Birthday Time!

It was my birthday a few days ago. We were away; we went to Kentallen, which is near Glencoe, on the side of Loch Linnhe in the Scottish Highlands. This is the view of Loch Linnhe and the Morvern Mountains from our bedroom:

Loch Linnhe

 I’ll post more photos later on!

These are my birthday books, taken with my birthday camera:

Birthday Bks 2014All Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard is the fifth and final book in the Cazalet Chronicles, an old fashioned family saga. I loved the first four books, which I read years ago. This one begins with a reminder of where the last book ended and what has happened to the family members since the summer of 1945. It’s now 1956 and the world is changing.

A Month in the Country by J L Carr – I’ve been wanting to read this for some time. It’s a short book about the idyllic summer of 1920 when Tom Birkin uncovers a huge medieval wall-painting in a village church.

The next two books in the pile are both set in Scotland, Turn of the Tide, historical fiction set in the 16th century by Margaret Skea, who lives in the Scottish Borders and Murder in the Glen by Hamish MacInnes, a Scottish mountaineer, known as the ‘Fox of Glencoe’,  who for many years led the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team.

I’ll be writing more about these books later on.

The other two books are beautiful little books about painting in watercolours and pastels to create pictures in 30 minutes – I hope these will improve my paintings and if they do I might post a photo or two!!

Posted in Books, Personal | 13 Comments

It’s Spin Time!

The Classics Club Spin, that is. I don’t mind which book comes up in the Spin as they are all books I’d like to read. I quite fancy reading one of Dickens’ books this summer and can’t decide which one! And that is why I’ve included five of his books in the list.

Here are the rules:

* List any twenty books you have left to read from your Classics Club list.The Classics Club
* Number them from 1 to 20.
* Next Monday (August 11th) the Classics Club will announce a number.
* This is the book you need to read by October 6th.

Here’s my list:

  1. Lady Susan/The Watsons/Sanditon by Jane Austen - her first full-length novel
  2. Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor by R D Blackmore
  3. Out of Africa by Karen Blixen – I’ve been meaning to read this ever since I saw the film, which is only loosely based on the book.
  4. No Name by Wilkie Collins – because I liked The Moonstone and The Woman in White
  5. Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
  6. Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens
  7. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
  8. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  9. Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
  10. Parade’s End by Ford Maddox Ford – I liked the TV series with Benedict Cumberbatch so much, I hope I like the book!
  11. Where Angels Fear to Tread by E M Forster
  12. The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling
  13. The Call of the Wild by Jack London
  14. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  15. Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
  16. Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes by Robert Louis Stevenson
  17. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  18. Barchester Towers (Barsetshire Chronicles, #2) by Anthony Trollope
  19. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  20. The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf – her first novel
Posted in Books, Classics, Fiction, The Classics Club | Tagged | 14 Comments

Lights Out

“The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime”

Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, August 1914

Today it is exactly 100 years since Britain joined the first world war! Everyone in the UK is invited to turn off their lights from 10pm to 11pm, leaving on a single light or candle for a shared moment of reflection.

Chronicle of youth 001I’m reading Vera Brittain’s Chronicle of Youth: Great War Diary 1913 -1917. On Tuesday August 4th 1914 having heard that Germany had declared war on Belgium she wrote:

Stupendous events come so thick & fast after one another that it is impossible to realise to any extent their full import. One feels as if one were dreaming, or reading a chapter out of one of H G Wells’ books like ‘The War of the Worlds’. To me, who have never known the meaning of war, as I can scarcely remember the South African even, it is incredible to think that there can be fighting off the coast of Yorkshire.

To sum up the situation in any way is impossible, every hour brings fresh and momentous events & one must stand still & await catastrophes even more terrible than the last.

Posted in Books, World War One | Tagged , | 5 Comments

July’s Books

In July I read lots – 11 books. I’ve written about 6 of them (the links underlined go to my posts on the books). For the books without reviews I’ve added a few thoughts in this post, although I do intend to write more fully about some of them later on.

Three of them are TBRs (books I’ve had since before January 2014), which is good, but as I’ve acquired more than three this month the total number of TBRs is rising, not falling! I read three non-fiction and the rest are fiction of various genres.

  1. Midnight in St Petersburg by Vanora Bennett – a review copy, historical fiction. I thought this portrayal of the Russian Revolution and the effect it had on ordinary people was well done and I did enjoy it.
  2. Casting the Net by Pam Rhodes – a review copy from LibraryThing. A light easy-to-read book that deals with serious issues from the Christian perspective. Life in Dunbridge is far from peaceful and the Neil, the curate has many crises to face, not the least being his vicar’s loss of faith. It’s full of interesting characters, painting a picture of life in a small town.
  3. A Place for Us by Harriet Evans – I received this from Lovereading as a mystery book – no author or title and no publication date. It’s a family saga about the Winters, who at first appear to be the perfect family, but no family can be that perfect and one by one their secrets begin to surface. The book has a slow start as the Winter family is large and it took me a while to get them all clear in my mind. I thought some characters were more fully developed than others, which makes the book rather disjointed. However, after the slow start I soon guessed what the big secret was and I thought it all became too predictable. An entertaining, if undemanding book, which I think could have benefited from being shorter. The book is to be published in 4 parts – Parts 1 and 2 are available now.
  4. Shadows on Our Skin by Jennifer Johnston – another review copy, this is the story of Joe, living in Derry (Londonderry), Northern Ireland before the Troubles and the Bloody Sunday attack in 1972.  An engrossing book, the writing is taut and spare and yet poetical, and the scenes standing out vividly in my mind.
  5. Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd  - a fascinating book which enhanced my understanding of the world in which Shakespeare lived and wrote. A book I’ve been meaning to read for ages.
  6. The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier – historical fiction. I really liked this book about the life of Honor Bright after she emigrated from Dorset to America in 1850 where she joined a Quaker community in Ohio. It intertwines her story with that of the ‘Underground Railroad’, helping the runaway slaves from the southern states to escape to Canada.
  7. Wycliffe and the Four Jacks by W J Burley – crime fiction, set in Cornwall. This is a quick read, with plenty of red herrings, but not too difficult to unravel. I enjoyed it.
  8. The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (J K Rowling) – crime fiction. I’ll be writing what I think about this book in a separate post.
  9. I Murdered My Library by Linda Grantan essay of just 28 pages in which Linda Grant tells about moving house and downsizing her considerable book collection to fit into a small flat. I really liked this little e-book.
  10. Charles Dickens: a Life by Claire Tomalin – I intend to write a separate post for this one too. One of my TBRs it’s a long and detailed biography that taught me a lot about Dickens.
  11. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark -I’ve read this book for the third time now and I still think it is an excellent book. I last read it in July 2008. I may write more in a separate post.

It’s always hard deciding which book I enjoyed this most and this month it’s even more difficult as I enjoyed most of them very much. But, for the second month on the run, it’s non-fiction, and mainly because it is so well researched and detailed – and even more so because it made me want to read more of Charles Dickens’ books it has to be Charles Dickens: a Life by Claire Tomalin.

Posted in Books, Fiction, Non-fiction | 5 Comments

I Murdered My Library by Linda Grant

Following on from yesterday’s post on books I’ve read recently and not reviewed, I have three more I have not written about and here is one of them:

I Murdered My Library by Linda Grant. This is an essay of just 28 pages in which Linda Grant tells about moving house and downsizing her considerable book collection to fit into a small flat. She had had books everywhere:

Books multiplied, books swarmed; they were a papery population explosion. When they had exhausted the shelves, they started to take over the stairs. You cannot have a taste for minimalist decor if you seriously read books.

Well, I know all about that and all about trying to find more space for books or to reduce my book collection, so I really liked this little e-book. Linda Grant can read my mind – and those of many other book-lovers, I’m sure – as she went through her books deciding which ones could go. It could be me saying this too:

I am kidding myself if I think that I am going to reread a fraction of the books I have brought with me or a fraction of those I have never got round to reading.

In my youth, I imagined old age and retirement as the time when one sat back, relaxed and read. There would be all the time in the world for reading. Sixty was so far away, and 80 stretching out into a future not imaginable, that you might as well be talking about living forever. Now time gobbles up my life.

I have tried, but I’ve never managed to be as ruthless as she was, never seen empty bookshelves and I doubt I ever will, because there have been so many books I’ve given away only to realise later that I want to re-read/read them, or to look up a reference. So it’s made me think twice, or even ten times before I actually part with a book. And indeed as Linda Grant looks at her shelves of the books she has kept she mourns the ones she killed off!

Posted in Book Notes, Books, e-books, Memoirs, Non-fiction | Tagged , | 17 Comments

Catching Up With My Reading

Once more I’ve been reading books and moving on without writing about them. Here are just two of the books I’ve read recently:

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier – I really liked this book, historical fiction about the life of Honor Bright after she emigrated from Dorset to America in 1850 where she joined a Quaker community in Ohio. It intertwines her story with that of the ‘Underground Railroad’, helping the runaway slaves from the southern states to escape to Canada.

Honor is a quilter, but finds that American quilts are not the same as English ones, just as America is very different from England, both in landscape, temperature and culture. She struggles to fit in, finding it hard to adjust. I thought this was well handled and the sense of period and place is impressive, with a wealth of detail about the land and the struggles of the settlers. She can’t face the journey back across the Atlantic and marries Jack Haymaker, a young farmer whose mother and sister disapprove of her.

The slavery question caused Honor a real dilemma, as she became involved in the Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses and people willing to provide food and shelter for the runaways. Should she abide by the law, or follow her Quaker beliefs about equality, thus putting the rest of her family at risk as well as herself? This is compounded by her relationship with Belle Mills and her disreputable brother Donovan who has taken a liking to Honor, but is also a slave-catcher, ruthless in his pursuit.

I think it’s a very entertaining book, full of colourful characters, although some, like Jack are not as well developed as others. I liked the detail about quilting, even though I have never done any! But it was the account of life on the frontier and the Underground Railroad that made the book for me. Here are Honor’s thoughts about slavery:

She had begun with a clear principle born of a lifetime of sitting in silent expectation: that all people are equal in God’s eyes, and so should not be enslaved to one another. Any system of slavery must be abolished. It had seemed simple in England; yet in Ohio that principle was chipped away at, by economic arguments, by personal circumstances, by deep-seated prejudice that Honor sensed even in Quakers. …

When an abstract principle became entangled in in daily life, it lost its clarity and became compromised and weakened. (page 259)

I borrowed this book from the library.

In complete contrast I moved on from The Last Runaway to Wycliffe and the Four Jacks by W J Burley, crime fiction set in Cornwall, featuring Chief Superintendent Wycliffe, who is on holiday but still gets drawn into a murder investigation.

Author David Cleeve, who writes under the pseudonym Peter Stride asks for Wycliffe’s advice about a series of sinister warnings he has received in the form of a playing card – the Jack of Diamonds. Then, a young woman is found dead, an apparently motiveless crime, but, as Wycliffe discovers, it follows a series of crimes, the clues all seeming to centre on an archaeological dig on Cleeve’s land. A further murder helps to pinpoint the culprit.

This is a quick read, with plenty of red herrings, but not too difficult to unravel. I liked it and I liked the personal touches that make Wycliffe a real person, a somewhat irritable man who likes his food, and gets on well with his wife. He is a thoughtful detective:

He was in a strange mood, suddenly everything had become unreal: the bare schoolroom with its peeling green walls, the battered tables, the scratched filing cabinets, his colleagues bending over their reports … He had known such experiences since childhood when, suddenly, everything seemed remarkable, nothing was ordinary any more. His mother would say: ‘Why aren’t you playing with your toys, Charles?’ Later, at school, it was ‘Day-dreaming again, Wycliffe!’ Now DS Lane was watching him and probably thinking, ‘Why dies he just sit there?’ (page 165)

It’s periods like this, however, that help Wycliffe focus his thoughts.

Wycliffe and the Four Jacks was first published in 1985. It’s the 12th in Burley’s series of 22 Wycliffe books.

Posted in Book Notes, Books, Crime Fiction, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Historical Fiction Challenge, My Kind of Mystery Challenge | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

Book Beginnings: The Crow Road by Iain Banks

It was the day that my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.

A dramatic opening that caught my attention when I began reading Iain Bank’s novel The Crow Road. I’ve read on further and so far I’m intrigued and amused by this family saga of the McHoans, that switches about between the generations.

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

Posted in Book Beginnings on Friday, Books, Fiction, Read Scotland 2014, Weekly Events | Tagged , | 10 Comments

The Dance of Love by Angela Young

Angela Young‘s new novel The Dance of Love is historical fiction set at the turn of the twentieth century between 1899 and 1919. It is outstanding and I loved it so much. At times as I read it I could hardly see the pages through my tears – and there have not been many books that have that effect on me.  It’s a brilliant book, both a heart-rending love story and a dramatic story too, as the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and the devastating and tragic effects of the First World War impact on the characters’ lives.

It’s the story of Natalie, the daughter of Sir Thomas Edwardes, a wealthy business man, a self-made man who is socially unsure of himself, but who wants his daughter to be accepted into society. It begins in 1899, a period when young ladies were presented at Court for the London Season, an opportunity to meet their future husbands. Natalie’s friends, the daughters of Lady Bridewell, are looking forward to the London Season. But Natalie has little desire to be presented at Court, relishing the idea that she would be free to live without such restraints and marry for love, someone who will care for her for herself, not because of her family connections. However, she falls in with her father’s wishes and when she meets a handsome artist-soldier, Lieutenant Haffie, it seems her wish for a happy marriage will come true.

What I really liked about this book is the way historical background is seamlessly interwoven with the narrative and how it captures the changes in society as the years went by. Natalie grows from a young, impulsive teenager with passion for romance and dancing into a responsible young woman whose hopes for a happy marriage are in the balance.  The portrait of the Edwardian upper classes, with their lavish life style, glittering balls and all their extravagances is fascinating, contrasting with the enormous changes in society as the War takes its effect.

I liked all the details about paintings as Haffie shows his work to Natalie – Angela Young’s beautiful descriptions draw such vivid full colour images that I could easily visualise the paintings, which Natalie says are ‘mysteries made of light.’  And her portrayal of the settings, whether in London, Devon or the Scottish Highlands are just as vivid, making this a richly descriptive book.

But it is the effect of the War and the effect on the families of those people travelling across the Atlantic on the Titanic that really brought home to me the whole human tragedy that people lived through, much more than any historical account has done. I think it’s seeing these events through the eyes of the people left at home that has the most impact.

I had enjoyed Angela Young’s first novel, Speaking of Love and so was pleased to accept her offer of an uncorrected proof copy of The Dance of Love. I’m so glad I did as it’s a beautifully written, brilliant book that moved me deeply, and one I shall most definitely re-read (always proof of a good book for me).

The Dance of Love will be published on 31 July 2014.

Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Historical Fiction Challenge, History, Review Copy, World War One | Tagged , | 11 Comments

Shakespeare and The Classics Club’s July question

The question this month is:

Have you ever read a biography on a classic author? If so, tell us about it. If you had already read works by this author, did reading a biography of his/her life change your perspective on the author’s writing? Why or why not? // Or, if you’ve never read a biography of a classic author, would you? Why or why not?

This question came at just the right time for me because I’ve just finished reading Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd. It’s taken me a long time to read because I began it in March and have been reading it almost daily a few short chapters each day.

Ackroyd Shakespeare I bought the book in Stratford-upon-Avon some years ago after going to the theatre there. I first came across Shakespeare’s plays at school – doesn’t everyone? Years later I took an Open University course and studied more plays and managed to see productions of each one, either at the Barbican in London or at the Stratford.

So, I’m familiar with several plays, which helps enormously with reading Ackoyd’s biography as he has structured it mainly around the plays.  But above all, he has placed Shakespeare within his own time and place, whether it is Stratford or London or travelling around the countryside with the touring companies of players. Shakespeare spans the reigns of two monarchs, which saw great changes and Ackroyd conjures up vividly the social, religious and cultural scene. It’s a very readable book, full of detail. My only reservation about it is one I often have when reading biographies – there are inevitably assumptions, those phrases such as ‘must have’  ‘would have’, ‘most likely’, ‘could have’, ‘there is also a possibility that’ and so on that biographers use.

I learnt a lot that I hadn’t known before as my study of Shakespeare hadn’t gone much beyond the plays, and studying them as entities in themselves is not the same as seeing them in their contemporary settings, or as a part of his whole work. I knew very little (or if I did learn anything years ago, I’ve forgotten) for example of the theatrical world, of how the actors worked, their patrons and managers, nor about how Shakespeare interacted with other writers, or of how his work was received by the public and the monarchy. I particularly liked the sections on religion and the religious conflicts of the late 16th and early 17th centuries and his discussion about Shakespeare’s own beliefs and practices:

This raises the vexed question of his religion, endlessly debated through the centuries. It is true that he used the language and the structure of the old faith in his drama, but that does not imply that he espoused Catholicism. His parents are likely to have been of the old faith, but he did not necessarily take it with him into his adulthood. The old religion was part of the landscape of his imagination, not of his belief.

His own adult beliefs are much more difficult to estimate. It is possible that he was, in the language of the period, a ‘church papist’; he outwardly conformed, as in the ceremony of christening, but secretly remained a Catholic. This was a perfectly conventional stance at the time. (pages 446 – 7)

Ackroyd’s account of the language of the plays is also fascinating. Understanding the plays can be demanding. I’ve found that when I’ve seen a play acted it makes much more sense to me than when I’ve only read it and I’ve often wondered how the plays were understood by their 16th century audiences. Ackroyd considers that

Some of Shakespeare’s more recondite phrases would have passed over them, as they baffle even the most highly educated contemporary audience, but the Elizabethans understood the plots and were able to appreciate the contemporary allusions. Of course scholars of a later age have detected in Shakespeare’s plays a subtlety of theme and intention that may well have escaped Elizabethan audiences. But it may be asked whether these are the inventions of scholars rather than the dramatist. (page 349)

In a book of over 500 pages there is much more to be said about it than I’ve attempted in this post – I’ve only just touched the surface!

My overall view of this biography is that it is well researched, with an extensive bibliography, notes and index. Ackroyd acknowledges that he ‘came to this study as a Shakespearian enthusiast‘ rather than as an expert and lists other biographies that he found ‘most illuminating’.

In answer to the Classics Club question on whether reading a biography has changed my perspective on an author’s writing I think the answer has to be that it hasn’t really changed it but it has enhanced my understanding of the world in which Shakespeare lived and wrote and emphasised the fact that the plays are/were made for an audience:

Shakespeare relied upon the audience and, with such devices as the soliloquy, extended the play towards it; the drama did not comprehend a completely independent world, but needed to be authenticated by the various responses of the crowd. (page 349)

Posted in Biography, Book Reviews, Books, History, Mount TBR Challenge 2014, Non-fiction, Shakespeare, The Classics Club, Theatre | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Six in Six: a Selection from the last Six Months of Reading

Jo at The Book Jotter  is running this meme again this year to summarise six months of reading, sorting the books into six categories – you can choose from the ones Jo suggests or come up with your own.

Here is my version for 2014, with links to my posts on the books where appropriate. I’ve only listed each book in one category, although some of them could have gone in more than one. I’ve not listed the books in order of preference:

  • Six books I loved (there are more books in the other categories I could have included here):
  1. The Dance of Love by Angela Young – review to come later
  2. A Whispered Name by William Brodrick
  3. Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  4. Crucible by S G MacLean
  5. The Office of the Dead by Andrew Taylor
  6. The Potter’s Hand by A N Wilson
  • Six historical novels:
  1. The Last Enchantment by Mary Stewart (historical fantasy 5th century Britain)
  2. The King’s Evil by Edward Marston (1666)
  3. The Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter (1940s and 1971)
  4. Pictures at an Exhibition by Camilla Macpherson (1940s and present day)
  5. Dying in the Wool by Frances Brody (1922)
  6. The Witch’s Brat by Rosemary Sutcliff (12th century England)
  • Six Crime Fiction books:
  1. In the Woods by Tana French
  2. Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie 
  3. Death Under Sail by C P Snow
  4. Vengeance by Benjamin Black 
  5. The Cabinetmaker by Alan Jones
  6. No Stranger to Death by Janet O’Kane 
  • Six authors I have read before:
  1. The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves
  2. Not Dead Enough by Peter James
  3. Playing With Fire by Peter Robinson 
  4. They Do It With Mirrors by Agatha Christie 
  5. The Time Machine by H G Wells 
  6. North Sea Cottage by Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen
  • Six new authors to me:
  1. Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
  2. The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L Sayers
  3. Tantalus by Jane Jazz 
  4. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman 
  5. The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing 
  6. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton 
  • Six authors I read last year – but not so far this year and their books I have yet to read
  1. Barbara Kingslover (Flight Behaviour)
  2. Kate Morton (The Secret Keeper)
  3. Ruth Rendell (Put on by Cunning)
  4. Josephine Tey (Miss Pym Disposes)
  5. Jane Gardam (I have three of hers to read)
  6. Iris Murdoch (The Unicorn)
Posted in Books, Memes | 6 Comments