can get a wooden clock in which to insert the design.

    Sunday Salon

    tssbadge1Yesterday I began reading Ian Rankin’s Let it Bleed, the seventh Inspector Rebus book. This begins with a dramatic car chase in Edinburgh ending in a crash on the Forth Road Bridge. Rebus and his boss Chief Inspector Lauderdale are both injured, whilst the youths they were chasing stumble from their car and plunge from the Bridge embedding themselves in the metal deck of a Royal Navy frigate in the Firth of Forth hundreds of feet below.

    I read further on this morning to be confronted with another suicide, this time Hugh McAnally, known as Wee Shug blows his head off with a sawn-off shotgun. Rebus is struggling, drinking and smoking too much, living on his own and at odds with his daughter. He’s rubbed people up the wrong way and is told to take time off, which worries him – without work his life has no shape or substance:

    … it gave him a schedule to work to, a reason to get up in the morning. He loathed his free time, dreaded Sundays off. He lived to work, and in a very real sense he worked to live, too : the much maligned Protestant work-ethic. Subtract work from the equation, and the day became flabby, like releasing jelly from its mould. Besides, without work, what reason had he not to drink? (page 122)

    The Rebus books are fast paced, with rounded characters, convincing dialogue and plots that keep me turning the pages. This one combines crime, politics and corruption in a bleak tale, set in a bleak wintry Edinburgh.

    The Sunday Salon

    tssbadge1I have finished reading Drood on this first Sunday of 2010, needless to say I read most of it in December! I feel relief at getting to the end and am looking forward to reading something else. I’ll write about once I’ve had more time to think it over as a whole.

    Along with Drood I’ve been reading Be Near Me by Andrew O’Hagan.  This is about a English priest in a small Scottish parish; as he makes friends with some of the locals and experiences prejudice from others he reflects on his past life. I’m enjoying it. Hilary Mantel writes:

    [O’Hagan] is a fine stylist, a penetrating analyst, a knowledgeable guide to high thinking and squalid living. This is a nuanced, intense and complex treatment of a sad and simple story. Read it twice.

    My plan to have a box of books not in storage didn’t work out because there was no room in our car for them, so I’ve only had a few books around until Christmas Day when my husband presented me with this pile.

    Xmas books 09

    I think I’ll start with Paul Auster’s Invisible.

    And for the rest of today I intend to unpack and sort some books and choose which one to read next.

    Sunday Salon -This Weekend’s Books

    tssbadge1I’d sorted out some books to take with me whilst we are between houses, but sadly there wasn’t room in the car for the box, so it had to go into storage. I kept out the ones I was already reading:

    • A Secret Alchemy by Emma Darwin, which I finished yesterday. This is historical fiction set during and after the Wars of the Roses. It’s very good – more about it later.
    • Mortal Causes by Ian Rankin – crime fiction, the sixth Inspector Rebus book.
    •  Can Any Mother Help Me? by Jenna Bailey – this is a fascinating book of letters written by a group of women over a period of fifty years. Their letters are part of the Mass Observation archive, forming a record of everyday life during the last century.
    •  Billy by Pamela Stephenson – a biography of Billy Connolly, written by his wife.

    On 1 December I began Emily’s TBR Challenge – reading books I already owned from before then. So it was lucky for me that we went shopping in Milton Keynes last Sunday – 29 November and I bought three books to add to to the little pile I have with me until we can unpack our books, which won’t be for a while yet. The shopping centre was absolutely solid with people last Sunday, which makes me feel very claustrophobic and just want to go home, but I managed to buy these:

    • Black and Blue by Ian Rankin – another Inspector Rebus book. D is ahead of me in reading these and this is the next one he’ll be reading.
    • Portobello by Ruth Rendell – a thriller (not an Inspector Wexford).
    • Drood by Dan Simmons – I’ve been wondering whether to read this after reading about it on the blogs. As it’s so long it should keep me going for quite a while. A novel of 19th century England, this is a fictionalised account of  Charles Dickens’ last five years as narrated by Wilkie Collins. I haven’t read Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood, so I hope that won’t matter.

    Today I’ll be reading Mortal Causes and maybe start Drood.

    Sunday Salon – Today’s Book

    tssbadge1We’re not moving into our new house for a while yet and I’m writing this in a rented barn conversion, which is just beautiful. I’ll take a few photos later. For now, I’m just writing a short post about what I’m  reading today, which is not what is shown on the sidebar under “Currently Reading”.

    I brought some books with me but as there are some here I had a look at them and started to read The Light of Day by Graham Swift.

    I shouldn’t like this book – it’s written in the first person present tense, a style I don’t like much, it begins very enigmatically referring to characters and events when I have no idea who or what  they are and there are quite a lot of short sentences without verbs – my English teacher wouldn’t have let me get away with that. And yet it works, it builds up suspense and tension. The cover is different from the one I’ve shown here, but I can’t find the same one on line, so this will have to do.

    So far I’ve gathered that there has been a murder, and I know who did it. Now it’s a matter of discovering the why and the how.

    Sunday Salon

    tssbadge1Earlier this morning I was reading Danielle’s blog A Work in Progress. She wrote about books she’s recently borrowed from the library. One of them is a biography of Louisa May Alcott by Harriet Reisen which looks very interesting. You can see more information on this website. Little Women, Good Wives, Jo’s Boys and Little Men were among my favourite books when I was younger but I didn’t know she wrote books for adults as well.

    It reminded me that I have Eden’s Outcasts: the Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson. As I’ve just finished reading one book and thought that I’d read this and went to find it.

    I bought it some time ago and thought it was on the bookcase with the to-be-read books, but it wasn’t there. We’re sorting out what to pack to move house, but haven’t touched the books yet. My bookshelves are in rough a-z order but in different sequences in different rooms and I looked through all them several times with no success. I was about to give up when I remembered that we had bought some clear plastic boxes and had filled one with books to see if it would be suitable. This box was at the bottom of a pile of boxes and there at the bottom of it was Eden’s Outcasts. I’ve rescued it and started to read it.

    I can see that moving house is going to mean lots of books are going to be inaccessible for some time, especially if we have to put our stuff in storage for a while. Although there’s not going to be much time for reading I really need to sort out some books to keep out to see me through until we’re settled in the new house. It’s difficult to be patient, whilst we wait to see if the solicitors can sort out the contracts in time for us leaving this house on 27 November! I hope we’ll have some definite news in the next few days, otherwise we’ll be looking for somewhere to rent. After these next two weeks I probably won’t be able to blog – either reading others’ or writing my own. I’m going to miss it!

    The Sunday Salon – My Desk

    Not much reading being done today – it’s our wedding anniversary!

    Here’s a little look at my desk. Actually I share this desk with my husband. It’s an incredibly messy desk so I can only show part of it. It’s in the smallest bedroom surrounded by books and piles of paper. Above the desk there are shelves going up to the ceiling full of books, magazines, CDs, files and lots and lots of paperwork.

     At the moment it’s even worse than usual as behind me the bunk beds have been dismantled and laid flat on the floor with towers of boxes stacked up on top of them. We’ve emptied the loft in readiness for our move and there’s nowhere else for the boxes to go. tssbadge1

    When we have moved and got sorted I hope to post a photo of the new and tidy (some hopes!) new office/library.

    Sunday Salon

    tssbadge1I thought I would remind myself of the concept of the Sunday Salon. So I’ve copied this from the Sunday Salon home page  – imagine yourself in some university library’s vast reading room. It’s filled with people–students and faculty and strangers who’ve wandered in. They’re seated at great oaken desks, books piled all around them, and they’re all feverishly reading and jotting notes in their leather-bound journals as they go. Later they’ll mill around the open dictionaries and compare their thoughts on the afternoon’s literary intake….

    That’s what happens at the Sunday Salon, except it’s all virtual. Every Sunday the bloggers participating in that week’s Salon get together–at their separate desks, in their own particular time zones–and read. And blog about their reading.

    It’s grey outside and it’s raining, so I have some time today to sit and read and then write, even though I should really be sorting out what to pack, what to throw away, and what to take to the charity shops in preparation for moving house.

    Today so far I read over my breakfast a few chapters from All the Colours of Darkness by Peter Robinson. This is the second Inspector Banks mystery I’ve read and I’m only at the beginning of this one. So far two bodies have been discovered. One is the body of theatre set designer Mark Hardcastle and appears to be a suicide. But when the second body is found Inspector Banks is dragged back from leave to head the investigation because a senior and experienced officer has to be seen to be in charge. I’ve just made the mistake of glancing at some reviews on Amazon, in which some people have said how disappointing this book is and not up to Robinson’s usual standard. Not everyone agrees of course and I’ll wait until I’ve read it before passing judgement.

    I wanted a break from reading crime fiction and wondered what to pick up whilst having a cup of coffee (I’m on my second cup of the day now). I had started Dewey: the Small-Town Library Cat yesterday but it didn’t match my mood this morning. I didn’t feel like a sentimental read, so instead I read some more from Karen Armstrong’s book The Case for God. This is non-fiction indeed – although some may argue that religion is fiction! Any attempt by me to summarise this book would be futile. Basically it’s a run-through of the ideas people have had about ‘God’ over the centuries.

     I like to know an author’s background and qualifications when I’m reading a book like this. I  know that Karen Armstrong became a nun in the 1960s and then left her order and eventually became a writer and broadcaster. According to the information on the book jacket she is also a passionate campaigner for religious liberty, and was awarded the Franklin J Roosevelt Four Freedoms Medal in 2008  for her work. I’ve seen her in discussions on TV and respect her views and way she puts them forward, but I would like to know more about her own personal beliefs.

    The Case for God seems to me to be an objective account, mainly concerning the monotheistic faiths, Christianity in particular. This morning I read the chapters on The Enlightenment and Atheism. I have studied the Enlightenment period in the past so I found this chapter easy to read. It contains brief summaries of the various theologians and philosophers of the 18th century both in Europe and America. She writes about Hegel (I know nothing about him, so this was interesting) and points out that

    In a way that would become habitual in the modern critique of faith, he had presented a distorted picture of ‘religion’ as a foil for his own ideas, selecting one strand of  a complex tradition and arguing that it represented the whole.

    I’ve yet to read what she says about Richard Dawkins, that comes later in the book – should be interesting too.

    I haven’t decided yet what I’ll be reading later today. I think I’ll listen to Jerry Springer on Desert Island Discs on the radio this morning. There is a new series on BBC tonight that looks as though it should be good – Garrow’s Law . This is set in the late 18th century – a young, idealistic barrister, William Garrow, is given his first criminal defence case at the Old Bailey by attorney and mentor, John Southouse. So it’s back to crime fiction. It’s based on real cases and William Garrow was a barrister who revolutionised the legal system. So I may not read any more today – other than other Sunday Salon posts that is.

    Sunday Salon – Rounding Up Recent Reads

    tssbadge1We’re back “home” again after a couple of days away visiting our “future home”, so much still to organise and so much stuff still to sort. But still time to read, if not to write much about the books I’ve recently finished or have started to read.

    Early last week I finished reading Death of a Chief by Douglas Watts and have drafted a post for the Crime Fiction Alphabet letter “D”. For once my current reading is in time for this meme and I should be able to finish the post during this week.

    Over the last few days I’ve finished Agatha Christie’s A Pocketful of Rye, which I’ll be writing about for the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge and Blog Carnival. This one is a Miss Marple mystery in which she plays a minor role, albeit an influential one, based on the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence”. It reminded me of Heston Blumenthal’s Medieval Feast on channel 4 some time ago, when for the main course he made a pigeon pie (it’s illegal to cook blackbirds).

    The day before yesterday I finished reading Diana Athill’s extraordinary book Somewhere Towards the End, which won the Costa Biography Award in 2008. Athill is a writer who had registered in my mind sometime ago, but I’d never read anything by her until this book. My copy of newbooks magazine arrived recently featuring an interview with her which drew my interest and then quite by chance when I went to the library to return some books, this one practically jumped off the shelves. I shall have to write a proper post about this book, which is the best book I’ve read this month, so far.

    Tudor RoseI have now restarted Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, but didn’t take it away with me as it’s far too big and heavy. I’m using this bookmark (which I made some years ago) whilst reading it as it seems so appropriate. 

     I’ve read some of that this morning and was surprised by this coincidence – on the back cover is a quote from Diana Athill, no less. She says of Wolf Hall:

     A stunning book. It breaks free of what a novel has become nowadays. I can’t think of anything since Middlemarch which so convincingly builds a world.

    This quote is even more compelling because Athill reveals in her memoir that she has “gone off novels” and to compare Wolf Hall with Middlemarch means it must be good because she recalled that approaching the end of her first reading of Middlemarch she thought:

    Oh no – I’m going to leave this world, and I don’t want to.

    I don’t think you can have much higher praise than that.

    Sunday Salon


    It’s been a busy time here this week as we now have a date for moving house. In six week’s time we don’t know where we’ll be living, but it definitely won’t  be in this house. We may be in our new house (a bungalow) but as we haven’t exchanged contracts yet we don’t have a date for moving in. Until we have I don’t want to write anything about it – but it looks as though there may even be a room that could be called a “book room”,  or even a “library”!

    So this week has seen a transformation in this house – we’re now surrounded by boxes everywhere. Even though the removal company will be packing our stuff we’ve had to empty the lofts – why do we store so many things? – so the contents are now filling up the rest of the house. There are tons of old videos (not personal ones!), old computers and microwaves, tennis, badminton and squash rackets, a cricket bat, rucksacks, ropes and other climbing gear, an old breadbin (why?) even a box of coathangers as well as the usual Christmas decorations (three Christmas trees of varying sizes) and so on and so forth. I got excited when D said he’d found a box of books, thinking he’d found some I’d forgotten about. Sadly it was a box of his HNC notebooks! We’ve been sidetracked looking through old photos and old videos of the family and reminiscing.

    D has been clearing out one of the sheds as well. We couldn’t find Lucy one night and eventually found her curled up on some old sheets in the shed. She was nearly locked in for the night:

    Lucy in shed1


    There’s still so much to do but I have been managing to read in between sorting out stuff and trips to the tip to dump stuff that we should have thrown out years ago. This week I finished reading Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro and The Complaints by Ian Rankin – posts on both to follow and am well into Death of the Chief by Douglas Watt. I’ve caught up a bit with writing reviews of books as well with posts on:

    As for Reading Challenges I’ve really been neglecting those since we started to sell the house earlier this year but I have been keeping up with the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge and this week have posted an update of my progress. I enjoy Agatha Christie’s books immensely and this has spurred me on to read more of hers – this morning I started reading A Pocketful of Rye – a Miss Marple mystery.

    This coming week I do intend to pick up either Wolf Hall again or The Children’s Book. My problem is, as I’ve said before, they’re both physically heavy books and I really need to set aside some time to concentrate on one of them during the day rather than early morning or late at night – not easy right now.

    Sunday Salon

    tssbadge1Last Sunday I wrote that I was going to concentrate on reading just two books at a time concentrating on reading one non-fiction and one fiction. I sort of stuck to my plan and am still reading Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God. I finished Among the Mad by Jacqueline Winspear (more about that in a later post) and my plan after that was to go back to reading one of the books shown on the sidebar – Wolf Hall or The Children’s Book.

    But it didn’t work out like that, because I went with D to a hospital appointment and needed a book to read whilst waiting. Both Wolf Hall and The Children’s Book are heavy hardbacks and wouldn’t fit in my handbag so instead I picked up one of my library books – Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell and started to read that. Reading in a hospital waiting room is an exercise in concentration. First off  we had to use the hand spray to prevent catching, spreading the swine flu germs – how that works I don’t understand given that once you’re in you have to touch chairs, doors etc. Then we were told to sit on the green chairs whilst waiting to go to the next waiting area. The green chairs are next to the entrance doors that open automatically each time someone goes near, and it was a wet, windy day. One small boy was fascinated by the doors and kept walking in front of them saying “close” when they opened which meant that they stayed open. This went on for several minutes until his mother came and took him away. I read a few pages whilst being alternately amused and irritated and shivering.

    We then were called to the next waiting area – no automatic doors, but a constant stream of doctors and nurses calling out names and ushering people through, people complaining about how long they’d had to wait, the phone ringing and people talking loudly. Still, it is a hospital, not a reading room, no matter how long you have to wait. But Faceless Killers is sufficiently engrossing so that I was hardly aware of what was going on around me.

    I finshed it this morning and will now read either Wolf Hall or The Children’s Book. I started both of them a while back and only put them down because they’re so heavy it’s hard to read them in bed (where I like to do my reading). I’ll have to work on strengthening my hands and arms.

    I hadn’t heard of Henning Mankell until the BBC broadcast the Wallender series last year with Kenneth Branagh playing Kurt Wallender. I’d been meaning to read one of the books since then. Branagh’s face was inevitably in my mind as I read Faceless Killers, but as it wasn’t one of the books filmed the rest was purely down to my imagination from reading the book.  Wallender is yet another detective to join the ranks of Rebus in my mind. He is a senior police officer and, like Morse, listens to opera in his car and in his apartment. He is lonely, morose, overweight and drinks too much. His wife, Mona has left him, he’s estranged from his daughter, Linda and has problems with his father, an artist who has painted the same picture for years and is now senile.

    I discovered on the Inspector Wallender website that Faceless Killers is the first in the Kurt Wallender series of books, so for once I’ve begun at the beginning of a series! (Although Wallender first appears in The Pyramid, a collection of short stories). It’s about the brutal murder of the Lovgrens, an old man and his wife in an isolated farmhouse in Skane, the southern most province in Sweden (there’s a helpful map in the book). The old lady’s last word is “foreign”. Does this mean the killers are foreigners? When this is leaked to the press the ugly issue of racial hatred is raised. Are the killers illegal immigrants from the refugee camps, or should the police be looking at the Lovgrens’ family? Why would anyone kill them in such a savage way – they weren’t rich and had no enemies?

    This is not just a detective story, apart from racial discrimination and refugees, Wallender reflects on the problems of change in Swedish society, of aging, and of the uncertainty and fragility of life – the incantation he often reflects on is:

    A time to live and a time to die.

    I hope to find the next Wallender book to read soon: The Dogs of Riga.

    Faceless Killers, like other Wallender books, has been adapted into a series on Swedish TV and an English version, again with Kenneth Branagh, is due to be broadcast next year.

    Sunday Salon – The Case for God by Karen Armstrong

    tssbadge1Just as we’ve been all over the place physically – up and down England with occasional forays into Scotland, so my mind and reading has wandered around and I now find that I’ve started several books at once. Some of them are listed on the sidebar over on the right. I’m going to leave them there as a reminder of what I’ve begun, but I’ve decided to concentrate on just reading two books at a time – one non-fiction (Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God;What Religion Really Means) and one fiction (probably Among the Mad by Jacqueline Winspear as I’ve read more of that than the others and it’s a library book that should be returned soon).

    Karen Armstrong’s books always impress me – so much detail and words that I have to look up the meaning. I feel rather inadequate when it comes to writing about The Case for God. The book jacket tells me she ‘is one of the world’s leading commentators on religious affairs’ and in the introduction she writes

    We are talking far too much about God these days and what we say is often facile. In our democratic society, we think the concept of God should be easy and that religion ought to be readily accessible to anybody. ‘That book was really hard!’ readers have told me reproachfully, shaking their heads in faint reproof. ‘Of course it was!’ I want to reply. ‘It was about God.’ (page 1)

    So I knew from the beginning I should concentrate and make notes as I read. I’m now about a third of the way into the book and have several pages of notes of points that particularly interest me. I like this type of book which is balanced and objective, based on extensive  research and knowledge.

    Fortunately Karen Armstrong has included a glossary of such words as ‘apophatic’, that I had no idea of  their  meaning (it means ‘speechless’; wordless; silent – referring to theology that defines God in negative terms “God is not …”) and words that I thought I did know such as ‘faith’.  Translated from the Greek ‘pistis; this meant ‘trust, loyalty, commitment’ and did not mean the acceptance of orthodox theology of belief. So when Jesus was berating his disciples for their lack of faith he was not asking them to believe in him but was asking for their commitment to his mission to feed the hungry etc (page 90).

    She states that ‘our religious thinking is sometimes remarkably undeveloped, even primitive’ (page 1) and that religion was ‘not primarily something that people thought but something they did.’ (page 4)

    This book does not attack anyone’s beliefs – Armstrong states that quarrelling about religion is counterproductive and aims to show how people in the pre-modern world thought about God, throwing light on some problematic issues such as creation, miracles, revelation, faith, belief and mystery. She then traces the rise of the ‘modern God’ (page 9).

    I’m reading The Case for God quite slowly and not reading it at night, when I often fall asleep with a book in my hands which means that when I next continue reading I have no idea of what the previous pages were about and have to read them again. So it’s daytime reading with a pen and notebook at hand.

    Sunday Salon

    tssbadge1Today’s reading:

    I finished reading Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline Winspear this morning. I’ve read a couple of the Maisie Dobbs mystery books before and this one is  very good. Set in 1930 Maisie is asked by Sir Cecil Lawton to prove that his son, Ralph really did die in 1917 during the First World War. Sir Cecil’s wife, who had recently died, had been convinced that Ralph was still alive and on her deathbed made him promise to search for their son. This takes Maisie on a traumatic and dangerous trip to France – to the battlefields where she had been a nurse. Knowing she is going to France her old friend from Girton, Priscilla whose brother, Patrick died in France asks her to find out where he is buried. Maisie’s investigations reveal a number of photographs and a journal written in code leading her to to discover what actually did happen in 1917.  She then has to decide whether telling the truth is the right thing to do. Parallel with her investigations in France, Maisie is also involved in discovering the truth about a young girl accused of murdering her ‘uncle’.

    I like the Maisie Dobbs books. They’re easy to read, but not simple, the plots are nicely complicated and Maisie’s own story is seamlessly interwoven with the mystery. They give a good overall impression of the period, describing what people were wearing, the contrast between the rich and the poor and the all-pervading poisonous London smog. The horror of the War is still  strong, people still grieving for friends and relations killed or missing, visiting the battlefields and working to improve life for the soldiers who had returned home injured, and for the homeless children forced into life on the streets. Maisie is an example of a working girl who has moved out of her ‘class’, driving an MG and supporting herself independently.

    With the description of a police woman in the first chapter I wondered when women were first employed in the police force. The Metropolitan Police Service’s website provided the answer – in 1914 Margaret Damer Dawson, an anti-white slavery campaigner, and Nina Boyle, a militant suffragette journalist founded the Women Police Service and by 1923 – 30, women police were fully attested and given limited powers of arrest. I also found it interesting that later in the book Maisie and Billy see

    one of the new female recruits to criminal investigation disguised as a passer-by

    and the undercover police using

     a new police wireless radio … invented at the request of the chief of police down in Brighton. Scotland Yard have been testing it for about a month now – it looks as if it mught come in handy today. (page 310)

    I have the latest book in the series, Among the Mad on loan from the library, so I can continue reading about Maisie Dobbs very soon. But maybe I should read the earlier books first. Now I want to get back to Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, even though I’m tempted to read another crime fiction – Murder Being Once Done by Ruth Rendell – which I borrowed from the library yesterday. As usual I have too many books clamouring to be read and I haven’t done the ironing or any de-cluttering ready for moving house!

    Sunday Salon – Currently Reading

    tssbadge1I love starting to read new books and planning which books to read next, so the Currently Reading section on the sidebar over on the right is often not up to date. These are on the sidebar:

    • I am still reading After the Victorians by A N Wilson. It seems as though I’ve been reading it for ever, not because it’s boring or hard going, far from it, but because I only read small snippets when I have my breakfast – I don’t have a lot for breakfast! So far I’m up to 1941/2 and I have to say that Churchill doesn’t come over very well to me. It’s made me want to read his biography to get a fuller picture of the man.
    • I started Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and have actually put it to one side – again not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but because I was reading it in bed at night and it’s too big and heavy to hold lying down. My eyes kept closing and the book kept falling out of my hands. I need to read it in the mornings, sitting up!
    • The Case for God by Karen Armstrong is fascinating – but it’s slow going because it too is a large, heavy book and also because it’s non-fiction I need to be fully awake to read it. So that has to wait for a morning time read as well.
    • Yesterday I started The Bradshaw Variations by Rachel Cusk. This is a paperback and much easier to handle in bed and so far I am enjoying it. I thought when I started it that maybe I wouldn’t as it’s written in the first person singular – not my favourite style – but the content is so absorbing that I don’t actually notice it anymore.

    The folowing books are not listed on the sidebar but are books I’ve started and would love to continue reading, but there is a limit to how many I can keep in my mind at one time:


    I really, really want to find time to read these books as well (all borrowed from the library):

    Oh, for more reading time!

    The Sunday Salon – newbooks magazine

    tssbadge1My copy of ‘newbooks’ magazine arrived the other day. This is perhaps the one magazine that I always read from cover to cover. The editorial highlights the changes in publishing in the last decades with

    … the conglomeration first of publishing houses and then bookselling, and the negative contribution made by literary agents pedalling a ‘stifling excess of lucrative junk’, hand-in-hand with Google and Amazon’s rapid growth in influence. … ‘No one can predict how books and readers will survive.

    The trend seems to be away from books in print, with not only independent bookshops dwindling but also the high street bookshops in decline, towards the on-line digital era. Whilst this is something that has been debated extensively online before, it did strike me that this could mean that in future magazines like ‘newbooks’ would not be issued physically but only available on line and how would I like that?

    Well, I wouldn’t – I like it dropping through the letterbox onto the doormat and then flicking through its pages before settling down to read it. Maybe there won’t be any letterboxes in future – everything will be done online? I have no problem with reading somethings online – after all I write this blog and read lots of other blogs quite happily. But I’m not up to reading whole books on screen, nor do I want to print them off and read them that way and the same goes for magazines – I want the physical object – books in print please. Although I do buy some books from online boksellers I prefer to go to a bookshop and browse the books. So I hope the complete change doesn’t come soon.

    newbooks-augustIn the meantime I’m happy reading and choosing which book to pick as my free book from ‘newbooks’. Will it be An Equal Stillness by Francesca Kay, The Girl on the Landing by Paul Torday, Antigona and Me by Kate Clanchy, The Book of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark, or The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery?

    Mog commented on my previous post that she has chosen The Book of Unholy Mischief and I’m very tempted  by that one too. It’s set in Venice in 1498, where an ancient book, rumoured to contain heresies and secrets of immeasurable power, is hidden. Luciano, a chef’s apprentice in the doge’s palace is drawn into the search leading him into a perilous maze to the centre of an intrigue concerning some of the most powerful and dangerous men in Venice.

    I’m also drawn to The Girl on the Landing, which is about Michael and his wife Elizabeth. Michael spots a painting whilst staying at a friend’s country house in Ireland. In the background of the painting he see a woman clad in a dark green dress, except his hosts say there is no woman in the picture and indeed when he looks again she is not there.

    There is also an interview with Paul Torday in the magazine in which Zoe Fairbairns reveals that its the nature of Britishness and Englishness that is debated furiously in this book as Michael, on medication which he then refuses to take, plummets towards breakdown. She writes:

    If identity and personality are so fragile, how can anyone said to be ‘truly’ British, ‘truly’ anything? It’s disturbing stuff, but compulsively readable, which is what Torday wants: ‘My perfect reader is someone who picks the book up and goes on reading it until it’s late at night.’

    That could be me!

    Sunday Salon – Birthday Books

    tssbadge1We’ve been away from home again for a few days. This time it was to Stratford to celebrate my birthday by going to see the RSC’s Julius Caesar at The Courtyard Theatre. I finished re-reading the play just before we went to Stratford. I enjoyed it, but not as much as other performances I’ve seen. More about the play in a future post.

    Stratford was packed – with bikers as well as the usual tourists – a constant whine and roar of their engines as they seemed to spend the days and evenings circling the town. We have visited Stratford many times but this time we did the tourist thing and visited Shakespeare’s Birth Place and other houses connected to him and his family – more about that in a future post.

    I always love books as birthday presents and was lucky enough to be given this pile this year. I just wish I could read them all at once:

    • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I’ve been reading about this one and it was high on my wish list.
    • Jane Austen’s Letters collected and edited by Deirdre Le Feye – another book I’ve been coveting for a while.
    • The Rebecca Notebook & Other Memories by Daphne Du Maurier. Rebecca is one of my favourite books and this book begins with Du Maurier’s thoughts on writing it with an alternative Epilogue.
    • The Children’s Book by A S Byatt. How could I not want this book – other bloggers have been giving it such praise!
    • The Cleansing by Bill Rogers. I’d actually forgotten this was on my wishlist, but I’m so glad D bought it for me. I’ve started to read it and so far I think it’s very good. Set in Manchester, it’s a murder mystery well grounded in police procedure. DCI Tom Caton leads the Specialist Detection Group investigating a very messy case involving a killer dressed as a clown.
    • Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser. I’m particularly drawn to historical biography and especially Mary Queen of Scots, so I’m looking forward to this one.
    • Death of a Chief by Douglas Watt. This looks excellent – a surprise present from my son. From the back cover: “The year is 1686. Sir Lachlan MacLean, chief of a proud but poverty-stricken Highland clan, has met with a macabre death in his Edinburgh lodgings. … Death of a Chief is set in pre-Englightenment Scotland – a long time before police detectives existed.”


    Sunday Salon – Reading The Sixth Wife

    tssbadge1Yesterday I started reading The English by Jeremy Paxman. It’s entertaining but I felt I wanted a story – something to get lost in. So I picked up  The Sixth Wife by Suzannah  Dunn. I’ve had this book for a long time and I decided it was now time to read it. I’m so glad I did because I have difficulty putting it down. It’s the story of Katherine Parr as told by her friend Catherine, Duchess of Suffolk after the death of Henry VIII, when Katherine had married Thomas Seymour.

    Reading one book often leads me on to reading others. I was sure I had a copy of David Starkey’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII but I can’t find it – I wanted to read what he had to say about Katherine, so I must have just borrowed it from the library. I know I’ve read it.

    I find this period of English history so fascinating and most of what I know has come from reading novels or books like Starkey’s because we only touched on it at school and my later historical study was all a lot later. I’d like to visit Sudeley Castle where Katherine lived with Thomas – he renovated it in 1547/8. And I’d also like to read more about both Katherine and her friend, Catherine. So much from one book.


    Note: See my final thoughts here. My enthusiasm for this book waned.

    The Sunday Salon – Today’s Selection


    Some thoughts on today’s reading.

    But first of all a short video (the first one I’ve put on YouTube):

    Thunder and lightning – very, very frightening!

    We had the most tremendous thunder storm last night and our lane was like a river in full flow. We’ve never had such a storm before with the whole lane covered by several inches of fast flowing water. The patio in the backgarden was completely flooded, fortunately it didn’t get quite up to the height of the doorway. This morning we found the slabs were lifted and the patio covered in garden debris.


    I’ve not done much reading today. The family stayed overnight, arriving just as the water was subsiding. They’ve gone now to visit friends and will be back here later in the week.  Meanwhile, they’ve left behind quite a range of books that I could read today, including these –

    Granddaughter (age 8 )

    Granddaughter’s choice (age 3)

    • Pants by Giles Andreae, featuring lots of pants (what would Alan Sugar think?!) – giant frilly pig pants, fairy pants, hairy pants, run away from scary pants!  Love it!

    Grandson’s (age 7) selection:

    My selection?

    I’ve read a short chapter from After the Victorians by A N Wilson, called The Silly Generation –  in the 1920s enthralling the world were Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, Ronald Coleman, Greta Garbo and Harold Lloyd. Rudolph Valentino, one of the first great stars of the Silver Screen died in 1922; thousands attended his funeral, openly weeping, foreshadowing the 21st century’s adulation of celebrities as witnessed by the deaths of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana  and most recently Michael Jackson.

    Sunday Salon – Crime Fiction


    Since May, in an attempt to catch up with reading books I already own, I’ve been avoiding buying any more books. If you don’t count the secondhand copy of The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey that I bought for 20p off the trolley at the hospital I stuck it out until last weekend when I  gave in and bought three books.

    Well, I went in Waterstones for a coffee and so I had to browse the books. It would be a sad day if I ever come away from a bookshop without even wanting to buy one book, but that just doesn’t happen. This time there were plenty I could have bought but I restricted myself to three. I didn’t pick them for their covers but when I realised they are practically the same colours I thought there’s obviously a theme here. They’re all historical mystery/crime fiction and two of them are books that have been on my wishlist for a while.


    The first two books have been on my wishlist for ages.

    I have started to read Company of Liars, which is set in 1348 at the time of the Plague. Nine strangers brought together on Midsummer’s Day (which is today!) travel together through England trying to escape the plague. The group includes Camelot, the relic- seller, a one-armed story teller, a strange, silent child and a painter and his pregnant wife. They each have a secret and it’s not just danger from the plague that threatens them.

    The Death Maze (published in the USA as The Serpent’s Tale) is Ariana Franklin’s second book featuring the Italian doctor, Adelia Aguilar. Set in the 12th century Henry II is on the throne and when his mistress Rosamund Clifford dies a painful death by poisoning his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, is the main suspect. Henry sends for Adelia to investigate.

    The third book, A Secret Alchemy by Emma Darwin, attracted me because it’s about the Princes in the Tower, believed to have been killed by their uncle Richard III in 1483. I’m sure there are many books on this subject; I’ve read just two – a novel, The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey and a non-fiction book The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir – both of which are extremely good. I was also drawn to this book by the author’s name – Emma writes a blog which I’ve been reading recently – This Itch of Writing.


    Tey’s The Daughter of Time is probably the best historical mystery novel I’ve read so I’m hoping The Franchise Affair will be just as compelling reading as The Daughter of Time.  This one is crime fiction in which a lawyer defends two women accuse of kidnapping and is based on the real life 18th century case of Elizabeth Canning. Our local hospital has been a good source of secondhand books for me recently – there are trolleys of books for sale in all the waiting areas – and the waits have been long!

    And to round off, my current Agatha Christie book is The Thirteen Problems, a satisfying collection of stories of unsolved mysteries, featuring Miss Marple. The first stories are told at Miss Marple’s house on Tuesday evenings after dinner and then the setting moves to Colonel and Mrs Bantry’s house (who feature in The Body in the Library) where a slightly different group of guests including Miss Marple, entertain each other with tales of mystery and murder.

    Sunday Salon – In which I Ramble on about Books

    tssbadge1Yesterday I finished reading Jane Austen: a Life by Claire Tomalin. I’m going to write more about it in a separate post because today the sun is shining and soon I’m going out for the morning.

    There are many books written about Jane Austen – thousands of volumes and tens of thousands of articles so why a write any more? But Claire Tomalin’s biographies are always excellent and this one is no exception. She writes that Jane Austen

    is as elusive as a cloud in the night sky.

    jane-austen-tomalinAnd yet she has written such a clear account, quoting from original sources – letters and diaries, that I now know so much more about Jane Austen than I did before. Inevitably it has made me keen to re-read her novels as soon as possible.

    But that won’t be today, or tomorrow as I’m still reading those two mammoth books shown in the sidebar – When the Lights Went Out and After the Victorians. I read a little from these most days, and of the two I’m enjoying After the Victorians more. Yesterday I read about the power of the press, in particular of Lord Northcliffe over the Government in the run up to the First World War. He was both loved and loathed. Rudyard Kipling, writing for his cousin Stanley Baldwin when Leader of the opposition, likened the power of the press to “that of a harlot”.

    Kipling is a fascinating character and by one of those strange coincidences that often happen his name cropped up again this morning when I was reading Geranium Cat’s post on his story Thy Servant the Dog. This then prompted me to pick up and read a couple of Kipling’s Just So Stories – How the Whale Got His Throat and How The Camel Got His Hump. I like his poem with that one – If we haven’t enough to do-oo-oo We get the hump, although I can’t go along completely with this verse

    The cure for this ill is not to sit still,

    Or frowst with a book by the fire;

    But to take a large hoe and a shovel also,

    And dig till you gently perspire.

    I did the digging yesterday and much prefer sitting and reading a book!

    Finally just a word or two about Angels and Demons by Dan Brown. I’m re-reading this after watching the film last Wednesday. I first read it years ago and had forgotten the detail so I enjoyed the film without that annoying thought “that’s not how it is in the book!”  But my husband had only finished reading it the day before so he knew that’s not how it is in the book!  I’ve given up expecting or even wanting films of the book to be the same as the book.

    Sunday Salon

    tssbadge1Today I started reading The Birthday Present by Barbara Vine. but I’m not sure that I really want to finish it. Maybe I’ve read too much crime fiction recently because this one just seems rather silly.

    Ivor Tesham, MP decides to give his married girl friend a birthday present, one with a difference.  He arranges to have her “kidnapped” and delivered to him bound and gagged. Not my idea of fun and I nearly stopped reading at that point, but thought I’d go on a bit longer with it before giving up. I can’t say any of the characters are likeable, in fact they’re rather more stereotypes than real people – a sleazy politician, a plain single woman with no hope of romance, a beautiful young woman with no morals stuck in a boring marriage etc. And despite Ivor’s fears that he’s going to be found out and his name splashed across the newspapers ruining his chances of a dazzling political career it’s sadly lacking in tension.

    Much more interesting are my current non-fiction reads:

    after-the-victoriansAfter the Victorians by A N Wilson. This is not an academic study of the period 1900 – 1952 and Wilson interjects history with his own opinions and it’s full of references to art and literature as well as being an account of the political events of the times:

     … artists … hold up mirrors to what is going on in societies, they take soundings of a society’s cohesion, moral wellbeing, strength or lack of it. That is why totalitarian regimes persecute poets and composers with just as much rigour as they do to silencing overtly political opposition. Stalin and Hitler both had violently strong views about art and music. (p.156)

    When the Lights Went Out by Andy Beckett. I’m enjoying this much more than I expected when-the-lights-went-outand surprising myself by wanting to read about the politics of the 1970s. But again this book is not solely a political history and there are plenty of personal touches. Beckett had interviewed many of the personalities and his accounts are compelling reading. Here he is on meeting Ted Heath:

    Heath came slowly into the room, supported by a walking stick and another of his staff. His clothes – a baggy cream short-sleeved shirt with half the buttons undone, and the casual grey chinos – came as a small shock after watching hours of his pinstriped and uncomfortable early seventies political broadcasts. But his face was much the same: small determined eyes, the proud dagger nose, big plump cheeks barely lined despite his lingering yactsman’s tan – a usefully aspirational political signal back in the pre-easy Jet Britain of his premiership. (p. 28)

    Part of its attraction is that it reminds me of many things I’d forgotten  – like the three-day week, the Winter of Discontent, and the TV programmes The Good Life and Fawlty Towers.

    Sunday Salon – Review Books

    tssbadge1I have had a number of books now from LibraryThing’s Early turbulence001Reviewers Programme, including  The Spare Room, which I wrote about recently, so I wasn’t expecting to get any more for a while. But yesterday I received an uncorrected proof copy of  Turbulence: a Novel of the Atmosphere by Giles Foden. Almost unbelievably, I received this only two days after receiving an email from LibraryThing that it was on its way!

    Earlier in the week Maggie Dana asked if I would like a copy of her new book Beachcombing and that came one day last week as well. I have finished reading Beachcombing – more about that soon. I like getting review books, but I wish I could space them out at longer intervals – at the moment they’ve been like buses – none for ages and then several turn up at once.

    I’m still reading another review book – When the Lights Went Out (see the sidebar) and I also have a few books I received months ago that I haven’t read yet. I did start them when they arrived but either because I was in the middle of other books, or because they didn’t match my expectations from their descriptions, I haven’t finished them. Or it could just have been that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind at the time to appreciate them.

    Turbulence, on first glance, looks as though it’s one I’m going to enjoy, even though it’s a little different from the books I usually read. I requested it based on the description on LibraryThing, because I thought it looked interesting – about D-day and predicting the weather:

    The D-day landings: the fate of 2.5 million men, 3000 landing craft and the entire future of Europe depends on the right weather conditions on the English Channel on a single day. A team of Allied scientists is charged with agreeing on an accurate forecast five days in advance. But is it even possible to predict the weather so far ahead? And what is the relationship between predictability and turbulence, one of the last great mysteries of modern physics? Wallace Ryman has devised a system that comprehends all of this — but he is a reclusive pacifist who stubbornly refuses to divulge his secrets. Mark Latchford, a young maths prodigy from the Met Office, is sent to Scotland to discover Ryman’s system and apply it to the Normandy landings. But turbulence proves more elusive than anyone could have imagined and events, like the weather, begin to spiral out of control.

    I just hope it won’t be too technical; I’ve already read a few words I’ve never come across before – “nacelle”: a cover for an engine and “katabatic” defined in the book as a “gravity-fed wind”. But the language is also poetic and reflective, so I have great hopes for this book.

    Sunday Salon

    tssbadge1It’s the May Bank Holiday weekend and for once the sun is shining, but rain is forecast for tomorrow, so it’s not really a day for spending much time reading – the garden is calling. But I’m currently well into Ian Rankin’s first Rebus book – Knots and Crosses – and I would love to finish it today. I think I know who the murderer is.

    I’m reading it in the omnibus edition which contains the first three Rebus books so I’ve got Hide and Seek and Tooth and Nail to read after Knots and Crosses.

    In Knots and Crosses one we learn about Rebus’s life before the police force when he was in the army, about his brother, Michael and about his ex-wife Rhona and his daughter Samantha. Rebus receives cryptic anonymous letters containing pieces of string tied in a knot and matchstick crosses. It’s all a play on words – knots/noughts and crosses and acrostic puzzles added in too.

    So far I think I’ve worked it out, now I’m off to see if I’m right.

    Sunday Salon

    tssbadge1Today I’ve been reading Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Library. I’ve been reading it carefully, concentrating on the characters and trying to work out who killed Ruby and deposited her body in the Bantrys’ library at Gossington Hall. I’ve got up to the point where Miss Marple has decided she knows who the murderer is, but has not let on, because she says there’s a long way to go yet and there are a great many things that are quite obscure. She must be a most frustrating friend – Mrs Bantry is desperate to know who it is because everyone is saying it must be Colonel Bantry because the body was found in their house.

    body-in-the-libraryI have no idea who the murderer is – all the likely suspects have alibis for the time that the murder was committed, so either I’ve missed someone, or the timing is wrong, or something! The only thing to do is to read on and find out. I dislike it when it turns out that a new person is the murderer. I feel cheated, having spent time working it all out, so I hope this isn’t one of those books!

    Sunday Salon – Remember Me by Melvyn Bragg

    remember-meI know that some people read one book at a time whereas others, like me,  have more on the go at once. Currently I’m reading two books, which is unusual for me. The two I’m reading are both long and detailed, one fiction, the other non-fiction,  and I thought it would be better if I didn’t get distracted by reading other books.

    The non-fiction is A N Wilson’s After the Victorians, which I can just pick up and read without losing the thread. But the novel demands more concentrated reading. It is Remember Me by Melvyn Bragg, a fourth book about Joe Richardson. I read the earlier books a few years ago and waited with anticipation to read this one. Remember Me is fiction, but is based on Melvyn Bragg’s own life. I have to keep reminding myself it is fiction – the disclaimer at the front says that the characters are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. And Joe, recounting the story of his dead wife’s life to his daughter says

    But fiction can be dangerous, especially when read as fact. (page 378)

    It is a powerful novel, telling such a sad story, reflecting on Joe and Natasha’s lives together, their joys and despair, their depression and dashed hopes but I do wonder how much is fiction and how much is autobiographical. Memory and the limitations of memory are highlighted in the novel. Joe tells his daughter

    There is no possibility and no point in trying to remember “everything” about Natasha; nor is strictly remembering the way of it for me. It is too fragmented, too unreliable, unshaped, a landscape without definition of final meaning, undermined by shames, veiled by guilt. Your mother has to be fiction and yet she  has to be attached to some of my recollections which rise up from the sea bed like monsters, or erupt into an unready mind like volcanoes or are frustratingly near yet ungraspable as they are today in Paris, in this cafe, with spring aching to be born, but the leaves  still furled, hidden in the bough. (page 262)

    And again

    Memory changes all the time and is dependent not so much on past certainties stored securely but on present challenges: memory fortifies the day, it regroups continuously to accommodate the moment. So my memories of your mother change as I write. (page 415)

    Is this therapeutic? Joe thinks not and so does Melvyn Bragg, as reported in this interview in the Sunday Times last year. I’ll write more about the book when I’ve finished it and have let it settle more in my mind, it’s so full of anguish and longing.

    As I near the end of the book, I’m wondering what to read next. Maybe it’s time for some Jane Austen – I’ve been meaning to re-read Pride and Prejudice for a while now or it may be Lady Susan/The Watsons/Sanditon.tssbadge1 On the other hand I have the first three of Ian Rankin’s Rebus books, a compilation volume (borrowed from my son) to read, or an Agatha Christie mystery and the choices from my To-Be-Read piles are seemingly endless! It’s almost as pleasurable choosing as it is reading.

    Sunday Salon


    It’s been a good week for reading. I finished:

    It has taken me weeks to read Sue Roe’s book, as I took it slowly, savouring the detail. Whereas both Ferney and We Have Always Lived in the Castle  are the type of books that demand to be read and it was impossible to read them slowly.

    I’ve started reading three very different books:

    I’ve only just started each one, but in their different genres they all promise well. I won’t be finishing them all this week as Melvyn Bragg’s book is 551 pages and A N Wilson’s is 624 pages!

    The Sunday Salon – Choosing Books

    tssbadge1Currently I’m at the beginning of a few books. That is because I’ve just finished reading Tangled Roots by Sue Guiney and have started more before deciding which one to read next. Usually I have more than one book on the go but I’m thinking of restricting myself to just two at once.

    I’ve been reading Sue Roe’s The Private Lives of the Impressionists for several weeks now, taking it slowly. I’m about half-way into it now and I ‘d really like to finish it more quickly so I’ll be spending more time reading that in the next day or two.

    Tangled Roots is such a sad book I think I need something more cheerful for a while but so far I haven’t quite found the right one. I received An Elegy for Easterly by Petina Gappah from LibraryThing Early Reviewers. This is a book of short stories set in Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe’s regime and there is not a lot of joy so far in the first three stories I’ve read. They are stories of struggle, hardship and endurance, written beautifully and as the title indicates read like a lament for the Zimbabwe that no longer exists. I think I’ll restrict myself to reading one or two of these stories at a time – short stories are meant to be savoured  not gobbled down.

    Poetry too is something I can’t read too much of in one sitting. I’ve dipped into Poems of Thomas Hardy, selected and introduced by Claire Tomalin and these seem to be quite melancholy – not quite right for my mood right now.

    Another book that isn’t meant to be read through in one sitting is Troublesome Words by Bill Bryson. I am fascinated by words and how they fit together and all the problems in using them. So yesterday this book caught my eye as I was passing the bookshelf. Some of it makes me laugh –

     hear! hear! is the exclamation of parliamentarians, not here, here!

    It’s full of helpful information – when I can’t remember whether it should be ‘a hotel’ or ‘an hotel’ for example. (It all depends upon whether the ‘h’ is silent or not).

    I seem to be attracted to books to dip into as I’ve also started Not the End of the World by Kate Atkinson, another book of short stories. Funny, amusing and inventive.

    However, I really want to read a full length novel and so I thought I’d try a Barbara Vine book, never having read one before, although I’ve watched most of the TV adaptations. My library had The Birthday Present so I had a look at that this morning. The opening sentences are promising:

    Thirty three is the age we shall all be when we meet in heaven because Christ was thirty three when he died. It’s an interesting idea. One can’t help thinking that the people who invent these things chose it because it’s an ideal age, no longer one’s first youth but not aging either.

    But then I read the blurb and a novel “set amidst an age of IRA bombings, the first Gulf War and sleazy politics” doesn’t appeal much today. So I’ve put that to one side for the time being.

    dead-mans-folly001Next Dead Man’s Folly by Agatha Christie. I started this last week and stopped so I could finish Tangled Roots (which was getting a bit oppressive). This, despite the reference to death in the title and being a murder mystery is much lighter in tone and I’m enjoying it immensely. Poirot has been enlisted by Mrs Oliver, the detective writer, to go down to Nassecombe House in Devon because she thinks there’s something wrong. And naturally she’s right. I do enjoy Agatha Christie’s books! So I’m going to read this one and finish the others later.

    The Sunday Salon – Reading Report

    tssbadge1As the first quarter of the year is now over (where did it go?) I thought I’d look at the state of my reading over the last three months. Given my obstinate urges not to read books I’d planned to read I’d decided at the end of last year not to join any challenges apart from What’s In a Name 2?, which I’d enjoyed very much last year. So of course I then signed up for Support Your Local Library Reading Challenge, the Chunkster Challenge and the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge.

    Challenge Progress January – March

    • What’s In a Name 2?

    The Challenge is to read one book from each of 6 different categories between January 1, 2009 and December 31, 2009. So far I’ve read 3 books from 2 of the categories. Not too bad – at this rate I’m on target to complete the challenge.

    • Support Your Local Library Reading Challenge 

    The Challenge is to read 25 library books by 31 December 2009. I have absolutely no problems with this Challenge and am well on target with 10 books read so far. They don’t have to be on any particular subject, have particular features in the title, or be in any specific genre. They just have to be library books. This suits me down to the ground as I can pick whatever takes my fancy whenever I go to the library.

    • Chunkster Challenge

    I joined this in an attempt to read some books that I’ve owned for a while and not read yet. A Chunkster book is 450 pages or more long and I signed up to the Too Big To Ignore Anymore section – that is books you already own on your to-be-read list.

    You have to decide which ones to read in advance and stick to that. I’m no good at that and haven’t read a single one of them yet. Why do I suddenly have an aversion to reading books that I really do want to read just because I’ve put them in a list? Looking at my list today they all look enticing, so why haven’t I even picked up one of them?

    • The Agatha Christie Reading Challenge

    I’m doing much better with this one, mainly I think because when I go to the library there are always quite a few Christie books to choose from. But on looking more closely I find that the Challenge as described by Kerrie is to read them in the order they were written – at least that’s what she is doing.  I’ve read three so far, not in the order they were written because that would mean trying to buy them or find them at the library. I’m trying to cut down on the number of books I buy and I’m too impatient to wait for library reservations to materialise. So I’m reading them as I find them.

    General Progress

    Of course I’ve read other books apart from the ones in these Reading Challenges. They’re all listed with links to posts where I’ve written about them on the Books Read tab at the top of the page. So far this year I’ve read 26 books, most of them have been really good reads. A lot of them have been spontaneous choices either from the library, bookshops, presents or my own shelves.

    My “Plan” for Reading over the next three months is not to plan what I read, not to bother if the books I choose fit into any of the Challenge categories, but each time I finish one book to read whatever takes my fancy next.

    What I’m Reading Today

    So far today I’ve read a few pages from Sue Roe’s book The Private Lives of the Impressionists. I wish it had more illustrations, because I want to see all the paintings she mentions. This morning I read about Manet’s paintings of Berthe Morisot in 1872/3. His wife Suzanne was  tolerant of his womanizing and put up with his love of other women. He painted Berthe (who was also a painter) in seductive poses, searching for the

     sensation élémentaire, the sensation de vivre which Valéry elsewhere equated with the frisson of being in love.

    Sunday Salon – this week’s books

    tssbadge1Once more my current reading bears very little resemblance to the Currently Reading Section on the sidebar. This is partly because my reading this week has been rather different from usual as I’ve been reading mainly children’s books – out loud to the grandchildren.

    wutheringBut I did manage to squeeze in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, which I first read many years ago. I was a bit wary about re-reading it in case I was disappointed by it now, but I needn’t have worried as it’s even better than I remembered it. It’s the writing that enthralled me. Parts of it were like reading it for the first time and parts were just so familiar, I think I must have read some sections many times over.  My over-riding memory of the story was of Lockwood spending the night in Catherine Earnshaw’s bedroom and his dream in which he heard a rattle on the window panes. When he opened the window his fingers closed

    on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand! The intense horror of the nightmare came over me: I tried to draw back my arm, but the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed, “Let me in – let me in!” “Who are you?” I asked, struggling, meanwhile to disengage myself.

    … Terror made me cruel; and finding it useless to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled its wrist on the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bedclothes: still it wailed, “Let me in!” and maintained its tenacious gripe, almost maddening me with fear.

    This still sends shivers down my spine.

    I had forgotten that a large part of the book covers the story of Catherine’s daughter, Cathy and Heathcliff’s son, Linton, but I found that just as gripping as the beginning of the book. Linton Heathcliff is the most exasperating, weak character so easily controlled and manipulated by his father’s brutal cruelty. I was impressed by the way Emily Bronte managed to make me feel sorry for such an unsympathetic character as Heathcliff, full of bitterness and driven to gain revenge for Catherine’s betrayal even whilst his love for her never diminished, bordering on insanity. Even though she was so self-centred and rejected him, years after her death he was still obsessed and haunted by her:

    I cannot look down to this floor, but her features are shaped in the flags! In every cloud, in every tree- filling the air at night, and caught by glimpses in every object by day – I am surrounded by her image! The most ordinary faces of men and women – my own features – mock me with a resemblance. The entire world is a dreadful collection of memoranda that she did exist, and that I have lost her!

    The Sunday Salon – Reading to a Deadline

    tssbadge1I’m in the middle of a few books, as always, but one book is having to take preference over the others because it’s a library book, due back next Tuesday and I won’t be able to renew it. Well, I could take it back late and pay an overdue fine, but I hate to do that.

    The book is The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson. I wrote a bit about this book in yesterday’s post on Library Loot, where I said that after a few pages I nearly gave up on it because of the graphic descriptions of burning skin and flesh, but that it had got better when the unnamed narrator met Marianne Engel, a wild and compelling sculptress of gargoyles and she starts to tell him tales of the time when they were once lovers in medieval Germany.

    The book alternates between recounting their present day life and Marianne Engel’s stories of their past life. The good things I do like about this book are the many references to Dante’s Inferno, which I still haven’t read, the religious references and what life was like in medieval Germany.

    gargoyleBut there are annoying things about the book that maybe wouldn’t be so annoying if I could read it more slowly. This is a book with stories within stories – the stories Marianne Engel tells are good, but there are too many of them. When she says “Would you like to hear a story?” I think no, not another one. If I was able to take more time I’d put the book down after reading one of these before going on with the book. As I don’t have that time I find myself reading impatiently, wanting to get on with the main story. For another thing I don’t like reading lots of lists of things – the list of food Marianne brings him to eat for example made me slide my eyes over the page – in the middle of this list the narrator even inserts this in brackets “(just checking to see if you’re still reading)”.  I was  – just.

    The pages are suitably black-edged. It looks charred as though it had been burned and because I’m the first person to read the book they’re still stuck together and I have to gently prise them open. They make a crackling noise and slow down my reading – not good for reading to a deadline.

    I think the main problems though are that I normally read several books at a time moving from one to the other – it’s a bit like watching different programmes on TV – in several installments. I’m not used to reading only one book. And of course, that terrible feeling of time running out is reminding me of revising for  exams, or of having to finish a report for work. It does really take the enjoyment element away from reading until it starts to feel like a chore.

    Sunday Salon – Book Notes




    The newbooks magazine came this week and I’ve been pondering which book to choose as my free book (£2.95 for p&p). There are six to choose from this time in a bumper issue – the 50th issue.


    I thought writing about them would help me decide which one to choose:

    1. The Return by Victoria Hislop, a love story set in Granada during the Spanish Civil War, framed by the contemporary story of Sonia on holiday in Spain. Dance is an important part of The Return used to transcend the horrors of the war. I have her earlier novel The Island but haven’t read it yet. Maybe I should read that first.
    2. The Senator’s Wife by Sue Miller. Meri and Nathan’s new neighbour is a distinguished Senator. He is nowhere to be seen but Meri and his wife become friends. In an interview with Sue Miller she says that the book scrutinises marriage and the accommodations made by the wife of an incurably promiscuous politician. I’m not sure I fancy this one.
    3. Sashenka by Simon Montefiore. I may choose this. It begins in 1916 in St Petersburg. Sashenka’s mother parties with Rasputin whilst Sashenka is involved with conspiracy. It then moves forward to 1939 in Moscow under Stalin and ends in the 1990s when a young historian researches her life and discovers her fate.
    4. Being Emily by Anne Donovan. I like the title and the connection to the Brontes, but I’m not too keen on a teenage heroine obssessed with a romantic vision of Emily Bronte.  Reading the extract in the magazine I think this book would annoy me with its spelling – eg the first sentence is “Through the livin room Patrick was paintin the fireplace while Mona and Rona practised their line dancin.”
    5. A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson. The story of Mr Malik and his old school chum and now rival Harry Kahn, it is set in and around Nairobi, the home of millions of people in both mansions and slums and also home to some spectacular birds. Mr Malik secretly loves Rose who leads the weekly bird walk. This sounds lively and full of humour. I may pick this one.
    6. The Lighted Rooms by Richard Mason. This is set in the Orange Free State, South Africa with Joan returning to the family homestead. She discovers her grandmother’s journal written during the Anglo-Boer war. However Joan is now losing her memory and her daughter Eloise pays for her to live in a nursing home. The novel considers the ethics of putting an old person into a home. Perhaps this is one I should read.

    Well, I’m still not sure, but I seem to have whittled it down to three at least.

    Sunday Salon – Selections

    tssbadge1The idea of The Sunday Salon is to imagine we’re in a large reading room discussing the books we’re reading. 

    Today is a good day for reading. Yesterday the sun was shining drawing me outside. But today the sky is grey, the light is dull and I’m content to stay indoors and read. So far, however, I haven’t done much reading. I’ve watched Countryfile, tidied up a bit, made soup and done an Alphapuzzle or two. Countryfile was good – John Craven visited Kew Gardens to celebrate its 250th anniversary, there was a fascinating film of salmon migrating to their spawning grounds in the River Severn and what was to me a truly terrifying look at a mountain bike trail in the Lake District, plus lots more.

    Back to books, this morning I continued reading two of the books I have on the go – The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro and The Madonna of the Almonds by Marina Fiorato. Both are proving to be absorbing reads. For links to these books see the sidebar.

    My Tuesday Teaser this week was from Alice Munro’s book, with a brief description of the lower Ettrick Valley where her ancestors came from. The Laidlaws emigrated to Canada in 1818 and the account of their voyage across the Atlantic is made more vivid by entries from Walter Laidlaw’s journal. He had brought with him a book to write in and a vial of ink held in a leather pouch strapped to his chest under his shirt. He had the idea from his cousin, James Hogg, the poet and shepherd. It doesn’t sound an easy crossing:

    On the afternoon of the 14th a wind came from the North and the ship began to shake as if every board that was in it would fly loose from every other. The buckets overflowed from the people that were sick and vomiting and there was the contents of them slipping all over the deck. All the people were ordered below but many of them crumpled up against the rail and did not care if they were washed over.

    Inevitably reading this book has raised more questions for me – just who was James Hogg for one? My own resources are a bit limited but I do have A Book of Scotland, edited by G F Maine. This is an anthology of Scottish prose and verse and comments on Scottish life and character. It contains several poems by James Hogg who was born in 1770 and died in 1835. I also have Scotland: the Blue Guide, which tells me that he was known as the “Ettrick Shepherd” and was a protege of Sir Walter Scott. There is a monument marking his birthplace and his grave is in the churchyard. He and other men of letters including Scott, Carlyle and Stevenson used to meet in Tibbie Shiels inn. This led me on to look at various websites and well away from Munro’s book, but it’s fascinating how one thing in a book leads on to more and yet more. I found this website about Tibbie Shiels Inn – the inn is in the Scottish Borders 48 miles south of Edinburgh overlooking St Mary’s Loch, on the isthmus between St. Mary’s Loch and Loch of the Lowes about halfway between Selkirk and Moffat. Now I’m wondering if it’s possible for us to stop and have a look at it on our way to see my son and family next time we visit them.

    electric-shepherdI also found another helpful website Books from Scotland where I came across a book on James Hogg called The Electric Shepherd by Karl Miller. This looks absolutely fascinating. James Hogg taught himself to play the violin as well as writing poetry and the novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and was a friend of Wordsworth and Coleridge.

    I don’t want to write about The Madonna of the Almonds today because I’m enjoying it so much I just want to get on with reading it. But I have to mention my reaction to the title. I associate it with paintings of the Madonna and Child, most notably The Madonna of the Rocks by Leonardo Da Vinci and in a frivolous vein with”The Fallen Madonna of the Big Boobies” by the fictional painter Van Klomp from ‘Allo, ‘Allo!

    And so now after looking at what others are reading in the Sunday Salon it’s back to books before cooking dinner.

    Sunday Salon – An Ordinary Couple?

    tssbadge1After  ploughing my way through White Noise and feeling a bit jaded I turned to an old favourite – Agatha Christie and this week I read By the Pricking of My Thumbs. After such a rambling, verbose book as White Noise it was so refreshing to read this book, posing a mystery to be solved – what had happened in the house by the canal, whose child had died and how, and where was Mrs Lancaster?

    pricking-of-my-thumbsThis is the first Tommy and Tuppence story I’ve read, but it’s not the first Agatha Christie wrote – there were earlier ones featuring Tommy and Tuppence, which I’m now going to look out for. Outwardly they are an ordinary couple, pleasant and past the prime of life, just like any other old couple. But appearances are deceptive and in By the Pricking of My Thumbs Tuppence in particular has no hesitation about getting mixed up in dangerous situations. Her daughter wishes that ‘her age she’d learn to sit quiet and not do things.’ There’s no chance of that after Tuppence met Mrs Lancaster in the nursing home where Tommy’s Aunt Ada had died. Seemingly incoherent and rambling Mrs Lancaster referred to ‘something behind the fireplace’ and a ‘poor child’ and when she disappeared after leaving behind a painting of a house by a canal Tuppence sets out to investigate.

    As you would imagine from the title of the book (taken from Shakespeare’s Macbeth), ‘something wicked’ is afoot, there is evil about and Tuppence’s life is in danger. A dark and sinister tale.

    I was still feeling like reading another mystery and picked up Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News? Jackson Brodie featured in the other book by Kate Atkinson that I’ve read – Case Histories and I was pleased to find he’s in this one too. I read this in a couple of days, finishing it this morning as I just had to find out what happened. My faith in books has been fully restored as this is a very good book, and very satisfying – a complex and complicated plot with lots of action, good characterisation and drama.  More about that in a separate post.

    Sunday Salon

    tssbadge1Today finds me in the middle of a few books, but I want to start more. This is one of the signs of a true bookaholic I think – that compulsion to read more.  I’ve decided to take my “Currently Reading” section off the sidebar as it wasn’t accurate at all and only reminded me of books I’ve yet to finish. It’s not that I don’t like the books I’ve started it’s just that I keep coming across more books that interest me and so it goes on.

    white-noiseToday, I’ve been reading a bit more of White Noise by Don DeLillo. This is rather a strange book. LibraryThing reckons I “will probably like this book” and so far I’ve both liked and not liked it. The story seems straight forward. It’s about Jack Gladney and his wife Babette and their fear of death – who will die first? Their family life is complicated with children from their various previous marriages.

    It’s funny in parts, not laugh out loud funny but amusing, particularly in the rambling, roundabout conversations between Jack and his son, Heinrich who is fourteen and concerned about his receding hairline. Jack is a college professor (Hitler Studies) and Babette reads to old people, gives talks on posture and is invited to teach another course on Eating and Drinking: Basic Parameters – to explain to adults the current thinking on the right way to eat etc – the mind boggles!

    And then it’s boring in parts, rambling on and on about trivia, maybe that’s the point but it is tedious. The real problem is that these boring bits start off well and then go on too long. The episode of the “airborne toxic event” was fine to start off with as Jack and family evacuated the house but got bogged down in too many details intermingled with Jack’s stream of conscience thoughts. Then in the next chapter my interest revived with the story of the drug that Babette has been taking in secret. And that is where I left off reading for the time being.

    My plans for the coming week are to finish White Noise and also Le Grand Meaulnes by Henri Alain- Fournier in time for Cornflower’s discussion next Saturday. LibraryThing prediction is that I “will love” this book – so far so good. shoe-queen

    But now I’m thinking I want to read something different – maybe Agatha Christie’s By the Pricking of My Thumbs, or The Shoe Queen by Anna Davis, about a woman obssessed with shoes. She has over 500 pairs and wants more – a bit like me with my books. Just imagine you could wear a different pair of shoes every day for about 16 months and where would you keep that many shoes!

    Sunday Salon – Reading By Inclination

    A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.

    Samuel Johnson 1709-84

    tssbadge1This week I’ve been reading where my inclination took me. I’ve been tempted to re-read old favourites through thinking and writing about the books I read five years ago, particularly the Iris Murdoch books and then looking at books on my bookshelves set me off again.

    But in the end I concentrated on my current reading  and finished The Hidden by Tobias Hill. I need to think about it more before writing about it. I also read a bit more of both Suite Francaise and The Various Flavours of Coffee, and also started Tartan Tragedy by Antonia Fraser, although I’ve not read much of it yet. This is set on a remote island in the Scottish Highlands. There is a forbidding stone house, a family feud, Scottish nationalism and a couple of suspicious deaths. Jemima Shore, on holiday is drawn into the mystery.

    From Scotland I moved to France, reading the opening pages of Le Grand Meaulnes by Henri Alain-Fournier in preparation for the discussion on 14th February over at Cornflower’s book group. I haven’t managed to get the same edition as Cornflower’s as I’ve borrowed the book from the library. There were several copies held in the County Reserve stock (kept in the basement of the building next door to the library), one in French. My copy is a Penguin Twentieth Century Classic, published in 1966 with no introduction. From the back cover:

    A classic of immaturity and adolescence … told with lucidity, grace and even magic.

    The only novel by a brilliant young man who was killed in action in 1914 at the age of twenty-seven, it is a masterly exploration of the twilight world between boyhood and manhood, with its mixture of idealism, realism and sheer caprice.

    I was wondering about “Meaulines”, not sure what it means or how to pronounce it.  “Le Grand Meaulines” is what the boys called Augustin Meaulines. Fortunately there is a footnote on page 18 by the Translator (Frank Davison), explaining that he has not translated the title because no English adjective conveys all the shades of meaning of “grand” which takes on overtones as the story progresses. It could mean the tall, the big, the protective, the almost grown up – even the great Meaulines, or “good old Meaulines” and it is pronounced like the English word “moan”.

    le-grand-m001Here’s a coincidence: the front cover of this book shows a detail from Small Meadows in Spring by Alfred Sisley, who I had never heard of until last Thursday at the first of a five week WEA course on the Impressionists. Sisley was influenced by the Barbizon School of painters. He moved to Moret-sur-Loing next to the Forest of Fontainebleau in 1880 and painted Small Meadows in 1881. It’s now in the Tate.  Sisley, a French landscape painter born in Paris of English parents was one of the founders of the Impressionist School of painting. A definite French trend seems to be going on here – first Suite Francaise, then Le Grand Meaulnes and now the Impressionists. This could be a distraction from my current reading as I want to know more about the Impressionists now.

    I’m wondering where my inclination will take me next week – my intention is to read more of Suite Francaise and Le Grand Meaulines and to finish Tartan Tragedy, but maybe I’ll be tempted into starting something completely new, looking at the lives and works of the Impressionists, or I’ll be drawn back into reading an old favourite.

    The Sunday Salon – Reading Notes

    tssbadge1After enjoying Fire in the Blood I’m now reading Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky. I’m interested in knowing more about her, so am pleased that the copy I’m reading has a couple of Appendices and a translation of the Preface to the French Edition published in 2004. suite-f1Appendix I is a transcript  of her handwriiten notes on the situation in France and her plans for Suite Française and Appendix II is correspondence 1936 -1945.

    The manuscript of Suite Française survived after Irène was arrested and deported to Auschwitz where she died in 1942, because her daughter, Denise put it into a suitcase as she and her sister fled from Issy l’Eveque. She took it as a momento and didn’t read it for many years.


    the-hiddenAnother book I started to read yesterday is The Hidden by Tobias Hill. I’d been looking forward to reading this book since last November as part of LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Programme. It arrived on Thursday just as I had given up hope of receiving it. So far it looks extremely promising as the story alternates between Ben in Greece after the breakup of his marriage and the archaeology of Sparta. My knowledge of Sparta is limited but reading this book it appears that this is not just down to my ignorance but to the fact that little remains of their civilisation. My limited knowledge remembered vaguely from school is that the Spartans were fierce fighters and they put babies out on the hillside to see if they would survive.

    The Sunday Salon

    tssbadge1Today I’ve been reading an autobiography that reads like a novel and a novel that is a fictionalised biography.

    The autobiography is William Woodruff’s The Road to Nab End. I’m loving this book and am amazed at the detail he could remember about his childhood. I was very interested in his family background. In 1906 his parents had emigrated from Blackburn to Fall River in Massachusetts, where his father worked in a cotton mill. Although he was doing well they returned to England in 1914. His father then joined up and went off to war, leaving his wife with three children to care for; when her savings ran out she was forced to work in the mills.

    road-to-nab-endWilliam was born in 1916. After the end of the war life was very different. His father came home disillusioned, a sick man, having been gassed at Ypres late in 1917, back to his job in the cotton mills. This book covers the period up to 1933, the poverty of Blackburn’s cotton workers, the local characters and their way of life. This morning I was reading about the General Strike of 1926 and was wondering how it affected my parents who were 12 at the time. William’s experience in Blackburn could have been similar to my father’s who lived about 30 miles south in Cheshire. Jumping forward in time William eventually moved to Florida, where he was a Graduate Research Professor until his retirement in 1996 – at the age of 80! He died last September in Florida. He continued his life story in Beyond Nab End.

    blondeI do like variety in my reading and this morning I also briefly picked up Blonde by Joyce Carole Oates. I only read The Prologue and the first chapter, The Kiss, of this fictionalised life of Marilyn Monroe. Oates’s portrait imagines Marilyn’s inner life and begins with a portrayal of Death, hurtling unexpectedly to 12305 Fifth Helena Drive, Brentwood, California on 3 August 1962. I was reminded of the character of Death in The Good Thief. This book is going to take me a while to read as it’s another mammoth novel of 738 pages. I might alternate my reading with Barbara Leaming’s biography, Marilyn Monroe to see how they compare.

    Sunday Salon – On Daphne Du Maurier

    This morning I was reading Rebecca again.

    It’s long been one of my favourite books but it’s been years since I last read it. There is something special about reading a book when you know the characters and what happens to them and yet at the same time you want it to turn out differently – to prevent the disaster happening, and to help them understand where they’re going wrong. I first read it as a young teenager and was instantly captivated by the story. Re-reading it now I have the same feelings about it – I long to know Maxim De Winter’s second wife’s name; the most we know is that it is a “lovely and unusual name“, given to her by her father and I want to give her a good shake. She is so lacking in self-confidence, timid and obssessed by Rebecca, the first wife.

    I still feel the tension, the mystery and suspense as the story unfolds even though I know what’s coming next, but it’s the details I’ve forgotten and re-reading means that I don’t need to rush through to find out what happens and can concentrate on those details. For example I’d forgotten about the visit to Beatrice and Maxim’s grandmother. This is a small episode which encapsulates the pathos of old age, the loss of memory and the way that old people are treated.

    After my first reading of Rebecca I eagerly read as many of Daphne Du Maurier’s books as I could find. So I read Jamaica Inn, Frenchman’s Creek, Mary Anne, The Scapegoat and The King’s General. I loved them all and have re-read them several times. I cannot imagine how it came about that I’ve lost my copies of Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, and Frenchman’s Creek but I have! So all I have left of my original books are these:

    I bought a set of ten books a while ago from The Book People which included the three books I’ve lost.

    I’ve since read The House on the Strand, The Flight of the Falcon and Castle Dor. None of them are as good as Rebecca, which was disappointing and I wondered if I would find Rebecca a bit of a let down now, which is why I’m now re-reading it. I’m glad to find that it is just as good as I remembered it to be! Some time soon I must re-read the other three books and hope they’ll be as good as well. And in future I’d like to read her other books too – not just those in the photograph but all her other books as well. I’ve read Margaret Forster’s biography, which I thought was excellent and I’d love to read Justine Picardie’s biogrpahical novel, Daphne, and Flavia Leng’s Daphne du Maurier : A Daughter’s Memoir.

    The Sunday Salon

    Today’s reading is a mixture of murder and farce.

    Farce in the form of Something Fresh by P G Wodehouse which is brightening up this cold and frosty Sunday. I hesitate to write about it because the quote from Stephen Fry on the back cover tells me:

    You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection, you just bask in its warmth and splendour.

    But I will anyway. The aimable and definitely doddery Lord Emsworth absent-mindedly pockets first a fork at his Club luncheon and then a valuable scarab belonging to Mr Peters, the American millionaire and father of Aline engaged to be married to Freddie, Lord Emsworth’s feckless son. Mr Peters is the opposite of Lord Emsworth, driven by his devotion to collecting scarabs, which he pusues with the same  concentrated and furious energy that had helped him to amass his millions and chronic dyspesia. Lord Emsworth on the other hand is mild and placid, happy to bask in the park and gardens of Blandings Castle. I can see it’s going to get nicely complicated as Freddie, Aline, and their parents, George Emerson who insists he is going to marry Aline, Ashe Marson and Joan Valentine (both employed to retrieve the scarab) all go down to Blandings. Freddie meanwhile is scared he’ll be sued for breach of promise by Joan.

    Then murder from Susan Hill’s The Vows of Silence, the fourth book in her Simon Serrailler crime novels.

    So far this is a gloomy book not just because of the murders but also because of the unhappy state of Simon and his family. His brother-in-law is diagnosed with a brain tumour, his father has started a new relationship with Judith a year after his wife’s death much to Simon’s distress, and adding to his sister Cat’s problems Karin, one of her patients is suffering from aggressive and terminal breast cancer.  Simon, himself is unhappy, missing his mother, unable to understand his father, and quarreling with his sister. Add to all this a gunman apparently shooting young women without any motive, an uneasy, middle-aged couple starting a relationship through an online dating agency with their own individual family problems and it’s doom and gloom all the way.

    The murderer is introduced in the first chapter, as “he” and switching rapidly between all the different characters (there are lots of them) and sub-plots intervening chapters reveal his state of mind. I don’t think it’s going to take me much longer to finish the book as it’s easy reading apart from the subject matter.

    Sunday Salon – the Sunday Before Christmas

    It’s not snowing or even very cold here but this poem came to my mind, thinking about Christmas when I was a child. We didn’t have central heating and on winter mornings the windows would be covered over with frost and icicles. My Dad would say Jack Frost had been out over night drawing in the window panes. One of my favourite poems that I used to recite with relish was When Icicles Hang by the Wall which I found in one of my mother’s books that she had had as a child. I had no idea then that it was by Shakespeare (from Love’s Labours Lost).

    When Icicles Hang by the Wall by William Shakespeare

    When icicles hang by the wall,
    And Dick the shepherd blows his nail,
    And Tom bears logs into the hall,
    And milk comes frozen home in pail,
    When blood is nipp’d and ways be foul,
    Then nightly sings the staring owl,
    Tu-whit; Tu-who, a merry note,
    While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

    When all aloud the wind doth blow,
    And coughing drowns the parson’s saw,
    And birds sit brooding in the snow,
    And Marian’s nose looks red and raw,
    When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl,
    Then nightly sings the staring owl,
    Tu-whit; Tu-who, a merry note,
    While greasy Joan doth keel the pot.

    I loved all the pictures this brought to mind the raw cold, frozen milk, biting wind and snow. Milk was often frozen on the doorstep when I was little, the foil cap lifted up by a plug of ice. I didn’t think that an owl whooting sounded merry at all and I imagined Dick and Tom out in the dark, with their “blood nipped”, fearfully going home to see greasy Joan sitting over a steaming pot – of what I wondered? To me it was a strange scene, but it was just that strangeness that appealed and I felt so sorry for poor Marian left out in the snow.

    Maybe it’s the cold in that poem that then made me think of T S Eliot’s Journey of the Magi. Or maybe it’s the thought of travelling in winter:

    A cold coming we had of it,
    Just the worst time of the year
    For the journey, and such a long journey:
    The ways deep and the weather sharp,
    The very dead of winter.

    I’m nearly ready for Christmas – all the presents have been bought, and some are wrapped (by D not by me!) I haven’t done a lot of reading these last few days, but have continued with Wild Mary and Les Misérables (see the sidebar). It’s the start of the war for Mary Wesley, which was the most vivid time in her life and the source for her novels – it was “chaos, exhilaration and loss”. As for Les Mis, I’ve spent too long in the Paris sewers recently. There are long descriptions and history of the sewage system in Paris which I was tempted to miss out, or at least scan read, but I didn’t. I read it all, in all its noxious detail; the horror of Jean Valjean carrying Marius, struggling through the sewers and sinking up to his head in the pit.

    This year is the first without my sister, although we didn’t always meet up at Christmas we always spoke on the phone – she even phoned me from China when she was there at Christmas! So it’s a bit strange. It’s also the first year that most of our family is split up, with our son and his family in Scotland and the rest of us in the south of England – the first time we’ve not all seen each other over Christmas. We’re off to Scotland next week, so it’s not all doom and gloom!

    The Sunday Salon

    Yesterday I finished reading The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham and for once I haven’t started reading another book. As it’s getting close to Christmas and the end of the year I thought I’d look at the books I’ve listed as currently reading. Some of them have been sitting there for a while now and probably shouldn’t be on my list.

    I started All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Remarque in November before Remembrance Day, but since then I haven’t read any more. I think I need to go back to the beginning now as I’ve forgotten what I’ve read. So that is coming off the list for the time being.

    I am making good progress with Les Miserables by Victor Hugo and have now got only just over 200 pages to go. That sounds as though it’s a chore to read but it really isn’t. I started it way back in March when I borrowed a copy from the library. I renewed it a few times and then realised that I should buy my own copy as it is a mammoth book that I’ll probably re-read in a few years time.  This book is staying on the list and I hope to finish it by the end of this year. I have had quite long gaps between my reading but haven’t had any difficulty in remembering what has happened and amazingly even though there is a large cast of characters they have all (nearly all) stuck in my mind. It’s almost as though I’ve been living with the story. Next year I’m planning to read another long book – The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas and hope that’ll be as easy to keep up with as Les Miserables.

    Wild Mary by Patrick Marnham, a biography of Mary Wesley and The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry are also books that have come to a temporary halt. This is because I got sidetracked by Martin Edward’s The Arsenic Labyrinth – see here and also by The Tiger in the Smoke, which I’ll write about in another post.  I’ll get back to them soon.

    Finally I’m reading Georgette Heyer’s Detection Unlimited, which is not one of her Regency novels. It reminds me of some of Agatha Christie’s books so far. I think you could describe it a a cosy crime mystery. Solicitor Sampson Warrenby is found sitting under an oak tree with a bullet through his forehead. As nearly everybody disliked him intensely there are many suspects.

    One book I have been tempted to start but haven’t is one I borrowed this week from the library. I don’t seem able to return books without borrowing others and I picked up P G Wodehouse’s Something Fresh. It’s been years since I read any Wodehouse and this is the first Blandings novel introducing the dotty Lord Emsworth and his son the Hon. Freddie Threepwood. I like the cover.

    Sunday Salon

    Reading today so far has been Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled. I’m only at the beginning of this and this morning I read about metre: “Poetry is organised.” I am comforted by Stephen’s words in his chapter How To Read This Book – the three Golden Rules are (and I paraphrase) read poems as slowly as you can because poems are not like novels; they are not to be swigged but are to be sipped like a “precious malt whisky” – I don’t like whisky, malt or otherwise, but I know what he means. Poems are to be read out loud – awkward when in public, but in those circumstances you can read out loud inside yourself whilst moving your lips. Mmmm, people already think I’m a bit odd when I mention I read at all, they’ll know I am if I read out loud or look as though I’m talking to myself, but I will try it, maybe.

    The second rule is never worry about meaning – that suits me fine as I remember sitting in class at school beating my brains whilst the teacher was waiting for an answer to what does this poem mean. And don’t be shy or cross – be confident. You don’t have to make any response or judgment. The third rule is very simple – buy a notebook and pencil (doesn’t have to be a pencil, just not a computer) and doodle with words. Great, next week I might blog my word doodles – or not.

    This morning I am sad to say that I have finished reading Cider With Rosie. Sad because it is such a delicious book, full of wonderful word pictures of life in a remote Cotswold village at the beginning of the twentieth century. Laurie Lee was also a poet and this book reads like a prose poem throughout. The village is Slad in Gloucestershire, the home of Laurie Lee, a beautiful place today (I went there last year). But the village of Laurie Lee’s childhood is no more:

    The last days of my childhood were also the last days of the village. I belonged to that generation which saw, by chance, the end of a thousand years’ life. The change came late to our Cotswold valley, didn’t really show itself till the late 1920s; I was twelve by then, but during that handful of years I witnessed the whole thing happen.

    and as he grew older he found that

    Time squared itself, and the village shrank, and distances crept nearer. The sun and moon, which once rose from our hill, rose from London, now in the east. One’s body was no longer a punching ball, to be thrown against trees and banks, but a telescoping totem crying strange demands few of which we could yet supply.

    I realised reading this book that although a few years younger than Laurie Lee my parents too grew up in that world, which was changed for ever after the First World War. They both lived in small villages and went to village schools and Sunday School each week as Lee did. Cider with Rosie brings their childhood to life for me in a way I never thought was possible. There’s so much more to say about this book, but that will be in a separate post.

    Back to the modern world another book I’ve dipped into today is Jamie Oliver’s Jamie At Home because today we’re having roast lamb. I loved his TV series and bought the book. Like his programmes it’s full of Jamie’s enthusiasm for food and cooking and of course, recipes. It’s not just recipes but details of how to grow a huge variety of vegetables, salad leaves and herbs, plus facts about the shock of battery farming and so much more.

    I’ve cooked his “Incredible roasted shoulder of lamb” before and it is simply delicious.

    The Sunday Salon

    What a gloomy day outside. I knew it was wet when my cat rubbed round my legs first thing this morning. Looking out of the window I could seen a fine sprinkling of snow. That’s all gone now and the rain has set in. What better thing to do than read Les Misérables for a while and then tackle the problem of where to store more books than will fit onto our bookshelves.

    I’ve made good progress this week with reading Hugo’s masterpiece. I’d put it on one side just after meeting Marius, the young aristocrat estranged from his grandfather. This week matters have progressed quite rapidly. Marius walking in the Luxembourg garden sees an elderly gentleman and a beautiful young girl. He falls in love with the girl (who is of course, Cosette). The following pages bring the sordid and wretched conditions of the poor so vividly to life as I read about the true “misérables” of this novel:

    Certainly they appeared utterley depraved, corrupt, vile and odious; but it is rare for those who have sunk so low not to be degraded in the process, and there comes a point, moreover, where the unfortunate and the infamous are grouped together, merged in a single, fearful word. They are les misérables – the outcasts, the underdogs.

    I read with bated breath the account of Marius watching through a peephole the terrible happenings in the room next to his as “Monsieur Leblanc” (Valjean) is ambushed, and I wondered how he was going to escape  from both the gangsters and Inspector Javert. I have now finished Part Three, which ends with the introduction of a street urchin, another significant character I assume.

    So for the rest of the day it’s more sorting and tidying. D has found a space for another bookcase and in his wonderfully resourceful way remembered he had the parts to make one. He has put them together and now it just needs fixing to the wall and then I can fill it up.

    The Sunday Salon

    I’ve written before about the number of books I have on the go and today is no exception. Earlier this week I read Anita Shreve’s new novel Testimony, which I’ll write about in another post. Whenever I finish one book even though I’m in the middle of reading others an irrestible urge comes over me to start another. It was a bit difficult to decide but I settled on Wild Mary: the life of Mary Wesley by Patrick Marnham. I’d read and enjoyed Mary Wesley’s The Camomile Lawn many years ago and although I don’t think I’ve read anything else by her I thought this biography might be interesting. This morning’s reading took me nearly to the end of chapter 2. I stopped reading at an interesting point where Mary aged 6 refused to walk to the edge of a cliff with her mother to look down on the waves crashing over the rocks below – not because she was afraid of heights, but because she was frightened of her mother and didn’t trust her an inch. A real cliff-hanger!

    Mary Wesley came from a privileged background with military connections on both sides of her family. The first chapter of the book is almost a history lesson informing me that Mary was descended from the Duke of Wellington’s older brother, Richard who became Governor-General of India and in 1797 when he was given an English barony chose the title ‘Baron Wellesley of Wellesley in Somerset’. A privileged background doesn’t always make a happy childhood and Mary, who had 16 governesses, was a “formidably obstructive child” who knew she was unwanted by her mother. From the acknowledgements and list of sources at the end of this book it  promises to be a detailed and well researched biography.

    In contrast I’m also reading today Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I started it a few weeks ago and am enjoying it much more than ever I thought I would. I had no idea it was so amusing and I love the way Mark Twain interweaves commentary on racial and class prejudice with the mishaps and adventures of Huck and his companions as they make their way down the Mississippi. This morning’s reading included the wonderful mish-mash the ‘duke’ compiles of Hamlet’s soliloquy. His version mixes together quotes from Hamlet, Macbeth and Richard III and it becomes:

    To be or not to be; that is the bare bodkin
    That makes calamity of so long life;
    For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane,
    But that the fear of something after death
    Murders the innocent sleep,
    Great nature’s second course,
    And makes us rather sling the arrows of outrageous fortune
    Than fly to others that we know not of.

     I hope later on today to get back to Les Miserables as I haven’t made much progress with it for a while. The weather is helping me now as it’s so dark and dank outside with a steady drenching fine rain that looks as though it has settled in for the rest of the day. I was going to go outside and rake up some leaves but I think I’ll settle down with Les Miserables, maybe do some wii fit (I’m in danger of becoming a wii fit addict) and then watch the results show of Strictly Come Dancing – I can’t believe John Sergeant will survive another week, much as I like him!

    The Sunday Salon – Reading Today …

    This morning I began reading Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain) was born 30 November 1835, so reading this book takes me back nicely into the Celebrate the Author Challenge, a challenge where you “celebrate” an author’s birthday each month by reading one of their books during their birthday month. Huckleberry Finn is one of those books I’ve been meaning to read for years and never got round to it – so this November I am. So far Huck has left Miss Watson’s house, stifled by being “civilised” but now his drunken brute of a father has got him locked inside his cabin. I plan on reading a few chapters a day.

    Next up is Stillmeadow and Sugarbridge, letters between Gladys Taber and her friend Barbara Webster (Shenton). Today I read a few of their letters written in June and July – so very different from the season outside my window. At Sugarbridge Barbara is writing about the way the garden runs riot in the summer, particularly after prolonged heavy rain followed by a hot spell. I do like the way she describes it:

    A wave of vegetation sweeps over everything. In a twinkling grass and weeds grow up the gravel drive, poison ivy impudently snakes its vined tongue up the very front steps, the creek bank is a jungle, and what has happened to the garden? Weeds tall as trees wave a united front there … The worst of it all is that midsummer languor has descended, and I have no longer the enthusiasm I could muster earlier in the season. Things have got beyond me. I admit it; I am beaten. So I take refuge in philosophy, always the shelter of defeat.

    She could have been describing our garden, which has been really neglected this year. Not that we have had the hot spell she describes – just the heavy rain.

    Gladys, meanwhile, on a hot July day is looking forward to Barbara’s visit:

    We shall go right to the pond as soon as you unpack your bathing suits. On the terrace the ice bucket will be frosty and fresh mint leaves will be ready for your glasses, and we shall stay ourselves with cheese and crackers and smoked tid-bits  so we won’t have to rush dinner.

    It sounds perfect. And I like Gladys’s idea of bringing a book to read aloud after dinner. As she wrote:

    I feel reading aloud is an art which we have almost lost sight of, and it is a great pity. Nothing is better than to sit quietly and share the experience of a good book.

    This sounds wonderful:

    The quick lanterns of the fireflies make a pattern of flickering gold tonight in the meadow, the sky is deep with stars. After a hot day, a summer night is dramatic and wonderful. The cool breath from the heart of the woods slides so softly over the lawn, the world is very still as if the heat of the day had tired it. One feels suddenly the urge to stay up all night, following the moonlit country roads to the pale edge of the horizon. Surely, if we did that, we should find something strange and wonderful!

    I can just picture myself there!

    Later today I’ll be reading more from Les Miserables. I’m making good progress and am about halfway through now, so I’ll easily finish it this year. Although there are many digressions from the story it does move along quite quickly. I have to keep reminding myself who all the characters are, though, as there are so many. In my last reading session after a longish description  of what was happening in Valjean’s life after he evaded being re-captured by Inspector Javert, I met Marius, who is going to be another major character in the story, I think.

    The Sunday Salon

    This week I’ve been travelling in time and place in my reading.

    I’ve been in Pennsylvania and Connecticut with Gladys Taber and Barbara Webster reading their letters to each other from Stillmeadow and Sugarbridge over one year in the 1950s (the book was published in 1953; there’s been no mention of the Second World War so I’m guessing the letters were written in the late 1940s or early 1950s). Stillmead and Sugarbridge is a book to savour and read slowly. I’m limiting my reading to a few letters each time I pick up the book. Stillmeadow is the house in Southbury, Connecticut where Gladys Taber lived and Sugarbridge is the house where Barbara and her husband Edward Shenton lived in Pennsylvania. Edward’s drawings illustrate the letters. Between the letters and the illustrations I’m getting a good picture of their lives. Their letters are full of the love of the countryside and their families. When I’ve finished it I’ll write more fully about it. For now here is a quote from Barbara’s first letter in the book, writing in January about what she likes about living at Sugarbridge:

    A broken-up day is to me a lost day, and social and business dates, no matter how delightful or important, hang over me with a sense of doom. So I am particularly grateful for those long intervals of country peace when we see no one, nor stir from our studio except for an afternoon ramble over the hills. We no longer live by the clock, slaves to time; we make our own.

    She thought that this would not be everyone’s ideal. It sounds good to me.

    I first read about Gladys Taber on Nan’s blog and was really pleased when she sent me this book. I would like to know more about Gladys and Barbara and so far I’ve found these websites –  Stillmeadow Friends and also Stillmeadow, where I read that the farm was in danger from development. This was in 2002 and I can’t find out what happened – does anyone know? There is also a website for Edward Shenton, but I can’t find out how Gladys and Barbara met.

    Then I’ve jumped back in time to France in the 1820s with Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. I am only too glad that I don’t live in post revolutionary France. The Battle of Waterloo is now over and Jean Valjean has at last escaped from prison and rescued Cosette from her pitiful life with the cruel Thenardiers. Poor Cosette:

    Fear emanated from her so that she might be said to be enveloped in it. Fear caused her to draw her elbows in at her sides and her feet underneath her skirt, to take up as little room as possible and to draw no unnecessary breath; it had become so to speak, the habit of her body, impossible of alteration except that it must grow worse, In the depths of her eyes there was the haggard gleam of terror.

    Jean and Cosette are currently on their way to Paris and a better life I hope, but I don’t expect it will be as I still have about 800 pages left to read.


    Over next to Regency England in the early19th century with Georgette Heyer’s Friday’s Child. Dialogue makes up a large part of the book, full of 19th century slang. I mentioned this in my last post and in the comments Geranium Cat explained what a “Tiger” is and pointed me to this site – for more explanations. This book is a mixture of romance, a whirl of social events – balls, masquerades, theatre-going, duels and farce. I’m about halfway in the book and this morning read about the duel between George, Lord Wrotham and Sherry, Anthony Verelst, Viscount Sheringham after Sherry saw George kissing his wife, Hero.

    Last and my no means least I’ve popped over to America again. This time to New York with Dodie Smith in 1939 just before the start of World War Two as described in Dear Dodie by Valerie Grove. Dodie and Alec (who she marries) arrive with Pongo, the dalmatian who inspired her to write 101 Dalmatians after leaving England because Alec was a pacifist and a conscientious objector. Dodie was soon cast into gloom, unable to like America and forecasting

    years of exile, a world war in progress, losing her audience-sense by being away from England, and possibly also losing all her capital. On three out of four counts her forecast was absolutely correct.

    I knew very little about Dodie before and am learning a lot about England at the beginning of the 20th century and theatrical history as well as about Dodie herself – an unsuccessful actress, then a shop assistant at Heals furniture store and then a playwright. It’s fascinating reading about her relationship with people such as Noel Coward, John Gielgud, Gladys Coper, Jack Hawkins and Jessica Tandy, to name but a few.

    The Sunday Salon – Starting Books

    Sometimes I wish I could just concentrate on reading one book at a time. What usually happens is that I start reading a book and then another one grabs my attention and then yet another one, and another one. Before I know it I’ve started lots of them. Of course I don’t actually read them all at once and often one takes precedence and I spend more time on that one than the others. The problem then is when I’ve finished one I have to start another and so it goes on.

    I’ve started reading all these books. The list is not in any order as I don’t keep a record of when I started them.

    This has got to stop. Although I have read several pages or even chapters of each when I go back to them I have to refresh my memory and sometimes even start again.

    The most shameful one on the list is Les Miserables because I’ve read a big chunk of it. Maybe if I concentrate on two or three – one for reading downstairs and two upstairs (morning and evening) I would do better.

    So for the rest of today I’m planning to revive Les Miserables, carry on with Stillmeadow and Sugarbridge and later this evening to continue with The Secret Scripture. Well, that’s the plan, anyway.

    The Sunday Salon on a cold wet Sunday

    It’s raining and cold here for today’s Sunday Salon post. Summer wasn’t very long this year but then it often isn’t. It wasn’t in England in 1860 according to my reading today in Kate Summerscale’s remarkable book The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House, when summer was brought to an end on the evening of 19 July by a tremendous downpour over Somersetshire and Wiltshire. Ditto this year.

    This book is the winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction and it is terrific (Ian Rankin also thinks so). I’ve read nearly half the book and I only started it yesterday. It’s compelling reading but I do have a growing feeling of discomfort because I’m beginning to feel a bit of a voyeur. There is so much detail, not just of the brutal murder of Saville Kent, aged three, but of everything in the lives of the Kent family and the investigations of Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher of Scotland Yard.

    It’s the most amazing book with all the suspects of a classic murder mystery – the original country house murder. Kate Summerscale has thoroughly researched the case using the National Archives, Family Records Centre, and many libraries and museums, including the London Metropolitan Archives and the Metropolitan Police Historical Collection.

    Her sources include not just books, pamphlets, essays and newspaper articles but also maps, railway timetables, and so on and so forth – even the weather details are accurate being taken from press reports and the dialogue is from testimony given in court. Did you know that a defendant was not allowed to give evidence at his or her own trial until 1898? I didn’t.

    Then there are also the fascinating descriptions of how writers like Dickens and Wilkie Collins used real life police detectives as models in their novels – for example Bleak House, The Moonstone, and The Woman in White. It makes me want to rush and read those books again. Interspersed with the story of the investigation into the murder are details of the role and status of detective, the origin of the word clue, the comparison of a detective with a “sleuthhound” by Charlotte Bronte and the conduct of newspaper reporters. The word “detect” stems from the Latin “de-tegere” meaning “unroof” and the original figure of the detective was the lame devil Asmodeus who took the roofs off houses to spy on the lives inside! That’s exactly what it feels like reading this book, peering right down to the private lives of the Kent family.

    It’s just the most wonderful book, no wonder it won the Samuel Johnson Prize.

    I’m just wondering if all the copies of this book have the small red blob on the head of the pages that is on the one I’m reading? A nice touch I think continuing the splashes of blood on the front and back covers.

    The Sunday Salon – This Week’s Books

    This last week has been yet another week away from home and reading has had to be slotted in. I read late at night when I nodded off with a book in my hand or early in the mornings when the time speeds up at an alarming rate so I hardly felt I’d read much at all. However, this week I finished reading Joyce Carol Oates The Gravedigger’s Daughter and yesterday I finished reading Daphne du Maurier’s The House On The Strand. I also started Linda Grant’s The Clothes On Their Backs (short listed for the Booker Prize).

    This morning I read the introduction to The House On The Strand and dipped into Margaret Forster’s biography of Daphne Du Maurier to see what she had to say about it too. This was my first reading of The House On The Strand and I was drawn into its world immediately. I read it quickly and without taking notes, so this is just a brief summary of the book. It’s a story of time-travel as Dick Young moves between the present day and the 14th century set in Cornwall – around Par Sands and the Manor of Tywardreath. Dick is staying at Kilmarth (the house where Du Maurier lived after she was forced to leave Menabilly), the guest of his friend Magnus, a scientist researching the effect of a psychedelic drug. The drug produces hallucinations of time travel and as Dick moves in his mind to the 14th century he physically moves across the present day landscape crossed by roads and railway lines that he cannot see. The difference in the landscape plays a central part in the story.

    Life in the 14th century is more to Dick’s liking than his own, where he is married not too happily to Vita, an American with two sons from an previous marriage. The 14th century world is full of danger, intrigue, adultery and murder and he falls in love (from afar, of course) with Isolda, a beautiful young woman married to a scoundrel, Sir Oliver Carminowe and in love with Sir Otto Bodrugan. Du Maurier had researched the history of Kilmarth and the local families and she was so exhilarated by the story that she actually  “woke up one day with nausea and dizziness” and could hardly bear to leave it for more than a few hours. Dick is a rather pathetic figure disllusioned with his marriage, unable to relate to his step-sons and alienated from his own times.

    The combination of historical fact and psychological study moves into fantasy with the effect of the mind-expanding drug Dick takes. Du Maurier was writing in 1967 when LSD was well established, and in this book she has elaborated on its effects in describing Dick’s experiences as though on each trip a chemical time machine enabled him to continue the narrative of events with the same characters.  I did have to suspend my disbelief at times whilst reading but was carried along by Dick’s increasing obssession and addiction to the 14th century. It reminded me a bit of The Scapegoat by Du Maurier, a book I read many years ago – time for a re-read of that soon.

    I alternated my reading between Linda Grant’s The Clothes On Their Backs and The House On The Strand. Grant’s book is narrated by Vivian as she looks back on her life, growing up in London in the 1960s and 1970s, the only child of refugee parents, fascinated by her glamorous and notorious Uncle Sandor. In the acknowledgements Grant states that the character of Sandor was inspired by that of the Notting Hill landlord Peter Rachman. I’m only about half way through this book which includes, as you would expect from its title, many descriptions of clothes and how they define us; how we use them to create or disguise our personalities.

    I particularly liked the description of how Vivian reads:”Somehow I would climb inside the books I read, feeling and tasting them – I became the characters themselves.” It reminded me of Du Maurier’s immersion in the characters in her novels. Both books look at identity and how personalities influence and are influenced by others and both have entertained me thoughout this week.

    The House On The Strand is the first book I’ve read for the RIP III Challenge.

    The Sunday Salon – The Gravedigger’s Daughter

    Last Sunday I wrote that I’d started The Gravedigger’s Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates. I’m still reading it. I really shouldn’t write much about it as I haven’t finished it and I’m wondering how it is going to end. I thought I could predict the ending but then something happened which made me think, maybe I was wrong, but maybe not. It’s a dark book, quite violent in parts which I don’t really like, but then I don’t have to visualise all the violence – not like watching something on TV or film such as Wire In the Blood, which is just gross. I’ve decided not to watch any more in the series, having turned it off during the first programme.

    The Gravedigger’s Daughter is very much a book of two halves, split between Rebecca’s life as a child, living with her father, Jacob Schwart, a troll-like figure of a man and Anna,  her mother and her two brothers. They are a Jewish family who emigrated to America before the Second World War, fleeing from the Nazis. Her father, originally a maths teacher can only get work as a gravedigger and as the story unfolds we see the effect this has on him and inevitably on his wife and children. Denying they are Jewish, Rebecca grows up to be fearful of the others and after a terrifying and vividly described episode full of blood and gore in which her parents both die she eventually meets Niles Tignor. Life with Niles is full of danger and sickening violence towards her and her son Niley. It was with some relief that I found the second half of the book is a lot lighter in tone as Rebecca, now Hazel Jones makes a life for herself and her son, now known as Zack.  She at last meets a man, Chet Gallagher, a jazz-playing journalist from a wealthy family, who wants to look after her and Zack, encouraging his musical talent, and she uses all her cunning to make the most of her life with him.

    So this is a book about prejudice, poverty, humiliation, suffering, and hiding your identity/creating a new personality for yourself, denying the past yet seemingly unable to escape from its consequences. The male characters are all unattractive, even repulsive and I found it hard to feel much sympathy for Rebecca/Hazel as she suffered and struggled to escape the tragedy that seems to follow her. Only Chet and Zack aroused my sympathy. Just occasionally I could see in Zack the inheritance of his father’s violence simmering just below the surface. The parent/child relationships are never easy in this book! I always find Oates’s books compelling reading despite the pessimism. Is there hope for Rebecca/Hazel – so far I can’t see it?

    The questions I had on reading the opening chapters have mainly been answered – I only have about 50 pages left to read. I do have one little niggle about the way Oates writes sometimes in short, abrupt incomplete sentences, which break up the flow of reading too much.

    Mainly, I suppose, The Gravedigger’s Daughter is about life and how we live it. Just a couple of quotes to end on. The first is Hazel’s thoughts about life and movies (for a while she worked as an usherette):

    Stories looped back on themselves. No one got anywhere. She knew beforehand what actors would say, even as the camera opened a “new” scene. She knew when an audience would laugh, though each audience was new and their laughter was spontaneous. She knew what music cues signalled even when she wasn’t watching the screen. It gave you a confused sense of what to expect in life. For in life there is no music, you have no cues. Most things happen in silence. You live your life forward and remember only backward. Nothing is relived, only just remembered and that incompletely. And life isn’t simple like a movie story, there is too much to remember. 

    “And all that you forget, it’s gone as if it had never been. Instead of crying you might as well laugh.”

    And finally I think this quote sums up the novel succinctly:

    Throwing off the shackles of the past.

    The Sunday Salon

    I thought I wouldn’t manage to write a Sunday Salon post today but find I do have a little time just to write a short post. Yesterday I finished reading Old School by Tobias Wolff, one of the best books I’ve read recently. I’ll write a post about it later in the week.

    I’ve not done much reading today, but I did manage to start reading The Gravedigger’s Daughter, by Joyce Carol Oates. a massive 581 pages that will see me busy for several days – if not weeks. So far I’ve met Rebecca, haunted by her dead father. She hated him  and could see no resemblance to either her mother or her father. She is alone in the world, apart from her three year old son, Niley, as she doesn’t where her husband is or if indeed he will return.

    The story starts as Rebecca Tignor (formerly Schwart) is walking home from work along a canal towpath followed by a mysterious stranger – a odd looking man in a panama hat. Quickly she experiences a quivering malevolence and trying to escape him in her panic she falls. He approaches and asks if she is Hazel Jones.  After her denial she eventually goes on her way home. I have many questions – it appears that Schwart was not her real name anyway – so who is she, why did she hate her father, the gravedigger, why is her husband absent and who is the man in the panama hat?

    The Sunday Salon – In the Crimea and Elsewhere

    Last Sunday found me in Ancient Egypt. Today I’ve been flitting between the Crimea, London and Italy with the Victorians whilst reading The Rose of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon. I’m about half-way through this historical romance that switches from place to place and backwards and forwards between1844, 1854 and 1855 making me wondering where and when I am. Apart from that it’s a good read about the Crimean War as seen through the eyes of Mariella Lingwood. Her fiance, Henry is a surgeon who volunteered his services at the battlefields and her cousin Rosa, determined to be a nurse has also gone to the Crimea. There’s a good deal of interesting and somewhat gruesome descriptions of the medical practices and, surprisingly to me at any rate, criticism (so far) of Florence Nightingale. It was the connection with Florence that interested me when I saw this book in the bookshop so I hope she gets more involved in the story in the second half of the book. There’s a list of books about Florence Nightingale in the acknowledgements at the beginning of the book – maybe I’ll look these up later. It’s also interesting to read of the amazement that horses were shipped to the Black Sea by sail instead of steam and the dismay that supplies hadn’t reached the British troops and that proper medical arrangements hadn’t been made. Not only were they suffering from neglected battle wounds they were dying from cholera.

    Yesterday I wrote that there is an autumn feel in the air, and then the sun came out here. It was really hot, but today it’s a lot cooler and pouring with rain. This morning I watched Countryfile, which featured Bekonscot Model Village, which we visited at the end of June. It was a bit chilly that day too. I’ve been meaning to write about it ever since. In the meantime you can check it out here.

    I’ve still to write about Down To a Sunless Sea by Mathias B Freese, which he kindly sent to me a while ago. I’ve started to write a post about it so maybe I’ll finish that this week. It’s a collection of fifteen short stories, well character studies, described as “dark, offbeat stories about life”, about “the darkest struggles of life”. Serious stuff, indeed.

    On a lighter note, a short while ago I received Stillmeadow and Sugarbridge by Gladys Taber and Barbara Webster from Nan at Letters From a Hillfarm as a result of a draw she held. Thank you, Nan. This looks a lovely book composed of letters between Gladys and Barbara about life in the country, illustrated by Edward Shenton. I’ve dipped into this and liked this short extract showing that life in the country is far from boring:

    For one thing you can’t sit down long enough. Things happen. Pipes burst, well goes dry, heaters go off, dogs get sick, mice arrive in the back kitchen. Japanese beetles swarm on the special roses. Company drives up; in the end, all the world comes to the country for weekends. And you hope there’s time to do the laundry before the next batch comes round the mailbox corner.

    I’m looking forward to receiving an Early Reviewer’s copy of Tangled Roots by Sue Guiney from LibraryThing, described as the story of an ageing mother and her adult son, carrying us from Boston to London to Moscow and back again. “Through physics, religion, travel and even baseball, they express the often unknown, yet undeniable, influences one life will have on another.”

    newbooks magazine arrived a couple of weeks ago and I’m still deciding which free book (you only pay for postage) to choose from this latest edition. It’s either:

    • Life Class by Pat Barker -set in World War I, Slade School of Art and the Belgian Red Cross.
    • The Outcast by Sadie Jones – life in an English village after World War II and its effect on Lewis.
    • Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill – Baby is 12, whose survival depends on her gift for spinning stories.
    • Boy A by Jonathan Trigell – can Jack connect with new friends while hiding a monstrous secret?
    • The Septembers of Shiraz by Delia Sofar – in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution a rar-gem dealer is arrested and falsely accused of being a spy.

    I’m torn between Life Class, The Outcast and The Septembers of Shiraz, but leaning towards Life Class at the moment.

    newbooks includes extracts from each book, other features and interviews with authors.The “Big Interview” in this issue is with Susan Hill, a favourite author who has published over thirty five books – I’ve only read a few and am particularly fond of the Serrailler series, which began as a trilogy and now there is a fourth, The Vows of Silence, which I must read. She’s already writing the fifth, while the sixth and seventh are planned!

    The Sunday Salon – in Egypt with Nefertiti

    I started to read Nefertiti by Michelle Moran a bit ago and just in the last few days have picked it up again. Nefertiti is most irritating – insufferably self-confident, arrogant, demanding, lusting after power, manipulative, superior, full of her own self-importance and well, beautiful; just as you would expect her to be, a jealous selfish queen. I’m about half way through the book now and am enjoying it despite my dislike for Nefertiti, maybe she’ll become more likeable but I doubt it. As I read, ancient Egypt comes to life as Moran describes the building of the new city of Amarna, which Nefertiti boasted:

    … would be a city unlike anything that had ever come before it, a jewel on the east bank of the Nile, that would write our family’s name in eternity. ‘When future generations speak of Amarna’, she vowed,’they will speak of Nefertiti and Ahkenaten the Builder.’

    She was right, all these centuries later we are still fascinated with Nefertiti and this period of the 18th Dynasty. But I am more fascinated by her sister as described in this novel. I hadn’t heard of Mutnodjmet (Mutny) before, but she is presented as a much more likeable character. Younger than Nefertiti, and with a different mother, she is at first swept along as Nefertiti is chosen to marry Amunhotep, the young Prince of Egypt. However, she longs for a life of her own, with the man of her choice, Nakhtmin, a general in the army and worst of all a “commoner”. When Mutny becomes pregnant Nefertiti and Akhenaten (as he re-named himself when he renounced the god Amun in favour of Aten), by then rulers of the whole of Egypt, will not accept this, banishing Nakhtmin to fight the Hittites, and bringing about Mutny’s miscarriage. This is as far as I have read – it looks as though an immense struggle between the sisters is about to explode.

    Reading Nefertiti reminded me of another book on Egypt: The Private Lives of the Pharoahs by Dr Joyce Tyldesley, which I bought a few years ago, only for it to sit unread on the bookshelves, until now. This book looks at the pyramids, how and why they were built; why the 18th Dynasty died out; and who was the boy-pharoah Tutankhamun. I’ve only dipped into this book so far, but it promises much and has a Further Reading section with yet more books to look out for. I see on Amazon that Tyldesley has also written, amongst many other books, Nefertiti:Egypt’s Sun-Queen . I really must read this as well.

    I think I may stay in ancient Egypt for a while.

    The Sunday Salon – Book of the Day

    It’s been a really hot day here today, stifling in fact, and far too humid for me to be comfortable. This is the sort of weather that makes me feel limp and exhausted even if I didn’t have toothache. So I’ve taken things easy today, dosed myself with painkillers and read Paul Auster’s new book Man In The Dark. My copy is an uncorrected proof that LibraryThing sent to me in the Early Reviewers Programme, so I can’t quote from it, which is a pity as it’s full of sentences/paragraphs I’d love to include in this post. It’s due out in hardback on 21 August and the back cover of my copy reveals that Paul Auster will be making a rare visit to the UK around that time.

    It’s not long – 180 pages, just right for reading in a day and it’s sufficiently complex to take my mind off things. The “man in the dark” is seventy-two year old August Brill, recovering from a car accident, who can’t sleep. He is living with his daughter Miriam and granddaughter, Katya. To take his mind off the things he doesn’t want to think about – his wife’s death and the shocking murder of Titus, his granddaughter’s boyfriend – he makes up stories in his head. At this point I had to concentrate because there are so many stories and stories within stories. He imagines a parallel America, in which there is no war with Iraq. Instead there is civil war, several states having declared their independence and formed the Independent States of America. The main character in his story is Owen Brick, who reminiscent of the man in Travels in the Scriptorium, has to discover what is happening to him as the story progresses. His confusion deepens as he thinks someone is inside his head, stealing his life, not knowing what is real and what is imagined.

    Katya is a film student, training to become a film editor and she and August spend their days watching films. A point of interest here for me as August considers that the difference between films and books is that watching films is a passive activity, whereas reading books makes you use your imagination and intelligence. He thinks Katya is using the films as a sort of self-medication to anesthetise herself against the realities of her life. As in The Book of Illusions there are descriptions of the films – more stories within the story.

    As August struggles with insomnia he is joined by Katya in the dark hours and questioned by her he gradually reveals the story of his marriage and his despair at the death of his wife, Sonia. She in turn tells of her relationhship with Titus. This may sound a depressing, dark book – there is much in it about loss, despair, divorce, death and disaster  – but I didn’t find it so. There is also much about the everyday, ordinary stuff of life and love, even in a dark, brutal world. I enjoyed it.

    The Sunday Salon – Start/Stop Reading

    Today I haven’t done much reading so far. I’m in the middle of a few books, which because it’s physically impossible to actually read more than one book at a time means that I start a book, stop, start another one, stop start another and so on. This is because I like to vary my reading and also because another book has taken my fancy and I just have to look at it, which then leads on to reading more than a few pages.

    So today I’ve read the start of Thomas Hardy’s short story The Withered Arm in Wessex Tales. It begins in the dairy where the milkmaids are gossiping about Farmer Lodge’s new young wife. Rhoda, one of the milkmaids has an illegitimate son (Farmer Lodge is his father) and she is obsessed by the thought that the new wife will be more attractive than she is. As it is a Hardy story I expect doom and gloom will follow and it will not end happily.

    I also read more of Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham. I started this a while ago and keep coming back to it. I’ve nearly finished it now. It’s in a large heavy book containing a collection of Maugham’s novels which limits my reading because of the book’s bulk and weight.  Cakes and Ale is a scathing and amusing look at the literary world of the early 20th century. It fits in well with reading Hardy, because it is thought that the character of Edward Driffield is based upon Hardy. However, in the introduction to this book Maugham states:

    When the book appeared I was attacked in various quarters because I was supposed in the character of Edward Driffield to have drawn a portrait of Thomas Hardy. This was not my intention. He was no more in my mind than George Meredith or Anatole France. … I knew little of Hardy’s life. I know now only enough to be certain that the points in common between his and that of Edward Driffield are negligible. They consist only in both having been born in humble circumstances and both having had two wives.

    Maugham met Hardy only once. He describes him as follows:

    I remember a little man with an earthy face. In his evening clothes, with his boiled shirt and high collar, he had still a strange look of the soil. He was amiable and mild. It struck me at the time that there was in him a curious mixture of shyness and self-assurance.

    This reminded me that I had started to read Claire Tomalin’s biography Thomas Hardy the Time-Torn Man last year. I had stopped when I had reached 1867 (Hardy was born in 1840) because I decided that it would be better if I had read his earlier books before reading about how he written them.  I looked in the index this morning and found that Claire Tomalin had indeed referred to Maugham’s Cakes and Ale and the supposed likeness between Hardy and Driffield. Hardy had died in 1928 and in 1930 when Maugham’s novel appeared and became a best seller, it caused Florence, Hardy’s second wife, “intense distress, especially as she suspected supposed friends such as Sassoon of supplying Maugham with information about her.”

    For something completely different this morning I also read the first chapter of A Pack of Lies: twelve stories in one by Geraldine McCaughrean. This won both the Carnegie Medal in 1988 and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Award in 1989. In the first chapter Ailsa meets MCC Berkshire whilst she is in the town library doing a half-day work experience. She invites him home to help in her mother’s antique shop. MCC is a strange man who loves books. Ailsa finds  him in the secondhand book section of the shop reading:

    He did not seem to see her, for his face was sunk towards an open book on his lap and he was reading with all the still concentration of a mosquito sucking blood through a sleeping man’s skin.

    What an amazing description of concentrated reading. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this short book.

    For the next week I’ll be continuing reading Joanne Harris’s beautiful book Chocolat – more about that when I’ve finished it. I’ve also got the following books lined up to read soon:

    • Man in the Dark by Paul Auster. A Library Thing in the Early Reviewer book.
    • Admit One by Emmett James. I’ve started this as well, but at the time I wasn’t in the right mood for this book, written in a very colloquial  style. I’ll go back to it because the idea of writing your life story through the films you have seen is attractive.

    And finally out shopping today I succombed yet again to temptation and bought The Road by Cormac McCarthy, despite reading reviews which tell how heart-rending and depressing this is; One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson, because I enjoyed Case Histories so much; and last but not least In God We Doubt by John Humphrys because I was so interested in his Radio 4 series Humphrys In Search of God, when he asked Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams; Professor Tariq Ramadan, Muslim academic and author; and Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi about belief in God.

    The Sunday Salon

    Last August I read The House at Riverton by Kate Morton and thought it was one of the best books I’d read in 2007. So it was with great anticipation that I started to read The Forgotten Garden. It starts off well, with a little girl in London in 1913 on a boat bound for Australia. The lady who took her to the boat has disappeared and the little girl is found alone on the Maryborough wharf, with no name and no family. All she can remember is that the name of the lady is the Authoress and she has a little white suitcase containing a book of fairy stories written by the lady.

    The novel is about three women – Eliza, Nell and Cassandra and follows their lives from 1900 to 2005. Nell is the little girl in the opening chapter and the book reveals the story of her birth. Of course it’s not just as simple as that – there are several mysteries in this long book. It’s quite easy to read once you have got used to jumping from England in 1913 to Australia in 2005, and in and out of the 1930s and 1975 in both countries and back again to 2005 in England and Australia and sorting out the characters of the three women.

    I was enjoying it and then I realised that I was reading a re-working of The Secret Garden, as Eliza is taken as a child of twelve to live with her aunt and uncle at Blackhurst Manor in Cornwall, just as Mary is taken to live with her uncle at Misselthwaite Manor on the Yorkshire Moors, both houses in isolated places, both girls finding it difficult to fit into their new surroundings, both with maids who help them settle in, both with walled gardens and secrets to be discovered. Even down to both having sickly cousins who stay in their rooms.

    I was so disappointed that I stopped reading the book! But I picked it up again the next day and carried on. I worked out the ‘mystery’ quite easily and found the book rather predictable, which was also disappointing. Nell attempts to find out the truth about her parents and in 1975 travels to England, eventually finding Blackhurst Manor where the Mountrachet family used to live. After her death in 2005, Cassandra her granddaughter discovers she has been left a surprise inheritance, Cliff Cottage and its forgotten garden in Cornwall, now derelict.

    It wasn’t just the predictability of the story I found a let down, I also had difficulty picturing the settings and working out the locations of the cottage, its garden, the maze and Blackhurst Manor even though I re-read their descriptions several times.

    I read this book whilst on my recent travels along with The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers, which I also found a bit disappointing – more about that some other time maybe. Other reading this week has been more enjoyable with The Fall of Troy by Peter Ackroyd and Wessex Tales by Thomas Hardy. I also finished reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. I first read this about 10 years ago and was a bit worried that I would find it a let down on re-reading it, but thankfully I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s the next book up for discussion on Cornflower’s Blog on 12 July. For once I’ve read the book well in advance.

    I’m also re-reading The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy for the Heart of a Child Challenge. A tale of the French Revolution, a time of terror and tension as the dashing Englishman rescues French aristos destined to death by guillotine. I loved this book as a child and so far it’s living up to my expectations.

    The Sunday Salon – Today’s Reading

    Today I’ve been reading The Flight of the Falcon by Daphne Du Maurier. My introduction to Daphne Du Maurier’s books was Rebecca, when I was a teenager. I then read as many of her books as I could find –Jamaica Inn, Frenchman’s Creek, The Scapegoat, The King’s General and Mary Anne.

    Then I had a big gap in reading her books, although I re-read Rebecca several times, until I came across Margaret Forster’s biography Daphne Du Maurier, and I realised how many she had written that I hadn’t read. I bought ten of her books from the Book People (a remarkable bargain at £9.99) last year or the year before and apart from looking at each one, they’ve been sat on the bookshelves unread until yesterday, when I picked out at random The Flight of the Falcon.

    I’m about half way through it now and finding it the sort of book that makes me want to read it all in one go; that’s not possible today and anyway I want to make it last as long as possible. It starts in Rome, when Armino Fabbio, a tour guide, comes across an old woman who he thinks is Marta, his family’s servant from his hometown of Ruffano. When she is found, murdered, he returns to Ruffano to find out if it was Marta. It is twenty years since he left and he finds that the town has changed.  Du Maurier used Urbino as the model for Ruffano, and according to Forster’s biography the idea for this story came on a visit to Urbino with her son Kits and on another holiday with Tessa, her daughter when she came across an old woman asleep in the doorway of a church.

    There’s a mystery about Armino’s family and the history of the town. Five hundred years earlier it had been terrorised by the Duke Claudio, known as the Falcon, and as Armino arrives the town and university are preparing an enactment of  the uprising of Ruffano against the Falcon for the annual Festival play. There are surprises in store for Armino  and he realises that his own family history is not what he thought it was.

    I’ve resisted reading the introduction to The Flight of the Falcon, as I’ve often found that the plot is revealed in an introduction. Why anyone would think that is a good thing to do is beyond me. But I couldn’t help going back to Margaret Forster’s book because I remembered that she described what Daphne was doing and thinking when she was writing. She started to write The Flight of the Falcon in January 1964 at Menabilly when it was cold and raining and she struggled to capture the warmth and sun of Italy in her narrative. She no longer wanted to write straightforward stories, but wanted it to be an allegory, whose meaning was linked with the idea of psychological predestination. Interestingly she didn’t think it was as good as The Scapegoat and the British critics were less than enthusiastic when it was published in January 1965. Well, I enjoyed The Scapegoat years ago, but I’m not bothered about the critics – so far I’m finding it a good story. 

    The Sunday Salon – Reader Satisfaction

    I’m in the middle of two very different books – Going Into a Dark House, a book of short stories by Jane Gardam and Messenger of Truth, a Maisie Dobbs mystery by Jacqueline Winspear. Both are giving me a lot of reader satisfaction; they take me out of myself and into their worlds, peopled by believable characters, set in realistic locations, and with plots that are detailed and complicated enough to keep me wondering how everything will turn out and hoping for a sequel.

    I’ve only recently begun to appreciate short stories and still prefer the longer short stories in preference to those of just a few pages. The plus factor is reading short stories is that you can read one in just one session, making it a complete experience. Going Into a Dark House is a collection of eight short stories, all long enough to satisfy my requirements. The title story, which I haven’t read yet is the longest and is in three parts. Death figures quite a lot in these stories, in different guises and also reflections on age, youth and nostalgia. The first story is Blue Poppies which begins: “My mother died with her hand in the hand of the Duchess.” You know at the start that there is a death; the rest of the story leads up to this death and its effect on the daughter.  I like the way Jane Gardam writes, conjuring such vivid images that it seems as those I’m actually witnessing the scene. For example the blue poppies are

    … just like Cadbury’s chocolate papers crumpled up under the tall black trees in a sweep, the exact colour, lying about among their pale hairy leaves in the muddy earth, raindrops scattering them with a papery noise. 

    Zoo-Zoo is a strange little tale about a dying nun who is taken by two of her fellow nuns to a nursing home to end her days. She is not as senile as they suppose. My favourite story so far in this collection is Dead Children, which I think is absolutely brilliant. How Jane Gardam can write twelve pages about such a deceptively simple meeting of a mother and her two children and infuse them with such depth of meaning and emotion is just beyond me.  The twist at the end makes an ordinary everyday event amazingly extraordinary.

    Messenger of Truth is a much longer book and my reading has been spread out over a few sessions already. It is a detective story set in 1930/1 in England. The artist Nick Bassington-Hope has fallen to his death from the scaffolding whilst installing his work at an art gallery. The police believe it is an accident, but his twin sister Georgina isn’t convinced and hires Maisie Dobbs to investigate his death. Along with Nick’s death there is also the mystery of the missing piece of art work that was to be the centre of the exhibition.

    I’m just over half-way through this novel and I think I’m going to have to abandon other books I have on the go in order to finish it. Maisie’s methods of investigation take her to the art gallery, to Dungeness where Nick lived in a converted railway carriage and to visit his family at their home near Tenterden. After questioning his friends and seeing Nick’s paintings she becomes convinced the mystery of his death is related to the missing painting and that this is connected to Nick’s experiences as a war artist during the First World War.

    I like the way the mystery is set in the cultural and social setting of this period, between the two World Wars. England is a place where there is a great divide between the wealthy and the poor. Maisie’s assistant Billy Beale is struggling to accept that people have money to spend on artwork when others can’t afford food and medicine. The realities of life are highlighted when Billy’s family catch diphtheria and his two year old baby, Lizzie is taken into hospital. The lingering effects of the war are starkly and shockingly described in Georgina’s reminiscences about the treatment during the war of men suffering from shell-shock.

     Maisie is a an independent woman living on her own, working out her relationship with Andrew Dene, who hoped to marry her. Their relationship is floundering as she is absorbed in her work and doesn’t want to give it up and conform to the accepted role of being a doctor’s wife. She is discontent and is seeking a quality out of life that she cannot quite define. She finds the thrill of investigation outweighs her desire to help others. It is the search for truth that motivates and thrills her.

    Both books are immensely satisfying.